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Latchkey Child

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“Calvin?”

Colorado passed by in dry browns and dusty tans, the bumpy horizon promising towering mountains if only they’d wait a few hours more.

Calvin? Look at me.”

Their car was an old Ford, its emblem on the wheel scratched and faded, the CD player long gone and its seats stiff as boards. As they edged around Denver’s sprawling suburbia, the radio clipped in and out.

“I’m pulling over.”

... drought continues for another year, water rationing and its restrictions on lawn sprinklers has home-owners demanding a pipeline to...

The road they pulled into stretched empty and long to a ramshackle barn, two scant trees casting shade over their dirty windshield. The engine died with a relieved grumble. The radio cut out entirely. Rough fingers grabbed his chin and forced him to look into narrowed, worried-or-suspicious-take-your-pick brown eyes, her mouth tightened at the corners and eyebrows furrowed.

Her voice dropped, which was as close to concern as she came. “What’s wrong?” She let go of his chin to press the back of her hand against his forehead, her frown deepening. “You don’t have a fever.”

“What?” He said, and surprised himself with his voice. It was… higher. Not a boy’s, to be sure, but distinctly higher.

“You wouldn’t stop staring. I thought you might’ve seen something.” She spoke with intent, with the ‘something’ being ‘what we’re running from.’

She wasn’t far off, Neil thought. He was seeing something.

A woman with thick, curly brown hair, Mary Hatford’s face was lined permanently with stress and worry, her eyes edged with the beginnings of crow’s feet and skin weathered from days walking under the hot sun. She used to live in the lap of luxury, but a glance would never give that away. Age had treated her well, aging cold beauty into clever grace. He could call her mom, which was good, because he couldn’t possibly match what name she used to this lonely stretch of Colorado road.

Calvin, she’d said.

Calvin hadn’t lasted long. Half a year, and then they’d move to Wyoming, and he’d become Alex.

What a peculiar dream, he thought, the blood rushing in his ears and surroundings far away. He hadn’t dreamed of his mother in months. He hadn’t had a dream so vivid that didn’t dove-tail into blood and fear in years.

She snapped fingers in front of his face. He flinched back, his heart racing; then he glanced to the collapsed barn by their side, and pressed his face against the glass to check the trees, because Romero or Jackson had to be somewhere. Maybe it’d be Lola. Probably not the Butcher himself - when it came to remembering his father, those nightmares never attempted to play at hope. It was strange to have this much awareness in a dream, too, but his mother’s figure was always a tip-off.

“You’re staring again,” Mary said, the concern retreating under stiff displeasure. He knew immediately she was growing impatient, his stomach dropping at the tone even after all these years. “Breathe, Calvin. We need to reach Breckenridge before the sun sets.”

“Just drive,” he said, settling back into his seat and keeping his eyes from her. There was a newly painted farmhouse in the distance. Maybe Ichirou would walk out, solidifying his authority on any aspect of Neil’s life that he wanted. He imagined the serenely lethal man in worn flannel and a floppy straw hat, and choked on hysteria.

“What’s wrong with you?” His mother snapped, her thin fingers digging into his shoulders. “Stop. Calvin, stop.

He couldn’t.

He laughed until he cried, and then he kept laughing through the tears until he choked, his head between his knees and his mother telling him to breathe, breathe, you’re panicking, it’s fine, we’re fine, calm down, breathe.

It was a dream. What did it matter what he did?

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Before Colorado, he remembered making Andrew coffee in the Columbia house. A week before summer practice, he was going to be a fifth year Captain at Palmetto State while Andrew moved on to play goalkeeper for the Jets.

“Your word choice today is exceptionally poor,” he’d told Neil, hip propped against the counter and fork pushing scrambled eggs around on a plate, the morning lazy and quiet and not as distracting as Neil would’ve liked but that was probably a good thing. “I’m not moving on. It’s the same thing in a bigger court.”

“It’s Court,” Neil had said, because even if it was a fated future with its own collar and chain, a bit of the eleven-year-old that wanted nothing more than to play Exy all day every day couldn’t believe it would be his gilded cage, and moreover, that Andrew would be there with him. It hadn’t even started, and he could already tell this fifth year couldn’t be over fast enough. As much as he was looking forward to seeing Coach Wymack and Abby, he wasn’t too excited about the rest of the team and the empty dorms.

Andrew just barely kept from rolling his eyes, told him not to burn the coffee, and that he’d be eating in the living room. Neil could join him when he wasn’t being a junkie fanboy.

He hadn’t burned the coffee, and he did think of another thing to ask Andrew. The afternoon was as lazy as the morning. They’d made plans for dinner out, and Andrew drove.

They must have gone and come back if Neil was asleep and dreaming, but he couldn’t remember a single thing about the restaurant. Then again-- dreams played with memories, condensed everything into key points and jumbled logic. Even though the drive to the mountains seemed to drag on forever, his mother pretending not to watch him from the corner of her eye and him not once glancing her way lest she catch on fire, that was just another bit of what made this dream peculiar.

The Rockies grew gradually and then all at once. Emergency run-offs became a common sight, trucks lumbering up slowly and breaking all the way down; unwashed jeeps with hiking gear and cross-country skis strapped on top sped by, their drivers and passengers long-haired and brightly dressed; the scenery became a patchwork of grey, red and green, rivers running deep ravines around ramshackle, four corner towns and old, abandoned mines. After hours on the plains and years since he’d visited, it stole Neil’s breath.

The motel they stopped at was a squat thing five blocks down from a skiing resort, its desk clerk red-eyed and slow to move. She passed them their key after taking his mother’s cash and returned to her chips, unconcerned and uninterested in their passing. That was how they preferred it. The room itself hadn’t been renovated since the seventies, its carpeting shag and its single bed dipping low on one side. They dropped their two duffel bags next to the bed. He showered, the pipes creaky and water luke-warm. Mary told him to watch the news and took her own shower. The box television crackled and spat at him, a thin fuzz running up its screen, and his eyes caught on the date in the corner.

He kept down a laugh by virtue of not feeling much of anything.

His mother came out of the motel with damp hair a shade closer to her natural color and pulled their dinner out of her bag. She gave him the entire orange rather than splitting it, saying he was still looking pale and needed to keep his sugars up.

They threw out the peel and wrappers, watched the news for an hour longer, and finally crawled into bed with a gun (her) and a knife (him) under their pillows, back-to-back and quiet, and Neil supposed she fell asleep. He willed himself to, but the static in his brain refused to dim.

When she woke, they packed up with the sun’s early light, took a New York Times Today from the front desk, and hit the road.

She drove, so he studied it. The date caught his eye and held it.

On impulse he asked, “Are we going to Seattle?”

She raised an eyebrow at the horizon, and, with a patience she rarely felt and which had to stem from the fact he’d been acting so out of sorts for a full day, said, “No. We’re settling in Arizona, near Phoenix, because I’ve been transferred to the western branch of my consulting firm. We went over this, Calvin. Do we need to go over it again?”

Of course they weren’t going to Seattle. It was two years too early for the Butcher to catch up with them.

And it was seven years too early for a lazy morning in Columbia with Andrew. Seven years before the start of his lonely fifth year and the Jets drafting a new goalkeeper, six years before the Suns drafted Kevin Day, five years before Matt Boyd proposed to Dan Wilds, four years before Allison Reynolds graduated and took a road trip to Florida’s beaches with Renee Walker. Three years before Neil Josten signed on at Palmetto State and, eventually, stopped running.

Calvin and his mother, they were still running.

He swallowed around the lump in his throat as he looked back at Mary, whole and hale and alive and so, so scared.

“Yeah,” he said, “I think so. If you wouldn’t mind, mom.”

What a peculiar dream.

He’d like to wake up.

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She ran through her backstory and his, details running from the moment his pretend father left them to her former boss seeing her potential and promoting her to head manager. Her contacts had forged her tax forms and work papers, and she even had an identification badge that linked back to a firm that existed online only. The western branch was very small and had its own information page on the company’s website, and, oh, you’d never heard of it before in this two-bit town? That was why she was here, to promote its name.

He was in ninth grade with records of only one other school in Vermont, which he’d lived at all his life before his mother’s transfer. He was bookish, black haired and brown eyed, and favored the library over the gymnasium. He was, for all intents and purposes, unremarkable.

Their home was a cramped, one-bedroom apartment over a lawn and garden store. She worked from home, or so her neighbors thought. He went to school, a middle-and-high combination that boasted nine hundred students. Their colors were gold and white, and they were The Stingers, with a wasp for a mascot. They paired him with a bright eleventh grade girl named Savannah who told him she’d moved here three years ago from the nearby Indian reservation - the rez, she called it - and that she’d hated it at first but the teachers could be funny and the other students were alright, except for Elizabeth Todd who slept with her best friend’s ex and Isaac Reyes, who was the douchebag ex and also the school’s backliner for their Exy team.

He remembered Savannah more than he remembered what classes he’d taken. She was a smart, funny girl, a blip of kindness that he didn’t initially have to explain to his mother. He remembered sitting with her at lunch, and studying with her in the library, and then the conscious choice not to explain her to his mother. He remembered Savannah backing him, a scrawny fifteen-year-old that didn’t know much of anything, against a wall and biting his lip, which was when he’d shoved her away and ran because it left a mark and when he finally crawled home, his mother left a bigger one on his jaw.

That hadn’t happened yet. This was their first meeting.

He felt the ache in his jaw whenever she tucked her hair behind an ear, and put his eyes elsewhere.

She showed him the classrooms and cafeteria and library and the Exy field, which was as official as Millport’s and actually introduced as the football field. He hesitated at its edge when school ended and Savannah left, watching from the sidewalk as the football team ran warm-ups on one half and the Exy players stretched on the other.

An odd feeling in his chest, he ran back to their apartment, and bit back the distress that rose at how his legs ached when he reached it.

Three days after settling into Lock Springs, he forced himself to really look. In the mirror, something he’d grown comfortable, though not fond, of doing in seven years’ time, he found himself coltish and disturbingly adolescent. The hard muscles from practicing at Palmetto for four years replaced with the stringy, lean muscle of a teenaged runner, his skin stretched along still-growing bone and his cheeks plump with residual baby fat. Despite their spotty diets and occasional rationing on the road, his jaw was soft, his feet and hands relatively smooth, and something about his face just wasn’t right, which he realized with a start was mostly due to the fact that his hair was black and his eyes were brown and his father existed, at best, as a ghost in his cheekbones and ears.

Most notably, his arms and face were smooth. A poke and prod and pull at his left cheek didn’t change it. Riko Moriyama and a cigarette lighter would. In, what, three years? Four? Almost four.

At least his torso didn’t look all that different, front or back.

At least. Hah.

There’d been a bit of him that wondered if he’d look different at all, if a twenty-two year old would show in a fifteen-year-old’s eyes or quirk of the mouth, but he couldn’t completely remember what he’d looked like as a fifteen year old and he didn’t see a speck of a happier, freer young man in the tense, suspicious teenager’s face.

Had he always looked so squirrely, or was that a product of being fifteen?

It was a little late to think Savannah had weird taste in boys.

Or it was too early.

He didn’t know.

A week and then two passed.

They slept back-to-back. They ate breakfast and dinner together, and he ducked away from Mary’s gaze but watched her whenever he thought she might not snap at him to stop staring. In school, he spoke when spoken to. At the apartment, he picked at his skin, wincing at every pinch and pull and wondering when he’d wake up.

Fuck, please, let him wake up.

On a Tuesday evening, the weather hot and dry, his mother in the shower, he impulsively flipped their television set from CNN to ESPN.

The segment’s title declared EXY’S DARLINGS - WHERE WILL THEY GO FROM HERE? in a yellow banner along the bottom. The college season had started, but the reporters were taking a break from the early weed-out to ask what wasn’t really a question so much as a spotlight feature on where Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama were planning to go after their high school graduation. Of course they were expected to join the best, and there were rumors they’d trained at Evermore during the summer, but a few speculated on favoritism from the Raven’s coach if they signed on at Edgar Allan, and if that’d impact the Exy prodigies’ relationships with their potential teammates.

Usually his mother would box his ears for looking at anything Exy-related, but he changed the channel long before her shower finished, the black ink on a younger Day’s cheekbone haunting him worse than the date in the corner.

Freezing in the bathroom doorway, his mother’s eyes narrowed at him and her jaw clenched. He’d thought he’d wiped his face blank, but she had known him better than anyone else, and she wasted no time in sitting next to him on the bed and snatching up his wrists, nails digging skin into bone.

“What is wrong with you?” She demanded, and under the frustration he thought he caught some fear.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, but couldn’t quite manage the awkwardness or jumpiness his younger self might’ve had. To his own ears, he sounded more annoyed than cowed.

“You’ve been acting like someone else since we arrived here. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”

“There’s nothing.”

Calvin,” she hissed, the fake name used even here, just the two of them, “don’t you lie to me.”

Mouth twisting, he jerked back in her grip; she tightened her hold and, for a brief moment, shock flashed across her face. It was something he needed to be wary of, he knew - his bones knew, anyway, a remembered, learned fear for when a steadfast mother was knocked off guard. “I’m not lying.”

“We have to help each other,” she told him, the shock gone and replaced with a searching look. “What is it? Is someone asking too many questions? A teacher? Someone in town?” A beat. A frown. “Are you seeing a girl?”

He wanted to laugh. Even if Andrew wasn’t half of what he desperately wanted back, even if he could forget Mary’s warnings, the girls in his classes reminded him of children, all bluster and hesitation and small world concerns.

“I--” He started, then stopped. She waited, patient for this, at least. He eyed her. Maybe. Maybe this was it. Maybe he could-- “I’m dreaming.”

A pause.

“What?”

“I’m dreaming,” he said again, with more fervor. Any second, his fucked up brain would cotton on to him not being fooled and he’d wake up. “None of this is real. I’m not in Lock Springs, Arizona, I’m in Columbia, South Carolina, a week before my final year at Palmetto State. You’re dead.” Her eyes widened, her grip loosened. Bolstered, everything feeling light and far-away, he bull-dozed on. “You’re ashes in the Pacific. You bled out in California on a beach and I burned your b--”

She slapped a hand over his mouth and another at the back of his head, her face white as a sheet and shoulders stiff as a board.

He crashed back into his body, the surreal film between him and the world broken and the cramped apartment remaining in sharp, clear detail.

“I don’t know what the hell has gotten into you, but you’re not leaving my sight until we figure it out.” Her eyes searched his, her face pinched and lined in terror. At whatever she found, she murmured, “Sick. You must be sick. The stress is getting to you. I should’ve expected it; they always say teenagers are difficult, and you’re no exception.”

Then, “We’ve never stopped in South Carolina. You’ve never been to Palmetto State. We’ve always lived in Chicago, until my work took us here, to Lock Springs.”

Her hand was clammy over his mouth. He didn’t dare move, but her fingers tightened in his hair.

“I’m not dead.” She said, her eyes boring into his. “And neither are you. Our lives are ours.”

Then, “I’m going to take my hand away. You’re going to show me what you’ve learned in class now that introduction week is over. Okay? Nod if you understand.”

He nodded.

She took away her hand.

He fetched his World Cultures lecture notes, and she sat quietly by his side as he went over them verbally, South Africa and Nelson Mandela and Apartheid as foreign as the world around him.

For the whole week, she called him in sick, and true to her word, he didn’t leave her sight for anything longer than bathroom breaks. Together, they shopped at the farmer’s market and in small thrift shops that had yet to be wired with cameras for scrub brushes and utility tools. Together, they filled up their old navy blue Ford and cleaned its seats and made sure its engine was in working order for a quick get-away. Together, they ate breakfast and dinner, lunch skipped in favor of saving money. Together, they fell asleep back-to-back. His mother watched his every move, asking every morning and night about who they were and where they were going and what they were doing and why they kept weaponry under their pillows.

They were Calvin and Susan Bakster, they were going nowhere, they were settling into Lock Springs after a move from Chicago, and they kept weaponry under their pillows because maybe they’d have to go nowhere faster than they planned and they had to be ready.

Old, familiar answers, ones he’d once thought he’d buried in California and then realized he’d really buried in Nathan Wesninski’s dark basement.

Quietly, Neil wondered if he was insane.

By the look in her eye, Mary wondered the same.

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It was the Sunday after that fateful Tuesday, and if he wasn’t insane before, he was going to go mad from never leaving his mother’s side. It’d been comforting, once. He could remember thinking it was comforting, always having her right there and with him, but then there’d been a lonely year at Millport and four years more of family who trusted him with space and taught him that you could leave without being gone, and he was twenty two, not two, and Mary’s protective streak would smother him.

The bathroom’s window was too small to climb out of and she’d taken to keeping all razors, scissors and knives (even the one he was supposed to keep under his pillow) tucked into her duffel bag, which seemed to him like the only reasons she let him bathe alone. If he ever took too long, she’d bang on the door until he replied with an I’m fine!

Fucking hell. He was crazy, not suicidal.

Then again, he thought as they sat side-by-side with microwave dinners and watched reports on the re-escalation of American troops in Iran, maybe she was less worried about what he’d do to himself and more cautious about what he’d do to her. He had told her she was dead and implied he’d burned her body.

Couldn’t have opened his big mouth about the friends he’d made or all the games of Exy he’d played. Ooh, no, of course not.

You are an idiot, he told himself. It sounded eerily like Andrew, and he stabbed at soggy corn with a little more vehemence.

To top it all off, he still couldn’t fully look his mother in the eye. She was dead. She had been dead. He wanted her to not be dead, but that wasn’t how it worked, and he’d-- gotten over it, a little, kind of, except the living breathing model of her meant he abruptly remembered how she liked to read before sleeping and how good she was with dye and disguises and languages and how she’d walk him through tougher homework problems with unending patience if everything else went well that day. Being around her made it hard to breathe, let alone think, and after five days of it, he was ready to give his own right arm to convince her that he was fine and okay and believed her and never had attended Palmetto State or lived in Columbia, South Carolina if only he could go back to school and not be here. For the first time in ages, he wanted to run until he couldn’t remember a thing, past, present or future.

That night, she pursed her lips and said, “Let’s get ready for bed,” and he knew she knew he still thought of the future where she was dead as real and there was no way he’d be going back to school on Monday. Forging a doctor’s note was no problem, but if this kept up, she might pull him from school altogether.

She had him lay down and waited until he was mostly asleep to take her shower.

He wondered if, rather than this being the dream, the future had been the dream.

The Foxes had been too good to be true. They were rough, sure, as a general rule, and the first year had been hell, everything his mother and he had spent close to a decade running from packed into nine insane months, but by the end… Even after four years, he’d wake up some mornings and wonder if he hadn’t been lying to himself about what happened and it was all the fever dream of the dying. Then Nicky would sigh about something Erik did in Germany, or Matt would invite him out for lunch, or - as time went on and the original Foxes graduated - they’d gather from corners of the country or skype in those who couldn’t make it and take a vacation somewhere and just be together. Reconnecting was never a problem. It was-- it could’ve been a dream.

He didn’t think he could have possibly had such a vivid imagination, let alone one that would construct something so good, but it’d been close to a month since he’d woken up in the passenger seat of a car driving through Colorado, and his doubts grew larger as his nerves frayed.

The thought came that if it all had been a dream, then there was no way people like that existed in real life.

If he went to Columbia, he would not find a house that his future’s spare key would fit into, or a bartender named Roland who had given two run-down twins jobs.

If he went to New York, he wouldn’t find Matt’s exuberant mother.

If he went to Germany, he wouldn’t ever run into a Nicky that finally started to breathe again after years in hate and silence.

Seven years prior to those memories, Renee Walker, Dan Wilds and Allison Reynolds would have their first year at Palmetto State.

He was in Arizona. There was no way he’d get to South Carolina unscathed as a hitch-hiking fifteen year old, not in any timely manner and not without giving his mother a heart attack. And anyway, they wouldn’t know him-- they’d think he was as crazy as he undoubtedly was.

If they even existed.

So, what are you going to do? Relive these two years until you’re picked out of a Millport locker room? And what happens when it all was fake, and you’re too bonkers from waiting to tell?

Since when had Andrew gotten such a clear voice in his head?

Oh.

Andrew.

The Minyard twins.

Hypothetically, they wouldn’t exist. There was no Andrew in the foster care system, floating from one house to another until Higgins ran into Aaron and Tilda talked and Cass--

Oh.

Oh.

Do something productive, the Andrew-like voice told him, or, well, he told himself. Don’t wait forever. That’s how people die.

Behind a closed door, water rushed from creaking pipes.

Neil took enough money from his mother’s bag to get him to California, slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and crept out the door, careful to shut and lock it behind him. When he was down the street, he dug out his emergency phone, held his breath against the wash of smoke and pain, and sent a text saying Be back. Don’t worry. He almost typed I love you, but it was a sentiment grown from years of distance, and, anyway, it was their code for he’s here and he has me and run, live, fight another day, and he wanted a head start on her in case she came looking.

He wasn’t sure if she would. He hoped not. He would be back if it was all a dream, and the chances of that looked good.

Hitch-hiking wouldn’t get him to South Carolina within a month, especially as his talent for spinning disguises had grown somewhat rusty, but it got him to the San Francisco Bay area in under three days.

(He’d turned off his cell phone after sending the text, and refused to think about it.)

(In truth, the feeling of pushing down and bottling up was the most familiar thing since he’d woken up.)

Regret and guilt build in him as he cradled a black phone in his hand and looked down at its black screen. But maybe, maybe -- things would go better like this. Nathan was alive, but he was in jail, and his men weren’t hot on their trail for at least six months, or so his insane concoctions told him.

Maybe, maybe (and he buries the phone at the bottom of his bag, his shirts and pants folded and their tags bent), he’d find a lie he could believe in.

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Sleeping in gyms and library bathrooms and eating enough gas station food to make him feel greasy and ill (which took longer than he’d thought it would -- teenaged bodies could live on anything), he picked his way up California. The coast is one thing he avoids, too rattled to be willing to risk it, but that’s fine, because Cass lived in the hills next to Oakland. It takes him a moment to draw up Aaron’s trial and the play-by-play of Drake’s crimes the attorney put Andrew through to fetch the name of the town she did live in, and when - a little dirty, a little unsure, clothes and energy a little faded - he finally stepped off the bus into the quietly populated, distinctly wealthy suburban villagehe thought, this doesn’t look like somewhere Andrew would be, and then amended, this looks like somewhere Cass would be.

In memory, she was a subdued, grief-stricken mother, mourning over her blood-born son and his crimes both.

In memory, Neil’d been unimpressed and disdainful and disappointed in how she could be so blind even if he understood very well the stubborn determination of a mother. He needed to watch his mouth. He-- wasn’t going to need to talk with her, because either Andrew existed or he didn’t, and whatever the outcome, he’d be back on a bus to Lock Springs, Arizona to a mother who didn’t and never would have to mourn her blood-born son.

Focus, Josten.

Right.

He kicked himself for not paying close enough attention to the minute details of the trial, and the subsequent time it cost him to find a Yellow Pages book in the local, quaint, overstaffed library. Armed with her name and phone number, he logged onto their ancient box-monitor computers and clicked around until her family appeared for gratitude from the community for their donations to the high school. It included her e-mail and home address for any parents or staff to send their own thank you cards to, directions which Neil scribbled onto a post-it note from the library’s front desk, google mapped, memorized, wrote relevant street names under the address, stared at to memorize some more, closed the tab, logged out, and took off, his bag slung over his shoulder and thoughts closing on a goal almost reached.

In the early evening, cars ferried working men and women home, and when he passed the local middle and high school buildings - Home of the Cavaliers! and generic as any other upper middle class school - he ended up being lapped by a herd of track members out for their cool down jog, as well as a few students that remained at school until long after the buses left and lived close enough to walk home, their eyes passing right over him and back to their sliding cell phones or slim iPods.

How could you not go crazy here? He wondered, imagining asking Andrew the question and then wincing. He’d never ask that. The answer was too obvious.

Stability. Security. He was sure there were darker parts in the cozy neighborhoods (Cass’s son, for one), some small-world mindsets and over protective parents, but out in the open, they weren’t anything threatening. They didn’t encroach on life - they simply boxed in the good, and kept the world real, and let a person’s subconscious relax with the understanding that, really, nothing much would change.

It wasn’t a concept he’d have understood more than two years ago.

It wasn’t a place that sat too comfortably for him right then and there, his own stability in extreme question and the silent cell phone like a block of cement in his bag.

Whatever. It didn’t matter. The peaceful suburban life wasn’t what he was here for.

It took him until dusk to reach the house: a two-story, two-car garage, unassuming home lined up with a dozen look-alikes, its only difference a swap-around of what window went where and its siding a pale blue as opposed to its neighbor’s off-white. Its yard didn’t have a fence, but it was a decent size. The mailbox, absurdly, was in the shape of a large-mouth bass. Neil eyed it for a second before glancing toward the warm light spilling out from the kitchen, which faced the street and didn’t have its curtains pulled. Within, a man - Cass’s husband, Neil remembered; brown hair, resentment, grey suit, red-lined eyes - chopped vegetables next to a steaming pot. Neil watched, his hand tight around his bag’s black strap.

He’d spent the walk over wondering off-on if Cass counted, if Cass was enough proof, because if she existed, if she had a piece of the world and friends and family and he found her, how could Andrew not be the same?

Those thoughts hadn’t slowed his feet, and standing outside the house next to the fish-shaped mailbox, he was glad they hadn’t. He was being far too conspicuous standing and staring. Hell, the neighborhood didn’t even have proper side-walks, its well-paved road bordered by neatly dug ditches. But. But.

Andrew would be sixteen, if his math was right. Aaron would be sixteen, too, and a proper Minyard, and Tilda would be alive, and they wouldn’t even know they had a sibling they’d kill and die for.

The man dropped the vegetables into the pot and stirred. Neil blinked, the only hint at his surprise, as Cass walked into the frame looking fondly exasperated - she kissed the man on the cheek and disappeared just as quickly. Faintly, he could hear her yelling something. Probably up the stairs. Probably calling for dinner, or something else he could only imagine Abby and Matt’s mother doing. On his bag strap, Neil’s knuckles whitened.

Cass reappeared with dishes in hand and set the table. Neil shifted his weight from foot to foot. She huffed something at her husband, her exasperation increasing. In response, her husband shrugged and shot her a tired smile, then plucked up the bowls to ladle in soup. She kissed him again on the cheek, took a bowl, and left. The husband sat down, alone, and began to eat across from the other set of dishes.

Minutes passed.

She reappeared without soup or spoons, took her place, and joined her husband in what looked to be a companionably silent dinner.

No one else came down. No sons, fostered or otherwise. Who had she yelled for? Who had she taken soup to? Drake, maybe. Drake, probably. He would still be living there. The bastard breathed.

Bile, acrid and sharp, rose in Neil’s throat.

He turned, bag clutched under an arm, and ran toward nowhere.

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When the cell phone booted up, he found two texts: one fifteen minutes after he’d sent his that said, Don’t do this to me, and another thirty-six hours after that, Please. He missed one call.

Tucked under a thick, obscuring pine tree by the local Community Center, Neil’s thumb hovered over the return call button. He hesitated, he hesitated, he hesitated, and then he fell asleep, the phone black and silent.

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Waking up was a hungry, chilly and sore experience, his mouth full of cotton balls and his neck aching.

The Community Center had a water fountain and bathroom open to the public; he used both, feeling gritty and sick no matter how much he washed his face and hands. Outside of the stall he spent a good hour in while talking himself into accepting that yes, he was crazy, and yes, he’d imagined the Foxes and seven years of his life, and yes, his mother was right to watch him so closely, and no, Cass being alive didn’t mean anything, he hadn’t even remembered where she actually lived, maybe he’d heard her name somewhere and fabricated the story behind Drake and Andrew, and yes, that made him pretty fucked up, and no, his legs weren’t too skinny and his hands clumsy, he was crazy, he’d never played Exy for five years and built up muscle and he’d always been this size and never had scars on his knuckles and, okay, most of that hour was spent keeping from hyperventilating and breaking down in a Community Center bathroom, but really, the whole situation just proved how crazy he was.

Although he hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours, he wasn’t close to having an appetite. In fact, the smell of cheap pizza that wafted over him when he left the bathroom made his stomach want to heave out the water he’d choked down.

Two casually dressed police officers loitered by the main hall, which sported a banner about Bridging Borders and Discovering the Future. Old instincts kept Neil’s eyes away and gait slow and unhurried as possible, his feet taking him to the doors and his once-exhausted mind kick-starting with adrenaline.

He reached the doors at the same time as another officer came in. The man’s eyebrows pinched together as he took Neil in, his arm freezing from where he’d began to hold the door open for him to exit.

“Aren’t you a bit early?” The officer asked, affable but not obnoxiously friendly.

Neil didn’t reply, stopping and staring at the man’s black boots until he got the hint and let him through. It wasn’t as if the officer had any right to restrain him. It wasn’t as if the officer knew anything about him. He repeated those things to himself as he waited, his nerves fried and heart picking up.

After a short, awkward stalemate, the man stepped back to let him through. Neil took a step forward, shoulders hunched, and thought, wait.

He froze.

He looked up.

He said, “Officer Higgins?” Which was the first thing he’d said to an officer since who-knew-when, unless the FBI counted as police. They probably did. Neil didn’t care. Neil couldn’t think.

“That’s me,” the officer replied, a little more suspicious and trying to hide it. Anxiety crawled up Neil’s spine to nest at the base of his skull, but his heart raced for a whole new reason. “Are you here for the orientation?”

No, he should say. His name isn’t on any of the lists, and they must check, but he’s four days without a shower and in a thread-bare T-shirt and jeans and just spent the night under a pine tree, and if they knew his record, he’d definitely qualify. And if Higgins was here-- Higgins, who screwed up Aaron for Andrew in the first place, who might do it again--

Hadn’t he just been convincing himself he was crazy?

Why would he make up a story about a police officer? Why would he make up a story that would convince him to talk with a police officer?

“Hey, kid,” Higgins said, a bit of understanding in his eyes because he’d always been too soft with run-down run-aways, “it’s alright if you want to go, but we’ve got free pizza. You should stay.”

If his name was on the list, he wouldn’t have much choice about staying.

“Okay,” Neil forced out, his voice a whisper.

(He’d dreamed up the Foxes, and he’d found hope, and it wasn’t going to let him go so easily.)

“What’s your name?” Higgins asked, closing the door as Neil stepped back and then waiting, patient, until Neil turned around and walked for the main hall. When he didn’t receive an answer, he continued with, “Alright, you don’t have to say. But we’re going to need to check that bag.”

It had clothes, a phone, an identification card for Calvin Bakster that Neil slipped that into a pocket before he handed the bag over, hair dye, a contacts case and solution, a wad of dwindling cash, and a notebook with half of the Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama articles that it (in another life) would gain after his mother’s death (which did not happen). Neil’s fingers tightened around the strap and his jaw clenched hard enough to ache, but he handed it over for Higgins to search. When he got it back with an approving nod from the officer, he immediately strung it back over his shoulder. The other two officers gave Higgins a nod and barely looked at him for longer than a glance, secure that their fellow uniformed pig had him covered.

“Go get some pizza and have a seat,” he was told. “You’re the first one here, so take your pick on where you want to sit.”

He took the back, one row behind an emergency exit, and slouched in his seat in his best impression of a so-called juvenile delinquent. Feeling ragged and run thin, it wasn’t hard.

His slice of pizza, he didn’t take a bite of.

By the door, Higgins took his time chatting with who had to be his friends. Eventually other kids of all shapes and sizes but the same rough make filtered in, and the officers pulled a chart to tick off names. It must have also had pictures, because they flipped through the two pages and kept giving him a glance--- eventually something had to match, thanks to his intentionally generic coloring and a printer’s poor ink quality, because they ticked off someone’s name and stopped looking at him. A few others eyed him up, but when he wouldn’t even meet their eyes, they dismissed him for their friends or, more commonly, a brooding, unhappy silence. The seats filled. Time ticked by.

He watched the door from the corner of his eye and, finally, ate some of his pizza. Oil coated his fingers.

A boy with black hair and brown eyes arrived, and Higgins stole a glance in his direction, his expression cautious.

Another boy, blond and short, slid past them, and Neil choked on his pizza.

“What the fuck?” A girl snapped at him, her fingers that had been tapping on her knee jumping to her chair as he coughed and wheezed, doubling over but keeping his gaze locked on an Andrew not-yet-Minyard, his blond hair buzzed, long-sleeved clothing baggy, and eyes snapping lightning quick to catch his, his mouth tugging into a light, suspicious frown as he slowly took a seat in the back row.

Soon enough, the frown became a scowl.

Neil ignored the girl and, realizing he was staring, tore his eyes away.

The scowl turned into a sneer, threatening pain.

Neil realized he was still staring, just out of the corner of his eye, and stood up.

The orientation would start soon. He should go.

Officer Higgins reached for his shoulder as he moved for the exit and said something like, “Kid, what’s your name? I need to know,” and Neil ducked his hand and his eyes and, when the officer took a step after him, broke into a run. The doors slammed behind him.

I’m not crazy, he thought, and couldn’t tell where he was going, just that he was going.

That was him, he thought, and realized his legs ached.

How would I make up a whole town? He thought, and felt ill.

I can’t, I’m not crazy, I’m, and finally stopped, hands on his knees and stomach revolting, this is it, this is the real thing, I’m-- in the past. I’m in the past. I’m not crazy, and I’m in the past.

Or I’m dead and this is one fucked up afterlife, he thought, after he’d heaved bile and water and a shred of yellow into a bush and caught his breath. Once he did, he grimaced, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. If this was the afterlife, it sure left a bad aftertaste.

He thought about opening his cell phone and returning to Lock Springs, but without thought or understanding, he walked off the wobble in his legs by heading to Cass’s house. He reached it without once looking at the post-it note in his bag. He wasn’t sure what he’d do when he got there, only-- well- it was Cass or his (two years from) dead mom, and the emotional ties to Cass came entirely from his empathy for Andrew, which made her frustrating at worst and a disappointment at best but not something that’d knock him off his feet. Plus, her neighborhood had a lot of streets. Even if every window had a peeping tom hoping to catch their neighbor at something weird, he could walk around for a while without being remembered.

Fuck off.

Except it was late afternoon by the time he made it there, and maybe he lingered too long, because Andrew appeared at the doorway with his baggy clothes and sharp look and he was-- he was really, really young. That wasn’t to be confused with weak. He wasn’t weak - he had as much muscle as a sixteen year old could pack on, for one, and the intensity in his eyes made his loose stance highly questionable, for two.

Neil didn’t reply fast enough, being on the opposite side of the street and too busy cataloging every way the sixteen year old didn’t match the twenty three year old he knew.

The list came up surprisingly short if he cut to the core of it.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Andrew snapped, and there it was again, an agitation that his older self had long mastered. He fought with it all the same, his eyebrow twitching but expression convincingly lax. “The hell is your problem, freak? You stalking me?”

Neil cleared the lump in his throat, crossed the road to the fish-shaped mailbox, and shoved his hands in his pockets.

At the doorway, Andrew visibly tensed.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this, this was a terrible first meeting, a first, a second-- a second re-meeting, a, a, shit, there he is, I’m not crazy.

“I-- I-” Neil finally got out, and backed up. For once in his whole life of being the Foxes’ declared smart-alec, he was at a loss for words. “Sorry. I, uh. Sorry.”

Silent and suspicious, Andrew eyed him. His fingers tightened on the door. He looked ready to slam it shut.

Neil really, really didn’t want him to, but he should. Walk away. He should walk away.

Instead he said, “Pig Higgins isn’t too bad, is he?”

The tension eased along his shoulders, but only because it was replaced with blank-faced uncertainty. Reading Andrew wasn’t always easy - even after four years of living in each other’s pockets, Neil would mess up and second guess and generally not know what was going on in his head, and Andrew had the same issue with him to a lesser degree - and maybe it was because this Andrew looked so young and he associated that with a simpler time, but reading him was as easy as reading a book.

“What?” Andrew said.

“Officer Higgins,” Neil started, because he wanted-- he- he didn’t know, and the sentence died before it began. He started again, mentally scrambling. Orientation. Right. It’d been orientation. “You get assigned to him too?”

Andrew’s face shuttered. “Were you even supposed to be there?”

Huh. So he’d always been an astute little shit.

While Neil fought with whether he should - or could - continue lying to Andrew not-yet-Minyard, the other contemplated him and, after a second, stepped out onto the house’s stone porch. The door shut behind him. Neil realized, abruptly, that there were no cars in the drive-way or the open garage; the teenager must have been here alone.

“Never seen you before.” A beat. “You look like something that got ran over and left to rot in the sun.”

For some reason, the comment made him want to smile.

He didn’t, but it was a nice change.

“I’ve been worse,” he said with a touch of private amusement. Andrew’s mouth tightened at the corners, unimpressed and even more suspicious. “I’m in from-- out of town.”

“Where?” Andrew demanded, quiet and level as if he wasn’t actually interested. The fact he asked at all gave him away, Neil knew.

He tried for honesty and found it tasted better. “Arizona.”

“That’s real damn far from here.”

“I know.”

“No shit.”

“I… needed to get away.”

Silence. Andrew wanted to know - he wouldn’t look away - but he wouldn’t ask. Mostly, Neil thought, he wanted to know what Neil was doing on his lawn.

Neil supplied, in starts and stops, “They’ve got a good reputation. In the system, I mean. This house, it’s a good one.”

He had Andrew’s attention, but nothing else.

“Thought I’d see if it was as good as the workers were saying,” he finished, feeling lame and light and happy enough to just talk with the person he hadn’t made up in some fit of stress.

“By stalking me?” Andrew drawled, his chin tilted upwards. “You some sort of bite-sized snitch trying to get in my good graces? Is this how you ask for a story? Just so you know, you’re real shitty at your job. Has your voice even broken?”

It had, but he was still waiting on four inches from a growth spurt that’d make his mother sigh at him for being too tall and how they’d need to find new, perfectly plain clothes that fit him.

Andrew half-turned away, bristling under his barely-restrained calm facade. Neil wondered what could make him look so uncertain, but then he realized he was smiling.

“Um,” he started, and almost laughed. Instead, he turned the energy into a hand at the back of his neck, a little nervous gesture he never would’ve done around anyone else. “Yeah. Yeah, uh. I guess I have a few questions.”

“Fat fucking luck,” Andrew said, and ripped the door back open. “I’ll only say this once: go away, and don’t come back.

The door slammed behind him, and Neil heard its lock click.

He couldn’t stop grinning.

Dutifully, he turned and made his way back to the main street. A red KIA curved by him as he reached the neighborhood’s outskirts, the wooden, green-painted sign declaring the rows of houses to belong to Green Valley. He glanced in the windows out of reflex, and -- nearly dropped his bag, and forgot Andrew’s venom, and turned on a heel to follow. It wasn’t far. It wasn’t far at all. His whole body ached from the treatment, but he was light, he was a goddamn feather. He pulled himself up short before the street Cass’s house stood on, but his breath came fast and he wasn’t sure what he was thinking. You’re better off dead, or nothing too quick, or fuck, Andrew, he’s alone.

The last thought spurred him into a jog even as rationality warned him that nothing was happening, technically, he hadn’t seen anything, but oh, as if he’d ever listened to logic.

The car had three passengers, but only one got out: tall, broad and smiling, he left his friends with a smile and laugh, the car taking off in a squeal of rubber and exhaust after he started toward the door.

He turned with a, “Who the--?” and Neil caught him square across the jaw with a fist that packed a wallop for a fifteen year old without regular access to the Exy court.

Drake stumbled back with a shout, hand whipping up to hold his jaw as he tripped over his own feet.

Without hesitation, Neil bodily slammed into the taller teenager, and they fell in a tangle into the grass. He had Drake by the collar, his fist curled back and smashing down; Drake had his wrist and twisted like a snake, cursing and spitting; Neil was on his back, there was a reason Drake managed to corner Andrew, and with a sickening crack he felt pain explode down his face and warmth coat his mouth; there was yelling, they were both yelling, another fist in his face as he clawed like a rabid animal down the bastard’s arms and neck; Drake was off of him, Andrew hauling him back by an arm and more yelling, more curses, more --

“You’re crazy! You’re batshit crazy! Who the hell are you?!”

“Don’t you fucking touch him,” from far away, Neil recognized his own voice - he was up, pushing forward, Andrew’s eyes wide and face unusually, openly shocked, “you perverted bastard, don’t you lay one finger on him, back the fuck off, I’ll rip your--”

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A block away in a cul de sac that boasted two massive, for-sale houses, Andrew passed him an ice pack.

Pressing it gingerly to his swelling eye, he tilted his head back and waited for his nose to stop bleeding.

“I told you to go away,” Andrew said.

Neil didn’t have enough facial muscles that weren’t in pain to wince. “Yeah. I’m not the best at following directions.”

“Apparently,” he said, and fell silent, his eyes focused on a spot away from Neil.

Drake still breathed. That, as far as Neil was concerned, was the only regret he had for today.

Well, that and his choice not to eat or drink since leaving the Community Center and throwing up on the side of the road. His head swam, his face too-hot and brain akin to a cooked egg. Though he’d fared much, much worse, it still sucked.

The confrontation had ended with Andrew managing to get between Drake and Neil and shoving his foster brother - the bastard - into the house. He’d followed after, snapping at Neil with cold fury to not follow, and though Neil definitely wouldn’t have listened, he’d locked the door and the windows and so Neil sat himself on the porch with blood streaming down the hand cupped around his broken nose and quietly forced himself not to think about anything at all. He’d been just about to get up and try the garage door again when Andrew emerged with a portable first aid kit, scowled at him, and told him to stop dirtying up his porch and follow him.

Neil would’ve made a quip about contradictory orders, but he was too busy making himself not think about how Drake must’ve been inside, patching himself up, and even if it was Andrew’s battle and he respected that, he hadn’t been as able to handle Drake’s presence as he’d thought he’d be.

By the blood down his shirt, that was an understatement.

In any case, he didn’t break the silence. He’d said-- a lot, in hindsight. Moreover, he really didn’t know how this younger Andrew would take it. So. He waited him out.

“You know?” Is what Andrew came up with, voice deceptively level.

Neil, thoughts fuzzy but knowing he couldn’t lie here, nodded.

A beat of silence.

This was eating him up, Neil knew. Someone knowing. Someone thinking it might have happened to him. Andrew looked blank as a new piece of paper, but it was tearing him to bits, raw unmitigated truth suddenly dropped in his lap like this, and Neil was so, so sorry.

“How?”

You told me bits and pieces while we were learning how to look at each other.

He tricked your cousin into thinking he had a chance with his parents, and then trapped you upstairs.

Your twin killed him with an Exy racquet and the only thing you asked was whether or not Drake touched him. Don’t worry, he didn’t.

“Remember how I said I’d heard about Cass’s place?”

Andrew didn’t move.

Neil continued on anyway. With the ice pack on his eye, he didn’t have to look at Andrew while he spun a lie, measured and practical and wrong, absolutely wrong, but this was someone who hadn’t blown smoke in his face or given him a key or fallen asleep within arm’s reach.

“I knew the last kid she fostered. It haunted him, what Drake did. He’d had a bad run-- he’d been in the system for as long as he could remember- and Drake was the last straw. When he switched homes to mine, he was a wreck. Lasted… half a year, maybe.” He breathed through his mouth, tasted nothing but copper. “He wrote a note about all the shit he’d been put through and hung himself. That’s how I found out how bad it really was.”

“You came here to avenge a dead boy?”

“Didn’t have much else going for me.” Half a year, and Calvin would be gone. A month living with the walking dead, and he was going mad. “Won’t say where I come from is anything like where you’re at, but I wasn’t lying when I said I needed to get away.”

He swallowed around a clot of blood, and let the silence return.

Maybe he could sneak in during the night and choke the bastard out. Maybe he could get a hold of Aaron and convince Tilda to take her child back early, and then help quicken Andrew’s plotting, or even, somehow, get the twins away without that deathly rift ever cutting between them. Maybe he could call Coach Wymack, and tell him that he was Kevin’s father, and Wymack would convince Kevin to join Palmetto State first, and Riko would never break his hand and Kevin would always be the best he had trained to be.

Maybe he’d wake up to Andrew telling him he’d been mumbling in his sleep again. Then they’d share coffee, a few good morning kisses, maybe more because the vacation’s end was coming up too fast, and his worries would consist solely of being good enough to make Court and being captain to a team he barely knew.

Talk about a pipedream. Fuck, he must be rattled to hell and back if he was making wishes like that.

“What’s your name?” Andrew asked, and if you knew what to listen for, his voice was strained. It went without saying he knew what to look for. He didn’t sound pitying, or particularly sympathetic. He sounded like this was a personal, private matter, and he hadn’t expected someone to take the equivalent of a hot iron to it. It was a dim surprise about the worst case scenario happening that the Andrew in the future would have stomped out of him.

“Neil.” He said. “Neil Josten.”

“There’s an empty guest bedroom.” After a long, long, long pause, anxieties and cause-and-effect and every alarm bell most likely going off in his head. “I’ll say I know you from school and you’re having problems at home. Cass wouldn’t mind.”

Would she just be happy you have friends? Neil almost said, but as the other continued with his stilted, stiff answer, he realized for all the similarities, he didn’t know this Andrew. Rather, this Andrew didn’t know him.

After enough time passed for Andrew to scoff and retract the offer, but Andrew never made an offer he regretted, let alone went back on. Another trait that would persist.

“Okay,” he said.

“First thing you’re doing is taking a shower,” Andrew continued, head turning away and deadpan returning full force. “You reek like a rat’s ass.”

“I do feel like something the cat dragged in,” he said, and though the blond didn’t reply, he waited in silence until Neil’s nose had mostly stopped bleeding to stand and lead him back to the quaint little house that stood on in its neat little rows.

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Cass, as it turned out, didn’t mind.

Andrew stopped him before they reached the house to threaten what he’d do if he breathed a word about his dead boy or Drake’s habits to her, which Neil thought unnecessary and interesting all at once. The fevered look in his eyes tried to force him to understand what a huge liability Andrew saw him as, and how willing he would be to throw him out if he thought he jeopardized this stay; if he peaked under baggy black sleeves, Neil wondered if he’d glimpse physical proof to how much Andrew wanted Cass to last. Given the agitation that bunched up under the blond’s skin as he let Neil in despite the silver neon parked in the garage, he was willing to bet the scars were already forming.

He didn’t entertain the idea he could stop that wholesale, or erase their existence. That wasn’t his legacy -- it was Andrew’s, and he’d survive it. He had to.

There was no reason for worry from either of them about Cass, though. Her caution lasted until Andrew explained his problems at home with a gesture to his blackened eye, and asked, voice clipped and terse, if Neil could lay low here for a while, he’s pretty stupid but he won’t make too much noise. Then she was a quiet but solid presence, welcoming him in and telling him to leave his bag in the guest room, and of course he could stay here as long as he needed, any friend of Andrew was a friend of hers. She wasn’t overwhelming cheer or unstomachable pity - she opened doors to him and let him come around in his own time, and within minutes, Neil understood why Andrew bled to keep her.

As he stuffed his bag under his bed, his eye caught on his phone. He’d accidentally left it on since the night he’d fallen asleep with it. Its low battery blinked a warning at him, and, with some hesitance, he plugged it into the wall next to the night stand before returning to the kitchen where Cass was pulling out groceries while Andrew loitered by the dining table.

“You aren’t allergic to anything, are you, Neil?” She asked. “I was thinking of spaghetti tonight. I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting another mouth, but tomorrow, we could have lasagna.”

“Both sound good,” he said, stuck in the doorway and feeling, all at once, his body’s age. “You don’t have to plan around me. I--”

“Oh, hush,” she huffed. “You’re staying under my roof. I’d be an awful host if I couldn’t feed you.”

He resisted the urge to fidget.

As if he’d said something, she nodded at him and said that if he needed anything, he could feel free to ask or take it, whatever he felt comfortable with. She started to go into her and her husband’s routines, telling him when one of them might be where-- couched in an explanation about her job as a bank teller, of course, and his work as an accountant for a local health insurance company. She was bright. She was kind without being naive.

Andrew cut in when she took a pause to fill a pot with water to tell him, “Hurry up and get clean. I can smell you from over here.”

Cass clucked her tongue at him, but didn’t admonish his curt tone. Andrew stole a glance in her direction as if to prove to himself she wasn’t upset about any of this. While he was distracted with looking, Neil swallowed dryly and took his leave for the bathroom.

On their way over after Andrew felt satisfied with Neil’s buttoned lip about Drake, he’d waved off Neil’s question about Drake spilling the beans on where his bruises actually came from.

“You think he’s going to admit you attacked him?” The blond had sneered, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. “When there’s even a chance you would say something to his parents? He has no idea what you have on him. He’ll stay quiet.”

It turned out he’d been gone on a camping trip, which was why he hadn’t been around to eat dinner with his family the night before. Andrew must have taken his dinner in his room for whatever reason. Neil kept his knowing that particular detail to himself, because it really was more than a little stalker-ish, and this Andrew didn’t need more reason to close him out. The fact that he was inviting Neil into his house--- was something Neil thought he might understand fully in time, and not a second before.

The knowledge that Drake was right over his head dragged disgusting fingers down the back of his brain that a shower wouldn’t wash away, but he could bide his time. He wouldn’t let the man get within five feet of Andrew so long as he was under Cass’s roof.

A little more clean and mostly dried (no choice on using their towels, but he kept it brief), he met Cass’s husband, Richard, who took one look at his face and winced in knowing sympathy before offering to take him to a hospital to see someone about his nose. He quietly, politely declined, and asked if they had any stiffer bandages they wouldn’t mind him using. With Andrew watching him from the doorway, he set himself up in front of the bathroom mirror and pressed his nose as straight as he could figure to wrap it up.

It was a with a touch of dark amusement that Neil realized Andrew must have thought he learned that from his supposedly abusive home life. Well. He wasn’t completely wrong.

They set the table with the smell of garlic and gurgle of tomato sauce warming the kitchen, Richard and Cass keeping up a steady chatter in the background that neither Neil nor Andrew joined in on. The smell reminded Neil’s stomach of just how long he hadn’t been eating, and for a brief time, all his thoughts hooked onto the food. Eventually dinner was ready, and - cracking through Neil’s appetite-induced focus - Cass called Drake down to join them.

Under the table, Andrew jammed his heel hard into Neil’s foot, his expression like a blank mask.

Neil frowned, but forcibly loosened up his shoulders and unclenched his jaw.

“It smells great,” the creep said, swinging into the kitchen with a smile that froze when he saw Neil at the dining table. He had a darkening bruise of his own on his cheek, and angry red lines peeked out from under his loose collar.

Putting every tooth on display, Neil smiled.

His presence flipped Drake’s good mood on its head in a moment, and his black eyes snapped from the stock-still Andrew to his mother. “Who’s he?”

“Andrew’s friend, Neil. He’ll be staying with us for a bit.” Cass said, her back turned to them as she drained the noodles and shook out the steam that follow. “You don’t mind, do yo-- oh, god, Drake, what happened to you?”

Drake stared at Neil.

Neil stared back.

“... It was just some fun, mom. Jason freaked out when he thought there was a wasp in the tent and caught me in the chin.”

Obviously not quite believing him but willing to accept it, Cass sighed and told him to wash up, muttering under-breath about reckless teenagers who thought they were invincible.

The dinner atmosphere was tense, but it wasn’t from Neil keeping quiet. He answered every question Richard and Cass asked him, and if he left parts of his home life vague, they afforded him the dignity of privacy.

Sat opposite of one another, one stealing suspicious glances at Neil and the other not looking up from his plate, Drake and Andrew ate in silence.

Then dinner was over and it was apparently Drake’s turn with the dishes as part of his welcome home chores, and Andrew silently herded Neil toward his guest room the second the other three weren’t looking.

Despite closing the door and leaning against it with narrowed eyes glued to Neil, Andrew didn’t speak.

After he realized an immediate conversation wasn’t forthcoming, Neil let him look and checked his charged phone. No new messages. No new calls.

I’m okay. He typed and sent before he could think twice about it. Having Andrew’s eyes on him helped keep him steady, even if Andrew had no idea about where he’d come from.

Then he sat on the bed and counted the squares that ran along the base of the cream wallpaper, ticking off primes and roots and how many would fit across the wall if the pattern grew upward.

In his hand, his phone lit up.

Come home, was the reply.

“Who’s that?” Andrew asked.

“My mom,” he said, with honesty.

“The one you left behind?”

Mouth twitching with a mix of dark irony and bittersweet memory, he nodded.

“Will you?” He asked. “Go back to her.”

Neil thought about that.

“I don’t know,” he eventually said, the words slow and the honesty pooling like copper in his mouth. “Maybe she’s better off without me.”

Andrew snorted.

With a light frown, Neil watched him from the corner of his eye. “What?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you’re better off without her.”

There was too much to be said about that, and most of it not yet real. When Andrew had found out why exactly Neil didn’t glance at girls, he’d said something similar with the dark look in his eyes; it’d, admittedly, made Neil uncomfortable, and they mutually avoided the topic of his mother after that.

This time, Neil was the one to fall silent.

Then he looked back to his phone and read nothing but a dozen fake contacts and only one real one, and looked up to an Andrew who seemed to realize he wasn’t going to be happy with what Neil asked.

“Hey. Want to trade numbers?”

Neil was right. Andrew didn’t look happy.

“I barely know you,” he said.

Neil shrugged. “Yeah, but you invited me into your house. This seems like a small thing compared to that.”

It wasn’t, but only he knew that.

Andrew scowled, but after a moment, he dug out his phone.

After trading numbers he asked a question about Exy, and Niel couldn’t talk players any longer but he could talk technique, and even though Andrew remained silent for most of it aside from clipped, rude comments, he didn’t leave or look away, and that spurred Niel to keep talking.

When Andrew left later in the night, Neil programmed his number into his first speed-dial.

Chapter Text

Everything’s quiet arrived in his mailbox in the middle of the night, the screen illuminating his face as he laid bundled under thick, cotton stuffed blankets. When are you coming home?

Altogether, it was the most his mom and he had ever used the cell phone in this life or the last.

He listened to the house settle and sigh around him, and stared at the screen until the creak of floorboards overhead drew him from bed to hallway to stairs, his own feet light as possible and lungs scarcely working.

A light clicked on. Through the stairs’ railing, the fuzzy outline of Cass slipped into the bathroom.

After a moment, he went back to bed.

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Andrew took the bus to school, and had him climb on behind him in the morning after a breakfast of hastily buttered toast and glass of juice.

“I’m not enrolled here,” Neil told him, bag on his shoulder, but the blond didn’t even look at him, his face bored.

“I told Cass you were a friend from school.” He drawled. “You’re not going to fuck that up so soon, are you?”

Neil crossed his arms. He was on his last clean shirt. He’d rather spend the day finding a laundromat than sitting in a school bathroom dodging teachers and adults who would know he didn’t belong there.

Catching the look, Andrew rolled his eyes. “After we get there, you can do whatever you want. I don’t give a shit if you hide in the dumpster or spend the day knocking your head against a tree. I’m done at three, though, and I take the bus back; you better be there.”

Neil gave in just as the yellow monstrosity rolled up, its rusted wheels screeching in protest. “Fine.”

The driver gave him an odd look, obviously unsure of who this new kid was, but she had a route to drive and a dozen more to pick up, and anyway, he looked about right for a grimy high schooler: hair a mess, elbows and knees at awkward angles, and head tucked to avoid her gaze.

When Andrew disappeared into Home of the Cavaliers!’s double doors, Neil went off in search of that laundromat.

First, though, he bought a newspaper, fruit and bread that fit easily into his bag, soap, and detoured to the library to log into the computers. There he checked Palmetto State’s web-page -- it was out-dated and clunky to his eyes, all the graphics big and blocky, but a few clicks had him at the Exy team’s page. A bit of him wondered why he hadn’t done this before, but he admitted to himself he hadn’t exactly been in the best state of mind.

As he’d thought, Renee Walker, Allison Reynolds and Danielle Wilds’ pictures greeted him, tucked in an unfamiliar, male dominated line-up and under Coach Wymack’s hard-lined face.

Seth Gordon was there, too. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. It was so long ago, and Seth had been-- well. He’d never felt sympathy for Seth.

Palmetto State was the bottom of the Class 1 Exy barrel as far as their statistics and reports went, which shocked him far more than it should’ve. Even if it had taken to the skin of their teeth, the Foxes always made it to the semi-finals, if not the Championship itself. They had taken home the gold trophy twice: the first and third year, Kevin’s last year where he nearly drove a freshmen to an early grave with his tension and practices, neither of which Neil had any authority to lessen. The Trojans had won in the second year, Jean almost, almost smiling as Jeremy slapped him on the back and he shook Kevin’s hand.

Since its creation not too long ago, Neil read, the Foxes had passed regionals all of once. Their outlook was dismal and since they refused to draft players from anything but rougher homes, they weren’t expected to rise any time soon.

He had to log out and go find the laundromat pretty quick after that, blood up on Palmetto State’s behalf.

(Though it was true, it wouldn’t be forever, and not for the reason the reporters harped on).

He almost bought lunch, but his cash had been enough to get to and from California with only a sliver of extra. Three days more, and he’d have used up his chance at anything close to a low-pressure return to Lock Springs.

At two-thirty on the dot, he sat with a bag of clean clothes on a bench outside the high school. Buses showed up before the bell rang, students pouring out almost as the noise began.

Andrew caught his eyes from the door and, without a word, turned to the bus. Neil fell in behind him without a second thought.

“How long are you planning on hanging around?” Andrew asked after another tense dinner (this time, Cass and Richard seemed to realized something was going on between Drake and Neil, but as neither gave an inch of explanation, they let it simmer), his back once more to the door and hands tucked under crossed arms. The lasagna had been, as expected, delicious.

Neil shrugged. “I can leave now, if you want.”

An eyebrow quirked up in cool disbelief. As if Andrew hadn’t been the one to invite him over in the first place.

“Really,” Neil said. “I can. ”

He didn’t want to, but he could. If that was what he was asked to do, he would.

“Not yet.” Andrew finally replied, and tension uncurled in Neil’s chest. “I want to know something.”

“Anything.”

A frown curved his mouth down. “You look at me as if you’re seeing someone else. It’s really goddamn annoying.”

“That’s not a question,” Neil replied, mouth quirking up.

“You seeing your dead boy?”

He stilled.

Andrew waited, the cut of shadow in his eyes all at once a little dangerous.

“No,” Neil said.

Without a pause, “I hate liars.”

“I know.” Andrew’s eyebrows pinched together. Neil gave himself a mental shake and turned to better face the other. The buzzed hair really didn’t suit him, Neil thought, but then, maybe he could understand why. “It’s-- no, it’s not him. You… I guess you remind me of someone.”

His hands balled up at his sides, and he forced them to unclench.

Andrew eyed him, suspicious and wary and edged in exhaustion, as most people teetering on the edge of hope and indifference were.

There was no way to describe what Andrew was to him. Finally, he managed: “He’s not someone I could ever forget. Or replace. So if that’s what you’re worried about, don’t be.”

“Dramatic,” Andrew muttered. “What are you, a tragic love story?”

Unbidden, Neil’s smile grew. “Not at all,” he said, then asked, “Do you play Exy?” which threw Andrew off enough to temporarily leave the topic alone. He knew Andrew hadn’t picked the sport up until the rehabilitation center, but that wasn’t the point.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Why would I?”

“I think you’d be good at it.”

“Because your sad lost lover was?”

That surprised a small, short laugh out of him; thankfully, it didn’t sound painful. “He was better than good. But he’d always say he hated it, even after he agreed to practice with me. I’ve never met someone who spent more time pretending they didn’t want to be somewhere than him.”

“Maybe he did hate it, and was only doing it because you wouldn’t shut up until he played with you.”

“I think that’s what he told himself. Anyway, he definitely kept it up in part because it’d drive our other friend up the wall.”

“He liked riling people up for no reason?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Sounds like a prick. You’ve got shitty taste in friends.”

Neil laughed. Andrew’s wariness eased as that exhaustion increased.

“You’re so fucking weird,” the blond muttered at him when he couldn’t get himself under control right away. It made him laugh harder.

(Fuck, but he missed Andrew.)

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“Take a right up here,” Neil said, the directions scrawled on a notebook in his lap. Ignoring him, Andrew drove the truck right on through the cross-roads. “That was definitely our turn, Andrew. There isn’t another road that connects.”

They didn’t have a reservation, and the restaurant wasn’t anything fancy, but it was getting late, and Neil would be lying if he said he wasn’t hungry. Yellow headlights bounced over a pot-hole filled road, though the expensive rig’s shocks meant they hardly felt a bump. It would’ve been impressive if they hadn’t driven it for close to three years.

“Shut up for a second,” Andrew said when he emphasized that they needed to turn around and, with a frown, he did.

Foot by foot and mile by mile, they pulled out of Columbia’s city sprawl and curved into a winding dirt road. It didn’t take long - ten minutes of silent driving, and Andrew pulled to a stop at the edge of a pond, the engine cut with nary an extra rumble. It cooled in pops and hums, the dashboard’s light extinguished along with it. In the abrupt dark, the still waters, lined with cattails and gently swaying weeds and illuminated by a full moon, struck a beautiful picture. Aside from the crickets’ song, it was quiet. They were completely and utterly alone. The duck their arrival startled into paddling off made that clear.

Andrew snatched up a his bag from the backseat and got out first, Neil following. They had a few days left before the summer ended and the Exy season began, but tension was at a low, and the abrupt change in plans, what once would have spiked up his paranoia, now only made him curious.

When Andrew propped a hip against the still-cooling hood of his car and pulled out plastic wrapped sandwiches, Neil almost laughed.

Actually, he did laugh.

“A picnic in the moonlight?”

“I didn’t feel like dealing with nosy people.” Finished unpacking, he turned from the foodstuffs to shake a cigarette from his pack, lean close for Neil to light it, and take a long drag. When he blew a cloud of smoke right in his face, he chased it with a kiss, sealing the taste between them.

“You didn’t feel like waiting,” Neil murmured against his lips.

“You’re the impatient one, not me.” Andrew said, and then, in true contradictory fashion, hooked his thumb into Neil’s back pocket.

The crickets grew louder, and louder, and louder. Eventually Neil winced, regretfully drew back, and tilted his forehead against Andrew’s. Hazel eyes looked at him with in cool but concerned assessment.

“Shit,” Neil muttered, “my head’s pounding. How can you think with all that noise?”

Andrew’s eyes tightened at the edges. He asked, what noise?

Blinding lights pierced through the car’s back windshield, the crickets reaching an ear-splitting pitch; Andrew disappeared in a wash of white, and Neil felt his head splitting from front to back, his ribcage pried open to spill his heart and lungs into a messy, bloody pile.

He woke gasping, covered in cold sweat and tangled in heavy sheets. Immediately he struggled to free himself, tipping off the bed onto the carpeted floor with a bitten-off shout. His eye and nose throbbed as he bumped against the side of the bed, and he clung to that, focused on that, reminded himself I’m in Cass’s house and I’m fifteen years old and I’m fine, I’m alive, it was a dream.

Eventually, he wrestled his breathing under control, his eyes adjusting to the soft dark.

The clock on the nightstand blinked a red 3:37 at him.

Overhead, floorboards creaked.

He contemplated a knife but dismissed it as too problematic if it wasn’t what he thought and then even more problematic if it was. Grabbing a decorative but dense block from atop the dresser, he snuck out into the hallway to the stairs, reality itself still feeling off-kilter and jittery. He peered through the railing, but the bathroom light didn’t click on again.

A door out of sight opened with a whisper. If Neil hadn’t been looking for it, he would’ve missed it.

He took the stairs two at a time, and caught sight of Andrew’s bedroom door left ajar. A part of his mind warned him that wasn’t right, there was no reason for the door to be open, and he acknowledged it for an obvious trap, he did, he realized Drake must’ve heard him coming up the stairs, but he shouldered it open and slammed into the taller body anyway.

This time, Drake was ready for him. A hand caught his wrist as he swung with the block for his head. A foot hooked behind his ankle and knocked him to the side; he dragged the man down with him, teeth grit to keep in the snarl, but then there was a knee in his gut and bigger hands grinding his thin wrist bones together, and, over his head, “Shut the door,” an impatient silence, “Shut the door, Andrew, do you want them to wake up?”

The door clicked shut, the only light coming from the full moon shining in from the window.

“Get off him, Drake,” another voice hissed.

“Calm down. I just want to talk.” Neil kicked, and writhed, but the weight on his diaphragm was swiftly evolving into a problem and god fucking damn it he should’ve brought a knife. “Jesus, would you knock it off? Christ. I want to talk.

“Get,” he gasped, air wheezing through his throat, “off.”

“The fuck’s your problem, kid?” Muttered a voice far, far too close to his ear, and he flinched violently, bucking sharply to the side. Drake cursed but shifted back to trap him, weight settled on his hips and knees pressed into his sides as he caught his breath. “Come into my house after calling me a pervert -- I don’t even know you.”

Andrew, Neil’s mind screamed, but he knew in the same he’d known it was a trap that it wouldn’t work, This is it, this is your chance, make him suffer.

But Cass was right down the hall, and this was her son, and he’d never had someone he cared enough to protect, and he barely knew Neil. There’d been no promises. Neil had walked himself right into the room, and as far as being pinned to the floor went, there were worse things Drake could be threatening than a chat.

“What the hell do you think I’ve done, huh?” Drake stretched his wrists farther back when he didn’t answer, the moonlight casting his livid face in sharp shadows. “Answer me when I speak to you, you little shit.”

“I don’t know, Drake,” he whispered back, his voice aloof and untouched and not at all reflective of his murderous intent, “what would you be doing in someone’s room at three in the morning?”

“He’s got nightmares,” Drake snarled, sitting back and taking his face away from Neil’s, “I check on him. You don’t know jack shit.”

“If you thought for a second you were helping anybody, you wouldn’t slink around in the dark under your mom’s nose. You would get no meant no-- even dogs know that- and realize that you’re just a sad, delusional pervert. I’d say see a therapist, but really, I don’t even know how you keep talking through all the shit pouring out of your mo--”

Drake dropped his wrists and back-handed him. He twisted, digging an elbow into his leg, and dislodged the bastard, who cursed sharp and low as he fell against a mostly empty bookshelf. It rattled and tipped forward, the textbooks and a few dime store paperbacks raining down on his head. Andrew swore and darted from the bed’s side to try to stop it from falling entirely, but he was too slow, and the shelf fell with a crash.

Lights flicked on down the hall, a woman’s voice calling, “Drake? Andrew?”

Neil rolled up and backed away to a corner, his hand pressed to his once-more bleeding nose.

“Get in the closet,” Andrew snarled at him, “you brainless--”

The doorknob rattled and Cass bursted in, her hand immediately turning on the lights. Behind her, Richard had a wooden bat, his eyes huge in fear. He didn’t lower it once he saw who was in the room, but he kept his gaze locked on Neil.

“Oh, god, Drake, are you okay?” Cass went to her boy first, of course, helping him stand from the pile of books he sat in. She checked Andrew over as she did so, her face sheet-white and nerves obviously rattled. “Andrew?” Then she looked toward Neil, Drake on his feet and Andrew physically fine, and drew herself up as she registered blood. “What the hell is going on in here? Why were the lights off?”

In that moment, in that two-second pause to follow their arrival, Neil didn’t know how not to say your son’s a rapist, and you’d still pick him over Andrew, and I would let you die in a heartbeat for that.

Before he could even open his mouth, Drake cut in, his eyes wide and shock (fake or otherwise) wrought in every line of his body. “I-- I heard someone in the hall, and I came out to check. The door was open, I heard Andrew tell him to get off -- Neil was on him, I had to do something, I tried pulling him off but he was crazy, he was trying to-- I-- I-”

The stuttering did the trick better than anything said forthright. Cass’s hands tightened on her son’s shoulders, her shock threaded with honest terror for her foster child.

Neil hated her. Neil hated Drake most, but he hated her, too.

“Get out,” she whispered.

Neil’s eyes snapped to Andrew. He was white-faced too, his whole body rigid as a board.

“Wait,” Neil tried, the world too sharp and bright, “that’s--”

Get out!” It was a scream, and it made Andrew flinch, his shoulders jerking up to his ears.

Richard came for him with a hand outstretched and a bat in the other, and something in Neil’s hindbrain reminded him about fathers and cruel hands, and he ducked and dodged and ran, nearly fell down the stairs but caught himself and tore down the hall to grab his bag and phone charger and then he was out, the door slamming behind him.

He ran.

And ran.

And ran, until he couldn’t think and his legs buckled when he finally stopped next to the Community Center. He’d taken a big loop-around, his face burning and nose throbbing, but in the end, this was where he ended up. The pine tree was the same as last time, sappy on its trunk but concealing and half-prickly, half-soft underneath. Overall not an ideal place to sleep, and by the time he laid down, the sun was rising, birds awakening and cars roaring down the streets.

His dream came back to him in bits and pieces, his hands wrapped around his elbows and knees to his chest. It seemed like nothing compared to the night that followed, but the images stuck in his head and there was no, absolutely no way he’d fall asleep.

At ten thirty four, he opened his phone to a new message.

I miss you.

He bit the inside of his cheek, and pressed the call button.

It rang twice, the beeps digitized and drawn out, before the person picked it up, absolutely silent.

“Mom?” He said after close to ten seconds of nothing. “Hi. I’m… sorry.”

Another five seconds of nothing.

“Are you coming home?” She asked him, voice level and calm, and what she really meant was, are you coming back to me?

A breath shuddered out of him, and he thought about-- his mother, lonely and fearful enough to admit something he’d never, ever wished to hear, and Drake, big enough to put his weight to use and clever enough to know what Andrew feared most, and Cass, smart and sweet and everything Andrew wanted but nothing close to what he needed.

“Not yet,” he finally whispered. “I have something I need to take care of. It’s important.”

“This is real,” she told him. “You’re awake. You can’t go back once you’ve done something.” And what she meant was, please, don’t die.

They’d always hid. They’d never searched. She could figure out how to find him if she really tried, he thought, but it would take time, and put a spotlight on her, and she loved him, she loved him with her whole heart, but she didn’t want to die.

“I’m in California,” he said, because she deserved to know that he wasn’t near Maryland. “The weather’s great. Last night, I ate lasagna. I--”

The words stuck in his throat, things he’d never once said and thought he never could. But then he heard her, heard his mother, alive and well and silent in fear for him, and if this was all a second chance, he wouldn’t live again by letting opportunities pass by.

In a whisper, he said what he’d always felt but could never name. “I miss you, too, mom.”

She was the one to hang up first, but the call lasted eight minutes more before that.

People arrived at the Center. He waited until someone with a nametag showed up, and then he dusted pine needles off his pants, stood on slightly shaky legs, and went to ask for Officer Higgins’ number.

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Aaron and Tilda Minyard lived in one half of a cream-colored condominium, with two bedrooms, one bath and a one car garage.

Niel halved his remaining money to buy enough food for a week and a train ticket to get there, his bag over a shoulder and hair re-dyed black from a pause in a truck stop’s bathroom. It still caught his eyes in the mirror, but then, the eyes it caught were brown, not blue, so it wasn’t the only thing. A fair amount of time on the road had him wondering if he should’ve bothered to keep up with the routine, until he realized it was a moot thing to wonder about - he would as long as Nathan’s men were desperate for his mother or him - and he was only really thinking on the subject to avoid thinking about how to confront the Minyards.

By all respects, he probably shouldn’t. Higgins had said he’d get the twins in contact since it was such an incredible coincidence for Andrew to have a brother, let alone one that popped out at roughly the same time as him. It wasn’t Neil’s problem.

In fact, Higgins had specifically told him the Minyard’s location was private information, and no, he wouldn’t disclose it to Calvin Bakster, but the fact Tilda came up on the police’s database at all made Neil remember Aaron’s history with being fostered drugs and abuse, and how the faster Tilda acted in regards to Andrew, the better for everyone.

(Everyone except her, but Neil didn’t know her beyond her giving away a child, and wasn’t sure yet how much he’d care, and anyway, she was currently fine.)

She had two recent DUIs and an older record of marijuana possession, which Neil knew because Higgins assumed he didn’t understand the code words in a police database. She lived in the northern suburbs of San Jose, California, a single mother working full time as a travel agent. She drove an unremarkable black Toyota, and, as of Neil stopping outside her house, she was home. School was finished. Aaron should still be at Exy practice.

Neil was a scrappy, scruffed up brat who she didn’t know and wouldn’t respect, never mind heed the warnings of. If-- when, rather- Higgins called, she’d listen to him and panic until Nicky’s mother intervened, and then the slow process of adopting Andrew would be put into motion. Or so Neil could hope. That was skipping Drake’s comment that put Andrew over the edge, months at juvie, weeks of snail mail exchanges, and a whole lot of visiting before decisions were made. His hand clenched tighter around his bag strap when he thought about the missing time somehow fucking it all up, but--

It remained that Tilda wasn’t a good starting place.

Neil planted himself two blocks down at the bus stop, and waited for Aaron.

It’d been three days since he’d left Cass’s house, two days since Higgins almost wouldn’t let him go without getting his number and a closer look at his ID, and approximately five seconds since he’d noticed his foot tapping in restless anxiety and forcibly made it stop. He used to be so good at looking like nothing. Now he was filled up with the Foxes, Exy, a name, a history, and someone who knew all about his scars, and it made it hard to hollow himself out into an unnoticeable fixture. He could, though, and he would; since he’d changed his thoughts about this time travel business from dream to second chance, he couldn’t risk messing any of it up.

That’d been another thing to think about on the train: what was he doing here? How was he here? When would he go back? Could he go back?

Thinking about the Minyards and Andrew’s adoption became awfully lucrative after trying to force himself to answer those questions. He knew more about gardening than he did about his current situation, and he’d never in his life done anything with plants.

A city bus creaked and grumbled its way around the corner, and Neil sat up a little straighter. Two passengers got off: a woman with heavy grocery bags and a sixteen-year-old with a heavy gym bag. They parted ways, and Neil fell in behind the teenager, walking too close for a typical stranger. Unlike his twin, his blond hair was gelled up in spikes and his clothes fit; like his twin, he looked gaunt around the edges, and it didn’t didn’t take long for Aaron to realize he was being followed, his frown deepened every time he glanced over his shoulder.

Two houses down from his home, Aaron finally stopped and turned, his chin up and shoulders back. He eyed Neil as if Neil were nothing more than a mangy mutt, and that, at least, was familiar. The darker bruise peeking out from his short sleeves was not. “Do you want something?”

“Yeah,” Neil said, and flashed him a quick, humorless smile, “I do. Your mom’s going to get a call soon from an Officer Higgins about her son and your twin. His name’s Andrew. He lives in Oakland. She’s not going to want to tell you about him right away, but I think that’s bullshit. I have his number. You’re going to take it, and message him.”

Aaron stared at him, half baffled and half insulted. If he could gather his wits fast enough, Neil was sure he’d be asking what Neil was on, or what sort of messed up prank show he was filming for.

“Take it,” he insisted, and shoved a scrap of notebook paper with Andrew’s full name, address and number on it. Aaron took it, still speechless.

Before he could gather his words for an obnoxiously stubborn protest, Neil calmly told him, “Don’t wait forever. You’d be surprised how quickly things can change,” then turned, and left.

Aaron shouted after him, demanding to know who he was and what the fuck he was on, but he didn’t follow.

Neil counted that as a successful hooking of Aaron’s interest, and walked back to the main greyhound station to rest his feet and try to ignore the fact he had no idea what to do next.

When Officer Higgins had asked for Neil’s number so he could call after hearing from Andrew, aren’t you two friends?, Neil had shut down and stared in silence until he dropped it.

When night fell, Neil curled up in the smoky waiting room at the station with his bag in his lap and free local newspaper flipped to the sudoku puzzles on the back and his phone buzzed with an unfamiliar number on its screen, he froze for only the moment it took him to catch the name over it. Then he unlocked it without a second’s more hesitation, and hunkered down a little further into his cushionless, scratched-up chair to hide a warm, pleased smile.

Set apart from his mother’s scant texts was:

I hate you.

He instantly replied, How much?

Then held himself still, realizing where he was and when he wasn’t.

As he braced himself for white static and a need to run, his phone’s buzzing interrupted.

70%

“Oh,” he breathed, air back in his lungs. Oh, you didn’t change that much, and oh, is that all? Lowest I’ve ever been.

He texted back something about San Jose not being too far from Oakland and how that surprised him.

Near midnight, neck aching, back aching, eyes burning from waiting and sending texts that frequently went with forty minute pauses, every sudoku and crossover filled on the papers, Andrew texted, I don’t need protecting.

The fact he was addressing it bespoke how bothered he was by it. He wasn’t stupid - he could connect dots, even if to most people, they were a peculiar web to weave. What did a boy he’d never met before have any business in reuniting long lost twins for? Moreover, how did he know? Neil didn’t think Andrew would have the witherall to ask that question just yet, and thus far he was right. When it did come up-- Neil had no intention of using his time being locked up in a crazy house, but with the safety of distance and privacy, he briefly entertained the idea of Andrew accepting his story as easily as he had Nathaniel’s.

But Nathaniel was a comedy, not outright insanity.

He’d think of something to say if it came up. Right then, his mind shifting to a prickly teenager learning he had a twin, that his mother had thrown him out for no explicable reason, waiting in the dark in a room across from an abuser in a long line of failed tries at family, he texted back, I know.

And, because Andrew did better with others’ pain than his own:

Maybe Aaron does.

He didn’t get a reply to that.

Eventually, they both fell asleep.

When he woke to a cleaning man squinting suspiciously at him, he straightened up, spine popping and tail bone numb, and shuffled out of the station. Once he was sure no one could possibly be looking at him through camera, window or otherwise, he texted his mom, Lock Springs?

She replied, I love you. Don’t forget what you promised to do.

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It turned out she’d stashed her stolen money in the same nooks and crannies as the first time around.

He took the better part of two months to pick his way across the country with truckers and buses and uproot the caches, but eventually he had half a million and nothing else. Logic told him to destroy his phone, and he did. Before that, he bought a by-the-minute track phone and texted Andrew from that with his new number, citing a need for change.

Andrew didn’t bother replying to that irrelevant comment, and asked what train he took to San Jose.

No body was burned, as logic forbade travel anywhere near Arizona.

He stuck to the southern states to avoid buying winter gear, and re-updated himself on Exy. The Palmetto State Foxes were out for the season with a dismal single victory against the Jackals. Dan Wilds looked ready to murder her male teammates every second of the game; it didn’t help the Foxes’ playing on court, but it made Neil dislike them by relation, and he thought for a moment about taking a trip to the university, but then he noticed how thin his wrists were and how he still hadn’t gained those three inches his growth spurt promised, and the thought was gone. On the other hand, Kevin and Riko excelled at their high school matches, their fluidity on the court unmatched. It made Neil sick to his stomach. Jean Moreau, remarked upon but not nearly as favored, played with more of a personalized style than his older self. As the season went on, Neil swore he could see it disappear. He wondered if he could do something about that, too, but then Evermore loomed tall and dark, no Foxes to see him if he left, and anyway, Kevin wouldn’t listen. He’d just want Neil to join the line-up.

Eventually he must have fallen asleep and woken up and ate and moved, but mostly he counted days by Andrew’s texts.

They came sporadically, and never about anything gentle or kind, but they were his unerring road companion.

About a month after his mother’s (second) death, him empty-headed and crammed in the back of an unheated bus in Wyoming, Andrew sent an aggravated, Just write about Exy already. You’re giving me a headache with how much you obviously want to.

He rarely, if ever, replied to the statistics and commentary and games Neil fed to him after that, but it was an easy, simple update that Neil could check off his short, daily to-do list, and when he finally got his head out of how he hadn’t been with his mother on her deathbed, how him running off had to be why she got caught, how she must have searched for him despite the risks, he realized that was probably Andrew’s plan all along.

Somewhere in Kansas, Neil gave up the fight on subtly warning caution about the future and sent, Drake’s going to provoke you with Aaron when he finds out. Don’t react. They’ll lock you up for it.

Andrew replied immediately with, Shut up, you fucking nutcase.

Then, Next time I catch you in person I’m going to gut you.

That was acceptable.

Eventually, he found himself in Millport. Eventually, Thanksgiving came and passed, and he signed in for the school’s second semester, forging signatures in the proper places and faking his father’s voice when the school called about his abrupt withdrawal from Lock Springs’ ninth grade. He took some tests and passed them higher than any teacher expected. When they offered to bump him up a grade, he thought about how he needed to enter Palmetto State as soon as possible, and the lonely fifth year he’d been looking at all that time ago, and took it as an opportunity.

Christmas came and went. On January first at six in the morning, he texted from the basement of an abandoned house in an elderly subdivision, a sleeping roll and pillow set out next to a battery-powered lantern and his ratty duffel bag, Happy New Year’s.

You’re supposed to say that at midnight, dumbass, came the reply, two hours later.

Fun night out?

Stayed home.

If you’re well-rested, shouldn’t you be less grouchy?

Bet you didn’t do anything, either.

Got me there.

Are you back with your mom?

Neil paused. Andrew hadn’t brought up his family once in the last few months. It might’ve seemed callous, but really, it was giving him time to approach it as he wanted. Apparently, Andrew’d finally grown impatient.

No. She’s dead. He bit the inside of his cheek and didn’t let himself pause. It’s complicated. Not for text.

Another pause, this time on the other’s end.

When the question came, it made Neil smile, if faintly.

Then where are you?

Nevada, he replied.

You would be a gambler.

Sometimes, he typed, thinking that once upon a time, he’d never been. It comes with the territory.

That was it for New Year’s. That was fine, too. Small as it was, it was more than enough.

School started, and there were positions open for both the striker’s and backliner’s in the Exy team. Neil thought about taking the backliner’s spot to curb what his mind knew, but in the end, he couldn’t muster up enough fear to forsake his now-favored position. Coach Hernandez was as amiable as Neil remembered; unlike his first time around, he fully appreciated the man’s discretion and drive in seeing his players reach their potential, and looked him in the eye when he gave advice and compliments.

Which-- Neil’s body couldn’t handle what he knew what to do with a racquet, his technique making it beyond obvious that he far out-classed his teammates as he regularly skirted the line of blow-out and drop-dead exhaustion. Coach Hernandez would bench him just to keep him from collapsing on the court, the man’s expression caught between concern and quiet amazement. A bit of him wanted to protest I’ve practiced through worse, but this body hadn’t, and no fifteen year old should’ve, and even if he didn’t hold himself back on the court he hadn’t gone completely reckless. It seemed to take ages to build up enough muscle to play at the level he instinctively gravitated toward, but then the season was over, and Millport, previously unmarked on any Exy map, lost regionals by a single point.

By the end of the season, it was safe to say his teammates despised him. Neil didn’t really care. He played to play, to keep his game up for when he returned to the Foxes. He didn’t bother with friendship with the others, and while he’d give advice when Coach Hernandez prompted, he remained close lipped and unimpressed with everyone else. It wasn’t their mediocrity or lack of passion that bugged him -- he just didn’t care.

If he carried their team to regionals’ finals, he didn’t care much about that, either, and dodged the small-town media that zeroed in on him as a dark horse.

Every day in high school reminded him how much better college was.

(Well, every day in Millport reminded him how much better Palmetto State was.)

As far as friendships went, Andrew interrupted his Exy talk to ask what he thought about zombie apocalypses and dogs versus cats. What followed were a string of inane topics that Neil hadn’t understood when he’d first been exposed to, but this time, replied amiably enough. Not as well as Renee might’ve-- Andrew and him were better as two physical beings close to each other, their communication and support an unspoken absolute- but decently enough, because if that was how he’d keep Andrew talking to him, then he’d do it.

Most cats do their job without being told, he found himself arguing.

They piss on your bed without shame, too, Andrew replied, and Neil could just hear the dry voice he’d use.

He still slept in the locker room when he could, understanding he couldn’t be caught out by his neighbors and a bit worried about what the summer, when the school was locked a little tighter, would entail. Unlike the first time around, Coach Hernandez approached him about it at the end of the school year. He and his wife’s house was quite empty now that their children had moved out, and if Neil wanted, he was welcome to come over for dinner. The offer of a guest bedroom being open went unspoken, but he accepted it only after a day of wavering and one text to Andrew about Coach is offering to let me stay over that he deleted before sending it.

Summer came, hot and dry. The world held steady.

He woke up some nights paralyzed and in a cold sweat, the screech of twisting metal and blinding light imprinted onto his eyelids. The dream wasn’t always the same, though it always began with an older (a properly aged) Andrew and him heading off from the Columbia house to a restaurant, and always ended with the light and noise. Sometimes they’d make the turn and reach the restaurant, and it’d be a buzzing lightbulb that brought the screech and a collapsed wall that let in the light. Sometimes they’d stop at the pond, with or without a packed picnic. Sometimes they’d just keep driving, Neil’s head tipped against the window and lidded eyes on Andrew.

Within the dream, he never knew he could wake up. What he experienced was the moment, was the world, was the reality: a cozy restaurant with the sweet smell of pastries in the air, Andrew’s hands pressing him back against a warm car hood, the peaceful tranquility of a long, open road.

He’s no closer to understanding how or how long he’s meant for this world, but when the dreams space themselves out, he doesn’t bother dwelling long on it.

He does notice his body refuses to respond longer and longer each time, but it’s thirty seconds, a minute, two, at most. His phone and the court wash away the terror of those mornings, and he throws himself into it.

Mid-summer, Andrew interrupts his own discussion of polar bears and penguins to say, Tilda’s filing the papers.

Neil can’t type his reply any faster than he does, and he’s gotten very good with his phone’s keyboard. About time.

Andrew takes twenty minutes to respond, which wasn’t unusual except in the context of a conversation that he’d began and clearly wanted to discuss. Laid out in a square of sunlight in the abandoned house’s top floor, Neil waits, breath caught.

What do you know about her? Came the text. An alarm bell to be cautious went off in Neil’s head, but he replied timely enough not to rouse suspicion.

Not a lot. I’d say Aaron cares about her more than the other way around.

She hits him.

It was, and wasn’t, a question.

How did he know to ask that question?

He had been the one to point Aaron in his direction. Aaron must have said he’d never seen Neil before. Neil hesitated, but, as always with Andrew, defaulted to the truth.

Yes.

A long, long pause, far longer than twenty minutes. The sun sets, and Neil runs up and down the stairs, works himself through his own exercises. Every day, he’s stronger. Every day, he worries about how long it’s been since he’s completed a full set of proper practices, and if he’ll forget (he won’t - he wrote them all down with Kevin’s voice in his ear just to make sure).

Of course, he broke from it the moment his phone went off, chest heaving and legs like jelly.

I’ll give her a warning.

He thinks about a rift between siblings that still wasn’t fully mended, and the hatred lodged deep in Aaron’s being, a boy suddenly cut from his mother and left with a virtual stranger that shared only his face.

He’ll hate you for it, Neil sent, because if he didn’t, it’d eat at him.

If she doesn’t listen, it’s her own fault, Andrew replied.

It wasn’t his place to change that.

He let it drop, and they didn’t talk again for a week.

August came. August went. Exy season started. Armed with special permission from his foster mother, Andrew moved in with Tilda before the adoption was finalized in order to integrate at his new school before the semester began, and his texts to Neil dipped back into the sporadic and sparse range. Intellectually, Neil understood he needed space; but aside from Coach Hernandez, Andrew was his sole confidant, and he realized with a sick shudder that he’d grown used to being amidst noise and camaraderie even if he didn’t actively take part in it. Wistful were thoughts about movie nights with the original Foxes, the late-night practices with Kevin and Andrew, and, even as his makeshift family graduated, scrambling to be even a quarter of the Captain Dan Wilds had been. She’d given him a lot of advice - part of it, while he’d been nervous and close to turning down his vice captainship, about how it wasn’t entirely what he said or did, but just that he was there.

That had gotten him through his first year without her or the other girls around, and it’d become his go-to policy when Matt and Kevin graduated. But in Millport, there was simply no one to be around.

So he texted Andrew more than he probably should’ve, but the blond never told him with any seriousness to shut up, and that was alright. He also threw himself into Exy, at last asking the coach formally for a key to the field so he could practice after-hours, and, after getting it, holing himself up close to every night of the week. Some weekends he stayed at Hernandez’s house on their pull out couch and ate his wife’s incredible cooking, but mostly he slept, breathed and lived in the locker room, and all in all, survived.

He once texted Andrew in the middle of the night after shaking himself awake from a dream he mercifully couldn’t remember, I feel old.

Regret flooded his mouth after he sent it, but - after fifteen minutes of silence and he convinced himself Andrew was asleep and that even after he woke up he wouldn’t understand in what more-than-bone ways Neil meant the word old -, Andrew replied with, Stop being dramatic, you’re younger than me, and then, Go the fuck to sleep, crazy, Neil breathed and did just that.

Near Halloween and half-way through the first Exy season (the media were more persistent on getting his story - he continued to ignore them), Neil hopped off his team’s bus to beeline for the practice court. His teammates scoffed and grumbled under their breath at him, their feet heavy and heads exhausted, but he finally felt like his body was right, that he could keep going all night after such a weak game, and he wanted to ride the high as long as he could. They’d crushed the Brookland Hornets with a twelve to one score, and a bit of him wondered if Millport might not make it to the second season and a national conference. They weren’t even close to good enough to take championships, but Coach Hernandez ran his other players a little more ragged than he had the year before, Neil’s success on the court becoming a point to beat rather than scoff at. It made him think of Kevin’s first season with the Foxes, which startled him into a laugh and a spot of awkwardness at being the untouchable, unimpressed teammate.

In the spirit of the thought, he set up cones just as he remembered, his school’s old and loose racquet slung over a shoulder as he adjusted the pattern for something a little more challenging.

On the first run he knocked three out of five down with rebounds on the opposite wall; by the second, he had five out of five, and shifted his focus to hitting only the cones’ tips. Distantly he registered the gym’s doors opening and Coach Hernandez’s voice, but it just sounded like he’d met up with the school’s vice principal and was giving her another looksie at what his team was up to, so Neil put it out of his mind.

“Those are Raven drills,” broke through his concentration, and he fumbled with his shot, smashing the ball into the cone’s base rather than its top.

When he spun on a heel to look, Riko Moriyama and Kevin Day stared back at him. Both sets of eyes were sharp and assessing, the smile on Riko’s face nowhere near genuine.

Coach Hernandez smiled in sincere apology about interrupting his practice, but otherwise glowed about one of his players attracting the attention of Exy’s rising stars.

“The cones? It’s really ingenious, he uses them almost every free practice-- Calvin, hey! I tried to catch you after we arrived, but you’d ran off. These two were hoping to ask you about where you’re thinking of going to college. I’m sure you know them?”

Although it would have been polite, Neil didn’t take off his helmet or move closer.

“Heard of them,” he corrected, sounding far away and small to his own ears. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, skin prickling with cold sweat and a wash of absolute fear. “Hello.”

“Where’d you learn to use those?” Riko asked with a gesture toward the cones, his fake, friendly public facade making Neil’s skin crawl. “They’re awfully familiar, but Raven drills are strictly confidential.”

More that the average team didn’t want to put their players through their tedious, methodical demand, but that wasn’t the point.

Out of his depth, Neil shrugged instead of replying.

This wasn’t supposed happen. It was off-script, and wildly so. Why were they were? They couldn’t know his real name. They couldn’t know about his mother, or they’d have shown up earlier, and not about Exy. Didn’t they have games to practice for? Why fly all the way out to a no-name town for a no-name team? Except-- it wasn’t no-name anymore, not with a Class 1 level player shepherding it toward success. He’d dodged the media, but word got out.

In fact.

“Did you send out my portfolio?” He demanded of Coach Hernandez, because it wouldn’t be the first time, trying to make it sound like baffled curiousity and managing disgruntled surprise.

Coach’s eyebrows climbed, and by his face, he was aware Neil wasn’t taking this well but couldn’t fathom why.

“No, they had recruiters in our area. Normally they wouldn’t come themselves, but Riko tells me they think you have potential to make Court.”

I do, Neil thought, throat closed up, and I will, but not with him.

Kevin jumped in then, the inked number on his face and unbroken hand accusing Neil of which battles he’d taken and which he’d turned his back on, “It’s too early for you to apply to Edgar Allan, but the university hosts winter and summer camps for prospective players. While nothing’s set in stone, we’d like to have you.”

“No,” Neil said almost before the offer was finished, making Riko arch an eyebrow and Kevin outright frown.

Coach Hernandez rubbed the back of his neck, obviously fishing for an explanation as he cut into the tension with, “If it’s money you’re worried about, I’ve been told they have scholarships and--”

Neil couldn’t feel bad cutting him off when he was staring at Riko Moriyama and half-waiting for a bullet to break the teenager’s skull in two. “I don’t need to attend any camps. I’m doing fine.”

Kevin scoffed, ever practical minded and empathetic as a rock, “Your team can’t keep up with you. Without challenge, you’re going to fall behind your potential.”

“No,” Neil repeated, the three inches he’d gained over the summer stretched out as he straightened up. “No way. I’m not planning on going to Edgar Allan, anyway.”

“Maybe not before you knew it was an option,” Riko said, “but now that you do, you should know it’s where you’d belong. You care about Exy as much as any Raven. That much is obvious from the dedication you’re showing now. You’d fit in at the Nest.”

“If not Edgar Allan, where?” Kevin asked.

He’d heard Kevin’s story of hounding Riko to sign on Andrew. If Riko had actually wanted the blond, it wasn’t hard to imagine him going to any length to make sure he did. That was the situation Neil saw himself in, and his answer dried up on his tongue. They’d intimidate other teams into turning him out, if he ever even got into a college. Wymack wouldn’t be intimidated, but if the school board thought Neil too big of a liability for his background, if rumors of violence and stand-offish behaviour came about, if Riko did anything to the Foxes before he was there to protect them, he’d never forgive himself.

“USC,” he said with an incredible confidence he didn’t feel. He didn’t even know he was going to say it until he did and Kevin’s frown lightened as Riko’s face dropped to a scowl. “I want to sign on with the Trojans.”

It was too big of a school to intimidate, the team was too noteworthy of a rival to harass.

“I like their sportsmanship,” Neil continued, his voice raising in barbed cheer. He couldn’t look away from Riko. “They prove it doesn’t necessarily cost anything to be respectful of their teammates or opponents. They really embody what Exy’s about. More than the Ravens ever do, anyway.”

“Calvin,” Coach chided him.

“It’s alright, Mr. Hernandez,” Riko said, clipped. “I’d just like to point out it costs them the gold every year.”

“Yeah,” Neil drew out the word, racquet shifted to his left hand, “I don’t know how much I believe that.”

“What exactly are you implying?”

“Since you’re struggling, I’ll spell it out: the Ravens are a rotten bunch, corrupt from the top down, and I’d sooner swallow my own tongue than take any advice from them, let alone their arrogant, entitled King.”

“Calvin!” Coach snapped. “God’s sake, I’m sorry, he’s not usually like this, he must be exhausted. Clean this up and hit the showers, Bakster, and see me in my office. I’m really sorry, you two came all this way...”

“Yes, Coach,” Neil said, docile as a lamb, and turned his back on the wide-eyed Kevin and pink-eared Riko.

There were two exits on the court. He picked up the cones, loaded up the ball bucket, and took the one Hernandez and the two Ravens weren’t occupying. Pointedly, he tuned out what they said - it mostly seemed like apologies for his mouth and assurances that it was fine, anyway, and only one of those had a speck of truth.

Hadn’t he been through this before, and hadn’t a teammate died for it?

(He made a point to wash anything that might have his fingerprints in the bathroom sink, but luckily, the equipment was shared and used so regularly by his teammates, he wasn’t too worried.)

He showered quickly with one ear cocked for anyone’s arrival, slipping on a shirt before he toweled dry. It meant it stuck uncomfortably to his torso, but he couldn’t care. He spent a good few seconds peering into the mirror before he went to the coach’s office, too, poking and pulling at his cheek to make sure neither burns nor ink emerged.

“The Moriyamas are exceedingly generous,” the Coach told him after he’d chewed him out for nearly ruining such an incredible opportunity, and Neil kept his thoughts on both of those things to a disdainful snort. Hernandez glared at him, but continued with, “Coach Moriyama’s already agreed to waive the fee for their winter program, and Riko’s assured me he understands the game against the Hornets must’ve rattled something in your brain, so he won’t begrudge you when you show up.”

“I’m not going,” Neil said, cool and definite, and carefully did not rub at his unmarked wrists. He didn’t need another Christmas at Evermore.

“Calvin,” the Coach said, elbows on his knees and dark eyes boring into his, “this could change your life. USC is good, but every one of Edgar Allan’s players look at a professional contract after graduation. You’re already a shoe-in for it. You think I don’t see how much you don’t need me when it comes to Exy?”

“That’s not true,” Neil muttered, thinking of a portfolio sent to a coach that loved second chances.

“It is. I know they’re intimidating, but give them a chance.”

“My parents--”

“If your parents pose a problem, I’ll talk with them,” Hernandez said, voice absolute. He paused after, and softened. He was a good man, but he didn’t have a dark history, and couldn’t fathom what that promise meant. Neil didn’t have the energy to inform him. “Just the winter program. It’s only two weeks long. Give it a try. I’ll help with the plane tickets.”

Neil stared at the floor, jaw tight.

Eventually he said, “I’ll think about it,” and the Coach breathed out in relief as he let him go with a warning about over-exerting himself.

The irony at being warned about over-exertion when pressured into joining the Ravens for practice twisted Neil’s mouth into a parody of a smile.

Thanksgiving comes too quickly after that, the Coach watching him closer and making small comments about how quickly high school passed whenever he thought Neil might listen. The Exy season continued; Neil began to miss goals on purpose, letting his shots go wide by a hair’s breadth or too slow by a finger-tip or, in one case, tricking the opposing backliner into checking him a second before a clear shot opened up. All little errors that were fully excusable by any on-looker, and though the Coach yelled at him for it, Hernandez couldn’t put his finger on what Neil could do differently. Neil, for his part, acted as if he was giving it his all, and kept in mind what the Ravens would have done to Jean if he’d tried to pull even a tenth of the shit during a practice, never mind a game.

Millport didn’t make it to regional semi-finals, let alone qualify for the second season.

It’s fine, he told Andrew.

It’s your fault, it better be. Andrew typed. What changed?

Neil bit his cheek and didn’t tell him about Kevin and Riko’s visit.

He did say, Edgar Allan wants me to sign on.

Aren’t they the best college team, or something?

I’m proud, you’re learning team names.

Hard not to, you never shut up about it.

They’re the best but they’re disgusting. Riko’s especially bad and you can’t avoid him when you’re part of the team. I’d never want to play for them.

Then don’t.

I won’t.

So why are we talking about this?

Neil smiled into the crook of his arm.

He asked, Have you picked up Exy?

It sucks, Andrew replied, but Aaron’s team is alright.

What position?

Goalkeeper.

Even his coach calling him aside after practice to sign the papers for Edgar Allan’s winter Exy camp couldn’t extinguish the warmth in his chest. He thought about Andrew picking up the game to be with his brother on top of fighting off boredom, and then again about Kevin’s inked face and Jean’s hammered-out individuality on the court, and thought, it’s only two weeks. I’ve done it once, I can do it again. I’ll be part of a program, not Riko’s personal house guest, and though he knew that wouldn’t matter if they caught wind of who his father was, he signed on and turned down the Coach’s help with buying tickets.

A week into December, Andrew texted him with, She’s dead.

Neil’s first reply was, Are you alright?

Andrew said, Why wouldn’t I be?

Technically, he didn’t know about the car crash.

Andrew went silent after that, and Neil kept an eye out for any news from online sources about a specific death in the San Jose area.

He thought about bringing up his signing on for the winter program, but that would be too many questions from the person he’d re-learned and would call a friend, and anyway, the time after Tilda’s death felt fragile for a reason entirely different from the time after Mary’s. If Andrew and Aaron didn’t stay together-- the adoption had been finalized, they were bound as brothers in the eyes of the law, but they were minors, Andrew a year off from eighteen- if the police realized it was less of an accident than it appeared- if Aaron let suspicion and hurt get the better of him and ran--

If all that happened while he was at Edgar Allan, he would be too far away to do anything.

He trusted his own and this Andrew, but they were different now, in experience if nothing else. A good thing Millport’s Exy season had ended; he wouldn’t have been able to keep quiet with his teammates’ mess-ups if it was still on-going.

Laden with anxiety over the present and future, he worked himself too hard and thought of nothing but being strong enough to keep Riko’s hands off him.

Two days before he was set to leave for Edgar Allan, Andrew broke his silence with the text, We’re moving to Columbia with our cousin, and, Want to come with?

This time, it was a chance for Neil.

He looked at his bedroll and lantern, thought about Kevin and how close he stood to Riko, thought about Jean and his empty-eyed compliance, thought about what it meant to be invited at all, and replied, Yes. Always, yes.

He leaves Coach Hernandez a note thanking him for the dinners and the chance to play, telling him not to worry, an uncle had come for him and he was happier, and here was his phone number if Hernandez ever needed to reach him.

The Minyards picked him up in a brand new, black monster of a vehicle, and they drove to Columbia with six boxes crammed in the back and a ratty duffel bag on top.

He sleeps in the back because Andrew informs him (the first words aside from is this it? when he loads up his bag) it’s his turn to drive when they hit Nebraska. He wakes up unable to move and barely able to breathe, light blinding him, screech deafening him, and the smell of burning rubber and hair in his nose. When he finally gets his eyelids to open, he catches Andrew’s eyes watching him from the rear-view mirror.

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Aaron was a wreck in his own bottled up way. He swung from silence to violence within a blink, split his knuckles open on gas station walls and kicked the car’s bumper with enough force to make Neil wonder if he’d break his foot. At one point down the highway, he pulled a packet of powder-blue pills from his backpack with shaking hands; Andrew snatched it and threw it out the window without a backward glance, and told him he could throw a tantrum all he likes, but he won’t have Aaron using that shit.

In the sun and when Neil looks, the cracked and dry skin around Aaron’s nose was damming, the boy constantly rubbing and breaking skin and bleeding from the slightest drop in humidity.

Aaron’s curled up in the passenger seat as a shivering, muttering and sweating mess by the time they reach Nebraska. It wasn’t pretty to watch. Around the time Aaron opened his door and was kept from jumping out of the moving vehicle only by Neil’s reflexes, Andrew finally caved. He left them parked at a motel for three hours with an express warning to Neil to watch his brother, and disappeared in search of ‘supplies.’ He returned with alcohol and angel dust, and had Neil drive as he took a toast with his twin.

Neil doesn’t ask how he procured either substance at his age, and Andrew continues to leave the subject of his dead mother untouched.

It helped Aaron a bit, the alcohol and drugs. It took the edge off his withdrawal, anyway, and by the time they reach South Carolina, he finally turned to Neil and snapped, “So who the fuck are you, anyway? What were you texting Andrew about all this time?”

The suspicion and instant dislike made Neil grin, his heavily edited story an easy one to feed the surlier twin.

His ID said Calvin Bakster, which received a calculating look from Andrew and rolled eyes from Aaron when they catch sight of it. He maintained he’d prefer to be called Neil Josten.

Calvin Bakster was compromised, anyway, and had been for over a year; he’d change it as soon as he was old enough to legally do so without a guardian’s approval.

Coach Hernandez called him and he answered. It was a short conversation, mostly about how he’d always have a place at the Coach’s house, and how mature he was in some ways but real childish in others, and if the Coach choked up a little at the end, Neil didn’t point it out. All in all, it was a good conversation to have, and Neil kept the Coach’s number in his phone out of something close to sentimentality. He didn’t think about how his missing the Exy program would have Riko looking, however briefly, for him; as long as his identity was his, he’d have time.

Then they pulled into Columbia, and the city was everything Neil remembered.

“Have you been here before?” Andrew asked him as they breached the downtown, his eyes catching Neil’s in the rear-view mirror again.

Technically, no. But it wouldn’t make sense with how Neil’s eyes lingered on an ice cream shop there and a Chinese restaurant there, and how easily he’d be able to navigate its streets later. So, “Yeah. It’s a great city.”

It was like coming home. Seven-- no, six, now- six years hadn’t changed the buildings or streets or parks, and by the time they arrived at a single story house with a small honda parked outside, Neil felt ready to take on the world.

The world cut him a break in the form of Nicky Hemmick, a bubbly and cheery man that slipped into German when he forgot himself. He was, Neil realized with an internal wince, much, much happier than he’d been when Neil had originally met him. That Nicky had been on the bottom of the rung in Andrew’s group for two years, and excused his own treatment with a resigned, no, no, I messed up, I shouldn’t have said that about Kevin. He’d found his place and grown as the years went on and everyone softened their edges, of course, but Neil wasn’t looking forward to watching the man’s decline.

And Neil did have to watch. It’d been defending him that had put Andrew on medication. Maybe, maybe, if he stuck close enough, he could intervene for that, too.

Nicky tried his best to make Aaron and Andrew and even Neil comfortable, finding them work - the twins at Eden’s Twilight, Neil at a grocery store - and making weekend plans and chattering to fill every moment that looked like it could slide into silence about anything that wasn’t related to Tilda Minyard or Luther and Martha Hemmick. It was the exact opposite of what Andrew needed, and inspired a complete emotional shut-down in Aaron; Neil tried to reply and keep his spirits up when he could, but in honesty, Nicky exhausted him, too, and he picked up Exy at the local rec center to keep out of the house.

Andrew frowned at him from the living room couch when he came home particularly late, only one light on and the blond’s face utterly unimpressed.

No one had asked Neil what kept him out - though Nicky had recovered quickly from his surprise of hosting three instead of two people, he was there foremost for his cousins - but then Andrew drawled, “Can’t clean up two addicts at once, I see,” and Neil grinned because no, he really didn’t need to be asked for Andrew to know what he was doing.

“You could join,” Neil said. Sans Nicky, they were on a home-schooling program to get their GREs, though the twins planned to enroll back in the high school come the fall. Nicky hoped they would be settled in enough by then that he could return to Germany with a clean conscience. Neil didn’t see the point in returning to school itself when the GRE was within reach, though he worried privately about Wymack finding him without Hernandez’s help.

(Then again, he had seven years of schooling on the twins. Aaron struggled with Literature and History and pretended he didn’t; Andrew struggled to do homework of any sort; both copied from Neil without so much as a thank-you.)

Andrew eyed him for a moment, an unopened pack of Marlboros in his lap.

“If I do,” he said, and Neil knew he had him, because it’d be yes, it’d always be yes, “you’re enrolling for twelfth grade at Columbia High.”

Neil pretended to think it over, waited for Andrew’s eyes to narrow by a millimeter, said, “Deal,” and disappeared into the bedroom he shared with Nicky to hide the bounce in his step.

The entire cousin trio ended up joining the local Exy team, not just Andrew, and Neil did his best not to laugh at how poorly they got on with both each other and their teammates.

Everything was jagged edges and broken trust, Nicky trying too hard while Aaron worked his way back from the edge and Andrew pretended none of it mattered as long as they kept to his rules, but Columbia was a beginning, and Neil felt like he was really, truly living, that he could belong here as much as he had in his own timeline at Palmetto State, and that was something else, it really was.

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“Neil, please, I can’t take another pizza night. My thighs won’t take another pizza night.”

“How about Chinese?”

Nicky dropped his head and groaned into folded arms. Aaron didn’t look up from his irish coffee. Andrew shrugged.

Neil really didn’t understand why Nicky thought he could cook. Breakfast was about as good as it got for him, and even then, his eggs were too watery to be called well done.

Then again, harassing him must come easier to Nicky than harassing the cousins he tried and failed to comfort. After he realized that, Neil had a better time putting up with the overdramatic comments. Shreds of sympathy didn’t keep him from holding out a hand for Nicky’s phone to call for take-out from the Chinese restaurant, though. Handing it over, Nicky sighed and grumbled about Neil’s hang-ups about using his own phone. Neil ignored him and found the restaurant in the contacts page.

The phone rang and an accented voice picked up, greeted him, and asked for his order.

Luckily, none of their tastes ever changed. Their household once went a week with nothing but hot pockets, cup ramen and tacos in the fridge until Nicky had put his foot down about variety being the spice of life and him not being able to keep up with a teenager’s diet. When it came to Chinese, the order was always the same: orange chicken, mongolian beef, two orders of spring rolls for their daily nod to greener foodstuff, and three cartons of lo mein.

Neil hung up, turned to hand the phone back, and woke up on the living room couch.

A sagging thing that had seen better days, it tipped its occupants into each other no matter how they struggled. Blinking white spots from his eyes, Neil found himself pressed thigh-to-thigh with Andrew, a US Court-sanctioned game playing on the flatscreen in front of them. The smell of Chinese food lingered in the air, the room otherwise empty and the house quiet aside from the Exy on the screen.

A glance toward the set named the teams: the Jets versus the Knights.

“Is this one of your games?” He asked with a mouthful of pebbles, his tongue unwilling to cooperate in simple ennunciation. Andrew glanced side-long at him and quirked an eyebrow.

“What are you on about?”

The camera followed a striker’s direct approach on the Jets’ goal. The goalkeeper’s jersey, blue and white, read BISHARA, not MINYARD.

Neil put an inch between him and Andrew and dug out his phone to check the time.

Five and a half years before Andrew and him left for the restaurant; two and a half hours after he’d called for Chinese.

His head hurt something awful.

Andrew - seventeen, blond hair sticking up in vaguely stylized spikes - watched him straight-on, face guarded but eyes searching.

“They’ll beat the game to death for the next three days,” he said, and turned from Neil to flip the channel to Animal Planet’s Most Extreme, “you can catch who wins then. I was getting bored.”

Neil managed to keep still on the couch for three minutes. When he mumbled an excuse about needing the restroom and all but fled from the room to pace and panic in peace, Andrew made no move to follow.

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The other reason Neil was the one Nicky hounded to cook, he thought, was because if left to Aaron, the kitchen would have long burnt down. Not just because Aaron did his best to maintain a drunken haze at all hours of day or night, or his tendency to zone out mid-conversation (different from when he purposefully turned a cold shoulder on them, which he did to Andrew far more than Nicky or Neil), either. Simply put, he had an amazing talent for burning anything, including water.

Andrew wasn’t a bad cook, but if left to him, they would eat sweets, sweets, and more sweets, or starve. There was no in between. Either he remembered to shovel ice cream down his throat, or he went a full day without any food. He did better when offered meals, and would always have dinner if they were all present (whether at the table or in the living room). Eventually Neil’s protests on being made kitchen chef petered out, much to Nicky’s relief.

Especially after the first and last time they had Aaron on breakfast duty.

“Is this… toast?” Neil asked.

“What else would it be, dumbass?” Aaron drawled.

“Buttered ash. Mm, delicious,” Nicky muttered.

“Fuck off, you asked for it.”

Andrew dropped his in the trash.

Aaron scowled, and put all his extra earnings toward pizza and take out.

So when the smell of burning tar wafted from kitchen to living room after he saw Aaron shuffle in, it surprised Neil, but it didn’t overly concern him. He abandoned that day’s paper to wander in only once the smell grew and no one else snapped at Aaron to knock off whatever he thought he was doing, prefacing his entrance with, “Seriously, are you looking to burn the house down? Turn off the stove!”

When he swung into the kitchen, the stove was off.

Aaron squinted at him with bloodshot eyes over a cup of water. At the table with milk-sweetened coffee, Andrew raised both eyebrows.

Neil’s eyes flitted around the kitchen, but there was no obvious source for the smell. Still, it wouldn’t abate.

“What are you raving about?” Aaron asked.

He couldn’t let go of the door’s wooden frame. “We must have a gas leak.”

“Why, exactly?”

“Can’t you smell the smoke?”

“There’s nothing,” Andrew said.

The smell grew, forcing him to breathe through his mouth. Neither of the twins so much as blinked.

“I’m going for a run,” Neil finally said, and ducked for his shoes at the door.

“Have you been smoking in here?” He heard Aaron demand of his brother.

He also heard Andrew’s reply, level and contemplative, “No. Only in the garage.”

The cool air outside banished the stench, but Neil swore it clung to his clothes until late in the evening.

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Andrew grew his hair out and discovered he had a taste for mousse. He also enjoyed dark, well-fitted clothes, and heavy, steel-toed boots, and buying better clothes for other people, especially Neil, who didn’t have much of an opinion on clothes no matter his age and was thus easy to shove a style onto.

Nicky thought that meant they would go window shopping together, piping in with his favorite brands and decent outlets, but Andrew was more likely to leave Nicky in the middle of their outings to smoke in his car than he was to make any real contributions to fashion-talk, and Nicky gave up dragging him around after he spent an hour waiting outside a changing room that Andrew wasn’t actually in.

Aaron’s bruises faded, and in time, he forewent the bottle for volunteering in setting up experiments for the local interactive science museum. He developed a particular interest in biology, and he didn’t hesitate as much to ask for Nicky or Neil to check over his English reports.

He and Andrew still orbited each other with anger and indifference, their conversations limited to pass the sugar and are these your leftovers?, but color returned to Aaron’s face and his fits of glass-breaking violence became occasional instead of frequent.

Nicky’s cheer grew in desperation until he hit the edge and crashed down. He locked himself into his room and, when Neil pressed his ears to the door, talked for hours on the phone in tear-stricken German with Erik.

After that, reality tampered his hope, and he kept quieter and tried a little less. The twins responded better to his low-key ideas of a night in with video games or a once-a-week run at Eden’s Twilight, and when he began to ply them with beer Erik himself approved of, tensions smoothed over. When Nicky smiled again after Aaron groaned and knocked his helmet with a glove for a comment Neil barely caught about Neil’s ass, Neil figured things had grown as close to normal as the cousins ever got.

Neil kept a list of the time he lost and the time that shouldn’t have been, like smoke without fire and floodlights blinding his eyes in the middle of a silent night.

Neil marked down the dates his dreams left him paralyzed for longer than ten minutes, his heart racing and mind churning and body unconnected.

One day during Exy practice, Andrew moved from the stands to pound on the glass for his attention. Neil had an agreement that allowed him to use the court after-hours with the gymnasium manager, a big Exy fan that could be swayed toward granting favors for a few hours-long chat about teams and players; it meant they were the only two in the stadium, and of course Neil stopped the second Andrew approached. He’d had more luck getting him to join in extra practice than Kevin ever had, but he didn’t think too much about it. As far as he could tell, Andrew had yet to work out what, if any, of his tastes belonged to him and what belonged to his abusers. Roland certainly didn’t give anything away whenever they visited Eden’s Twilight as guests rather than employees.

Neil took off his helmet and was about to offer to fetch Andrew a spare racquet and armor when the look on his face stopped him dead.

“It’s Cass,” Andrew said, voice unusually tight. “She’s fostering another kid.”

For anybody else, it might’ve been jealousy.

Andrew had kept in contact with Cass this time around, Neil knew. They talked on the phone time to time; she told him about her life and he told her about his, and every time after, Andrew sat himself in the garage and smoked through half a pack.

Which meant he’d been stewing on this since his last chat with her four days ago.

Neil got himself out of the court and yanked off his gloves. Andrew backed off, looking wound tight and unsure if he should be braced for a fight.

Neil wasn’t there to give him one. All he asked once he got close to keep the conversation from bouncing off cheap plastic and metal was, “Did you tell anyone else?”

Unlike the answer he would have given in another life, Andrew shook his head.

Who would I tell? went unspoken. The police? That would’ve ripped Cass apart.

But knowing others were running the same gauntlet he had would eat him alive.

Neil’s mouth thinned. They stood in silence, the vent’s hum the only sound in the gym.

“She said she was getting too old to keep up with the turn-over,” he said, his eyes unblinking and unwavering on Neil’s. His voice held little inflection. He’d taken her word as hope, a line to grasp in the darkest waters. That he let it break and shatter for four days after hearing the reality was in and of itself a type of strength.

It was more than Cass deserved. His shredded conscience was far, far more than she deserved.

“I have Higgins’ number,” Neil said, quiet and careful, as he held Andrew’s gaze. “He knows something’s wrong with her house, the turn-over rate is too high. He just doesn’t know why.”

Andrew stayed silent.

It doesn’t have to be you. Neil kept those words to himself. They wouldn’t go over well.

“She won’t stop,” Neil continued, twisting a knife he had no right to hold. “She’ll never figure it out. There’s going to be more after the one now. Maybe four, maybe six.”

“Nicky’s parents asked.”

“Luther’s useless.” Andrew’s eyes widened. “Even if you told them, their heads are too far up their asses to make it count.”

They stared at each other for a few heartbeats longer.

When Neil went off to get his phone, Andrew didn’t stop him. He didn’t follow, either.

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Technically he left an anonymous tip for OPD.

When Higgins called for Andrew’s testimony about Drake a month and a half later, Andrew denied Drake doing anything beyond comments toward him, declined attending court, agreed to an anonymous statement, and had Neil pinned to the wall with his fists balled in his shirt collar within a minute of hanging up.

Nicky’s chair clattered back as he jolted up to pull them apart, but he stopped when Neil raised a hand in his direction (his other was on Andrew’s wrist, over his long sleeve).

“He’s working through every kid she’s fostered,” He told Andrew, a little annoyed but mostly relieved. “I didn’t mention you.”

“Did you mention your dead boy?

The way he asked was off, too sharp by far. It made Neil freeze, old paranoia keeping him from making an immediate mistake.

Andrew scoffed and dropped him after he refused to answer, and stalked away for the garage without looking back.

“Dead boy?” Nicky asked in the silence to follow, looking shaken but concerned. “Who does he…?”

“Don’t think about it,” Neil told him, rubbing at his neck with a small wince. The ache went away quickly - there wouldn’t be a mark.

Taking his own advice, he didn’t think about it, either.

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That Wednesday night, they cleaned up and went to Eden’s Twilight.

A month or so prior, Neil had forgotten to color his roots in time to keep Aaron from seeing. It’d become the talk of the house for all of two hours before Neil prickled in annoyance about going over a reveal again and retreated to the bathroom to thoroughly scrub out the rest of the dye and take out his contacts for good. It’d left his hair washed out and brittle for a week, but that hadn’t stopped Nicky from whistling at his ‘pretty baby blues,’ which - at least - successfully distracted Aaron from giving him more shit about being a liar.

Andrew hadn’t reacted, but he had picked out a nice shirt with blue accents on the collar and sleeves on his next shopping trip, so Neil took that as a positive sign.

(When he caught a look in the mirror, he felt a mix of old discomfort and new relief: while he hadn’t been looking, his jaw had sharpened, his cheeks shrinking, his bones fitting just that much better under unscarred skin.)

Roland set them up with wristbands that promised a flow of alcohol, and though Neil didn’t drink to more of a buzz for fear of saying something he shouldn’t about a future that wasn’t and Andrew kept himself steady, Aaron and Nicky had no such restraint. Before long, the two disappeared to the dance floor; Neil checked himself for the smell of tar smoke or an encroaching headache, found neither, and kept Andrew company at their table, their sides pressed together in a seamless line.

For all he waited for Andrew to wander off in search of Roland, he didn’t think too much about their shared quiet. He put more effort toward keeping his thoughts far away from the smooth line of Andrew’s neck that cut into broad shoulders.

(He could be an idiot. He never denied that.)

It was a good night.

It was-- Andrew frowning and tracking a figure that quickly resolved itself into Nicky’s, as a tall man with cargo shorts and a clear stamp of drunkenness crowded in Hemmick’s space and herded him bodily toward the back exit. Another man appeared at the taller one’s elbow with a look of disgust.

Neil tensed.

He warned, voice barely audible over the music, “Don’t go overboard.”

He thought: didn’t this happen just before he was accepted to Palmetto State?

Andrew got up.

Neil followed.

“--ilthy hands off me, fuckin’ fag,” greeted them as they pushed out into the night, the door locking behind him. One man had Nicky with an arm across his neck, two others on either side of him and a fourth keeping watch by the alley’s entrance. “Wanna suck my cock that bad? I’ll give you something to choke on.”

They blocked a clear sight to Nicky, but by the choked rattle in his breath, it wasn’t hard to tell they’d already roughed him up.

A glass bottle glinted in one of the men’s hands.

It shattered into a dozen glittering shards when Andrew’s fist met the back of his head.

The brawl to follow didn’t move too fast for Neil to keep track of, but it rapidly became clear Andrew, mostly sober and pissed off, had the advantage. From the corner of his eye Neil saw the watcher at the entrance take off and immediately sprinted after him. The man headed for the bouncers, undoubtedly looking to call on them for back-up for a crazy laying into his friends, if not call the police; Neil caught him by the knees before he made it, both of them falling hard on the cement side-walk, elbows (for Neil) and chin (for him) scraped raw. When the man struggled to turn around, yelling at him to get off! Get the fuck off me!, Neil dug a knee into his gut and a fist in his teeth.

He could picture it in his mind’s eye, how the night was supposed to go: the watcher pulling in the authorities and Andrew launching at him, too, when he returned -- being arrested and evaluated, they’d deem Andrew unstable and in need of medication --- years spent in a drug-induced haze, years wasted for an unnecessary addiction, setting him back from real recovery.

Not this time. Not this time.

He backed off when the man stopped moving, his chest heaving and head pounding. Falling back, he found Andrew standing over three similarly unconscious but in far worse shape men, and Nicky gone.

“He’s getting Aaron,” Andrew told him, his lip and eyebrow split and knuckles bloody, “we’re going.”

“Okay,” Neil said, lights in his eyes and blood rushing through his ears.

“Neil,” Andrew said, and he made an effort to focus. He had him by the chin, hazel eyes not an inch away, his other hand clasped around Neil’s upper arm. Holding him steady. That was nice of him. “Neil? Look at me.”

Wasn’t he? He tried to.

“Shit,” he heard, and distantly felt his knees buckle, rushing water flooding out any other sound, and then it was dark for quite a while.

Body aching like he’d been ran over, he woke up in the backseat of the truck, his head pillowed on Andrew’s leg and Nicky driving. At first, he couldn’t make sense of either of these things: he moved to sit up, groaned as sheer exhaustion pushed him back, and hissed as a hand pressed to his chest to keep him down.

He thought it was Andrew looking at him from the passenger’s seat, but when he spoke, it became clear Aaron was looking at him with his own brand of unhappy worry.

“How hard did you hit your head? There’s no blood.”

The dashboard lights seemed too bright. Neil squeezed his eyes closed, shook his head, and blinked them back open.

“I didn’t hit my head,” he said, or thought he did. He must’ve, because Aaron’s scowl deepened.

“Does your family have a history of epilepsy?”

“What?”

“You had a seizure. You were down for a minute, maybe two. We had to drag your ass into the car and now we’re half-way to the hospital.”

Terror scrounged up the dredges of his adrenaline.

“No hospital.”

“Yeah,” Aaron said as he sat back, turning forward, “that’s what Andrew said you’d say. Whatever. He’s awake and responding, he’s probably fine for the night.”

“Probably?” Asked Nicky, his voice rough. From the back, Neil could see how he hunched at the wheel, his arm curled around his ribs.

“The fuck you want from me? I’m not a doctor. It’s the hospital or home.”

They went home.

While Nicky and Aaron retreated to the living room, Andrew helped him into the bathroom and shut the door behind them. He sank gratefully onto the tub’s edge, his mind clearing up enough for a run-through of his physical state (not bad: scrapes, bruises, but he’d taken the man by surprise and kept him down besides) and mental state (not as good: it felt as if moments teetered on the edge of memory, and they were big, huge, vastly important, and he just couldn’t grasp them before they fell).

The sink water ran pink while Andrew washed his own cuts and smudges. Most of the blood crusted on his hands turned out not to be his.

Dizziness had abated while Neil sat still, but his headache upgraded into a migraine, and soon enough, he had his eyes shut tight and energy put to just keeping upright.

“You knew that was going to happen.”

The words startled Neil out of silence, though he didn’t open his eyes.

“You saw how pissed that guy looked. He wasn’t taking Nicky out back to ask where he’d bought his shoes.”

“No. Not that. You knew I’d beat them to an inch of their life. How far I went, that would’ve gotten me in trouble.”

“If you knew that, why didn’t you stop yourself?”

Silence. Reluctantly, Neil cracked open an eye. Andrew looked as unimpressed with Neil as he’d expected.

“They deserved it,” he said.

They deserved something for being homophobic ass-wipes, Neil thought, but not Andrew’s brand of exaggerated justice. Very few people deserved that; off the top of his head he could only think of one, and his last name was Moriyama.

Neil shut his eyes again, thinking the conversation was over, and went back to trying to catch what was falling out of reach.

Andrew wasn’t as done.

“How’d you know Nicky’s dad’s name?”

“Luther?” Neil muttered tiredly, pain pressing against the backs of his eyes. Even Lola hadn’t made him feel this used up, he thought, and then took it back. “I don’t know. Nicky’s mentioned him.”

“No, he hasn’t. He never talks about his parents - the wound’s too deep.”

“What are you getting at, Andrew?”

“How’d you know my name all those months ago? Maybe from the police’s records, but I doubt you got close enough to check that. How’d you know I was the foster kid, and not Drake?”

Neil stilled.

“Cass keeps a tab on the kids that go through her house. She can name where each and every one of them are unless they intentionally leave her out of the loop.” A pause. “None of her kids went to Arizona. And, this is the best part, the one she fostered before me was a girl.

“At first I thought you were a delusional stalker, that you had some obsession with my brother and me, and that was why you acted like we were best friends and knew so much about us. But it’s not adding up.”

Eyes opened, Neil watched Andrew with newfound wariness.

Andrew watched him back. He turned the sink on high, then cranked the bath tap for good measure. Crashing water echoed in the small room and did its part in obscuring their words from the two outside.

Over it all, Neil’s heart raced.

“It’s like you know what’s going to happen before it does. Every time there’s a problem, you’re there five minutes early with a warning and solution, ready to shuffle us on to the next step as if it’s nothing surprising. You’re always there, you’re always on time, you always know what to do-- how?”

Neil forced himself to swallow and shrug. “Extraordinarily good luck?”

Andrew loomed over him, his knuckles raw, lip and eyebrow scabbed. The bathroom’s singular light cast him in soft relief, at extreme odds with the dangerously blank look on his face.

“You’re lying.”

Once upon a time in a second life, Neil had told his mother I’m dreaming. She trapped him, he ran, and she died.

Before that, Neil had told a no less insane truth to Andrew in a dingy motel with black suited agents outside the door.

(Maybe this situation had, at last, one-upped Neil’s family history in absurdity.)

As he’d done for much longer than the two years they knew each other in this world, Andrew waited his silence out.

Finally, he managed: “It sounds crazy,”

“Try me.”

Although the dreams’s middle differed every time, the beginning and end remained the same. Start with leaving the house; end with lights, and screeching, and, once Neil pulled himself out of denial, the clear smell of burning bodies.

Nothing personal. Nothing orchestrated by shadow-cloaked families or men with vengeance in their hearts. Nothing as easy to dissect and run from as fate. He didn’t know what the other driver was thinking, if they’d been drunk or passed out from too many nights at the office or simply negligent, but in the end, it was just that simple of an end.

A car crash Neil Josten hadn’t walked away from.

“I think I’m dead,” he said, and Andrew rocked back, his face twisted up. Neil saw the words you’re lying form on his mouth and hastily corrected himself with, “I think I died. I remember being twenty-two, about to start my final year at college, and I was going out to dinner. Something or someone else hit our car, and then I woke up, fifteen years old, and here.”

Silence.

Catching the look on Andrew’s face, Neil ducked his head and rubbed at his temples, wincing at the pain spiking up the back of his skull. The water around them was mercifully cold; he didn’t think he could take cloying steam at this point. “Never mind. It’s too crazy, I-- no, never mi--”

“Time travel.” Andrew cut in. “That’s your explanation.”

Pressing himself against the wall, Neil shrugged a shoulder. He’d almost called it a misunderstanding-- but then, did this Andrew even care about that word? Was he slipping so much to risk it?

After a moment:

“Don’t lie to me again.”

Neil kept his eyes down and missed Andrew’s movement closer. He took a seat on the opposite end of the tub, finger tapping on his knee.

After yet another pause that curdled Neil’s blood, he said, “What was supposed to happen, then?” In that, Neil might have caught I knew it was turning out too good to be true, or months not sharing the seven years he remembered might have made him more wishful than he thought. “Or are you just re-tracing your steps?”

A glance and Neil found he couldn’t entirely read Andrew’s expression. There was reservation there, to be sure, but maybe sincerity, too, and the cautious curiousity of someone who was willing to give a chance. Neil wondered if this life would be the one Andrew learned regret, but that was a stray thought of a panicked mind.

Second chances. Right.

He took a breath, and began from their first meeting nine years past.

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He’d codified his notebook with its Exy exercises, list of lost time, dates of paralyzing dreams, and, under outside insistence, what he recalled of his first life. Andrew, the aforementioned outside insistence, learned the code and kept his lip buttoned about what he read.

Mostly.

He did huff under his breath and say, “You wasted paper on Exy drills.

“They’re some of the best,” Neil had responded, caught between offense and good humor.

All in all, it was a project stretched out over two weeks.

Andrew intimidated Nicky into rooming with Aaron to afford the two of them privacy, and they stayed up well into the summer nights after Exy practice pouring over the information as Neil pried it, piece by slow, painful piece, from his mind. It took time. Whether it was about Nathan Wesninski, Riko Moriyama or Palmetto State, it took its time and its toll. The memories didn’t always want to come; when they did, they were as liable to flit away in the midst of his writing or telling them and leave him grasping at a hollow impression.

That was how he realized he was missing sections: he knew he signed on to Palmetto State after Kevin and Andrew’s visit, but he couldn’t remember how Wymack had found him.

He knew Dan Wilds and Matt Boyd got married, but he couldn’t remember if he’d roomed with Matt or with Andrew during his first year.

He could tell Andrew that Kevin Day was a fragile piece, that if Andrew didn’t intervene and support him, he’d break by Christmas. What else he had wasn’t good enough, though there was no puzzling out why he came to Palmetto State in the first place. He couldn’t tell Andrew why it had to be Andrew other than a guess at his stability and protective nature, to which the other snorted and snipped, “I don’t fight just anyone’s battles.”

He couldn’t remember why it’d been so important to connect Aaron and Andrew. There was Drake, of whom he knew in the sense that he knew a battle read from a history book and the two fights he’d had with him, the words they’d exchanged, the understanding of what the bastard was, but he couldn’t remember what might have happened if Andrew hadn’t left in time.

It left him pacing on the good nights and shaking, paralyzed, on the bad, Andrew at his side or at the door and unable to do a thing about it.

And that was why it took two weeks to get through nine years.

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As Andrew and Neil locked themselves in the bedroom for nights at a time, the summer’s end rapidly approached. Nicky, assured they were as fine as they could be, had ended his emergency withdrawal from his university and planned to return to Germany come August. Aaron, as it turned out, took both developments the hardest.

Neil realized he was working himself toward some sort of breakdown, but the business of delving into his own conflicting mind distracted him completely.

So it shouldn’t have been but was a surprise when they all drove home from their last recreational Exy game (which they’d won, in part thanks to Neil and in part thanks to Andrew, truth be told) and Aaron stomped to the house first and made the door’s hinges rattle behind him. When the rest filed in, he was stock-still at the fridge, everything about him hard-lined and tense.

“Ah… Good game, guys,” Nicky ventured, nervous because he knew something was up but not versed enough in subtly to let it lie.

“Yeah,” Neil said, because he’d grown used to at least replying to Nicky’s attempts. “Good game.”

Andrew walked past them both without a word for the living room, his back turned on his brother.

Aaron, also without turning around, said, dangerously low, “What, you’re not going to say anything? As usual?”

Andrew, while looking for the TV remote, returned with a dispassionate, “What are you expecting me to say?”

Aaron didn’t take that well.

Aaron took it so unwell, in fact, the chair he kicked toward Andrew nearly clipped him in the legs.

“You could say something! About the game, about your shitty day, about your stupid boyfriend! You could own up to anything for once in your goddamn life!”

“He wasn’t-- that bad-- on the court-?” Nicky stuttered. Neil snagged his shoulder and drew him out of the range of fire, backing them both to the entrance way.

Andrew had turned around with a cool look at the chair and a cooler look for his brother. He didn’t say a thing.

Aaron snarled and went in with his fist curled back. Andrew caught that. He lashed with the other. Andrew caught that one, too. He yelled, then, about Tilda’s murder and Andrew’s part in it, and struggled, and thrashed, and in general had the meltdown Neil had seen but hadn’t diverted.

Had this happened before?

(Would he know if it had?)

It might not have been wise to leave the two alone in that state - Nicky, white-faced and shouting for Aaron to quit, certainly didn’t think so - but Neil put all his strength behind moving the two non-Minyards out of the house and back to the car and, once there, forcing Nicky to drive them away from the house. He didn’t last long in replying to Nicky then-- barely a minute, really- but he seemed to mostly need a place to vent his worries about leaving and how this was making him rethink going back to Germany and maybe he should call Erik and tell him he was going to stay another semester.

Neil wondered briefly if this was it, if Nicky left he wouldn’t come back for Palmetto State, if Neil’s being here had something to do with that, but then the thoughts about the cousin being a Fox dissipated and Neil blinked and woke up in the morning with Andrew sleeping alone in Nicky’s bed across from him, and couldn’t for the life of him remember what he’d wanted to tell Nicky in the car.

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School began.

Nicky left for Germany.

They joined the school’s Exy team.

Four months later, college choices loomed for Aaron. He was thinking a medical track, though neither Neil nor Andrew learned that from him, instead having Nicky blurt it during one late, late evening phone call. They had the grace to admit it wasn’t wholly undeserved. As for Andrew, he would go wherever Aaron went; Neil thought they should all apply for Palmetto State, though he worried more about how long he’d remained as Calvin Bakster and how the legal name-change left a paper trail to Neil Josten and what might tip off his father’s men.

An offer from Palmetto State came for the Minyard twins for their Exy talents. Neil knew, knew they had to go, and hounded them every waking moment until they sent back acceptance notices despite Aaron's continued tension around his brother. Andrew told him part of his condition for joining Coach Wymack’s team was Neil’s admission to the line-up, and then high school couldn’t finish fast enough.

(Some mornings he woke up with a peculiar taste in his mouth; some evenings Neil woke up with his head on Andrew’s shoulder; some nights, he woke and thought Andrew wasn’t as young as he’d once thought; some days, he lost altogether.)

(It was worrying, but migraines and smoke and deafening screeches filled the time in between, and mostly, he was tired.)

After graduation and before the summer season began, they packed their bags for Palmetto State. He had enough clothing and effects for two duffel bags, which seemed excessive until the Minyard twins loaded up three full plastic containers, a suitcase, and two heavy backpacks.

Perched on the edge of a stripped bed, he took a peek in the notebook he hadn’t touched in months. Incomprehensible scribbles looked back at him, symbols and numbers that made sense for a half-second before slipping as sand through his fingers.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He looked up. Andrew was at the doorway, his backpack over a shoulder and head tilted.

His face read like an open book. Tensions continued under his skin, but he looked more at home in his body than Neil could remember him being.

When had he last seen him that relaxed? A week ago, surely.

Neil looked down at his notebook and flipped to a page half-covered with fraying, browning articles, and felt his heart stop.

“Kevin Day,” he said, and Andrew straightened. “You need to help him. He’s going to lose everything he never thought he could lose, and he needs to stay. Wymack’s not enough of a reason. Wymack doesn’t even know.”

“Know what?” Andrew asked, but the thought was gone, and Neil struggled to catch its tails and it swam out of reach and into something related, or, maybe related, or, at least very important, a missed chance or five, and it arrived with frustration because all he knew were two names and the feeling that connected them.

“Tell Renee to help John. No. Jean. Renee needs to help Jean. And--”

A name he’d completely forgotten until that moment, an aftershock in a team he couldn’t ignore.

At the door, Andrew stayed silent.

“-- Seth. Tell Coach I’m sorry about Seth.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and bowed forward, head against the notebook as he struggled to breathe.

Distantly he became aware of a hand on his nape, of Andrew sitting beside him. Slowly he came back to himself, the white noise in his head receding bit by bit.

“Is that all?” Andrew asked.

Neil’s nose scrunched.

“Is that all what?”

Andrew didn’t react, but stood and waited until he straightened and followed.

▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪

They’re leaving for the restaurant.

They’re in Andrew’s monster of a truck, its sides sleek and glossy even after three years, Neil in the passenger seat and Andrew at the wheel.

They’re waiting at a red light for their turn.

Neil looks to Andrew and, on impulse, threads gnarled and scarred fingers through the smooth one that lies between them. Tension eases at the edges of the blond’s mouth, and he asks if this is really their turn.

I think it’s mine, Neil replies. Promise me you’ll live.

You’re supposed to ask yes or no.

I don’t want to.

Fat luck, Josten. It’s not ‘always yes.’

With you, it always will be.

Don’t push it. You never know what’ll happen. He says, and takes the turn.

▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪

Neil woke up.

Andrew watched him from their shared dormitory’s window, the glass pushed up so his smoke wafted out.

It was the day before the first official Fox game, he remembered, and stretched out the kinks in his back. A few satisfying pops later, he swung his legs off the bed’s edge and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“Kevin Day’s still not here,” Andrew told him through a mouthful of smoke.

Neil shot him an odd look, and reached to root through his drawers for jogging sweats.

“Why would he be?”

He missed Andrew’s mouth darkening at the edges as he took another drag from his cigarette.

“Renee’s interesting. She’s offered me her knives.”

“You two are pretty similar. I’m not that surprised.”

“I’m thinking of taking Matt to Columbia for a weekend.”

Neil paused and glanced out of the corner of his eye toward Andrew. It wasn’t surprising to hear about Matt, either; he’d be around after the fifth years graduated if and only if his constitution held out, which Neil wasn’t entirely convinced it would. Of course Andrew would want to make that into a certainty while he solidified his reputation. Two birds, one stone.

“Are you telling me all this for a reason?”

At the window, time was taken to shake ash onto the sill and brushed off.

“You’ll be there?”

Neil scoffed.

“You already know the answer. I’m heading for a run now, though, so the rest of your flight of fancy questions will have to wait.”

By the time he reached the door, Andrew said, “Neil.”

Stopping to look back over his shoulder, Neil waited.

“I’ll watch your back. Think of it as repayment.”

Neil frowned. He thought of his mother dying while looking for him; he thought of the wrong ticket he’d bought that put him outside Andrew’s house, and rumors of Drake that, for whatever reason, made him get involved for the first time in his life. He thought, too, about the time after, and how it’d been about as secure as life could be with Andrew and Aaron Minyard and their cousin keeping by his side. Millport had been dull in comparison to the brightness of Columbia.

As for Palmetto State, he knew he’d like it; he just wondered if he could really stay all four years.

“Repayment for what?” He asked, but Andrew just shook his head and turned away, apparently deciding the conversation was done despite leaving Neil in the dark about what exactly they were discussing.

He could be like that. Neil didn’t pay it too much mind, and went for his run.

Chapter Text

( A MOMENT OUT OF TIME: HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION. )

“High honors? Aren’t you special.”

Golden ropes in hand, Neil frowned at his blue graduation gown first and Andrew second. They were a week from the high school ceremony and three weeks from college orientation, their Palmetto State acceptances no longer collecting dust in their file pile.

“If you did your homework,” he pointed out, “you’d be right with me.”

He didn’t say it with much fire. Senioritis was a bitch, doubly so when they already knew where they were headed next, and if Neil hadn’t brought in an excellent academic record (how he’d gotten it, he couldn’t fully fathom), he wouldn’t have managed what he had, either.

Andrew shrugged, stepping forward to snag the ropes from Neil’s hands. “Who cares about grades? We’re going to play Exy.”

Since when had Andrew cared about Exy? It wasn’t entirely wrong, though, even if it was ridiculously short-sighted. As Andrew idly pulled golden strands out of order, Neil said, “You’re banking on going pro? We’re playing for the Foxes, not the Ravens. They’re the laughing stock of class one.”

Neil Josten would be a name he’d probably end up abandoning, anyway. He was fine with whatever bit of court time he could scrape together.

“Things change,” Andrew said, so uninterested in his own words Neil wanted to step on his foot, “before you know it.”

Neil snorted.

“We’re both good, but we’re not that good. It’d take a miracle for them to clean up their act.”

Andrew strung gold across his shoulders, hands pulling the ends taut, and gazed at Neil. As with incidents of Andrew’s gazing, it unsettled something in him, his skin crawling and the small hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Rather than cower from the feeling, Neil demanded, “What?”

An unconcerned blink, and, “What, what?”

“You have something to say?”

Cool eyes continued their gazing for few seconds longer. In that moment, Neil noticed how close they stood, and just how far away Andrew’s eyes weren’t.

Andrew said, “You’re the one who picked Palmetto State.”

Neil frowned, opened his mouth. Froze. Blinked.

And, immediately, lost the fight in his eyes. Shoulders slumped, body heavy, he ground the heels of his hands into his eyes.

Still quite close, Andrew watched him before prompting, quietly, “Well?”

Neil dropped his hands and tilted his head. “Sorry. Headache. Uh. Well, what?”

“Palmetto State. Does its Exy team have a chance?”

A frown broke through Neil’s daze, and his eyes sharpened on Andrew’s. “Of course they do,” he said, tone borderline offended.

(Andrew didn’t breath out his relief, but he felt it in his very bones.)

He nodded, hands dropped to his sides and rope left to hang around his neck. Neil eyed him, seemed to realize how close they stood (for the second time, Andrew noted), a slip of pink tongue nervously wetting his lips. If Andrew’s eyes dropped to follow it, neither of them had the grace to follow up on it.

No. They stood like that a moment longer, tension spreading between them about a dozen different things, and then Neil, deliberately, took a step back.

“I’m going to… do homework,” he said.

He didn’t have any homework. It was all tests or papers, and he’d finished the latter with Andrew the night before.

But it wasn’t a lie, not an intentional one. It was ane excuse.  

So Andrew nodded, and let him run.

 


 

( A MOMENT OUT OF TIME: THE FIRST KISS. )

Two weeks into college, Aaron sunk deep into the beanbag chair in front of their television and muttered, Christ, seems like everybody’s hooking up.

It’s the time for experimentation, Andrew had replied, a dry drawl from the other beanbag. Hard-lined eyes pinned down his brother, demanding an answer to a promise Aaron refused to acknowledge.

Enraptured by calculus, it took Neil a while to realize Aaron was trying to get his attention. By then Aaron’s eyes had narrowed; after a moment of silence, he turned his attention back to the television. Whatever he might have had in mind to ask, he’d obviously decided an answer for himself. Neil glanced to Andrew for some help in deciphering, but he knew it to be a fool’s errand even before meeting Andrew’s blank gaze.

Now, fast-forward five weeks.

Allison brought up the question of Neil’s celibacy. The gaze Neil met when searching for support wasn’t as blank as it had been.

Now, a little further. Two months. Three. Snow didn’t fall, but the wind picked up; on one particularly cold morning, frost covered the grass. Businesses closed for fear of ice, and already tardy students pointed at the weather as a fine reason not to attend class. Worst of all: the Tower’s heating broke, the dormitory plunged into what most complained to be unbearable lows but was in fact temperatures hardly lower than sixty degrees Fahrenheit.

On a day without Exy practice, one student without a morning class woke up to a tardy student smoking at the window. Cold wind gusted through their cramped room. Andrew had barely deigned to put on a sweater. Neil pulled his covers over his head and groaned.

The thick comforter muttered at the smoker, “Really?”

Andrew’s huff of a breath barely reached him.

Try as it might, the blanket couldn’t keep out the cold forever. Eventually Neil had to put his socked feet on the frigid floor, goosebumps spreading quickly across and beyond exposed flesh. His teeth chattered, and he groped for a sweatshirt from the drawers, pulling it on hastily. It fit oddly, its sleeves running short; Neil tugged at the equally too-short hem, frowning and half-asleep, but it refused to magically lengthen for him.

“That’s mine, dingus,” Andrew’s lofty voice told him.

“Oh,” Neil grumbled. He started to take it off. He realized his own were dirty beyond measure, and it was all Andrew’s fault, anyway, and kept it on. He’d slept in a shirt and sweatpants, so that wasn’t an issue.

He made his way to the bathroom and pretended he didn’t notice Andrew watching him. Andrew was always watching him - it wasn’t something to write to the papers about.

When he returned, the window was still open and Andrew’s new cigarette continued to burn. Neil, determined to solve the issue of a freezing dorm, told him, “Can’t you go outside?”

“It’s cold outside.”

The ludicrous nature of that wasn’t worth a response. Neil trudged his way to the window and reached out, himself, to pull it closed. He had to reach around Andrew to do it – Andrew refused to budge, and in fact, blew a curl of smoke in his face.

Hand stuck on the pane, Neil breathed it in, felt the burn, tasted the ash, and didn’t mind as much as his cough to follow implied. Close, still not moving, Andrew watched him. His pupils were, Neil noticed, far wider than usual.

“What makes you like smoke?” He asked.

Neil opened his mouth to insist he didn’t, but it tasted like a lie before it even left his tongue.

(Anticipation, all at once, curled in his stomach. It was an uncomfortable feeling, one that made his palms sweat and stomach flip. As with the smoke, he couldn’t find a real reason for it.)

(His mother, he thought, an answer for one or both of the mysteries. But it wasn’t, not really, not at all.)

(Except–)

(Andrew was quite close.)

“Prime time for experimentation,” Andrew said.

It didn’t make sense. Then it did. Cold snuck through the window and made Neil shiver from more than the prickling under his skin.

“I don’t,” Neil said.

“Would you?” Andrew asked.

“I might,” Neil answered.

It left his mouth before he had time to check it. When he did, his shoulders rigid and teeth clicking shut, he found it truthful.

Andrew set his hand, idly burning cigarette pinched between two fingers, on the sill - the other, he curled into Neil’s borrowed sweatshirt. One slight tug, and cold lips met chapped lips, a kiss that somehow felt a long time in coming.

Andrew’s cracked-open eyes watched him. He watched back, and didn’t know what to do with his mouth, hands, arms, or, really, anything else.

Drawing back without a sound, Andrew said, “You’re supposed to close your eyes.”

“There’s a supposed to with this?”

A corner of Andrew’s mouth twitched, his eyebrow echoing the motion a moment later.

“Doesn’t have to be,” he said, “but it’d help for the slower learners. That was your first kiss?”

No.

Yes.

The first to matter.

Neil shrugged.

Hand uncurling from his lent sweatshirt, Andrew unconcerned and relaxed and so unconcerned and relaxed it had to be a cover for overwhelming tension, he mirrored Neil’s shrug, tapped ash onto the sill, stood, and left. It was impossible to miss the rigidity to his shoulders at a distance.

Behind him, Neil brushed ash off wood and shut the window.

(It was not the last. It was not experimentation, either, not really, just as most things at Palmetto State were not this or that, not really.)