Actions

Work Header

Connection through pain

Chapter Text

He was one year and two months old, and he had been constantly crying. He was in a crib, feeling cold and hungry. His diaper was long full, and the infection burned the skin on his butt. He cried, but there was nobody there to listen. He was just a tiny being desperately trying to call for help, but nobody cared about whether he lived or died. When the blissful fatigue finally put him to sleep he dreamed of darkness and a frightening laughter echoing in it.

~~~~

Nathaniel was six years old. He just finished brushing his teeth, and after he got out of the bathroom, he headed down the corridor on the first floor toward the room of his parents. The house was well lit, and he could hear Lola and James talking loudly in the kitchen from under the stairs. When the woman’s hysterical laughter reached his ears, he unconsciously hunched and quickened his pace on the red carpet.

“Mommy, I’m done,” he said, after putting his head in the crack of the door. He wasn’t allowed to go into that room without getting a permission, but his father was downstairs with his ‘friends’, so he gathered at least this much courage.

His mother’s voice came from her closet hence it was a little faint, “I’m coming, sweetheart.” Nathaniel smiled, but he was still picking on the sleeves of his pajamas. He could still hear the voices from the kitchen. “Let me see your teeth,” asked his mother after opening the door, then she bend forward.

Nathaniel opened his mouth wide, but he wanted to smile. His mother was beautiful, she just showered hence she also smelled nice, smelled like home, and she seemed to be in a good mood that night. Nathaniel loved it when his mother was in a good mood. That meant his father was also not in a too bad one.

“Alright, you did good, baby, let’s put you to bed.” Nathaniel raised his arms towards her, and she lifted him up without resisting. Yes, his mother was in a good mood. Nathaniel nuzzled into her neck, and giggled faintly while embracing her tightly. “Oh, someone loves their mommy tonight.” She even laughed.

“I love you, mommy.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.” The kiss on his face felt nice, felt like home.

She read Nathaniel two bedtime stories that night, and Nathaniel managed to stay awake for both, barely for the ending of the second one, though. She gave him one more kiss on the top of his head, then climbed out of the small bed, and whispered, “Good night, Abram.”

She hated the first part of his baby’s name. She hated that it was the same as her husband’s. She hated it with all her being, so she never called him that. It had always been sweet nicknames or Abram when nobody else could hear her, not ever Nathaniel.

Nathaniel dreamed with the hippopotamus the first bedtime story was about. He rode on its back, and they fought a crocodile together because that monster tried to hurt his mommy. It seemed they won, and Nathaniel was already praising his friend, but then a bigger monster raised from behind them, and bit into him before swallowing Nathaniel all at once. He tried to scream in the dark, but he couldn’t. And it hurt. It hurt. It hurt…

“IT HURTS, MOMMY, IT HURTS, MOMMY, HELP, IT HURTS!” He was trashing around in the bed when the light was suddenly turned on, and his mother appeared by his side.

“Hey, what is it? What hurts, baby?” She sat on the side of the bed, her face lost all its colors as she tried to prevent the tiny child from hurting himself. “Ssh, mommy is here, tell me, what hurts, please.” Nathaniel let her pull him into her laps, he curled up in her arms, and buried his sweaty, red face into her nightdress. “Where does it hurt, baby?” she whispered into his auburn, damp hair.

“Everything.” He sobbed, but his mother egged him some more hence he talked again. “My cheeks, neck, chest, and arms, and… and… my butt, mommy, it hurts so much.” He wept into her chest, desperately clinging on the sleeves of her nightdress.

Mary frowned, then carefully pulled his head away so she could take a better look at him. His cheeks were burning red, but there was no sign of that being there for an injury. Her first thought was that her husband came up and hurt him, but that couldn’t be. Nathan would have been there, standing above his cruelty with a victorious smile. She found nothing under Nathaniel’s pajama shirt either, no matter how much he’d stated that his arms hurt him badly.

“Why is the child not sleeping?”

Mary shut her eyes for a second when that growling reached them, then looked back over her shoulder at her husband. “He is in pain. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

Nathan stepped inside the children’s room, causing Mary to feel like the space is now not comfortably, but stiflingly small. “What hurts, junior?” he asked still standing, with his arms folded on his chest.

The sobbing of the child was now so intense that he couldn’t even breath properly and started to hiccup. Mary answered instead, “He said it’s his face, neck, arms and,” she swallowed hard, “butt.”

“Butt?!” grumbled Nathan with a scowl that he showed between them. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” answered Mary, trying hard not to sound angry.

“Did you check his ass already?”

The woman ignored him, then started to whisper again to Nathaniel, “I’ll put you down to the bed, baby, so I can check where it hurts, alright? Just a second, okay?”

Nathaniel couldn’t answer because of the breathing spasm, but he didn’t protest either as Mary put him down. She felt the panic choking her as she pulled down the child’s pajamas, she expected blood, but saw nothing. The skin wasn’t even the slightest red. She carefully stroked the soft skin, then put her baby’s legs down. And she felt even more confused.

“Sweetheart,” she said softly. “Does it hurt in your tummy? Or here?” She dug her fingers into the left side of Nathaniel’s stomach close to his hipbone. The answer was a headshake. “It could be appendicitis.” She looked up at her husband who was eyeing Nathaniel’s naked, taintless body with narrowed eyes.

“Could be. But that doesn’t explain the other pain.”

Their eyes met, and for once after the longest time, they thought the same thing. “It could be. But it’s not that.”

Mary snapped her eyes back at her baby, then lifted her shaking hand up to her mouth. “No, that’s… It can’t be.”

Phantom pain. The pain of another person. The pain of your soulmate.

It couldn’t be. Her baby couldn’t be connected to someone who was just… who was just being… raped. Mary knew the signs way too well. She knew it started with a slap on the cheek, and the grabbing of the arms. Then with hands strangling the neck so hard that it hurt even after they moved on to the chest to push the body down, so hard that it felt like it could burst in. She even knew how it felt down there. It was a pain she could never forget.

It was a pain she never wanted her child to experience. Or any other child, because she wasn’t a monster – yet.

With frantically shaking hands, she pulled Nathaniel back into her lap, then covered him with the blanket, covering him from the world, trying to shut out the source of that pain that hurt her child like this. Trying to shut him off of his soulmate. A possible child out there being raped.

“Why, why? Why?” She had no idea when her husband left the room (grumbling about unnecessary trouble) or when she started to rock him. “Oh, Abram, oh baby.” She felt powerless. Incapable. She protected him all this time from Nathan’s heavy fists, from his husband’s business and friends, from everything, and now she was powerless.

Nobody could shut off the connection between two soulmates. Nobody in this world was powerful enough to come between that connection. Nathaniel would experience the pain and the nightmares of this other person, as they would do the same with his. Till one of them died.

That night Mary wished they would die fast.

~~~

He was seven years and two months old, and he was hiding under his blanket, because the monster was coming into his room again. It was cold in the house without heating, but the monster said he needed to take off his clothes. He knew what would come, and he cried before the monster pushed off his pants.

He knew it was pointless, but he still tried, because he couldn’t stop believing the monster. “Please, don’t do it, please.”

The monster climbed into his bed again.

~~~

Alex was ten and a half year old, and he already welcomed pain like an old acquaintance. He was in a room in an apartment building in Liverpool, looking out of the window to an unfamiliar scenery. He had a black eye, and he barely could feel his right arm that was in thick bandages – he didn’t mind that, painkillers were his only friends now. He wore a bullet proof vest that he promised, he would never take off again.

He looked down at his arm, but saw something entirely different. The last time he met his father.

“Oh, Mary, Mary, you naïve, dumb, woman.“ Nathan didn’t need to raise his voice to sound frightening. “Did you really think you can escape me?”

They were in a room in a rundown motel in the outskirts of New York. They just ran away from Castle Evermore five days ago, and his father already caught them. It still wasn’t completely obvious for Alex, why they fled now when he finally had the chance to play exy with Riko and Kevin, but he understood just well why his mother wanted away from his father. By this time the life in Alex’s house wasn’t just scary, it was hell. And his mom wanted him away, wanted him safe, Alex understood that much, and he loved her for it.

Nathan came in through the destroyed door with his cleaver in one hand, and Lola in his back. Alex hid his face into his mother’s lower back, being pushed into the furthest corner of the room. It wasn’t far enough. The room was small, and his father, no matter he wasn’t a big man, he could make any place feel like it was a matchbox.

“Mom,” he muttered, then instantly cried out of pain when those long fingers clenched his curly hair on the top of his head.

“Shut up!” she hissed, not taking her eyes off of Nathan even for a second.

“Oh, I see, junior is also present. As usual climbing back into his mommy’s ass.” He was already by the end of the bed, just three steps away from them.

“Stay away!” Mary tried to sound threatening, but her voice was shaking.

Nathan flashed his trademark snarling smile at her, “That’s not how you should welcome your husband after being away for what? Five days? Oh, so long.”

Alex felt the trembling of her mother’s body. Or was it his own?

“STAY AWAY!” Mary screamed when he got around the bed, then she suddenly set off toward it. She jumped so suddenly that Alex stumbled forward, then fell to his knees while his mother made it over the bed to her bag on the nightstand.

Alex was startled by the loud crash of the lamp that she knocked over, but he couldn’t care about anything else anymore, because his father reached him. Nathan’s fingers dug deep into his shoulder, then he hitched Alex up to his feet like he was a weightless, lifeless rag doll. Alex couldn’t even hear his mother’s screams mixing together with Lola’s mad laughter and the dull noises of fighting now that the fear of his father tensed up all his senses.

“Hey, junior, you won’t say anything to dad?”

“LET HIM GO!”

“Can you hear that? Your mom thinks, you aren’t in good hands. She is wrong, you see. You are exactly where you need to be.” Nathan grabbed Alex’s throat and lifted him up so their heads were now on the same level.

Alex shut his eyelids closed as those icy blue eyes appeared in front of him, and he prepared himself for pain. And it came. First into his face as the cleaver’s handle slammed into him, making him feel like his head just exploded.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. You need to endure this again.” He ran away into his head. He ran into that corner where that other boy was lying curled up. He ran to him, laid down next to him with his back just lightly touching the other boy’s, and he also huddled up. Alex never saw his face, but he was always there. He was there, and they suffered together.

Alex felt the pain by his neck, the burning feeling of the edge of the cleaver scooping into his flesh. He was half naked because they surprised them just after he was out of the shower, so the butcher’s knife could run without any obstacle on his body. It went down on his throat with a loop toward his collarbone. It hurt the most by the bone, his father not even trying there to not cut too deep. Alex knew he was crying, he probably screamed, too, but he heard nothing. He was in the corner of his head, shaking violently together with that other boy, not feeling anything else just the pain.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Mary had no chance against Lola. She knew how to fight while Mary had no idea. She trained for this while Mary never even went close to a gym in her whole life. She knew it’s over. They would both die, because she ended up really powerless in the end. How could she even think, she could save him?

“What the hell is going on here?!”

Someone hauled Lola off of Mary. Someone else started to fight the crazy bitch, and Mary without any hesitation finally could dig into her bag, finally could reach the gun in it.

“Let him go,” she screamed at Nathan, and tried not to throw up at the sight of her little boy covered in blood. His whole small chest was covered in blood. “Oh no, please no, am I too late?”

Nathan raised an eyebrow at her, not taking her seriously, like he’d never done before. Not when Mary tried to stop her the first time he’d lost the last drop of his patience with their son who was suffering from the phantom pain. Not when she threatened him after that hot iron tainted her baby’s body forever. Not when she begged him to somehow save their child from the Moriyamas. Never. But this was the last time.

Mary fired once. The bullet flew by Nathan’s head, who now, for a second seemed surprised. Mary fired again when that fucking snarl appeared on that hated face. She screamed as that disgusting monster tug his own son in the way of the bullet. She heard her son shrieking as the bullet scratched his arm. She fired again, because no matter what, he would die anyway by his father’s hands. The bullet now went through her husband’s shoulder.

“Tsk.” That was all Nathan reacted before dropping Alex, because he lost the power in his arm. Mary fired again, this time she hit Nathan’s stomach.

“You fucking bitch,” Lola swore from behind her, being pinned to the wall by the man who found them, they were still fighting. Mary couldn’t care less.

“Alex, Alex, stand up, Alex, STAND UP!” She couldn’t go closer, she kept her eyes on Nathan who fell back to the wall, pressing down the wound on his abdomen.

Alex barely heard her. He was now in shock; he was way too deep down in his own head. He was so scared.

“Go. You need to go.”

The voice that he only heard in his dreams, the voice that usually just begged to the shadows told him to go, and Alex did. “Mom,” he mumbled, slowly lifting his head to her mother standing three steps away with a gun pointed at his father.

“STAND UP AND RUN! RUN AND DON’T LOOK BACK!”

He heard this in the past five days a lot. “If anything happens, just run and don’t look back!” His mom had not much idea how to do this running away – yet. This was all she’d repeating like a mantra. It worked, though. Alex somehow gathered the power to climb to his feet, then started to stumble toward the door.

“Don’t you fucking think you can get away from me, bitch. I’ll be in your back, and when I catch you, I’ll skin both of you.”

Alex heard the gunshot, but he didn’t look back from the door. He ignored Lola’s screaming, the unfamiliar man who tried to stop him with his worry, he ignored the fear, the pain, he ignored everything and just ran.

That was, hopefully, the last time he had to meet his father. Hopefully sounded cheap and weak. Alex deep down knew they would meet again. He couldn’t believe there was a place on this planet that would keep them safe from his father.

Alex put his left hand on the wound on his right, then squeezed it a little. The pain was faint. “Can you feel it, too? If I take pain killers, does your pain go away, too? If I would take it when you are being hurt, could that help?” He had to shake his head, because he was doing it again. Talking to that other boy in his head, running to him so he can escape thinking about his father. Alex knew he didn’t deserve that peace.

But. He had so many questions, and nobody ever answered them properly. His mother avoided the soulmate topic whenever she could, Alex knew most of the details, because he listened in on the girls’ conversations in school. They turned it all into this romantic thing that he didn’t really understand. He thought feeling someone else’s pain was nothing nice, but he understood that much, not many people had to endure as much pain as he did. Earlier that year, when they were on a school trip, Alex woke up screaming in pain and his classmates considered him a weirdo ever since–

“Not like you will ever see them again.”

Alex kicked the wall, and grimaced at his shoes. He won’t see anyone ever again. Not his friends, not his teachers, not the kind cleaner guy who somehow always noticed when Alex had a new injury, even though his father went sure they were under his clothes. He had to bite his lips to stop the tears.

No, there was nothing nice about this. If it wasn’t for the phantom pain, his father wouldn’t have hurt him so bad. He wouldn’t have considered him a weak failure. If it wasn’t for the phantom pain, he wouldn’t have to cry so much.

“I hate you, it’s all your fault,” he murmured as the tears started to fall again.

~~~

He was eleven years and eight months old, and he was smoking behind the school building with two other upperclassmen. He didn’t talk with them, and they ignored him. Everybody always ignored him.

The pain in his arm was getting bad again so he moved the cigarette to his other hand and shook it. It wouldn’t ease, but he couldn’t help at least try. He cursed the other kid in his head, wishing he would just die already. He knew the kid was abused by his own father, the dreams revealed that much. Why couldn’t that fucker just die already?

Of course only he could be this lucky. Getting an abused kid as a soulmate with a creepy fucker father. Because his own problems just weren’t enough. He squeezed his own arms as hard as he could and hoped the other kid screamed in pain.

~~~

Stefan was eleven years and eight months old – he counted, because he feared he would lose himself completely if he gave up even his real age. He was in a random class, in a random school in a random city in Germany. He arrived to the country a few weeks ago with his mother and still had not much idea about the language. That was just an excuse, though for not paying any attention to the teacher, and why he just kept sketching in his notebooks. He was thinking about their previous class, about the proverb their English teacher mentioned.

“Curiosity killed the cat.”

How many times had he heard this in the past year? “Stop asking questions, it could get you killed one day.” That was his mother’s second favorite saying. She hated how curious Stefan was about the things that truly intrigued him. There weren’t many like that, probably that was why he wanted to dig really deep into them.

Exy. He just couldn’t forget about exy. He wanted to play, he begged his mother to let him join the team of the school he first went to after they’ve left England behind. She got so mad at him for not letting go of the topic that she put him under cold water in the shower.

Riko Moriyama and Kevin Day. The two princes of exy, Neil was just as obsessed with them as he was with the sport. It wasn’t easy to hide things from his mother as they’ve always lived in small apartments, and spent most of their time together. When she found Stefan in front of the television watching interviews with the two other children, she screamed at him until Stefan started to cry which led to her slapping him, because “You will make the neighbors suspicious with your weeping.”

Drawing. That wasn’t something harmful, really, but he wasn’t allowed to enjoy it openly either. His mother didn’t like the idea of having to carry around his sketchbooks, and she straight out told Stefan, he couldn’t ever get famous. After that Stefan just drew in his text- and notebooks, because they always left those behind anyway, so he didn’t grow attached to any of them.

His soulmate. The worst of all. The one topic that could drive his mother so mad that there was a time when she tore some of Stefan’s blond hair out. It was so dangerous she kept saying. You can’t be so fixated on that person that you lose focus in your own life. They don’t matter. Stefan agreed on that part. He couldn’t get anything more out of having a soulmate than getting even more pain in his life. But that couldn’t stop him from wanting to get to know them. Wanting to meet them one day. Having them as the only steady part of his chaotic life. Having them as the only thing that connected Nathaniel, Alex, Daniel, Paul, Stefan and all the other boys he would be in the future. Stefan couldn’t help being curious about them.

About him. About Andrew.

He didn’t tell it to anyone. He kept that name to himself, just like he’d never shared with his parents that he knew his soulmate was a boy. Not after his father was going on and on about how disgusting he found the idea that his kid acted like he was fucked in the ass. He couldn’t share it with his mother either, because she seemed to grow hating Andrew more and more as time passed and his son never stopped suffering. Stefan thought she was mean, that she was heartless. How could she not think about the one who had to live through those attacks for real?

And Stefan just gave him even more pain. Even when Andrew’s side was quite, because there’d been times like that, Stefan gave him pain. His mother wanted their connection gone so Stefan wouldn’t have to suffer, Stefan wanted it gone so Andrew could live without the burden he’d been putting on him. It actually made him feel pretty bad. He forgot all about blaming Andrew for his family’s falling apart after they left England. Now he just blamed himself.

Andrew’s life seemed to be hard in the nightmares, he was always fighting with something, and he was most likely abused by his family. But in the past two years there was only pain of getting slapped or kicked, one time he was sure Andrew broke his index finger, but there was no sign of rape. His soulmate could have lived an easier life without having to suffer from the consequences of Stefan’s life.

“I’m sorry. You probably hate me by now more than the people in your life. I’m so sorry…”

Andrew was standing there in the middle of the classroom like he was about to explode. His arms were folded in front of his chest, and he kept hitting his left arm with his fist as he was watching the older man three steps away.

“Please.”

Andrew flinched, then clicked his tongue. “No.”

“It wouldn’t cause you any trouble, kid. You don’t need to prepare for this. You are already better than anyone in this class.”

“Fuck your class. I’m leaving.” Andrew turned around, but he couldn’t make more than two steps because the other man became desperate.

“Minyard!” Andrew suppressed the reaction this time, but that didn’t mean he didn’t startle at the man’s shouting. “I’m not going to call your foster family about how many times you are absent without leave. Or about the smoking.”

Andrew stopped, fortunately still far away from the door, so he only punched the air instead of the window. “Fuck you,” he muttered with his teeth clenched.

“It’s just a math competition, why do you find it so hard to help me out here?”

The room started to sway. The edges started to get smudgy and dark. Andrew turned around but the teacher couldn’t say anything else. He hung on a rope from the ceiling fan, slowly turning around and around. Andrew stared at him until the darkness swallowed the man, and it was just him in the darkness again. But he wasn’t alone. The voices were always there.

“You can’t let her know.”
“You can’t make her disappointed.”
“You need to stay on her good side.”
“She loves you.”
“You need to do it for her.”
“For her.”
“For her.”

Stefan jerked awake as that hand slapped the desk under his head. He kicked back his chair, and even the table behind him which made the girl sitting there scream, too. Stefan breathed heavily, needing five seconds to realize where he was. His teacher was staring at him with wide eyes, and his classmates started to mutter and laugh at him. He swallowed hard, then hunched, so they couldn’t see his burning face.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he mumbled in German.

“As my class is obviously not interesting enough for you, go and stand in the corridor for the rest of it.”

Stefan couldn’t understand every word, but the finger pointed at the door helped a lot. He fixed his chair, apologized to the girl behind him, too, then went outside. And all he could think about was the dream.

Minyard. Andrew Minyard. That was what the teacher called him, right? Stefan felt the excitement catching alight. He finally knew his soulmate’s full name. He could somehow search for him now, right? Maybe, maybe they could meet…

Stefan stopped himself there and instead concentrated on the other parts of the dream, so he wouldn’t forget any of it before getting back to his bag and writing everything down in his binder. The dream was weird. Andrew got nightmares only about the assaults against him. Stefan always assumed he just didn’t care about things like school or friends enough so those never turned into nightmares. But now this was something normal. Even if he ended up murdering the man.

And did the teacher say foster family? That was also something new. The attackers changed a lot, but Stefan couldn’t figure out why. So Andrew was an orphan. He felt sick. All the people who hurt him were the ones who actually stood up and said they would care for him? Stefan leant on the wall behind him, and looked up at the ceiling of the corridor, trying hard to suppress his waving bad feelings. Why did people who did something like this apply to be foster parents?

And who was the woman Andrew didn’t want to disappoint? Who was she that the possibility of her getting to know something bad about Andrew made him so anxious that he even got nightmares about it?

He wanted to know. He wanted to know everything. Wanted to know Andrew. Andrew. Andrew. Andrew.

You can’t be so fixated on that person that you lose focus in your own life. It was so late for that.

~~~

He was thirteen years and ten months old, and for the first time his life seemed to be alright. There was someone in the house with him who actually cared for him. Who listened when he opened his mouth. There was someone by his side who wanted to be his mother. Mother. He only knew what that meant because he read about mothers all the time in his books. And now someone actually seemed to be willing to be that for him.

“You’ll take part of a math competition, wao!” Her face was glowing with pride. “You are amazing.”

He appreciated that she didn’t add, ”Even though all your grades are awful.” This woman never added anything bad after her compliments. This woman never used but like everybody else did before her.

He was in that house for three months already and this woman hadn’t disappointed him yet. He had three months of good times. He had to try to keep it up. He could have it finally. He could finally be a part of a real family.

However, this world was just too cruel for that. The monster reappeared again. It changed its appearance, but it came again. He felt the danger the first time the monster looked at him. That was the moment when he should have fled. But he couldn’t, because he trusted again. Not in the monster this time, but that woman who made him believe he deserved good, too.

~~~

Christophe was exactly twelve years old, it was his birthday, but he couldn’t care less about that now. He was in pain. He was in so much pain, he thought it was going to end right there. In a no-name forest in Switzerland, he was finally going to die. “It’s gonna be over soon. You won’t have to suffer again because of me.”

His lungs and muscles burnt because of the running that went on for god knows how long already. The cuts of the cleaver on his right side above his hip felt even worse because of the salty sweat mixing together with his blood. The gun wound on his shoulder felt numb by now, making his arm also numb which wasn’t really a good sign, but he appreciated the disappearance of the pain anyway. Even his toes hurt damn it, because he kept kicking into roots in the dark. And now even his face joined the list as his mother slapped him.

“Listen to me! I am talking and you don’t listen, goddammit, Chris!”

“You are–“ Christophe coughed violently as his lungs struggled for air. “You are not saying anything interesting.” He leant on a tree’s trunk as his vision got even more blurry.

“Chris–“

“That’s not my name!” he shouted and slapped his head toward his mother. It was a pretty bad decision, now he started to heave, too. “Fuck it, fuck everything! Fuck this life, I want out!”

He fell to his knees, dug his fingers into the cold dirt, and couldn’t even cry anymore. His mother came to him, but he threw her off. “Stop the tantrum, it won’t help!” Mary said, crouching in front of him. She tugged on Christophe’s hair so he would lift his gaze. “We can’t stop here, so stop this!”

“Who are you? You are not my mother. My mother loved me, she held me gently when I was in pain, she used to smell and feel like home. Who are you?”

They both changed their appearances every time they moved, but he didn’t recognize this woman inside either not just because she looked completely opposite of his mother. She became just as rough and cold as she looked like now. Christophe hated her.

“She is right. You need to go.”

Christophe scoffed, then closed his eyes. He was going crazy. Or his connection with Andrew was getting stronger and stronger. He could hear him regularly now even awake. They were in this mess in the first place, because he’d stopped paying attention to his surroundings. He trusted in someone in the new town who turned out to be his father’s man. The man hurt them, because he missed out on the signs of him being too interested in their life. But he was so happy to find someone who was willing to talk about soulmates with him, and wasn’t just a girl who read too much dumb books. This was a grownup and a man, and he thought it’s important to find your soulmate, he said it’s not bad. That they do matter.

And now he was going to die because of that mistake. So well deserved.

“You won’t die. Just get the fuck up.”

Deep down Christophe knew it’s not Andrew but his conscious trying to motivate him the best way possible. And yes, it did work.

He got up, and let his mother to led them out of the forest, because even if he hated her, he didn’t want to die. Not before…

“Ouch.” Christophe halted as the new pain shot up in his body.

“What is it?” his mother asked, she was clearly annoyed. “We are almost out, go on.”

He didn’t answer just stepped forward. The pain was in his arm for now. He couldn’t feel his left one, but the right felt like someone very strong just grabbed it, not caring whether it leaves a bruise or not. Christophe suppressed the noise as his cheek started to burn. This time it wasn’t him who got slapped.

Andrew…

He could see the lights of the town through the trees. He had no idea where they were, and doubted his mother had either. But it was a town deep in the mountains, so they could get help, but not having to fear the police coming for them right away. They did that sometimes, acting like they are mother and child running away from an abusive husband. People tended to help, and well, it wasn’t much of a lie, right? Christophe’s father just wasn’t the usual abuser, he actually wanted them dead.

He bent forward, hugging his stomach tight as the pain of getting punched in the guts reached him. He almost fell again, but Mary was there to hold him up.

“Don’t tell me, it’s them again!” she growled as realized something was not right. “Is that little bitch at it again?!”

“Shut up!” Christophe squeezed the words out through clenched. “Just shut up, mom!”

He already felt the pain in his butt. It was just as bad as the gun wound. Or not, because it could grow even worse. It was impossible to stay on his feet. Andrew was getting raped, and it was worse than ever before. He felt the attacker’s fist punching his back and head like it was really happening to him. He couldn’t suppress a scream as fingers clenched in his hair than yank on it, he knew that pain, he knew Andrew’s hair was being torn out. But the pain in his butt. The pain… Pain. PAIN.

Christophe lost his conscious, and all he hoped for was that Andrew also did the same by now.

~~~

He was thirteen years and two months old, and the monster was crawling into his body. He felt it reaching deeper and deeper, painting everything black as it advanced forward. It was in him now, turning him into a monster, too.

He was helpless.

He was the monster now.

~~~

Oswald was twelve years and 5 days old, and he was lying in a hospital bed surrounded by beeping machines. His mother was whispering with the doctor on the other side of the curtain, and he kind of wished he didn’t hear it. He was too numb yet to care about anything.

“We need to get going, Dr. Koch.”

“I didn’t report you to the police, madam, because you begged your husband would find you right away, but you need to–“

“No. We can’t go to the police. You need to understand.”

“He was shot, that’s not something that should go unreported.”

Oswald knew the annoyed wrinkles already showed on his mother’s face, making her look mad. He wondered if the doctor thought, this woman is just as unfit to care for a child like her husband.

He looked out of the window instead. He quite liked the scenery. Snow fell for days, and the hospital was at the edge of the town, so all he could see under was trees covered with white. He liked it, but also feared the moment when they had to leave, and go out to the cold. They lost almost everything again. They had money, but nothing else. Nobody else.

He turned to his side, and pulled his arms close to his face. His lower arm started to hurt two days ago. He was on medication and mostly unconscious, so maybe Andrew started doing it right after the attacks started. He wasn’t sure, but it hurt so bad, and this time not physically. Oswald caressed his taintless skin that looked wounded for him. He could almost feel the scars Andrew cut into his skin. Andrew started to cut himself, and Oswald couldn’t stop feeling responsible for this.

The attack happened that night when he was badly hurt. How could he be sure that his pain didn’t make Andrew vulnerable enough to get easily attacked? Sorry couldn’t make this right. Nothing could make this right.

He was causing Andrew trouble with just his existence.

“Oswald!” He flinched as his mother shook his shoulder. “You aren’t paying attention again!” she hissed. “You could be dead by now if I was your father.”

“Yeah, sure,” he muttered, and turned away again.

“You need to stop with this attitude, too, because I’m starting to get really angry.”

He didn’t reply, not with his mouth anyway. “When are you not?” He was staring at his forearm, but resisted to touch it, because he didn’t want his mother to get any ideas. Then he jerked a little as the pain came again. Oh no.

His mother’s retort followed right away. “Again?! I can’t believe this, it would be better if someone already just killed that girl.”

Oswald flopped on his back and scowled at his mother. “Don’t say that!”

“She is giving you nothing, but trouble, and we have enough of that already.”

The boy’s breathing got rusher, both because of the growing pain and his anger. “It’s not like I don’t give them just enough shit, mom, they suffer a lot more because of me. You are just as bad as him–“

He didn’t want to say that. Not the last part at least. He saw the wince on the woman’s face, and was grateful that they were in a hospital, because she didn’t attack back. She just stood up from the chair, then turned around.

“We are leaving tomorrow. And you really need to get yourself together by that time.”

“Okay,” Oswald mumbled back, then curled up under the comforter.

She was right. She had always been right. She just wanted to keep him alive. Oswald understood, but it still felt so unfair. Everything was unfair, and he hated this life. He hated it a lot more than his mother. But he couldn’t just go and die. It just felt wrong. The only reason why he wanted to be alive was the possibility of sometime later meeting Andrew. Maybe it was. Maybe he was just a lot stronger than he thought. Or selfish. He wanted to live even if it caused trouble for Andrew.

“But I’ll do this right. I will get my shit together, I swear. I will be focused, and I’ll protect us from unnecessary pain. Just watch me.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, hugged his knees to his chest, and endured Andrew’s pain without a noise.

~~~

He was still thirteen years and two months old, but it felt like he aged at least ten years in the past few days. He was on the roof of an abandoned factory by the sea, staring down not to the scenery, but his own arm in his lap.

Blood. Slowly welling out from under his skin. It wasn’t black, even though he kind of waited for it to turn dark. Everything felt so dark inside. Dead. But he wasn’t dead, right? His blood was still flowing, his heart still pumped it.

Then why? Why did he felt killed when that woman turned her head away as her son appeared from his room that morning?

He felt the flames of anger shot up in his body again. He was so angry. He wanted to kill someone.

Himself.

He looked down to the street and considered just leaning forward.

Instead he just scratched one more line with the blade into his forearm.

~~~

Leon was only one month away from turning thirteen, and he was out in town for a run. They were here with his mother for more than three months already, and he quite liked it. After spending 9 months in Germany and 11 months wandering around different towns in Switzerland, he was mostly fluent in German. He found learning it a lot more enjoyable and easier than anything else in school. He tried hard after the incident on his birthday last year, they were on better terms with his mother, too. And what’s most important, they hadn’t met his father or his men ever since.

Snow already started to fall the previous week, but the people of this town made sure the city was clean, so he did not need to fear falling while running. He greeted many people with small bows, some with actual ‘good morning’, because it was a small city, and it was easier to blend in by being friendly than not. Only three days before Christmas, the town was weirdly lively at 7pm. Leon concentrated on his surroundings, trying hard to be aware of any danger. Taking up running as a habit was a lot easier than sharpening his observation skills, but he thought, he was getting better. He saw the baker moving around in the dark shop on the other side of the road, he noticed the married couple before they turned toward him on the corner, he caught a glance of a dog running around in the bushes in the park. These were just small things, but he was proud.

His mother didn’t want to let him go running at first when he asked for it. She said it’s dangerous to run around alone, and she was right. But Leon promised to stay on the main streets, always trying to be around other people, and he did carry around a gun all the time. His mother despised the idea he could see it, but she started to work – also because in small towns like this it would have been suspicious if she didn’t –, and it wasn’t less dangerous to leave him alone in the flat anyway. So Leon picked up running in Switzerland, and realized he loved it. He couldn’t play exy or other sports – oh damn, the temptation during P.E. classes when they had a chance to do it, though! –, but moving his body like this was already a bless. He knew that now, it wouldn’t be hard for him to run around in that forest that almost killed him 11 months ago.

“Hi, Leon!”

He didn’t startle, he saw his classmates way before they noticed him. They were hanging out on the benches of the park, one of them, who Leon didn’t know, smoked, and the others seemed to share around some drinks. It steamed so he assumed it was tea.

“Hi,” he greeted them back and stopped. He pondered if it was rude of him to not climb the stairs to go up to them.

“Want some mulled wine? Jay,” he pointed towards the unfamiliar face with his head “got us some from the Christmas fair.” He was grinning like they just committed the biggest crime.

“Hi, Leon!”

Now Leon didn’t hesitate anymore to go up to them. The girl he thought was the prettiest in their whole school just talked to him! He was happy his face was red already, because now it felt literally on fire. “Hello, Tresa!” he said, then wiped his hands on his sweatpants, before accepting the cup. It felt nice to hold it, now that he stopped, he felt how cold it really was. He wondered if his sweat would freeze on him or not. He also pondered whether he smelled bad or not. “Thanks.” He handed the cup back to Garrick, but that shook his head.

“It’s fine, man, you can have the rest.”

Leon didn’t really like the sweet taste of the spicy wine, but he still sipped on it until it was gone, because at least he had a reason to stay around them. Tresa was beautiful even in her puffy coat, wearing simple jeans. As the others chatted around where they go to ski after Christmas, he tried not to stare too obviously at the girl and her shining blond hair. She was a little taller than him, he noticed only now, as this was the first time they actually stood next to each other. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

“You are taller than me, it’s weird.” This was the point when he should have noticed something wasn’t right, but he was a little late for that.

The others started to laugh at him, then Garrick put his arm on Leon’s shoulders. “Everybody is taller than you, man. You are smaller than my little sister.”

Leon giggled at that, mostly because Tresa was laughing, too. She was so pretty. And she didn’t have blue eyes like everybody else seemed to do around here. Leon wasn’t a fan of blue eyes. He wanted to lean closer to check if her eyes are only green or have some other color, but fortunately Garrick was still holding him tight. He fit under the boy’s arm perfectly. “Am I really that small? I wonder if Andrew is also taller than me…” He had to shake his head to make that thought go away. Then he noticed the world wasn’t exactly still anymore.

“Leon!” They all froze at the sudden shouting voice.

“Ugh, fuck,” they muttered together with Garrick, who already tore the cup out of Leon’s hand. “You should go.”

“Ah, yeah. Thanks, man. Bye, guys!” Everybody waved at him, Tresa waved at him as he ran down the stairs, then over to the other side of the street to his mother. “Hey!”

Mary narrowed her eyes at him, Leon wasn’t aware the silly smile on his face. “Are you drunk?”

“No!” he answered quickly. “I just had a few sip of mulled wine, I’m fine.”

The woman didn’t seem convinced – or just kept thinking about the reason behind that smile –, but for once she kept the grumpy comments to herself. She hadn’t seen her baby’s smile for a long time. “Let’s go home.”

“How was work?” Leon asked after his mother linked her arm into his.

“People are surprisingly nice. Must be the Christmas spirit.” Leon felt too good to start thinking about his mother’s good mood is only for the holiday, too.

Falling asleep that night wasn’t hard at all. His mind usually kept him awake for at least an hour, but now it just turned off easily. Or just switched over to dreams instead.

Leon was running, but for a change not from anything, but with someone. He couldn’t quite see the other, as he still didn’t know how his soulmate looked like, but he knew it was Andrew. He had blond hair, though, and that was certain. Leon saw some of his tufts that the attackers tore out, which he didn’t want to think about so he just looked back at the colorful town. It was Christmas, people were singing carols around them, and all the trees of the mountains had lights on them. Everything was so vivid and lively, and even though it was surely cold as it even started to snow, he felt warm. He had Andrew by his side, everything felt amazing.

They ran up to the park, here also all the trees and brushes were decorated with white lights, and Leon was about to ask something, because he just wanted to talk to Andrew so bad, when the other suddenly halted. Leon looked back, and he almost could see his face, before everything started to fade.

“No! Please, don’t go!”

He shouldn’t have said that. The moment please appeared in his head, the scenery switched colors. All the lights turned to red, and the snow wasn’t snow anymore, but blood. And he couldn’t see Andrew now, as he became Andrew. He looked around, searching the darkness for the danger, then he noticed the moving shadow. It was the man who appeared in Andrew’s nightmares ever since the raping started again.

“Hey, bro! I’ve been searching for you.”

Andrew’s fists tightened up, and he stepped back. “Stay the fuck away from me.”

“Hey, hey, I’ll tell mommy that you are being mean with big bro.” The guy’s smirk was wide, and his eyes dark under his eyebrows. He wore a white tank top like always, but the blood that still fell from the darkness above them gradually turned it red. “Let’s talk a little, Andy.”

“No.” Andrew’s hand was shaking, but Leon knew his whole body would have been if he wasn’t protesting against it so hard. He was scared. So scared, and still couldn’t run away. He never could. His voice would be gone soon, too. Just like Leon had never had a voice in these dreams to scream, “RUN!!!”, Andrew lost his, too. He tried to fight as the guy came close, punched him, scratched him, pushed him, but he couldn’t move away from that one spot, and couldn’t call for help either.

“I thought about something fun,” the guy announced, still grinning after he pinned Andrew down into the frozen blood. “I’ll ask mommy to invite your twin over for Christmas. Just thinking about the view of the two of you in my bed together makes me this hard.” He rolled his hips down, rubbing his erection to Andrew’s thighs.

Leon felt so sick, but also furious, even though this information should have shocked him. All he could care about now was why his gun couldn’t be in his hand. He wanted this guy dead, probably more than how he wanted his father’s death.

However, the dream was still not over. Actually the real nightmare started at this point.

Andrew was suddenly standing above the two on the ground. The guy’s pants were down to his knees, and he was fucking the body under him so violently that blood was now flowing from the boy’s body, too. Not just his butt, but from scratches on his back, cuts on his necks and arms, his pale skin was slowly disappearing, but his face was clean. And he was looking up at Andrew.

Blond hair, hazel eyes, not too thin lips being bitten in pain. It was his twin being violated in front of him.

“It’s your fault. You did this.”

He couldn’t even shake his head, because he knew it was the truth. It was all his fault, because he was helpless, because he couldn’t kill this monster. He wanted to, though, he wanted so bad.

Andrew fell to his knees, but his feet were frozen into the blood, and he just couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything else, but watching his twin being raped.

Leon woke up shaking, tears running down his cheeks, and feeling cold inside. His mother was behind him, hugging him under the thick blankets, but he just couldn’t stop shaking.

“What’s wrong?” asked his mother sleepily.

“Just a bad dream. I’m fine, mom.”

She yawned, then tightened the hug, but fell back to sleep right away. Leon forced his body to stop, forced himself to tense up so she wouldn’t notice him being awake. He just couldn’t sleep after that. His nausea wouldn’t leave him, his head felt heavy, and he just wanted to… He didn’t even know. He wanted to go and find Andrew, he wanted to run to the other side of the world so he never had to experience this ever again, he wanted to get up and draw that face before he forgot the details, he wanted to slap himself for wishing to remember. He felt disgusted, devastated, and so sad for Andrew.

And scared. He tried to not pay attention to this, so he can go on with his own life, and actually be present in it, but he was scared ever since Andrew started to cut himself. What if he actually dies? Leon felt selfish, but he wanted to meet him before that happens. He just wanted it so bad. What if now Andrew really does it?

The dismay made him feel even more sick.

~~~

He was fourteen years and one month old, and he was lying in a bed in a room full of other boys. He’d done it. He’d gotten out of that house, and made sure they wouldn’t send him back there. The monster wouldn’t be able to get to that other one like this, right?

He sold drugs, then attacked the police officer who tried to arrest him, because he was too obvious about it. He just had to make sure they wouldn’t let him out of here even after his three years were up. He’d stay here till he turned legal, then fled.

He didn’t care about anything anymore. He didn’t care if he wasted four years of his own life. Being here or being out, everything was just as meaningless.

He couldn’t care less.

As long as that other one was safe.

~~~

Vincent was thirteen years and five months old, and he was all alone in the world. Or at least felt like that. Summer vacation just started and he was in a farm in France where he was supposed to be a shepherd until September. He was sitting on a hill, surrounded by nothing else, but sheep and green. The grass was vivid green, the trees and brushes darker, but not even the countless shades of green could make this a less boring scenery.

With a long sigh he fell on his back and stared up at the blue sky instead. That was at least a change of pace with the slowly drifting clouds. He sighed again.

He already missed Austria. They left only because his mother thought he grew too attached to the people of the town. “It’s not even true,” he growled, and tore out some grass.

It was. He really enjoyed the time with his classmates… and Tresa. It was stupid, but he needed the distraction, because…

Andrew was gone. Ever since of that nightmare about his twin, Andrew was gone from the other end of their connection. There was no pain, not even the slightest, and Vincent wasn’t sure that when he dreamed something with him, it wasn’t just his own nightmare. He couldn’t forget that scene, it was playing behind his eyelids for weeks.

So he spent time with his classmates instead, because they were funny, and at least didn’t treat him as a freak like others tended to. It wasn’t like he actually tried to date Tresa. He didn’t even have the courage to talk to her much. But his mother still noticed the signs of trouble, and decided that it’s time to get going.

Vincent tried to understand, because he didn’t want to be such a child, but being shut away in this middle of nowhere for three months made him hate life again. If at least Andrew showed some signs, but there had been nothing ever since. Vincent lifted his arm, stared at the pale skin, and saw nothing. He always imagined the cuts there, but now Andrew was so far away, his brain refused to help even like this.

“What happened? What happened to you? You didn’t die, right?” He couldn’t imagine Andrew suddenly finding peace and happiness, hence both pain and the nightmares would have left him behind. He could only fear the worst.

Later on in the cottage that now was their home – hah, Vincent had no idea what that word meant –, he was pretending to solve math problems in a notebook, as they didn’t even have a television. They had to be grateful for electricity and hot water, because the toilet was in an outhouse. That things matched for ‘worst experience ever’ on his list, even though it had things like ‘my parents firing at me with guns’ on it already.

He was sketching. First just his mother moving around in the kitchen as she prepared dinner; he really liked how she looked like in his dress and apron that she got from the old lady who actually owned this place. He stopped looking at her when she started to clean their guns while waiting for the meal to cook. Instead, he drew some funny looking sheep even though already felt kind of sick of them, and some birds, too. Ravens, he’d seen a few of them on the hill, and it reminded him of Edgar Allan. He didn’t hear about exy for a long time. People seemed to prefer soccer – “It’s football,” how many times has he heard this? – in Europe, and he wasn’t really allowed to buy magazines. He checked them out sometimes when he was out alone to run, but there wasn’t sufficient information about American exy in German sport magazines.

When he turned the page, his hand ended up drawing the lines of that one face, though. Vincent – no, it was actually Leon, because it was Vincent’s first time – sketched it countless times in the last half a year. He threw away all of them expect the very first that he put away in his secret binder. A face of a boy still only half way to get his final facial features. Vincent assumed in a few more years that face would turned out chiseled, but now it still had some baby fat on the cheeks, and he always draw it without the wrinkles of pain or distress, so he looked even younger. The eyes sat deep below the fair and straight eyebrows, and Vincent wished he had colored pencils to try to recreate the hazel of Andrew’s eyes.

“No, you idiot, this is Andrew’s twin’s face.” Yes, it was. He couldn’t be sure that they were identical. Andrew might have had a rounded face with arching eyebrows and blue eyes. But he still kept drawing this face whenever he was bored. Maybe Andrew never looked this peaceful. Maybe it was just a mask that Vincent’s soul wished he could have. Sometimes he tried to draw smiles on that face, but it just felt utterly out of place so he gave that up. “I’d like to draw the real you. I’d like to know how you look like.”

Vincent dropped the pencil, and it bounced off the wooden table, and on the uneven kitchen floor rolled till his mother’s leg. He swallowed back the noise of surprise, then just stared at his hand. His knuckles started to ache. He flexed his hand a few times, but the pain stayed, numbly pulsing in a lot faster tempo that was expected from Vincent’s blood who had spent the last one hour doing nothing. It was phantom pain. It was Andrew.

“You dropped this, dimples,” his mother said, already standing above him, handing the pencil back.

Vincent accepted it with his aching hand so it wouldn’t be suspicious for her. “Thanks, but don’t call me that. I don’t even have dimples.”

“You had as a baby. You just don’t eat enough now so your cheeks are gone.” It wasn’t teasing or her feeling bad about this, it was just a simple statement. “Who is that?”

The boy snapped his eyes back to the drawing in the notebook, and felt pretty freaking proud for not freaking out about the situation. “Nobody? Just a face. I might have seen him somewhere. He seems German, doesn’t he?”

“It’s kind of hard to tell without colors.” Mary eyed the drawing for a few more seconds, then ruffled her son’s hair. “You are really good at this, dimples.”

“Mooooooom,” he whined, but actually felt good about the compliment.

And because his knuckles still ached. Andrew was alive. And somewhere out there probably just broke someone’s nose.

~~~

He was fourteen years and seven months old. He was in juvie only for half a year, and they already wanted him back. He got a letter from that woman informing him that they’d hired a new lawyer, and he is confident about his case. He could be out in a few weeks.

The monster growled in his body in satisfaction. It felt bored. So he went and gave it some enjoyment.
It really wasn’t hard to find someone to punch here. Everybody was so fucking annoying, always talking, or acting like they were the boss of this shithole. It happened in the dining hall, because it was the easiest to make the biggest commotion, and the guards couldn’t miss it. He just went up to one of the skinheads, trashed his tray into his face, then broke his nose. The memory of the guy’s stupid expression made him grin even when they came for him at night.

He started to go to the gym, and found a few guys who were ready to regularly fight him. It was alright. The monster got its excitement when he got others broken, and he also made sure that they wouldn’t let him out.

Now his only problem was that stupid exy. How much he wished he could have stopped doing it.

~~~

Roy was fourteen years and nine months old, but now he had to lie about his age, too, so people thought he turned sixteen two months ago. Since they were back in America, changing only his name seemed inadequate for his mother, so they also forged that. They ended up in Phoenix, because it was as far away from Baltimore as it could get, and also big enough to get lost in. Roy was already in high school, they came back for the beginning of the school year, but nothing was the same anymore as it was in Europe.

His mother was a lot more wired here, she was constantly on the edge of exploding, so Roy had to do everything as she wanted. First of that was not making any friends. He couldn’t be in any clubs, or obviously, join any sport teams, but he even gave off the impression of a gloomy kid with his black hair and dark clothes, so nobody would want to talk to him. He went home right after the last period ended, then spent most of his time in the apartment, trying not to go crazy. He was allowed to go for runs, but only to the park behind their building and always had to be back by the time Mary returned home from work. And of course had to carry around his gun, and a phone, too. She checked on him whenever she could.

There was only one good thing about this solitary, Roy could get updated on exy without problems. When his mother was still out he watched the sports channels endlessly, and even bought magazines, and ended up cutting out articles about Riko and Kevin. They had one more year till university, but people already started to write about what they can expect from the duo once they will be on Edgar Allan’s starting line. Roy wished he could go and watch them play on their first official game in Castle Evermore, but he assumed tickets already sold out for that – not to mention all the other reasons why he couldn’t go.

Days went by, and he thought he hadn’t talked with anyone for two weeks except his mother and teachers, when they got assigned that group project in social studies. Roy usually just stared deep into his notebooks during class, but he right away snapped his head up now.

“I want you, guys, to make presentations about soulmates. You can talk about your own, and how it affected your lives, but I also want clear explanations about how looking at this phenomenon has changed through time in our society.”

“No way, Ms., that’s so preschool, you don’t really expect us to care about this, right?” one of the cool guys shouted back at the teacher.

She smiled at him, “See, you are a perfect example of what’s happening lately. A few decades ago people looked at this as something very important, and now you treat it as children’s tale. I’d like to know why, Connor, so please, include that in your group’s presentation.” She went back behind her table, then took out a box from under it. “About the groups. Come forward and pull a number from here,” she petted the box while saying that. “You will work in groups of five.”

With loud grunts and clattering everybody went to the box to see their fate. Roy was one of the lasts, and he couldn’t really care about who he ends up with. All these people were strangers to him. While some girls screamed happily or boys cried out angrily at the result, he just quietly tried to find his group.

“Who else picked ‘4’?”

He raised his hand, then went to the right side of the class where a girl waved her hand ostentatiously. “I’m with you, I guess.”

“Oh, Woods, great, at least someone won’t give me trouble.” She scowled at the boy who sat on the table next to her, swinging his legs, looking annoyed.

“If you don’t erase that face, Rice, I’ll give you so much trouble that you ain’t gonna get no grades for this lameass project.”

“How clever of you to sabotage yourself, too,” she taunted back. “Anyway, as we are all here. Can we start this afternoon already?”

The three others voiced Roy’s opinion with a synchronized grunt.

“I have exy practice.” Ryo tried to not look too murderous at the annoyed boy, whose name probably was Lawson.

“I have the newspaper club.” This was a chubby girl, who sat two tables away from him, Weaver.

“I need to go home.” And the last one in the group, Garrett, who was the only one shorter than Roy in the class.

“Me, too,” Roy added quietly. He couldn’t stay out without talking it through with his mother first.

Rice rolled her eyes at them, then raised her hand. “Ms. Pearson, when do we need to do the presentation?”

“Only before the Thanksgiving holiday.”

“Pff, then you can all go do whatever you want today. Just show up at some point in the library, so you will know at least the basics of our project.”

“Bossy bitch,” Lawson muttered, then jumped off the table. “This group sucks so bad,” he shouted over to his friends, gaining a cheer from them, and some scolding from their teacher.

“Yeah, I agree,” answered Rice, then went back to her own table at the front of the class.

“She plans to do the whole thing alone?” Weaver asked worriedly, not really looking at Roy or Garrett.

They both shrugged, then the other boy added, “She likes to boss around. I was in the same group as her a few times in junior high. She just makes it easier for us.”

The girl still seemed anxious about it, but in the end they all just went back to their place. In their last class Roy sent a message to his mother. “I need to stay in school to work on a group project, is that ok?” He wanted to stay behind. He pretended to be indifferent, but that didn’t mean he really was. He wanted to go to the library and read up on whatever they had there. And he wanted to hear about other people’s stories, too. He was way too curious to not even try his luck. “Just be back by 6.” He had to bite his lips to not smile, it would have not fitted his character.

Their school’s library was actually just a classroom on the third floor with some computers, and ten rows of bookshelves. It was way too easy to find Rice, he wasn’t mentally ready for talking with someone for real, but the girl noticed him, too, so he couldn’t just turn around now. He went to her to the end of the room where there were tables put together by the wall and muttered some greetings.

“Weren’t you saying, you need to go home?” Rice asked with a raised eyebrow. The only impression Roy had of her was her eyebrow being shot up most of the day. It gave her a constant inquiring look.

“I texted my mom, and she said it’s fine.” That sounded pretty lame, but not out of character, so why were his ears burning?

Rice scoffed, then turned back to the book in front of her. “I don’t really need company. You can leave.”

“I’m not here for you. I just want to work on the project.”

Roy couldn’t care enough about her to get angry at the shrug she gave him, so he just went and started to explore the bookshelves instead. Rice thought he was leaving, because he didn’t put down his bag, she looked surprised as she looked back over his shoulder, then quickly turned away again.

The only time Rice talked to him again was when she noticed which book Roy started to read. “I don’t think we need to include the first sightings of the soulmate phenomenon in our presentation.” This time Roy shrugged, and unlike him, she did get angry for it.

He just wanted to know more, it wasn’t for the presentation. The book’s title was ‘The history of connection through pain’. He started to read from the first chapter, and found the part about the ancient times rather fascinating. He wished he could borrow it, but he knew reading it in front of his mother was a bad idea.

He read up on how people thought at first, this was a curse from the gods, they’d never assumed the pain comes from an another human being. In Egypt it was a practice to kill anyone until they found the Pharaoh’s soulmate if they suffered at least once, because of the other party. The Greeks thought soulmates exists, because Zeus split the humans who were previously creatures with four arms, four legs, but one head into half. That’s why they thought soulmates could actually read each other’s minds, not only share their nightmares. The Romans didn’t go as far as reading thoughts, but they did believe that when two soulmates meet, they understand each other without words, and there is no bigger joy for a man than meeting another who he can share all his being with.

In the middle ages with the spreading of Christianity, people started to think of it as a curse again, it was god’s punishment for the sinners. From the 12th century rich men chased their soulmates, if they caused them trouble, and a whole business developed around this with professional hunters. They were even ready to give themselves pain so the hunters could prove the pray was the right person. There were some mentions of perverts who enjoyed the pain, and captured their soulmates only for the purpose of torturing them instead of themselves.

In the 19th century, however, soulmates started to get romanticized. It wasn’t unknown to think true love can be found only if you experience it with your soulmate, but at this time the idea started to overrule everybody’s minds. Till the beginning of World War I people were obsessed with finding their pair. There were mentions of many nobilities who killed themselves when they found out their significant other was of the same gender, or they refused to get married and carry on the family line if their soulmates couldn’t be found.

That’s how far Roy got in flipping through the book that afternoon. He set an alarm just in case. The loud beeping startled both him and Rice, they were the only ones in the library by that time. He mumbled a quiet sorry, then stood up and put the book back on the shelf. He left without another word to her.

He fell asleep thinking about Andrew that night, but ended up dreaming about his father hunting for Andrew to torture him, so Roy would suffer, too. He woke up in the middle of the night sweating through his t-shirt, feeling sick.

Rice seemed surprised to find him coming to the library again, but she didn’t comment on it, just went back to read. Roy found the book from yesterday, and sat down next to her to continue.

With the upcoming thunderous years in the beginning of the 20th century, people had to change their obsessed thinking. It was bad enough to lose the population to the war, they couldn’t go and say no to marrying someone who wasn’t their pair. Soulmate propaganda was prohibited throughout Europe, which included burning books, and executing leaders of the movements. Meanwhile in America it become a problem as the racist theories gained ground, and white people started to fear having soulmates from other races. Not really needing more detailed nightmares, Roy skipped the parts about the tortures KKK and other racist groups committed in the name of their crazy beliefs. When World War II gave bigger ground to these racist views, it became even more obvious that to live in peace, the soulmate phenomenon had to be pushed back from people’s minds.

In the years of economic recovery then rapid growth, people started to look at soulmates as something that only mattered in stories. With the world building up a make-believe peace, people learnt to ignore the pain of others. They just thought of it as another inconvenience that life threw their way. Later on these people raised a generation that even looked down on the whole thing. It was Roy’s.

Only in the past decade it started to be a topic again with scientist–

“Woods,” said Rice, and put her hand on Roy’s shoulder.

He startled, almost falling back with the chair that he was leaning way too back on. After slapping both his hands down the table, he took a deep breath then looked to Rice. “What?” He probably asked that too angrily.

“Won’t you take notes or something?” She also sounded annoyed.

“Didn’t you say we don’t need history?”

“I said we don’t need the ancient times, but you are already in the 90’s.” She frowned with her brushy eyebrows. “How much have you read anyway? That book is like 400 pages.”

“Dunno, I mostly just flipped through, if an article caught my attention I read it.” He shrugged. “Where do you wanna start?”

“After WWII should be alright, don’t you think?”

“Are you actually asking for my opinion or it was just a rhetorical question?”

“You are here, at least make yourself useful.”

Roy couldn’t hide a smile at how Rice averted her eyes after spatting at him like that. “I think it’s a good idea, because we can still mention how it was used for horrible things, but not going back too far yet,” he answered diligently.

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” Rice concluded. “So take notes of things you find interesting to mention, then we can collate some other day.”

“Are you reading about this period, too?” She had magazines scattered around in front of her.

“No, I’m more interested in the biological discoveries of the last few years.” Her curly, black hair flew all over the place as she shook her head. “But I know the history part already, so we can talk about it when you are ready.”

“I see.” Roy eyed her for a few seconds with narrowed eyes, which for some reason sent dark red roses up on her brown cheeks.

“I know it’s considered childish to care about this topic at this age. But I’m interested. I’ve always been,” she jabbered like she repeated this sentence a lot of times in the past.

“It’s fine, I’m here, because I care about it, too.”

They exchanged some more mistrustful glances, then both went back to their readings, and didn’t talk at all until Roy had to go home. He left without saying goodbye again.

On next Friday Weaver and Garrett joined them finally. As Roy and Rice haven’t even started to compare their notes yet, Rice just introduced her idea of the construction of the presentation. They just nodded at everything which obviously made Rice more and more annoyed.

“Alright then. What about our personal experiences? Do you guys have anything to add to that?” she inquired on a tight voice. As nobody answered, she looked at Roy with a pleading expression.

“Sorry, but I don’t have a connection yet,” he admitted, and tilted his head with a shrug.

“Wow, that’s interesting. Do you care about it, because you feel left out?”

“Guess so? I’d like to understand it so if one day it happens, I know what’s up.” Lies. Lies. Lies. They came so easily.

“They might never come, you know that, right?” Garrett asked out of nowhere with his usual indifferent expression.

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Because your soulmate could be dead already. Mine is.”

They both stared at the boy with wide eyes, but Rice reacted faster than any of them. “Wow, even better. How do you know? Shouldn’t Woods know about it if he had a connection in the past? How do you know you had?” She wasn’t disheartened by the expressionless face. Roy actually admired her for it.

“My parents told me I was constantly crying and screaming as a kid. I don’t remember any of it. Then it stopped. Wasn’t hard to figure it out. I don’t know who they were, or what exactly happened to them.”

Roy considered the other with narrowed eyes. He wasn’t a master in recognizing lies, but he practiced it a lot because he wanted to avoid being obvious when coming up with his own. And Garrett was giving clear signs. The boy was fiddling with the pendant on his necklace, and didn’t look at any of them while talking. Roy thought Garrett did remember. Or he remembered the nightmares. And they most likely weren’t nice.

“Do you want this shared in class?”

“Do you think anyone would give a fuck about this?”

Rice waved with her hand. “We are not doing this for those morons.”

“But your perfect grade?” he scorned at her, but only his eyes became a little darker.

Rice leant back on her chair, shaking her head. “I don’t do anything for the perfect grade. I do perfect, because I’m a perfectionist. I think your story would add to our presentation, that’s it.”

Garrett rolled his eyes. “Whatever, man.”

“Anyway,” Rice continued, and started to tap her pen to her notebook. “Roy could be a late bloomer. Actually I really would like to include my story. It’s quite rare.”

Roy was all ears. He actually wanted to ask more about Garrett’s story, too, but he was so very ready to hear anyone’s.

“My soulmate is my grandfather.” They all reacted with the same widened eyes. “Yeah, it hardly ever happens that soulmates came from the same bloodline. It’s already fortunate if the two people are in the same state. Well, lately nobody really cares to actually search, but we know it’s pretty uncommon.”

“Is he still alive?” Garrett asked nonchalantly.

“Yes, he is only 62 years old.”

“Are you more interested in the biological discoveries, because you think you’ll run out of time?” Roy’s question wasn’t less blatant than Garrett’s. Or Rice’s pervious one for him, so he didn’t feel anything about it.

Rice scowled at him, but then just shrugged. She failed badly to look unconcerned. “Guess so. We don’t understand this phenomenon the slightest yet, I’d like to be engaged in the researches when I’m out of this shithole school.”

Future plans. That wasn’t something Roy allowed himself to think about. He will always be a nobody, without a place to go to or go back to.

“But can we talk about science for a social study class?” asked Weaver, not even looking up from her lap.

“I think we should, cause it shapes the present, and hopefully can stir up the lack of interest in our generation in the future. If it can be used for–“

“For what? It’s not like we get anything out of having to suffer through others’ pain.” Roy could see Weaver’s hands, she was pushing the nail on her right thumb under the one on her left so hard, he was sure it hurt like hell. Just how nervous this girl was? “It’s just a horrible experience, especially if you have your own crap to deal with in the first place.”

Roy balled his hand into a fist behind his head, he was leaning back with the chair again, but now slowly sank to the floor with it. That hurt. It was like Weaver told him what he feared all along. He’d been giving unnecessary suffering to Andrew even though his life was already terrible. He had to rethink his previous theory. Weaver was probably not nervous to talk, she was most likely just in constant pain, but had to pretend that everything was fine.

“Your opinion represents what everybody else thinks in our class, if you want you can talk about–“

“No!” Now she slapped her head up, and sent a furious look at Rice. “You don’t get to say that to me.”

Rice frowned. “What?”

The chair got thrown back as Weaver jumped to her feet. “Nothing. I’m not taking part in this project anymore.”

“Huh?” Rice shouted at her back, but she was already by the door, and refused to look back at them. “What did I say?” she looked genuinely confused, not blaming the girl, just trying to figure out what she’d missed.

Roy would have considered sharing his opinion with her if in the meantime his body didn’t start to hurt. It started with his abdomen, then his face, knuckles, arms, more and more spots on his sidelines. “Fuck.” All of a sudden, causing himself pain to concentrate felt like a very good idea. He shot a quick glance at Rice and Garrett, but none of them seemed to notice that his breathing got rushed, and that he was clenching his teeth to not cry out.

“I need to go to the bathroom.” He shot up, threw his bag on his back, then started toward the door.

“Why is he taking his bag?” Garrett asked.

Roy still faintly heard Rice’s, “He takes that bag everywhere.” He had to. He had a gun in there.

As the library was in the back on the third floor, he needed way too long seconds to get to the bathroom that were close to the stairs on the other end of the corridor. There was another guy by the urinals, but Roy marked him as harmless for now, and he just rushed into one of the stalls. After closing the door, he just stood above the toilet not wanting to make unnecessary noises with leaning on the wall. He squeezed his eyes shut, then even put his hands on his face as the pain waves continued to come. Punches all over his body. After a while just covering his face wasn’t enough anymore, so he tried something else. He dug both his index and middle fingers into his mouth and sank his nails into the inner side of his face. Pain shot up, more powerful, more real than the phantom one, and it eased his mind a little that was about to go into panic.

Ever since his knuckles started to hurt more than once a week, this spasm of pain came at him from Andrew. The boy was getting beaten at least three times a week, and the only thing that made Roy feel better was that, his hand always hurt more than anything. That meant, for a change, Andrew was fighting back.

He swallowed hard the saliva that tasted like blood – he probably scratched his skin –, and willed his body to resist the urge to heave. It was good. Andrew was alive, Andrew was fighting. But… Getting beaten up like this was too familiar to Roy. It brought back memories of his father’s heavy fists, his sadistic snarl, his ice cold eyes.

“I’m fine. I deserve this. He’s gotten every right to beat me up after everything. I’m fine.”

He wasn’t really. He stayed in that stall for almost an hour, battling panic attacks and pain while hating his life all over again.

On Monday it was just him and Rice again. She didn’t ask about what happened to Roy on Friday, why did he disappear on them without a word, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up. However, he was itching to ask about something else. It took him 30 minutes to open his mouth, though.

“Hey, Rice.”

The girl turned her head, but didn’t lean back, she was still hunching over the table. “Rosie.”

Roy frowned. “What?”

“My name, asshat.” She scowled at him. “I don’t like to be called Rice.”

“Oh, I see,” answered Roy feeling dumbfounded. Names. That wasn’t something he paid much attention to. He was just glad that he always remembered to listen to his current one. And he didn’t plan on remembering any of his classmate’s given names. They all had to be faces washed away by time in the end anyway.

“What did you want?” She grimaced.

“Can you tell me more about your connection with your grandfather?”

Rice… Rosie didn’t seem much surprised. Asking about this fit Roy’s story about not having a soulmate yet after all. She now leant back on the chair, but didn’t put down her pen, just started to tap it to the notebook which seemed to be her habit.

“He was born during WWII. He lived through all the shit that went down in this country, Woods.” Her voice was tight, and she was staring at the wall in front of her. “He refuses to talk much about it, but I know history, and I can see his nightmares. He used to tell me that he was scared every time someone beat him up. He thought he is hurting someone innocent somewhere else. He couldn’t be sure that his soulmate isn’t just someone who has a nice life, being lucky to live without pain that’s why he can’t feel the connection. He felt so bad for the possible trouble. My grandfather is a really humble man.” When for long seconds only the tapping could be heard, Roy talked again.

“What happened when you were born?”

“What do you mean?” She turned to him.

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “Could he sense it or something?” There was a shadow of a silly smile on his face at that impossible suggestion, but Rosie stayed serious.

“He said the nightmares came even before I was born. I wouldn’t call that sensing; it wasn’t like a light lit up in him. But you know, he just knew. That’s what he always says. He knew I am coming.”

“What can a fetus have nightmares about?!” interrupted her Roy feeling repelled.

Rosie scowled at him. “That’s the part you care about? Really?”

“Sorry, but it’s just… disturbing.”

“He said it was mostly the darkness with weird light and sounds,” she answered with a grimace. “They got powerful enough only in the last two months for him to notice.” She seemed so annoyed, but Roy was already used to that. Rosie was constantly annoyed. “He couldn’t be sure until my dad dropped me when I was 1 month old. He freaked out so bad, he loves to act the scene out, you see.” Now there was a rare smile on her thick lips. “He was 46, and for the first time he experienced that invading pain that comes and conquers you, reaching into the deepest parts of your body and soul. I mean, I haven’t experienced it much myself either,” she talked faster and faster, “because he’s taken extreme care of himself, staying out of any trouble ever since I was born, but he broke his arm last year. It’s nothing like your own pain, Roy. You’ll know when your soulmate is born, it can’t be compared to when you are hurt. The feeling is always worse, because–“ She suddenly turned her head away. “Because it’s not just your body hurting. Your soul hurts for that other person… And that makes it so much worse.”

Roy was happy she averted her eyes first, because he was just about to. It’s not like Rosie put the phenomenon well into words, but he understood what she meant by it. He didn’t know Andrew personally, but he was a part of Roy, and all the other boys he’d been. And the empathy he felt for Andrew emphasized his pain more and more as time passed. He couldn’t even imagine what Rosie felt who actually lived together with her grandfather all her life and loved him very much.

“So your dad dropped you when you were 1 month old?” he asked, awkwardly trying to joke and break the silence.

“Seriously, Woods?” Her eyebrow shot even higher, which Roy thought was impossible.

“Sorry.” He smiled sheepishly. “But you don’t hate having the connection.” It wasn’t a question, because there was none there.

“I–“ The tapping of her pen was echoing in the empty library as her emotions seemed to overwhelm her. “I didn’t want to trigger Amy last time.” Roy had to think for a moment to remember that’s Weaver’s given name. “I have no idea what she goes through. I am lucky. My grandfather took care of me by taking care of himself. I don’t know how it is to live with constant pain. I don’t blame anyone who hates having to suffer for someone they don’t even know. But I wish they would understand my point, too.” She suddenly put down the pen, like just realizing how hard she was hitting the notebook. She still couldn’t stay still, she started to twist her curly hair around her finger almost right away. “I love my grandfather, and having him around helps me so much. I can’t hide anything from him, you know.” She bit her lip for a moment when looking back at Roy, but averted her eyes again. “He knows when I’m anxious about something, he knows if I’m hurt, and he cares, you know. I love my parents, but having my soulmate in my life is so important for me. He is my biggest supporter.”

Roy had no idea what to say. He hoped his face is as emotionless as it can be, because Rosie’s words stung.

“And I wish–“ She had to take a deep breath to swallow back the tears that out of nowhere surfaced in her eyes. “I wish I could have been that for him for all those years when he was alone.”

“He wouldn’t have wanted that,” Roy said quietly.

“I know,” Rosie spat back, most likely being more annoyed at her own weakness than at Roy. “He never fails to say it. He is happy I was born when he could finally live as a man and not as an... as an…” She was fighting with the words. “And not having to be subjected to the mood swings of white people.” It wasn’t expressed properly again, but Roy felt he had no right to talk into this. He was a privileged white boy himself. His life on the run could have been a lot worse if he was black. “He is probably right; I see why he feels like this. But I know how great it is to have him around, so I can’t stop feeling bad about coming so late into his life.”

Oh, Roy understood Rosie’s grandfather way too well. How much he wished he could have avoided making Andrew’s life more painful? It wasn’t all that easy, because– “But most people don’t have their soulmates around, Rosie. They can’t rely on them like you do.” And even if he had been near Andrew, what could he have done? He was a child himself. He felt so useless.

“But they don’t even try!” she slapped like she was ready for this accusation. “We live in the age of the internet, man, don’t fucking tell me if you really want to find someone, you can’t. People just prefer to be ignorant. I could not help them anyway, why should I try?” Scorn dripped from all her mimicking words. “I hate ignorance. I hate people who don’t even try to make a situation better.”

Wow. Roy didn’t need phantom pain this time to feel like he was punched.

He was awake most of the time that night. He fantasized so many times about finding Andrew, but he never actually tried. He couldn’t go anywhere without his mother. There was no way he could have helped Andrew. He would have put him in danger. Damn, if his father found out about him, he could die with the worst pain. He just… couldn’t.

Were all these just excuses? Roy so did not need even this in his life. He just couldn’t. He curled up in the bed, burying his face into his pillow.

“What’s wrong, Abram?” Her mother woke up behind him for the movement.

“Nothing, mom, sorry.”

“Sleep, you have school in the morning.”

“Yeah, I will.”

That could have been such a normal conversation. And it wasn’t. There was nothing normal in Roy’s life. And he couldn’t get Andrew involved in it even more.

However, the idea just couldn’t leave his mind. It was there whatever he was doing, be that being in class, standing around the side line staring longingly at guys playing exy, working with Rosie – those times were the worst –, or just being at the house with his mother. He knew Andrew’s whole name. He could assume how he looks like. He knew he was in foster care. He might have… he might have been easily able to find him.

Roy couldn’t deal with his curiosity. One afternoon when both Rosie and Garrett left, and he still had half an hour before having to get ready to go home, it just happened. He sat down in front of the ancient looking computer and turned it on. He kept biting the inside of his mouth, and cracking his joints as fighting with himself whether this was a good idea or not. “It’s obviously a bad one, idiot.” The battle was rather about should he do it or not.

The operating system started up, and he clicked on the browser, then took a deep breath when Google came up on the screen. “I really should–

His thought was interrupted by the loud noise of an impact. He hunched, and immediately grabbed his bag from the floor by his leg. He listened for a few seconds, but couldn’t hear anything else. However, it was weird enough to make him feel in danger, he just pushed the power button on the computer, then stood up. He went to the window first, but only the baseball field was visible from there; he saw a few kids running around, but nothing unusual. His hand was on the gun in his bag as he stuck his head out of the door, the corridor was empty. He went over to the other side quickly, because that was the side where the stairs joined in, if someone came up, he would have time to pull out the gun before they see him. He kept close to the lockers, but not too close to make any sound. His steps were light and quick, and he actually made it to the second floor before hearing the gun shot. Someone screamed, and Roy started to run.

“Remember to stay focused. Think!”

His mother’s voice started to echo in his head like a broken radio.

“You have your exit routes. You set them up on your first day.”

They haven’t become experts over night. They actually researched how to escape from attackers, and they put up their own rules.

Roy was on the second floor, and he knew exactly where he had to go to have a chance of getting away without being noticed. He put the bag on his back, kept the gun and his phone in his hands. He texted his mother. “d u g” stood for danger, situation unclear, going to meeting spot. He put away the phone, then ran into a classroom, closed the door behind himself, and spurt toward the window. He was on the second floor, but there were ways to survive a jump from that high. He’s never done it before, but he remembered the rules, and he already had the perfect place to get it done.

He had goosebumps looking down, but the noises behind him were a lot scarier. He thought he heard a laughter. A crazy, way too familiar laughter. Lola.

“Remember to stay focused. Think!”

Roy took a deep breath, then climbed up to the frame. There was an Amur maple tree under him – he only knew the name, because the janitor was around when Roy came up with the route and he thought the boy is interested in it – that was around 25 feet high, and by the wall there were shrubs, too. If he made this right, he wouldn’t break anything important. He looked behind one more time, but couldn’t see anything so he put the gun away into his bag, and climbed out.

He held onto the windowsill and lowered himself as much as he could to shorten the distance, then pushed himself away with his legs. It took less than five seconds, and it didn’t feel longer either. The tree failed to minimize the impact much, but he landed on the shrubs and remembered to bend his knees. Relaxing wasn’t his strength, though, his knees hurt badly as he rolled forward. The energy of the fall released into the roll, but as it died out and Roy came to a stop, he allowed himself a second to estimate the damage. He was alive, and that was already a good sign. He just started to realize what the rush of adrenalin made him do. His knees hurt as he stood up, stumbled a little as he tried to continue the escape. He touched the aching part on his right knee, but had no time to think much about it. There was another gun shot, and it was aimed at him this time.

“Are you alright, junior? This game of ours won’t be fun enough if you lost a leg from that silly jump.” Lola was screaming from the second floor, but not from the same classroom where he jumped out. She didn’t hit Roy, because the tree’s trunk was in her field of vision.

Roy started to run. He had to leave the school ground, and the shortest way to do that was heading to the left side of the building. Will Lola jump after him? Where is his father? How many men they brought this time? After the first attempt still in New York when they underestimated Mary, they never arrived just the two of them. There were times when his father didn’t come at all, but Lola was always there. Roy feared her almost the same.

He turned the corner of the building, then halted as he noticed the man in black clothes climbing out of the window. He had the gun in his hand, and he fired. It was his first time, but he didn’t even think about it much. He fired, and as the man shouted in pain, he went forward. He couldn’t see inside the building even though there were windows every meter, because the sun was going down on that side and it tainted the glass blinding gold. It was a planning mistake. He expected getting attack at any minute, but only a couple showed up in front of him. The girl screamed at the sight of the gun, while the boy stepped back in surprise, then frowned.

“What the fuck, Woods?!” It was Lawson.

“Run away, or you can get killed.” He didn’t shout, he couldn’t. He had to squeeze this much out through clenched teeth, because his knee hurt so bad that he already saw black spots.

They didn’t listen. They never did. When the next bullet from behind Roy shot through the girl’s leg, they both just fell to the ground, at least Lawson shielded her, but they still didn’t run.

“Don’t feel! Think! The only one that matters is yourself! Don’t feel!”

He couldn’t stop, he couldn’t even look back, he turned the next corner, and ran as fast to the shed where they kept the exy gears as he could. He just had to circle that, and he would be out of the school yard. He was now completely without shielding, though, and Lola did follow him even if only in the building. She was leaning out of the window, aiming right at Roy. When he heard the gun, he turned around and fired back, but he was already shot. And Lola just laughed at him. Roy couldn’t suppress the scream as the way too familiar feeling pierced through his sideline, just above his hipbone.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” he muttered, and finally could disappear from site behind the shed. He leaned on the wall just to check the wound, but had no time for any of this now. He just had to ignore everything. Just a little bit more. With clenched teeth, and limping that slowed him more and more, he got to the fence that was just 10 feet away from there. He cut a hole on it behind the pack of lath that was leant against it – most likely left over from the time when the shed was built –, and as he checked it every second day before going home, he knew it was going to be there.

On the other side there was a line of trees so it blocked the view to the exclusive tennis court that was the neighbor of the school – no rich people wanted to see what community high school kids were up to. Roy headed straight at the back entrance of the building, and he couldn’t care about the people shouting at him for coming in like that. They wanted him out, not even caring about the dripping blood that he left after himself, but that was exactly his aim, anyway, so he just pushed the glass door open and dashed toward the parking lot. He heard the police cars. He heard faint screaming and shouting from the direction of the school.

“Don’t feel! Think! You are the only one that matters!”

There were always taxis on the street there, it was one of the main points of his escape route. He sprang into one of them, slamming the door behind himself.

“Hey, brat, careful!”

“Please, get me to Maricopa.” He pulled his bag into his lap, trying to cover up his bleeding body. He wished he wore a black jacket instead of a denim one.

“That’s another town,” the man answered, still scowling at him.

“I know. Please, just go!” Roy kept looking outside, but all he could see was the red and blue lights of the police cars behind them. Maybe, just maybe, if they leave now, he can get lost. “Please.”

“It’d be more like an hour from here.”

“I have money, please.” As the man didn’t seem convinced, Roy dug deep into his bag and pulled out a roll of dollar bills from the secret pocket. “I’d like to get to the Native Grill & Wings as soon as possible.”

“I hope you didn’t stole that,” the man grunted, but started up the car anyway. If you had money, people helped, Roy knew that.

He said nothing just kept looking back to see if anyone followed them, before getting his phone out again. He had five messages from his mother.

“t 2” meaning ”trouble too”
“ga ow bb” stood for “got away on my way broken bone”
“answer me”
“what happened”
“are you injured?”

Just seeing the word ‘injured’ made him remember the pain. His side was burning and throbbing, and his knee had this constant, deep pain which was even worse all in all. That pain was moving on from moderate to distracting, and that was pretty bad.

“was shot, side, went through, taxi now, Im fine”

The answer came a second later. “followed wait for me”

Roy squeezed the phone as hard as he could, and couldn’t help, but look out the rare window again. They were in traffic now; he couldn’t tell whether he was tracked or not. “what if im followed too?”

“just keep checking when reaching the outskirts, youll know. we’ll meet soon”

He took a shaking breath. It was going to be okay. He was going to meet up with his mother. He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t going to fall into his father’s hands. His mother was coming.

“Kid! Hey, kid!”

Roy snapped his face toward the man behind the wheel. “Yes?”

“What the freaking hell is wrong with you? You breathed like in panic or something.”

Was he? “I’m fine. Sorry, sir.”

“Remember to stay focused. Think! Don’t feel! Think! Be focused!”

He breathed evenly now, inhaled through the nose, exhaled through the mouth, and finally forced himself to touch his wound. He tried to do it stealthily, so he ensconced himself close to the door behind the driver before reaching behind. It was his left side, and his deep green t-shirt looked black around the hole. It was a bad idea to press it together with the cloth while running, but he hardly had any other choice. Getting that out of the wound felt like peeling off his own skin.

“Breathe! Stay focused! Don’t feel! Think! Breathe!”

Looking at all the blood was enough to push him into shock, but he just couldn’t do that now. He leaned back, looked up at the ceiling of the car, and bit into the insides of his mouth. He wasn’t shot since his thirteen’s birthday, but that memory was still very vivid. The wound on his shoulder ached even now sometimes when the weather changed. He remembered how much blood there was. He remembered his mother’s panic, because if it was closer to his heart…

He glanced down again, and took away his hands, trying to not heave at the sensation of sticky blood and his flesh. This couldn’t be that bad. He felt the exit wound, too, both were very close to his side, the bullet couldn’t injure organ. He had an extra t-shirt with him, because of P.E. He took it out and pushed it under the one he wore to press on the wounds. Bleeding was already slow, but the one thing he was sure about, applying pressure helps.

“You okay there, kid?”

“I’m fine, sir,” he said, leaning back against the headrest again.

“You sound anything, but that.”

“Just tired, sir.”

He just needed a few minutes to regain his power. He was just closing his eyes for a few seconds. His mother was going to come and save him soon. Everything was going to be fine. If he just rested a little… His mother’s commands couldn’t break through the clouds of his mind anymore, and the one voice that always helped him to do the right thing stayed quiet this time. Andrew didn’t help, because Roy couldn’t help him either. He passed out with an unfamiliar man in the car with him, with a gun wound on his side, and possible danger in his back.

He jerked awake as the car stopped, and the man called for him. “We arrived.”

His heart throbbed fast, his senses sharpened as soon as his eyes were open, and his mind got flooded by one word, danger. He looked out the windows, they parked in front of the Native’s, and the parking lot was mostly full as it was dinner time. “Mom is going to kill me for this. How could I be so stupid, for fuck’s sake?”

“You get out or what?”

He leant forward, finally concentrating on the driver. “How much is it?”

“112.94.”

Roy quickly counted 120 dollars, then held it out. “Thanks, sir.”

The older man didn’t take it. “Is that fucking blood on your hand?!”

“No, it’s paint.” He lied without a heartbeat of pause, but couldn’t help dropping the bills, and hurriedly getting out of the car. If the driver checks the backseat, and saw the blood… If he gets angry at the mess… If he comes after Roy… He was so scared of the possible attack that he couldn’t even feel the pain in his knees as he started off along the road. He had to get out of town, and that was like half a mile from there.

It was Arizona, though. There was no hiding from plain sight here. One side of the road was already the desert, and he had no idea whether he’d been followed or not. He didn’t know who could watch him. Anybody could notice the blood on his jacket even if he hung his bag on his left shoulder. Danger could have come from anywhere, and he was so scared now.

“Mom… Mom, where are you?”

What if she was already dead? What if she got captured? What if she couldn’t get away? “What if she left me?” He wanted to punch himself for that last one. His mother would never do that. “But what if?”

He was walking, not even checking his surroundings anymore, just walking with his head down to get where they had to meet. His mother was going to be there. She was going to be fine. He just had to get there.

“Mom, mom, please, mom, mom, please.”

He’s never appreciated his mother’s presence by his side during attacks. He knew now how weak and hopeless he was alone. He made so many mistakes that being alive at this point was a miracle. With his mother they could have done this better, she would have never let him lose focus like that. She needed his mother, and he should have never forgotten that.

He felt so alone. The only thing he could refuse to do was crying. Crying helped nothing.

The burning in his side faded as long as he kept looking forward and didn’t turn his torso, but the throbbing pain remained. His aching knee was a lot more problematic as he couldn’t rest that. He had to stop every few hundred meters after leaving the town. The patrol station which was their meeting point was already visible, but seemed as far away as the ocean.

“Mom, mom, please–“

His mute begging got interrupted by the car suddenly stopping behind him. He tensed up, not finding the courage to turn around even when he heard the door opening then getting slammed. He was so sure he was going to die right there.

“Abram!”

His shoulders sagged, his body suddenly felt limp and heavy. “Mom,” he cried out as glanced over. It was her. Small, looking plain, but fierce. It was his mother and she was already holding him in his arms, hugging him carefully so she wouldn’t intensify his pain.

“We need to get going, get in the car.”

He just nodded, and did as he was told. He was finally told what to do. He wasn’t alone anymore.

“How long can you get going with that wound?” she asked as soon as the car was moving again. They continued on I-10 toward California. “What’s wrong with your leg?”

“It’s fine–“

“Don’t give me that!” He managed to irritate her so fast.

“I had to jump out from the second floor, it just hurts ever since, I don’t know.”

“And the gunshot? Let me see.”

Roy pulled up his t-shirt, and the other one away from his skin. He hissed at the sudden burning. “I was lucky.”

She let go of the wheel, and gently touched him, trying to inspect the wound. “Yeah. I’ll patch you up as soon as it’s completely dark, baby. Keep that pressure dressing on it.” She didn’t sound comforting, she said it matter-of-factly and it was more reassuring than anything could have been.

He mumbled something to show he understood, then looked over his mother’s body. “What did you break?”

“Ribs.”

Terror crossed his face. “What the fuck, mom?!”

“Language.”

“But–“

“I’m fine.”

His expression turned to annoyance. “Why can you give that to me but I can’t?”

“Because when I say it, it sounds true. You are still bad at lying.”

He pouted and looked out of the window with pink creeping up his cheeks. “I am not.” He deceived Rosie and the others without any problem. He wasn’t bad at it.

“Ah, shit.” He propped his elbow on the door and covered his eyes with his palm. He wanted to work on that presentation a little more. They had only one week left, and it was mostly completed. He wanted to see the whole thing.

“Stop thinking about it. Just stop it, it doesn’t matter.” He survived. He was with his mother. That was his life, his reality. This nothing in the center of it with his mother. This was all he would ever own.

“Was it him?” he asked quietly.

“Yes.”

Roy squeezed his eyes shut, and bit his mouth. This was the only thing he would carry with himself from his life as Roy. The art of hurting himself where nobody else could see.

~~~

He was one month away from turning sixteen, and he was standing on the exy – half – court in the goal. Standing. He did nothing else, but stood with the racquet in his hands, because he couldn’t move. “That fucking little shit, what the fuck, for fuck’s sake what the hell happened to that little fucker, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He heard the loud bang as the ball crashed into the wall behind him, then the other team cheered, but he couldn’t care about either that or his own’s annoyed shouting. His knee was throbbing like it just broke, and his side felt like a bomb just shot a hole in it. He felt the last one before, and he remembered it well, because that pain made him so numb that he couldn’t fight the monster.

Just that thought made him so pissed that he finally moved again. With clenched teeth and a scowling face he threw the ball back to the other end of the half court, almost crashing someone’s face in. He wanted to go back to the building and find one of the guys he’d been training with so he could hurt that little shit back. He had to stay outside till dinner time, though, playing this stupid game. He spent the last one hour methodically targeting both his teammates and the other boys on the court. Because that at least made the monster shut up.

He spent that night biting his sheet, because the pain in his side just got even worse. He couldn’t be sure, but it felt like someone was trying to sew the wounds shut. And that someone definitely wasn’t a doctor.

He knew the other boy was a boy, and he was around his own age. He knew a name, Nathaniel, because that was the man with the snarl in the nightmares said when he wasn’t just shouting junior. But what kind of teenager boy was shot with guns regularly?! It wasn’t like he cared for him. He just wanted to know, because damn, his life was crap, but that other one must have been involved in some serious shit.

There was one thing he was actually curious about, though. What could possibly keep that kid alive? What motived him to endure all this? How come he hadn’t died yet? He knew he wanted to die everyday, how come that other one hadn’t ended his own life yet?

When he finally passed out at dawn, he dreamed of running and crazy laughters.

~~~

Finn was fifteen years and two months old, and he was driving in the desert in Mexico. They spent months in the country after running from his father in Arizona. They both healed, but not really mentally. By now not just his mother, but Finn was jumpy all the time, too. He couldn’t stop being afraid anymore. He never went back to school either. They spent time in hotels and abandoned houses, but mostly just in the car, Mary sometimes teaching him how to drive, because they could have never known when it would be necessary. Finn felt exhausted, and spent almost no time thinking about Andrew anymore.

~~~

He was sixteen years and five months old, and he was on his way to that other one’s home. They got him out of juvie, but he didn’t need to go back to that house. They got him out, but the only reason he let them was that, the monster smelled an opportunity. It smelled revenge.

And he let it dominate his mind, because the faint feeling of wanting to protect that other one was a lot more bothering than the possibility of acting like a monster.

~~~

Brandon was fifteen years and six months old, and he was hiding in an abandoned warehouse in El Paso with his mother breathing heavily by his side. They met his father three hours earlier outside the motel they spent the previous week in. His mother was shot in her thigh. They shouldn’t have come back here. He just witnessed his mother torturing and killing someone. He had to stand there and watch, just like he did with his father when he was 10, and the man tore apart a body. His mother did the same now so they would know how those men tracked them down. Brandon both admired his mother’s strength, and felt terrified of her.

~~~

He was sixteen years and eight months old, and he was dreaming. He always knew when he was in a dream, because he never really slept deep enough to not being able to think.

He was running, so it wasn’t his own either. He could never run away in his dreams, he stood and endured whatever came at him. Oh, but this boy ran, he ran as long as he could. Until the cleaver came flying at him, and cut his leg off by the knee. The boys screamed – he just couldn’t think of him as himself even if he was in him –, and the laughter got even stronger.

As the boy painfully turned around on the ground after he fell, the darkness started to fade. And the laughter changed. It wasn’t a man’s anymore, and the shadow that appeared from among the trees was a woman.

“No, mom, please, don’t, mom, please.” The boy whined in pain. “Andrew, Andrew help!”

He jerked awake right away. He just won’t dream about those words. No fucking way. And just what the fuck. His name. His name in this other boy’s dream. That boy just screamed for him to help. How was he supposed to take this?

“You can’t help anyone. You. How could you?”

He heard the other one’s breathing from the bed above him. Oh, but he will. Not long now. He will help at least the one he could.

He got up, then out of the house and stayed on the porch smoking one cigarette after the other till it was morning, and they had to go to school with that other one.

~~~

Wade was nineteen days away from turning sixteen, and he was really cold. He was swimming in icy water, trying to get from Mission Island back to Thunder Bay through Mission River. They spent New Year’s eve running from a gang that was somehow in association with his father. They couldn’t get away from him even in Canada for more than a couple of months. Everything was just a blur now. They ran and ran and ran, but they were always found.

~~~

He was seventeen years and one month old. He was sitting in the back of an ambulance car, staring at a burned out truck a few meters away in the grass next to the road. He felt nothing. No accomplishment, no guilt, just nothing. The monster was quiet, too. It was just him and nothing inside.

“You can’t possibly think, he had anything to do with this!”

He heard the police officers arguing by the car. The woman was trying for a while to stop the man’s doubts.

“He is a kid who just lost his mother, why would we give him even more pain? Look at him, he is in freaking shock!”

Shock? He almost grinned. He wasn’t in shock. He should have felt something to be in shock. But it was just the dark nothing.

~~~

Phillip was sixteen years and seven months old, and he just woke up from a nightmare. They slept in the car in the middle of nowhere, honestly, he had actually no idea where they were anymore. His mother was so exhausted that she didn’t even notice when he’d gotten out of the car.

He peed a few meters away by a rock, then went back and leant on the car. The stars were so bright, and the moon gave enough light to see the nothing around them, too. He didn’t really care about cactus or rocks, so he stared at the sky instead.

His dream was strange. He couldn’t tell if it was his or Andrew’s. He didn’t receive much from the other one for a long time, mostly because he was so tired all the time that he just passed out and rarely dreamed. Pain came, though, and he sometimes thought, Andrew was mocking him. When he bit his mouth too hard, he would get punched in his thigh. When he ran so much that his muscles hurt, Andrew would squeeze his side where the slowly healing gunshot wound was. However, there was nothing else from him. Andrew wasn’t in pain anymore.

So the dream was probably his own. That would explain why he saw both of them in it. At first it was just him staring at a blond, little boy hiding under a bed, curled up, covering his ears so he wouldn’t hear the shouting. He crouched next to him, but he didn’t notice. He didn’t react even when Phillip reached for him and gently stroked his hair. It felt damp.

“Hey, you, it’s gonna be fine,” he whispered, and the boy finally moved his head a little so he could glance at Phillip.

“It won’t. Nothing is ever going to be fine.”

They both startled as the door opened, and the boy hid his face again. Phillip saw a flash of blue eyes, and then he was under the bed, too. He lay behind the other one, also trying to curl up into a ball, trying to disappear from everything.

“Please, please, don’t do it. Please, please.” At first he thought it was just the other boy, but actually he begged with him, too. They begged for the monsters to not hurt them, but they didn’t listen. They never listened.

He jerked awake when that hand grabbed his ankle and pulled him out from under the bed.

Phillip really wasn’t sure whose memories were these. He didn’t remember hiding under beds, but the monster surely was his father. His monster would always be his father.

He sighed. “How could we be so unfortunate to get each other as soulmates?” He sighed again, then went back to the car. He still could hear the little boy saying, ‘Nothing is ever going to be fine.’ He agreed with him.

~~~

He was seventeen years and nine months old, and he couldn’t find his cousin anywhere. It was closing time in nightclub, but the older one couldn’t leave without them. He was getting angry, because this was such a waste of time, he wanted to get to the house and just sleep. Where was that idiot again?

“Have you seen my cousin?” he asked for the nth time.

“Nicky?” The other kitchen boy frowned at him. “Maybe fifteen minutes ago with some dudes in the back? They were really into it.”

He didn’t like the smirk on his face. The monster wanted to carve it off. However, it was just faster to go and get his cousin instead. And something felt weird. He’d seen his cousin flirting with countless men since they moved in together, but he also had to listen to him going on and on about the love of his miserable life who he would never cheat on. And definitely not with some dudes. His pace quickened for some reason.

The back was actually just an alley where they put the garbage out. That was what he saw first, and could have believed nobody was there, but he heard the noises. He passed by the dumpster, but his vision was mostly just dark now. However, he saw two men with their pants down, he saw his cousin kneeling in the dirt, he saw the black eye and bleeding mouth of the one person who had ever sacrificed anything for him, he saw a hand yanking on the hair of the guy who managed to not disappoint him even though they were together for 8 months now. He saw the one person who so far just gave him things and never asked anything in return being violated, and he just wanted to kill.

He heard the monster’s roar of laughter. “You can’t protect anyone.”

“Oh, you just watch me.”

He ran, he jumped, he punched, he had knives, and there was blood. And he protected, and he didn’t feel sorry. Not even for a second.

~~~

Abram was seventeen years, four months and twenty-two days old. And he was now, really, really all alone in the world. His mother who hardly let him out of her sight for the past 17 years, 4 months and 22 days closed her eyes five minutes ago, and wouldn’t look at him ever again. Abram was sitting there in the driver’s seat unmoving, staring at the body, but seeing his mother with her blond, curly hair in a nightdress just after shower. He breathed slowly, smelling vanilla and coconut, smelling like home. He listened to the waves six feet away from the car, hearing a gentle voice saying “I love you, sweetheart”, “You are my treasure, dimples”, “Mommy will always take care of you, Abram.”

Then a seagull cried and the stillness broke into millions of pieces.

Heavy breathing, painful whines. “Repeat after me.”

“Mom, we need to take you to–“

Fingernails digging deep into his arms. “Repeat it!”

“Mom–“

Blue eyes burning like a sea on fire. “Don’t look back. Don’t slow down. And don’t trust anyone.”

“Don’t look back… Don’t slow down… And don’t trust anyone.”

Lips tainted deep red by blood. “Be anyone but yourself, and never be anyone for too long.”

“Mom, please–“

Gasping, and a trembling body fighting its last and already lost battle. “Repeat it, Abram!”

“Be anyone but yourself, and never be anyone for too long.”

A tiny, faint smile under blood and wrinkles of pain. “Yes, baby. You’ll be fine. You’re my strong baby, you will be–“

Hands dropping, a body hunching, and never straightening up again.

Abram leaned forward, and touched the body. The abdomen was stiff and swollen, but the blood was still warm on his fingers. He dry-heaved, but didn’t turn away. He had to take it out of here. Burying it at least. He had to do something, but as he tried to pull it away from the seat he heard the dried blood ripping off the vinyl, and that killed him.

He broke out of the car, and vomited by the front tire, kneeling in the dark sand for long, long minutes. Not even the stink of his vomit could replace the smell of blood in his nose. His hands were black from the sand sticking into the blood on it when he lifted them again, then stood up.

Burying was already gone from his head, and he knew what to do instead, but even with the case of gasoline at hand, he just couldn’t bring himself to it. Tears were running down his face, but he hardly noticed he’d been crying.

His mother was gone, and if he does this now, she would be completely gone. She was already a by passing shadow, only living in the memory of Abram, and his father who wanted nothing more than this moment. Erasing his mother from existence. Nobody will miss her. Nobody will remember her. He didn’t want his mother to completely turn into nothing.

Then he remembered. There was just one more people in this world who could have missed and thought of her. He fished out the phone he’d just gotten two days ago, because the last one was tracked down.

He knew the number; it was craved into his mind like all the other things his mother taught him along the years. It’d rang only two times then a curious voice answered it. “Who is this?”

“Uncle Stuart.” His voice broke, and his fingers clenched on the door of the car. He was standing there, staring at the body that used to contain his mother.

“Nathaniel?” He heard the name, and flinched as his mind went blank. “Mary? Where is my sister? Nathaniel!”

“She is gone,” he squeezed out the three words, then heard the heavy noise of a fist slammed into a desk.

“Your father?”

“Yes.”

“That bastard!” Many other swear words followed before the man was able to compose himself. “What can I do for you? The offer still stands, boy, you come here, and I’ll protect you.”

Abram remembered Alex. That one week in Liverpool eight years ago felt like it happened in another life. His mother declined her brother’s offer, because she didn’t want his son to grow up in a crime family. She wouldn’t have wanted that now either.

“I’m fine. Just wanted to let you know.”

“Nathaniel–“

That damned name. The reminder that who he really was. Who he never wanted or could be again. “Goodbye, uncle.”

He cut the line, and threw the phone on the driver’s seat. It never rang again, because he didn’t let Stuart see the number.

The smell of gasoline made his stomach turn, but his mind was already switched off. No other way he could have poured it all over his mother’s body. When he was done making sure the whole interior was soaked, he went back to the door by the passenger seat, and without any hesitation lit a match. He looked at his mother again, and wished he could see her anything else, but this lifeless body. His memory failed him.

He dropped the match on the driver seat – couldn’t, just couldn’t drop it on his mother –, but didn’t see as the gasoline caught fire. He clenched the door frame as long as the heat made it impossible. He watched the flames turning her clothes to ashes, then finally stepped back when the stink of burning hair and skin reached his nose. He didn’t go far, he stood and watched, knowing this scene would hunt him till he dies.

Which couldn’t be long down the line. He was alone, he was weak, and he would die in a couple of months. Not even the clear picture of that future could stop him from doing what his mother commanded, though.

He got out of that beach with a numb mind and body, and he made it to San Francisco somehow where he obtained a new identity, then picked his next destination.

“Breathe! Stay focused! Don’t feel! Think! Breathe!”

His mother’s voice was in his head in the airport, and he mostly managed to keep himself to the commands. He just ignored think!, because that wasn’t something to do now. Or ever again.

~~~

He was eighteen years and nine months old, and he was burning up. He was sitting in a car with a woman on the passenger seat, and the car was full of flames. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the body as the skin melted, then everything turned black. He felt sick to the stomach because of the stink of burning skin and hair, but how could he still have a stomach when he was on the fire, too? When would this finally end?

It ended, because he wanted it to be. “This fucking dream again,” he muttered then jumped off the bed in the dorm. He had to go and wash his face, because without the smell of soap, he couldn’t get the stink out of his nose. He wanted to smoke, but just the thought of fire made his stomach turn.

Cigarette was a no, but the whiskey battle he stole the previous night from Coach was still half full. He gulped down the rest now. “Couldn’t you just die, too?”

~~~

Neil Josten was seventeen years and eight months old, and he was standing by an exy court, staring at the players behind the plexiglass walls. He felt the man coming close long before he talked.

“Hey, kid. I’ve seen you standing here way too many times since summer.”

Neil turned to the older man, and bowed in greeting. “Sorry, sir. If it’s a problem–“

“Not at all. I have an opening on the team if you want to play.”

Neil’s eyes widened, and for once, he just couldn’t lie. “I would like to, sir.”

Chapter Text

He was nineteen years and four months old, and he was looking at a very nice face for a few seconds now. If he closed his eyes, then opened it very fast, the face seemed nice, but if he kept looking, it somehow became dull. He was still looking at it only because this made it just a tad bit more interesting than anything else to look at in their room. But now he got bored of that, too, so he just dropped the file on the floor.

“Haven’t you already thrown this kid’s file out once?” he asked, only because he knew he’d annoy the exy one with disturbing him in his thoughts.

The exy one sent him a scowl, and he grinned. “I have. But Coach threw it back. Into my face.” As he had no intention now to make the conversation expand, Andrew just yawned and asked nothing. “He made me watch the video his coach sent with the file. Now, I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Oh, what could make you doubt your undeceivable exy master eyes? Thought you make only good decisions in the field.” He was grinning ear to ear at the even more annoyed face.

“I do. You’ll see when we play against each other and you’re sober.”

He rolled his eyes. “If. If we play.”

The exy one looked at him with his usual full of pity eyes. The monster wanted to crave them out. Or was it him? It didn’t really matter, because the happy pills overpowered both of them. “The kid could be something. He plays like he has everything to lose.”

He scoffed then got up, and didn’t even waste another glance on the exy one. He had no interest in pretentious brats who thought it’d be fine to lose everything. They obviously had no idea what it is to have nothing.

However, he did understand why would the exy one be interested in a play like that. He used to play like that, too. Until he did lose everything.

“I did not lose everything. I will get out of this.” The exy one sounded like he himself felt how false his words were. He arrived to the Fox Tower two weeks ago, and ever since he had been acting like he should get some extra treatment. Like he was still the prince of exy. Their teammates took that pretty badly.

“You sure?” The other one had a disdainful look on his face. Andrew battled for a second to match it or not, but he assumed it would just anger the exy one more, so he did it. “You seem like just an ordinary loser to me now.” The other one was looking up at the exy one like he tried to look him down, but he failed pretty badly. So Andrew did it for him instead.

“I am not a fox,” the exy one hissed, and almost everybody else in the lounge grunted at that.

“Is that a good thing to announce here?” Andrew didn’t move, he still stood two steps behind the other one, but the exy one surely felt like he was standing right in his face now.

“I’m a raven, I will always be a raven.”

“What do you think would happen to a wounded raven who falls into a fox nest, and doesn’t even try to blend in?”

“It’d fly away. It’d try everything to fly out of there.”

Now he grinned. “Let us see you try then. Just don’t scream too loud when they start to chop at you, I don’t like to listen to whining babies.”

Two other months passed since then, and oh, had he been trying? The exy one’s attitude didn’t change, he was still acting like he owned the place now, no matter how much shit the foxes gave him. Seemed like the 20 years while they raised him to rule over others couldn’t be broken that easily. He just couldn’t forget about the idea that he was better than anyone else.

Not anyone else.

“I can’t. He will come for me. He will come, and I won’t be able to say no to him.”

Andrew was standing above a mess. The exy one surely had his problems, even if he tried to act so almighty in front of the others. First of all, he couldn’t sleep. Not in humanly okay hours, anyway. Oh, how much Andrew hated him for this. He already had a trouble sleeping with all the fucking nightmares coming from the kid, now he had to deal with this alcoholic little shit in his room, too. Alcohol was the smaller part of the problem, though. The exy one lived his whole life like a day was only sixteen hours long. He woke up in the middle of the night, being ready to go on court. He fell asleep in the greenroom midday, because he was already up since 2am.

But there was no going on the court anymore. His hand was healing, but he was forbidden to touch a racquet for another six months at least. Andrew had enough of his drunken rampage by the end of January, so he took him to the stadium, and threw a racquet at him. “Pick it up with your right hand.”

The exy one was staring at him like he was the drunk one there. “I don’t want to just hold it. I want to play, and I can’t do that with my right hand.”

Andrew said nothing, he was just giving him the look. The look seemed to make people do what he wanted. The exy one picked up the racquet from the floor, grabbed it with his knuckles going white, and stared at it like he wanted to turn back time. The exy one looked like someone who lost everything. He understood how it was to have nothing, even if he never experienced losing everything, because he hardly ever had anything.

“Who says you can’t?”

“I’m left handed, man, do you even understand how important that is to my playing?” Again that almighty attitude with the disdainful eyes.

He stepped closer, the racquet was the only thing separating them now. Andrew had to tilt his head back way too much to be able to match the exy one’s eyes, but he owned his body now. It was small, but he could make it feel big. He could look threatening now. The only one who could overpower his body now was the kid at the other end of the connection, but he preferred to ignore that. “Do you want to play again or not?”

“I do.”

“Do you really want to get up?”

“I do.” The exy one clenched his teeth, even the idea of someone denying his strength made him annoyed.

The exy one hit rock bottom, but he never intended to stay there. The monster in Andrew hated that. But not him. He liked to keep people like that around. They were at least a little bit more interesting than anything else in this boring world. He was at rock bottom, way too dead inside to try to get up, but he quite enjoyed watching others exert themselves to climb out. Like the other one. Or his cousin. Or the rainbow girl.

“Then you will hold on to that with your right hand. You’ll play in August with your right hand, and you’ll not just get back on your feet, but at that little fucker, too, who pushed you down here.”

The exy one’s eyes widened at the mention of that, and he seemed devastated again. Sometimes Andrew wanted to take a picture of this face and just show it to the whole world. This is your arrogant prince. A devastated, alcoholic mess.

“I can’t. He will come for me. He will come, and I won’t be able to say no to him.” The exy one couldn’t stand his eyes anymore, he looked down at his wrecked hand instead. “If he gets to know I’m playing again–“

“Let him come.”

“You don’t know–“

He put a finger on the exy one’s mouth. “I don’t. And I don’t want to either, because I know he isn’t worth getting to know. He comes, and I’ll be here to make him regret it.”

The exy one seemed to be unable to get out of his own head, so Andrew put his other hand around his on the racquet and squeezed it until he finally hissed. “You are a nobody. How could you say no to Riko?”

He grinned. “I already did once. If you do your part, l promise to do mine.”

“Why? Why would you help me?”

“You’re worth it.” No. That had nothing to do with this. He didn’t care about the exy one’s beliefs. Even if the exy one thought he could be something, he had no interest in that. He wanted nothing.

He shrugged, and stepped, then turned away. “I’m just killing time.”

“Play with me.”

“No.”

“Not now.” Andrew was already by the door of the court, but that stopped him. “I’ll get back up, I’ll get better than ever. And when you are sober, come and play with me. I’ll make you see it’s worth it.”

He had no answers for obnoxiously optimistic future visions like this.

It was the end of March now, and time somehow seemed to go faster than ever before. Life was still boring, he still wanted nothing out of it, but time was at least flowing and not crawling now. If nothing else, keeping the exy one around was worth that much.

~*~

Neil was eighteen years and three months old, and his short exy life was over. His high school team just got kicked out of state championships, and he was graduating in three weeks which meant he’d get his duffel bag and leave exy and also Neil Josten behind in a few days.

It’d been fun. It’d been the best time of his life, and it was probably stupid to own that to a sport, but he did. All he cared for in the past year was exy. It’d been a year, and it felt so long. Never in his life a year felt this long. He shuddered at the thought. One more month and his mother would be dead for a whole year, and all he did ever since was ignoring everything she taught him. And asked for before dying. He felt like a piece of shit about that.

The cigarette that he lit was burning down in his hand, and looking at the red of it made his stomach turn. He felt sorry, but he couldn’t regret this year. Exy was the only thing that helped him stay sane. Alive. He had been grieving, he had been battling horrible nightmares ever since, and exy was the only thing helping him to forget at least for a few hours. He couldn’t just regret choosing that.

Or so he thought fifteen minutes ago. Now he kind of regretted every freaking minute of it.

“And Kevin is signing you, so–“

Oh, so fucking no. This man didn’t just say that name. He didn’t just actually offer him a spot on his line. For the fucking Palmetto State Foxes. His mind flew him back to January in an instant.

He just went into the shop to buy some non-perishable supplies that he can live off on for a few days, then his whole world kind of twisted. He had to pass by the magazine stand that was right by the automatic doors. He hardly paid any attention to them, but he was way too good in noticing things just in the corner of his eyes, so he couldn’t miss that.

Blond hair. A chiseled face. Very straight eyebrows. Hazel eyes sitting deep below them. Wrinkles that showing constant annoyance. A smirk not showing any good feelings. A face he knew. And a face he never expected to ever really see.

He halted, then just stared at the magazine for long seconds before reaching for it with a shaking hand. Next to that face there was an another one, he’d seen way too many times. Kevin Day’s black hair, green eyes and light brown skin with that stupid ‘2’ tattoo on his cheekbone didn’t make him feel much. The text above the two pictures, though…

“The Prince and the Pauper”
“Did Kevin Day just dump Riko for Andrew Minyard?”

What.the.hell. He flipped to the article in the middle of the magazine, and started to read it right away, but his mind refused to understand the words. “Broke his hand.” “Left the Ravens for good.” “Coach Wymack announced he joined his Foxes.” “He’s finally together with the only guy who said no to him before.”

“Crazy, right? Day is so over.”

He startled because of the sudden voice. A 20 something looking guy was standing next to him with the same magazine in his hands. Neil had no idea when he appeared there. This was so not okay. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s crazy,” he mumbled back, then threw the magazine in his bucket and ran off to gather the food he actually came in for. He could bear his curiosity killing him only till he reached the park behind the shop. He sat down and opened the article again.

It didn’t make much sense for the second try either. Kevin broke his hand, and people were sure his carrier – and life – was over. Kevin Day broke his dominant hand. What kind of nightmare was this?

Andrew was playing exy. Andrew was so good in exy that they wanted him to play in Edgar Allan, but he refused them. Andrew was a criminal. And people referred to him as an insane monster?? What?!

Andrew and Kevin were together now. On the same team. Kevin left Riko and he was with Andrew now. That killed him. That hurt so bad.

In the upcoming weeks as literally everybody couldn’t shut up about this news, Neil battled jealousy with a losing army. His hate for Kevin raised and lowered randomly. When he could get over the fact that Kevin had everything he never could have and now even Andrew, he felt bad for the guy, because damn, he did know what it is to lose everything. When he couldn’t, though, he was so scornful. He only could pity someone who was so stupid that he went skiing even though his whole life was built over a sport that required his hand more than anything. And he was together with Andrew. Oh, Neil just couldn’t possibly get over that.

He had the article cut out and put away in his binder, but the picture of Andrew was somehow always at hand. He knew everything now. He didn’t just know a name. He actually knew where Andrew was, and it slowly, but steadily drove him insane.

There was one time when Coach Hernandez offered the team to stay after practice to watch a game of the Foxes because his team seemed so interested in Kevin being with them now, but only Neil and one more guy remained. And as the match was as catastrophic as it could get, even that other boy left in the middle. Neil was there till the end, because he couldn’t just pass on this. He wanted to see Andrew play. He didn’t, because the boy was benched through the whole game.

“Are you interested in them?” Hernandez asked ten minutes before the game’s end.

“Not really,” Neil answered with a shrug. It wasn’t all that much of a lie. He was mostly just interested in Andrew and Kevin, and none of them were present.

“I quite like them.”

Neil looked at him from the chair two meters away with a doubtful expression. “They are terrible.”

“Yeah, they have no idea how to play as a team.” The smile on his face was mocking. “But they could be better.”

“That’s what you get for gathering delinquents only.” He had seen bad exy playing before, but the Foxes were literally the worst kind.

“They are kids with bad backgrounds, the idea isn’t bad.” Neil didn’t like the I-know-better-because-I’m-older tone his coach used.

“It’s just a publicity stunt.”

Hernandez tilted his head to the side, and Neil looked back at the television, because his eyes were full of pity. “Not so sure, kid, I’m not so sure.”

He showed interest for one time, and it probably gave the idea to his coach to contact David Wymack. He regretted all of his choices in the past year.

“You didn’t bring them here.” He cut into Wymack’s words with his not really question.

The older man’s eyes narrowed as he followed up on Neil’s way of thinking. “I did.”

No. No fucking way. He couldn’t meet them. He tried so freaking hard to ignore them since January. He was ready to leave everything behind again, and just run away from even the memory of where Andrew was. He had to protect him. He couldn’t–

Neil bolted up the bleachers for the locker room. He had to get away. He couldn’t meet Kevin. Kevin knew him. He couldn’t meet Andrew. Andrew might have known him. And he meant danger. He meant danger for Andrew. He had to get away before–

He noticed the moving body in the locker room just in time to react. As that arm swung at him, he moved, too. He had a go at his attacker’s stomach just a second after that punched him there, too. He grunted, the other one just giggled. Neil hugged his own stomach as the doubled pain throbbed in his guts, but he didn’t fell. By the time he could straighten his back, Wymack and Hernandez were there, too.

“God, dammit, Minyard. This is why we can’t have nice things.”

He heard the boy’s answer only as a faint echo in the back of his head. He was staring at his attacker with widened eyes and a mind that went blank. Andrew Minyard didn’t look much in person, blond and five feet even, all this information he already knew. But his sight still threw Neil into deep shock.

“You are really shorter than me.”

Andrew’s eyebrows raised above his dark eyes, but the smirk didn’t disappear from his face. “You feel like a giant maybe? Cause let me tell you, I could still reach your tongue and cut it out. You really aren’t all that much taller than me. Plus, you hit like a baby.”

Neil wasn’t so sure about that. Even if his own punch wasn’t all that powerful, Andrew must have felt the pain he inflicted in Neil, too. “You sure? Cause I can point you to the direction of the school nurse.”

“Oh, Coach, can we just go now? We really don’t need another mouth on your team.”

“You aren’t wrong about that, but shut up now, and at least pretend to be apologetic.” Wymack stepped closer to them, then shoved Andrew back a little.

“Can’t do. The voices say I did no~~~thing wrong.” Andrew twirled his fingers by his ears as he almost sang the answer.

He did look crazy. Maybe all those people weren’t wrong. Neil felt he would understand why anyone turns out crazy with everything Andrew went through. He tore his eyes away from the boy, and looked at Wymack.

“It wasn’t nice meeting you. I’m leaving, Coach.”

They didn’t let him. Hernandez even went outside, and now Neil felt he got caged. Wymack seemed scary and big enough to fight, and Andrew was still present. But he had to go. Even if Andrew acted like he doesn’t know him, Kevin would.

“I’m not good enough to play on the same court as a champion,” he said after Wymack asked if Kevin would be such a problem for Neil.

“True, but irrelevant.”

Kevin was already in the room. Neil couldn’t believe his own stupidity. Everything went way too well, of freaking course, it would just go to hell out of nowhere. What did he even expect? Even if it wasn’t his father or his men this time, life still managed to throw shit his way. It’s not like he felt safe in Millport this year, he was ready for upcoming shitstorms anytime. But this? Oh, no. He wasn’t prepared for this. He had no exit route for this.

And he failed getting out of it in the end. He failed so bad. Because there were four things in his life that he never could give up on, no matter how dangerous they were.

Exy.
His obsession with Kevin and Riko.
Drawing.
And Andrew.

Three of these were all of a sudden put in front of him, and his mother wasn’t here anymore to tell him, he can’t have them. Wymack offered him a place, a future, and outside his knowledge a chance for him to have all this with his soulmate.

“How could I have said no, mom?”

Even if that future wouldn’t last long – he was sure it wouldn’t –, he wanted to have it. For a few months. Until Kevin or Andrew realizes who he is. Until he catches his father’s or his men’s eyes in television. He just wanted to have something finally, even if it would be a lie, even if it couldn’t last.

Exy. Playing exy with Kevin. Andrew.

Neil was weak and stupid. He didn’t even need his mother’s voice in his head to tell him that, he knew it. But he wanted all of it so bad.

~*~

Andrew was so high that he wasn’t sure even about his name, not mention his age. They just got back to the campus, and he took another pill right after the previous one’s effect that helped him through the flight started to wear off. He had to escort the exy one to meet the others so he needed something to make him through that, too.

The team just finished practice when they arrived, so they even had to wait for all of them to shower and change. Way too many people, way too long time to finish. Not like he cared at the moment about any of that. He just sat down on the couch, and stared at the ceiling, because even that seemed fun with the happy pills. He hated every second of it, but he couldn’t even act on that. He was probably hungry. He wouldn’t have minded having some whisky. He wanted to smoke. But he just stayed there and swung his right leg that he crossed over the left one while humming a song he heard in the car. Moving felt as pointless as staying like this.

“How was he?” broke the excited voice the silence. His cousin appeared from the locker room.

“Rude,” the exy one answered with a grimace.

“Definitely mouthy,” he thought. The new brat did what none of them expected – that didn’t include himself, he had no expectations as he never spared a proper thought to him –, and wished the exy one to hell. He actually quite liked to be the only one who ever did that. Well, in the end, both of them got ruled into the exy one’s web, though, so it hardly mattered.

“What, he didn’t treat his majesty the appropriate way?” He couldn’t help, but grin at that. His cousin wasn’t particularly funny, but the happy pills liked him sometimes.

“Did he sign the papers?” The captain came in sight, too. She just appeared, but Andrew already felt tired of the waves of energy that this woman constantly gave off.

“He will.”

Andrew wasn’t so sure about that. The brat acted weird till the last second. The way he just literally ran away from them kind of came off as something that could be permanent. Though, Coach talked him into this, Andrew doubted there was anyone he couldn’t recruit. Even if the exy one wasn’t luring enough, this place could be for an abused kid, and the brat definitely had his problems. He didn’t miss the way his eyes followed Coach’s every move like a frightened animal would have.

“Is he as good looking as on the pictures?” His cousin again with the stupid questions. As if the exy one cared about something like that.

The brat looked as odd as he did on his pictures. He was okay looking, yes, but he was also trying so hard to look average. His clothes were outrageous. And Andrew had worn bad clothes in the past, but not even his cast off clothes were this dull. With some work the brat could have looked alright, but now he was just a passing nobody.

Which was just straight off strange. He didn’t sound like a passing nobody. He defuckingintly didn’t punch like one. If it wasn’t for the happy pills, he would have still felt the pain. Andrew hardly let anyone to get a swing on him, but this brat still managed to react to him, even though he was sure he would be a surprise.

“I’d feel bad about interrupting if I could, but as I can’t, leaving that aside, I’m hungry. We’re leaving.”

He didn’t wait for the exy one, he knew they would follow with his cousin and the other one. He couldn’t care less about the whining of the captain that she didn’t get anything about the brat out of the exy one. He was hungry, and he wanted to forget the brat. Andrew still had plenty of time till the 12th of May when he would go to get him from the airport, even if time seemed to rocket lately.

“Ah, yeah, it’s April,” he realized as the pills lost their power a little bit. Then he was nineteen years and five months old. Not like it mattered even the least.

~*~

Neil was eighteen years and four months old, but he felt like a sixty-year-old dying man. He only started his third week in Palmetto, but the past fifteen days made him age years. He felt tired both physically and mentally, probably more mentally. Even if training with Kevin was horrible, his mind gave him even more trouble. He just couldn’t stop thinking about how to get better, how to make Kevin stop looking at him like he was his biggest mistake.

Being slow. Being clumsy. Being useless. He hated feeling any of these. Everything was about exy, everything was about trying to please Kevin. But he failed, and now, looking at Kevin practicing like a machine at 2am alone in the court, he just felt even more miserable. He really wasn’t ready to play with this guy, and could he ever be? He hated Kevin the most, because he just couldn’t cease admiring him. And he must have been pretty obvious about that, because Nicky of all people who seemed nothing but observing told him off. “Stop staring at Kevin too much. Andrew is scary territorial of him.” Oh, how much he wished he knew the answer to the why that pulsed in him ever since.

He knew he wasn’t alone in the stands, he didn’t even have to feel the other presence, it was just simple logic. Where Kevin was there was Andrew, too.

“Won’t you play with him?”

“No.”

Andrew. The only thing that could make him lose concentrating, the only thing that could throw his one tracked mind off exy. When he was fighting to fall asleep because Wymack was moving around in the apartment, or was just snoring too loud, Neil’s mind always ended up with that one topic. Andrew.

Neil had seen many of Andrew’s faces in the past two weeks, even if mostly all of them included that crazy smirk.

He saw Andrew without it when he pretended to be Aaron on Neil’s first day.

He saw Andrew threatening his own cousin with that smirk shining on his face like he was enjoying every second of making Nicky fear for his life.

He looked at his face with the smirk every day, but mostly just saw his eyes being dark and dead.

Now it was gone again, he assumed because he had to come off the drugs to be able to sleep later. Andrew sat in the shadows behind him, but not only the lack of light made his expression dark.

He didn’t make any sense, and Neil couldn’t ignore the mystery, his curiosity wanted answers. He couldn’t ask anything, though. Showing interest in Andrew would help raising suspicion, and he had to avoid that no matter what. It was already a miracle Andrew hadn’t figure out yet who he was.

The first time Kevin assigned him to play against Andrew, he spent the whole night waiting for the older boy to show up and start asking questions with his knives. How could Andrew not feel the pain as Neil destroyed his arm with going up against him for hours? He kept thinking about that instead of why was he so stupid to do it in the first place. The answer was pretty obvious, though. Somewhere deep down he wanted Andrew to know, he wanted to talk with him, wanted to share what they went through together.

He couldn’t, because it would put Andrew in danger, and he highly doubted anything good would have come out of talking with a highly drugged, crazy Andrew.

They started to talk about why he carried knives around – talk, huh, it was hardly talking with Andrew refusing completely to give real answers. Yet Neil listened carefully, wanting to remember everything. He wanted to understand, he wanted to fill out the gaps between the chips Nicky threw his way when he chitchatted about his family.

“You are selling yourself short,” Neil said after Andrew went on about how pointless exy is, and he didn’t care about having a talent. “You could be something if only you’d try.”

What did the shadow passing through his face mean? Neil had so many questions, but Andrew’s answer made him forget all of them for long seconds. Kevin thought he could be Court one day. What a blatant lie, but what would Andrew get out of lying? Kevin could be Court even with his right hand. Andrew could be Court if only his crazy eased a little. But him? He was not just bad at everything, he had no future. Oh no. He couldn’t be Court. He couldn’t even be sure he would be around by the time the Foxes start the season. Neil was a nobody and he would always be nothing.

But if Andrew said the truth, Kevin definitely knew who he was. If Kevin remembered him, if he mentioned his name to Andrew, everything would end in an instant.

“You are lying,” Neil said at last, because he needed that to be the truth. He wasn’t ready to give this up. He wanted to stay here for more. These two weeks – no matter it was a hellish two weeks – were the most normal thing he’d done in eight years. These two weeks made him feel he was free, and he wanted more of that feeling.

He looked at Andrew as he said he’d solve Neil like a math problem, and it made him scared, but also excited. He wanted to protect him with being a mystery, but he was way too selfish. Or just really stupid. He couldn’t cease longing for something that would ruin everything. It was just stupid.

“You are a conundrum,” Andrew said.

“Thank you.” It sounded like a praise, when he was just calling himself simply dumb. He felt like Andrew was a lot more like a riddle. A riddle he also wouldn’t have minded to solve.

“No, thank you.” Andrew slipped past Neil without a look back. “I need a new toy to play with.”

“I’m not a toy.”

“I guess we’ll see.”

This was so dangerous and stupid, but Neil’s emotions got the best of him, he felt excited under everything. When Andrew was around, he could only distract his feelings for him with playing exy. They were together, but they were more far away than ever before. Neil didn’t even get dreams from him lately. Andrew was a stranger which should have made him glad, because it was better than getting to know each other for so many reasons, but Neil was stupid. He couldn’t contain his feelings.

However, after Kevin and Andrew left, his brain finally started to fight back. His sane self, his mother, reminded him why he had to stop wanting things. He felt nauseous as the memory of flames, the sound of dried blood ripping off vinyl, the smell of gasoline and burning flesh overwhelmed his mind. He couldn’t have anything, not Court, not Andrew. He was just a lie, he was danger, and he had to get his shit together. Why did he always end up like this? Why couldn’t he just be like his mother? Why couldn’t he also be satisfied with just staying alive?

“But what’s the point then, mom?” He started to hit balls at the wall like he saw Kevin doing before, trying to bounce all of them off of the same spot. “Why do I stay alive if I don’t have a reason to do so?” Neil couldn’t do this without having something to live for. And that reason was now exy. He couldn’t regret his decision to come here no matter what.

He didn’t realize for a long time even after this that his mother also had a reason. Neil didn’t realize he was his mother’s reason all along.

~*~

He was nineteen years and exactly seven months old. He knew, because he spent the first few moments of every morning with inserting himself back in life. When you felt dead inside completely, you had to at least put yourself on a timeline to feel somehow connected to life. It was just a necessary method to make him able to get out of bed, he had no interest in days.

However, he might remember this one for a while. It seemed to be his lucky day.

“Hey, stranger,” his cousin was saying at the door. “What did you think of Matt?”

“He seems fine.”

“He is fine,” Nicky laughed, leaning outside, obviously checking out the brat’s ass as he was leaving. Andrew rolled his eyes in his head, then went up behind his cousin.

“Stop staring,” he grumbled, causing the other to jump in fear.

“I wasn’t, I just–“

Andrew waved him off with a hand. “He didn’t have his stupid bag, did he?”

“I guess,” the other one answered after a few seconds of consideration.

“You have nothing better to do, so go down to the entrance and wait for his return.”

His cousin looked at him confused. “What for?”

“So you can send me a message when he comes back.”

He didn’t spare any other thought to his cousin, but started for the room two doors away from theirs.
“What the hell are you doing?” His cousin hissed, coming two steps closer. Andrew turned back, and that made him halt. He felt his cousin’s eyes on himself as he crouched down in front of the door, with his set of lock picks already in his hand. “Andrew!”

“I thought I told you to do something.” He stood up, with the door opened in front of him. “You better don’t make me disappointed.” Andrew waved his fingers at him, then disappeared inside with a wide grin that was gone the moment he closed the door.

He wasn’t close to being sober, though, so he did hum as looking around the living room. The druggie’s things were already set up, and Andrew wasn’t surprised that the brat’s presence was nowhere to be found. Maybe in a few weeks when they get their school stuff it would feel like the brat was actually a part of this suite, but not yet. He looked around one more time, but didn’t start checking anything there, he was sure what he was looking for was somewhere in the bedroom.

He stepped inside, stopped in the middle of the room, then turned around on his heels with his arms spread out. With narrowed eyes he considered the three beds, the closet, then after one more turn he stopped again looking at the dressers under the single bed. There was nowhere in this room to hide something really well, but he would have tried the bottom drawer of that dresser. If he had anything to hide, but he didn’t value anything material. What he wanted to hide was in him – being audible only for him, fortunately, because the monster wasn’t something to show off –, or on him, and he never planned to hide his body parts in dressers.

“Focus, focus,” the happy pills made him mutter, then tiptoeing to the dresser pretending to be in a comedy.

He didn’t feel comedic at all, though. It was just the crazy in his system making him act like a fool. He was actually very close to being furious. Also pretty fucking triumphant as the bottom drawer wouldn’t open. He had to force the duffel out of it with hurting his fingers in the process. “Fuck that brat.”

The happy pills made him whistle as the treasure was finally in his hands. He waited three and a half weeks for this moment. Andrew wanted to see what’s in that stupid bag ever since the brat hid it in Wymack’s house before joining them on his first way to the court. But the freaking brat just wouldn’t let go of it properly ever since, and it just made Andrew hyped over it even more. There was something here that the brat valued almost as much as his life, he was so sure.

The brat wasn’t just a single conundrum anymore. He was a fucking annoying conundrum that just wouldn’t make sense.

He was so clearly a runaway, Andrew sensed it so certainly. He could see the brat’s reactions to danger – like when the exy one would start throwing racquets and shit around, when the other one started a fight with any of them, when Coach dared to raise his voice around him –, his first instinct always was to look at the closer exit where he could just run off through. However, he stayed. He put up with the exy one’s bitching, and there was so much bitching, sometimes the exy one made even Andrew annoyed with the unnecessary drama at the brat – it stole away his time, too. But the brat just tolerated it. He couldn’t possibly understand why. When he so firmly rejected to play with the exy one at first. Why would the brat now act like a pushover and tolerate all that shit?

Also he was way too obsessed with the exy one. That also didn’t make sense after he refused at first. Someone who seemed to worship the exy one like the brat should have jumped right at the chance to be near him. If he would have been just obsessed, tolerating the bitching made kind of sense, but Andrew could sometimes see the fire shot up in his eyes as the exy one went too far with his ‘lectures’. The brat didn’t just accept the exy one’s words, he was keeping himself back, and Andrew needed to know why.

They all needed. The monster wanted to know the reasons, because Andrew would lose control eventually if the brat meant trouble, which would have led to the monster getting an enjoyable time. He needed to know, because if the brat was danger, he had to know how to protect the ones he promised to. And the happy pills seemed to be interested in him, too, however he still wasn’t sure why.

So Andrew sat down cross-legged, then opened the duffle bag, not letting the fortunate opportunity slip through his hands. The brat’s shitty shirts were folded neatly, and he took them out with care, remembering the order, remembering the way they were put away, so he could put them back in later. There was nothing else in there, just his set of clothes that Andrew could have described to the point of which had loosened threads where, because he’d seen them way too many times.

There was nothing else, but the clothes and a binder below all of that. It was black, and it seemed pretty old. He opened it, and not even the happy pills could make him do a showy reaction now. He knew it. The kid was trouble. What the actual fuck?! The plastic sheet protectors were stuffed full of newspaper clippings and photographs of the exy one and his king. It was a stalker’s journal, that was put together for years. He saw a picture of the exy one being only like eleven with his chubby cheeks and dumb ‘2’ on his face drawn there with permanent markers. What kind of crazy asshat was this brat?! What the hell did he want from the exy one? Was he working for the king? Or the king’s brother?

Andrew flipped through the slips, but noticed easily that wasn’t all to this binder. Between the papers that the clippings were glued to there was pockets filled with other things. He took out a certificate of 10 thousand dollars first. Now the happy pills made his reaction pretty flashy as his jaw literally dropped. And that wasn’t the only one, he found almost a quarter of a million dollars in certificates in that binder. That wasn’t an amount of money an abused brat would get out of his parent’s savings. It just made his stupid story about his family even less believable. Not to mention Andrew was now even more certain the brat was running from something, probably the one he stole the money from.

He found a few papers with numbers or nursery rhymes on it, but he didn’t bother about those now, they obviously had a meaning, but he would have had time to think about that later; he memorized them easily with just a few glances. He tilted his head to the side and smirked widely as he picked out a box of brown contact lenses. Hah, he was right about the brat’s eyes, what a fucking lack of surprise.

Even after all these, the last slip was the weirdest. It contained sketches. He couldn’t even begin to understand why would the brat keep these together with his biggest secrets. The visible one showed a woman from behind in a kitchen, and Andrew almost considered not going through the whole thing after the second one that was also of a woman, but then he took a better look at her face.

With narrowed eyes he wondered why it rang an alarm in his mind. He didn’t remember ever meeting a woman with such a gentle and kind smile. She had an oval face, with almond-shaped eyes that somehow seemed sad even though the woman’s whole expression still was simply gentle because of her smile. Maybe it was the thinness of the lips or the almost snobbish looking upturned nose that reminded him of the brat, but the moment it happened Andrew couldn’t see that face gentle anymore. Now it was angry, wrinkles showing between the high-arching eyebrows and around the mouth, right before a snarl showed up on it.

“Oh, wow. I do not like this. I definitely do not like this.”

He took out one more paper then he dropped the whole thing into his lap. That picture was of a teenage boy, just before reaching puberty so his features still were of a child’s. This boy could have looked a stranger, too, because he never really saw that face this calm, but he couldn’t possibly not recognize himself. That was him looking like a kid he never had been.

The monster was roaring inside. It was so sure it won. It was so sure he wouldn’t be able to swallow this information and just went on a rampage. “Relax, breathe, it’s going to be alright.” The new voice was Bee’s, the only one he didn’t always mind having there. He stretched his neck from left to right popping the tensed up muscles and joints, then inhaled slowly before exhaling long. It didn’t help much, the monster was still going on in his head, but the happy pills at least started to talk, too, so he could concentrate now on putting everything back into the duffle bag.

“Oh, this is great. He is just even more interesting now. It’ll be so much fun to play with him from now on. Oh, he is the best.”

He pressed the neatly folded clothes back into the bag, then pushed the whole thing into the drawer. He would have stood around a little more to fight the voices in his head down, but his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was time to go.

He just finished locking the door when his cousin appeared from the lift. “I did not take part in this, Andrew.”

There was no opening his mouth now. He would have either start maniacally laughing, or cut his cousin open from stomach to neck. He just walked back into his room, then sat down on the table and lit a cigarette. He shut out his cousin answering the other one’s questions about where he was, Andrew shut out everything and just sank deep into his own mind, so he could finally hear his own thoughts, too.

The brat was the kid from the other end of the connection. That felt like one low blow even for him. The kid was a bother even without knowing him, but now? He wanted him dead more than ever – the monster roared again.

He had to go – the happy pills whined, “But he is interesting!!”

No, he was not more than danger. Now he understood why he felt the runaway vibe so powerfully. The brat was running all his life, most likely barely getting away from the worst things looking back at all the pain they went through. And he dared to bring that danger where the ones Andrew promised to protect were. The brat dared to came here even though he obviously knew who Andrew was. He kicked out the begging voice that shouted his name over and over again in the nightmares for months last year. He wasn’t entitled to protect him. He had the other one, his cousin and the exy one already.

The brat had to go – “But he would be so good to toy with!”

The door of their room magically opened, and there he was. The brat. The kid.

Their eyes met, but then the brat looked over to the exy one instead. He felt like smirking, because the fear that he caught in the kid’s falsely brown eyes. Oh, the kid feared him now for real. He was afraid to the bones, because Andrew knew now.

He didn’t plan to interfere if the brat decided to lash out on the exy one instead, but then he talked in French, and the happy pills found that little new information way too exciting. “Wow, another one of Neil’s many talents. How many can one man have?”

The brat dared to ignore him and just continued his bickering with the exy one instead. The monster wanted him dead. Andrew wanted him gone. The happy pills cheered at the outrageous cowardice and arrogance.

He moved right away when the brat managed to piss the exy one completely off and they stormed out of the room. He found them pressed on the wall, and he should have moved to do something when he saw the druggie coming out, too, but the sight was somehow amusing. The happy pills were curious what the brat could have said to piss the exy one off so splendidly. He only did what he had to when the druggie shoved the exy one to the ground, but Andrew just smirked while glaring at the brat. Who still refused to even acknowledge his presence with staring at the wall. Oh, gosh, now he wanted him dead, too.

They got away from the busybodies, and even though a part of him wanted to question the exy one, he went inside the dark bedroom, and jumped on top of the dressers by the wall. He needed the time till five alone, just staring into the shadows of the room – he saw nothing more than his inner ones. He had to close the bars on his rage, on the monster. When he almost failed, he dug his fingers deep into the flesh right above his left hipbone. “You fucking asshole.” He kind of wished their connection could have worked with transferring thoughts, too.

He managed to calm down enough to just talk in the car when the brat got his mouth back – he still mostly avoided Andrew’s eyes, though.

“I don’t believe anything you say.” And he had the nerve to say that. “Wouldn’t it be fun to tear that nerve apart?” The happy pills cheered in his head.

“Believe this, Neil.” Oh, the wince as he mocked the name. “You can’t put a leash on me. And don’t be stupid enough to tell other people you will. It’s not safe. You’ll make me want to break you.” He wouldn’t let the kid use their connection against him. Never.

“You?” the brat said. “You can’t.”

“You hear that?! He is the freaking best!” That was the happy pills again, because he mostly agreed with the throbbing “Who do you think you are?” in the other part of his mind.

“I do as I please. Consider this your official invite, you suicidal wretch. I’m bringing you to Columbia with us this Friday.” The happy pills cheered, and the monster roared. He was ready to destroy this little shit. Andrew’d break him first, then watch as he runs away. He was now certain the kid would, that’s what he was the best at anyway.

They got to the stadium, and he was kind of expecting the day to just go back being boring, but this was one of those nasty little days when everything went to shit.

After putting the exy one to bed, he just slipped away. He couldn’t put still after that news. Everything was way too well timed, but nothing really made sense. The brat came here with his obsession over the exy one and his king, and now all of a sudden the king appears, too? What if the brat wasn’t really running from things? What if he had all those wounds because he was somehow a part of the business itself? What if he didn’t steal all that money, but got it as payment? Or just for expenses until he plays the spy next to the exy one?

The what if-s went on and on in his head until he found himself in front of Coach’s door. Breaking in was easy, he did it many times, just like how Andrew always found his tucked away booze, no matter the older man hid them in different places. He sat down on the couch with the bottle in one hand, and his other in his pocket clenching his fingers around plastic bags.

He needed his mind back even if for seconds. He needed at least one of the stimulating factors gone, and getting rid of the voice of the happy pills was the only way to do that. The monster, his anger always remained as that was actually a part of him. He waited and waited until the sickness started to crawl into his system. His stomach turned for the first time and he pulled out the dust. He emptied two bags into his mouth, then washed it down with a gulp of whiskey.

That’s when Coach showed up. He was still far away from feeling better, and it clearly showed on his expression, because he got an annoyed comment, “You are a fucking idiot.”

“Shut the fuck up,” he meant to be threatening, but had to clench his teeth to not start vomiting. The happy pills weren’t happy anymore, because he didn’t give them new ammo.

Coach gave him food, and however impossible it felt to force anything down his throat, he knew it’d help at least a little so he did abolish three-quarter of the sandwich, before he swigged the bottle again. Straight from it, not from a cup like he did since his tenth break-in, right into Coach’s face so he it’d be even more clear that they weren’t on alright terms at the moment. Coach’s grimace showed he got the message.

“What color are his eyes?”

“Green.”

He scowled at the older man like he was being stupid on purpose. “Don’t fuck with me tonight. I’m not talking about Kevin.”

“For once.”

The happy pills would have had some funny comment on the truth in that, but they were gone now, so he managed to stay on topic. “Who have you let on my team?”

Coach seemed so confused, and he shouldn’t have blamed him, but he did, Andrew blamed him at the moment for everything. The kid was here. The kid meant danger to all of the ones he promised to protect. The kid was maybe here partially because of him. He was partially responsible for putting them all in danger. Oh, how much he blamed Coach for everything, because it was easier than to blame himself.

“He could have come clean today; he chose to ignore me. I’m done. I’m taking him to Columbia this Friday.”

Andrew had to destroy him. He had to chase him away. He had to do something to make this right again. He couldn’t do anything about the king’s transferring at the moment, but not doing anything would have just driven him truly crazy. He had to get rid of at least one menace.

“He is a Fox like you. You can’t hurt him.”

That just made it worse. A part of him could have imagined the kid was like them, getting out of bad shit, yes. But what if he wasn’t? “You can’t stop me.”

“But I can end you,” Coach said. “All of you. If you do to him what you did to Matt, I will cut every last one of you from my roster.”

That was a challenge there, and the monster roared at it. It liked to test Coach’s boundaries, because it always had the possibility of ending ugly. The monster didn’t like Coach, he was so disgustingly good.

Andrew stayed quiet for a long time, let Coach deal with his things, and he made the monster shut up with even more alcohol. When that blanket got thrown at him, he automatically pushed it down to the floor. His ‘don’t pity me’ attitude was loud now with the whisky burning in him, but he felt also kind of cold, so he just picked it up.

“You wouldn’t really cut Kevin,” he muttered, then pulled the blanket up till his chin after falling on the couch. Coach liked the exy one’s mother, Andrew knew that much, but somehow he sensed some other secret there. Sometimes the happy pills wanted to get him to crave it out of either Coach or the exy one, but he still resisted as it didn’t really seem important.

He finished the whole bottle, but sleep didn’t honour him with its presence that night at all. Shitty days tended to end like this so he wasn’t surprised.

~*~

Neil was running. He was almost twelve, and had a different name that didn’t really matter at the moment, because the one chasing him called him on an another one anyway.

“Nathaniel, aren’t you tired yet? You can’t really run away from me, you know that already.”

He was running on the streets of Austria, but the scenery wasn’t really how he remembered it. Instead of snow there were body parts lying around the ground which made it very hard to keep a fast tempo up. He kept stumbling, and every time his hands reached the soil, he lifted them up more and more bloody. Blood was everywhere as he reached the park, he couldn’t raise his legs anymore, he was covered till his hips now, and the fear was unbearable. Not being able to run anymore was the most frightening part of any nightmares.

“And he stops now.” The crazy laughter came closer and closer, but as he finally turned around – the blood was now till his chest –, the face that looked down at him from above the frozen blood that the man was walking on wasn’t his fathers. “Why are you so surprised? I told you I’d break you. I just came to fulfill the promise.” The other one crouched down, knife shining in his hand.

“Don’t do it. Let me stay, please.”

“You know how much I hate that word.”

The guy grabbed his hair on the top of his head, then yanked it backwards so his throat was now exposed. The knife came closer and closer to his skin, but he only saw the snarl on that face, dark and crazy.

“Neil, Neil, wake up!”

He jerked awake as that hand started to shake his shoulder, then tried to shove Matt away, but the guy was just so much bigger than Neil, he didn’t move even an inch. “Let me go!”

“Okay, okay, it’s okay. You had a nightmare.” Matt stepped down from his own bed, so now Neil only saw his head.

“Again,” growled Seth in the single bed. “I’ll fucking skin you one of these days.”

Neil winced at the threating, but it was dark enough in the room that Matt missed it. It was also dark enough for them to not see Neil’s blue eyes which he was even more grateful for.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, sorry,” he mumbled, then dropped back on the mattress. Matt stood around for a while, but as he refused to say another word, he disappeared from sight. Neil waited until Seth’s snoring was audible again, then he put in his contacts, and climbed off the bed.

He escaped to the bathroom, washed his face carefully avoiding looking into the mirror, then ended up squatting in front of the sink. His hands squeezed around the cold edge, but he was looking down at the white tiles. Neil didn’t see blood, but it was just some kind of strange luck.

He was not fine. Three days had passed since the upperclassmen arrived. Since Andrew went through his things. The fear was eating him up, he couldn’t play, he hardly ate, and he definitely couldn’t sleep – two of those made Seth even more pissed at him than how he was when they first met.

Neil had no idea what was up. Sometimes he dared to hope, Andrew dropped the binder after realizing it was just a crazy stalker thing. Other times, when he had to be in the same place as his soulmate, he bit so hard into the insides of his mouth that he tasted blood. He was afraid of the moment when Andrew drops the bomb, but he was still there. Neil couldn’t believe his own stupidity sometimes. There was something seriously not right in his mind.

Why couldn’t he just run? Why was he stuck in this place like his legs got chained to the Foxhole Court? What was alluring enough to make him throw away surviving? Neil wasn’t suicidal. And yet.

The past two weeks should have been signs that he needs to leave. He came here with a time limit of until Kevin or Andrew finds out who he is. That changed to until our match against the Ravens when Wymack told him about the district change. He didn’t get his duffle and leave when Andrew went through his bag only because Matt and the girls wouldn’t let him out of their sight. He stayed, then got into the car with Andrew because he managed to piss himself off at the boy for being a douchebag. And because he still couldn’t be sure that how Andrew would treat him after this. He couldn’t let go of the faint hope of maybe they could work this out.

He would still have probably bolted if Neil didn’t witness that scene between Andrew and Kevin, when the blonde got to know the news about Edgar Allan’s transfer to their district. His sane self could have convinced him that this wasn’t worth getting himself killed over, but it lost the chance when Neil heard those few words.

“Help me,” Kevin said, almost a whisper. “I want to stay. I’ll ask you again: don’t let him take me away.”

Why? Why would Andrew, a supposed psycho monster help anyone? Why? Why was Kevin so lucky to have him? Neil just couldn’t forget the moment when Kevin, who was a nervous wreck for two weeks because of the news, just lost the tension from his body. And the only reason for that was a small, crazy boy who promised to keep Kevin safe. The jealousy he’d been nursing for eight years over Kevin’s success was choking him again.

Why was Kevin so lucky? How was that any kind of fair that unlike Kevin, Neil had to hide in the dark shadows of the world being forever afraid when they practically came from the same family? How was that fair that even after breaking his hand and losing exy, Kevin obtained freedom, a team who was willing to take shit for him, a coach who was ready to shield him from everything, and even Andrew to fight for him? How was that fair that Kevin even got his soulmate to connect with?! Why was Kevin so special?

Neil should have gone three days ago, but he still stayed and one of his reasons was Kevin himself. Because even he cared for Kevin’s safety, no matter how jealous he was of him. Kevin represented the life Neil never had, and he stupidly wanted to have the older one safe, living.

However, that feeling didn’t prevent him from wanting at least some part of what Kevin had. He wanted Andrew to understand him. Why wouldn’t he say anything? Neil would have rather hear him rampage about everything Neil’d ever done to him than this silence. Maybe Andrew thought nothing of their connection. Could Andrew be one of those kids of their generation who lived with ignoring the whole soulmate phenomenon? Or Neil really made Andrew hate him so much over the years that he just wouldn’t at all acknowledge them?

He went through the days feeling apathetic after this, but his mind refused to behave at night after Neil kept repressing everything all day long. Andrew probably saw his nightmares. He probably saw himself in them. And he still refused to talk with Neil.

“I’m bringing you to Columbia with us this Friday.” That was today. Would Andrew finally step forward from this halt? Should Neil just pretend too that nothing happened?

He was confused, and the confusion made him sick to the stomach.

The knock on the bathroom’s door startled him. “Yes?”

“It’s Matt. You alright in there?”

The other reason why he couldn’t leave. It was so strange to have so many people around all of a sudden. Living with them. Actually spending time with them because they seemed to want Neil around all the time. They were so painfully kind with him, and the broken pieces inside of Neil that were there because he left behind so many possible friendships before, ached with all their nice words.

“I’m fine.”

“Then may I use the toilet, please?” Matt asked, then laughed.

Neil got to his feet right away, then unlocked the door. “Sorry, man.” He looked up at his giant roommate who had his spikey hair all over the place now, and couldn’t help feeling bad for not letting him sleep.

Matt waved at him, then went inside still smiling. Neil noticed the smell of coffee only then, and he felt even worse. These people didn’t deserve a liar like him around. He drank the coffee Matt left him on the counter, because he didn’t want to be an asshole who ignores kindness, but when the older boy appeared in the kitchenette, he refused to talk to him. After getting his running clothes from the room, he escaped out to campus, trying to run away from his thoughts. Trying to convince himself that tonight would be fine.

It wasn’t. What was ever fine in his life, really? He obeyed Andrew’s request to go with them. He even went without his contacts. He waited for a talk and all he got was getting drugged, then called a mole. Now, standing in Wymack’s apartment he only felt angry. If Andrew was going to play like this, his father’s blood in him was ready to go down with this fight pretending they were nobodies.

He just started to talk in German, and he really enjoyed the irritation that showed up on Andrew’s face for it. “Did no one tell you I hate surprises?”

“They didn’t need to, I guessed, but what makes you think I care?” “When you are so obvious about not caring either?”

“How many languages do you speak, runaway?”

Neil ignore that, because Andrew ignored his, too. “Tell me why you did that.” “Talk to me, I need to know.”

"I already did," Andrew said. "I'm still waiting for your answer."

"I answered you. I told you I'm not a mole. You're insane if you think I am." Neil couldn’t believe Andrew would really think of him as threat when he experienced everything Neil went through.

"Then correct me."

Neil’s eyes narrowed at that. Andrew had a theory. Why would he think Neil was a mole? He had to think for a long second, questioning his own certainty. What if Andrew didn’t really think of him as a runaway? What if he thought all those wounds came from being involved in his father’s business? Or in the Moriyama’s.

“Give me a reason,” he said in the end, because he couldn’t be sure about Andrew’s intentions. Neil won’t let him in on anything if in the end he just needs to leave.

"Besides the obvious?" Andrew said. "If I can't get an answer from you, I'll get it wherever I can. How about I start with your parents?"

"Good luck," Neil said, feeling cold all over. "They're dead." It was a half lie, and Andrew probably sensed something was off, because he narrowed his eyes. However, Neil’s father did disappear for a while from his nightmares, being replaced by his mother then her death, so it couldn’t be really obvious. Neil wasn’t ready to give him the whole truth.

"Did you kill them?"

Could his nightmares come off like that? He highly doubted with all the running. “No. Riko’s family did.” Now he really had Andrew’s attention and he was eager to keep it. He came up with a story that could explain his wounds and his money. As it was the truest thing he’d ever told anyone before, it wasn’t hard to sound believably miserable. “The Moriyamas executed him and my mother before his boss could get to him. I took what he'd stolen and ran.”

Andrew scowled at that. “Don’t lie to me.” His voice was sharp like his knives.

Neil’s soul ached at that. There was his truth. And probably the only confirmation that Andrew really knew they are soulmates. “It’s not a lie. I was together with my mother, then she got killed, too.” Neil felt the ice cold smile that crawled up on his lips. He remembered the beach, the waves, the blood, the gasoline. He needed the pain to get away from that, so he bit the inside of his mouth.

When Andrew moved closer, Neil bit a little harder, but he didn’t get any reaction. “Then why did you come here?” He asked that because Neil admitted he would die if Kevin or Riko recognizes him. He wasn’t concerned, at least not for Neil’s sake. It hurt so bad.

Why did he come here? Because this place had exy, Kevin, and Andrew. Because this place had a future that was so luring that he couldn’t resist it without his mother. Because–

"Because I'm tired," Neil said, trying to sound defeated. It didn't take much effort. "I have nowhere else to go, and I'm too jealous of Kevin to stay away from him. He knows what it's like to hate every day of his life, to wake up afraid every day, but he's got you at his back telling him everything's going to be okay. He has everything, even when he's lost everything, and I'm —" Neil didn't want to say it, but the word was already there, broken and pathetic between them, "— nothing. I'll always have and be nothing."

Andrew’s face was incomprehensible. It was only dark. It showed no pity, no concern, no triumph over getting his secret. It was dark and it just swallowed Neil as whole.

“Let me stay.” He unconsciously repeated what he said in his dream, but without the cursed word. “I’m not ready to give this up yet.”

Andrew’s expression didn’t change even as he lifted his arm, then put his hand on Neil’s jaw to forcibly open his mouth up. “Stop doing that shit. I hate it.” He abruptly let go of Neil, as his face changed to a stony mask, then he turned around. “Keep it if you can. You and I both know it won't last long."

Yes. Andrew knew just as well Neil did that the hunters always caught up. He would still let him stay? “Andrew, why–“

“No. I’m not entitled to give you anything.” He looked back over his shoulders. “Don’t think of yourself as some special thing. I don’t care about you.”

Neil was glad the pain he felt at that wasn’t something their connection would transfer to Andrew, too. He averted his eyes, and shut all the doors on his hopes. “I’ll be gone by our match against Edgar Allan.” Of course, Andrew wanted nothing from him. Just how stupid can he get? "I don't look now how I looked then, but I can't risk Riko's family recognizing me."

"Such an unexpected will to survive from someone who has nothing to live for. Next time we have a little heart-to-heart like this, maybe I'll ask you to justify that."

Neil oppressed sighed. “You and I both know we won’t talk like this ever again.”

“Yeah, we won’t.”

Neil hesitated then asked. “Are you going to tell Kevin?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

He couldn’t not feel bad about the rejection, but relief was still strong enough to fight that. He can stay for a little longer. He can enjoy the moments when he felt free on the court for a little longer. He can still live this bittersweet lie for a while. Even if he didn’t understand what Andrew wanted or really thought of him, he had to be satisfied with this much. Even if he can’t have all the three things he came here for, he can have exy. Neil still could cling on that one thing to live for.

“Neil wants to come with me.”

Those words didn’t sound like order or threat anymore. Andrew stated a fact to Wymack. Neil gave him that truth, Andrew just stated it to their coach. He wanted to go back to the Tower. He wanted to be there as long as he could.

Neil was still eighteen years and four months old, but he felt like a completely different person than how he was the previous time he counted. He was back in the Tower, the upperclassmen protected his things, didn’t try to pry into his business, and Andrew let him stay.

As he methodically went through his things then put them away again, his soul won over the doors his mind tried to shut on hope.

Maybe, just maybe, if they have enough time, even that rejection could change. His whole being shook under the weight of that future vision. “I really am too stupid.” But he couldn’t resist the grey thoughts after having so much black ones previously.

Hope was a dangerous, disquieting thing, but he thought perhaps he liked it.

~*~

He wanted to be alone. He wanted to be nothing, but even after storming into their suite, the other three followed, and they were ready to be a bother. He sighed, then jumped up on the table under the window. At least he can do this with a cigarette.

“How is he?” his cousin asked right away the door was closed behind them. The other one fell on one of the beanbags, failing miserably to look disinterested. The exy one came standing next to him, but he was staring at the smoke.

“He is fine,” he answered mocking the brat’s usual response.

His cousin grunted. “Will he ever talk to us again?”

He only gave a shrug, who cared about that? “You should stay away from him.” He didn’t say that for the brat’s sake. He didn’t want his cousin to be too friendly with the brat, it would just be a bother to deal with his heartbreak later.

“How long?” “That doesn’t apply to me, right?” his cousin and the exy one asked at the same time. He ignored the first.

“Did I imagine telling you he is yours?” A fierce smile showed up on the exy one’s stupid face, and he even squeezed his hands in excitement. The monster hated to make him feel good, so he added, “But I had enough of him for this weekend, I’m not taking your sorry ass anywhere.”

The corners of the exy one’s mouth drooped downward right away. He smirked.

“What did you talk about? Did you get to know anything new about him?” his cousin bore to stay quiet for 28 seconds. It was a record.

He tilted his head a little, and pretended to think hard. “Ah. There is something!” he announced with eyes shining. “But it’s a secret.” He acted broken-down.

“Andrew! Tell me! I can keep it!”

His cousin couldn’t keep a secret to save his ass. “Come here!” He beckoned him with his index finger, and his dumb cousin actually rushed close. He leaned to his ear, enjoying that the other one’s face showed annoyance because they might leave him out of something. “He has blue eyes,” he whispered into the curly chunks of hair.

“Andrew!” his cousin whined, then straightened his back. He blew smoke into his stupid face. “Seriously. There is nothing we should know?”

“He can speak German.” He almost told them. Nah, not really. The happy pills already cheered at the embarrassment his cousin would go through in the future.

“Okay. There is only one thing that matters when it comes to Neil Josten,” he said theatrically. He turned around on the table, started to swing his legs, then jumped off. “He loves exy.”

His cousin dropped himself on the other beanbag, but the exy one literally lit up.

“You don’t say, man?” his cousin grumbled. “I never imagined before meeting him that anyone would share Kev’s sexyality.”

The happy pills snorted at that, but he only had eyes for the exy one. He seemed so stupidly happy. Like no bad in the world could matter until someone loved his stupid sport like he did.

His cousin might think he lied, but that really was the only thing that made Neil Josten Neil Josten. He loved exy. And as long as the brat played this role, Andrew was ready to tolerate him for the exy one’s sake. He needed something that keeps the exy one fighting.

“I’m going out.”

None of them cared about him anymore. He left the suite, then went onto the roof. He wanted to drive, but he was too high. After sitting down by the edge and lit another cigarette, he finally allowed himself to look back at the conversation.

He went to Coach’s place with the intention of murder. He wanted to kill ever since the brat managed to knock himself out so his interrogation failed, then his anger just grew when that idiot ran. There was the proof of the runaway part, damn, Andrew really shouldn’t have left, but he spent the whole night awake, and they had no food in the house which was a horrible experience without the happy pills. He refused to take them until he got his answers.

Well, he got them in the end. Or at least he got something to go on with for now. It wasn’t like he believed the kid, oh, no, he didn’t believe anyone. Even while listening to his story he felt the unease, no matter how well it explained things. It wouldn’t have been hard to turn everything over. Andrew still could have told him, he doesn’t believe a word he says.

But then the kid repeated what he asked him in the nightmare two nights ago. The monster roared at the memory of that dream. It was so proud that the kid was so afraid of him that they replaced his parents as his hunters. He didn’t feel much of it.

However, he did feel something when the brat called himself nothing. Especially after he didn’t beg for staying, he didn’t add that damn word. The kid must have known Andrew can’t stand it, and not just because he spelled it out for the exy one in front of everyone. It was no time to think about the kid knew things about him that he had shared with nobody, and intended to keep it like that.

The brat thought of himself as nothing, who would always be nothing. And he of all people, knew it when people actually meant those words. He knew it when someone actually believed they could never have a future. The brat’s expression, the way he said those words, it was like listening to his own thoughts. And that saved that brat’s ass in the end.

The brat was just like him, just waiting for his life to end at rock bottom, not even caring about marching into danger, because it was dying fast or slow, and the second one was always worse. The exy one thought the brat played like he had everything to lose. Andrew thought now, the kid lived life like he had nothing to lose anymore.

However. However, he still kept biting his mouth. The brat hurt himself because it scared the living shit out of him to let go of what he finally could grab. Even if it was a lie, or danger, he wanted to hold onto it. Now that wasn’t something Andrew understood. He wanted nothing. He left behind hanging on lies when that woman betrayed him.

The kid would learn it in the end, too. It wasn’t worth it. Andrew would just tolerate him until he falls back where they both belonged. To rock bottom.

Days went by, drifting away like clouds when the wind is just a little bit stronger than on a really hot day. He couldn’t remember anything about the next month except that one night, the first when the exy one finally trained with the brat.

“He gets it. He really wants to be better. He’s going to be something, I’ll make sure of it.”

He eyed the fired up exy one in their suite for a while. “Don’t be so sure.”

“I am. I am as sure about it as I am about you.”

He didn’t even bother to wave the exy one off. He had no energy to deal with stupidity at 2am. He knew the exy one will end up disappointed in the end. Andrew and the kid wasn’t something worth to invest into.

The next time he actually paid attention to life was on the 25th of August, so he was nineteen years and almost ten months old by that time. It was the day of the exy one’s first appearance on television since December. They kept him awake all night long, because even if his body clock was getting better, it still sucked way too much in the morning. However, he was mostly keeping himself together – even without alcohol – so it wasn’t all that much of a pain. His cousin made them play exy video games, and it helped enough to keep his thoughts on what actually mattered.

When the old hag started to lure the brat onto her show, Andrew even felt delightful. It was such a scene to see him struggle to get out of trouble. But then he failed. “You’re so stupid,” he smirked at the brat, and that said nothing. This was a very bad idea, but the happy pills were way too active in his system, so he decided to wait out what happens.

What a mistake it was.

As the audience around them started to shout, “King! King! King!” he was already moving. However, the rainbow girl who sat next to him the whole time moved even faster. He was getting up, but then that body slammed into him, and she was bigger, she was strong, and she knew how to prevent him from storming onto the stage. When he reached up to grab her hair and throw her the fuck off, Coach and the druggie were already on him, too. They pinned his hands down, and that gave enough support to the rainbow girl to get a stable hold of him. He wanted to say something, but her hand was on his mouth.

“You need to stay put. We won’t hurt you, but you can’t do anything for now. He won’t hurt Kevin on national television. You just need to wait a little, Andrew, stay put.” She didn’t say please, but it hardly mattered, because he was barely hearing her over all the please in his head.

He was pinned down, his mouth covered, he couldn’t move, he was in danger, and all that was even stronger than his rage. He couldn’t fight because of the panic. And the happy pills, of course, but those couldn’t have really prevented him from acting. It was the panic. It was his past; it was the shadow swallowing him up from behind.

He was powerless.

“Breathe.” It was just a breath into his ear, it should have been as powerless as him against the shadows. “Breathe. It’s gonna be okay. Everything is going to be okay. You are okay. Breathe.”

He shivered, then finally was able to open his eyes. At least that, because getting his breath even took long, long minutes. Then he bit into the rainbow girl’s fingers. She endured it. “Get your fucking hand off of me.” She understood the message in his eyes, though.

The rainbow girl slowly pulled her hand away from his mouth, but no matter how hard he tugged his arms, the two men wouldn’t let go of him. The rainbow girl was also still sitting on him. “I’ll slaughter all of you,” he muttered.

“Look at our quiet boy slaughtering Riko on national television instead!”

He frowned at the druggie’s smiling face, then finally turned to the stage. The exy one was so clearly in panic he could feel the waves of his tension even from there. And the powerlessness he felt because of that almost kicked him back into his head, too. But the brat’s words kept him afloat.

“Your team's ranked first? Congratulations and big deal. Maintaining a top position is far easier than starting over from the gutters. Kevin is doing that right now. He's facing entirely new schools and learning to play with his less dominant hand. When he masters it, and he will, he'll be better than you could ever have made him.”

His speech gave more and more power back to the happy pills with every word. This kid was so magnificently stupid. Also crazier over the exy one than he assumed so far. Did he just seriously choose the exy one over his own life? Once and for all? Or was it just for exy? Because without the exy one they had no season?

"I think you're scared."

The king's smile could have frozen hell. "I am not scared of Kevin. I know him."

"You're going to eat those words," the brat said. "You're going to choke on them."

Oh no, all these words were probably the truest things he had said since they met. He actually valued the exy one more than his own life. “I’ll always have and be nothing.” He was seriously ready to play like he has nothing to lose. Andrew thought the brat was ready to hang on to his lie for a little while longer. He spent the last months practicing like crazy, and he seemed more alive than ever during yesterday’s game. And now he just fucking threw it all away. He was so fucking stupid.

“Let go of me.” He wasn’t shouting or growling, he said it with a smile. It scared the hell out of the druggie one. He jumped back right away when Andrew’s hand was free. Coach was a little less complacent. “You are making me ouchy, isn’t that against your coach-y policy?”

“Andrew, I swear to fucking god–“

“Don’t waste your swearing on imaginary things. It makes you sound crazy.” He twirled his free hand next to his head. “That’s my job.” Coach was still holding onto him. “Let me go to them, or I’ll break my hand on your face.”

“Coach, it’s okay. Andrew won’t do anything rush,” the rainbow girl said, then she stood up.

“We all admire your faith, girl,” his cousin muttered two seats away.

Coach seemed pretty unconvinced, but he still pulled his hands away. Andrew had to pop the tension out of his shoulders and neck after standing up. The relief of finally being free was disturbing, it made him feel weak. “Let’s go get some Japanese for lunch.”

“Andrew!”

He ignored the irritated hissing, then marched toward the corridor where the trio disappeared to. He arrived to see the brat backing away from a furious king. He stepped between them without sparing a thought to the exy one who was leaning on the wall behind the king. He didn’t need the pain the kid would have gotten from being punched, did he?

“Riko.” He spread his arms as if he intended to hug the king. “It’s been a while.” Not just the monster, but he and the happy pills also enjoyed the shocked and scared reaction the other one performed.

“We were just talking about you.” Interesting.

“With your fists, it seems. Don’t touch my things, Riko. I don’t share.”

He reached back without looking and pushed at the brat’s shoulder, who bolted right away. “That’s what you can expect from a runaway. Has the experience.”

“Kevin is my thing,” the king hissed into Andrew’s face like some snake.

Andrew showed a knife into his throat as response after stepping into his face. Nobody could see them. “No. He is mine. You lay one more finger on him, and I’ll crave that stupid ‘1’ into your cheekbone.” He saw his own wide smirk in the blackness of the king’s eyes. “It was nice meeting you.” He saluted with two fingers to his temple, then walked past the king. He didn’t deserve more attention.

"When I said Abby and I would look out for you, I didn't mean you should pick a fight with Riko on national television," Coach just said. "Should I have spelled that out beforehand?" Andrew snorted at that, being not sure if that would have helped any. The brat was absolutely stupid.

"Probably," Neil said.

"It's fine, Coach.” That just meant he would deal with this idiot later. He wanted to push the brat ahead, but then realized he wasn’t actually responsible for him. “The hell am I doing?” He couldn’t stop his hand anymore, though, hence he ended up touching the brat’s back really lightly. He doubted the brat even noticed it.

The exy one was now being crushed into a fierce hug by Bee’s friend. He put a hand on her arm to indicate, back the fuck off. When she did, he grabbed the exy one’s arm, making sure his squeeze was hard enough for him to be able to focus. “Kevin, we’re going. Right now, okay?”

He searched the exy one’s eyes, but he only saw shadows in the green. He felt the pang of conscience banging in his head with a fucking hammer. “I failed to protect him.” The monster roared in excitement. He pushed the exy one outside, then led him to the bus.

They didn’t talk on the way back to Palmetto. He doubted the exy one could squeeze even a word out of himself that wouldn’t sound like whimpering. And Andrew couldn’t be sure what would happen if he opened his own. The monster was roaring inside, it wanted revenge, it wanted violence, it wanted to kill someone. He took his medicine from Bee’s friend without a word, because he knew he’d fail to keep the monster inside without the happy pills’ power.

“I failed.”

“It’s fine.” He snapped his head to the exy one. He was still staring outside the window with his head shaking on the glass, but he still talked. They were five minutes away from the Tower. “Neil was there.”

“That idiot brat just made it worse–“

“No. He protected me.” Kevin looked at his wrecked hand. “He got Riko off me before you arrived. I couldn’t do anything.” That last part was just a whimper, a frightened child’s whimper.

He slapped his hand on the exy one’s eyes, blocking his view. He didn’t lower it until they arrived to the Tower, but the exy one didn’t seem any better than how he was before.

Already in their room he pushed the exy one down on one of the beanbags, then went to the bedroom. He had a half bottle of whisky in his dresser. By the time he got back, his cousin was already sitting next to the exy one, his arm around the guy’s shoulder.

“Kev, it’s gonna be alright. We’re back home, you are safe.” He knew those words wouldn’t help.

Andrew crouched down in front of the exy one, but didn’t hand over the booze, just put it down between his legs. He waited until the other one met his eyes. “He’ll get all of us killed for this.”

“No, he’ll get Josten killed for this, and he’ll deserve it.”

“Don’t even joke about that!” his cousin shouted. “Neil just protected Kevin!”

“Do you really think I’m joking?” The happy pills had a smirk on his face, so it was just a mocking question.

“I never freaking know what you think, Andrew,” he said, exaggerating his tantrum with wide hand movement. “But you can’t blame Neil for any of this!”

“Shut up.”

“He’s right,” the exy one mumbled, staring at his hand again. “Neil is a fucking idiot, but he just did it for me. Because I couldn’t do anything.”

“I was the one who couldn’t do anything.

He grabbed the exy one’s left wrist, then turned his hand upside down so now he couldn’t see the scars. “You’ll do it the next time. You’ll stand up to him next time, and you’ll prove him wrong.”

The exy one cocked his head to the side, and had the most miserable smile on his stupid face possible. “I’m not sure about that.”

“Don’t give me that crap. You got back up already, now it’s time to get back at him. You didn’t forget your promise.” It wasn’t a question.

“Andrew, I–“

“No.” He squeezed the exy one’s wrist hard. “Drink away your misery today, then get your arrogance out of your ass tomorrow. I am not tolerating this longer than today.” He put the bottle on the exy one’s palm. “Drink.”

He did so, because he was an alcoholic, miserable little shit.

And Andrew failed to protect him. He went over to the bedroom after the exy one’s tension started to melt under the magic potion and left his cousin to babysit him from that on. He was in the bedroom, pacing the small place for fucknows how long already. He failed. He failed. He failed.

The blame just wouldn’t go away, and it just got worse every time he had to face, the brat did it instead of him. The kid really protected the exy one. He got the king off the exy one even though there was no one there to see. “I didn’t need his help.” And he wouldn’t. Ever.

“But.” The fucking pills.

But then he didn’t have a reason to chase him away. “He still means danger.” Yes, but he could also help. Andrew didn’t need his help to protect the exy one. But he obviously wasn’t enough alone to keep him floating. The kid could keep Kevin’s attention on exy. On fighting.

The monster wasn’t happy. It wanted blood. It wanted an output.

“Fuck.you.” He was by the window in his pacing. He punched hard, and it got bloody. It wasn’t enough to completely silence the monster, but he still needed a little time until the next dose of drug.

“What the fuck, Andrew?!” his cousin stormed into the bedroom, the other one was right behind him, but didn’t say anything.

“Go and get Josten.”

“No!” his cousin shook his head furiously. “You can’t hurt him.”

“I won’t.”

“Excuse me for not believing you.”

“Your excuse is rejected. Get him here.”

Their little eye-match didn’t last long, before the other one tugged on their cousin’s shirt. “Go.”

The other one got a scowl, too. “I’m not gonna let you hurt him.”

“Oh, let me see you try,” he smirked, then sat down on the dressers. His cousin left after scowling at him for a few more seconds.

He was zoned out until the kid appeared then talked. “I was wondering what the hell you did. You could have destroyed your hand with a stunt like that.”

He laughed at the absurdity of mentioning their stupid connection so casually. He didn’t even spare a thought to it. “Did you manage to hide your reaction in front of the busybodies?”

“Yes.”

“Good. We both have good experience at that after all. Maybe me a little more.” He enjoyed the wince of the other’s face. “Oh, Neil, Neil. Let’s concentrate on the important matter here, shall we?” The brat didn’t answer, but looked hurt again like last time when he wrote him off unimportant. “Last time we talked, you were afraid Riko would notice you. You either lied to me or changed your mind. I do hope it’s the latter, cause I don’t like being lied to.”

“I didn’t change my mind, but I didn’t have a choice.”

"There is always a choice."

"I had to say something."

"And what a thing to say! You took a swing at Riko on live TV. He's not going to take that sitting down, you know. How's that target on your back feel?"

"Familiar.”

Oh, he was sure it did. This kid spent his whole life being hunted. Seeing the fear raising on his expression as he described the consequences of today strangely failed to please him. “What will you do when he finds out? Run?”

“You know I will.”

“I know.” Andrew knew a lot more things about this kid that he ever wanted. The kid was a part of this mess longer than any of the others. He leaned forward, grabbed the kid’s collar and refused to let go when he fought back. “Hey, Neil. Neil, listen. Running saved you so far, but you fucked that chance up. Now you are stuck.” He almost said you lost your legs, but he assumed that would just freak the kid out even more.

“I have to try.”

“You have to nothing. You have more than one choice. You said you want to stay.”

“I do.”

“Then name what it would take to make you stay, and it’s yours. It doesn’t matter as long as you stand your ground here with us.”

While the kid hesitated Andrew started to feel the sickness in his stomach, because of the withdrawal. It didn’t happen often that he was glad for it. He needed that fucking pill in his system to help closing every lid on the monster.

“Why? Why would you help me?”

He narrowed his eyes at the pitiful whisper. The kid wanted something from him that he would never give him. “Ask me later.” He tapped a bloody finger to his mouth. “It's better if this isn't in the way, don't you think? You'll get your answers in Columbia. Oh, but no one told you yet, did they? You're coming out with us tonight." It wasn’t like he told the others either.

He gave three hours for the kid to decide whether he runs or stays. Andrew needed that confirmation, too. He would give him answers after the kid proves, he was ready to hang on that lie longer. If he does, if the brat shows the strength Andrew needed from him, then he would give him some answers.

He eyed his pill for a long while before swallowing it. The monster wanted him to stop, but he could do it in the end.

“Tick tock, says the clock. Get out of my room.”

And the kid fled. He remained there, waiting for the happy pills to take effect. Waiting for them to tell him, he didn’t make a mistake. Again.

“I don’t trust him. It’s just better to have him around than not.”

Andrew could keep an eye on the brat like this. He could use him to help the exy one. He could keep the kid out of trouble, which also just helped Andrew to not get to deal with unnecessary pain. This was okay.

“Andrew?”

He lifted his head from his knees at the unexpected voice. “Oh, rainbow girl, what are you doing here in the darkness?”

“We need to talk.”

“I hope you are not going to waste my time with apologizing.”

The rainbow girl smiled and came closer. Andrew could sense his cousin prying somewhere close to the open door. “I already did inside. I know you don’t need to hear it.”

“Smart.”

“What happens next?” she asked after sitting down next to him.

“We protect them.” It was just that simple.

“When will he strike back?”

He considered, then just started to shout, “Kevin! Get your sorry ass in here!”

It took way too long, but then he showed up with his cousin supporting him. “He isn’t in the best state.”

“What else is new?” Andrew muttered. “When will Riko strike back?”

The exy one snorted. “Tonight.”

It wasn’t really a surprise. The king had a serious problem with his control and temper.

“I’ll make sure the others stay here tonight.”

“I’ll take these sorry asses to Columbia.”

The rainbow girl eyed him for a while, but didn’t question his decision.

“Oh, great, I so need some good time,” his cousin whined. “I’ll put this idiot to bed until nine then.”

Unusual smart decision his cousin just made alone.

“What about Neil? He didn’t come back to our room.”

Andrew waited for a second, then jumped off the dressers and stretched. “He’ll be back by nine.” Maybe. “I’m taking him.”

“Oh.” The short breath was inaudible from the cheer his cousin produced.

“Really? Neil is coming with us?”

Andrew rolled his eyes, and didn’t waste another word on them. “I’m going out.”

Walking. He literally despised that activity, but with the happy pills in his system he had to restrain from driving. Fortunately, he only had to do it for fifteen minutes. It was after 6pm on a Saturday, but the shops were still open downtown, because it was the football team’s first game of the season, and people were everywhere. He went into the same shop he bought the brat’s clothes the previous time.

The brat could have looked so much better, and it literally drove Andrew mad that he hid in those outrageously boring clothes. It wasn’t just his cousin who noticed the potential, Andrew already considered setting the brat’s clothes on fire, but assumed that wouldn’t go well with keeping him around. So he just bought the kid a new set for the night. If he shows.

He was still running, Andrew could feel the fucking pain getting stronger and stronger in his legs. Why couldn’t this idiot have some other coping method then fucking running?

After he found a good enough outfit, he went to buy cigarette, and was just about to turn back when noticed that one store. It was closed, but it did have a sign that said ‘ring in emergency.’ How to keep a runaway around? How to keep someone around who hadn’t had a place to call his in the last eight years? Someone who even after all those years could long to belong? Maybe it wasn’t all that hard.

He rang the bell, and waited for the old man to come and open up the store for him.

“Sorry to disturb, sir, I really need to get a copy of a key.”

He couldn’t be sure that the kid would show. If he didn’t Andrew can just throw this away. It was nothing more but a tactical step.

Two hours later they were all ready to go, but it was only the four of them. His cousin was pretty disappointed about it, and the whining made Andrew feel awful, so that was it. “Grab the fucking keys, we are leaving.”

This was it then. The kid was probably running even now judging from the pain that already reached Andrew’s right knee, too. Fuck the kid. It’s not like they needed–

“Oh, he made it.” He just opened the door and there the kid was. Covered in sweat, cheeks red, hair sticking to his forehead and neck. He looked like a mess. A pretty mess. “That’s interesting.”

He stepped closer as the brat wasn’t moving just staring at Andrew like a dumb statue. He pressed two fingers to his pulse on his throat. It was hot and wet, and he wasn’t a fan of the feeling, but still stopped the brat from shoving his hand away.

“Remember this feeling. This is the moment you stop being the rabbit.”

The smirk on his face was not the work of the happy pills after his cousin got to know about the kid’s German knowledge. Andrew enjoyed every second of making him feel miserable, and the upperclassmen pissed with taking the brat away. Life was surely a lot more entertaining since this kid was present.

He hushed that thought away, and they were on the way. Then an hour later already in the club. He waved at the brat to get him come along, and they headed to the bar. The cheeky one behind it gave Andrew a questioning look at the sight of the brat, but he just rolled his eyes.

“He said no, keep them clean.” The cheeky one smirked with all the stupid dimples showing up on his cheeks, looking so cheerful that Andrew wanted to punch him in the face. With his mouth preferably. He pointed his attention back on the brat when that checked the glass for residue. “Paranoid.”

"If you're such a control freak you shouldn't be drinking either."

”I am not a control freak!” “Yes, you are.” “Maybe.” "I know what my limits are," he said. "I'm not going to test them."

"And dust?"

"Too much crazy in this system for dust to make a difference, I guess. We got into dust for Aaron's sake. He needed something safe to get on when he was coming off everything his mother gave him."

They eyed each other for a while, the brat looking all cocky.

"Do you remember this game? We're doing the honesty thing again, at least until I grow bored of it.” It wasn’t all that hard, when Andrew was aware the brat already knew so many things about him. And playing this slow was really more interesting than just beating the answers out of him – which again, not a good policy when you feel the pain of your victim. “In a moment you're going to be perfectly honest with me and tell me what I have to do to keep you here."

"Here's some honesty," the brat said. "I don't like you, and I don't trust you."

“Keep that up. I noticed you are utterly stupid, but don’t think it’s not mutual. It is, and it won’t change.”

"Nicky says you're only keeping me here because of Kevin," the brat said after a hurtful second. "What happens if Kevin gets bored of me?"

"Keep his interest," he answered, and it wasn't really a suggestion. “But it’s not entirely true. My cousin doesn’t know about our little secret, you see.” He gestured between their faces. “You staying here can guarantee me that you are safe. Don’t think I’m doing this for you. I don’t really miss the unnecessary pain, Neil. What about cutting me some slack finally?”

Oh, that wince on his face again. It didn’t make Andrew feel any better that the kid was so obviously feeling remorseful.

"Can you protect me from my past?" the brat asked on a low voice, like he couldn’t believe he actually does this.

"Your father's boss."

Andrew listened to the brat talking about the danger he was in, but not really his words but his eyes that made him really believe the words. They carried the same fear that the exy one’s did when he was talking about his king.

“What a mess,” he said sounding unsympathetic. He actually was. These scared children with their worse past than Andrew’s. They just pissed him off. With still fighting to stay alive. “Easy to take care of, though.”

A group of people shouldered their way up to the bar counter at the brat’s back, pushing the kid into Andrew. He didn’t budge beneath the weight. That’s all he had to do. Being something solid that these children can lean against so they could forget about their fear, and fight back. It wouldn’t be him protecting them in the end, they will do that on their own. He just had to carry them to that point, and make sure they don’t let go.

“Do you really think you can protect anyone?” the monster growled.

“Just watch me.”

Andrew didn’t think much about how he put the kid into the same group as the exy one that night. How the kid was now one of the idiots who strive to get out of rock bottom, who Andrew only can watch from a distance. He was too busy erasing the smile from the cheeky one’s mouth with his own.

~*~

Neil was eighteen years and seven months old, and he had a key to a house in his hand. The first key he owned that wasn’t for a motel, or a house in a random city that he had no emotional connection with. The thing he felt should have been ridiculous, as that key didn’t make the cousin’s house more his than any other building he’d ever lived in. But it was a key to a house Andrew called home. And that made everything shockingly more meaningful.

He was crashing at Wymack’s place ever since Sunday morning when it became obvious letting the Foxes be under the same roof after what happened to Seth was a very bad idea. He got Coach’s couch, which gave him way too much time on hand to think.

Andrew was a foster kid which made him almost as unfamiliar to homes as how Neil felt. Andrew still had a time in that house that made that building a home. Neil remembered well that more than one year when everything was quiet on Andrew’s end. Now he knew that was the time he spent with his brother and Nicky living in Columbia. He wouldn’t have minded hearing more about that time. It must have been good enough for Andrew so he got some connection with that house.

Or was it just him thinking too much? Andrew was still a mystery.

“I didn’t know you got an art class this year.”

He startled at the voice, and right away pressed the notebook into his chest. “I don’t.”

Wymack sent him a bemused look, and went along toward the kitchen. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

Neil felt guilt for reacting so badly to his coach’s meaningless comment. “I know. Sorry.”

“You want dinner?”

“You won’t cook, right?” Neil stood up, put his notebook down the table, and the key deep into his pocket. “Cause I don’t, if you are about to.”

“Don’t think you are funny, kid.” Neil still heard the smile in the older man’s voice, as he scanned through the fridge. “We still have some left over from Abby’s supplies.” He pulled out two boxes. “You want the meatloaf or the something with the chicken neither of us really liked?”

“Depends on how hungry you are.”

“I got takeout with Dan earlier so I’m not starving.” As Neil pointed at the box with the meatloaf, he dropped that on the counter and put his own into the microwave.

“How is she?”

Wymack leaned on the sink, and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Strong as always.” He shrugged. “She is your captain, though, and she just lost one of the teammates she was responsible for. That doesn’t just go away.”

“I’m sorry,” Neil mumbled and averted his eyes. He didn’t feel anything about Seth’s death, which was the only thing that made him feel some guilt.

“Are you ready for this conversation? I’m waiting since Sunday.”

Neil frowned, and peeked up. “What do you mean?”

The microwave beeped, and Wymack change his box for Neil’s before answering. “Abby says, I should talk to you about unnecessary guilt.” Neil tilted his head, not feeling like to say anything as he didn’t follow. “Are you blaming yourself for what happened?”

Neil winced. “Did you hear Andrew’s theory?”

“I’m not surprised Andrew has one, and I don’t need to hear it to know what it’s about.”

Wymack sat down by the table, and just waved to Neil to take care of his own food. He did it, even got himself a fork, but lost the appetite all together. “Yet you think it’s unnecessary guilt, too?”

“Yes.” His voice was flat.

Neil forced a bit down his throat, only staring into his box. “It makes sense, though. The timing is just too good.”

Wymack sighed, but didn’t stop eating. “You didn’t know Seth well enough. It’s not impossible to see him taking just one step further than it’s safe.”

“And do you know Riko well enough to not see him doing the same?” He should have just stayed quiet. He wished he could just accept Wymack’s consolation, because he wanted to believe this wasn’t his fault. That Andrew was just paranoid.

“I don’t. But his family can’t risk a stupid stunt like this.” Wymack waited for a while, but Neil had no idea what to say. “I can’t have you tiptoe around Allison, because you feel responsible, kid. It’s enough to deal with her, don’t put even more on my shoulders.”

Neil managed to look up finally. “I won’t. I’m fine.”

Coach sighed again, but let it pass. They only talked about their damaged line up after this, carefully avoiding the reason why they got damaged.

Training on Wednesday was very close to a waste of time, and Andrew’s phone call with the Oakland PD., then his disappearance really didn’t add to any of their moods. Neil was just grateful Allison wasn’t around, because he wasn’t sure about being able to resist tiptoeing around her. He still oppressed feeling guilty, but going back to the dorm and seeing their room without Seth’s things didn’t help much.

Then the day just got even worse. They sat down to hear Nicky out about the twins’ first meeting, but he hardly could concentrate. He was being beaten up. Andrew was. He had to clench his teeth to not grunt in pain as the heavy punches kept coming all over his body.

Neil said one sentence during the whole conversation, except that one time, when Nicky was having a little break.

“Are you guys not worried about where Andrew is?”

They sent him a confused look, then Dan shrugged. “He is with Renee. She’ll make sure he doesn’t cause any problem.”

Neil wasn’t so sure. “Yeah, but how certain is that?”

“You don’t need to be concerned. They are always gone for a few hours.”

He couldn’t say anything else as a powerful punch just knocked the breath out of him, but in the end the pain was just a part of the reason why he kept quiet. He was thinking about how all this fit into his timeline. How much he wished he could have held a diary or something, because his memory wasn’t the best source. He knew pretty well when the Aaron nightmare was, though, the Christmas before his thirteen’s birthday.

“She wanted Aaron to try again in spring and said something about holidays being rough…” Aaron never got the chance, because right after this Andrew went off to juvie. Neil remembered the sudden silence, then the happiness when his knuckles started to hurt in France. Ever since then rape never happened again. But right before that Andrew was constantly assaulted in that foster house.

Neil had a faint idea about why Andrew ended up in jail, but he couldn’t possibly ask. It was obvious, Nicky had no information about what was going on in his cousin’s foster family. Nicky usually talked about his cousin like he really believed Andrew was a threat to everyone, and the only source of his dangerous behaviour was his craziness. Neil honestly started to doubt the whole psychopath theory.

By the time Kevin and Nicky left, and Neil accidentally ended up getting his schedule lightened by Dan, the pain eased, too. His whole body was still throbbing, but at least there was no new source. Dan asking him to never forget about them, and accept their help whenever it’s needed was a new kind of pain, though. He believed every word the girl said, and it scared him.

Then Renee came back.

“I wish you wouldn’t do this,” Dan said.

“I know.”

Neil couldn’t believe his eyes. Renee was beaten up. Then– “You were the one fighting with Andrew.” It was out before he could have thought about how to put his shock into words the right way.

Renee narrowed her eyes as looking at him. “Yes?”

“How did you know Andrew was fighting with someone?”

Think. “Kevin said something before leaving, because I seemed concerned,” he answered to Matt, hoping he would just let it go, because making this lie bigger could just cause trouble later.

“Really? Andrew and Renee are sparring partners. That’s the reason.”

It wasn’t really. How could a girl with rainbow hair, and such peaceful personality go and just beat Andrew up. Because he doubted Andrew looked any better than the girl after all the pain.

Renee sighed, then took pity on him, and explained about why she said, he shouldn’t think too high of her. Neil wasn’t really interested in hearing her story, but he couldn’t let go of one thing. “If you try so hard to be a good person now, aren’t you worried about your soulmate?” he asked before Renee could have gotten up from the couch.

The silence in the room clearly showed he asked something nasty. Or stupid.

“Didn’t take you for a guy having any concern about soulmates,” Matt said, looking at him blinking.

“We didn’t take him for such a mouthy brat either,” Dan commented with a huge grin. “You are full of surprises.”

“More like lies”, Neil thought, but only smiled at them sheepishly. He felt his cheeks burning. “I had a project in high school about the phenomenon, ever since, I’m kind of… interested?” Giving away tiny truths. These people just made him do so many stupid things.

Dan and Matt hummed in agreement, then they all looked at Renee who was very quiet and tense.

“You don’t need to answer me,” Neil said.

“I think, I won’t. Not now, anyway. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready for this conversation today. I need a hot bath, and a refreshing sleep.” She stood up, and Dan was already there to help her.

“I’m sorry,” Neil mumbled, staring into his lap.

“It’s not your fault.” Renee showed him a tired smile. “But it would be a really long story. Ask me again sometime later.”

Neil wasn’t sure he could gather the power to ever do so. It was just out of momentum this time, too. He nodded, though.

When the girls were gone, Matt kept glancing at him which made his skin unsatisfyingly itchy. “Ask.”

“What about yours?” the guy jumped at the opportunity right away.

Neil wasn’t surprised. “I don’t have one yet.” This was the easiest lie.

“Oh. Is that also a reason why you are into the topic?” Neil just shrugged. “Mine is Dan.”

Neil’s jaw dropped. “No way.”

Matt laughed. “Yeah, not the painful kind of way. But she is. We are not just simply in love. We don’t need to share our pain or nightmares to be connected.”

“I wish I could say I didn’t take you for such a huge romantic, but you see, I’m not surprised even the least,” Neil said after a snort.

Matt laughed again at his cheeky comment. “I’m not ashamed!”

Neil scoffed at his silly smile. His roommate was one of the most honest and caring people Neil had ever met. “What about the painful one, though?” He almost said real one, but didn’t have it in him to deny Matt’s belief, or underrate his relationship with Dan.

“I don’t know them. Her. I guess it’s a girl,” Matt said putting his long arms on the back of the couch and looking up at the ceiling. “It could be a very socially awkward gay boy, too.”

“Why?”

“They have all these nightmares about getting embarrassed in front of boys. I was so annoyed by them in high school!” Matt smiled. “But whoever they are, I gave them lot more trouble.” His voice was now lower. Concerned. “They kept giving me shit while I did the drugs.”

“How?” Neil asked with a frown.

“Have you ever gotten your inner thigh pinched really hard?!” Matt snapped his eyes at him. “It fucking hurts, man!”

Neil shook his head, and couldn’t help smiling again. “You never tried to search for them?”

“Nah,” Matt waved with his hand. “I was just pissed in high school, then completely uninterested in them while high. Now I have Dan, so I don’t see the point? She understands me without any of this humbug.”

Humbug. It really was just like that for other people. They didn’t need a supernatural phenomenon to be able to connect with others.

“Plus, you know, it would suck to know that they are a tiny, cute girl.”

“Because Dan is not one of those and you might have a change of mind?” He got a pillow thrown at him.

“You little shit,” Matt grinned. “Because I don’t want to hold myself back. I wouldn’t be able to give my best on the court if I had to be worried about someone else’s safety.” As Neil stayed silent, he just got the remote control of the tv. “So, it’s not a bad thing that you don’t have one yet.”

Neil hummed something back as he couldn’t share the truth with his roommate. He didn’t need to be worried about holding back. His soulmate already proved that he can take anything. Which didn’t help Neil to feel less bad about it, though.

It also became very clear just two days later that Andrew didn’t give a fuck about injuring Neil either. They were packing to get ready to leave for Nashville for their away game after hearing about Wymack’s crazy idea of being creative with the line-up. It seemed the setup of Andrew being ready to do what Coach asked put Kevin in a very bad mood. He just shoved Andrew up his locker.

Neil gasped, then started to cough when noticed Aaron’s eyes on him, but he highly doubted the older boy’s suspicion would go away so easily. Couldn’t do much, though than not even glance at him. His back ached, but he assumed Kevin will have a harder time during the game dealing with the cut Andrew gave him.

Andrew really didn’t care about injuring any of them. Yet he was still ready to go on with games without his medication for them, which Neil already knew gave him serious trouble. He didn’t understand, and his chat with Wymack wasn’t much helpful either. However, he carefully put away the information about Andrew letting Wymack put a leash on him because he usually kept it lose and only used it in important times. It kind of added up with how Andrew needed his trades with him or Kevin. He acted all so detached from everything, but he was ready to commit as long as he felt safe doing so. Neil felt like their little honesty game could come in handy later, too.

“You want him to care, you gotta give him incentive.” Nicky’s comment was probably a lot truer than Neil thought about it on his first week at Palmetto.

On their bathroom break, Neil found Andrew behind the bus smoking. He was leaning on the vehicle, staring into nothing, but a wide grin appeared on his face at Neil’s sight. He just got his last dose before the game. “Oh, look at that, a snail at a place like this.”

Neil raised an eyebrow at the nickname. “Shouldn’t it be a slug?”

Andrew theatrically waved. “It’s not about the house, dumbass. You found that already, anyway.”

Now he frowned at the kindness in those words, but wasn’t going to comment. “Then why?”

“Cause you have no spine,” Andrew answered referring to his behavior around Allison, then grimaced. “I hate explaining jokes. What do you want?”

“What will happen when withdrawal hits?”

“Hopefully I throw up all over all of you. Can’t wait.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Hope not. But what about me?”

“What about you?”

“I’m on for the last twenty minutes, will it affect me?”

Andrew frowned. “I’m not sorry, but how does that question affect me?”

“Don’t be an ass, it’s important.” Neil couldn’t hide his irritation.

“Not to me.” The older put out his cigarette on the bus’ tire, then flicked the butt at Neil’s chest. “But humor me, has it ever affected you before?”

“It wasn’t when we went to Columbia, but is that all to it?”

Andrew shrugged. “Assume, we’ll see in a few hours.” He pushed himself off the bus, then with another wicked grin, skirted around Neil. “You do deserve a little suffering, don’t you?”

Neil balled his fingers into fist, but wasn’t sure what to say.

“You are so boring with your tail between your legs,” Andrew grumbled.

“Fuck you!” By the time he turned around, Andrew was gone from sight. How was he supposed to not feel bad about everything?! What Andrew even expected from him? Forgetting the whole thing? He would have asked for his forgiveness a hundred times instead, because it wasn’t meaningless for him.

However, it became pretty soon obvious that Andrew wasn’t against using their connection if it was convenient for him. They were in the greenroom during the half break, Neil after being on court for a whole half for the first time. After getting his shoulder almost ruined by one of the backliners of Belmont university.

"I'm fine."

Nicky fist-pumped in triumph. "Thank you for being so predictable, Neil. You just scored me ten bucks with two words."

Matt looked up. "Are you serious? Who the hell bet against you?"

Nicky jerked a thumb at Kevin. "There's a sucker born every minute."

Neil wanted to get mad at them, but he was too occupied with getting pissed at Kevin’s lecture about lying about injuries.

Abby eyed Neil after it. “I’ll ask again, then. Are you okay?”

“I’m–“

“Give him fucking icing, his shoulder is throbbing. His fucking right knee needs some, too.”

Everybody’s eyes were on Andrew the second he opened his mouth. Except Kevin and Abby’s. “What happened to your knee?!”

“Can you read Neil’s thoughts now, or what?” That was Nicky.

Neil clenched his teeth. “Fuck you,” he hissed in German.

Andrew looked unconcerned about his irritation. “His shoulder should be a four, Abby, but if you don’t give him the ice, it’ll go up five or six. His knee is just three.”

“Is that true?”

“I don’t even know what that means,” Neil said, still glaring at the blonde.

“He is lying.”

“Can’t you just shut the fuck up and suffer in silence?!” He jumped to his feet, hardly resisting the urge to kick Andrew who was sitting on the floor in the corner a few meters away.

“Am I suffering yet?” he asked back with provoking eyes.

“Okay, both of you, just shut your retarded faces, and Neil sit the fuck down!” Wymack stepped in front of him, still far away to actually scare him. “Did Andrew hit the nail on the head or didn’t he?”

Neil averted his eyes, then dropped back on the bench. “He did. But I can play later!” he added, almost begging to Coach.

Wymack opened his mouth, then closed it instead and seemed to count to at least five in his head before saying anything again. “I won’t repeat Kevin’s lecture, but you fucking remember every word of it the next time.” He waved at Abby to go and patch his impossible striker up. “We already lost precious minutes with this stupidity, listen to me…”

Neil was puffing in anger for the twenty minutes he spent on the bench, but by the time the game ended, and they won – his first won match with the Foxes – it was gone. The only thing coming from Andrew throughout the 90 minutes were a headache, even though the blonde was very close to pass getting violently sick by the end of it. Neil watched him escaping the court first, and thought, he really didn’t deserve to deal with his shit, too. Outing him like that was a below the belt kick, but he guessed, that was one of Andrew’s favorite fighting technic anyway.

He finished first as the girls let him use their shower room, then found Andrew, Abby and Wymack in the greenroom with half of a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, and pills all over the floor. Andrew seemed just a little bit better than ten minutes ago.

"Why did you pay for stalls, Coach?"

Wymack lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Maybe I knew you'd need them one day."

Andrew smiled around the mouth of his bottle. "Neil is a walking tragedy."

"You're a pretty pathetic sob story yourself," Wymack said.

Andrew laughed weakly, and Neil couldn’t hide a smile either. It was way too true.

When Andrew got up to go to shower, Neil stopped him with his arm. “Stop making them suspicious with unnecessary comments,” he said in German.

The blonde’s face was already showing his drugged smile. “Was it really unnecessary, Neil?” he asked, then slapped a hand on his almost-injured shoulder. Neil oppressed the hissing as he squeezed it.

“You are putting yourself in danger.”

“Hah, I laugh in the face of danger.”

“You shouldn’t.” He interpreted Andrew’s annoyed frown the very wrong way. “Don’t put an even bigger target back on your back when you finally threw your own off.”

Andrew narrowed his eyes at that, and now he was really angry at Neil, not just because he didn’t understand his movie reference. “You should let me go now, Neil. My medicines didn’t really kick in yet, you see, and I’m feeling very keen to break your arm at the moment.”

He let him, because that threat felt very real. But he swore in his head to talk to him about this no matter what. Even if Andrew was desperate to get involved in their problems, outing themselves was just too much. There wasn’t a bigger danger than that.

However, on the way home he let the waves of joy over the won game overwhelm him. Listening to his teammates’ cheerful chitchatting, just being in the bus, in safe, made him feel happy. He was included and safe which was a very unfamiliar territory for him, but he couldn’t stop his heart now. He really liked being with them. For a few hours, he let himself not think about what a danger he was for everyone.

~*~

“Is that my sweater?!”

He couldn’t care less about what time it was, days slowed down again way too much. “If you don’t keep anyone else’s clothes in your closet?” he asked back, then jumped on the couch, pulling his legs up to his chest.

“Why the fuck are you wearing my clothes?”

Andrew looked at Coach like he was being mentally ill. “Because it’s cold, and you wouldn’t let me keep stuff here?”

Wymack scratched his forehead in the chair on the other end of the table, then just grunted. “When do you plan to leave finally?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. Tonight? Tomorrow morning? Right at 2am? Still undecided, need to discuss with the voices about whether we are ready to face Kevin or not.” Coach just took a deep breath, he smirked, then pouted. “I’m hungry.”

“Delivery is still not here.”

He was fidgeting in his seat, pecking on the long sleeves of the sweater. “Shall we play Word chain until then?”

“For fuck’s sake, Andrew, I’m getting really tired.”

“Do you want some of my pills? I guarantee you’ll start buzzing in ten minutes just like me.” Coach eyed him, and it was Andrew who got bored of it first. Obviously. “Nefarious.”

Coach frowned. “What?”

“That’s my first word. It’s your turn.”

“Silence.”

He grinned at the older man. “Epoch.”

“I don’t even know what that means, or what’s the last letter,” Coach grunted.

“A particular period of history, especially one considered remarkable or noteworthy,” Andrew recited. “You know. For example, when you recruited me.” Coach wasn’t mirroring his smirk. “The last letter is ‘h’.”

“Hush.”

Andrew snorted. “Nice. Harbinger.”

The bell rang. Coach got distracted from asking what the hell that meant. “Finally. Here’s your food.”

It wasn’t. Life never was that easy. The one coming was a– “Oh, look at that, Coach. A harbinger of very bad news.” He eyed the brat as that came standing in front of the coach. “You are not welcome. Go away.”

“We need to talk.”

“You probably need, I am pretty sure I do not.”

Coach sighed again, then closed his eyes for a second. “I am too tired for your shit. Go and have this conversation outside of my house, I do not want anything broken.”

Andrew looked at the older one hurt. “What makes you think I’d break anything else than his nose? I am hurt all over.”

“I need coffee.”

He looked back at the brat who looked pretty confused. “Oh, don’t mind him, he is having me over for 37 hours already, he is taking it pretty badly.”

“Yeah, he looks like he aged like 37 years, so now he looks like 90.”

“I can hear you, Josten, and you are still not funny!” came the shouting from the kitchen.

The bell rang again. “Finally,” Andrew muttered then jumped to his feet.

“Are you wearing Coach’s sweater?”

He looked down at himself, then back at the brat who followed him for some reason, maybe fearing that he would run away. That was the brat’s speciality. “No. I just shrank so my sweater is too big for me now.”

The brat scoffed. “Ok.”

He opened the door, then gave a wide smile to the guy outside. “See, Neil, this is how a harbinger of good news looks like. Which one has the pancakes?”

“Hello to you, too. This one,” the guy held up a bag, the next moment it was out of his hand, and Andrew started to walk away. “Hey!”

“The granpa inside is paying.”

“I still can hear you, little fucker!”

Coach’s voice sounded muffled as he was already two doors away. He turned the corner, then held the bag behind him. He looked back over his shoulder when it was still in his hand two seconds later. “Take this, would ya?” he scowled at the brat for being stupid.

“What are you planning to–“ He shut up after Andrew kneeled down by the last door, and had his set of lock picks in his hand. At last.

They went inside in silence, then he got his food back, and sat down in the middle of the completely empty apartment cross legged. The brat was stalling for a few seconds, then he lowered himself, too, just outside of reach. “Unusually smart.”

He opened the box with the pancakes, and right away started to tear it into tiny pieces. The huckleberry marmalade was in two different boxes, he opened those, too. “Hope, you are not waiting for me to offer you some,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

“I don’t like sweets.”

“They don’t like you either. And I definitely like you even less after this comment.”

“Does that mean you like me at least on some level?”

“Not anymore.”

The brat scoffed again, but then he tensed up very fast. “I want you to stop outing us around the others.”

“Should I be hurt that you are so ashamed of me?” He made a face that showed exaggerated thinking. “Oh, wait. I am not, so it’s fine.”

“It’s not about your feelings, but your well-being!” The brat sounded very irritated.

“Good, because I don’t have any of the first, and the second is not your concern.”

“Andrew, I get it. Your medicine makes you keen on being difficult, but this is important.” Andrew was staring at his pancake pieces and looked completely indifferent. “You are already in danger, because wanting to protect us, but don’t add to it unnecessarily. If you make them know we are connected–“

“Don’t use that word. We are not.” He licked his finger.

“Yes, okay, whatever, but if they knew they could use you to hurt me, they’d do it.”

“So are you worried about you getting some painful moments?” he asked impassibly.

“What? No!” the brat frowned. “I’m worried about you getting hurt, when you are finally out of the worst.”

There were a few long seconds of heavy silence. “I don’t like you mentioning my past. I don’t like you knowing anything about my past.”

The brat dropped his eyes on his thighs, and most likely unconsciously started to peck at his shitty jeans, reaching the flesh, too with his nails. He felt it, but said nothing, it was better than the mouth biting. “I know. But I can’t really change that, can I? We didn’t choose this, but we need to workaround it. You know things about me that I rather not share with anyone.”

“Like your mommy issues?”

The brat swallowed hard, and didn’t even try to hide his wince this time. “Yeah, like that one.”

“Tell me about her death.”

“What do I get in exchange?” the brat asked after consideration.

He shrugged. “What do you want?”

“Keep it a secret. Don’t let anyone ever know that we are soulmates. I already feel sorry for putting you through hell all those years, I wouldn’t be able to deal with you getting tortured then killed, because they want to hurt me.”

Andrew threw a bit of pancakes at him. Then one more. Then the almost empty huckleberry box.

“What?!” he snapped at that finally.

“I didn’t ask for your sorry. I don’t believe in forgiveness. I think a good old grudge can give you enough fire to wake up for in the morning.”

“You don’t say?” the brat rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I think you are all so difficult to understand, other times you are the plainest equation.”

“Ugh, that hurt. I’m doing something very badly here,” he said, grinning widely, the brat continued with the eyerolling. “So? Give me some fairy tale to sleep for tonight.”

The brat sighed, then averted his eyes, and turned toward the window instead. “We were in Seattle. I was seventeen years, four month and twenty-one days old, it’s not really important, but it was the worst day of my life so I counted.”

“When did you start to have the nightmares with the fire?” Andrew interrupted.

“Right after?” he asked with a shrug.

“That doesn’t add up. I got the first a year and two months ago.”

“What’s up with your memory?” he looked back, but only for a second. “I’m turning nineteen in January. Doubt it’s such a surprise that I lied about my age, too.”

“Hah, great. I hated not having even a year on you. Brat.”

“Yeah, I’d hate not having that three inches on you, too. Shortie.”

He laughed, it was short, and he wasn’t entirely sure the only reason for it was the drug in his blood. “Continue.”

“I’m still not sure how my father’s men found us that time, but for once it wasn’t my fault. I was too paranoid to even talk with anyone by this time, so I really couldn’t spill any of our secrets. I did that a lot before, got into some serious trouble because of it.”

“Yeah, I felt the consequences,” he said on a bored voice. “You are stalling.”

“They attacked us in the abandoned office building we hid for a few days. Mom thought we are being tracked, so we couldn’t check into a motel. I was outside having a piss when heard the gunshots. I heard mom screaming inside, but I knew I’m not allowed to go help her. I had to think of myself, and I had an out, so I ran. We had a meeting point downtown at a park by the sea. She called me that she is in the parking lot. By the time I found her in a car I’ve never seen before, she was sitting on the passenger seat. Said she is too tired to drive, so I did it. I drove down on Route 101 till Leggett, then continued on SR 1 along the coast. By the time I noticed something is wrong we were close to San Francisco. I didn’t notice she is dying until it was too late.” He scoffed, but Andrew was a lot more disturbed by the fact that all this happened in California. “She was bleeding inside, I guess. I didn’t see any gunshot wounds. Maybe they kicked her so badly that some organs got raptured, I don’t know. I know almost nothing, because she refused to talk to me. She only opened her mouth at the last few minutes. She made me promise that I’ll keep running. That I wouldn’t trust anyone. And look at me now?”

“She was a clever woman, too bad she had a dumb son.” He had no intention of giving sympathy, or feeling bad after getting a scowl. “Where does the fire come in the picture? You had that fucking dream for months.”

“I had to burn her,” he squeezed out the words.

“Not so dumb, then. A lot easier to hide a body and evidence if you burn it.”

He was still scowling, but said nothing. Probably felt getting angry at Andrew was just a waste of energy. “I buried the ashes I could gather a few miles away, then fled to San Francisco. That’s it, I guess. I leave the juicy bits to your imagination.”

“Was she a good mother?”

“Was any of yours?”

“Ouchy, right at the reflex points, don’t be surprised if I kick you.” Andrew theatrically grimaced. “There was one who tried to be. She failed in the long run, too.”

“Mine kept me alive. That’s all I can say.”

“Did she beat you?”

“Could you feel it?”

He smirked. “I felt way too many things, can’t really separate the source of them.”

The brat eyed him for a while, but decided against the continuation. “Will you keep it a secret?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

They were done just like that. He gathered the remains of his food, then strode out, back to Coach’s.

“You aren’t coming back to the dorm?”

“Nah, not yet. You just wrote yourself on the ‘I can’t stand his face’ list below Kevin, so I might not go back there ever.” He opened the door, then waved into the unimpressed brat’s face. “Byebye!”

Coach was in his office when Andrew found him.

“We are playing Word chain, not hide-and-seek, Coach,” he said, leaning on the doorframe. “It’s your turn. Say something with ‘r’.

The older man grunted, then put down his pen. “Respite.

“That’s a good one.” The grin disappeared from his face very fast. “Alright, I’ll let you live your boring life, but only because you are boring me, too.”

“I would thank you, but can’t bring myself to it.”

“No need, as I said, it’s for my sake.” He turned around, but Coach still had something to say.

“You didn’t break anything on my striker, right?”

“Nah, we just had a friendly chat.”

“Friendly,” echoed the other one in a disbelieving way.

“Yeah,” he put his head back inside with a wicked grin. “You see, the kid seems to think we have a connection.”

Coach grunted. “Make him forget about it.”

“On it!” he saluted, then went back to the living room.

He was too restless to just sit down, though, the medicine was still buzzing in his system, giving him way too much energy. As there wasn’t much to do in Coach’s house, he just sat down by the radiator, and started to do sit-ups. It was a good way to shut the happy pills up, and just think in considerable peace.

“We didn’t choose this, but we need to workaround it.”

He would have preferred to ignore it just like he did ever since it started. He hated every moment of it, not mention the thought of being connected to someone. What a fucking stupid thing to say. Who even needs that? He definitely didn’t need to have anyone around to rely on. Using them, yes, but that wasn’t the same as being connected.

“He is already very much connected to you.”

Yes, he was, because of the protection, but it wasn’t a two-way thing. Even if he was ready to carry the kid’s secrets on his back, he had to do nothing of the sort for Andrew. “I don’t need anyone.”

“You’re still interested whether he could take it or not. You still want to see just exactly how interesting he is.”

Maybe. “But you shut the fuck up.”

The happy pills did, but not for so long. On Tuesday they took the brat to buy him new clothes, and a phone. Then he freaked out. And it was just such by-the-book panic attack that they witnessed that he couldn’t possibly stay away from it. The drive in his system to know more, to fix the problem was literally burning him up. Him, who was supposed to not care about anything. And yet, this brat was just making him curious, making him wanting to do things. “I still don’t care about him.” Oh, no, he didn’t. It was just a little bit more interesting than anything else.

He bought the brat the same type of phone as he had, because he knew that’s more than enough. Andrew just needed him to have it around, so he would be available when needed. However, setting up the same ringtone had a lot more meaning.

He remembered hearing that song on the radio a lot. He wasn’t really into music, but the ones he enjoyed in the car definitely had lot more hard beats and tones in them. This one had good lyrics, though. Something to mock the kid with. Something only they would understand; and if the kid was so keen on connecting, it was one way to make him believe it’s happening. It wasn’t. Obviously. – He ignored the maniac laughter in his mind.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he commanded the exy one after the brat was off to change into his gears.

“What?!” Irritation was radiating from the older guy’s shoulder the next second.

“I need to talk with Josten.”

The exy one turned back to his locker, just shaking his head. “Do it after practice.”

“No.” He would be too out of it by that time. He was already almost out of energy, it had to be done now.

“Stop fucking with me, Andrew.”

He scoffed. “I would never fuck you even if you begged for it.” He thought for a second. “I would enjoy saying no just the more if you did, though.”

The exy one opened his mouth, then shut it again before getting the rest of his gear. “I’ll go to change in the foyer just so I have time to forget about this whole conversation.”

“Whatever, just do as I said.”

He was already straddling the bench when the brat came back. Andrew saw on his face he noticed the exy one left in a hurry, but his attention snapped to the phone on the bench pretty fast. Then he looked up at Andrew’s face the next second. He was rushing toward panic again.

“A man can only have so many issues.”

“I don’t need a phone,” the brat said.

“Who needs one more than you this year?”

As the shadows on the kid’s face became even more obvious, Andrew took out his own phone. He sat it beside the grey one, then called himself from it. He turned back to see the brat’s reaction as the song started to play.

“Bought a ticket for a runaway train / like a madman laughin’ at the rain / little out of touch, little insane / just easier than dealing with pain.”

He set this part for himself, because it was like a mocking of himself. He was insane, and had that ticket for this idiot runaway train, didn’t he? He signed up to protect him. He would ring like this if the kid called, and he found it funny.

“You are not funny.” The brat thought otherwise. But he at least sat down before cutting the call.

"Neither are you. You put a noose around your neck and handed the loose end to Riko," Andrew said. "I distinctly remember saying I would watch your back. Give me one good reason why you'd make that difficult for me."

"I survived for eight years because no one could find me," the brat said.

"That's not why."

"Are we doing the honesty thing again?"

"Do we need to?" he asked back, taking his phone from Neil. "You start." He didn’t really mind the brat was clear about how this business worked. He actually found it pretty smart of him to not give away his secrets for free.

The brat sighed, then started to turn his phone in circles on the bench. “It reminds me of everything that happened on the run. I look at it and can hear my mom’s voice in my head going on about how important it is that I keep the phone on me at all times. “Phone, and your gun. You must have that on you at all times.” I look at it, and I’m reminded that the last one I had I threw into the ocean after burning her. I never had a new one, because I knew, I wouldn’t have anyone anymore to call.” He glanced back at Andrew. “Who am I supposed to call now?”

“Nicky, Coach, the suicidal hotline, I don’t care.” ME, you obnoxious, oblivious fuck.

They talked until it became obvious, words won’t change anything in the brat’s hard head, so Andrew just dialled his number, and they listened to the song.

“Runaway train never going back / wrong way on a one way track / seems like I should be getting somewhere / somehow I’m neither here nor there.”

The brat was staring at the phone, but Andrew saw the discomfort on his face. There was a part of him that enjoyed seeing that. An other one wanted it to be gone because it was too distracting.

“Your phone is ringing, Neil. You should answer it.”

His mind usually remembered everything, but that night he saw the brat’s face full of pain as he explained to him how not okay he was, so clearly that sleep was completely out of question. It annoyed him. It annoyed him for way too many reasons.

Then his annoyance got on a new level after the kid started to wear the clothes his cousin picked for him. It was a kind of unpleasantness that pleased the happy pills but displeasured the monster greatly. He wished he could ignore all of it. It was pretty hard, especially with his cousin making comments about how well his new distressed jeans looked on him – on his ass, because the size finally fit him –, and that he couldn’t wait for the fall banquet so the brat would wear his skinny ones. Andrew was trying very hard to not even think about that. The brat was a fine piece of work, it was impossible even for him to deny that. However, when his cousin went a little overboard with the inappropriateness he did threaten him with a knife.

Then he wanted to stab the brat, too, when that showed up in said outfit on that damn Saturday. He was wearing the black skinny jeans with a vest a few shades lighter and a white shirt. The jacket was in his hand as he came out of the dorm with the druggie.

“I am so gay.” That was out in the void in his head before he could do more than blink.

“Am I a genius god of fashion or am I?” his cousin screamed right away.

“Fuck me, Neil, you look amazing!” the captain joined in the next followed with a “Wow, you look nice,” from the rainbow girl.

“Told ya so!” the druggie smiled, then went to his girlfriend to hug her. “Too bad I couldn’t talk him into getting a haircut.”

Andrew was very grateful for the druggie’s bad debate skills. The sight was bad enough already, especially with the brat’s shy smiles and blushing face. Oh fuck, he wanted to hit him so bad he had to strode up the bus.

Fortunately, the mental meltdown the exy one experienced during the ride was enough to keep his mind on important matter. They were about to meet the king, and this time he had to be sure to protect him properly. He kept sending searching glances at the brat to see how he was coping, but that one seemed to manage so far. It wasn’t much of a surprise, the exy one was a lot weaker, and he was about to face his nightmares which was only indirectly true for the brat. He had to concentrate on the exy one tonight then deal with the kid’s mental state later.

Coach’s wonderful idea to get the exy one wasted was actually his, and as they arrived to the court where the banquet took place, with the older one still breathing, he felt pretty fucking proud of it. Then they realized the seating arrangement, and Andrew suddenly wished they gave him 1 minute instead of just 10 seconds to drink.

“Oh, how cliché,” he said, sounding almost delightful. He was, mostly. The remaining 10% of his non-delight part hid well, because they had to look confident for the exy one’s sake. “Maybe this will be fun after all.”

It was definitely entertaining to watch. The birds started to peck at the captain first, then prisoner 24601 came over to sit across the brat. The exy one sat between him and the kid, but Andrew leaned forward to see his face as the jailbird started to question who he was. Andrew just wanted the brat to see his ‘Told ya so’ face, but he was way too occupied with prisoner 24601. It took the brat five very long seconds to breathe again after those names got listed, ‘Alex, Stefan, Chris’, they sounded pretty unfitting, Andrew thought. His mother should have had a better naming sense.

He had no intention of saving the brat’s ass, but when the jailbird started with the exy one, he waved at him, “Jean. Hey, Jean, Jean, Jean Valjean. Hey. Hey. Hello.”

The conversation went over Andrew’s head pretty quick again, though. It was annoying when all the Foxes were out to hunt, he preferred to get his prays alone. However, the last shot was the brat’s again. Pointing out his mommy issues was such a bad idea from the king.

“You know, I get it…”

Oh, fuck, he felt real joy welling up inside with every passing word. That speech was spectacular.

“What did I tell you? He is the freaking best.”

He hushed the happy pills, then himself, too when the kid closed his little performance with, “Dan, I said please. I tried to be nice.” It was so fucking hard to not just start laughing his ass off.

The little scene went from funny interesting to inquisitive interesting as soon as they started to jibber-jabber in French. He should have already learned this stupid language. With Coach’s approach and the new table, things should have quieted down, but the exy one was completely out of it still. Andrew heard his name in their talk, but it was easier to just let Bee’s friend take the exy one away for a quick refill of the magic potion than asking anything.

“Neil,” the captain said after taking the exy one’s seat. He wasn’t happy about it, as he liked to have his eye on the brat. “Are you okay?”

“Does he look okay to you?” he scowled at the girl, and got one back as reply.

The brat wasn’t okay. He looked like he could either throw up any second, or just fled. He couldn’t let that happen. He leaned back with his chair, then said, “I told you so.” He wanted him angry instead of scared. It didn’t help.

Then Coach offered him a chance to get out of here. Oh fucking no. He will just run. Andrew knew it. If he gets the chance now, they won’t see him ever again. Andrew was staring at him, glaring at him, but he just wouldn’t look his way. Then he pinched his right side just above the hipbone. Hard. Harder. The kid finally looked up.

"No," the brat said, finally finding his voice. "I knew this was going to happen. I just wasn't ready for it. I'm fine."

Andrew let go of the pinch.

And he couldn’t remember anything about the dinner after that. He was too busy finally dealing with his own problem. The monster wanted blood. They were in the same place as the king, it would have been so easy just to go up there and cut his throat. Why was murder even considered such a bad thing?

It was, but that wasn’t really what kept him back. Even if he killed the king, and the exy one might become free, that wouldn’t help the brat. He put himself on the line for both of them, and there was no turning back from this. The monster had to wait which meant fighting an exhausting battle in his head. Repeating over and over again that he can do this. He can protect them. Without the power of anger.

“You plan to break that fork in half?” asked the other one on a quiet voice. They were sitting next to each other. Why? He had no idea.

“Just checking if my magical power working yet or not,” he answered, then managed to put the now bended fork down.

“And?” The other one’s voice was flat, unconcerned.

“Still not going to Hogwarts.”

“Too bad.”

“Yeah.”

After the dinner, when the tables got cleared from the court they were all just standing around for a few seconds like the most awkward group of lame people ever. Andrew shoved his cousin’s shoulder a little.

“What?!” he whispered shouting-ly. Andrew shoved his shoulder again. It was a silent, Do something. Fortunately, his cousin was well trained already. “Okay, you depressed bunch! I want a picture of Neil’s sexy being in the heavenly clothes I picked for him” – he said this for the 100th times that night –, “so you all come together and fake a smile! I won’t care about you, so it doesn’t need to be believable.”

The druggie laughed, the captain snorted, the others just grunted something, but they did start to get together. Everybody stood with their dates, so Renee came standing next to Andrew, then smiled widely. “Can I link our arms together?”

He shrugged, and let her.

“The two miserable idiots with the sexyality just stand in the middle, and at least look gorgeous,” Nicky commanded them, after tossing his phone to Bee’s friend.

The exy one did so, but the brat just looked dumb(founded). “The two with the what?”

“Doesn’t matter, just come here,” the captain said still laughing at the joke, then pulled the brat next to her in the middle.

“We need a copy of this picture!” the happy pills shouted. Over my dead body.

They took some with Coach and Bee’s friend, too, then everybody scattered. They had to go around to shake hands. Not him, obviously.

It took quite a while till the birds came back to quack at them. He couldn’t not laugh at their pathetic way of trying to look threatening with their formation. The exy one was by his side so close that he could have drown in the waves of his anxiety. He was so ready for fight by the time the birds caged them, but the busybodies stole the show again. Andrew was very unimpressed by their performance – even though the balls-kick from the captain was pretty cool –, but he was alright for now to just stare the king down. He tried to avoid Andrew’s glare, but he saw how tense his face was. It was probably hard to not notice the violence he radiated thanks to the monster blasting inside, “Kill him, kill him, kill him!”

Then the evil mastermind arrived, and the voice just became even louder. Because Andrew knew behind every evil guy, there is an even more evil older man. And there he was. Oh, how much he wanted them all dead.

The evil mastermind took the exy one’s hand in his, then kept eyeing it for long seconds. The exy one’s right one grabbed Andrew’s between their bodies, and squeezed it hard, but the shaking of it wasn’t from the strength, but the fear.

“I think that inspection was long enough already, Mr Unimportant One Moriyama.” Andrew lifted his hand, then pulled the exy one’s out from the old man’s grip. “We haven’t met yet–“

“I know who you are.”

The monster very much hated the mocking smile on the man’s face. “The dishonour is all mine.”

“Sure it is.” The evil mastermind looked him up and down, then returned to his eyes. “All that wasted talent.”

“Sad, isn’t? How much better it would be for you if your nephew got it, right? He’d at least worth something.”

“We can’t help that now, can we?”

He hated that condescending tone and smile so bad. The exy one was one lofty fella, but not like this. He always sounded angry, this man was calm, so sure of his position. “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”

“Yeah, you can always make sure everybody who is better than him drops out of the league, right?”

That fucking smile. And the man just ignored him after that. The knives under his armband burned his skin.

“Andrew,” came the desperate whisper after a while from behind him.

He looked back up over his shoulder, it was the druggie. “What?”

“Neil is gone.”

He slapped his eyes back ahead, then noticed his mistake right away. The king was gone, too. He was too focused on the old man that he forgot about the fucking bird. But he couldn’t possibly leave the exy one alone. For fuck’s sake.

“Go and find him. Alone.”

The druggie ran off the next moment. They both knew what was at stake. The king broke the exy one’s hand on a banquet like this nine months ago. They couldn’t possibly kill him right here, Andrew partially doubted they would even physically hurt him now that their line was so down to limit, but there was something else to worry about. If the king scares him enough, the brat will run. Andrew knew it. If they let him alone for too long, he’s gone for good.

When Coach arrived with the doll on his side, then got the evil mastermind’s attention off them, he led Kevin to one of the walls, followed by the captain, the rainbow girl and the doll, too. The exy one was ready to puke.

“You swallow that back in. Everything. Keep your mouth shut, clench your magazine perfect teeth together, and just stand still. We’re leaving soon.” He wasn’t sure the exy one heard any of his words so he squeezed his arms until he focused back on. “You did good. We’re leaving soon.”

“It’s almost over, Kevin,” the rainbow girl joined in. The captain patted the exy one’s shoulder.

“They wouldn’t hurt him, would they?” The doll wasn’t the least concerned about their spineless striker present, she meant the other one.

He almost got robbed of the chance to answer as his head exploded. Or that was how the pain that suddenly shot up in his brain felt like. The kid got a serious blow from someone or something. Well, at least, he still wasn’t running, right? If the druggie finds him, he won’t have a chance. “Guess, we’ll see in a couple of minutes.”

They were silent until the captain noticed her boyfriend before any of them did. “They are back.”

If he was able to, he would have been impressed by the spine the kid just showed. “Oh, Neil came back. I didn’t think you would.” It was a lot easier to just show him the crazy. Then to ignore everything, and be silent next to the exy one all the way back to Palmetto. They were through one exhausting night, but they were all in one piece. For now.

He had no optimistic thoughts, huh, as if, but it was always good to have time to gather power and think of new ways to kill the enemy than not.

The next time he paid attention to time was on the 13th of October. He was less than a month away to turn twenty, and ready with everything he’d gotten to fight the king. Even if it was a lost battle.

~*~

Going wherever with the upperclassmen after what happened to Seth wasn't Neil's favorite thing to do, but he really couldn't just get out of all of it. He appreciated Matt and Dan way too much for that. Meals out of the dorm were the worst. They always ended up sitting at the same order. Matt, Dan, Renee, Allison and Neil. Renee never sat next to him because she sensed it would have put Neil in a difficult situation, but that kindness just made his life more uncomfortable lately.

His anxiety because of sitting next to Allison made him nauseous and unable to eat. Staring into his plate and just tossing the food around on it, that was how Neil spent the last three occasions. Allison was also a pretty bad company, so at least his shut mouth wasn't all that bold. On the fourth occasion, though, the girl next to him talked.

"Eat," she commanded on a tight, small voice, Neil could have missed it in the chatter of the restaurant if his senses weren't sharp enough.

"I don't have an appetite."

Allison snapped her head to Neil, and her voice wasn't small anymore. "Do you fucking think I do?" Her blue eyes were dark, and not even the foundation could hide the dark circles under them properly. Neil realized this was the first time he looked her in the eye for weeks. He averted them right away. "You burn even more calories than me, because of Day's fucked up mind, you need to eat properly or you will pass out. This fucked up team can't lose one more member."

Neil squeezed his pork and knife so hard that his knuckles turned white. He felt the gag in his throat growing even bigger.

"I said, eat!" she hissed at him again.

"Allison," Renee said on a calm voice and put her hand on her friend's.

"I'm not gonna tolerate anyone with eating disorder on my team." Her voice was fierce, unshakable.

"Neil is eating, Lis, mostly properly," Matt joined in to ease the storm.

"Then what the fuck is your problem? Do you hate eating with us around?" Her eyes were on Neil again, but he was still staring into his plate.

"No, I don’t. I'll eat. Sorry," he muttered, and raised the fork to his mouth. It felt to weigh a ton and the meat tasted like crap, but he swallowed it anyway.

"You better fucking be. If I can, then you do it, too."

Because this is your fault in the first place. Allison didn't think that, but Neil couldn't help hearing it. He spent the day avoiding the girl even more than before.

The next morning, just two days before their game against Edgar Allan, Kevin gave him something else to think about. They were all in the gym when Wymack started to shout.

“What the fuck? Couldn’t you fucking tell me that like ten months ago?!”

Everybody froze in their spot, and started to stare at them. “It’s not like you can use it against them.”

“But they can use it against you!”

Neil lowered the weights he had in his hands to the floor, then glanced at Andrew who was on the bench, the only one who still continued his workout.

“No. My soulmate is already out of the Nest.”

“Did he just say soulmate?” Nicky asked with clear curiosity a few feet away on the treadmill in his eye piercingly orange t-shirt that had black pumpkins on it.

“Turn your shitty music down, then we’ll hear,” Aaron grunted.

“Hey! I tolerate lots of things from you, but you don’t get to call Beyonce shitty!” Nicky replied offended. Neil couldn’t comprehend how he can be hurt over some singer, but not his own self. Aaron just rolled his eyes.

“Coach, what’s up?” Dan asked when the conversation between Kevin and Wymack died down to a silent eye-fight.

“Tell them.”

Kevin seemed like for a moment that he was ready to protest, but then he just clicked his tongue and came to the middle of the gym. “There is something nobody really knows about the Ravens.”

The united grumbling from their teammates represented Neil’s feelings, too. He didn’t want any new information about what kind of superpowers the Ravens had. They were already better, was it really necessary to make the Foxes feel even more inferior?

They all eyed Kevin except Andrew who was still lifting that 200 pounds like a machine. His medicine kicked in, it was better to let him exhaust himself, or at least that was what Kevin decided.

“The Ravens only recruit soulmates.”

There was a dead second of silence, then except Neil, Allison and Renee, the others all started to shout around.

Kevin tolerated it for fifteen seconds. “Shut the fuck up!” He snapped his right hand on his hip, then started to massage his forehead with his left. He wasn’t looking at any of them. “I didn’t tell, because it’s not something for outsiders to know.”

“Good to know you still think of us and yourself like that,” Dan said clearly annoyed.

“I don’t mean it like that!” Kevin answered. “You can’t use it against them, okay? They never let the pairs on the court at the same time. If one was blocked too hard, the other might lose concentration for a second, they can’t let that happen. One is up, the other is on the bench enduring the pain.”

“Why is that even a thing then?” Nicky asked confused, but Neil already knew the answer before Kevin said it.

“Because it’s a good way to discipline behind the curtains.”

Nicky’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, dear cousin, you innocent little soul.” Andrew was now straddling the bench, waving his shirt to cool himself off. “Probably the only one who never been physically abused by parents, right?” He was glaring at Neil, but the younger refused to meet his eyes.

“Nicky, if they hurt one of them, the other feels it, too, right?” Renee said on a gentle voice. “I can imagine that is an effective way to boost a pairing’s dynamics. They can help each other exerting themselves to get better if they want to avoid getting hurt.”

“They use violence to get their players to try?” Nicky asked staring at Kevin.

“Yes,” he said flatly. “Ravens operate on a pair-based system. There are no individuals. Everything one does, must be shared with their pair. That involves success and failure. It’s the easiest to punish both using the soulmate phenomenon.”

“Just like in the Middle Ages,” Aaron muttered. “It was used for torture.”

“Because it hurts the one getting it through the connection more,” Neil added quietly.

“You said, you haven’t gotten yours yet,” Matt looked at him very quick.

Andrew laughed. “Hasn’t he now?”

Neil oppressed fidgeting with all his power. “I did a school project on it in high school.”

“Oh, Neil, you are a virgin?” Dan was a lot more interested in that. “That’s cute.”

He had no idea how to answer that so just shrugged.

“No, it’s a shame with that body,” Nicky said. He got several dismissing words for that from the others.

Allison, as she was still hardly taking parts in their fun times turned the attention back to Kevin. “And you say, they can’t use that against you?”

Now Kevin looked even more uncomfortable. “No. My pair is long out of the Nest. There were only three of us who didn’t really fit the usual pattern. Recruits must be close to each other in age, but mine was older.”

“No shit!” Dan reacted fast. “Is it Thea?”

Kevin shrugged.

“Ohmygod, you are fucking your soulmate. That’s–“ Nicky shut up for a second. “That’s so not-Kevin-Arrogant-Prick-Day-ish, I can’t even tell. It’s actually sweet. You being sweet. My brain just froze.”

“What difference will that make? It usually doesn’t work anyway,” Aaron commented on a bored voice.

Neil was more occupied with trying to process what he just heard. He knew who Thea was. The only person ever to turn down their initial invitation to the national team. And he just got to know, Kevin was her boyfriend or something. Wow.

“Who the other two like you are?” Matt asked after they were done talking Nicky down for being rude – and funny, they all laughed.

“Jean.” Kevin seemed very troubled now. “His soulmate was his little sister,” he squeezed it out in the end through clenched teeth.

“Soulmates so close to each other in a family?” Nicky asked back shocked.

“Was?” Dan voiced Neil’s question.

“She died 5 years ago.”

“Why are you talking like you are just about to shit yourself?” Allison asked blatantly.

Kevin took a deep breath, but it was Andrew answering in the end. “She couldn’t take the pain anymore.” It wasn’t a question.

“They never told Jean until it was too late. He had no idea whose nightmares he was seeing. His family never talked with him after selling him. He got to know about her death from Riko, because he found it a funny way to hurt Jean.” He talked fast like he wanted to go back not thinking about this ever again.

“How old was she?” Andrew asked.

“Seven. They never met. She was born after Jean left the family.”

“Your fucking Ravens are fucking sick, and you are all fucking disgusting.” Allison was staring at the water bottle at her hands, and her voice was low. Shaking. Neil thought it was because of anger, not sympathy.

“Riko is the third one,” Neil said, mostly to save Kevin from having to answer that.

“Yes. His soulmate was killed as soon as they found them. None of the Moriyamas’ soulmates must live.”

“As I said, Middle Ages.”

“How could you take part in this for so long?” Dan asked disbelieving.

Kevin scowled at her, tugging on his hair now. “You don’t really get a choice when you are inside.”

“You sure we can’t use this, though?” Matt was already back to stretching. “I mean, you hit one hard enough, the other comes up already in pain?”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “No, because Ravens don’t lie about their physical state.” He was obviously glaring at Neil. “Nobody goes on court who can’t give their 120%.”

“How nice it is to have so many people to choose from, right?” Dan asked grimacing. “So why was it necessary to stop training for this, Coach?”

Wymack came closer, arms crossed in front of his chest. “Because I want all you to fully understand what kind of people you are playing against.” He sighed loudly. “These people will be up there to kill you, and it won’t be because of Neil’s smart mouth. They might hate you more than other teams, and their ego will drive them even more than usually, but the Ravens always play with the intention of crashing their opponents completely. They can’t afford to lose, because they are paying high prize for any mistakes. They will try to kill you on the court, because if they fail, they might be the ones getting hurt later.”

“You don’t really try to make us feel sorry for them, right?” Matt asked confused.

“No. He says you will have to go up there with the intention of murder, too,” Andrew answered smirking.

Wymack didn’t even bat an eye. “As the psycho says.”

“That won’t be a hardship,” Dan said, then cracked her knuckles and looked over all of them. “Those fuckers know nothing about living like shit. It doesn’t give them strength, it just makes them act like spoiled, arrogant white kids, who think they are better than anyone. You just need to look at Kevin to be sure about that.” Some of them laughed – Andrew the loudest –, one of them growled in protest. “We’ll eat them for dinner. They want to kill us? Let me see them trying.”

Nicky and Matt cheered, Renee smiled gently, Allison was just staring at her water bottle. However, the twins, Kevin and Neil shared some serious glances. Then Andrew started to grin again, like he was ready for the challenge, too, and laid back down on the bench. He continued lifting till the last second of the training period, somehow giving silent power to all of them to do the same. They needed their strength.

Obviously it wasn’t enough. No spirit, no intense training could make up for a difference the Foxes and the Ravens had. They weren’t slaughtered, though. They fought back, causing serious wounds to the Ravens line up. They scored on them, and they walked away with their heads high, nothing else mattered now. They earned themselves a few more months of trying hard until they would meet the Ravens again in semifinals. Most of them shared Neil’s passionate feelings about getting there, and it made him happy. He was happy to fight alongside these people.

October went by fast after that. Endless trainings, Andrew’s issue with the policeman from Oakland, then Halloween. Getting everybody together for the party felt like the biggest accomplishment Neil had since arriving to the Tower. Andrew gave space for some reason. It felt great.

The night also gave him things to think about, though. Andrew’s "Sometimes you're interesting enough to keep around. Other times you're so astoundingly stupid I can barely stand the sight of you." made him feel like he was missing out on something. It drove him to the point that he actually talked with Renee. And that’s how he ended up knowing about Andrew’s sexuality. His mind was overwhelmed by the news. He had so many questions. All started with “But how?” After everything that happened to Andrew, how could he still be interested in men?

He couldn’t find the guts to go and ask him about it, though. Even if Andrew practically let him to get to know about it, Neil couldn’t believe he really wanted to talk about it. Maybe he just wanted Neil to stop annoying him with implying he is into Renee. Maybe he just found it funny to give him a headache with overthinking, because he knew it would bug Neil constantly.

Then Nicky came to ask for his help. He tried to say no, because Neil already felt way too deep down into the business of the cousins – the memory of his really awkward talk with Nicky about girls and family was still vivid in his mind. However, it was a chance to go and talk with Andrew. And indirectly a way to try to show Nicky how wrong he is about Andrew. The older guy just couldn’t see through his prejudice, couldn’t see Andrew did care. If he can convince him to do this for Nicky, then a chance of them to clear their misunderstandings could raise.

“As if you don’t want to get involved, Josten. You are a nosy fuck.” He hushed that voice very quick.

Andrew was smoking on his desk by the window. He wiggled his cigarette at Neil, when he came inside. “Oh, Neil! Hello!”

“Can we talk?”

“Today’s not a good day. Try again tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t crash your birthday party if it wasn’t important.”

Andrew grinned. “Sarcasm from Neil? Your repertoire of talents is ever-expending.”

The moment Neil told him the topic was Nicky’s parents, Andrew wanted him gone. Then he just ignored Neil’s questions.

Neil refused to be distracted. “Why won’t you go?”

“Why would I? Luther and I aren’t friends.”

“Last I checked, we’re not your friends either. You don’t even want me around, or to have anything to do with you, except being a good victim you can protect. You still put up even with me, so why won’t you tolerate Luther? Nicky assumes it has to do with the way you met, but Luther’s the one who got you out of juvie and back home with your mother, isn’t he?”

“She was not my mother.” Andrew waited a beat to make sure Neil understood and made a cutting gesture with his hand. “Cass, though, Cass? Cass would have been. She really wanted to be. Oh, you don't know. Here's a story for you, Neil. Listening? Cass wanted to keep me. She wanted to adopt me. Andrew Joseph Spear, she said. She collected all the paperwork but she wouldn't file without my consent. She thought I was old enough to choose."

“Spear,” Neil echoed, startled. “Like–“

“Richard Spear,” Andrew finished for him. “I told you all about him, yes? My last foster father.”

Oh no. Neil opened his mouth to say something then closed it again. He needed time to rethink everything. He knew what happened in Andrew’s last foster family.

“Who is Drake?”

Andrew’s hand was on his mouth the next second. “No. That’s a name you don’t say in front of me if you want to live.”

Neil didn’t peel off his hand, he just pulled away two of his fingers so his words were somehow articulate. “I would like to understand.”

The older scoffed. “That has nothing to do with me. Your wishes don’t concern me.”

“Will you let me say what I think? You don’t need to acknowledge it if you don’t want to.”

He kept his hand on Neil’s face, but shrugged negligently.

“You went to juvie, because you wanted out of that house. They did something terrible to you–“ He felt the fingers digging deeper into his flesh. His voice became less comprehensible. “They did that.

Andrew started to laugh. It was sharp. Vicious. And died off as fast as it started. “Can’t you even say the word?”

Neil examined him for a second. “Do you want me to say it out loud?”

“If you think I’m afraid it would make the fact it happened feel real, don’t bother,” Andrew said with a dead expression. “I know exactly how real it was.”

“I thought it would be a bother for you to acknowledge there is someone else knowing.”

Andrew tilted his head for a second, like stretching his neck, then dropped his hand. “It wasn’t a they. Cass or her husband would never do anything to me. She wanted to reallocate part of his son’s college found to me, because he was about to go off to the Marines. She wanted me to have a future. My own Stephanie Walker, of a sort.”

He wasn’t sure the sudden response was an okay for him to ask more, but he had to. All these months – years – he wanted to understand, and he couldn’t just stop now. “They still helped it to happen.” Andrew was silent. “Or let it.” The other one did the neck stretching again, but nothing could get the tension out of his body now. He could have gone on with the guessing. He thought Drake was the Spear’s son, but that felt like something to avoid now. “You wanted out, because you weren’t alone in danger anymore.” He had to be so careful with his words, because the darkness behind Andrew’s eyes threatened to lash out any second. “So you went to juvie instead.”

“Maybe?” A fierce smile appeared on his face.

“What happened when Luther appeared?”

Andrew considered him for long seconds. “He gave me the chance to decide whether I want to go back there or not. Because he is such a good man, you see.”

“And?”

“And I gave him a little secret to make sure he wouldn’t.”

Neil winced. “You told him what happened?”

“Well, first I broke some skinhead shit’s nose so they wouldn’t let me out on early parole,” he said sounding cheerful all of a sudden. “But when they tried again, yes. I told him.”

Ten seconds went by with Neil trying to calm his breathing. “Did he tell it to someone?”

“No.” Andrew lifted his hand again, but this time he wrapped it around Neil’s neck. He didn’t hold tight enough to cut off his air but tapped his thumbs against Neil’s throat in time to Neil’s pulse. “That’s too easy. These kinds of secrets are not given out lightly. You know that. We calculate collateral damage and escape routes. We plan and brace for the reaction and fallout. But Luther did not tell. He chose to not believe me at all. And that's a thousand times worse, you see."

“It’s a horrible secret. How could he even believe you would lie about that?” Neil frowned, and wanted to hit something. How can anybody just deny it when a child says they were raped?

The tapping got faster on Neil’s neck.

The younger one’s eyes narrowed. He knew what’s worse than complete dismissal. “Or he said you were wrong?” Acknowledging it happened, but taking away the horribleness of it. Saying it was something normal to happen. Neil felt sick.

Andrew wheeled away right after the question. “Sometimes I forget you are sharper than you look.”

There was something more, the exact answer was lingering somewhere very close. He had to struggle with his memory to put pieces together. “He said it was a misunderstanding.” Their conversation about why the Oakland PD. called ended with Andrew mentioning he hated this word.

“Shh,” the older one said, soft like he was reassuring a cornered animal. “Shh, don’t say that. I hate the sound of that word. I warned you once so you’d know better than to use it again. Why would you risk it?”

“Andrew,” Neil started.

“No.”

He didn’t need to raise his voice for Neil to hear the warning in it. He had to be really careful how to push forward. The main goal of this conversation was getting Andrew to agree to the visit. And he probably forgot about that to satisfy his own curiosity.

“It was four years ago. Maybe he is sorry.”

“You say that because you haven’t met Luther,” Andrew said.

“Can I?”

There was no backing out after that. He was eighteen years and almost ten months old when they set off to Columbia to meet Nicky’s parents. To fall into a real life nightmare.

~*~

There were many places Andrew hated to be. Easier to say, he could count it on one hand where he was okay to be. But being in this hugeass store selling nothing but exy equipment was at the moment his second most hated place. Especially because they were about to visit the first one.

This was such a bad idea. And he agreed to it. Again. The kid was having such a horrible effect on him that angered him to no end. First it was the Halloween party and bonding with the upperclassmen, then letting him know about his sexuality, and now this lunch with the god-fearing bigots. They should have been afraid of him instead that imaginary friend.

He still agreed to come. Because the kid tried so hard to not set him off with saying something bad. Because he was exasperatingly clever for a change. Because “I thought it would be a bother for you to acknowledge there is someone else knowing.” Because the kid understood. Because now it was so hard to deny their minds worked very similarly.

And yet. He was looking at the brat staring at the racquets with admiration, love indeed, and couldn’t understand if they thought the same way about so many things, how can they be so different. He just couldn’t ignore him when he was talking about exy, looking alive, enjoying every second of it. Living for something.

It should have been the same like his mind-set toward the exy one. The exy one was living for exy, too. However, he never seemed this excited anymore about it. He never looked this… “Attractive.” He clicked his tongue at the unnecessary comment of the happy pills.

Andrew was acting stupid lately, and it annoyed him to no end, but there was no chance to ignore what was happening. The organ in his body that should have been torn apart by the monster by now sometimes went on and throbbed. It was just moments, and it could have been because of the drugs. It could have been, but what if…

He was looking at the brat being able to feel something so powerful that made him fucking shine even though he was high on pain killers made Andrew want to burn this whole place down. The whole world if must. Because this shouldn’t have been happening. He wanted to feel the same nothing he felt for everybody else. And yet. The kid made him angry, interested, excited… Well, mostly angry, but that was already a lot more than he felt toward anyone who wasn’t a real danger to his protected ones.

Like the previous day…

They just arrived back from Florida to the dorm. They won – Andrew didn’t care but his teammates seemed to –, but also suffered some serious damage. He and the rainbow girl were the only ones without injuries. The other one had a black eye. His cousin had a bruise on his ribs. The druggie sported more dark spots that it could have been counted. The doll was limping. The captain had his right arm in a sling because Bee’s friend was worried if she doesn’t let it heal she won’t be able to play the next game. The exy one had a wound by his mouth from an elbow, and several bruises on his stomach.

“I am fine. I feel sore, but I am fine,” said the brat for the tenth time. Nobody believed him. “I have bruises, too. But that’s it!”

They all eyed him with suspicion, but the others finally let it go and started to get off the bus. The brat seemed relieved. Andrew wanted to shout at him. Or just kill him. What else is new? However, he made a promise to not talk in front of others, and he wasn’t going to break that.

“Hey, hey, Mr. Fine!” he called out to him, not moving from his seat. Neil looked back slowly, probably feeling his case is lost. “May I have a few words with you?” His voice was sweet. No better way to make someone feel threatened.

“Andrew,” Coach said on a stern voice.

“So little faith, old man.” He was glaring at the brat, not sparing even a glance to Coach. “Give us a few minutes of privacy, would you?”

Coach wanted to argue, but the brat waved him off. “It’s fine. Please, wait for a few minutes.”

Andrew leaned back on the seat with his legs spread open, propping his elbows up on his knees. The brat came closer, but there was still the exy one’s seat between them.

“What?” he asked when Coach and everybody else was gone.

“I’d like you to explain to me something. Why does my knee feel like it could explode any second, my ribs like they are broken, my right wrist throbbing together with a pulse lot faster than my own, my head pulsating by my left ear, oh yeah, and my toes on my left feet like they are also all broken? Any ideas?”

“You got hit by balls on weird places?”

Andrew’s smile widened. “Could be, but I have a different theory, you see.” He beckoned the brat with his index finger. He wouldn’t budge. “Get the fuck here right fucking now!”

The brat sighed, then passed around the seat and stopped right in front of him, between his legs. “What?”

Andrew lifted his hand, grabbed the brat’s jersey under his throat, then yanked him down so their heads got on the same level. The kid hissed. “Your stupidity pains me. Quiet fucking literally.”

“What could I have done? Their backliners were brutal–“

“I am not talking about prevention, you dumb fuck. You promised them to not lie about your health again. I hate liars, Neil.”

“I did tell Abby every spot that hurt!” he defended himself. “She said I don’t have anything broken. What else should I do?”

“Take a fucking pain killer? Or ten.”

He narrowed his eyes. “That wouldn’t help you, would it?”

“No. But we are not talking about me.” Andrew shrugged.

“Then we can stop talking. I’m fine.”

“You say that one more time, and I’ll cut you open from throat to stomach.” The brat tried to shove Andrew’s hand off himself and straighten up, but he stood up together with him.

“What does it matter to you if I’m in pain? It already happened, I can’t undo it for you, you’d feel it even if I don’t, then let it hurt, I don’t care.”

But I care, you dumbass.

He tensed up for a second because of that thought. The happy pills had some serious weird shit going on today. “Nobody asked you to be a martyr,” he said in the end. “My medication doesn’t let me feel it full power, anyway. So just go and take half of a bottle of painkillers!” It was a command.

“Are you lying?” Yes.

“No. I don’t lie.”

“I hate meds, they slow my brain down,” the brat continued to refuse. “It’s dangerous.”

“Whatever. We’re not going anywhere tomorrow then. Congrats on ruining my cousin’s fun.” He shrugged, then attempted to pass by the brat, but that put up his arm in front of him the next second.

“That is unfair.”

“What isn’t in this world, Neil?”

He threw the bottle of medicine at the brat after getting it from Bee’s friend like it was a rock that could kill him. He wished it would. And wished, he would be able to not wish anything like he always did before.

“They don’t feel right,” the brat complained with a racquet in his hands.

“A tear for your discomfort,” Andrew said, completely unsympathetic.

The light teasing conversation went to throat cutting very fast. Andrew was surprised where all that spine came from all of a sudden. Maybe he was pissed about getting him on pain killers.

"Here's a real question: how have you survived this long when you're so violently selfdestructive?"

Andrew cocked his head to one side, and frowned. “I haven’t done anything to my body since I was thirteen?”

The brat looked at him like he was joking. He really had no idea what he meant. Which was very annoying.

"You got out of danger on your own, and yet you still go around like your life doesn’t matter anything to you. Officer Higgins came all the way here from the west coast to try to give you justice finally but you won't help him. You left juvie and killed Aaron's mother to protect him, but instead of fixing your relationship with him you keep him on a leash.” Andrew held a wince back. He didn’t remember talking about that. This was the brat understanding him. “You don't want Nicky's parents to hurt him, but you won't let him into your family either. Kevin promised to invest in you but you won't even try. So what is it? Are you afraid of your own happiness or do you honestly like being miserable all the time?"

"Neil, look," Andrew said, and pointed up at his own face. "Do I look miserable?" “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

There was silence for so long, he was sure the brat gave up. The moment he could have shut all the doors on every word he just heard, the kid talked again.

"You look drugged within an inch of your life, and when you're not medicated you're drinking and dusting. When they finally take your medicine away, who are you going to hurt, really?"

Andrew laughed. But inside he was screaming. "I'm remembering why I don't like you."

"I'm surprised you forgot."

"I didn't," Andrew said. "I just got distracted for a moment there. I told her it was a mistake to let you stay, but she didn't believe me. Now look. Oh, for once I don't even want to bother with the 'I told you so'. You ruin all my fun." The brat was avoiding this topic during their conversation about coming here. He chose his words carefully to not set him off, he knew it. But this was too much. Why can’t this idiot just shut up? Why does he feel the need to ask all the questions he never wanted to answer?

"Renee?" he guessed.

"Bee."

"What did you tell her about me?"

Andrew grinned at the look on the kid's face. "Doctor-patient confidentiality, Neil! But don't make such a scary face. I didn't tell her your sad little story. We just talked about you. Critical difference, yes? I told her you're more trouble than you're worth. She was looking forward to meeting you, but she won't tell me what she thinks of you. She can't, you see. But I know she likes you. Bee has a thing for lost causes."

"I am not a lost cause."

The motion to shut him up with his hand was automatic. And the words seemed to come on their own will. "Liar. But that's what makes you interesting. It's also what makes you dangerous. I should know better by now. Maybe I'm not as smart as I thought I was. Should I be disappointed or amused?"

The dead silence didn’t last between them for long, he wouldn’t let it. He might be selfdestructive, but not like this. He was not going to let this actually happen.

He flashed a mocking grin at the brat, then killed off everything from his face. “I’ll find Kevin. He’s too slow.” How much he wished he could kill off his thoughts, too.

Andrew wasn’t going after the exy one, he couldn’t care less about him at the moment. He strode out of the whole building, cigarette already lit in his mouth by the time he sat down on the curb. He jiggled his leg unconsciously.

This wasn’t him. None of this was him. He was clever. He knew better. He would never care. He would never let anyone have this much power over himself. He would never trust. He would never believe in someone’s good intentions. Not ever again. People stand to gain, nothing more. The kid wanted protection, so he put up with Andrew. It was nothing more than that promise between them.

The mocking laughter in his head echoed through all his thoughts. It said, liar, liar, liar.

Fetching a pill out of the bottle was an automatic move. “How have you survived this long when you're so violently selfdestructive?" Andrew could answer that, it was easy. With the help of apathy. One could survive anything until one did not care. The question he could never figure out started with a why. “Why are you surviving?”

He swallowed the pill dry, because it was easier running away from the answer that was waiting for him in the back of his mind.

Some people were just born with tragedy in their blood. He was one of them. No pretty kid with pretty words could change that.

Half an hour later, already in the god-fearing bigots’ house, he got all the reason to just shout into the kid’s face: I told you so. There was no way these people would show tolerance. They were so focused on their imaginary lord that they could never show compassion to people.

He had to go inside, this whole pointless chitchatting just made it extremely difficult to hold the monster back. And the food was awful, anyway. He pushed his chair back – felt the kid’s eyes on him right away which reminded him of the almost ended with something unbelievably stupid conversation so he even fastened his pace inside –, but heard someone following in the kitchen.

“I wouldn’t mind some privacy, Luther,” he said on a smarmy voice turning back.

“Where do you think you are going?”

He frowned. “Toilet maybe, what do you care?”

“I don’t need you breaking anything in this house. You already did enough damage.” The man’s face was tense, like he was actually afraid of the possibility of him doing something rushed.

“Weren’t we supposed to bond today? I don’t see you having any trust in me, uncle,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

Luther was silent for a second, then straightened his back even more. “It’s not about you, I hope you are aware of that. My son, and your brother need this family.”

“Do they now?” He snorted.

“Yes. So do us all the favour of going upstairs, and get wasted from the bottle of scotch I prepared for you. You are a lot more tolerable drunk.”

“What?” Did he really just hear that? “You are stunningly clear about your hypocrisy today, Luther.”

“It’s in Aaron’s room.”

He tensed up. “Aaron doesn’t have a room in this house.”

“Yes, he does. And he always will. If you would at least try to behave, you also could.” Lies.

“I don’t need anything from you.”

“Fine. The alcohol is still waiting for you.”

He felt pretty fucking dumbfounded. What had just happened? However, it was worth a try to see if there really was alcohol or not. If it was some good one, he can just take it back with them to Palmetto, then drink it in peace.

He jogged up the stairs, even hummed something that was probably the runaway train song, then turned left and went by one door to the second one. It was open like all the other ones so he went inside without a second thought. The next moment the door was kicked shut in, and as he turned around he got a look at the bottle of scotch. It was coming towards his head, then reached it in the blink of an eye.

Andrew wobbled back three steps, but already was reaching for his knives even though he couldn’t even see for long seconds from the pain that was so powerful, he thought his head cracked open.

“What you have there, Andy?”

Not tensing up as he heard that voice and name was the hardest thing he had done in a very long time. He was pulling the knife out, but that disgusting asshole was faster, he grabbed Andrew’s wrist, then wringed his whole arm to the right, away from his left one. Andrew didn’t let him turn him back by his arm, he lifted his left hand up, and dug his nails deep into Drake’s face. The guy hissed, and twisted Andrew’s right arm a little more.

“Let me go, you disgusting fuck!” he said, squeezing the words out through clenched teeth.

“Is that a way to welcome a long not seen brother?” the bigger one grinned, his stupid face getting wrinkled up like some old man’s. Andrew moved his hand violently up and down, scratching his skin, trying to get to his eye, but then he was pushed back right at the bad.

“No! No! Get the fuck away from me!” He was shouting now, trying to get some distance between them climbing back on the bed so he can get off it on the other side. Drake got his leg, though, laughing, and kept pulling him back. Andrew kicked him on the shoulder, only because the asshole was lucky to get his face out of the way.

“Don’t be such a pussy, Andy, let’s have some fun. We both know you want it, too.”

“I want you fucking dead, that’s all I want!”

Drake’s hand was already on his thigh, squeezing it hard, while punching him in the stomach as soon as he could. “Kill the fucking asshole! Kill him! Don’t be a weak fuckling again! Kill him!” Even if he was angry, even if everything burned inside him, he only could get in a few good punches, kicking Drake’s sides. He had no chance against the man, he was almost double his weight in muscle. He had to get away.

He managed to somehow get Drake’s fingers in his hands, the next moment he pushed them all back until the guy grunted in pain and pulled himself away. That one second was enough for him to get a successfully lucky kick in his crotch, so he had a chance to push him off himself. He was on all fours, crawling away, but he was too slowly. Drake got a hold of his jeans, tuck his fingers in his waistband, pulling him back.

“You little fuck,” Drake growled from behind him as he kneeled up, leaning down to keep him stead by his jeans and his whole body covering him from above.

“Get off me, fucker!”

It was no good. He felt the hands tugging his jeans down. The hard material burned his skin as it was forced down. His dick felt like it could tear off together with his boxer. And it was down, he was naked, and Drake’s hard dick was pressing to his ass.

“No! No! No! Get off me!”

He wouldn’t listen. He never did. Andrew could fight as hard as he was able to, even now, even after he spent years training to fight and building up muscles, he was helpless. Drake shoved his arms upward so he fell back on the bed without a support. His ass was up in the air, and the older one slapped it hard before punching Andrew’s side so he would stop wiggling. He didn’t. He had to fight.

But that so well-known pain arrived the next second, tearing his body apart, coming inside, burning. Bleeding. He felt the warm liquid ran down his thighs when Drake pulled back.

It was all over.
He was seven again.
He was crying.
He was saying ’please stop’ over and over again.
Then he was thirteen, begging for his brother’s safety.

“Do it for him.”

As long as he suffered, Aaron wouldn’t have to.

“You deserve it, anyway. This is what you are. A helpless child, never loved, never needed. You deserve all of it. You are a monster yourself, this is the punishment for it. You deserve it. You deserve it.”

This was the worst voice in his head. The one appearing only when he lost the fight completely.

“That feels fucking fine, Andy. Your ass is just as good as ever. You enjoy it, too, right?” Drake got Andrew’s soft cock, swallowing it all up with his huge hand, squeezing it so hard that Andrew screamed into a pillow. It was something he did unconsciously. It was something he learned to do when he was seven.

“Neil will come. Neil will come soon.”

That thought was lingering in the back of his head, behind the anger and the pain. Just a faint, dying with every passing second thought. He couldn’t really believe in help. He had never gotten any before. Nobody ever helped him. They all just turned their heads away, pretending to not see.

“Nobody wants to save you. They all know you deserve this.”

“Neil will come. Neil will come soon.”

He was too deep inside his head to hear the sound of the door getting kicked in. He was too numb to realize the thrusting stopped. He was in too much pain to think anymore. He was gone. He was losing–

“Andrew. Andrew, are you–“

Neil. Neil came.

Realization came back to him like waves on a stormy night. Drake was gone from above him. Neil was by his side on the bed with his hand on his shoulder knotted into the sheet that was now covering his body. He was clenching the headboard so hard that he couldn’t feel his fingers. His body ached all over.
And he was laughing.

The only one he could stop at the moment was the last one.

“Got quiet all of a sudden,” he said, sounding surprised. Now that his head was getting around, out of panic, the happy pills he took merely half an hour ago kicked back in. He couldn’t contain himself. As he tried to push himself upright, the pain shot up in countless spots, but he was laughing again. “Oh, oh, that’s unpleasant. I am not a fan of this at all.”

His body was in pain, but his brain was riding above the clouds. He could get up on his knees because his mind just did the movement anyway, no matter the aching. Neil. He could focus on him for seconds. Neil wrapped the sheets around him like that would save his dignity. Neil saw everything. He sent him a bemused look.

“Andrew, I’m so–“

“I think I’m concussed. Either that or this is a new side effect of my medication the doctors forgot to warn me about. If I throw up on you, it’s only half intentional.”

They stared at each other, Neil looking like he was about to outrun him in the puking contest. There was something he should have been angry about. It was lurking behind the happy pills, feeding the monster to rally him up, but it never happened.

Because he finally realized they weren’t alone.

Aaron was in the room. Standing by the end of the bed, wide eyed, pale, sweating. Aaron was in the same room as Drake. He snapped his hand up from below the sheet, curling his fingers in demand. Aaron clambered onto the bed and reached for Andrew. Andrew tried moving out of his way, but that was finally too much for his stomach. Neil helped push him forward when he started choking.

"Andrew," Aaron said, desperate and frightened. He held onto Andrew like he thought Andrew would disappear if he let go. "Andrew, I didn't—he—"

Andrew spat a couple times and gasped for breath. "Quiet, quiet. Quiet. Look at me," he said, but it took him a while longer before he could sit up and face Aaron again. He pressed a hand to Aaron's bloodied shirt. "It's everywhere. What did he do?"

"It's not mine," Aaron said. "It's not mine, it's—Andrew, he—"

Andrew touched Aaron's temple where he himself was injured as if he expected to find an identical injury there. "Did he touch you?"

"What did he—"

Andrew knotted his fingers in Aaron's hair and yanked to shut him up. He just had to know, had to see, had to be sure. "Answer me. I said, did he touch you?"

"No.”

"I'm going to kill him." The monster needed no more. It was roaring through the happy pills, painting everything dark inside in the blink of an eye.

"He's already dead,” Neil said. His voice was flat, opposing the despair on his face.

"That explains the silence, but that's not who I meant. Look, we don't even have to go anywhere. He'll come right to us."

And he came. And the monster was clawing his inside, trying to get out to go and slaughter the man. The man who betrayed him now two times. The man who put his brother and cousin in danger. He wanted Luther dead, wanted to torture him so he screams until his voice give out, but he would continue it anyway. He could continue it even if the man passes out, even if he dies in the meantime. He wanted to tear him apart. Inch by inch, piece by piece, dead, deader, deadest.

But he was helpless. He could barely keep himself uptight. He was choking on his own puke. He had to let Neil to babysit him. He couldn’t do anything. Again.

“But Neil did come.”

That thought had no place in his head now.

He was twenty years, two weeks and three days old, and he didn’t fail to protect this time. He only failed himself, but that was nothing new.

~*~

Neil was eighteen years, ten months and two days old, and he felt like the sun just went down in his life to never come back up again. He had no idea how long the night that started would last.

Chapter Text

He was eleven years old. Maybe. He kind of lost counting of time since he had arrived to this house. They never even let him go to school here, that was a first. It was a kind of rich family this time, they pledged to pay for home schooling, and everybody thought he was lucky to have an opportunity like this.

Maybe he should have felt honored. Maybe he should have been thankful.

But he couldn’t be.

The monster’s hands were on his throat, choking him so he couldn’t scream. His body was torn into two, but he wasn’t sure he would be screaming even if those hands let him. He was used to this already. Tears were running down his cheeks, but he couldn’t even feel them. Feeling anything was hard when a pain this powerful overwhelmed your body and mind.

Andrew was dreaming.
He woke up.
But the dream wouldn’t stop.

///

Nathaniel was eight years old, and he was looking up at his father from the carpet he was shoved down to a few minutes ago. He was afraid the knives may come for him. His father was shouting at him, and that was alright, he probably deserved it, but the kicks Neil got every time he came closer really hurt.

The knives stayed away, but he couldn’t get away without permanent wound this time either. After his father broke the arm of his mother, because she tried to get between them, the man came for him. He tore off Nathaniel’s shirt, then without any hesitation, with that feeling-less snarl on his face he pressed the hot iron onto the boy’s right shoulder. And he screamed.

Neil was dreaming.
He woke up.
But the dream wouldn’t stop.

///

He was nine years old, and he was screaming for help. He was in a house outside of town, in the middle of nowhere in a farm, there was nobody here to hear him. Except the monster above him who enjoyed every second of his struggling.

“You like this, right? You wanted this, little whore. You were going around in the house, flirting with me since you came in here. I knew you wanted it. Let me see your face, bitch. Is it that good that you cry of pleasure?”

He wasn’t brave enough to say no. He was so scared what would happen if he tells this man he doesn’t like any of it. So he said yes, he said he enjoyed it. Because nobody would come to help him anyway, and he didn’t to die. They told him he would go to hell because he was a sinner, because he was a monster. He had no idea yet that he shouldn’t be afraid of the devil. It was always the people. People who could make hell feel like home.

Andrew was dreaming.
He woke up.
But the dream wouldn’t stop.

///

Nathaniel was six years old, and he couldn’t stop crying. The pain in his body shot up again and again, and it hurt so much that he screamed and cried endlessly. He knew he shouldn’t do this; his father was on the end of his patience ever since he started to have the phantom pain.

It was the night before Christmas, and all he asked for was the pain to go away. When the door of his room opened up in the middle of the night, his first thought was that maybe Santa came to help. He knew it would be just his tired mother to come and tell him that everything was going to be alright. He still imagined Santa coming and making everything really alright again.

The visitor wasn’t Santa, but wasn’t his mother either. He forgot that his mother spent the night somewhere else. It was his father. He smelled of smoke and alcohol, but Nathaniel knew he wasn’t really drunk. His father didn’t need alcohol to be violent.

“It’s time to sleep, junior, or Santa won’t be able to come in the house.”

Nathaniel pulled up the blanket to his head, curled up on his side, but he couldn’t stop crying. His body hurt so much. “Daddy, daddy, please, help,” he cried out when the blanket was yanked off him.

“Oh, I will help.” He sat down on the bed, then reached toward Nathaniel’s face. The boy thought for a second that his father will stroke him, that he might hold him for the first time in his life, but the man put his hand on his neck.

“Daddy?”

“You’ll sleep now.”

The fingers dug into his throat, deep, deeper, until he couldn’t breathe anymore. He was grabbing his father’s wrist with both hands, but the man just smiled down at him like it amused him that Nathaniel tried to protest. He passed out in a few seconds, falling into nightmares.

Neil woke up.
But the nightmare continued.

///

He was seven years old, playing tag in the house that he arrived to one month ago. It wasn’t fun. He wasn’t playing with other children. He was running from the monster of the house that nobody else seemed to notice that it lived there.

He was running up on the stairs, but he was so small that he kept tripping, and the monster was laughing behind him. His voice came closer and closer. He reached the first floor, but he didn’t know where to go from there.

“Be a good boy and ask for me nicely to don’t do this, Andy,” the monster said.

“Please, please stop.” His voice was no more than a desperate whisper.

They were in his room now, the monster standing above his bed.

“Ask for me to go away, Andy.”

“Please, stop.” He was crying now.

The monster was in his bed, and they were both naked. The monster’s body was so much bigger as it kneeled above him propping himself up on his arms.

“Beg for me to stop, Andy.”

“Please–“

He couldn’t say anything else, because the monster’s mouth closed his own. He couldn’t scream, he couldn’t beg, he couldn’t do anything. He was helpless.

Andrew woke up.
But he was just as helpless in the real world as he was in the nightmare.

///

Nathaniel was nine years old, and he knew this wasn’t right. He heard his classmates talking about their fathers, and he knew his was different. Most fathers taught their kids how to ride the bicycle. They taught them baseball. Soccer. Exy.

His father taught him how to fight with knives.

However, taught was probably not the right word. His father just enjoyed hurting him with his own.

“Come on, junior, don’t a fucking baby, you can do better than this,” his father said with a smirk on his face after cutting Nathaniel’s chest so deeply that his green t-shirt was now half black.

He went up against him one more time, reaching for him to cut something, but he couldn’t reach. His father cut his right cheek this time. Then he laughed. Nathaniel tried again, and again until he finally managed to shallowly cut his father’s forearm.

The man stopped, looked down at his skin and the drop of blood the welled up slowly. Nathaniel watched him with a hopeful, tiny smile appearing in his lips. He will be praised now. He will hear some nice words from his father now.

His father cocked his head to the side, then slapped Nathaniel on his right cheek so hard that he fell to the floor. “Don’t be cocky, kid.”

Neil woke up.
But the knives were in the real world, in a different man’s hands, but they were there to hurt him.

///

He was twenty years old, but couldn’t be sure about the months. He was restrained to a bed with bindings for a long time. Sometimes it felt like years. Since he was seven. He had to relive all the horrible moments of his life in here, and he really felt like he actually went through that thirteen years in here.

He was drugged. Not with happy pills this time just with ones that made his mind cloudy, made him open his mouth even though he wanted it shut more than anything. He didn’t want to talk anymore. He just wanted to be away from all of this, in that tiny part in his mind that wasn’t violated by this mad man. He wanted to stop feeling, remembering, thinking.

But he couldn’t. Those teeth sinking into his skin on his forearm made him connect to this world. His skin was a mess for a long time, but now it was a colorful mess. It was a sign of survival that he ceased to hate for a while. Now he hated to look at it, he wanted his whole arm gone. If he wasn’t bound, he would have just torn it off.

He wanted his mouth shut, because he couldn’t remember everything he told this man. He couldn’t be sure he never mentioned Neil’s name. The mad man asked him about his soulmate sometimes. Tried to make him feel bad about giving that pain to another human being. First he laughed into his face, it was probably a mistake because it made the mad man curious. He hoped the mad man settled for he can’t feel compassion to someone else. Oh, how much he hoped.

“What about a little chat about the Spears today, Andy?”

He tugged on the binding the moment that name was out of the mad man’s mouth. “Fuck you.”

“Would you like to? I know you would love to do that. You love fucking, right?”

Hands on his arms, then his chest. Touching him gently. He felt sick.

“Do you think Mrs. Spears hates you already? Do you think she wishes he never let you, monster in her house?” The hands were on his neck now, fingers digging into his throat. “Do you think she wishes you killed yourself already? Why don’t you just die?”

Because he couldn’t. He had three promises to keep. He had four people to protect who waited outside for him.

“Do you really think they are wanting you back? They must be happy that you are gone.”

No. No. No. No.

He could shut the mad man’s words out, but the one in his head was there to question his commitment to get out of this hospital. And he was too weak to argue with that voice. Whatever he tried, the voice came back doubting everything.

So he just retreated to the most far part of his brain. It was a room, a dark, cramped space under a bed. In that place he wasn’t alone. He had someone else behind him, he had his back to someone else, a boy who was trembling in fear just like him. However, that boy’s fear didn’t double his own, it smoothed it. It was a reassuring presence that told him he wasn’t the only one in the world who had to fight with monsters.

It was a false reassuring, not much more than a lie, but it was more than nothing, and he needed it to survive.

Andrew wanted to wake up, but he couldn’t.
Real life was just like his nightmares.

///

Neil knew he was very close to turning nineteen, but he had no idea what day it was. How long was he in the Nest already? Two days? Two weeks? Two months? It was impossible to tell.

He was tortured with that thing the Ravens called training, then the physical violence from Riko all night long. Or was it daytime? Castle Evermore was a different world. And Riko’s room was an even smaller universe. It was a world of blood, screaming and tears.

Neil felt regret on most of the time he was under Riko’s knives. He knew he was giving Andrew an even harder time that he already suffered through. However, when he was finally left alone for a few hours, when he woke up after passing out from pain, Neil couldn’t really regret coming here. Andrew will come out of that hospital alive, what else mattered?

He just wished… he just wished he could be sure that he was really alive. Neil’s body was ruined all over, he couldn’t possibly know if something was actually coming over from Andrew or not. And not even the nightmares helped. He saw so many before coming here, he saw so many horrible things in his dreams that were Andrew’s memories that he wasn’t sure now which was actually happening, and which was just craved into his own brain.

“You are not paying attention, Nathaniel,” Riko said, then punched into Neil’s stomach.

He grunted, coughed, but that dull pain was nothing compared to the cuts. He had them all over his chest, and now Riko added some more to the soft flesh just above his hipbone. Neil wanted to shout at him to stop, to not ruin that wound. Andrew seemed to like pinching that one. He helped Neil getting out of his own mind, he stopped panic attacks with that spot. Neil liked that scar.

There was no chance to say anything, though as he was screaming in pain now that Riko pushed the knife into a wound on his arm that was already too deep. Neil felt the metal hitting his bone. He started to choke because of the sensation. Riko laughed at him.

“Let’s do something fun, shall we?” Riko turned to Jean who was keeping Neil down on the bed by his shoulders. “Dog, bring the hair dye.”

Neil hardly heard them, he was still dry heaving and coughing.

“Hey, junior, you’ll sleep in your own vomit if you throw up.”

He violently jerked at that form of address. That was the last kick to the panic attack. His mind pushed him into the worst part of his memories, and the knives that Riko pointed at him soon after just made everything worse. Neil couldn’t differentiate between his father and the king anymore. He was screaming ‘stop, dad’ which seemed to add to Riko’s fun.

Falling asleep that night meant running away. Running to that bed, climbing under it and curling up behind that other body. Feeling the shaking of him, hearing the breathing of that other boy. Surviving this was possible only by making himself believe Andrew was there to keep him up.

Neil wanted to wake up, but he couldn’t.
Real life was just as horrible as his nightmares.

///

He was two days away from turning twenty years and two months old. His living nightmare lasted for exactly six weeks. The happy pills were gone from his body, but he wasn’t sure it was anything good. As he looked at the bunch who came for him and he noticed Neil, the monster roared, but he had to fight it now without the pills. It wasn’t easy.

His cousin started to whine about him not asking about Neil’s miserable state, but It wasn’t something to do now. With this many people around. So he just pushed the volume of the radio to maximum and let it blast away all their voices.

He saw the painful flinch of Neil in the rearview mirror when his cousin grabbed his hand but he felt the pain anyway so it wasn’t necessary. Now that he was completely clear of the drugs the mad man gave him, he felt pain all over his body. He knew every painful spot, he didn’t need to see Neil reacting to them.

They arrived to the Tower and Neil caught the door before he could shut it. He reached inside to take out the bag Andrew saw in front of the passenger seat, then Neil straightened up and turned around. Andrew didn’t move back. They were pressed together for a long moment. He looked into Neil’s eyes, and saw relief. He felt anger. He fought the monster down and didn’t hurt him for it.

“You stay. The rest go.”

They cleared out without protest. Andrew leaned on the car, and wanted to smoke but he had none on him, so he just shoved his hands into his jeans’ pockets. His cousin seemed afraid to be alone with him, but it didn’t make him happy anymore. It had no effect on him.

“Update.”

His cousin came standing in front of him, but Andrew was staring up to the cloudy sky.

“On?”

Oh, fuck, opening his mouth again felt like the hardest job possible. “Your cousin, Kevin’s face, the Birds.”

His cousin sighed, then put his hands behind his back to pull on his jeans’ back pocket with his thumbs hitched into them. “Aaron was bailed out by Matt’s mother. She offered to pay for it, because Coach didn’t accept her money when you cleared Matt out. We still don’t know about his trial.” He was biting on his lips for a little while, probably waiting for Andrew to react, but he said nothing. “Matt punched Kevin.”

Now he reacted. He slapped his head back to his cousin, and scowled. “What?”

“He deserved it! That prick knew where Neil spent Christmas break, but said nothing. We were together all along, and he said nothing to us. I still can’t believe it. If Matt didn’t do it, I would have.”

“You’d be the one getting your hand broken for it then.”

“Have you heard me saying he deserved it?”

Andrew shrugged.

“Whatever.” His cousin did it, too. “I’m not wasting my energy convincing you. We made it to championships. It was a close call without you and Neil having to use the heavy racquet but we did it.”

“I didn’t ask about that.”

His cousin rolled his eyes. “Neil punched Riko on the Christmas banquet.” He obviously waited for some flashy reaction again, but Andrew just stared at him with empty eyes. “I didn’t see it, but Matt swears it was beautiful. I don’t know what they fought about, but it cost Neil a lot. As you’ve seen.”

“You don’t need to talk about that.”

“Okay.” His cousin sighed again, then folded his arms in front of his chest. “We haven’t heard from the Ravens. There were no accidents, and nothing happened to Kevin either.”

Andrew pushed himself away from the car, then headed inside. His cousin followed muttering something he didn’t pay attention to. “Get Josten for me,” he said when they arrived to their floor.

“Yes, yes.” His cousin grimaced, but did as he was told.

Andrew stayed by the stairs, and stared into nothing. Nobody came out, and he was very satisfied with that. Facing those four was enough for now. He wasn’t ready to fight the monster when someone gives him a pitiful look. He knew it’d happen eventually, everybody knew what happened to him, but he wasn’t in a rush to meet their sympathy or filthy comments.

Neil arrived with his armbands in his hand, and he took it right away before turning to go up to the roof. He went right to the edge, and felt the familiar feeling of fear crawling up in his body. He longed for this so much.

Neil lit two cigarettes, and he was almost grateful. There weren’t many things he really missed in the hospital, but cigarettes were first on the list. “I’ll take an explanation now.”

“You couldn’t ask for answers where it’s warm?” Neil asked.

“Ice is good for pain, isn’t it? And we have more than enough to freeze out.” They were facing each other, and Andrew lifted his right hand to touch Neil’s face, but he stopped himself. What was he even doing? “Did I break my promise or were you keeping yours?”

“Neither.”

"I know you have had ample time in my absence to come up with your precious lies, but remember I gave you a truth on credit in November. It is your turn in our game and you will not lie to me."

"Neither," Neil said again. "I spent Christmas in Evermore."

This time he didn’t stop his hand. He scratched up a corner of the tape on Neil’s cheek, then tore off the bandage. Neil winced at the pain, but he didn’t react. “I was wondering what the hell that pain was. So this is how it feels to get a tattoo. How does it feel to be slut marked?”

Neil scowled at him. “I’m sure you can guess.”

“You promised to not leave Kevin’s side. Did you forget?”

“I promised to keep him safe,” Neil argued. “I didn’t say I’d hound him every step of the way like you do. I kept my end of the deal.”

“But not like this. You already said this had nothing to do with Kevin. Why did you go?”

Neil hesitated. His eyes were unguarded and he could see the fear lurking behind the blue. And something else he couldn’t comprehend. “Riko threatened me with you.”

“How is that possible? He can’t know about us,” Andrew said with narrowed eyes. He didn’t say anything to the mad man. Did he?

“I knew you had nightmares in the hospital, and I felt some pain, but I assumed it was you hurting yourself in withdrawal.” He took a deep breath before continued sputtering. “Riko came at me on the Christmas banquet with the lie if I don’t go they would hurt you. I knew right away it’d be late, so I said no. I didn’t want to add to your pain with willingly going into a torture chamber. But then he said Dr. Proust would kill you, and–”

Andrew clapped his hand on Neil’s mouth, smothering the rest of his words. If they talked about the mad man just for a second more, Andrew would lose control over the monster. His anger was choking him. He wanted to kill.

Andrew lowered his hand when Neil went quiet. "Do not make the mistake of thinking I need your protection."

“I had to try. I already failed you in the Hemmicks’ house. If they killed you now, I wouldn’t have survived that.”

He scoffed. “I assume that’s a lie pointed at yourself. You and I both know you’d have just run.”

“Isn’t that the same?” Neil asked with a painful expression.

“Did you lose the last bit of your spine while I was gone? You had your mouthy attitude just fine when accused me of not having a sense of responsibility.”

Neil was eighteen years, ten months and two days old, and he felt lost. He just witnessed Andrew being raped with his own eyes, and he still failed to protect him. Or to prevent the whole thing. He was sitting outside with the Hemmicks, Aaron and Kevin just waiting for Andrew to come back instead of being inside and doing something. But he was drugged so much that he hardly could feel anything. He couldn’t feel the hit that cut Andrew’s forehead, he couldn’t feel the punches he suffered through. He couldn’t even feel the pain in his butt. He only reacted when Luther brought up Drake’s name, and that was already so so late.

They just came back from the hospital together with Andrew. Two hours passed since that horrible, crazy laughter disappeared from Andrew’s mouth, but it was still echoing in Neil’s head. Two hours passed, and he was so angry now. He was angry at Drake, of course he was, he was angry at Luther, he was angry at Aaron for doing what he should have done, he was angry at himself for being a useless idiot. And he was angry at Andrew for forcing him to get drugged. He was so angry.

“You helped to create this mess, Neil. The least you could do is help clean it up. Where’s your sense of responsibility?”

That was the last straw. Neil was usually good at containing his father’s temper, but when he lost it, he lost it for good. “Where is yours?”

And they didn’t stop there. He kept hurting Andrew with accusing him of not helping to put Drake to jail to prevent all this. And he partially meant it. Andrew should have done something when Higgins came for him.

He even went there.“I hope she was worth it.”

Andrew tilted forward and said, “Oh, Neil. You are far too heavy to tread ice this thin.”

“You cut your forearm instead of telling her the truth. You hurt yourself instead of hurting her. Was it worth it? You got yourself out of that house when that disgusting piece of shit wanted to put his hand on your brother instead of punishing him for it. You could have ended him, but you did nothing. I’ll ask again. Was she worth it?”

Neil hated every word he just said. He hated how it just put the crazy smirk back on Andrew’s face. He hated that Andrew ignored him after this. So he just ran away.

“Maybe I did. Maybe I feel disgusted by myself every day for failing to protect you.”

Andrew wanted to punch him so bad. Throwing him off the roof. “Didn’t you hear I don’t need your protection?” He grabbed Neil’s collar and pulled him close. “I promised to keep you safe. It’s my job, but you make it infinitely more difficult for me to do that when you actively try to get yourself killed.”

“You spend all this time watching our backs,” Neil said. “Who’s watching yours? Don’t say you are, because you and I both know you take shit care of yourself.”

That fucking painful shadow in his eyes. That fucking expression that said he means every word. “You have a hearing problem. Too many balls to the helmet, perhaps. Can you read lips?” Andrew pointed at his mouth as he spoke. “The next time someone comes for you, stand down and let me deal with it. Do you understand?”

“If it means losing you, then no.”

Andrew shoved him back the next second as his insides twisted. Too bad Neil wasn’t with his back to the edge. “I hate you.” He took a last long drag from his cigarette and flicked it off the roof. It was really luring to go after it. “You were supposed to be a side effect of the drugs.”

“I’m not a hallucination,” Neil said, nonplussed.

“You are a pipe dream. Go inside and leave me alone.”

“You still have my keys.”

It was such a petty move, but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t throw Neil off the roof – it would have been a violation of their promise, right? – so he did it with his keys instead. Neil raised an eyebrow, then rolled his eyes, but decided to not continue this conversation. He was very fucking clever to.

Andrew needed time to sort his thoughts out, but it promised to be a tough fight. There was that “If it means losing you, then no.” echoing in his head louder than anything.

That day in the hospital, when the happy pill started to lose its power, Andrew got angry at Neil. Not because he failed to come to his help, oh, no. Andrew was angry because he expected Neil to come, and he hated Neil for making him feel like that so much. When they arrived back to the house and the brat went all out on him about Cass, he became even more pissed. He hated Neil for speaking his regrets out loud like that.

The next day when Bee decided to take the happy pills away from him, Neil offered to protect Kevin instead of him. Andrew hated him for it. Not because he was being haughty with thinking he can protect Kevin, but because Andrew ended up believing him.

“Trust you.” He laughed, then curled his fingers tight around Neil’s chin. “You lie, and lie, and you think I’ll trust you with his life?”

“Then don’t trust ‘Neil’. Trust me.”

“Oh, but who are you?”

“You know who I am. Say my name.”

Andrew narrowed his eyes. He knew a name, but that was so easy. Neil clearly expected something else from him. “Is it wise to say that out loud here?” he asked with a provoking smile.

“No. Not that. You have to know the name my mother called me on.”

He frowned even more. “How should I know what your mommy called you?” Neil didn’t answer, just glared at him with his painful expression. Like just remembering the scene Andrew should recall hurt him like a kick in the balls. Andrew remembered running, running until a cleaver came flying at him and cut his legs off. He remembered a woman coming out from between the trees, laughing maniacally. He remembered the name she said, “Abram.”

“Yes. I am not what my father wanted me to be with the other name. I am not Neil either even though I wish I could be. But under all the boys I’ve been, that one is the real one. I was only real when my mother called me on that name.”

Andrew hesitated. “Should I believe that?”

Neil smiled. It was a tiny, broken smile on his red lips that he bit till cuts appeared on it. Andrew flinched when Neil took his hand that was hanging by his side. Then it took all his power to not do it again when the brat dragged his hand under his own shirt and pressed Andrew’s palm on his abdomen.

“You know me. You know I have no reason to lie to you. It was my mother that kept me alive, but you were the one I kept alive for. I finally have the life I stayed alive for, Andrew, and I’m not gonna throw it away. Once you’re ready to acknowledge our connection, come and ask me everything you want to know. I’ll wait here for you to come back, because I need you to talk to me.”

Neil stopped there, but Andrew saw there was something else on the tip of his tongue. Something he wasn’t ready to hear, so he abruptly stepped back, and turned around.

“It’ll have to do, won’t it?”

He marched into that hospital fired up on the hate he felt for Neil. He hated him for saying stupid things like these. He hated him for existing even. He hated him because he couldn’t resist believing him. He hated him, because those words kept him safe during the worst of his time with the mad man.

Neil appeared on the ground floor, he started to search for his keys, but when he straightened up he even had Andrew’s dropped cigarette in his mouth. He looked up at Andrew and tapped two fingers to his temple.

Andrew clenched his jaw, and balled his hands to fists in his pockets.

“Fuck this, brat,” he muttered, not even noticing he did it out loud. Who does he think he is? Obnoxiously pretentious little shit.

There was no happy pill in his system anymore to tell him, “You like it.” It was only him and the monster now who was angry. Oh, so very angry at Neil for being Neil. For not turning back in his head anymore to being just “the brat” or “the kid”. He was Neil, and he was lurking inside Andrew in places where he had no place to be.

Andrew leaned a little forward, feeling the rush of fear overwhelming him from the height. He felt like falling even though his feet never left the ground.

///

Neil went back to their suite with Matt, and the older boy started to talk about their Christmas break. He wanted to listen, but he was too tired. He fell asleep on the couch, listening to his roommate. He should have had a nightmare. He had them every time he fell asleep since coming back, and he did the sleeping every time he stayed put for a few seconds. His body clock was wrecked.

However, this time the nightmares stayed away. First time after weeks of exhausting battle day and night, Neil slept without dreaming about anything. It was just dark; sheltering, comforting dark. When he woke up a few hours later, then went to his bed, he knew perfectly well why he was able to rest. Andrew was back with them. Andrew was alive and back by his side. He was eighteen years, eleven months and two weeks old, and he felt like he was going to be okay again. He felt like the nightmare was over. For now.

The next day after the girls arrived back and they had their first meeting of the year, Neil got his makeup from Allison. Going outside was at least bearable now even if every move hurt him dearly. They met up with Nicky to go buy their books by the car in the parking lot.

“Hey, look at you being all pretty again,” Nicky said smiling widely. He was by the door to the passenger’s seat.

“I’m not pretty,” Neil growled back.

“It’s not up for debate, you are the prettiest in the team, we voted, and it was unanimous.” Nicky looked at him with a raised eyebrow, like he meant something big by those words. As Neil just frowned, he sighed, “That means even Andrew and Aaron think you are pretty.”

Neil shut his eyes for a second, tilted his head to the right, but that statement didn’t make sense even when he looked back at Nicky in the end. “You are lying.”

“Maybe. But I won’t tell you which part was the lie,” Nicky grinned, then gestured to the door. “Crawl in, you, zombie, I got a time limit from Andrew. He said you need to rest, so we need to be back in an hour.”

“Are you lying again?” Neil asked dumbfounded.

“No?” Nicky asked back confused. “He is completely right, so don’t waste our time with I’m fine-s.”

Neil couldn’t really believe Andrew cared enough to say that, but he let it slid with thinking he just didn’t need the unnecessary pain. “Won’t you drive?”

“I would if I still had my privilege, but you stole that,” Nicky grimaced.

“Oh.” So his assumption of Andrew just simply taking away Nicky’s key was right.

They got into the car, and it didn’t take long for Neil to come up with the question that he was interested in. He had to be quick, because Nicky would have started talking and that could go on forever.

“How is he?”

Nicky turned his head to Neil. “Not sure yet.” Neil saw him fidgeting with the safety belt. “We were kind of tiptoeing around him when he was in the room. He went to buy smoke, then I have no idea when he got back.”

“Are you really afraid of him?”

Nicky sighed. “You don’t know sober Andrew, Neil.” He sounded so defeated. “I lived with them in Columbia for more than a year, and 8 months of that was in fear of what he’d do. Not just to me, but anyone who just happened to look at him or Aaron funny in school? I told Erik after a month, we are never getting a kid, because I got enough of apologizing to strangers for a life.”

“I assume, he never told any of his reasons for hurting those kids.”

“Andrew doesn’t talk. You’ll see. Now that he’s off the happy pills, he only opens his mouth if it’s utterly necessary.”

Nicky shook his head along his words, his long, curly hair got into his face, and Neil couldn’t understand how he can live with that constant distraction. He already planned to ask Allison to give him a haircut because his bangs hang over his eyes.

“And you never thought, everything he’s done was for reasons? Kids can say mean things.”

“And normal kids don’t answer them with breaking the bullies’ hands!”

Neil cocked his head to the side, then shrugged. “Maybe where you come from they don’t.”

Nicky sighed again, then turned to the window on his side. “I know you think I don’t care enough for him to try to understand,” he said quietly. “You told me, I was wrong about why he killed Aaron’s mother. And I’ve been thinking since then, and you might be right. Andrew doesn’t really do things for himself.”

Neil nodded so fast and so hard, his neck popped.

“But… I was there when he almost killed those men who attacked me. I saw him, Neil, and it comes back to me in my dreams. He was… He was…” Nicky’s eyes dropped to his hands in his lap. “He was senseless. He almost attacked me too when I went too close trying to stop him. I can see his face in my nightmares, Neil. And I want it to stop, but I don’t know how to do that.”

He was quiet for a while, trying to gather his thoughts to say something clever. This conversation turned out a lot heavier than he expected it to. Nicky was most likely under a lot more pressure than he let it show on his face or behavior.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Anything.” Neil disagreed so much with an answer like that. People shouldn’t have given out their secrets so easily.

“Andrew mentioned that your parents never hurt you physically, is that true?”

“Yeah. My father preferred hurting me with his words.”

“And your mom?”

Nicky was surprised. “You saw her. That woman can’t hurt a fly. She is terrified of my father, and she doesn’t even know that so she never ever fought him.”

Neil felt kind of impressed of Nicky understanding that so well. He decided against his will to give away a tad bit of honesty.

“Then I understand why it is hard for you to see caring can be fierce and merciless. My mother died protecting me.” Nicky slapped his head toward Neil the next second, but he didn’t stop. “She hurt me sometimes, but in the end, all she cared for was my safety. She didn’t know any other way to do that than being fierce and merciless.” Neil’s hands tightened on the wheel, his knuckles went white. Remembering hurt so much. “You need to accept this is a way of caring, if you want to be a part of your cousin’s life, because Andrew doesn’t know any other way either. He is trying, Nicky. He doesn’t understand gentle or kind caring because he’s never gotten any. What’s worse, he probably never was protected any other way either. All he knows is violence, and he is trying his hardest to use the only thing he’d learned for something good.” Neil stopped the car, but couldn’t bring his eyes up to meet Nicky’s. “All he does is protecting us, Nicky as he promised.”

The older one let the silence grow for a whole minute. “I know.” A smile started to appear on his face. “I mean, I’m still here, right?” Neil had a questioning look, so he continued, “I don’t have a promise with him like you guys do.”

“Oh.” Neil never really thought about it but he just assumed there is some kind of agreement between Andrew and Nicky, too.

“Well, I did promise to be with them till they need me, but that’s all to it,” he said with a shrug.

They got out of the car, and by the time they went inside the building, Nicky was back to his usual carefree self which Neil could take seriously even less now. It was really interesting to consider that Andrew kept Nicky around just because he wanted to. He was sure Andrew could have just bully the older man until he runs back to Germany if he really wanted, but Andrew never went that far. Neil was wondering all day long after this, whether Andrew knew he genuinely liked Nicky or not.

Neil also concluded that the reason for Nicky’s acting like a sly little shit sometimes with the upperclassmen, taking his cousin’s side even when it wasn’t ethical was because he was afraid Andrew would just send him away one day. Their relationship wasn’t as stable as Andrew’s with them. It was just a normal one which could have ended any day. However, it didn’t make Nicky’s behavior any more acceptable, and Neil sided with the upperclassmen on he was just as bad as his cousins.

As he was banned from practice until Wymack would believe he was really fine, the talk with Nicky wasn’t the only one he had that week. First of all, they had the meeting with Betsy which was just as awkward as Neil expected it to be, then he even got Renee alone one night. He just wanted to return a book to Allison but the girl was already sleeping, and as Dan was in their room, he found Renee alone in the living room doing homework.

It was a now or never chance, and he took it. “What did I say yesterday?” Neil asked. “Why did you react like that?”

Renee looked surprised that he started a conversation, then put down her pen and leaned back on the chair. She tilted her head to the left, then smiled. “Why don’t you sit down? I promised you a story the last time, and it intervenes with the answer anyway.”

Neil felt uncomfortable, but he was too curious. He knew Renee meant the topic of her soulmate. He still felt weird around the girl, but he was keen on knowing things. Neil hated not knowing things about people.

“Do you want tea?” Renee asked, pointing at the teapot on the table next to her textbooks.

“No, thanks.” Neil wiped his palms on his jeans by his thighs. “So?”

Renee scoffed, then sighed. “You remember I told you I used to be in a gang? There was a man there who went out of his way to hurt me. He liked knives, and he wanted to hurt me because he loved pain.”

Neil frowned. “You mean…?”

“Yes, he was my soulmate.” She was staring at the table, perhaps at her cup of tea. “He had serious problems in his mind, I think. He was both a sadist and a masochist, and he found it utterly satisfying that in me, he found the perfect way to enjoy both at the same time.” She looked up at Neil, and hugged her stomach. “I have scars that I don’t like people to see, but I’m trying to accept that part of me, too, just like I struggle to accept what I did to him in the end.”

Neil narrowed his eyes. “What did you do?” He could guess the answer, but it still messed him up looking at Renee’s appearance. It just wouldn’t match. He also felt disgust thinking about what he just heard. He was so lucky with Andrew.

“I couldn’t defend myself by normal means, so I learned to fight with knives, too. I practiced for a year before I finally bested him. ‘Bested.’” Renee contemplated the word choice for a few moments before saying. “He didn’t survive the fight.”

Neil was right. “You killed your soulmate.”

Renee bit her lower lip, then nodded. “Yes, but I did not consider that man anything of the sort. Our connection wasn’t for the purpose of understanding each other; it was just a tool in a mad man’s hand to hurt me. I regret what it did to me more than I regret the necessity of his death. I felt no horror when I watched him die. I was proud of what I’d done to him. I told Andrew what I did,” Renee said. “The next day he took my knives.”

Neil listened to her talking about Andrew understanding they weren’t weapons but a symbol of what they’d overcome, but he cared more for something else. When Renee was done, he asked back, “Did he say anything about you killing your soulmate?”

Renee nodded. “He was interested in how it felt. He said he can’t wait for the time when he kills his own, because they were giving him way too much trouble.”

Neil swallowed hard. “Is that so?” It shouldn’t have been such a shock.

“Yeah, there were a few times when he didn’t bother hiding his pain from me last year, but he never told me anything about them.” Renee thought for a few seconds. “He didn’t mention them for a while, though. I feel really troubled, because I love Andrew so I don’t want to say I hope they didn’t die if it means he has less trouble now, but wishing someone’s death wouldn’t be right either. So I just hope their life turned out for the better.”

Neil said nothing, he felt his ears burning from the embarrassment. “And? How did it feel?”

“Like killing myself would,” Renee replied right away. “But I only mean that physically. I felt the pain as his heart struggled till the last second, but as I said, emotionally I was glad he is gone. I don’t know how it would be between two people who truly care for each other. I assume ‘like killing myself’ would be a lot truer in their case.”

Neil went back to his room wondering about many things. Like was it ever possible for them to reach a level when they truly cared for each other? Or that it would be the worst possible outcome, because he never wanted Andrew to experience the pain of losing someone he cares for again. They were meant to be away from each other. You are so late thinking about this, Josten, so late.

He found Dan and Matt cuddling on the couch. “Hey, I already started to think, Al ate you,” Dan said with a smile after propping herself up on Matt’s chest.

“She already went to bed. I was talking with Renee.”

“Oh, that’s weird. Is everything okay?”

“Sure. What are you guys watching?” It wasn’t really an attempt to take their minds off the topic.

“The new James Bond movie, Casino Royale, it just came out on DVD,” Matt answered excitedly, but Neil couldn’t even see his face from Dan.

“Wanna join?”

“Is it ok?” He felt completely awake, but with his injuries they paused the night practices with Kevin, and Neil didn’t feel like doing homework.

“Don’t be stupid,” Dan answered, then beckoned him with her hand. “We’ll make you–“

“No need,” Neil interrupted her. “I’ll just sit in front of the couch, you guys seem too comfortable to move,” he smiled.

“You are a treasure, kid.” Dan laughed like she was really grateful for his sacrifice. “Hey, Matt mentioned you want a haircut,” she said after Neil sat down. She ruffled Neil’s auburn hair on the top of his head. “Did you ask Al already?”

Neil shook his head. “Maybe tomorrow when she does my makeup.”

“Don’t be afraid of her, she likes you a lot.”

He hardly doubted that but said nothing. Dan kept stroking his hair for a long time as they watched the movie.

Neil had no idea when he fell asleep – these action movies Matt seemed to like bored him to death with their stupidity –, but he ended up dreaming about Andrew dying in his arms. He jerked awake when Dan shook his shoulder, and almost kicked over the low table he had his legs under.

“I’m sorry,” the girl whispered. “You sounded like you were in pain.”

Neil covered his face for a second with both of his hands as the waves of the memory of the dream overwhelmed him. “Thanks, I’m fine. I’ll just go to bed.”

They both looked at him with such genuine care and concern that it just made Neil feel even worse. He was so stupid. He wasn’t just letting Andrew too close, he let all these people in when it wasn’t supposed to be like that.

He wasn’t fine. “Neil, between you and me, I don’t think you’ve ever been fine.” Wymack’s comment echoed in his head. He’d really never been fine. He had so many people he left behind, so many people who tried to care for him, but he couldn’t let them. And now, with the Foxes, he failed to keep them at arm length. He loved all of them.

Leaving them behind would hurt more than whatever his father could do to him.

///

Time was crawling again. He hardly could believe he came back only three days ago, really. It wasn’t even worth counting anymore. Everyday felt like a year. However, Friday night seemed to turn out an exception. Neil was there to fast everything up. Perhaps too fast, but he expected nothing else from the brat.

During training, Coach sent him up on the court to make Andrew stop killing off Kevin with his perfectly aimed balls – he needed some excitement, really, why couldn’t people understand that? They ended up promising to talk about Neil’s scars in exchange.

It was him being self-destructive, to be honest, but what else was new? He slipped into Neil’s room right after the busybodies left, appearing in the living room where the younger one was doing something by his desk. He couldn’t hear Andrew because of the music.

“I could have killed you just now.”

Neil startled right away, then turned around. “Fuck, Matt left the music on again,” he grumbled, then went over to the hi-fi to turn it off.

Andrew was very grateful for him to turn his back on him again, because damn, hot. “You got a haircut,” he said after refusing to clear his throat.

“Yeah,” Neil answered, then unconsciously touched his hair that was now waxed into a stylish mess on the top of his head. “Allison did it after I told her, we’re going out tonight.”

The fucking doll. She shaved the hair on Neil’s nape and above his ears off, but left the top almost as long as it was, only parting it on the left, so most of it fell on the right side of his head now.

“I still feel it’s too long, I don’t really like it when it gets into my eyes, but she refused to cut it more,” Neil said with sheepish smile.

“Do it yourself,” Andrew answered nonchalantly, because he was the symbol of nonchalant. Oh, he so didn’t feel like that at the moment.

“I could, but I’m not a fan of mirrors since I look like… this.” He gestured to his face with a grimace.

That explained the other very disturbing thing on Neil. He surely didn’t see what the doll did to his eyes. He was wearing eyeliner, and that was the last thing Andrew needed in his life at the moment. So he just threw the bag of clothes he was carrying at Neil.

They went inside the bedroom, and Neil started to undress after a short moment of hesitation. Then the pain came. It was sharp, piercing pain all over his chest as Neil raised his arms. Andrew got bored of his struggling very fast, and helped him out of the shirt. Then he went perfectly still, masking every emotion that he may or may not felt.

Neil’s chest was even more of a mess than he imagined it to be. It was colorful now because of the bruises and cuts he’d gotten for Andrew. He reached for the bandages on Neil’s wrist first, because it was stupid to not let them air.

Then he lifted his hand to the scar on his right shoulder. “The 24th of September in 1996,” Andrew whispered.

Neil didn’t react when he touched him but now he winced. “You remember?”

Andrew didn’t answer. “Why?”

Neil let out a shaking breath. “I don’t remember what I did to make my father angry, but he smacked me with a hot iron.”

He went over to the scar that formed a loop starting on his throat, reaching down below his collarbone, but with his other hand he smoothed the wound on his right arm, too. “The 2nd of August in 1998.”

“That was the week we ran away with mom. They found us in New York in five days. Mom just decided that we should go over to England to her family, but they caught up. The one on my arm is from my mother trying to shoot the man who was craving that loop into my skin.”

Andrew avoided the bullet wound on Neil’s left shoulder and just ran his fingers over the cuts all over his abdomen. “The spring of 1997.”

Neil scoffed before saying, “That was the time my father tried to teach me how to fight with knives. He didn’t bother getting fake ones.”

Andrew looked up at that. “When you said–“

Neil nodded. “Yes. I didn’t really mean Riko. My father loved knives, and never hesitated to use them against me.”

“Renee said you refused our knives. If you learned them already–”

“I don’t need weapons. You are going to watch my back this year, aren’t you?”

This stupid kid. This annoying idiot. Andrew put his hand on the bandage above Neil’s right hip bone. “The 27th of October in 2002.”

“Yes. That was when I almost destroyed my knee, too with jumping out of the school’s second floor,” Neil said with a sad smile. “It was in Phoenix. We just came back to the US after being in Europe for more than four years. They found us in a month.”

“I was in juvie by this time. I just started to play exy, I wanted you dead more than ever. That was one disaster of a day,” Andrew said on a voice without any emotions.

“I would say I’m sorry, but not really need you to punch me at the moment.”

“Smart.” Andrew looked back into Neil’s face. “What did Riko do to it?”

Neil’s smile faded away. “Knives. I don’t know why was he so focused on that one scar, but he kept cutting it day after day.”

Fucking piece of shit. Andrew said nothing, though, just looked back to Neil’s left shoulder. He took a deep breath before touching that bullet wound.

“Andrew–“

“The 19th of January in 2000.” Andrew’s hand was on Neil’s shoulder, and he dug his thumb deep into the wound. “I promised to kill you if I ever meet you on that day.” He was glaring at the scar, but seeing something else. “I usually stayed away from the house until it was sure that Cass or her husband would be home. That day I had to go back right after school, because I couldn’t bear the pain anymore. I was stupid, I thought he wouldn’t be there yet. I was on the verge of passing out when he came into my room.”

Neil didn’t wince or hiss as he pushed his nails even deeper into his skin after looking up.

“I want you gone. I hate you so much,” he said, now for the first time since stepping into that room with emotion. His words were dripping hate.

He turned away and stormed out of the bedroom. He went up to the roof, right to the edge. He felt like falling, and it scared the hell out of him. This couldn’t be happening. This should have been the happy pills and nothing more.

“There is no this.”

His pitiful attempt of denial was ignored by everything else that was going on in his mind.

After finishing two cigarettes in the blink of an eye, he went down again. The other three were already in the hallway.

“Neil?” his cousin asked surprised to see him coming down alone.

Andrew shrugged. “Maybe he fled.” Oh, how much Andrew wished he would have. “Go and get him.”

His cousin knocked on the door, then when it opened, he shrieked. That was when Andrew turned around, rolling his eyes and just marched to the car. To smoke one more cigarette. He hated everything, but he hated Neil Josten’s looks the most at the moment.

He was quiet on the road, and in the club, too. He didn’t say a word until…

“Why does Roland think you’re tying me down?”

The glass stopped in midair on the way to his mouth. His eyes snapped to Neil’s wrists that were showing the ugly bruises as his shirt rolled up.

Literally, the only word that was in his mind for a very long second was, ABORT.

But then he put down the glass, and started to tap on the rim as he contemplated his options. It wouldn’t really matter, would it? Even if he told Neil what he was way too dumb to catch up on all this time, nothing would change, right?

“It was my mother that kept me alive, but you were the one I kept alive for.”

“Presumably he thinks you’re as bad at following directions as he is,” Andrew said in the end. “Roland knows I don’t like being touched.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” Oh, so dumb.

“It is the answer. Rephrase the question if you don’t like it.”

“I want to play another round,” Neil said. “What’s outside Coach’s pay grade?”

“If they killed you now, I wouldn’t have survived that.”

Andrew eyed him for a while, then shifted in his seat to face Neil properly. He grabbed his jaw and pulled on it to stop this idiot from biting half of the inside of his mouth out. The eyeliner was kind of smudged under his eyes by now, and his hair kept sticking to his skin on his forehead because of sweating in the overheated club. Andrew saw how dry his lips were. He saw how they trembled a little, perhaps because he was looking at them.

“If it means losing you, then no.”

“When Coach signed us, he promised to stay out of our personal problems. He said the board paid him to be our coach, nothing more and nothing less.”

He saw the brat hesitating to push forward, but now Andrew wanted him to. It was about time to smash his oblivious fuckery to pieces.

“I didn’t think I was a personal problem. You hate me, remember?”

“Every inch of you,” Andrew said. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t blow you.”

Maybe that was straightforward enough even for him. Andrew watched as his eyes widened, and he looked so dumbfounded for three seconds like he just heard the biggest freaking secret of the universe. He would have laughed into his stupid face if it wasn’t way too much of a struggle. He seriously couldn’t believe this brat could miss out on all the not at all subtle stupid things Andrew had done in the past few months.

“You like me.”

Oh, no. “I hate you.”

Andrew lied about many things, but this was the truest he could get.

He leaned back, wiping his hand on his black jeans to get the heat and sweat of Neil off himself. The sensation stuck. Just like Neil seemed to so far.

He hated Neil because he wouldn’t let go. Wouldn’t give up. Wouldn’t go away. Because he tried so hard to understand and workaround.

He hated Neil because it was so hard to keep his hands off him. He hated Neil because he was afraid of the moment when he fails his desires.

He hated Neil because Andrew himself couldn’t just walk away from him.

“You never said anything,” Neil said after finally getting over his shock.

“Why should I have?” He shrugged. “Nothing will come of it.”

“Nothing.”

“I am self-destructive, not stupid.” Oh, the lies, Minyard. “I know better.”

“Okay.”

Andrew emptied his glass, then reached for his cigarettes. There was one in between his mouth before he stood up to walk away. This much was enough of the speeding of time that Neil Josten could cause.

“It’s your turn.”

“I do not have to take it now.”

He was gone the next moment. Went down the stairs, broke through the wall of people, and stopped at the end of the bar. It took the cheeky one exactly eight seconds to notice him. Andrew glared at him as he showed an embarrassed smile his way. He didn’t need to beckon him, the cheeky one knew.

He finished his last customers, then informed one of the other bartenders that he would go on a break. When he started toward Andrew, he pushed open the “Staff only” door, and didn’t stop until the end of the corridor.

“Hey, I know you are angry, but–“

He pushed the cheeky one up on the door and closed his stupid, gossip loving mouth with his own. The cheeky one was just an inch taller than him, but only their heights were familiar. Where Andrew was blond, the cheeky one was black, where Andrew was pale, the cheeky one was light brown and covered in tattoos. And he was just so bad at following orders, damn. They were doing this for two years already, and he just couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

Andrew peeled the hands from his hips, then opened the door behind the other one, fairly enjoying how he freaked out then stumbled inside. It was an office they mostly used for keeping unnecessary stuff that the manager was sure they’d still use one day. The cheeky one stopped in the middle of the small room, and hooked his thumbs into his jeans. And looked cheeky. Not afraid at all.

“Did you tell him?”

“Yes, I told him I wouldn’t mind sucking his dick,” Andrew said, leaning on the door, still shaking his head at the other.

The cheeky one’s smile widened even more. “Wouldn’t have expected anything less from you,” he said with a chuckle. “What did he say?”

Andrew shrugged. “’Okay’?”

“You mean he agreed to it?!”

He rolled his eyes. “No, idiot, he acknowledged it.”

“Oh, I see. He’ll come around.” The cheeky one said this many times before. “I’ve watched him watching you. He’ll come around.”

“I don’t want him to.” He stepped closer to the older one, who cracked a smile again. However, this time it didn’t show any positive emotion. It was a sad smile, that he hadn’t seen on that face since his cousin’s attack.

“Of course you do.” The cheeky one lifted his hand to Andrew’s face, but as he winced, he stopped a few inches away from him. And his smile became even sadder. “Of course you do, dummy.”

Andrew glared at him, then took his hand and pulled it down. They said nothing else for so long, that the sadness faded away, and the cheeky one regained his stupid cheeky expression.

“Kiss me one more time, then I need to go back.”

He didn’t hesitate even for a second, their mouths crashed into each other and Roland returned his vigorous emotions with similar intensity. They kissed without any of them acknowledging it was the last time they would ever do it again.

Roland’s words were in his head even Sunday night, and he wasn’t happy about it. Especially after what happened Saturday morning. Neil appeared in the kitchen with his hair all over the place and the eyeliner making him look like a freaking whore after an exhausting night. He wanted to punch him so bad, but had some other problems with containing a different urge – which obviously led to even more furious violent needs to break something. He left without a word, and had to go for a drive to the supermarket to cool himself off.

He wanted nothing. This was stupid. Everything was so stupid, and Roland, too. He knew nothing would come out of it. Damn, he didn’t even want anything to come out of it. Fucking Neil could be great, but it would be the biggest mistake, and he was done with making those. He wanted nothing.

Except sleep.

Which was impossible as the exy one wouldn’t stay put even for one whole night. Andrew dropped himself on his back, then grunted before sitting up. “Get the fuck out of here, Kevin!”

“Sorry, I meant to be quiet,” the older one replied failing badly to whisper.

“You’re doing a pretty fucking lousy job, man,” Aaron grumbled back, then Andrew heard him turning around in the other bunk.

Aaron had a test in the morning, this was so not okay. Andrew jumped off the bed, then pointed at the exy one who had a book in his lap that he read by the light of his phone. “I said, get the fuck out of here.”

“Alright,” he replied with a scowl, then got up with his book. Andrew followed him, because leaving him alone wasn’t something he was used to doing.

The exy one was so bad in being quiet. Whatever he did, it was with loud noises. And not because clumsiness like how it was with his cousin, the exy one was just unable to be considerate toward others. He was so used to doing everything in the same time as his room or teammates that he assumed whatever he was doing was fine with everyone.

They sank into the beanbags in the living room, Andrew right away shutting his eyes, too, but the older one was wide awake. “Sorry.”

“Shut up.”

Obviously he just couldn’t. “I can’t sleep, I didn’t want to disturb you, guys. You can go back.” Andrew didn’t bother with repeating the command, it was meant to be useless tonight. “Since Neil came back in that hideous state, I’m having nightmares.”

Andrew noticed, it wasn’t hard, really.

“I don’t want Thea to be worried even more,” the exy one said like he was happy to finally rant about his problem. “She already called me two times, threatening to come down here for a talk about why I’m a wreck again.”

“When did you stop being one? I missed the note,” Andrew said with a raised eyebrow.

“She doesn’t know what happened,” he muttered back annoyed, but not denying the accusation.

Andrew folded his hands behind his head, but still refused to open his eyes. “Isn’t it about time to tell her then?”

“No!” the exy one retorted right away. “She doesn’t need to know about any of this.”

“Humor me with your absolutely humorless self. Why is that?”

The exy one was fidgeting with the pages of his book. “She spent five hard years in the Castle, but she graduated without getting to know about the Moriyama’s business or any of Riko’s sadistic tendencies. It needs to stay like that.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Why?

“Because–“

He said nothing else, so Andrew asked back, “You don’t really think she is too weak to take it, do you? Cause I’ve seen that woman kick your sorry ass to the moon after you arrived here and tried to lie to her–”

“It’s not that. I’m afraid what she’d do if she knew. She can’t go up against them. And that would kill her. She’s a fighter, she can’t–“

“Take it. That’s what you’re saying. And I think you’re wrong.”

“You don’t know her.”

“Let’s keep it that way.” Andrew turned his head toward the exy one, then finally cracked at least one eye open. “What’s the point of this crap if you don’t use it?”

The exy one narrowed his eyes. “What crap?”

“Having a soulmate,” Andrew said feeling like vomiting into his own mouth. “I assumed the point is that you are assigned someone at birth who you can rant to without having to lie about it. What’s the fucking point if you bottle up even more instead?”

“It’s not that easy,” the exy one muttered back.

“I think it is. You’re just making it unnecessarily harder because you think that woman is as much a spineless coward as you are. She is not.”

The older one stayed quiet.

“Or what? Are you afraid what would she say if she realizes how you just turned your head away from everything that had happened in that hell? That she’d dump you for it?” he asked with a bored expression.

“Fuck you,” the exy one hissed back.

“I told you that’s not happening.” They were glaring each other down for a while. “Start growing that spine, Kevin before you lose the chance to ever do so.” Andrew pushed himself up, then stretched his back and arms. “I’m going back to bed. If you wake me up one more time tonight, I’m gonna impale you on your racquet.”

It wasn’t him who was sleeping and shouldn’t have been woken up but the other one, however, the exy one did not need to know that.

An annoying week followed an annoying weekend. They were flying to Austin on the 12th, that thought ruined Andrew’s days even more than the boredom of them could. It was an annoying trip with Neil paying way too much attention to him. He was talking unnecessary things at the airport, staring on the plane, and acting stupidly happy during the game just because Andrew remembered a few data on the players of the other team. Like who cares really?

They arrived back to the Tower after 2am, and they were all so dead that they just slept through the trashing of their cars. The fucking birds did such a good job turning everything into a trashcan that Andrew felt like congratulating them. On the other hand, wouldn’t have minded to commit mass murder. Hunting for birds seemed to be such a good way to waste time at the moment.

All this because Neil couldn’t keep his fucking mouth shut again. He had such a wonderful retort about why he got the slut mark that Andrew would have patted his shoulder if didn’t know it’d end ugly. And it so did. Again, against someone else than the brat. But why the cars, you fuckity fucking fuckhead fuckers?!

“You just had to open your mouth, didn’t you?” Aaron spat all of their thoughts at Neil.

“I’m sorry,” Neil said. “I thought he’d come at me. I didn’t think you’d get caught up in it.” Because you are dumb as fuck.

“Right,” Aaron answered snidely. “Seth was a one-off, then?”

The next few seconds felt like eternity. Andrew saw the doll moving from the corner of his eyes, but he didn’t react fast enough to be able to completely protect Aaron. The doll punched Aaron so hard that he stumbled backwards, and Andrew could see the terror running over his expression. The doll resembled at his mother too much.

The monster let lose the next heartbeat. It wasn’t even that much. Every control he had over his anger was gone like it never had been. He grabbed the doll’s wrist to wrench her arm up behind her back, then slammed her to her knees. Seizing her neck but not breaking it right away was the only sign that he still didn’t lose himself completely. The monster just wanted him to feel powerless, but he wasn’t. He could stop before going too far. However, shutting the bars back on the monster couldn’t happen instantly.

“You can’t protect anyone without me. You need me. Let me do it. You can’t protect them.”

“Andrew, it’s just Allison. Okay? It’s just Allison,” the rainbow girl insisted, blocking his view with throwing herself atop the doll.

“It is not ‘just’ anyone when she lays a hand on what’s mine,” he said, squeezing the words out through his clenched teeth. “Let go.”

“You know I won’t. You told me to protect them.”

“You failed. You should have been faster.” He couldn’t be sure who he was aiming that accusation for. Himself or the rainbow girl.

Then Neil had to come into the picture. “That’s enough,” he said in German. As he did before, he just held a hand up in front of Andrew to get his attention. “That’s enough, Andrew.”

“You don’t get to decide that.”

“Don’t let him stop you! Don’t let him boss you around!”

Neil’s persuading with twisting their promise as much as he could to fit the situation just made him even angrier, because it was so obnoxious, and he hated that the brat thought he can do anything. Andrew could have just ignored all of it, because he wanted to deny the power that this boy had over him so bad.

“I made him a promise, too. I won’t break his to keep yours.” You are nothing to me.

He said that but wasn’t expecting Aaron to answer him. “Andrew, that’s–“ He faltered, but didn’t dare to move closer, so Andrew tilted his had to show he was listening. “No, Andrew. No. It’s all right. I’m all right. It didn’t even hurt.”

He was glaring at Neil and hated that he saw on his face that he put two and two together again. He hated that he would end up obeying again. The brat overpowered him, used Aaron against him, outwitted him. The monster was throbbing in his arms, urging him with powerful pulsing to just break the doll’s neck.

But he couldn’t do it. He had his hands tied down by the promises, and killing someone would make him unable to fulfill any of them. And Andrew would never fail to keep a promise, he was failed way too many times to go down on that road.

By the time he released the doll, the monster was confined. It was still an instable wall, though so he refused to open his mouth anymore, even in the car with Coach as he was lecturing him about injuring teammates for the ten thousandth time.

“Will you need me later?”

The message from the rainbow girl came when he was already on the roof with a bottle of vodka for breakfast. “no. maybe tomorrow” he wrote back, because today was dangerous. Today he could have seriously injured her if they went too far. It was only 10am, but he already had enough of this day.

Of course days like this just wouldn’t end on his wish.

Neil sat down by his side on the edge, and they were staring at the miserable state of the parking lot together now. “Give me one good reason to not push you off the side.”

“I’d drag you with me. It’s a long way down.”

Andrew was glaring at his profile with intense ferocity. It was. He was falling for so long already.

“I hate you.” He took a swing from the bottle and swiped his mouth clean with a thumb. He hated this brat so much. “Ninety percent of the time the very sight of you makes me want to commit murder. I think about craving the skin from your body and hanging it out as a warning to every other fool who thinks he can stand in my way.”

“What about the other ten?” Pretentious little fucker.

It wasn’t the time to think about that other ten now. “I warned you not to put a leash on me.”

He hated him even more after this talk. Every word about how Andrew put the leash, the binding on himself was true. With all the promises he made, he just caged himself. Bound himself to life, to live this life, to not be able to end it. Not in the near future anyway.

He was meant to live to protect Aaron. The exy one. And Neil. And there was no out until he fulfilled those. He lost this battle when decided to stay alive for them and now he had to live with the consequences whatever they were. He was climbing out of rock bottom alongside them, and he had to accept that finally.

For now. It was just temporary. He was falling already, and he would crash eventually. Back where he belonged. The moment the promises are fulfilled, he would be back down there. Perhaps, finally ending up dead, too.

///

Neil just turned nineteen that morning. Nobody knew about it, and he intended to keep it that way. It was just any other day after he’d made a wish that they win the championship. After his Spain class, he was about to go back to the Tower to rest a little before the game against Belmonte.

He was already outside, walking through the park when that voice made him halt. “Nathaniel.”

Neil started to shake as his blood froze in his veins, and he was grabbing the phone in his track pants’ pocket like it was a gun that could provide him safety now. Even though he knew nothing could. He was in a place without any covers, not even trees around him, only people, people who he couldn’t stand getting involved in his grave mistake. Even if he didn’t know these people personally, they were not collateral damage like others in his previous schools. Neil was too attached to Palmetto State by now to feel like that.

“Nathaniel!”

The waves of panic shot up again as the name reached his ears. He felt like throwing up. He felt like he should just stop breathing now, because even dying like that would be better than what comes. He had no exit routes. He couldn’t run. His legs were frozen into blood, and–

“Bloody hell, kid, you are shaking like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Neil spun around the next second. A man, who was like a foot taller than him stood two steps away. He was wearing an expensive looking suit under a pea coat that was opened, and his blond, curly hair was pinned down by a hat. He looked really old with all the wrinkles on his face, but Neil knew he can’t be more than fifty yet. His mother would be forty that year and her brother wasn’t much older.

“Uncle Stuart,” Neil muttered in shock.

“I hoped you remember me, saved us from the awkward introducing bit.” Stuart came closer as Neil still couldn’t bring his legs to move. “I’d like to ask you to spare me a little time. I have some news for you.”

Neil felt instantly cautious. “About?” One end of Stuart’s mouth curled up and his green eyes shone with mischief. He instantly looked a lot younger. “I haven’t changed my mind about joining your… organization.”

“Blimey! I would have never guessed with the way you built a superstar life here.”

Neil’s eyes fell to the ground. “Is that how you found me?”

“Let’s just say, you made my job a lot easier with picking a fight on national television with my archenemy’s son.”

“Archenemy,” Neil echoed and peeked back up at Stuart’s face.

“That was a little overdramatic maybe. So, where can we have a little chat in privacy, Nathaniel?”

“Please, stop calling me that,” Neil said after wincing.

Stuart eyed him for a long second, then answered, “Neil it is then.”

As he didn’t think talking about anything with his uncle would be suitable for a café or restaurant, he asked, “Are you alright with a little walk?”

“Sure, the weather is beautiful.”

It was cloudy and cold, but Neil couldn’t decide whether his uncle was joking or not. He led them to the construction site on the far end of campus. Work was still going on, but nobody paid attention to them here as they circled around the new dorm’s already standing walls.

“So? How come you are here?” Neil asked nervously because Stuart wasn’t keen on getting the conversation started.

“Your father is dead.”

Neil felt like he was just kicked out to space. He was levitating in nothing, in the dark where time didn’t exist. He had no idea how long he was already kneeling in the dirt. He had no idea when he fell. Or if he said something, or if he was crying or laughing or just having an expressionless face. He was nothing.

He was staring at his thighs, and as his brain recognized the orange of his track suit, and he read the three huge letters, ‘PSU’ in white on it, he was finally able to snap back. He was ruining his track suit in the dirt. He couldn’t– he shouldn’t have done that.

However, standing up failed him three times until he finally gave up, then scoffed. “I’m pathetic.”

“You are relieved,” his uncle said, then tugged him up to his feet by his arm.

Neil didn’t feel like he was standing even now. He was still mostly just levitating in nothingness. “Did you kill him?” he muttered.

“It was my men, not me. I’m sorry that it took so long, kid, I really am.” He sounded like that, but–

“What do you mean?”

Stuart was looking at him with pity in his eyes. “When you called me one and a half year ago to inform me about my sister’s passing, that was the last straw. Your bastard father was a nutter, and the time was finally right to make a stop to his foolish actions.”

Neil couldn’t really follow. “The time was right?”

“Kengo Moriyama is dying, I assume you know who he is.”

“Ye– yes, I know, but really?!”

“Yes. He doesn’t have more than a month, and Ichiro is already on the move to take over his rightful place as the boss. It was the perfect chance to get rid of your father who he doesn’t intend to work together with.”

“But why you?”

“You could say I volunteered.” He smirked. “My men got your father in jail last year, Neil. I knew it would be easier to kill him in there than it would be anywhere else.”

“I– I– I don’t know what to say. I think I’m in shock.”

He scoffed. “Yes, you clearly are,” Stuart said on a mocking voice. “You don’t need to know about the details, the less you know the better. He is dead, and it happened with the approval of the next head of the Moriyamas, that is all that matters for now.” Stuart put his hand on Neil’s shoulder and squeezed it hard. “He was betrayed by his son, his brother-in-law, and his boss, and he deserved all of that. Wesninski had so many loose screws in his head that it’d be hard to count. He isn’t worth any bad feelings, kid.”

“No, he isn’t, I know that.” Neil’s voice was emotionless, but he felt the truth in those words. His father was a crazy psychopath and there was no saving him. Neil wanted him dead more than anyone, but this all sounded too easy. “What am I supposed to do now?”

Stuart eyed him for a long time. “I think you have two choices.” Neil looked at him expectantly. “You either come with me, and get the place I offered your mother eight years ago–“

“No.” It was that easy. Neil wouldn’t turn into a gangster because his mother didn’t want him to. Neil wouldn’t leave Palmetto because he didn’t want to.

Stuart scoffed again. “That’s what I guessed. Alright, alright. Then you should go to the FBI and tell them everything you know.”

“What?!”

“I’ve only gotten rid of your father, Neil. His men are out here, and it won’t take them long to put the picture together. They won’t stop chasing you, or they’ll do it with even more viciously. I can’t protect you here, but they have a shot.”

How long was he sitting on the grass by the pile of bricks? It was already getting dark, the workers turned on the reflectors at the construction site, but their light didn’t reach Neil. He was sitting with his legs pulled up to his chest, hugging himself, hiding his face into his thighs.

Nothing felt real.

He woke up in the morning, went to school, but all that was like a dream. It was like he snapped awake the moment his uncle announced that the monster of his nightmares was gone. Neil was awake now, but he was living the nightmares for so long that he had no idea what to do in the real world anymore. His father was gone, and even if Lola or his other men were out there, already planning how to get Neil killed for it, Neil felt like the worst was over.

But what will the less bad bring now? Does he need to run again? Does he need to disappear one more time just to be safe?

Neil pulled out his phone from his pocket that buzzed for the twenty second time since his uncle left. His forehead was still on his knees, but he snapped the phone open and saw the 12 missed calls and 10 text messages.

He opened those first.

Dan: whre r u? / niel??? / hy answer!!! / ?!?!?!?

Nicky: we cant get a hold of you whats up? / ur ringing so ur phone is not dead what happened?? / NEIL!!!

Kevin: We have a match in three hours, where the hell are you?!

Matt: we called Coach. He says we call the police if u dont turn up till 6. Plz writ back

Allison: the monster says u r fine. Should we believe him?

Neil looked up to the clock on the screen. It was 5:45pm. He finished class at 2pm. He just lost almost four hours. And they had to be on court at 7pm.

He pushed a few buttons, then put the phone on his ear. It didn’t even finish ringing once when the bored voice answered, “And he lives. That’s my luck.”

The discord in the back was loud, it hurt Neil’s ears, but he just pressed the phone even closer. All their voices were so important. They screamed that he was making the right decision.

“Come and get me.”

“But where are you?” Andrew asked on a mocking voice that somehow sounded really impatient.

“At the construction site on the other end of campus.” The voices died on Andrew’s end, but the line wasn’t cut. Neil listened to him breathing, heard the chain that Andrew had on his wallet jingle, then in a few minutes the grumble of a car.

“Are you in one piece?” It was a quiet question, on the same detached voice, but just the fact that he asked made Neil feel better.

He scoffed. “You can tell, can’t you?”

Andrew said nothing, but it was like he scoffed, too. They were on the line even when Andrew stopped the engine. “Where?”

“Pass around on the left.” Neil heard the door getting shut, then the familiar jingle and Andrew’s steady breathing were audible again. He even heard as the older one lit a cigarette. It kind of sent chills up his back as Andrew exhaled the smoke right by his ear.

“I can’t see shit,” Andrew growled.

“I’m sitting by a pile of bricks.”

“There are bricks literally everywhere. Can’t you get up?” he sounded irritated.

“No, I don’t think I can.”

Andrew became alarmed at that, but Neil only heard the jingle getting faster as he quickened his pace. Then it stopped, but Neil didn’t need to hear him anymore, he could sense him by his side. Andrew crouched down in front of him, but neither said or did anything.

Neil pressed his face into his thighs, and noticed only know that he was biting the inside of his mouth. He tasted blood. His stomach turned, not because of the taste but the memory of his father that was linked to it.

“My father is dead,” he mumbled, hoping that Andrew still had the phone on his ear, because he doubted he was audible like this. However, letting go of his legs scared him, he was so afraid of falling apart. It was pathetic, but the only thing keeping his life together was the running from his father, and now that he was gone, everything felt shifting out of shape.

“Isn’t he that for a long while now?” Andrew asked, not sounding concerned.

“No. He was killed yesterday by my uncle.”

The other one took a deep breath, before answering, “Is that so?”

“I was running from my father and his men, everything else I told you was true.” Neil was squeezing the phone so hard that he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.”

He wasn’t crying, he didn’t even feel like crying. He just wanted to apologize for everything, not only for what he had done, but what his father had been doing to both of them. It put a lot more on him than Neil realized so far. He was actually crushing under his pangs of conscience. His mind was overwhelmed, also was his heart and nothing really made sense.

“Stop it.” He could only barely hear Andrew’s command. He wasn’t even aware that he didn’t stop apologizing. “I said, stop it.” Andrew dug his fingers into Neil’s hair, then tugged it hard. “Stop it,” he repeated.

Neil had to bit his mouth to actually be able to shut up.

“You are having a panic attack. You need to breathe.” Andrew kept his head steady, not pulling his face away from his thighs. “Breathe slow and long.”

It was hard, very hard, but he could hear Andrew’s calm, steady breathing in his ear through the phone. His own matched up with it after a while. “He hurt us so much, and now he is just gone, and I– I don’t know anything,” he muttered when finally was able to.

“You only need to know one thing now. Can you play?”

“I can!” That was his first determined sentence in hours.

“I’ll ask again, and you need to answer that without your obsession talking.” Andrew waited a moment then bit the inside of his mouth really hard. “Can you play?”

“Ouch,” Neil hissed, then lifted his head. “If you help me stand up, and get the tingle out of my legs, I can.”

He couldn’t see Andrew’s face, the boy was just a dark shadow in front of him, but his eyes still shone, and that somehow gave some power back to Neil. He wanted to get up, so he moved his hand and held it toward Andrew.

There was a pause again, then Andrew scoffed. He took Neil’s hand, and tugged on it while standing up. Neil hissed again as his sore muscles protested against the sudden move, but he did it. He had to lean on the bricks for support because Andrew let go of him very quickly.

“We’re going.”

Neil took a deep breath, then stepped forward after Andrew. His legs almost gave in, but he managed to stay standing. Not breaking any of his bones till they reached the car on the uneven ground was just a matter of luck.

Andrew didn’t get in the car, he was leaning on it, tapping the top in a quick, intense tempo. He waited until Neil got to the door of the passenger seat, then said, “Tell me I’m not making a mistake.”

Neil tensed up immediately. The lie was on his tongue, but he could stop himself before making that grave mistake. “I don’t know,” he replied with a desperate shake of his head. “I couldn’t go back because I can’t even begin to measure the risk now. There is one, that’s all I can tell.” He knew he was putting the responsibility on Andrew’s shoulders. He knew how unfair it was.

They could see each other’s faces now as Andrew parked under a street lamp, but the older one’s expression was as dark as before. Andrew was glaring at him, then stretched his neck and hopped into the car. Neil hesitated. This wasn’t an answer. Should he go? Should he get in?

His door cracked open, “Get the fuck in.”

A shaking breath escaped from Neil’s mouth before he’d done as he was told. “Andrew–“

The engine roared, and they were out on the road the next second with an aggressive start. “Don’t. You win the game tonight, then tell me everything.” Andrew turned his head to him for a second. “And if you lie to me one more time, you’re dead to me.”

“I know,” Neil muttered, and had to avert his eyes. The guilt was crushing him like he was buried under a mountain.

///

He was done way before the game ended as the rainbow girl finished the second half, so when his cousin was the only one left in the changing room as he was slow as fuck, Andrew beckoned him closer.

“You look like the world just ended, when we just had a brilliant win,” Nicky said with a huge smile. “I’m not saying smile, but can’t you at least not look like you are ready to murder?”

Andrew pretended to consider. “No.” He was playing with his knife between his legs, not even looking up. “You’ll take Kevin and Aaron back to the Tower and keep an eye on them until I get back.”

“What?” His cousin’s smile faded a little. “I thought I’m not allowed to drive anymore.”

“That crap is not my car, you drive it wherever you want, I don’t give a fuck.”

“Okay. What’s up?”

“Just do as you were told. I’m not in the mood for any of your stupidity tonight.”

His cousin eyed him for a while, but his face was surely more talkative than him, because he didn’t argue more. “Alright. Guess, I don’t get a celebratory drink for my fantastic play today.”

“No. You shouldn’t.”

His cousin got his towel, then went away. It was a smart decision, because not using that knife was a very hard task at the moment. He said nothing else until everybody cleared out except Neil, who was obediently sitting on his bench, also quietly hushing away the druggie. They didn’t agree on anything before the game, but fortunately it wasn’t necessary. Neil knew he can’t escape from Andrew today.

Coach came in when everybody was out, grumbling about they left the light on again. “What the fuck?” he shouted – startling Neil – when noticed them. “Why are you two still here?”

Andrew stood up, and put away the knife. “We’re going on a ride.”

Coach seemed as confused as Neil. “What are you on?”

“Anger. Get your keys.” None of them moved. “Neil has a story to tell, and you’ll listen to him.”

“Have I now?”

Andrew slapped his head to him immediately. “You don’t get to argue with me. You’ll do as I say.” He could see the protest Neil swallowed back.

“Does this have anything to do with Neil’s little ‘I was sleeping’ explanation about his disappearance?”

“It does. Keys, Coach, I’m feeling very impatient.”

He should let his rage show up on his face more often, people seemed to listen to his commands easier. Not even Neil said a word after Coach disappeared to his office. Andrew was glaring at him, then stormed out of the room. He made a decision and wouldn’t back out on it. He couldn’t trust himself at the moment. He might let Neil stay even though it would lead to too much danger just because it was Neil. Letting Coach in on the secret was the right thing to do here in order to keep the other three safe.

He reached Coach’s car first, but Neil was just a few seconds behind. “Is it because you are not trusting me?”

“Yes.”

Neil took a deep breath. “Okay.” He took one more. “Okay,” he added muttering and accepted the cigarette from Andrew with a shaking hand.

Andrew didn’t feel like explaining himself, Neil was pretty good at getting the lines untangled without his help anyway. And. He didn’t even care if Neil wouldn’t understand his reasons. He did not.

Coach appeared just when Andrew threw the butt away. He held his hand out.

“Yeah, not even after I’m dead,” Coach growled at him right away.

“Shut up, and let me do it. You’d drive us into the first lamp post when Neil starts to talk.” He reached for the keys, but Coach lifted his hand up way above his head. Andrew rolled his eyes. “Very funny. Haha. Fuck you.”

“What is this all about, Josten?” Andrew considered punching the older man in the guts the moment he looked over at Neil.

“I owe you a story, and Andrew thinks it’s the right time to tell it,” Neil answered with a grimace. “And I don’t advice you to drive either.”

“Can’t we do this in some place else that I don’t value more than all of our lives?” He was looking at Andrew again who shook his head. “Just a scratch, Andrew–“

“I’ve never scratched a car in my whole life, so shut the fuck up already, and get in the back.”

“Big accomplishment when you drive for like three years,” Neil muttered.

“I still managed to get someone dead in a car in that short time, so you should probably watch your mouth for once,” Andrew answered on a bored voice, then held his hand up again. “Don’t make this longer than it has to be, Coach, we both need our beauty sleep.”

“I’ll pretend I did not hear that.”

After an exasperated sigh, the keys were in Andrew’s hand who unlocked the doors immediately. Neil and Coach got in after him, then they were on the road. There were two reasons why Andrew picked a car ride instead of the older man’s office. One, he couldn’t be sure that they were bugged or not, and second, Andrew needed to drive for this talk. Driving was the second best way to calm the monster down.

“Is it really okay that you sit in the back?” Neil asked after a few uncomfortable seconds.

“I assumed, Andrew thinks you will be able to talk feeling less threatened if there is some space between us.”

“This is why I tolerate you,” Andrew said, looking at Coach in the rear view mirror.

“Flattery doesn’t suit you, midget.” He folded his arms in front of him and leaned way back on the seat. “So?”

Fortunately, the engine was a quiet one, so they could easily hear Neil’s low voice. After he cleared his throat like three times. “Um, so. My name is Nathaniel Wesninski, I turned nineteen today, and both of my parents are officially dead as of yesterday.”

Nice way of starting, Josten.

“Happy birthday,” Coach growled back.

“Yeah, thanks, but I’m not a fan of birthdays.”

Half an hour went by with neither of them saying anything – Coach’s face was very expressing, though but only Andrew saw that as Neil was staring at his hands in his lap – just listening to a crazy story about running through a dozens of countries and cities. It was the first time for Andrew to hear most of it, too, but he couldn’t feel any surprise. If Neil was telling the truth now, he really only lied about his father’s part in the whole story so far. That was neither reassuring or alluring. He hardly cared why Neil had to leave just that out, but perhaps it was a way bigger thing for him than Andrew. His father was the big villain of his pathetic life, and he seemed to be freaked out by him like nothing else. Andrew kind of understood why.

“I guess that covers the important points?” Neil finished, pretty obviously feeling even more awkward than before the talk.

“How much of this did you know?” Andrew wondered whether Coach’s voice sounded hoarse because of the long silence or that he was about to explode.

Andrew shrugged. “Not about the FBI thing.”

“Then enlighten me on why did you let him stay in the first place.”

Neil flinched but that wasn’t even the biggest sign of he was hurt by that comment but that he started to bit the inside of his mouth. Great. “Because ‘He is a fox like you.’ Happen to remember who told me that when I wanted to kick his ass out?”

Coach grumbled like a fucking bear. “Are you lying only to me or yourself, too? You thought you can handle this, right? You promised him that you’ll keep him safe, right? I want to know why, Andrew.”

They looked at each other with Neil, but he only saw his face when they ran by a street lamp. It was a freaky experience. Full dark then that scared, desperate expression crying for help.

“Keep your fucking eyes on the road!”

He turned back forward, but didn’t miss sending a bored look to the older man in the rear view mirror. “I let him stay, because Kevin needs him.”

“And you promised to keep him safe?”

Andrew shrugged again.

“I’d like to know how did you imagine doing that. Because I get your confidence against Riko on some level, but this? Are you fucking kidding me? What did you expect to do against the main family?”

“It’s not really the main family,” Neil interrupted him. “I told you, my uncle says Ichiro was on in this. My father is dead only because he let it happen.”

Coach finally looked at Neil who was turning back in his seat to face him – it was a surprisingly brave move from him. “I’m not talking to you just yet.” Neil’s shoulders dropped and he turned away. “Andrew!”

“He stayed alive for eight years. More or less. I could have done the same what his mother had been doing,” he answered irritated.

“You mean sacrificing anything and anyone in order to let him escape when the worst comes? Because as I heard, that’s what they had been doing.”

“Yeah?” He couldn’t help to shrug again. It just irritated him even more that he kept doing that.

“You were ready to sacrifice my team for him then?”

“I wouldn’t have let that happen–“

“Shut up, Neil.” Coach cut him off surprisingly avoiding not raising his voice. “Andrew?”

“Obviously not everybody on your team,” he answered with rolling his eyes.

“I’ll ask again, and this is the last time. Why?

“I’ve already told–“

“Minyard, before I lose my temper.”

Andrew’s hands tightened on the wheel, and he swallowed hard. “Fuck, because he is a pathetic loser who needed a place to stay? You said it yourself, he is a fox. This is what you fucking do, isn’t it?” Coach was just glaring at him in the mirror, tapping his arm with a finger in a furious tempo. These were the reasons even if the older man wouldn’t believe him. These, and that one other thing he was prohibited to mention – and didn’t want anyway. “Because he said he wanted to stay.”

Coach took a deep breath, then finally unfolded his arms. Now he was tapping both of his hands on his knees. “Why did you want to stay, Neil?”

It took the brat a whole minute of squeezing his left fist to answer. “Because I love it here. Because exy was the only good thing in my life and I was forbidden to even talk about it in the last eight years. You gave me a chance, and I couldn’t resist it.” He sounded so lost. “I’m so sorry to put all of you in danger. I should have known better. I will leave.”

“No.” Andrew wasn’t surprised at that even the least. “Nobody is telling you to leave, idiot. I just wanted to know the reasons.”

“But.” He looked back again. “I told you they’ll come after me. I don’t want any of them to die for me. Or to wreck our season.”

Andrew assumed the second was the worse option for him.

“Your leaving would wreck our season anyway, dumbass. They wouldn’t want you to go anywhere, crave that into your stupid mind.”

Neil shook his head a little. Still lost, still desperate. “You don’t know that.”

“You’ll when you tell them everything and they say the same.” Andrew couldn’t see his face, but there had to be some confusion on it, because a frustrated grunt left Coach’s throat. “You’ll tell them everything before going to the FBI next week.”

Andrew suddenly tensed up. “We haven’t discussed the FBI thing yet.”

“There is nothing to discuss. He needs to go. If they can help at least a little to keep us safe, we will grab that chance.”

“They’ll want to put him in the Witness Program, you know that,” Andrew said perhaps failing to sound nonchalant for once.

“That is an option Neil can consider, but he isn’t entitled to take it.” Coach looked back at Neil. “If you want to stay, you have your place here with us.”

Neil was squeezing the edge of the seat so hard that they all heard the leather creak. “I want to,” he said on an overwhelmed voice. “Why? You wanted to know our reason, but what is yours?”

Coach cocked his head to the right. “I don’t give up on anyone who hasn’t given up on themselves yet.”

Andrew resisted to roll his eyes. So disgustingly good. Sometimes he hated Wymack as much as he hated Neil. They both seemed like pipe dreams, so unreal that he wanted to turn his back on them because he couldn’t believe one day they wouldn’t just be as disappointing as anyone else.

“Thank you.”

“Thank me with winning the season. Thank me with staying and leading this team after Dan graduates.”

“What?!”

Andrew tuned them out after this. He so wasn’t interested in their stupid exy talk. But silently congratulated Wymack for finding the possibly only thing to make Neil forget all about running away.

Fucking exy.

They arrived back to the Tower almost after eleven, and all Andrew wanted was his bed, so when Neil tried to talk to him, he just waved at him and said, “Not now.”

He found the other three in the living room. Aaron was studying with his headphones on by his desk, the exy one was watching something on his laptop, and his cousin something on the television that seemed like a reality show.

“I kept them safe!” he said on a cheerful voice when noticed Andrew, then saluted.

Andrew rewarded him with an inattentive look, and started toward the bedroom. Of course the exy one couldn’t just let it go. “Where were you?”

“Talking with Coach.” He didn’t feel the energy to be difficult at the moment.

“About?”

“World politics.”

As he didn’t stop moving even as talking, he just shut the door behind himself after this. He already showered after the game, so just got into his sweatpants that he used for sleeping then climbed up to his bed. A tired, low grunt escaped his mouth after dropping himself on the sheets. He covered his face with his arms, then sighed. Just thinking about the upcoming weeks made him even more tired than how he felt now.

If only the happy pills were still at hand.

He clicked his tongue at that thought. He was back only for 17 days, and it hadn’t been easy to not think about the plus side of the drugs. Even if they made him act stupid, they gave him energy, and being without that extra push was pretty hard on him. Dealing with his apathy and depression – “Which I do not have.” “You need to accept it to get better,” Bee’s voice echoed in his head at the pointless objection – all alone seemed to be a losing battle. When Neil made him promise to not do any more drugs in exchange for the money for the new car, he knew it was a bad idea. Cracker dust at least gave him some shake up with the booze on a few nights.

Now he only had one thing to keep his interest on life. Neil. And it was probably the most dangerous drug of them all.

He was in the middle of the court, standing with his arms chained to the ceiling, and his legs to the ground. He was pulling on the handcuffs for so long already that his wrists were bleeding, but that wasn’t the only hurtful spot. His body felt like every bone in it got broken by a truck. However, the worst pain of them all was in his chest. His heart was clenched, quite literally as the man in front of him had his hand in his ribcage holding it.

“How do you like my birthday present, junior?”

The man was his father. He had a cut on his throat that let out blood even know. His face was turning grey as minutes passed but the blood just wouldn’t stop welling up from the wound.

“Oh, so quiet all of a sudden. You were screaming so nicely so far. Maybe if I just do this,” he smacked his fingers “you’ll get your voice back.”

As he smacked, screams and desperate shouts started to echo in the court. He had to look up even though he was avoiding the scene since everything went quiet.

All the people he had ever cared for were pinned on the walls around them. They were nailed to the glass with countless knives piercing through their bodies. There were nineteen screaming, crying bodies representing the candles on a cake as his father enlightened him earlier.

His mother. Wymack. His uncle. Abby. Coach Hernandez. Dan. Rosie. Matt. Tresa. Allison. The old lady from the French village. Renee. The teacher who first taught him exy. Kevin. Nicky. Aaron. The boy from under the bed. Andrew.

Andrew was right in front of him, and as their eyes met, his father dug his fingers even deeper into Neil’s heart. They screamed together. They screamed until they lost their voices, but they never let go of their eyes.

Andrew woke up covered in sweat. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he muttered after peeling his t-shirt away from his chest. He felt so disgusted. All he wanted was a good sleep, and it was completely ruined by Neil’s stupid mind. There was no way he could go back to sleep now even though it was only 5:35am on a freaking Saturday.

He growled one more time before sitting up then decided to go for a shower. He left the room without the others even turning in their beds.

As he looked into the mirror above the sink, he saw his face from the dream for a second. It was almost unrecognizably beaten up, but the worst for Andrew was his eyes anyway. He was sad in that nightmare. He couldn’t see his own eyes being sad for a very freaking long time, but the kid still managed to imagine them just like how they used to be. Andrew made a face then started to throw his clothes off. He set the water temperature almost to the highest, and hoped Neil feels the piercing pain on his skin, too.

They had the big talk with the others that afternoon, and it went down just as sappy as Andrew expected it to be, so he tuned out most of the conversation. He was feeling pretty good about his achievement, until Aaron lost his shit. It was hard to not tune back on for that part.

Fucking Neil and his fucking mouth that was able turn any fight that was pointed at him to someone else.

"And I'm still waiting for a thank you," Neil said. He slanted a look at Andrew. "From both of you, to each other. You're even now, aren't you? So why can't you just wipe the slate clean and start over? Why do you have to drag it out another three years when you can fix it right now?"

"You don't know anything," Aaron said, low and acidic.

"You don't want me to be right, because if I am it's your fault she's dead."

Andrew finally joined the argument. "No. It is always going to be her fault."

"She didn't kill herself, Andrew," Aaron said, savage with grief.

Andrew flicked him a cool look. "I told her what would happen if she raised her hand again. She had no right to look so surprised."

"Oh, Jesus," the druggie said. "Did you just—?"

Wymack pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled noisily. "Could you at least let us leave the room before you confess?"

Aaron glanced from Wymack to the upperclassmen, then turned back on Andrew. He switched to German and said, "That's not why you did it. Don't lie to me."

"She was nothing and no-one to me," Andrew said. "Why else would I have killed her?"

It took Aaron a minute to find his voice again. He still sounded angry, but there was a muted edge to his, "You wouldn't even look at me. You wouldn't say a word to me unless I said something first. I'm not psychic. How was I supposed to know?"

"Because I made you a promise," Andrew said. "I did not forget it just because you chose not to believe me. I did what I said I would do, and fuck you for expecting anything else."

He wasn’t even aware that he was squeezing his thigh like it was a neck to broke. He wasn’t aware of anyone else in the room, but him and his brother who the monster wanted dead now. He was so angry. He had no idea why he refused to reach for his knives. The ugly, misleading voice in his head just shouted, “It’s not worth it. He isn’t worth the fight.” And he wasn’t, Andrew knew the voice is not wrong.

The moment he let go of his thigh, Neil’s hand was in front of his face, blocking his view. Andrew slapped his head to the boy on his right, and just the sight of those blue eyes were enough to shut the door on the monster. It was still there, raging around, but Andrew was in control again. He wasn’t grateful for the help.

They were out of the stadium in a couple of minutes after that, but Andrew had a hard time looking at any of them at the moment. Fortunately, Aaron at least decided to save them from his annoying company with climbing into the back of the druggie’s rented truck. He took them back to the Tower, but when the exy one wanted out of the car, he grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“We’re not going in there.”

As Neil and his cousin were out of the car already, Andrew just backed the car out of the parking lot, and headed toward the interstate. The exy one only talked when they didn’t exit I-85 in Charlotte to go to Columbia.

“Is it pointless to ask where are we going?”

Andrew just nodded, and the exy one went back to his brand new e-book reader which he swore he hated because he preferred real books, but still owned and used nonstop since buying it in New York during Christmas.

Atlanta’s roads were pretty crazy as it was only 3pm on a Saturday, but Andrew wasn’t the type to get mad over meaningless things like people with bad driving skills. He was aimlessly driving through the city when noticed that one shop. It had a huge crown logo on the building that only had glass walls that shone in the winter sunlight like everything inside was on fire. It looked fucking cool, and he was in a bad mood, so… why the fuck not? He made a U-turn, causing others to horn at them and possibly swear, but he couldn’t care less.

“What the fuck, Andrew?!” The exy one dropped his e-book reader and bumped his head to the window. Andrew still did not care.

“We’re buying a new car.”

Not even getting to know that the symbol of the company wasn’t a crown but a trident could get him change his mind now that the impulse buying gene was in action. It wasn’t like he wanted a crown, just for a moment it seemed like a funny way to mock the king. The moment was gone, anyway, so he checked out the selection than picked the one model that could fit five people but still wasn’t too huge. Owning a car that you hardly could see out from in the driving seat wasn’t on his list of desired things.

They were gone for almost five hours, and it was completely dark by the time he parked the car under a street lamp in the lot by the Tower. He considered lighting a cigarette, but he decided it could wait a little. He bid farewell to the exy one on their floor, and continued up to the roof. He found the door open, which would have put a frown on his face if he could care enough. He just hoped the half bottle of whisky he left up their two days ago was still untouched.

It was, as the uninvited guest ended up to be Neil. “Hey! You were gone long,” he said after Andrew sat down next to him by the edge. He didn’t bother to answer just put a cigarette in his mouth, and one to Neil’s held out hand. “That new car seems expensive again.”

Andrew’s eyes were already on the vehicle that was perfectly visible from there. It looked pretty fucking cool if he wanted to be really honest. He just shrugged as answer. He was clenching on his keychain in the pocket of his coat, but couldn’t ignore the tickling that other one in his jeans seemed to be sending to his thigh.

Neil awkwardly cleared his throat after the cigarette in his hand burnt down to the butt. “So, um, can I ask you something?”

“Already did.”

“Haha,” he said with a half-smile, then interlocked his fingers in his lap. “Can I ask you something else that is not this question?”

“I hardly doubt you’d listen to my negative answer, so whatever.”

“Where did all that anger go earlier?”

Andrew tensed up right away. “Alright, the answer is no.” Neil was watching him so far, but now looked back forward. Andrew couldn’t ease back until it was sure the younger one understood this conversation wasn’t going anywhere.

“I wanted to thank you.” Now he leaned back, propping himself up on his arms, and looked up at the sky.

Andrew pondered whether it would be a touchy topic again or not, then said, “Can you not?”

Neil scoffed. “If you don’t demand me not to, then I can’t not.” As Andrew for some weird reasons he refused to think about remained silent, Neil continued, “I talked about you two should say your thank you-s to each other so high and mighty, like I have nothing to be grateful for, it was stupid.” Andrew was looking down to the darkness but felt Neil’s eyes on his nape like two hands that were pushing him down to fall deeper and deeper. “Thank you for letting me stay.” There was a short pause. “You gave me a key and called it home. You gave me this place to turn it into a home that I never had before. Thank you. For putting your trust in me.”

Andrew crocked his head to the left. The tension in his back felt like pain.

“I won’t disappoint you.”

“Is that a promise?” he asked on a low, tight voice.

“Yes.”

“What do you want for it?”

Neil scoffed. “Nothing.”

Now Andrew turned his head. “That’s not how it works.”

Neil was smiling. “It is.”

“It’s just empty words for me then.”

“Maybe. Maybe it is for now. But I’ll prove you wrong.”

“Stop looking at me like that.” Andrew put his hand on Neil’s eyes. “I am not your answer, and you sure as fuck aren’t mine.” As Neil’s smile only widened, Andrew growled. “Go back inside.”

Neil stood up without any protest. Andrew hoped the conversation is over. However, Neil just had to push him one more time. “Thank you for making me into something,” he said after turning away, barely audible. Andrew screamed in his mind as the falling feeling escalated.

“I hate you so much,” he muttered into the nothing.

///

Neil found his suite empty when he got back. Actually, he hadn’t seen Matt or the girls ever since they arrived back from the talk. Neil left for a run after Andrew went away with Kevin, and Matt didn’t follow him back to their room. He came back, and the older guy was still gone. Neil wondered if they decided to avoid him for today because they needed time to sort their feelings out or not.

As he already showered after the run, he went to the bedroom, and even though it was only after six, he climbed into his bed. It was a nerve-racking day and it left him there feeling exhausted.

He was staring at the ceiling, still feeling Andrew’s warm hand on his face. Still smelling the smoke on his skin. He quite liked the cigarette’s smell on Andrew’s hand. He was sure it was a weird thing to like, especially as he never had been much fond of it on his own.

He felt tired, but that was just the curtain trying to hide everything else behind it.

Neil was… happy. Cautiously optimistic. Not nearly enough vigilant. And awed.

These people just amazed him with their kindness so much that it scared him a little. Except Aaron, all of them voted for his stay immediately even though he told them everything. Told them he was lying to their faces ever since they knew each other. Even though he said, he wasn’t sure about anything regarding himself except that he loved exy and he loved being here. Even though Neil Josten was just a lie that he wished to live no matter what, because going back to be Nathaniel Wesninski wasn’t an option.

Last night when Andrew told Neil he wasn’t trusting him, he felt like everything was over. Losing Andrew’s trust hurt more than it should have. Or not. Maybe it hurt just as much as it had to. Neil wasn’t sure about anything. Especially about how he stood on the Andrew question. Or that there was an Andrew question or not.

He had a lot to sort out. The thought of a future scared him just as much as his father used to. He was nineteen years and one day old, but felt like a new born baby. The future ahead of him could be endless now.

He pulled his pillow on his head, but the smile wouldn’t disappear from his face. Neither did the feeling and smell of Andrew’s hand on it.

The next morning started off just as overwhelmingly as the previous day ended. When Neil went up to his school bag to finally start the homework he had been ignoring so far this weekend – he had good reasons, okay? – he found his keys on the top of his books. Just a look was enough to see there was something odd about them. There was a new one on the ring.

Neil stared at the bunch for a long time before touching the newly added one. It was a car key with a silver trident on the black handle. Neil stroked it gently, then pushed one of the buttons. The blade flipped open, making the other keys jingle in a cheerful tone. Neil’s fingers ran over the holes on the blade like he was already ready to memorize the shapes. Actually, he was.

Studying was so not happening that morning either.

“Thank you,” he wrote to Andrew half an hour later. He didn’t get an answer, but that meant nothing.

He felt good even on Monday after this. Then he went to get his make-up from Allison after morning practice, and the girl just had to ruin it all.

“So. You’re coming out with me on Thursday night.” Neil frowned and she slapped her hand on his forehead for it. “Don’t do that.”

“What are we doing on Thursday?”

“Meeting my annoying cousin for dinner.”

Neil couldn’t help to frown again. “Why am I needed for that?”

“Because I can’t go without a date, that’d make me look like lame as she always brings someone, too.”

“I’m not sure I follow, Allison.”

“You don’t need to. I already bought your outfit. Just wear it on Thursday and look stunning.”

“You are kidding, right?”

The girl grimaced at his obtuse reactions. “No.” As Neil wanted to protest, she just ran the brush she was holding all over his face in a quick way. “You own me one, Josten.”

That made Neil shut up. And tensed. And nervous. And pushed him very near to a panic attack.

“Oh my god, you are ridiculous. I meant for doing your make-up for weeks, idiot.” She rolled her eyes, then finally closed her make-up box with a firm smack. The conversation was over.

Neil hoped she was joking even during practice on Thursday, however, she came up to him on their floor in front of everyone, and said, “We are leaving at 7:30.”

Dan added after a laughter, “That means 7:45, Neil.”

“Shut up!” Allison retorted, then stormed into their room.

“What just happened?” Nicky asked way too curious.

Neil felt his face burning, so he just turned around and disappeared, but still heard Matt answering, “They have a date.”

Neil was furiously puffing around in the bedroom, throwing his brand new shirt and suit around like they personally harmed him when Matt appeared in the door. The older guy leaned on the frame, and folded his arms in front of his chest. And he was grinning so wildly that Neil threw his – also brand new – shoe at him.

Matt just laughed. “Hi. Is there some problem?”

Neil glared at him. “I hate you.”

“I love you, too.”

“Why can’t she bring someone else? Anyone else? Why does it have to be me?” Matt just shrugged and kept grinning. “Why don’t you go with her?”

“Hey! I’m not going on dates with other girls. I have my own.” Matt failed so badly to act hurt because of the accusation.

“This is not a date.”

“I know. But we’ll treat it as one forever, be prepared.”

Matt stepped out as another shoe flew his way the next second. Neil shut the door, then started to undress. This was going to be the worst night ever, and he couldn’t believe there is no exiting it. First of all, he didn’t want to meet any new people. And second, he still hardly could tolerate being alone with Allison in the first place.

His phone buzzed in his jeans before he could have kicked it off. “I cant believe u’r swinging the catty bitch way in the end!!!!” Even Matt could hear the angry groan that left Neil’s throat at that message.

Half an hour later when he was ready to leave the room with a still grinning Matt on the couch, he found Andrew in the hall.

“Oh, great,” Neil growled. “You don’t need to comment on my misery, I already got enough, thanks.”

Andrew’s face was like a sculpture. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Neil snorted. “That makes the two of us.”

“Where are you going?”

“To some fancy restaurant in Charlotte.” Neil pointed at himself with a grimace. “I haven’t worn a suit since–“ He thought for a second. “Ever.”

“This is a fucking horrible idea.”

Neil narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I already agreed to that.” He dropped his shoulders, then sighed exasperatedly. “Do you wanna come along?” Andrew looked at him like he just went completely mental. “I can’t back out of it now. I know it’s stupid and dangerous.”

You are stupid and dangerous.” He turned around, shaking his head.

“Andrew–“ The shutting of their door cut Neil off. “Oh, just great.” He knocked on the girls’ door wishing he had a time machine so he could just skip to three hours later.

They were in Charlotte by 8:30pm, parking behind the restaurant in Allison’s new Porsche. Neil quiet uncomfortably checked his watch for the third time before saying, “Aren’t we going in?”

Allison looked up from her mirror which she was checking her make-up in. “Thought you got your mouth sewed.” There was a mocking smile on her face. “Not yet, we are on time.”

Neil raised an eyebrow. “And that’s a problem how?”

“Sarah hates it when I’m late, so I’m always late.”

Neil thought Allison was late all the time anyway, but hushed away that comment. “Okay, can you finally tell me, why am I here?”

“Because you were the only available pretty boy around.”

“I heard that already, but I find it hard to be satisfied with it,” Neil said on a grumpy tone.

Allison shrugged. “That’s the answer, though.” She took Neil’s chin, then turned his head to the left then the right. “You look fine, try not to touch your eyes too much. We don’t need the whore-ish look tonight.”

Please.” He got a questioning expression. “Give me some details to go on with, for god’s sake!”

The girl smacked her tongue. “I need to meet with my cousin every half a year for a dinner, so she can spy on me for my mother. I can’t come alone, because that’s just utterly lame, obviously. So I need a date at these occasions, but this year I don’t feel the tolerance in me to parade around with some douchebag, so I picked you instead. Be proud. Not many people make the cut, I have high standards.”

“You are the snobbest person I’ve ever met.” And his mother used to be one of a kind.

“Thank you.” Allison nodded like she really took that as a compliment, then checked Neil’s watch. “Okay. Let’s go, fifteen minutes of waiting is enough.”

Neil shook his head, but obediently got out of the car. “I meant to ask before we left the Tower, aren’t you cold?”

Allison was wearing a pink dress that barely covered her thighs, and a fluffy coat that seemed more fashionable than warm, even though it was freezing. The girl sent him a condescending look, then linked their arms together. “You are a lost case, Josten.”

“Why?”

“It’s nothing. At least you just won me 10 bucks.” Allison smirked.

“What did you bet on again?” Neil grimaced.

“Matt said you’ll at least compliment me on how breathtakingly beautiful I am. I said you will make some comment about how light I dressed.”

Neil grunted. “Sorry. You look great.”

“I know.”

Neil kind of expected Allison’s cousin to look just like her, tall and coldly elegant, but he was wrong. ‘Sarah’ was a short girl who was a lot more cute and smiley. The only resembles was their blond hairs, but the other girl had hers curled and it barely reached her shoulders.

“Hi, stranger!”

Allison’s smile was icy as they hugged with her cousin. “Hello.” She let go of Sarah like she had some infection. “This is Neil.”

Sarah covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. Neil had goosebumps looking at her as they shook hands. “He looks better than the last one, Jam.”

Neil saw the wince on his teammates’ face at that name. He assumed it was the name and not the mention of Seth, because Neil just couldn’t imagine Seth ever meeting this girl.

The guy with Sarah was introduced as fiancé, which Allison seemed to be completely uninterested in but that didn’t make the girl lose enthusiasm. They listened to her bragging about their engagement party for a good fifteen minutes. Neil was battling a headache. Every move or expression of Sarah was meant to be cute, but everything she said sounded supercilious or forthright mean.

“But that’s enough about us. Tell me about yourself, Jam! I can see you got bigger again.”

Allison was holding a glass of wine so steadily that the liquid hardly moved even at that outrageous comment. “Yeah, I can lift more than my bodyweight now,” Allison answered with a piercing smile.

“Oh? Which is what? Like around 180 lbs?”

Neil couldn’t believe his ears. He was looking at Allison like he expected her to explode any seconds. The girl appeared to be just as cold as ever.

“159 lbs at the moment, but I wish I had so much muscle on me. It’d be so easy to just break some necks.” She had a moment of pause. “On the court.”

Sarah’s laughter sounded like a bunch of bells ringing annoyingly out of sync. “Always so funny. Isn’t she Neil? I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy if your girlfriend was not just taller but so much heavier than you, right?”

Neil slowly put down the menu that he pretended to read so far even though Allison already ordered for both of them, then just simply let his father’s snarl spread out on his face. “Actually, it would be quiet alright, Sarah. I don’t think the weight of a person, or how muscular they are matters much in a relationship.” He pretended to think for a second. “However, their manners. Oh, that is very important, you see. And at the moment by this table, Allison has the best of those.”

Sarah’s fake cuteness was blown away for a moment revealing an angry shadow, but it was back the next like nothing happened. “How protective of you. That’s really sweet,” she said on a smarmy voice.

“I didn’t mean to be protective. Allison doesn’t need anyone to protect her.” He leant back on the chair, and folded his arms to show he was out of the conversation.
Allison was stroking the rim of her glass quietly, but Neil could have sworn he saw a smirk on her bright red lips before she looked up again at her cousin.

“By the way, we are already sure to proceed to death matches in the championship. We’re kicking ass this year thanks to Neil,” she said.

“So vulgar, Jam,” Sarah giggled. “That’s a good thing, I assume.”

“It is.”

For some miraculous reasons, Allison managed to keep the conversation mainly on exy even though Sarah was desperate to get personal information out of her. After like half an hour Neil was having a small chat with Sarah’s fiancé about the Big Three – he was a Penn Sate fan as he went to college there – and the fortunate – unfortunate for the guy – occurrence that they were all in one bracket this year.

The dinner was a lot more tolerable than Neil expected it to be, but still not something he wanted to ever repeat, he concluded after they parted ways with the pair. Allison seemed a little bit tipsy as they walked up to the car, again, with linked arms.

“Isn’t she horrible?” she asked with a giggle following. “Like she is straight out of Mean Girls.”

“I don’t know what’s that, but she is definitely a mean girl,” Neil answered, shaking his head.

“You don’t know what Mean Girls is?! Oh, boy.” Allison seemed to be personally offended. “The best movie ever. We’re watching it this weekend!” She opened up the door of the passenger seat, then stopped and looked over at Neil. “Actually, you could be a character in that movie, too.”

Neil had no idea why that was so funny, but it kept Allison entertained for half of the ride.

When they were already in Palmetto State, she quieted down, then said, “So. Will someone go with you to the feds?”

Neil had no idea where the ‘so’ came from. He cocked his head to the right and shrugged. “I guess so.” His first thought was Wymack.

“The monster?”

Neil peeked over at the girl who was watching him with a serious expression. “Maybe.” Actually Andrew was his minus first thought. He wanted to ask Andrew ever since his birthday.

“Good. He’ll make sure they give you back to us.”

Neil held the wheel with a little more strength after that comment. They were just about to park when he finally gathered the courage to ask something else.

“Your family, ehm, they don’t know about… your relationship with–?” he stuttered, feeling ridiculous.

Allison shook her head. “No. They wouldn’t have known about it even if he lives, and we end up permanent.”

“I see.” Neil wanted to kick himself for that horrible conclusion, but he had no idea how to be comforting, or just simply better at talking. Why was this so much easier with Andrew? They got out of the car, and it was just an instinct to look up to the roof. He thought he saw a lighter.

He escorted Allison right to their door, waited until she went inside, then turned around. He just felt like it’s now or never to ask Andrew about the FBI. Going up there had nothing to do with he wanted to be there with Andrew. That he hated the thought of him being alone up there.

“So, were you spying on us?” he asked with a cocky smile after hopping down next to the older one.

Andrew just raised an eyebrow at the accusation, then held out the pack of cigarette.

“I swear, at some point I saw a black, very expensive looking car driving by the restaurant with a glimpse of a blond head.” Neil felt so giggly.

“You weren’t even sitting by the window,” Andrew muttered back, refusing to even look to his direction.

“Huh! How do you know that?” He laughed. Then laughed some more.

“Are you drunk?”

“Don’t you know? You must have been seeing me drinking my soda.” Neil tried to clear his throat to prevent to laugh some more, but it did not help.

“You’re annoying tonight.”

“I’m always annoying. You can’t stop mentioning that.” Andrew did the throat cleaning instead of him. “I had a lot better night than I expected it to be.”

“Is that so?” That bored tone.

“It was still bad, Allison’s cousin is a horrible person, but it wasn’t just bad.” Neil just couldn’t shut up. “Her fiancé, oh god, I just can’t remember his name, because she just referred at him as ‘my fiancé’ all night long. So, he is a Penn State fan, and we had a good talk about how much of a chance they have to not be the one of the Big Three who falls.”

“Exy,” Andrew muttered. “What else was I expecting? Only exy can make you this hyper.”

Neil smirked. “Were you expecting something else?”

“I’ll push you down.”

“I’ll drag you with me.”

Andrew took a deep breath. “Why are you here?”

“I wanted to ask you to come with me to the feds.” Finally. It was out. “I could do it alone. Wymack will probably want to come with me, though. But I could do it alone. It’s just I thought you could also come. Just to be there. I know you hate pigs, so it’s not–“

Neil shut up as that hand slapped on his mouth. It was that smell again. Neil knew he’d be able to smell it for days.

“It’s not up to you to ask.”

Neil frowned. “Hm?”

“It never was a question whether I’m going or not.”

“Oh.” Andrew’s palm wasn’t just warm, but also felt dry under Neil’s lips. And now it disappeared. “Thank you.”

“You are saying that annoyingly too much.”

“Not my problem.” Neil shrugged.

Then they went quiet. It was freezing, but Neil was wearing the coat he got from Nicky for Christmas, and the trouser Allison bought wasn’t that light material either, so it was all fine. Sitting next to Andrew on the roof on a Thursday night was all just fine.

The following month was anything but fine, though. It was a hectic mess that Neil wanted behind himself more than anything. They didn’t have a match for two weeks after beating Arkansas on the 26th of January. Neil went to the police with Wymack and Andrew the following Monday, and didn’t come back until Friday. However, when he did so, he wasn’t a lie anymore. The Foxes threw him a birthday party on Saturday no matter how much he insisted that day doesn’t need to be remembered. He was touched, though, and he knew he would never forget it. Neil Josten was officially born on the 2nd of February.

And it was all over the news. The feds kept him for all those days because they had too much to argue about. The first part which was the only one that ended pretty quickly was about whether he should stay in Palmetto or go into hiding in the Witness Program. The bigger problem came after that when they wanted to use Neil and all of the Foxes as baits. They wanted to keep these meetings top secret, so his father’s men would not feel threatened to come after him. Neil was willing to play that part until it became clear just how much danger the Foxes would be in. He just couldn’t take that risk. In the end they used the same, simple tactic what Andrew wanted Neil to use from the beginning: the more you are watched, the more trouble for the enemy to attack.

They spread the news, Neil had interviews, the FBI announced how satisfying Neil’s help had been, and how they promised to hunt down every member of his father’s gang to keep him safe.

It was an exhausting two weeks of chaos but they won their first death match in the meanwhile, and Neil was ready to do anything for the sake of his new life. And to protect the Foxes.

He did just that when on a snowy afternoon Ichirou Moriyama came for him. His uncle told him it could happen, but Neil almost forgot about it so the meeting shocked him. Kengo died a week before, and they had Jean who Riko almost beat to death after it in Palmetto for six days by that time. The talk was one of the most terrifying experiences of Neil’s life. However, it ended in their favor and nothing else mattered. Ichirou knew already that Neil didn’t give away anything about the Moriyamas as he had just enough men in the FBI, but he did not promise to help with hunting down Lola or his father’s other men. As he said, those rats could do no harm to him anymore.

By the time February ended, the riot around Neil started to transform into a riot around the whole of the team as it became clear that they could go to semifinals. They were all happy and spent most of their time all together. It was a weird experience that the upperclassmen – except Allison – and Nicky welcomed with open arms. Andrew told Neil this was all about him doing his ‘job’, but Neil had a hard time believing him. Having the team together meant Kevin was satisfied, Nicky was joyful, and Neil was, yes, safe, but Neil knew he could have done this differently if being with the girls and Matt was such a burden. The only problem was Aaron, really, and it bugged Neil too much.

It wasn't like he couldn't catch Andrew alone any other times, they actually spent lots of nights together on the roof, doing nothing but sitting next to each other in silence. However, Neil just finished class, and he knew Andrew had physics in the same building, and according to his schedule, he also was done for the day just half an hour after Neil. He went and got a coffee in the cafeteria downstairs, then went back up to the classroom.

People started to pour out a few minutes later, Andrew hardly noticeable amongst all the Giants, but Neil was very good at paying attention to the silent shadow that was Andrew Minyard. And it seemed Andrew was the same with him, because their eyes met the moment Neil noticed him.

Andrew had a frown, and didn't even bother to stop, so Neil had to catch up to him in the end, because he had to gather his coat, bag and the coffees. "Hey." He held up the cup to him, but Andrew ignored him. "It's a latte with four packs of sugar, accept it or I'm throwing it out, nobody would drink this horrible syrup."

Fortunately, the mention of sugar helped, Andrew took the cup. They were outside in just a couple of seconds, and he lit a cigarette before tasting the coffee. As he sipped another one after the first, Neil assumed he found it pleasing.

"What do you want?"

"My class just ended before yours, thought we can walk back together."

Andrew raised an eyebrow. "Don't lie to me."

"Partial truth is not a lie."

"It is in my dictionary."

Neil grimaced. "I just wanted to talk about-"

They were interrupted by the group of guys behind them. Or Neil was as they weren't really talking to them. Only about them.

"Look. The faggot and gangster are teaming up."

Neil was getting used to be called that or worse. He was the talk of the town, it was getting old. But the worst was just about to come.

"It seems the pussy just loves fuck ups."

"Bet the butcher rapes him every night, and he loves it."

Everything went dark in less than a heartbeat. Neil saw dark, almost black blood as he turned around. He threw the coffee cup to the pavement. The group was a few steps behind, but he was in the face of the guy who stood in the middle before he could think about what he was doing.

"What did you just fucking say?" He growled into the guy's face after grabbing his coat and yanking on it so their heads were on the same level. "What did you just fucking say?"

The others started to laugh, and the guy smirked too. "That the faggot must love your dick, he loves it rough after all."

Neil was lifting his arm, and he wasn't going to just punch this asshole. He wanted to break his neck. But he was stopped. Andrew was squeezing his wrist, then he twisted his arm behind Neil's back in a very painful way. He said nothing, not even a word to those fuckers, just pushed Neil aside. He didn't let go until they were meters away from the group that continued laughing at them.

Neil shook his arm, then with a furious scowl turned to face Andrew. The older boy's indifferent face just added to his anger. "You should have let me kill that fucking asshole!"

Andrew seemed unconcerned by his words. And he started to walk away. Neil almost made the mistake of pulling him back. Just a drop of his sane self was still around.

"How could you just walk away from them? They deserve to get punished for that. Nobody should say shit like that! How could you just walk away?!"

"I don't give a fuck, that's how."

Neil gritted his teeth, he tried for a good three seconds to swallow back his retort, but he just couldn't. "Yes, you just don't, right? They can just talk shit about you and you don't give a fuck. Don't give me that shit! You don't care about your future, your wellbeing, what people say about you; it's about you and you don't care? Are you lying to me or yourself too? You are bottling it up like how you did with Aaron, shutting that all away so you can hurt yourself later! You give a shit! And that's how it has to be!"

"Are you finished?" At one point they stopped, Neil was standing half a step away from Andrew, blocking his way.

"No, I'm not. Give a fuck! Call them out on saying those things, care for yourself, goddamit! Not for just us, do shit for yourself! Protect yourself the way you protect us. Stop shutting everything away. Change things. Start with your brother. Let him go, so you can fix your relationship and you won't lose him."

Andrew cocked his head to the right. "Is that what's this about?" He pushed Neil's chest so hard he stumbled back. "Did you come here to tell me this? Who is lying to whom? You want to fix 'us' so your fucking team can work better."

"No!" Neil shouted at his back. "Don't give me that! I'm not telling you to do it for me. You need to do it for yourself." Andrew just ignored him and continued his fast pace toward the tower. "You will lose him when the three years is up, even though you don't want that."

"I want nothing."

"Liar. You are a bigger liar than me. You are a worse liar than me. At least I'm not lying to myself."

Neil stopped chasing him after that. It was pointless. He was so annoying. Everything was so annoying. He didn't go back to the tower. He went to the stadium, and after changing into his gear, he just ran.

It took him twenty more minutes to realize, Andrew protected him again. From doing the stupidest thing possible. Neil could stay in the university only on the terms of, not causing any trouble in his remaining four and a half years. They would have expelled him for beating someone up.

Neil got even angrier and he had to speed up. He hoped Andrew is annoyed at the pain in his thighs.

//

Andrew was sitting on the floor, legs crossed, back to the wall, and his eyes were closed for a good two minutes already as he tried to calm his breathing. They just had an almost two hours long session with the rainbow girl, and he came out of it exhausted and covered in bleeding scars and colorful bruises.

“Your head really wasn’t here today,” the rainbow girl said. She was sitting in front of him. “Sorry,” she added after Andrew hissed, because she pressed the gauze with the disinfectant into one of the wounds too strongly.

“Maybe,” Andrew muttered.

“Or did you just want to beat Neil up indirectly for the fight?”

The boy cracked an eyes open at that. “Since when?” he asked. The part that the rainbow girl already knew about their fight wasn’t surprising, they did it in front of like a hundred of people.

“For a while? For sure only since Neil told us his story.”

Andrew had no intention of saying anything. First of all, because he made a promise not to. The other ten reasons weren’t all that important so he pushed them away.

“You talked about your soulmate had been giving you a hard time for years,” Renee continued, as she didn’t need Andrew’s words to understand him. She was already putting bandages on Andrew’s cuts. “I always try to watch you during practice or games, because you are just so good, I always hope to learn something. Ever since Neil is here, you were acting a little strange. Shaking your hand or legs like it suddenly started to hurt even though nothing happened to you. Rubbing your shoulder, sometimes just wincing. At first I just assumed it’s your soulmate having a rough time as usual, but then I noticed these cases happen mostly after Neil was roughly blocked or kicked over. When he told us about his life, I got sure.”

Andrew still said nothing, but now he was looking at the bandages on his hands. They had cats, dogs and other small animals drawn on them in all the colors of the rainbow.

“Neil is just trying to care for you,” the rainbow girl said on a low, gentle voice.

“I don’t need anyone to care for me.”

She had a sad smile on her face that reminded Andrew of the cheeky one. “We don’t need them, but letting them do it still is always an option. It doesn’t make you weak, but it can make you stronger.”

Andrew got up, and without a word walked away. When he reached the lift, he decided to not go up. He ended up in the car, at first just aimlessly driving with the engine’s humming as his only company. Way too many things changed way too fast, and honestly, he was pretty bad with changings. Especially if it involved the change of his rules of how to live this shitty life.

He was going against everything he decided not to do very long years ago. Never to trust. Never to expect anything from anyone. Never to want more than nothing.

He was with Neil during that one week when he fought tooth and nail to keep his life. To keep his friends safe. Andrew was sitting next to him, listening to him being passionate, wanting so many things with such intensity that it left Andrew there feeling shallow. How could he ever let himself deceived that Neil was just like him? That was he thought about the most, but he had to admit, Neil wasn’t lying when he said he was nothing. Neil just changed. Neil changed into something, Neil was still changing, putting himself together piece by piece day after day, all in front of Andrew. He hated Neil for that.

He hated to watch that process, because it gave him hope and he was defenseless against that feeling. Hope was a cruel fucking bitch, and it avoided Andrew ever since that woman betrayed him. Andrew was so sure he murdered both of them, tore them into tiny parts, burnt them to ashes that he let the sea of California wash away. But hope was back, it was lurking around in him, playing this hide-and-seek that Andrew was losing so far.

All that was Neil’s fault. Neil was so close to be out of that hole that his life threw him into that Andrew was sure he won’t fall back again. Neil was going to be fine. And Andrew was hanging from a cliff behind him, still holding on with just one hand, but he felt the darkness tagging on his ankles, wanting to pull him back to rock bottom. All the reasons not to change, not to start wanting was pulling him back, and it seemed so easy to just let them win. He just had to let go of that cliff.

Why couldn’t he do it?

After buying a bottle of whisky and five packs of cigarettes, he went back to the Tower. It was already past nine, he was gone a long time, and he should have gone to offer Kevin the ride for the night practice, but just the look of their door repulsed him. If they want to go, they can always borrow the druggie’s car. He just went up to the roof.

His phone buzzed in his jeans the moment he sat down. It wasn’t the first time that evening, he skipped practice all together after all. He finally fished it out of his pants, then hit the turn off button with just a glance at the screen. He couldn’t care less.

He didn’t want to care less.

But he was failing. He was constantly failing.

“Can I sit down?”

Andrew blew out the smoke peeked up at Neil. “Can you?” he asked back mockingly.

“May I?” Neil asked back on the same tone.

“Whatever.”

“That is not an answer.”

Andrew refused to click his tongue but he put out the cigarette with such force that it tore to pieces. “You may.”

Neil hopped down, but he pulled his legs up to his chest and hugged them instead of starting to swing them like he usually did. Andrew was very satisfied with his clear nervousness.

“I didn’t want that conversation to go down like it happened.”

Andrew grimaced. “I didn’t want that conversation to go down any way.”

“What a shock,” Neil muttered. “Can I– May I start again?”

“If I say no, will you just go away?”

“Yes.”

“Then you may not.”

There was a second of silence, then Neil shook his head, and started to get up. Without even a word, he just walked away. Andrew heard the creak of the door, and that sound was like a knife cutting his brain into two.

“Oh, fuck you.”

He jumped to his feet, knocking over the whisky bottle as he bolted to the entrance. He caught Neil on the half floor between the roof and the fourth floor. Neil turned around as he heard the jingle of Andrew’s chain and the rattle of his boots. Andrew pressed him up on the bars of the window, feeling the pain in his head as Neil’s bumped into the metal too hard. He grabbed Neil’s neck with both of his hands and kissed him.

The two seconds until Neil kissed back felt like two years of suffering. Andrew couldn’t count or just think of anything else than the sensation of those lips and tongue fighting with his own, but it was too short. Too short before his brain kicked in. He tore himself apart from Neil, stepped back to the wall with his fist hitting it so hard the pain finally made him aware of everything.

Like Neil’s panting, the way he licked his lower lip then touched it unconsciously. The blush on his face under the freckles. His eyes being shades darker than usually. The mistake he just made.

“I won’t be like them. I won’t let you let me be,” he muttered. He just lost control. He just attacked Neil. None of this was right. “I hate you so much.”

But he hated himself a lot more. He ran up the twelve steps, back to the roof. He wanted to hit someone. Himself. He wanted to hurt someone. Himself. He wanted to kill someone. Him

“Andrew!” Neil shouted behind him when there was only a meter between him and the edge. “Stop it! Whatever you are thinking, stop it!”

Neil caught up to him, but didn’t touch him, just stopped between him and the edge. It took a lot of power to tear his eyes away from the ground where he could see the darkness that surrounded the building behind Neil’s feet.

As their eyes met with Neil the thoughts just overflew his mind.

“We didn’t choose this, but we need to workaround it.”
“If they killed you now, I wouldn’t have survived that.”
“If it means losing you, then no.”
“But you were the one I kept alive for.

All the nightmares about Andrew getting hurt and Neil suffering over it like he was dying, too.
All the thank you he got from Neil in the past weeks.
“I won’t disappoint you.”
“But what if
I disappoint you?”

Neil interrupted his thoughts. “You did nothing wrong.”

Andrew gritted his teeth. “I don’t go around kissing people without their consent.”

“Then ask for my consent now,” he said quietly. They were on the roof now, so Andrew couldn’t see his face. He was wondering if Neil was still blushing under all those annoying freckles or not.

“That’s not how it works.”

“You and your rules,” he shook his head a little. “Fine then. May I kiss you?”

“If I say no, will you just go away?” Neil went away. Neil understood how important a no was. Andrew lost his control because this boy was so impossibly everything he could have wanted if he ever started to want anything. But–

“You don’t swing.”

“I was probably wrong about that. I definitely felt like swinging off the edge of the world just now.”

Andrew shut his eyes for a second, then grabbed Neil’s coat by the collar and pulled him toward himself. He stepped back until they were far away from the edge. “Yes.”

That second kiss was certainly a lot longer than the first, yet it felt like seconds again. Andrew noticed Neil had his hands behind his back when they parted. He hated him so much. But he wanted him more.

There was this small lamp above the door to the stairs, and as they were closer to it now, Andrew faintly saw Neil’s face. He was smiling so widely. He wanted him so frighteningly much.

“This day is a mess,” Neil said with a short chuckle. “You really want out of that conversation, don’t you?”

Andrew made a face. “You have until I finish my smoke.”

“Ugh. That’s like ten seconds in your pace!”

They sat down again, safely leaving a good two feet between themselves – Neil was swinging his legs this time. It was very necessary. Andrew still felt that tug in his stomach that wanted him to be on top of Neil. And damn, he hardly could feel the cigarette between his lips because the sensation of Neil’s just wouldn’t leave.

“Are you getting anywhere with Aaron in therapy? That’s how I intended to start the conversation in the afternoon.”

“That wouldn’t have gotten you anywhere either.” Andrew blew out the smoke then added, “We talk.”

“That’s not bad considering he’s told me he’d never said a word in front of Dobson before.” Neil thought for a few seconds. “Everything I wanted to tell you I already did, but all of them just came out really wrong. But you need to know I meant them. I really think you can change things now.” He unconsciously touched his lips. “Maybe you are on that one already. I said start with Aaron, but you can start with me.”

Andrew looked at him with a frown.

“I’m fairly safe now. The biggest monster of my life is gone, the FBI is actually trying to help me. I have my life here. I have–” He swallowed something back. “I can have many things from now on. I don’t need your protection anymore.”

If this conversation happened in the afternoon, Andrew would have taken that as “I don’t need you anymore.” Now he had hope that gave him the power to doubt.

“I would like to stand on equal ground with you. I’d like to stand next you, so it’s not okay that you are behind me. I don’t want you to just have my back anymore.”

Neil wanted him to climb up on that cliff instead of letting go of it. Neil wanted Andrew to climb a little bit more so he could see out of that hole, too. That thought scared him to death, and if Neil wouldn’t have continued talking, Andrew knew the worst kind of voice in his head would start dragging him down.

“It’s the same with Aaron, right? He doesn’t need protection from Katelyn. That girl put up with your bullshit for more than a year already, if that doesn’t show how much she loves your brother, I don’t know what could.”

Andrew remembered the nights when he woke up at the noise of Aaron crying out in his sleep. Andrew remembered wondering how bad his brother’s nightmares were while he was in the hospital. Andrew remembered thinking about whether the Barbie helped him to get over the worst while he just went away without a word to Aaron.

Andrew remembered all the effort his brother put into his studies, the all-nighters he pulled in their last year of high school in Columbia to have a chance to get into a great university. Andrew remembered the day when he got back the letters from those universities telling him he wasn’t good enough, proving that just one year of hard work can’t be enough. Andrew remembered Aaron’s drunk outburst to Nicky that he just overheard from his own room about how it was all his shitty family’s fault that he always had to deal with other things than school.

Andrew remembered the day when Coach showed up, offering him a free ticket into Palmetto. The day when he changed that ticket to all three of them was the day when Andrew gave the biggest push to his brother to start climbing. And today was the day when he had to realize, he was the only thing that held his brother back from finishing his journey. He was the only thing threatening Aaron to fall back to rock bottom.

“I won’t say let go of Kevin right now, because he is still frightened by Riko and he would break without you, but when we beat the Ravens in the finals, you won’t be able to pretend anymore, that is a reason to live for.” Andrew’s cigarette was long gone, but his silence gave permission to Neil to not shut up. “What happens then? What will you live for?”

Andrew thought he could just die then. That was sort of the future vision he had when let his guard down and thought about it.

“You won’t be dead,” Neil said like he read his mind. “You won’t be dead for a long time, Andrew. Why not make something out of your time?”

“Like what?” he asked on a bored tone. He was fidgeting with the whisky bottle’s cap since he put out his cigarette.

“You won’t like my answer.”

“I don’t like anything you say,” he answered, then looked over at Neil. “Exy.”

“Yes, exy, but exy could be just a way to do several other things. If you become pro with us, we could travel, we could do whatever we want. You could think of playing exy as just a price for everything else we do.”

We?” he echoed with a mocking tone. “You use that plural like something is decided here.”

“Well, I’m open for discussion if you are open for plural.” That cocky smile.

“I hate you.”

Neil scoffed. “I know.”

Andrew put down the whisky bottle, but not between them but on his other side. “Yes or no?” he muttered staring into Neil’s excitedly shining eyes.

“Yes?” he asked back after a nerve-racking second.

The two feet between them weren’t safe at all in the end. It was a distance that Andrew came over very quickly. He put his hand on Neil’s nape – oh god, he wanted to do that ever since it got shaved –, feeling the short hair tickling his palm, but with the other he tugged on Neil’s coat again. Neil’s mouth was open before he pressed his own on it.

They kissed, and kissed, and didn’t need to care about chilly wind that tried to prove, winter is still not over because everything felt hot inside and outside, too.

Andrew had the most annoying kind of dreams that night. Dreams about a naked chest covered in sweat, shining, looking firm, unbreakable, desirable. A shoulder covered with orange moles, and bite marks. A long, long neck tilted backwards, offered for kisses and teeth. Lips parted and dry until a cherry red tongue licked them, slowly, making him grunt, moan even with keen lust. However, that body was just out of reach, getting further and further away as he strived for it.

Andrew woke up at 4am with fire in his body. It happened before, but not this powerfully. He couldn’t even think about just letting his arousal die out on its own. He got out of bed, then went to the bathroom to take a shower. Not with cold water, though. Andrew was leaning on the cold tile, biting his lower lip and watching his hand working on his dick hard, driving him toward satisfaction that never really came. His body cooled off, but the fire inside never really went away.

When they bumped into each other with Neil the next morning and the boy asked whether the pain in his lower lip that woke him up at 4:10 was for a reason or not, Andrew almost threw him off the stairs.

He was twenty years and exactly four months old, and he still wasn’t sure he was ready to look into his future and not see dark shadows with possible deadly danger in them. And he also wasn’t ready to admit, he was way too late to think about that.

///

“You look awfully happy, turn away from me, I don’t wanna see your stupid face,” Allison growled at Neil. She just came out of the bedroom, wearing nothing else but an oversized jersey – it said Gordon ‘6’ on the back – and hopefully some underwear on. She dropped herself on the couch, Renee already made space for her head in her own lap so she now just buried her face into the other girl’s stomach. “I hate everything.”

“I know,” Renee answered with a smile, and started to stroke the girl’s hair and back.

“I won’t play tomorrow. I am unable to.”

Now Neil turned back – because yes, he did face the wall after Allison demanded it, it was easier to do what Allison wanted than not – and put down his sandwich. “What are you saying?! Of course, you are playing.”

“Who let this droid into our room? It’s programmed by Day.” She turned around, now facing Neil. “Get out!”

“He can’t. Matt and Dan are in his room.”

“Do I look like I care?”

“No, you look like a grumpy old lady,” Neil answered instead. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m on my period.”

Neil grimaced.

“Don’t you fucking dare making that face. I don’t care about your sensitive teenager boy self. Girls menstruate, get over it!”

“Sorry, Neil, Allison has a real hard time with her period.”

Neil shrugged. “I made the face, because I understand that sucks.” They both looked at him like he just said something unbelievable. “What? I lived with my mother for eight years all alone. She menstruated, believe it or not. And she was just as bitchy about it as you.”

“I can imagine it was the worst kind of inconvenience on the run,” Renee said sympathetic.

“Yeah, but it never kept her from doing what she needed in the end. So, you are not really ditching tomorrow’s game, right?” They were off against Binghamton, and they need to score at least seven points to proceed to the next round’s death match, without Allison it was impossible.

“Tell him to stop freaking out, his happily annoying face just changed to seriously annoying,” Allison muttered to Renee, then dropped on her back and pulled the older girl’s hand her stomach.

“Allison’s soulmate is a really old lady with a constantly hurting back, Neil,” she started to explain.

“Why can’t she just die already?” Allison moaned.

“That’s not nice, hun,” Renee answered her patiently, but she kept her eyes on Neil. “And while she can tolerate that pain on most days when her period hits it becomes a lot worse.”

“Everything is a lot worse when your energy is literally pouring out of you,” the blonde grumbled.

“But that doesn’t mean she would skip a game or even practice because of it. It’s just easier when you can let out the steam with some complaining,” she finished with a gentle smile.

“I see,” Neil said still frowning. He continued his late dinner, but the silence didn’t last too long.

“So, what was the smiling about?”

Allison just loved to start her sentences with mysterious so-s. “Nothing?”

“Oh, boy. Don’t even think about giving me that, I won’t stop until you tell me.”

Neil had no doubt about that. “I’m just excited about tomorrow’s game.”

“No. That wasn’t your ‘I’m high on exy’ smile,” Allison replied after turning her head on Renee’s thigh.

“She is right, Neil. You beam differently when it’s about exy.”

“I don’t beam!” he protested right away.

“Yes, you do,” Allison retorted with a grimace. “It’s like a teenage girl in unrequited love kind of beaming, but now you beam more like a girl who just hooked up with someone.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Neil answered with shaking his head.

“Look, it’s back. That annoying smile,” Allison grunted and turned back to stare at the ceiling instead.

“You look really cute with it, Neil.”

“No, he doesn’t.”

“Thanks, Renee,” Neil said “but there is no reason.”

Oh, there was. And the reason was dancing around in his stomach, so he decided to leave the last two bits of the sandwich to the morning. He was feeling pretty funny tonight. They were over the midterms after all! Neil felt he did just enough – miracle, really – and just couldn’t wait for tomorrow’s game. It was all that. And probably, just a little bit of the fact that he and Andrew kissed the week before.

“He is doing it again. Kick him out, babes, please, I can’t look at him anymore!”

Neil snorted. “Alright, alright, no need for violence. I’ll just go and see if Kevin wants to stuff some more facts about the Bearcats into my head or not.” He got up, taking his half can of soda and miserable looking sandwich with him.

“You’re too nice. It’s going to be better by tomorrow, I promise,” Renee said.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Neil answered, shaking his head at Allison’s sorry sight. “Good night!”

Knocking on the cousins’ door was a lot easier than ever before. Neil hardly been in there, really, but now he wanted to. Until Aaron answered the door.

“Oh, hey–“ The shutting of the door shut Neil up. He would have made a fist if his hands weren’t full. So he just kicked the door. “Let me in, asshole!”

“Is that Neil?!” he heard Nicky’s excited screaming from the inside. “What are you doing, Aaron? Let me get to the door! No! Neil can come here whenever he wants! Well, fuck you, too.”

It was almost interesting listening to half of that conversation. Almost.

“Hi, there!” Nicky opened up the door again, looking kind of flushed. “Come in, you are totally welcomed!”

“Yeah, I could hear that,” he answered with a grimace. He stepped inside and found Andrew in one of the beanbags, Kevin in the other, and Aaron out of sight – what a relief. “I just wanted to ask if I can crash here for a few hours or not?”

“Are the heteros at it again?” Nicky asked actually sounding disgusted.

“Yeah, and Allison is super crabby because she is on her period, so I got kicked out from their room, too.”

“Ew, TMI, Neil, I so did not need to know that.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “I could give you a very long lecture about why that comment was completely stupid and ignorant, but I doubt it would make any difference in your mind, so I’ll just skip it.”

“Aren’t you nice?” Nicky grinned.

“Will Allison be okay tomorrow?” Kevin asked looking concerned. He fooled no one.

“Renee promised she would be.”

“Great. We so need to get our shit together. These guys are good.”

“Are you watching a game?” Neil asked, then went to take a look at Kevin’s laptop. He stepped between the beanbags, weirdly aware of Andrew’s eyes on him, then startled a little when the older one stood up.

“Yeah, it’s one of their preliminary games against the Red boars.” They both looked at Andrew who went over to the window, then Kevin pointed at the abandoned beanbag. “Sit down.”

“Ah, okay. Thanks,” Neil said and finally met Andrew’s eyes. The pain in his mouth could have meant, ‘fuck off,’ but Neil interpreted it as ‘stop staring’ so he just tried to concentrate on the screen instead.

Nicky came behind Kevin, and propped himself up by his shoulders. Neil found it strange that he would be interested in a game, but then, “Oh, I can’t believe all the guys on this team. They look like freaking top models. Why can’t we have that?”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “Who cares?”

“Me!” Nicky retorted. “I mean, look at the 6 one, he is gorgeous.”

“Is he?” Neil asked with a frown.

“Shut up, Neil, you are officially considered blind.” Nicky waved him off. “And my gay-dar says he is gay. Life is freaking unfair.”

“Can you go back to your dumb movie now?” Kevin sighed.

“No. This is more fun. And Neil is here now. So, let’s talk about the 8 one, my gay-dar is reacting to him, too.”

Neil had to laugh. It was just a short one.

“What?” Nicky slapped his head to him.

“Nothing,” Neil answered.

“Are you doubting my gay-dar?” He seemed really upset about that. “Because I’m telling you, it never failed me before.”

“Is that so?” He actually had to swallow back laughing.

“Yes!” Neil bit his lips together. “Why are you laughing? Do you know something that I don’t? Tell me!”

Nicky was leaning on his beanbag now. “Yes. I know for a fact, as Kevin made sure that I know even the tiniest details of all of the Bearcats, that no. 6, Fred Williams has a girlfriend for three years now.”

Nicky shrugged. “Doesn’t mean anything.” Neil quite enjoyed seeing his pout.

“Wanna bet, we will see them make out tomorrow completely heterosexually?”

The older one narrowed his eyes. “Are you in on a bet? Who are you? You are giggling here, and acting like you have a better gay-dar than me, and now you wanna bet? What’s next? You’ll have a beer?”

Neil cocked his head to the right. “Are you offering? I might,” he shrugged.

“Oh god. Stop being cocky. It makes you even more good looking.”

“But not gorgeous?” Neil asked, then laughed again as Nicky finally walked away. Then Neil’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He fished it out, it was a message.

“we r wearing clothes u can come back now”

“Damn, it seems I need to say no to that beer. My room is approachable again, and my bed is waiting.” He stood up, and contemplated whether to look at Andrew or not.

“You should stay and watch this game with me!” It was a command. Neil was keen on answering no just to make Kevin very grumpy.

“I’m going out.”

That got Kevin’s attention off Neil. “You aren’t planning on buying that ice cream you mentioned earlier, are you?”

“Now that you made me recall it, I am,” Andrew answered, then jumped off the table. He grabbed his coat from his chair, then headed towards the door. Without even a glance at any of them.

“Kevin, you should go to bed. We are leaving at 5:45, remember? It’s gonna be painful.” Neil started after Andrew. “Good night!”

Andrew was by the stairs when he closed the door behind himself. “Hey!” He stopped, but didn’t turn around. “I don’t have my jacket.” He didn’t want to catch a cold if they were going up to the roof.

Andrew shook his head, but he didn’t go up, but down on the stairs. Neil frowned.

“Are you really going for ice cream?” he asked, leaning over the rail to look down at him. Andrew didn’t answer. “Is it okay if I tag along?”

“Didn’t you need to go to bed?”

“I’m way too excited to sleep,” he grinned. “Yes or no?”

He hardly heard that yes, but it was a yes, so he ran after Andrew.

Neil had to admit the new car wasn’t bad. It ran really quietly, the seat was comfortable, the heating was a blessing, and while all this was probably a part of the other one, too, Neil decided he liked this one more. As he watched Andrew driving, the decision became even stronger.

They drove past at least two shops that would have surely sold ice cream, but Neil wasn’t going to complain about not stopping yet. They were quiet, and it just felt really nice. Even the funny feeling in his stomach seemed to calmed down, and he realized he left his sandwich in the cousin’s room. He could have fallen asleep. He felt so peaceful all of a sudden.

“Weren’t you supposed to be excited?”

“Hm?” he asked back.

“You just suppressed a yawn,” Andrew said on his usual bored tone.

“It’s your fault. You have this calming effect on me.” “When you don’t make me feel like the world is on fire.”

“Did you just call me boring?” he asked with a raised eyebrow, and mocking in his voice.

Neil chuckled. “I would never dare. Your chatterbox self is the most interesting thing in the world.”

Andrew scoffed, and kept his eyes on the road. And Neil kept his on his profile. He felt an immediate itch in his fingers. He hadn’t been drawing for a way too long time. He wanted to draw Andrew. He sketched a few times after arriving, but the only picture he had kept was the drawing of Aaron. That very much disturbed him at the moment.

“Ouch,” he hissed as the pain in his mouth shot up again. “What?”

“Stop staring.”

A half-smile appeared on Neil’s face. “Is it bothering?”

“Very much.”

“Good to know.” He had no intention of stopping. Neil’s smile wasn’t half anymore when Andrew started to tap on the wheel. They stopped within a few seconds, though, so he didn’t get another command. “Will you seriously buy ice cream?”

“I wanted to,” Andrew muttered.

“Past tense?”

The blonde looked over at him, and undid his seatbelt. “I might want something else now.”

Neil smirked, and it just got worse when Andrew scowled at him. “What would that be?”

“You are awfully cocky.”

“Nicky says that makes me even more good looking. Do you agree?”

“No, I think it makes you even more annoying.”

Neil tilted his head to the right a little. “Good, you seem to like that more than my looks anyway.”

“There is nothing to like about you.”

Andrew’s eyes somehow seemed to send a different message. Neil liked that more than what his mouth was saying. “Can’t believe my charm doesn’t work on the only person I wouldn’t mind it to work on.” He shook his head to add to the theatrical disbelief. He was smiling the next second when Andrew grabbed his collar together with the seatbelt and yanked him close. He was propping himself up on Neil’s thigh, burying his fingers deep into his flesh.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil answered like a breath. He knew when to shut up.

Their first kiss was accompanied by a thumping pain in his brain and shock. The second brought round that funny feeling in his stomach, while the third made his lips feel like burning. There was one thing they all shared, though. They all felt like years. Neil was keenly aware of every move, every sensation, every feeling that it stirred up in his body.

Fire. Not just his mouth, but the hand Andrew moved over to Neil’s nape, and the other one on his thigh, all felt like fire. Andrew made him burn; however, even though he smelled like fire and he tasted like smoke, none of these brought back bad memories. Neil’s mind was just as overwhelmed by Andrew as his body. He was desperately grabbing the seatbelt in front of his own chest to make sure he doesn’t use his hands. He was so curious whether Andrew’s body was just as warm as his hands felt to be.

Andrew drew back just as suddenly as he usually did everything else. He was there, then he wasn’t anymore. It took Neil a good five seconds to be able to open his eyes again.

“You look ridiculous,” Andrew muttered. He wasn’t even flushed. His face was as stony as ever.

“Whatever you say.” Neil’s mind was not ready to be smartass-y just yet. He leant back on the seat, refusing to touch his mouth, but he put his left hand right on the spot that was still burning from the memory of Andrew’s. “Do you feel it when you grab me like this?” he asked after slowly turning his head to the older one who was glaring out of the windshield.

“Faintly.”

Neil mumbled back something incomprehensible. “Is it weird?”

“Very.”

“But not disturbing?” Now Andrew looked over at him. “If it’s unpleasant, we can always stop.” He narrowed his eyes. Neil watched him, and felt a pang in his chest at the thought that they might. “I wouldn’t like to, though,” he added quietly.

Andrew turned the key in the ignition, and backed out of the parking spot. He didn’t talk for a good ten minutes, but Neil didn’t mind. Andrew’s quiet really had its way to make him feel peaceful.

“You’ll come with me to see that Barbie on Monday.”

“Barbie?” As he didn’t get an answer, he had to think for himself. The first to come to mind was Allison, but he vaguely remembered hearing Andrew calling her ‘doll.’ “Katelyn?” That was strange but quite a bit exciting. “Alright, if you want me to.”

There was still no show of a reply, so Neil just stared at his profile some more.

“Does that mean our promise is also done with?”

Andrew glanced at him. “You are on your own.”

A slow, content smile showed up on Neil’s face. “No. I am not.”

He couldn’t help but feel like, he wouldn’t ever be on his own again. He was on his own before, and this was different. He had the Foxes. He could have Andrew if this ends up being something. And even if not, he had his soulmate by his side, and that was more than enough.

It was just a little scary to think about how eager he had become since the threat of his father was gone. Neil was so sure that he wouldn’t have a future that now that he saw he could have one, he just wanted everything all at once.

He denied thinking about Andrew after his ‘confession’ in the club, because his mind knew it was better to stay away from him. But Neil wasn’t in that danger anymore, and he wanted nothing more than to be really close to Andrew. He had been thinking about that confession ever since they were back from the FBI. All those nights on the roof with Andrew, he was wondering what if, just what if they could act on it. He even dreamed of kissing Andrew – and maybe about that blow each other thing, too. He woke Matt up one time, the boy thought he had a nightmare, but he wasn’t loud because of that.

It was weird. It was even weirder to get out of the room with an erection and taking care of it. He never liked that. But imagining Andrew’s hand on him helped. And made everything weirder in his head. Neil had been thinking if Andrew didn’t kiss him that night, he might have done it himself in the end.

As his eyes wandered over to Andrew’s mouth, Neil wanted to do it again. He wanted to kiss Andrew again. Wanted to touch him, wanted Andrew to touch him. But it was obviously not the way this thing between them could work. Andrew had to control it, and Neil only could go along with whatever he wanted. Neil had to be clever here, no matter how much his body wanted to overrule his brain.

They were away from the Tower for almost two hours, but haven’t spoken more than this. And yet, Neil went to bed to get a good four hours of sleep feeling completely satisfied. And with the memory of Andrew’s lips on his own.

The trip to Binghamton was so long that Neil was ready to die by the end of it. This is why planes existed for god’s sake! Most of his teammates agreed with him, Neil assumed Andrew was perfectly fine with taking the slower way if it meant not leaving the ground. He didn’t ask, as they hardly talked in the bus. Just looking at him made Neil grin like an idiot so he tried to keep that one down until they were all closed in in a relatively tight space.

The Bearcats weren’t even close to the Dogs of Florida in brutality but they came just after the Ravens, to be honest. And whatever Nicky was saying about their looks, they were big and way too tall for Neil to handle the backliners well. Just in 15 minutes he was crashed to the plexiglass so many times that he wouldn’t have been surprised if he got a concussion. By 20 minutes he was so angry that he almost punched fucking Fred Williams in his gorgeous face. He had to change tactics. Fighting would only lead him to a possibly yellow or red card and the Foxes couldn’t afford that.

Neil started to ran away from them. Whenever Williams wanted to crash into him, he just made a quick move or turn and avoided him at all cost. That little tag pissed the guy off so much that he elbowed Neil in the stomach just at the 43th minute and he got red carded. Neil walked off the court pretty freaking satisfied, because the girl who came up after him was just the right size to survive this day.

They were almost in the room the Foxes used for meeting when Andrew tugged on his jersey. Neil turned around and let the girls walk into the room. He was smiling ear to ear until Andrew pushed him on the wall. “The fuck?!” he grunted, and started to rub his head. That was it for not having a concussion.

“What were you doing?!” Andrew growled into his face.

“What are you doing?!” Neil asked back the same way. At least nobody could see them on the abandoned corridor. “I’m sure the Bearcats are happy that you continue murdering me as they failed to do it yet.”

“Yeah, they failed because you were running around on the court like it’s fucking tag,” Andrew said still unnecessarily – in Neil’s opinion – angry.

“Good, then my plan was a success,” he answered dead serious. “Okay, as you just knocked my brain out of my head, would you just for this once tell me what’s your problem instead of me having to guess?”

“Why were you avoiding Williams? If you think you need to protect me, I’ll kill you right here.”

Neil narrowed his eyes at that. “Oh.” He even shook his head a little as it finally made sense. “I was protecting myself, honestly, you weren’t even in my head for once.” Andrew hardly believed him. “You can’t seriously believe I think you can’t take the pain of some rough blocks. After everything? Really?”

Andrew was obviously not joking, though, because the realization was hitting him so hard that Neil could actually see on his expression as he replaced the pieces. Neil wondered if he wasn’t flushed already, would he blush now?

“You are the strongest people I know, Andrew,” he said quietly.

“Shut up.”

As he stepped back, Neil felt a little disappointment, and some weird joy, he couldn’t really explain. “And I love exy way too much to hold myself back because I feel sorry for anyone,” he added with a cheeky smile.

“Now, I believe that one,” Andrew grumbled, then marched into the meeting room. Neil had a hard time containing his face as he went after him.

“Finally! Thought you got lost in a black hole on the corridor!” Nicky shouted as they arrived. “What were you doing?” he asked after leaning on Neil’s shoulder when he stopped next to him.

“We had a little mis–“ Neil stopped before he could have said misunderstanding.

“Mis?”

“Misadventure.” His ears were burning, he wished he had Andrew’s poker face ability.

“What? Are you hurt?” Kevin inquired immediately.

“No, but it’s a matter of luck, really. Their backliners are brutal!” he achieved to change the subject.

“You red carded Williams, though, that was cool as fuck!” Matt cheered for him from the bench on the other side of the room.

“Thanks!” Neil sent a meaningful look to Andrew, but he looked as bored as ever so Neil just rolled his eyes.

After that Wymack took over the conversation and they started to discuss how to maintain their lead for the second half. Neil had a feeling they would be just fine. Andrew let only three goals in so far, and that happened while he was angry at Neil. Now that was out of question, and he couldn’t cease having even higher expectations of the goalkeeper.

He was right. Andrew shut off the goal completely, in the whole of 47 minutes, the Bearcats were helpless against him. Which made them even more brutal, but only the 8-3 score in the end mattered nothing else. The Foxes were in for semifinals.

By the time they hopped on the bus, most of them were feeling drunk, but the party really started only when Coach opened the huge box he was hiding in the back with their gear. They had so much alcohol for the twelve hours long ride that would have lasted for twelve days. Neil was sure the others would be done with them by half way.

Andrew caught himself a bottle of whisky, then went to his seat in the back. The others – even Aaron – just gathered in a big pile in the front where they could hear the music the most, and Wymack even let them dance for a while. They were just so happy. Neil felt like floating in midair even though he did not drink with them.

However, after like two hours, he just couldn’t stand staying there with them anymore. When Andrew was all alone in the back. Nobody said anything when he went to him but he was aware of the eyes that weren’t drunk enough yet in his back.

“Having fun?” he asked Andrew. The boy finally took his eyes off the window.

“Joyful,” he pointed at his face.

“Can I sit?”

“You sit wherever you want,” he grunted.

Neil smirked and hopped down next to him. Neil noticed that only a quarter of the whisky was missing. “I’m itching for a cigarette.”

“You are not alone.”

“We should stop soon. Nicky and Kevin could throw up any second.”

Andrew snorted. “Kevin doesn’t throw up. It’s a waste of the booze.”

He mimicked Kevin so well that Neil had to laugh.

“Why don’t you drink?”

Neil stopped and looked at him questioningly. “I don’t drink,” he shrugged.

“Do you understand the meaning of ‘why’?” he asked mockingly. “You weren’t because it’s a risk. What do you have to risk here?”

Neil looked down at the slightly lifted bottle, then back to Andrew. What did he have to risk here? Neil Josten wasn’t a drinker. However, Neil Josten wasn’t a laugher either. Or a mouthy brat. Or someone who wants to kiss other people. Neil Josten was supposed to be nothing else than an exy obsessed boy. Neil had nothing else to risk here than to lose the last of his lies.

He was smiling when sipped a little from the bottle. Andrew was staring at him, and he couldn’t help but lick his lips when handing the bottle back to the older one. Andrew gulped down a lot more than him in the next second.

They both ignored the commotion in the front, but Neil saw from the corner of his eyes as Matt literally knocked Nicky down to one of the seats after the older one started to scream about what they just witnessed.

They stopped one hour later, and as the others stumbled off the bus, Neil and Andrew stayed behind. Neil’s legs were on the back of the seat in front of him, arms folded on his chest. His mind was just a little bit cloudy after the alcohol hit so he completely forgot about wanting to smoke earlier. When Andrew reminded him, he asked back, “Do you want to get off?”

The blonde was glaring down at him, then just shrugged. The clouds felt a little thicker after that. Neil knew he had to slow this down. He knew it. And yet.

“You were amazing tonight,” he said. “That second half was mind-blowing. I can’t wait to watch the recording.”

“You spent just enough time watching,” Andrew muttered back.

“It’s hard to not watch you.”

“Noticed,” the blonde scoffed. “It’s annoying.”

Neil assumed it was. He didn’t like to be watched either. Didn’t mean he would stop, though. “We’ll win the championship. We’ll destroy Riko’s ego, and then Kevin will be safe, too.”

“We don’t stand a chance even against USC,” Andrew grumbled back, and he was more serious than bored this time.

“We do. You are the best goalkeeper in the country. With you in the goal, we do.” Andrew went tense. “If you can shut them off, we’ll do what we need to with Kevin.”

“Their strikers are on a whole different level than these morons were.” Andrew was back to sounding bored, but Neil knew by now that it’s only the façade to hide his true feelings.

“Can you do it, though?”

“No.” He went quiet for a few seconds. “Not completely anyway. And I don’t have enough motivation to try that hard.”

Neil tilted his head to the right. “What would stir up your motivation?”

“I wonder.”

“I still owe you one truth, but I hardly have any of those left. So ask for anything.”

Andrew scoffed again. “Anything he says.”

“Anything,” Neil repeated strongly.

“I’ll think of something then.” Neil nodded. “Yes or no?”

Yes.”

Neil’s legs dropped to the floor as Andrew leaned above him, then pushed him down on the seat. His arms got jammed between their bodies, but that was already more than nothing – he could feel Andrew’s chest. The older one’s hands were on his shoulder and hip, and Andrew dug his fingers hardly into the bullet wounds, Neil was sure he wasn’t just faintly feeling that pain now. The kiss was heated, aggressive even, a fight for something that Neil couldn’t really place anywhere, and he didn’t even care. Andrew kissed him like they were on the end of the world, like this was the last time, and he kissed back just as powerfully because he wanted to show, it wouldn’t be the last.

“You are so hot,” he mumbled when he finally could. Just how long were they doing this?

“Am I now?” Andrew asked back mockingly with a raised eyebrow.

Neil quietly giggled. They were so close. He could see all the colorful shades of Andrew’s eyes. “I meant it literally, but yes, you are.”

“You can’t tell for shit if people are hot or not, Josten.”

“I don’t care about people, I only care about you.”

“Don’t say stupid things.”

And with that he was gone from top of Neil. The younger one shivered because of the sudden disappearance of that warm body. Neil propped himself up on his elbows but could only see Andrew’s nape as he turned completely to the window again. He ignored the heavy feeling in his stomach. “Smoke?”

Andrew just stood up, and refused to say anything else on the remaining part of the bus ride. However, he let Neil sit and eventually fell asleep next to him, so it was all fine.

///

There weren’t many successful ways to control his anger. It was either beating someone up, punching walls, exercising until every muscle in his body screamed in protest, or the only one that didn’t involve pain, reading. He didn’t read for the fun of it. He read when there was nothing else to do, or when even staring into nothing could piss him off. He read, because it was better than music which could block out the possible danger. He read, because in the houses that he lived in, sitting next to the family to watch television was either prohibited or unpleasant. He read, because it shut his mind up, because he could listen to other people without actually having to be near someone.

He read anything and everything that crossed his way. Magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, textbooks, and if the families that put roof above his head had novels, those, too. Andrew was alright with anything as long as it shut the voices in his head up. Sometimes, when his memories just wouldn’t cease repeating in his mind, he could sit down with a dictionary and just read the definitions for hours like they were the most interesting things in the world. When he was still able to do such thing – before apathy and depression took over everything – he wished stuffing his head with unnecessary knowledge would just replace the memories. He wouldn’t have minded to rewrite everything that happened to him. That never came true, though, no matter how much he read, so he had to continue doing it to distract his mind.

He was reading a sci-fi novel that afternoon, he quite liked those because they either were outrageously stupid or brilliant, there was no in-between. This one was leaning toward brilliance, which really helped to calm the monster down after what he just done at midday.

They went to see the Barbie with Neil and just the sight of that woman upset the darkness in his head enough to make him want to commit mass murder. However, the worst was having to deal with the thought, he was just about to break a promise. For his own sake. Because Neil talked him into it. No. Because Andrew didn’t want to lose his brother completely. Because if he wouldn’t die in the near future, then it did matter for him.

He was mostly over being angry at Aaron anyway. He chose to mourn his mother after what Andrew had done, he chose Tilda over Andrew, but they talked about it in front of Betsy, and they had to get over that. Andrew had to get over that, and he was ready to do so now. Aaron didn’t say he was sorry for it, but he admitted it was a something he wasn’t proud of.

He was in the bedroom when Aaron arrived. He was flushed, like he ran back to the Tower. He seemed upset, but probably nobody else would have noticed how much. Andrew knew the signs. They were the same as his own when he still wasn’t able to hide his feelings so well.

“You hurt her,” Aaron said, stopping in front the dressers that Andrew was sitting on.

“Did I?” he asked nonchalantly. He did push her to the wall, but that was better than breaking her neck, right?

“Don’t you dare touching her again.” Aaron’s hands were in the pockets of his hoodie, but Andrew assumed they were balled into fist.

“If she keeps herself to what I said,” he answered with a shrug.

“No,” Aaron said firmly. “There are no conditions, you won’t touch her ever again.”

Andrew closed the book in his lap. “Or?”

Aaron bit his upper lip for a second, but it seemed his determination was strong enough this time. “Or I’ll kill you.”

“Fair enough,” Andrew replied, then leant back to the wall and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He felt weirdly proud.

Aaron clearly didn’t except that answer, because he was silent for long seconds, examining Andrew’s face with narrowed eyes and a frown. “Our promise is broken then.” There was a little questioning tone in his voice.

“It is if you agree to it.”

“Why?”

Andrew knew his brother would want an explanation, but he had no intention of satisfying him. He had his reasons, and it was disturbing enough that Neil knew them, there was no need for anyone else to do so. “It’s time.”

“Don’t bullshit me with that,” Aaron retorted with an annoyed grimace. “You would never break a promise like this.”

That was true, and it was good if Aaron finally understood that. “I wasn’t really the one breaking it all this time.” That shut him up for good. Their skin was so pale that even the slightest embarrassment could turn it pink. “I’m just calling it off.”

Why?” Talk to me, said Aaron’s eyes. They seemed dark green now, like they tried to picture his frustration.

Neil had this expression on his face before. The first few months when Andrew’s only intention was to shut him out. Neil was just as desperately trying to understand Andrew as Aaron seemed so. “You don’t need it anymore.” He couldn’t squeeze anything else out. He was so bad with words. However, it fit him. Andrew wasn’t supposed to do things for himself. And yet.

Aaron looked shocked. Then a small, almost unnoticeable smile appeared on his face. Andrew saw it, because he knew that face. “Yeah, I don’t.”

Whatever way Aaron interpreted that, Andrew didn’t care. As long as they moved on, Aaron could think he believed the girl he chose was trustworthy. Or that Andrew believed in Aaron’s strength to stand alone from now on – that was a lot truer than the absurdity of the first.

“Can she come over?”

“No,” Andrew answered immediately. “Not here.”

Aaron just nodded, but he seemed troubled.

“You can change rooms.”

“Yeah, sure as fuck, I’m not gonna be in the same room with Josten,” he said looking disgusted.

That left them there with just one option. Andrew considered it beforehand, and even if it could have been a mistake, he was ready to live with that. “He’ll come over here.”

The angry grimace just wouldn’t leave Aaron’s face. “How can you stand that fucker?”

“Hardly,” Andrew grunted back, and the conversation was over.

They had practice later, and Aaron got Neil alone after it to demand the room change. Andrew ignored them even though Neil was looking at him instead of his brother. He looked shocked, but they seemed to come to an understanding in the end. His cousin was out of the world when Aaron told him and the exy one about it. Even the exy one seemed satisfied because now he could harass Neil anytime he wanted.

Andrew left them right after they arrived back to the Tower and went for a ride instead. He stopped by a supermarket and bought three different kinds of popsicles. He sat down on the curb close to the car, and ate them as slow as he could but still not letting them melt, because he hated melted ice cream.

They would be in the same room with Neil from now on. He would be constantly around Neil from now on. They were already progressing a lot faster than what Andrew considered safe. Neil seemed so eager to give himself over to Andrew that resisting taking everything all at once was hard. But doing that would have been a dumb move. Andrew was still doubting everything, fearing the worst.

Neil had a future ahead of him now. Neil could have anything he wanted from now on. The only thing that linked him to Andrew was their connection, and he didn’t see how that could be enough as a reason. Neil said he would not disappoint Andrew. He just couldn’t believe in an empty sentence like that. How was he supposed to just trust Neil wouldn’t leave one day? If Andrew gave in and start putting a life together around him and exy, but Neil disappeared or disappointed him in the future, would he survive that?

Did that even matter?

He was either going to live an empty life for a few more years or take a risk and die as consequences of that. Death was the only outcome anyway, wasn’t it?

Only the pain that came with it would be different. Dying because he was weak again, because he trusted again in the wrong person would hurt way too much. Was Neil worth it?

Andrew wasn’t aware that while he was chewing on the last popsicle’s stick he kept rubbing his scars on his forearm.

 

March and April was a blur again and only the stolen hours with Neil stood really out. Andrew was used to counting the days when he woke up, but he somehow ended up concentrating on time only on nights after he was together with Neil.

He was twenty years, four months and two weeks old, and a few hours earlier he jerked Neil off. They hardly were alone even though the younger lived with them for a week already. Andrew just came back from class, soaked to the bone in the fucking rain, feeling like freezing his balls off. He opened up the bedroom’s door with such intensity that it banged to the wall.

Then he halted in just after a step to the room. “Fuck,” he muttered, and turned around on his heels. Neil was standing by their bunk beds in nothing more than a boxer, and he looked freaked to death at the way Andrew broke into the room.

“Hey, it’s alright,” Neil shouted after him, but as Andrew didn’t say a thing just kept pacing up and down in the living room, he peeked out to him. “You can come in. It’s not like you haven’t seen everything already.”

Andrew took a short glance at him, but then just glared at the kitchen instead. “That doesn’t mean you are comfortable with it.”

Neil leant on the door frame, and eyed him for a few seconds. “I think I can manage.” They were silent again. “You can look at me.”

Oh, for fuckity fucking fuck’s sake.

He did so. And there he was. In just a freaking black boxer and socks, with wet hair, and scars, and muscles, and freckles. He forced his eyes up to Neil’s and felt all the hair on his body stood up the next second. Oh, he was not cold anymore at all, and couldn’t tell if the drops running down his cheek were from the rain or sweating.

Neil bit his lower lip, and started to blush. That was it for Andrew’s control. He was there in front of him in a heartbeat. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil murmured back and already moved his hands behind his back.

Andrew grabbed his neck in both of his hands, then pushed him inside and up on the wall next to the door. Neil shivered as Andrew’s wet and cold t-shirt pressed to his naked chest. Or was it because Andrew pushed his leg between his and rubbed his thigh to his crotch? Andrew was massaging Neil’s nape with his left hand while kissing him, but his right was exploring his upper body. His palm remembered the scars and Andrew wanted his mouth to do the same, too, but for now his hand was enough.

A surprised moan left Neil’s throat when he put his right hand on his boxer. “Still yes?” Andrew muttered onto his lips.

“Yes!” As Andrew’s hands slipped inside his underwear, he added, “Fuck yes.”

Andrew pulled back a little to see his face. He was so flushed, his eyes shining with want, his lips red and wet with Andrew’s saliva. He looked breathtaking. Then he did something that did take Andrew’s breath away. Neil leant forward and pressed his mouth on Andrew’s neck, just below his jawline near his Adam’s apple.

Andrew jerked back even more, and tugged Neil’s head away from himself. Neil looked shocked for a moment, then insecure in the next. Not regretful, though.

“I like your neck,” he muttered, sounding hoarse. “Can I?”

He was glaring into the other’s eyes and saw the desire in the blue. A desire that wouldn’t be followed by violence. Neil wanted him but Andrew was in control.

“Yes, but don’t bite,” he grumbled back.

He leant forward to kiss the idiotically happy smile off his lips. He started to move his hand on Neil’s dick which made the younger one shiver, then moan into his mouth. He became hard soon, then after a short while unable to continue the kiss. Neil knocked his head to the wall, breaking away as he gasped really loud after Andrew started to massage his balls, too.

“Fuck, geez, that feels good,” he said, and looked back at Andrew through almost closed lashes. He surely saw something on the blonde’s face that made him feel even better because he smirked then leant forward, and pressed his lips on Andrew’s neck again. The kisses weren’t soft, but not powerful enough either to leave marks. Every suck on the older one’s skin felt like a lightening to his erection.

Neil’s cock was leaking so much that it made jerking him off a lot easier, and obviously a lot more enjoyable for him, too because he got louder and louder. Andrew actually had to push his face into his own neck when his body started to shake to sign his orgasm so he wouldn’t shout.

“Man, you are loud,” he groaned after Neil leant back to the wall. Andrew kept his hand on his shoulder and the other after wiping it off on Neil’s boxer on his hip because he wasn’t sure the younger could stay standing or not.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled with a lazy smile. “This never felt this good before.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Good to know.” He pushed Neil onto the wall even more, then stepped back when he was sure he wouldn’t collapse.

“What about you?” Neil asked surprised.

“Don’t,” Andrew waved him off, then stepped outside of the bedroom after the shadow of incomprehension ran through Neil’s face.

Andrew locked himself in the bathroom, and took his hard dick out. He couldn’t be touched yet. Dealing with the phantom pain that felt like hands on himself were more than enough, and he already let Neil to kiss his neck.

Oh, but fucking hell, did that feel amazing? The sensation was still lingering, and Neil’s fallen apart sight was strongly burnt into his memory. He came in just a few short seconds.

 

Spring break was an exhausting mess as Kevin only allowed three days off for them. Except the doll, the rainbow girl and Aaron who was invited to meet the Barbie’s parents, the others all decided to stay in the dorm, so they had training literally all day long. Andrew hated every second of it. Lies, Minyard. The seconds when Neil was around him with his stupid bandana and sweating body beaming like a torch, he felt almost good. Almost.

Then came Neil’s birthday in the end of the month. He told everyone that they don’t need to go out of their way for him, but the busybodies obviously couldn’t just let that happen. They teamed up with Andrew’s cousin, and they arranged the party to Columbia because the day fell on a Friday.

That was the first time they all saw Neil drunk. Pretty fucking drunk. Andrew was so angry at him by midnight that he decided to take him back to the house. Only the rainbow girl and Andrew were sober. Nobody wanted to leave so early, hence he told the girl to write him a message when they would leave and he’d come back for his half of the drunken bunch.

He helped Neil out then into the car, “I’ll break your neck if you vomit in here,” he growled at the younger one after they left the parking lot.

Neil chuckled, then said, “No vomiting, it’s a waste of the booze.” He even tapped two of his fingers to his forehead. Andrew took a deep breath, and tried to concentrate on driving. “Gosh, my head feels so light. I don’t think I’ve ever been drunk like this before.” He covered his eyes, but was still smiling. “We mostly only used alcohol to dull the pain if mom had to patch me up. Ah, no, I’m lying. There was one time. We were in Austria and I had a half cup of mulled wine with my classmates, then I felt nice. Mom didn’t scold me either when found us on her way back from work. It was just before Christmas, so she was in an unusual good mood.” He went quiet for a few seconds, and the smile melted away. “I went to bed early after it, and had a nightmare. It was the night when I saw your brother’s face in your dream.”

It was the end of 2000 then. Andrew had that dream with Aaron for months after that monster threatened him with getting both of them in his bed. He felt his anger wakening inside so he directed his attention back to Neil instead. “Talk.”

Neil dropped his hand, then looked over at him. “I really liked that face, you know. I couldn’t be sure that you two are identical, but I still draw that face over and over again, hoping that it’s you. I wanted to meet you so bad, wanted to apologize, getting to know you, get both of us out of our miserable lives. I really liked your face,” he repeated then lifted his left hand, but didn’t touch Andrew who already clenched his jaw. “You were like what? Thirteen then?”

“Just turned fourteen,” he muttered back.

“Still had some baby fat on your cheeks,” Neil said, smiling and moved his hand along Andrew’s face just an inch away like he was stroking it.

“I didn’t. That was Aaron. I never got enough food to have any fat on me.”

“Me neither,” Neil said, sounding sad but he was still smiling. “Mom used to call me dimples, but I lost those very soon after we ran away.”

Andrew turned his head a little and for a second Neil’s fingers brushed over his cheek. “Dimples?” he echoed mockingly.

Neil giggled. “Yep. Maybe they’ll come back one day.”

“Kevin won’t ever let you eat that much.”
Laughter filled the car up and Andrew got goosebumps. “I’d like to draw you one of these days.” Andrew left that mumbling unanswered after a glance at Neil who was now staring out of the window on his right.

Neil sobered up enough to be able to walk into the house on his own, but he seemed to be confused in the living room. “Am I sleeping on the couch?”

Andrew raised an eyebrow at that as he turned back to him. “Where else would you?”

Neil cocked his head to the left, then shrugged. Andrew felt the need to erase that cheeky smile from his face with his fist. “If you don’t have any ideas, the couch is just fine.”

The blonde waved him off with, “Go to shower, Josten, you are drunk.”

His room was on the ground floor, just behind the stairs and he headed that way. It was the smallest room in the house, but when he moved in with his cousin and Aaron it was more than enough for him. It was his own room where nobody was allowed to step foot in. It was his own space after seventeen years of not having one. Not even one that felt safe.

He had a bed, a small desk, and lots of books. The books were piled up by the walls on the floor, in an order only he could understand. Everything was clean and in its designated place, because Andrew didn’t like mess. His life used to be one so he always made sure that at least the few things he owned were in order.

After falling onto his bed he buried his face into the sheets, and failed to suppress a groan. Fucking Neil Josten. “I wanted to meet you so bad, wanted to apologize, getting to know you, get both of us out of our miserable lives.”

All Andrew wanted in the past seven years was to get this kid killed. On painless days, he ignored even his existence and never acknowledged their connection more than life’s way to torture him some more.

However. Had there been a time before that when he felt like Neil? Wanting to meet him just to get to know him? No. Probably never had been. He had no idea how to be attached to people. He was always alone, and couldn’t think of even the kid on the other end of the connection as someone whom he could actually be connected to. Neil never was alone, he knew just well how to want someone by his side, how to feel safe when you can be connected to another person. When Andrew thought about something like that, all he saw was the potential damage he would have to suffer through if the other person disappointed him.

“You were the one I kept alive for.”

It was just too much. Everything Neil had been saying was just too much to take. He was too much. Neil was about to win over him, and he wanted to protest. He just couldn’t do this.

The knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. With a tired grunt he got up and opened the door. And there he was again, in nothing else but a boxer. Andrew unconsciously lifted his hand to his knives.

“Can you give me a t-shirt or something? Mine smells terrible,” he said.

The older one wished he could believe Neil was doing this on purpose, but assuming from his dumbness in the past, he knew he wasn’t. He turned around and went to his dresser. When looked back again, Neil was already standing in the middle of the room. And Andrew was unable to demand his leaving. He was so weak.

“Wao, didn’t take you for a reader.” He crouched down in front of the piles.

His ass in that boxer!!! Andrew threw the t-shirt at him, then sat down on the bed, because like that he didn’t need to directly look at him.

Neil came closer, though, and he was still just holding the t-shirt. “I’ve never read a book just for the fun of it.”

“What a shock,” Andrew commented, then looked up. Damn. Hot fucking damn. “Me neither, anyway.” He wasn’t reading for fun.

“Is that so?” Neil asked back surprised. As Andrew had no intention to answer, he waited for nothing. “Alright, I’ll go to the couch then.”

“Good. You do that.” That was what Andrew meant to say. The word that left his mouth was different, though. “Stop.” He lifted his hand, and got hold of Neil’s hip before he could have completely turn around. He yanked him a little closer and Neil was now standing between his legs. “Yes or no?”

“Yes!” he said with enthusiasm. He looked again like how he did in the club. Beaming. Luring. So so desirable.

Andrew moved his hand from Neil’s hipbone to his ass and put his other one on it, too. When he dug his fingers deeply into the firm muscles, Neil let out a moan and it sent lightning to Andrew’s crotch. But. He tensed up for a second because he could feel that sensation, too. He felt those hands on his own ass. He eased on the squeeze and wanted to let go. Wanted to push Neil away. But he lifted his gaze first, and he saw the boy biting his lips, looking at him with anticipation and desire in his eyes, and Andrew didn’t want to do any of that. He wanted Neil as close as possible.

As he pulled him even closer, he pressed his mouth on the wound above his left hipbone, and when he bit it, Neil groaned in pleasure. “Oh, fuck,” he moaned next, and put both of his hands on his nape. Andrew bit again. “Oh, fuck,” he hissed and tilted his head back.

So he liked to be bitten. Andrew wrote that on the top of his mental notes list.

He scraped the skin with his teeth toward the elastic band of Neil’s underwear where a few strands of reddish hair peeked out. Andrew jeans felt way too tight, but he wasn’t the only one who got erect. Neil’s bumped into his jaw and a keen wail left the younger’s throat. Then he moaned so loud when Andrew put his mouth on it through the boxer that the blonde was grateful for the empty house.

“Oh gaawd,” Neil groaned. “Can I touch you? Please, can I?”

Please. Neil knew he hated that word. And he did. But this please was not begging for stop. This was begging for more, because Neil wanted this as much as Andrew did.

He looked up, then nodded. “Just above the shoulders.”

Neil’s eyes widened, then he lowered his arms, and against all odds, carefully cupped Andrew’s face into his hands. As he didn’t jerk away, Neil leaned down and kissed him. That wasn’t careful, though. That kiss showed Neil’s flaming desire.

When Andrew pulled down his underwear he straightened up, but his hands never left Andrew. He slipped his fingers into the older one’s hair, and massaged his scalp while staring at him. Andrew felt his stare as he took his dick into his hand, and when he kissed his leaking tip. Neil tugged on his hair so hard that it made him grunt.

He started to suck on his tip and slowly pumped the rest of his length with his hand. Andrew liked the taste of him. Liked the length, the thickness, how hot it was on his tongue. Neil’s dick was just as amazing as his looks.

“Oh, god, Andrew.”

Andrew’s body got goosebumps as Neil moaned his name. It was something he wouldn’t have minded hearing every day. It was something he wouldn’t have minded to stay alive for.

He increased the tempo, now frantically pumping Neil’s dick, and sucking him hard while with his other hand he massaged his ass. It actually hurt as Neil was yanking his hair, but it didn’t make him feel bad, only more aroused.

“I’m gonna come, Andrew, fuck, I’m coming,” Neil groaned and he bend down so much that it was now difficult to move. Neil pressed his mouth on the top of Andrew’s head, and whimpered his name one more time before coming into the blonde’s mouth.

Andrew didn’t stop moving his hand until Neil’s body stopped shaking, then he finally pulled back, and let the younger one fell to the carpet. However, Neil didn’t stay like that, as soon as his knees reached the ground he straightened his back up and leaned forward to kiss Andrew. He cupped the older boy’s face into his hands and eagerly pushed his tongue into his mouth. Andrew dug his fingers into the hair on the top of his head, and fought him to take over the control over the kiss.

When Neil moved his hands down to his neck and was obviously ready to follow them with his lips, Andrew pulled back. As he shook his head, Neil swallowed hard, then sat back on his heels, letting go of him completely. He glanced at Andrew’s crotch for a second, then asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Andrew stood up, and walked pasted him to the dresser. By the time he found sweatpants and a new t-shirt, Neil was dressed, too. “Am I sleeping on the couch?” he repeated the previous question, with lot more insecurity in his voice this time. Andrew nodded. “Alright.”

Andrew hated that sad smile on his face. He tugged on his t-shirt when Neil passed him, then pulled him back for another kiss. Neil fought back vigorously this time, too. He touched his lips when Andrew stepped back, and he didn’t seem sad anymore. Andrew marched toward the bathroom the next second.

He wasn’t sure how long he can go on like this. He wasn’t sure how long his mind will tell him to not let Neil touch him. He wasn’t sure how long it would take to just go against every dark thought and just give in. He wasn’t sure how much he wanted that. But he wanted it, and that was more than enough to fire up the bad thoughts because it was just so frightening.

 

He was handcuffed to a bed, and his body was hurting so much that even if he wanted to count the aching places he wouldn’t be able to. As he glanced up to his wrists, he saw the metal cutting into his skin, slowly tearing his hand off because he just couldn’t stop yank on it. It hurt so much but even if he would have to be without hands, he just wanted to be free. He wanted to run away so much.

The crazy boy above him was sitting on his thighs, and he wanted to kick him, but he couldn’t because that other one was holding him down by his ankles. Riko was holding a knife, and he was smiling, not sadistically, but with joy and that was a lot more terrifying. Riko lowered the knife again, and pierced it into the wound above his hipbone. He could actually feel the cold metal sliding into his flesh, then reaching the bone.

The next second he was standing above the bed, looking down at the scene. Neil was crying and screaming, and he had a hard time recognizing his face. He never saw Neil that broken before. Neil who was always so strong. And he couldn’t do anything do protect him, he just stood there and watched as the boy was tortured.

Andrew woke up a few minutes later, breathing heavily. Fuck. That dream surely hurt. It started off as Neil’s nightmare, but then his brain transformed it into his own. It mixed up his fears of being unable to protect Aaron with all the memories of Neil’s tortures. Damn, he hated this stupid phenomenon.

He tensed up as the small, painful moan reached his ears. Neil was still sleeping in the other bunk. They arranged the beds the most efficient way to have a big space in the bedroom, so they were pushed together by the wall across the door. They always slept with their feet closest to each other when Aaron was the fourth one in the room with them, and they continued doing so with Neil, too. As Andrew sat up, he right away saw the silhouette of Neil under his blanket. He wasn’t moving and there wasn’t more noise either, but he doubted the nightmare ended.

Andrew got on all fours, then climbed over to Neil’s bed, the bunk creaked a little, but he knew neither of the older guys would wake up just for a small noise like that. However, Neil jerked awake almost right away, and Andrew had to pressed his hand on his mouth to prevent him from screaming.

“It’s me,” he muttered, leaning so close to him that their foreheads almost touched. “Ssh, it’s just me.”

Neil was staring at him with widened eyes for long seconds, then he was finally able to close his lids. Andrew felt the shaking breath he took on his skin, and he pulled his hand away to let him do it easily.

“Get off me,” Neil mumbled when he was finally able to. Andrew obeyed, because he assumed after that nightmare, Neil didn’t want anyone on top of himself in a bed now. “Sorry to wake you up.”

“Happens.” He didn’t leave Neil’s bed, just sat down in the end of it by the wall with his legs pulled to his chest. Andrew was watching him cover his face with both of his hands, and taking really deep breathes. Minutes passed in silence until Neil was finally able to sit up.

“Coffee?” he asked after checking his phone, and showing it to Andrew, too. It was almost 6am.

Andrew nodded, then started to climb off the bed. Neil followed him just as quietly. They were both so quiet with anything they did. Andrew knew their reasons were different but fundamentally the same. When you live in constant danger, you just learn to not make any noise to avoid attention.

Andrew made the coffee, because he was way too peculiar about it, and Neil just leant on the counter next to him. There were red lines on his face and arm, and his hair looked ridiculous, because he hasn’t washed the hair spray out of it yet. He was obviously nervous, perhaps still feeling the lingering memory of the nightmare in his body.

“Talk,” he said to tear him out of his mind.

Neil turned his head to him, and Andrew could see his grip on the counter’s edge got firmer. “I’m just anxious.” As the older one was ready with the coffee machine, he left it to warm the water up, and stood in front of Neil instead. “We are in for the final, and even though I was really sure we could do it, I’m a little shocked, I guess. And afraid of what if we lose to Riko.”

They defeated the Trojans three days ago, but it wasn’t a reason to be optimistic. USC gave them a huge advantage with playing only with nine players, but the score was still very close. Andrew understood why Neil would be nervous, however– “We won’t lose.”

Neil scoffed. “That’s a weird declaration coming from you.”

“Kevin is back on his feet, and you and I both know what that means to us.”

On Saturday, the following day that they won the semifinals and he sobered up, the exy one finally earned to be called Kevin in his head. He went and got rid of his dumb ‘2’ tattoo and replaced it with a Queen chess piece. And he did it without telling Andrew or anyone else, he did it all alone, even if he needed to get awfully drunk for it. Andrew felt proud. And excited. It was so strange, so upsetting, but it was the truth and now he was able to accept it.

“It’s not just Kevin. You are on the court now, too.” Neil lifted his hand to touch his face, but only did so when Andrew nodded. He caressed the older one’s jaw, then for a moment touched his lower lip before leaning forward to kiss him.

Andrew grabbed Neil’s hip on both sides, then stepped so close to him that there was no space left between them. He felt the younger one’s lips curling up, then saw the satisfied sparks in his eyes when they parted a little. Andrew raised his hand, and brushed over the ‘4’ on his cheekbone.

“I’ll get it done one day, too. But I can’t yet,” Neil said quietly, with his eyes closed. Andrew understood he wasn’t over what happened to him in December yet.

“If he is the queen now, will you be the princess?” he asked mockingly, and Neil laughed.

“Empress? I don’t plan to be under Kevin for too long,” he said in a way that almost sounded like declaration.

Andrew snorted, then shook his head and stood back to get his coffee down. Neil wouldn’t be. If he really wanted to be better than Kevin, he could do it, Andrew was sure about it. Just as much as he was sure, they would win over the Ravens. He didn’t make a promise this time, not with anybody else anyway, but he was going to make sure they would win. He would set all of them free.

He was twenty years, five months and one week old, and he was ready to try his hardest now. He was ready to give a try to not just watch over the others who strove away from rock bottom, but actually go along with them.

 

Neil was running. He was out of the room for more than three hours already, and Andrew seriously started get pissed at the pain in his legs. He lost his temper when his right knee joined his thighs and shin, so he got into the car and went after him. He knew he was in the Foxhole Court.

However, by the time he arrived, the court was already empty. He went back to the changing room, and heard the shower running, so he entered the room. He was leaning to one of the sinks when Neil came out. He let out a surprised noise, then smiled sheepishly.

“Sorry,” he said. He was wearing the t-shirt and the shorts he left their suite in.

“I’m going to slaughter you.”

Neil snorted. “What else is new?” he asked and went closer to Andrew. There was water dripping from his hair.

“What were you running from this time?”

“Honestly?” Neil laughed. “My textbooks. I am so fucking done with studying.”

“You haven’t studied for more than two hours all week long.”

“That’s not true!” Neil tilted his head a little. “Well, maybe.”

Andrew shook his head, and lifted his hands to brush the wet tuft of hair out of his eyes. “You are such a lost cause.”

“I wish we could just go back to last week when all I had to care for was winning the championship.” He propped himself up on the sink on both sides of Andrew, then leant in for a kiss. The blonde turned his head away just because, but it didn’t stop Neil, he pressed his lips on his neck instead. Andrew grunted in displease.

“Your neck fetish is not attractive.”

“You like it,” Neil answered, and Andrew could feel he was smiling.

What an accusation.
How true.

As Neil’s wet hair kept stroking his cheek and jawline, Andrew dug his fingers into it, but didn’t pull Neil’s head away which seemed to give more courage to the younger one. Neil spread kisses all over his neck, sometimes sucking on his skin carefully, sometimes moving up to his jawline, then down to his collarbone that was slightly visible. Andrew’s jeans felt tight, so very tight.

“Are we spending summer break together?” Neil asked when he was done with his exploration and pulled back a little to look into Andrew’s eyes.

“Don’t you have other plans?” he asked, bored.

“Matt and Allison invited me over, but I’d rather be with you.” Fuck. “Kevin goes to Thea now that he can finally exist without you. Nicky is flying to Germany as soon as finals are over.” He paused for a second. “What about Aaron?”

Andrew shrugged. “Haven’t asked, but he certainly isn’t fond of the idea of spending more time with you than necessary.”

“Same here,” Neil growled back. “Can I go with you to the house?”

That’d mean almost a month just the two of them. Andrew couldn’t say he wasn’t thinking about it himself. “Well, Coach’s couch is occupied already for May as I heard, so whatever.” One of the new kids had to leave his family right after graduation just like Neil did last year.

“Is that a yes?” Neil asked with a flaunty smile.

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Shut up.” He grabbed Neil’s nape and yanked him back to kiss him. “It’s a yes,” he muttered onto his lips.

They were going to be together during summer break. No busybodies, no roommates, no exy. It was alright, wasn’t it? If they spend time together, Neil could realize faster he didn’t want anything out of this foolish thing after all. And the faster he says no, the safer it would be for Andrew to go back where he belonged.

Because even if he felt determined before the game against the Ravens, now that that was behind them, but ahead only the uncertainty, the dark thoughts got back their power again. He was twenty years and five months old, and even if he wanted to try, he still wasn’t okay.

However, kissing Neil for who knows how long helped to feel alright even about that.

///

Two contradictory months passed by so fast that when life finally slowed down again, Neil couldn’t even be sure where he was. Being anxious about the championship, but feeling reassured and peaceful with Andrew. Working his body so hard that he felt like passing out every night, yet being able to stay awake for Andrew whenever they could steal some time alone. Feeling peaceful around Andrew, but at the same time having his mind and body on fire because of him. Feeling proud and satisfied after defeating Riko, but… There was no but there. Neil felt nothing else but good about Riko’s end.

He was done with the last of his finals, and already packed up his bags. Bags. He had three of them now – it was an unbelievable feeling to own so many things. Andrew was still in school, he had an oral exam till 3pm, Kevin was already with Wymack to spend some time with him before he leaves to meet Thea, so Neil was alone with Nicky. The older guy was frantically running around the suite, trying to gather all of his belongings that ended up everywhere during the one year. It was strange to think about, when they come back in June, they would be in different rooms. He was with Nicky only for two months, but it wasn’t bad having him around.

“Hey, beautiful, haven’t you seen my laptop’s charger somewhere?” Nicky asked, storming out of the bedroom.

Neil couldn’t even react to the form of address, Nicky called him whatever he felt like at the moment. “It’s already in your bag. I saw you putting it away.”

“Really?” Nicky put his hand on his head, and tugged on his curly, long hair a little. “I don’t even know where is my head anymore.”

“In the bathroom,” the younger one answered with a grin. “I just showered it with some cold water to cool it off.”

Nicky laughed, then waved at him. “You already done?”

Neil pointed at his bags, he was sitting on one of them. “Obviously.”

“Don’t be so supercilious! You only had two months to scatter your things around.”

“I packed them up in less than an hour when moving in here, so that’s a lost argument, my friend.” He was still grinning, but it slowly went away as Nicky’s expression broke. He had to cover his eyes. “What?”

“Nothing,” Nicky answered, but he was seriously tearing up. “I know you didn’t mean it, but hearing you talking about us as friends is still such a miracle.”

Neil couldn’t help but rolling his eyes. Nicky was such a crybaby. But he wasn’t wrong. It was a miracle. Neil always thought he would die alone. After his mother passed away, he spent a whole year being utterly depressed about the future what he had to spend all alone. Now he had eight friends. Eight friends he wanted to have around for the rest of his life.

“You are my friend. And I’m gonna miss you.” He only added that because he was sure Nicky would take it theatrically badly. He was right. The older one cried out, then ran to him, and Neil had no time to escape, Nicky’s arms were around him in the blink of the eye. “What is this?”

“It’s a hug, Neil! It’s a freaking hug, and you better endure it until I’m done with it.”

“You better be done with it fast,” he grumbled back, then awkwardly pat the older one’s shaking shoulder. “Done yet?”

“Oh, for god’s sake.” Nicky pulled back, then wiped his face. “You are turning into Andrew’s mini me. I don’t even want to imagine how you’ll get back after spending a whole month alone with him.”

“I’m not turning into anything. This is me.”

“Yeah, I know, kid, I know,” Nicky said, then ruffled Neil’s hair while he grimaced.

Neil Josten was still in the making, but his outline was already set. He wasn’t a nice guy, but he wasn’t a cruel man either. His father left his marks on him, but Neil would never be like him, because he loved his foxes dearly.

After a while he left Nicky to freak out alone, and went over to Matt. It was weird to knock on that door, but he didn’t have a key anymore. He wished he had when Aaron opened it up, though.

“What do you want?”

“Certainly not you,” he replied on a similarly annoyed voice. “Matt?” Aaron just vaguely gestured toward the living room, and Neil went in. His friend was in the bedroom, though. “Hey!”

“Oh, hi!” Matt greeted him back. “How was your math exam?” Neil waved to show let’s not talk about it. “Yeah, same with my psychology.” Matt snorted.

“Haven’t found anything that’s mine?”

“Just a half pair of socks, it’s out on your table. Aaron’s table,” he corrected himself. “Two months, and I’m still missing you like an idiot.” Matt laughed.

“I miss you, too.”

It came out so easily, and felt so true. When he told Matt that he needed to move over to Andrew’s room, the older one desperately tried to stop him. Neil failed to give a good explanation why this was happening, but Matt respected his decision in the end. They still spent a lot of time together, mostly in the girls’ room, though.

“You say that, but you still ditched me for summer break!”

“Oh, will you ever stop pouting about that?” Neil grinned at him.

“No, I won’t!”

“I promised to spend every minute with you in the resort when we go to the beach in July!” Allison booked a huge holiday house for them for five days, and they paid for it together – the girl, Matt and Neil. He was so excited about going somewhere just for the fun of it.

“That’s not the same, but I will make sure you really do.” Matt perhaps tried to sound threatening, but it was a hard job when he was smiling from ear to ear. However, he easily changed to serious. “Just give me a call if you want away from the monster, alright? You can come over anytime.”

Neil looked down at his shoes, and balled his hands to fist in his pockets. “Please, stop calling him that,” he said quietly. “He is not that bad.” Andrew wasn’t bad at all. They just couldn’t see it.

“You keep saying that.” Matt sighed. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Neil looked back, and forced a smile. “Thank you for the offer, but I really want to be with Andrew.”

The older one eyed him for a little, then cracked a smile. His was a lot more honest than Neil’s. “Yeah, I can see that.” Because Neil let him see it. He let all his walls down and let Matt see it. The older one linked his arm on Neil’s shoulder than ruffled his hair. “One of these days, you need to tell me if I won the bet or not,” he muttered, making sure Aaron couldn’t hear them outside.

Neil looked up at him, and his lips curled up. “You probably did.”

He got one more ruffle, but Matt wasn’t going to pry. He was aware that Neil would tell when he was ready to share, but not sooner. If nothing else, valuing his secrets definitely didn’t change even the least, and for now, Andrew was one of the most important ones.

When he arrived back to their room, the blonde was already there. “Your hair looks ridiculous,” he mumbled as greeting.

Neil ran his fingers through it, but didn’t feel like going to the mirror to try to actually fix it, so he just shrugged. “It’s seems to be a ‘Ruffle Neil’s hair’ day.” Andrew looked at him funny, but didn’t ask anything.

 

The carpet in front of the sofa in the house in Columbia was so comfortable that it became Neil’s favorite place in the last two weeks. They were already alone with Andrew for two weeks, and it was so good. Neil felt so happy that he doubted his smile left his face for more than a few minutes ever since they’d arrived. They spent a quiet time, though. It wasn’t a surprise, and Neil didn’t mind at all. When he wanted to do something more than laze around in the living room, he went for runs, or visited the local court to watch the Peacocks’ training. They were together but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be alone if they wanted. Andrew left for his room or to go on drives many times, too, and Neil was alright about it.

He had a notebook in front of him, and many colorful pencils and pens scattered around. They bought those the previous week when they went to the mall to get food. Neil didn’t talk about his hobby much – he couldn’t even remember telling Andrew that he wanted to draw him on his birthday –, but when he halted in front of the art supply store, the older one followed him inside without asking anything.

Neil had been drawing a lot ever since that day. The year was too hectic to actually think about drawing, but as the pencils were in his hand now, he just couldn’t stop. His head was full with ideas, and it made him almost as peaceful as Andrew’s silence could.

“Hey,” the older one greeted him after arriving back from a quick shopping trip. They were out of ice cream, sugar and coffee, which were the only groceries that they’d consumed – or it felt like that for Neil.

“Hi,” he said, but didn’t get up, just looked back at Andrew over his shoulder. “Got everything?”

“Fortunately, there is no way the supermarket would run out of ice cream in the summer.”

He left to the kitchen after that, so Neil only murmured to himself, “You are trying to challenge them, though.” If Neil hadn’t gone sure, Andrew would have lived on nothing else but ice cream.

The blonde came back with a pint that was coffee flavored, then sat down close to Neil’s lying body. He slid the notebook toward him, and Andrew offered the first spoon for him in exchange. He accepted it, but that was more than enough for him.

“Junkie,” Andrew muttered, after he looked through the pages Neil filled up since he went away.

He was sketching foxes in different colors. They all had some similarities to their teammates. “What can I say? Foxes are my favorite animals,” he answered with a grin.

“Bet you never even thought about foxes before coming here.” He was chewing on the spoon, looking at the fox that was colored like fire.

“Never really thought about any animals, I think.” He started to swing his feet behind himself. “I liked dogs perhaps.”

“Dogs are annoying. Too much trouble. Cats are easier to handle.”

Neil scoffed. “Is that so?” Andrew shrugged. “Does that come from experience?”

He only answered after gulping down three huge spoons of ice cream. “There were animals in some of the houses I lived in. These people tend to like to make lives miserable not just for the kids they keep.”

Neil’s legs stopped for a moment, but he tried to pretend nothing happened. Andrew had been mentioning his life from time to time like this, it shocked him every time. “And you took care of them?”

“Sure,” he grimaced. “Gave them food when nobody else did, nothing more.”

Silence fell on them after that, and only the noise of Neil’s pencil and the occasional cutter of Andrew’s spoon broke it. He tried to draw a cat, but it still resembled at a fox somehow in the end. The blonde shook his head, then lied down on the carpet because he was done with his ice cream. The loose shirt he was wearing revealed his collarbone just in front of Neil’s face. He swallowed hard, and bit his lower lip. It must have been pretty strong, because Andrew peeked up at him with a mocking look in his eyes. “Junkie.”

There was no doubt about this either. He was still not allowed to touch Andrew, he still didn’t see him revealing more skin than this, so he really felt like being addicted to the little things he’d gotten so far. “Can I?”

Andrew turned his head to the left and muttered a yes.

Neil pushed away most of the stationery, and climbed a little closer. He pressed a kiss on Andrew’s collarbone. It was so warm. And now that he was this close he could smell him, too. He must have been sweating in his black clothes, especially because he was wearing jeans even though it was 30C outside. He loved that smell. Andrew grunted when he ran his tongue along the bone, then he did a little louder when he sucked on it, too. The blonde raised his hand and tugged on Neil’s hair, but he didn’t plan to stop.

The kisses continued up on his neck, and Neil licked his salty skin, too. Andrew’s grip got harder and harder, then he turned his head back so they killed kiss. Neil wanted more, he couldn’t stop thinking about how Andrew’s body would taste and feel. He wanted to suck him off, too. He wanted to go further, but it still didn’t happen.

They were now lying opposite to each other, the top of Neil’s head touching Andrew’s shoulder like his did with Neil’s. They were kissing slower and slower as the living room got darker, but Neil’s arousal wouldn’t go away.

Neil was thinking a lot about how they didn’t really progress even if they had all the time now. He thought he was ready to go along with Andrew’s pace because it must have been difficult for him to deal with his memories and monsters. It’d only been half a year since Drake’s assault, plus the soulmate phenomenon just made everything harder. Neil noticed the moments when Andrew’s mind went dark if he felt his touches on the younger one’s body conveyed to his own. Neil would have been alright with rougher treatment, he had to realize he loved to be bitten, but Andrew was holding back whenever they were together. Neil didn’t want to do the same.

“Will you kick me out if I’m being very selfish here?” he asked really quietly, but looking into Andrew’s eyes without hesitation.

“What do you want?” the blonde asked back with a frown.

“Seeing you come.” Keeping the eye contact was a lot harder now as Andrew’s face went blank. “I don’t want you to just go away and jerk off alone. You make me feel amazing every time, and I’d like to try to give something back.”

Neil knew his face was burning, but he didn’t even blink as long as he could. Then he just kissed Andrew again, and as the older one let him continue it, he assumed his request wasn’t rejected just yet. His right hand that he kept on Andrew’s head so far slid down to the boy’s neck, and he could feel his pulse on his fingertips. It was just as fast as Neil’s.

“Can I?” he muttered between the kisses, not adding anything else so he can leave the details to Andrew to figure out.

“Come here!” the blonde said, and Neil moved immediately. He kneeled next to Andrew’s body, but wasn’t sure what to do. “Sit on my thighs.”

Neil carefully straddled him, and kept his hands on his own thighs until Andrew’s tense body eased a little, and the older one grabbed his wrists. Neil’s were shaking a little as Andrew lead their hands closer to himself, then laid the younger one’s palm on the middle of his own chest.

“Just over the shirt for now,” he said, then put his owns on Neil’s thighs. It was enough. For now. The time that for now implied seemed to be the brightest spot in Neil’s future at the moment.

First he just ran his right hand down on Andrew’s abdomen, feeling the hard muscles, feeling that body move under his touch. Andrew’s face was still blank, but his eyes seemed dark, and he was clearly nervous. Neil stroked him, carefully, up and down, then to the sides, learning every curve, every bump with more eagerness than he ever learned anything before. When he brushed over Andrew’s nipple the other sucked on his breath, so he did it again, with a hesitant smile.

“Do you like that?”

“It’s not a bad feeling.”

Neil’s smile widened, and he leaned forward. Andrew didn’t protest so he kissed the hardened spot, then suck on it. The grips on his thighs got harder. Geez, Neil wanted this so bad. He never thought he would want to have sex so bad with anyone. He moaned loud when Andrew’s right hand moved over to his groin, and pushed himself into his touch even more.

“Take off your clothes.”

He did so, throwing his t-shirt toward the couch, then got up and did the same with his pants and underwear, too. It was the first time that he was completely naked in front of Andrew, but the desire on the older one’s face made him forget about being shy. By the time he got back on him, Andrew opened up his jeans, and just a little bit pushed it down. Neil felt his stomach shrinking into a ball. He was so excited.

Andrew took hold of his nape, and pulled him down for a kiss. Neil was propping himself up on his chest to not fall, and teased his nipples some more. Andrew’s hands ran down on Neil’s back firmly then he grabbed the younger one’s ass and pulled him upward a little then grinned Neil’s erection to his own through his underwear. Neil groaned lowly, being unable to continue the kiss. His mouth was hanging open, and he had a hard time breathing, but he matched the pace Andrew set and moved his hips along.

His head fell to the crook of Andrew’s neck, he wasn’t supporting himself at all anymore, he was just a mess lying on the older boy’s body. It was a mistake. Andrew’s body slowly tensed up, then he stopped his hands before letting completely go of Neil. “Get off me,” he growled. How could anyone sound dark?

Neil immediately straightened up and climbed off him on the left side, then backed off to the sofa. He pulled his legs up to his chest, and all of a sudden felt embarrassed about his nakedness. Andrew sat up, too, and he pinched the bridge of his nose hard. “Fuck.”

“I’m sorry,” Neil said almost inaudible. “I shouldn’t have forced you–“

“You didn’t force me,” Andrew cut him off with an annoyed grimace. Neil couldn’t control his face; Andrew saw his fear clearly. “Come back here.” Neil shook his head in protest, so Andrew went to him instead. He was glaring down at Neil, then asked, “Is that a no?”

This wasn’t about Neil. It was all about Andrew’s boundaries and monsters. “I won’t be like them. I won’t let you let me be,” he muttered, feeling crashed, feeling the dread choking him. He wanted Andrew, and he failed to wait for him to come around. How was he different than those other men?

The older one crouched down in front of him so their eyes were on the same level now. Their knees almost touched. “You could not be like them even if you wanted to.”

Neither of them could be sure about that. They were hurt so much that turning into a monster wouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Neil carried his father’s genes inside of him, and who knew what could trigger them one day?

“You are not your father,” Andrew said, and reached for Neil’s face. He nuzzled into his touch. “And I am not the men that hurt me.”

Neil kissed his palm. “I don’t want to do anything that you aren’t 100% okay with.”

“I know.” Andrew let him kiss his hand some more, and they both were strongly aware of the scars under his armband. “Stretch out your legs.”

Neil did so, then Andrew lowered himself on his thighs. They should have done it like this from the beginning. Like this Andrew wouldn’t feel caged.

“Yes or no?”

A hesitant, small smile showed up on Neil’s face as he looked into those dark eyes. “It’s always yes with you.” Consent was important, but Neil wanted him to know that on his end, this was always okay. He understood Andrew’s reason, but that didn’t make his feelings different.

“Don’t always me.”

Andrew shut him up with a kiss before he could have come up with any smart reply. The kiss was fierce, violent, too, showing that Andrew was still fighting with something. Not Neil, but his own thoughts. His hands were mapping Neil’s chest, feeling up the scars like he was making sure it was indeed Neil under him. The younger one didn’t dare to do with his own anything else but holding Andrew’s neck on both sides.

A trembling gasp left his throat when Andrew touched his waning erection. Just a few strokes were enough to make him hard again, then Andrew pressed his thumb just under his tip firmly, and Neil had to drop his head back to the couch, because it just felt so good. Andrew bent down and bit his neck just above his shoulder, then sucked on it hard that it would leave a bruise. Neil didn’t mind, so he just pressed his hand on the same spot on Andrew’s neck, and massaged it hard so he would get his mind off the pain that he had to feel, too.

Andrew was pumping his shaft so fast and hard that it took Neil long seconds to realize his other hand disappeared from his chest. He glanced down at their groins, then gasped when noticed Andrew’s dick was out of his boxer. His heart clenched under the weight of this progress. He slid his fingers into the soft hair on Andrew’s nape and pulled him close to kiss him hard. When he managed to suck on Andrew’s tongue the older one groaned in pleasure. And Neil came. He whimpered a little as his warm cum splashed all over his abdomen.

“You weren’t loud. That’s a first,” Andrew muttered while carefully stroked him through his orgasm, looking mocking.

Neil said nothing, just started to kiss his slightly pink neck instead. He wanted to see Andrew come so bad. He wondered if his chest was just as pink under the shirt or not. Now that his left was free, Andrew took a firm grip on Neil’s nape and pressed his face even closer to himself. Neil was smiling, and gathered a little courage to move his palm down a little. Andrew didn’t tense up, so he slid his fingers over his nipple, then grinned when he hissed.

“Let me see you,” he said lowly as Andrew’s body shook even more now showing he was close to his orgasm.

The older one pulled his head away, and Neil stroked his jawline with his thumb while holding his neck steady. His forehead was shining with a few blond tuft stuck to it, his cheeks were red, and he was biting his lips together so hard that Neil could feel it, too. The look in his eyes seemed furious, and Neil had to wonder who he was so angry at.

“You look amazing,” he whispered, but Andrew covered his mouth up the next second.

“Shut up,” he growled, then leant down and pressed his forehead to Neil’s as his body shivered. Neil felt his cum mixing up with his own on his stomach.

Neil felt overwhelmed. He wanted to hug Andrew close, wanted to thank him to making this step, for his trust. He wanted to tell him that his heart felt so full that never before. He wanted to say so many things, but he stayed quiet, but not because that hand was still on his mouth. He knew Andrew wouldn’t want to hear any of it.

The blonde moved back fast, not even his breathing steadied yet, but he was already standing and turning away. “Go to shower first,” he said, and fished his crumpled pack of cigarette out of his jeans.

Neil pushed himself up on the couch, then on unsteady legs searched for his underwear. “Is everything alright?” he asked after putting them on.

“It’s going to be,” Andrew replied on a small voice, then went to the door.

Neil gathered the shorts and t-shirt he was sleeping in from Nicky’s room that he occupied in the last two weeks, then went under the shower. He battled his anxiety in the next fifteen minutes violently, because he didn’t want to doubt Andrew’s words.

When he came out, the older one was leaning on the back of the sofa, with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He also had his change of clothes shoved over his shoulder. Neil hesitated whether to go closer or just up to the first floor because talking maybe wasn’t a good idea now.

“You can sleep in my room.”

Neil halted in his step as he was ready to just go up, then turned around, and still saw Andrew clenching his jaw. He seemed angry, but he said it, and Andrew wouldn’t say anything he didn’t think over and accepted beforehand, right?

“Thanks,” Neil answered, and the blonde shrugged at him, then marched toward the bathroom.

Neil passed round the stairs and went to the room in the back – the door was open. He looked around, but everything was the same as that one time when he was in here on his birthday. There was a book put down upside down on the gray sheets, and he curiously read the title. Harry Potter and the Half-blood prince. Even he knew about the Harry Potter series, but honestly did not imagine Andrew being a fan of it. He sat down, then lifted the book to read the summary on the back. He understood nothing, but he noticed the small damages on the cover that showed the book wasn’t new.

He climbed back on the bed and leaned to the wall with his legs crossed. He started to read the first page, keeping his index finger where Andrew was. He read the whole first chapter while the older one appeared in the door.

“That’s the sixth book, what are you reading it for?” he asked, bored.

Neil looked up, and quite liked the sight of his damp hair sticking out to weird directions. “I was just curious. Didn’t understand a word,” he said, then laughed a little, and opened the book back to where Andrew was. He held it up for him, and Andrew put it down on the desk. “Do you like fantasy? Magic and stuff?”

The blonde shrugged. “I read whatever, doesn’t matter what it’s about.”

“That didn’t seem like something that you just picked up in a bookstore yesterday,” Neil pointed out.

Andrew came back to the bed, then waved at him. “I sleep by the wall.” Neil moved to the edge, and pulled the blanket out from under himself. Andrew climbed up behind him, then laid down with his back pressed to the wall.

Neil kept to the edge of the bed when he did the same. There was like a mile between them. Neil realized he should have grabbed his pillow, but it felt too late to go upstairs now, so he just stuffed his arm under his head. “So, why are you re-reading it?” he asked to avert the attention from how awkward they both were.

“The last book is coming out next month.”

“Oh!” Neil faintly remembered seeing advertisements in the television and magazines. He decided to not mention, with Andrew’s memory Neil doubted he needed to re-read it to remember. “Is it good?”

“No.”

The younger one snorted. “Why are you reading it then?”

“It’s not bad. But I read many good books before and wouldn’t consider this one of them.”

“Tell me about the good ones.”

Andrew looked at him funny for that request. However, Neil didn’t back off, he was just staring at the older one challenging, waiting. Then Andrew started to talk. He did so in his usual way, short sentences very fast, but he was pretty good at summarizing stories without really spoiling much, yet making Neil feel a little like he wouldn’t mind reading them. It was kind of surprising that Andrew added many books that were about science or space, but they seemed to link to the novels that were mostly science-fiction. Neil knew Andrew’s major was physics but he had to realize he hardly had any idea about what the boy was actually studying.

He had no idea how much time passed, but his eyelids grew gradually heavier. He wasn’t bored, oh, fuck no, he wanted to know more about Andrew, and it seemed like a logical thing that knowing about the stories he liked was linked to getting to understand him more. But. Neil felt so peaceful, so relaxed, so at home that his body was ready to doze off for Andrew’s calm, steady voice.

He came back to his senses at the moving of the other body. “I just turned off the light, go back to sleep.”

The room was dark now so Neil didn’t bother to try to open his eyes. He felt Andrew resettling again by the wall, and he imagined feeling the warmth of his body, too. He was being watched, but it only caused him feeling even more secure. He was at the safest place possible, he was where had to be. And it was all thanks to the boy who shared his bed with him. They weren’t two frightened kids hiding under a bed in their heads now. They were alright.

Neil was dreaming about the little blond boy under the bed that night. He was still hiding, but he didn’t cry or seemed frightened to death now.

“See? I told you, everything was going to be fine,” Neil said, smiling. The boy let him stroke his head, but he was looking at him with doubt. “The sun is rising, and nothing can stop it now.”

The boy said nothing, but when Neil tried to pull his hand away, he took it, and didn’t let go. Neil stayed by his side, holding his hand in silence until he woke up.

He was nineteen years, four months and thirteen days old and even if he didn’t remember any of that dream, he felt the reassurance it gave him inside. He looked at Andrew’s peaceful face, then at his hand between them. Knowing that one day he would be able to wake up and just naturally hold that hand was something that stirred his soul up. He could have it all. Exy, friends and his soulmate. Neil wouldn’t let anyone to take this away from him.

///

When he woke up the next morning, Neil was already gone. Andrew faintly remembered arising from his dreamless sleep for a few seconds when he climbed out of bed, but he almost right away fell back into it. Thinking about it now put a grimace on his face. He was expecting his brain to freak the fuck out at the presence in his bed, but the only thing that happened was falling asleep was harder than usually. He kept staring at Neil’s dark silhouette for hours, listening to his calm breathing and small moves. They were really small, as Neil mostly slept in the same position like Andrew did, but even that was distracting at first. However, he got used it a lot quicker than he gave credit to himself for when debating about this while Neil showered.

He just had to make the offer, though. After he so abruptly shut Neil out at first, Andrew kind of forced himself to go on with what they’d started. He wanted to fight his brain really badly, and Neil’s words as always helped to make the decision easier. Andrew had a huge bag of trust issues weighting on his shoulders, but one thing he was entirely sure about. Neil would never hurt him physically. He might do damage mentally in the end, but the younger one hadn’t gotten predatory violence in him. Neil had a sharp tongue and he was always keen on picking fights, but he wasn’t cruel. Andrew knew he would stop at any given minute, and that helped progressing.

The process was still pretty freaking hard, especially with Neil being so ready to give everything all at once. It seemed like Andrew was challenging both of them with the slow steps. But he couldn’t just take everything away all at once. That thought just repulsed him because it felt what all those men did to him. Moreover, he was still doubting himself every woken minute. The monster was in him, lurking in the darkness, and even if it was quiet lately, what was the guarantee that he wouldn’t lose control over his mind if he let himself get lost in Neil’s body? Nothing. Andrew knew he wouldn’t survive hurting Neil. It was just as much a threat as Neil pushing him back to nothingness.

Being lost in his own dark thoughts was the stupidest thing he could do, though, so he got out of bed and the room, too. As he turned the corridor that connected his room to the living room, the first thing he noticed in the kitchen was the exact distraction he wanted from his thought.

Neil was standing with his back to Andrew, most likely making breakfast, but that wasn’t half as shocking as his sight. He was wearing one of his newer underwear that he picked for him on one of their trips to the mall. It was a really tight boxer, showing off the curves of his ass like he was wearing nothing. Andrew followed the two, red lines that ran up on his buttocks from Neil’s thighs to the elastic band with his eyes countless times. His groin felt hot, and he wanted to tear the tank top that covered the dimples above the boxer. No, actually he wanted the boxer off, too, he just wanted to fuck him so bad right there, pushed to the counter that it was enough to sober him up a little. Andrew wasn’t going to lose control.

He made some noise to let Neil know he was there, but the younger one still startled as he went up to him and pressed his body to his. “What are you doing, dimples?” he muttered, curiously looking down at the mess on the counter. He couldn’t put his chin on the other one’s shoulder but it was even better, because he could bite into his shoulder blade that was so deliciously sticking out from the tank top.

“Dimples?” Neil giggled. “We already discussed that I’d lost those.”

“Not quite,” Andrew answered, and lifted his arms to put them on Neil’s hips. With his thumbs he massaged the spots where the dimples were hiding under the tank top.

Neil sighed, and unintentionally pushed his ass back to Andrew’s crotch. He tensed up for a second, but as he felt the blonde’s arousal, the sigh was changed for a muffled moan. “Andrew,” he breathed out, perhaps not really sure what he wanted.

Andrew moved his hips, jerking his erection up to Neil’s ass. The hard muscles and flesh made him groan, too as the younger one moaned his name again. Neil was now propping himself firmly up on the counter’s edge to not just collapse to it, and it left space for Andrew’s hand to slip forward, but he asked first, “Yes or no?”

“Fuck yes!”

So damn hungry. He squeezed Neil’s already half hard dick hardly which made him moan louder, and pushing his ass back to Andrew’s crotch more fiercely. He kept moving his hand up and down on Neil’s shaft until he felt the tip peeking out of the underwear. When he pressed his thumb to the leaking slit, Neil arched back with his whole body, dropping his head on Andrew’s shoulder.

“Fuck, that feels so good.”

“Does it now?” Andrew muttered back mockingly.

“Yes, everything you do to me is just amazing,” Neil said, then with his right hand he reached back and buried his fingers into Andrew’s hair.

“Junkie,” he commented the same way as previously, then bit down on Neil’s neck. He couldn’t deny that he liked to hear all the noises the younger one gave out. Even the disappointed whining that left his mouth when he stopped his hand, and pulled away a little. “Shut up, and just wait a sec.”

He tugged down Neil’s boxer to his thigs, then pushed his sweatpants and underwear down too just enough to get his dick out. Neil heard what he was doing, it was obvious from the tension in his shoulders, but Andrew knew what he was doing. Desire was like lightening and thunders in his body, a storm that threatened to destroy everything, but Andrew knew he can survive it. It was so much easier to win over his doubts when Neil was next to him.

“Squeeze your legs tightly together,” he commanded. Neil did so, and Andrew spit into his hand a few times, before spreading the saliva on his shaft. Together with his pre-cum it would be enough he was sure. An almost inaudible, shaking breath escaped Neil’s throat at the noise of Andrew pumping his own dick. He couldn’t even see, and it still made him feel good. Andrew’s stomach twisted strangely at the thought that he was so wanted. “I’m not going to fuck you,” he said lowly.

“I assumed. I still want it; whatever it is you want.”

”I want you.”

Andrew stepped back really close. They both shuddered as the blonde’s hard dick pressed to Neil’s ass. The younger one had to squeeze the counter again for support.

“It’s so hot,” he mumbled, dropping his head, most likely with his eyes shut.

”You are the hot one.”

Andrew reached forward again, and grabbed Neil’s cock, massaging the tip, enjoying every shiver that ran through the boy’s body. Then as he squeezed his dick between Neil’s thighs, just under his ass, Andrew’s head fell on the younger one’s back, too, and he moaned in synch with him. “Fuck.”

“Yes,” Neil answered him with a grunt.

Andrew pulled back, then jerked his hips forward again, hitting Neil’s balls with his tip, making the younger one whimper in pleasure. Andrew tried to move his hand on Neil’s shaft the same rhythm he pounded his thighs, and he mostly succeeded, only occasionally falling out of it when the sensation was overwhelming. Everything was overwhelming. Neil’s body, his smell, his warmth, his moans and keen whining. Neil was overwhelming.

But Andrew didn’t lose control.

He was biting and sucking on the exposed skin of Neil’s back, but couldn’t reach his neck as the younger one seemed to be unable to lift his head. Andrew felt he was close, his body trembled constantly now, and incomprehensible whimpering replaced the moans.

“Please, make me come, I can’t, it feels incredible, so good, make me come.”

Andrew’s grip tightened around Neil’s dick, and now he concentrated mostly on his hand instead of his own pleasure. He made the pumping faster, harder, and Neil reached his orgasm within seconds. He tensed up so much that the muscles of his thighs tightened around Andrew’s cock so he grunted, too in pleasure as Neil’s warm cum spread all over his fingers.

He pulled his dick away from Neil, then started to jerk off, pressing his tip to the hard muscle in the boy’s ass. He was massaging it with his hand, and couldn’t stop himself from imaging how it would feel to fuck him. “Oh, fuck, Neil,” he hissed as his abdomen tensed up.

“Yes, Andrew, come for me, come on my ass,” Neil said, his voice sounded hoarse and deep, and Andrew felt it resonate in his dick.

His hand was moving frantically now, and he squeezed it so hard that it made Neil moan, too. “Oh my god,” he exhaled the words in surprise as he shivered from the weird sensation.

Andrew’s cum shot on his buttocks, and he groaned deeply, burying his face into the hard muscles of Neil’s back. He was panting heavily, and couldn’t really take his eyes off his dick pressing to Neil’s ass. It was a sight he wanted to see for a long time. They were still far away from all the fantasy Andrew lived through in his dreams in the past months, but they were getting there. They both wanted this. It could be fine. Everything could be fine.

“Don’t be so sure,” the monster whispered in the darkness.

Andrew pulled back, put his dick away before reaching for the paper towel on the lowest shelf above the counter. He cleaned Neil off without a word, but let the boy pull his underwear up by himself. By the time he turned around, Andrew knew his face had the usual expressionless features.

“Good morning to you, too,” Neil smiled hesitantly, then held his hand up. Andrew stepped closer, and let him to pull him in for a slow kiss by his nape.

“There is no such thing as good morning,” he replied when they parted again. “But this one wasn’t too displeasing,” he added, and licked his lips with Neil’s stare fixated on his mouth. “What’s the disaster you created behind you?”

Neil snorted. “It’s completely under control. No disaster.” He turned around again, and grabbed the whisk again. “I’m making pancakes.”

“No shit,” Andrew said, then leaned on the sink next to him. He washed his hands while examining the scenery. There was flour everywhere. “I wasn’t aware you need to spread the flour on a counter.”

“You startled me, man, I dropped the damn bag,” he said shaking his head but smiling widely. “I should make you clean it up.” As Andrew gave him an uninterested look, he just rolled his eyes. “This is the only dish my mom made me learn, because I had a period when I wanted nothing else but pancakes, and she was fed up with making it.”

“I thought you don’t like sweets.”

“I don’t like too sweet things. I like pancakes with fruits and minimal sugar.”

Andrew made a face. “You are a freak.”

Neil laughed now. “What else is new?”

The older one got quiet until Neil tried to take control back over the mess, but there was something on his mind, and somehow this morning his tongue was a lot lighter than usually. “When did you wake up?”

“Hm? Why?” Neil asked, turning back a little by the garbage can. As his body twisted, Andrew’s eyes fell on his ass again. Damn, he should be wearing pants.

“There was no flour or egg in the house last night.”

“Oh. Yeah, I went to the small shop nearby,” he said, seemingly a little nervous now. When he came back to the counter, Andrew expectantly raised an eyebrow. His question was still unanswered. “Like two hours ago maybe? I showered, because I was a sweaty mess, this heat is unbearable. Then went out to the shop, and here I am.”

“Couldn’t sleep?”

Neil scoffed. “Andrew. I fell asleep around like 10pm, and as now it’s 10am, I woke up at 8. I don’t remember ever sleeping 10 hours before.”

They eyed each other for long seconds. Neil’s face was all open, so Andrew could see even the little hesitation in him to admit that. He was honest, and to an extent to even show that it made him perhaps think about the weight of this happening. Andrew somehow understood that making pancakes was a way for him to kill time until he woke up, but also because he wanted Andrew to be in a good mood. As Neil was in one.

He wanted to be honest, too. “I had a hard time falling asleep,” he admitted on a low voice, and battled down the urge to avert his eyes. “But I could get used to this.”

Neil’s lips curled up a little. “Really?”

He nodded, then stepped away from the sink. “I’m gonna shower. I reek of jizz.”

“You are not alone with that.”

For a second he wanted to offer Neil to go to the bathroom together. For a moment he thought he would be able to do it. But the doubts were still there, tormenting his mind, so he decided to not play with fire. One step at a time, as Bee always had said. Neil needed to understand that. “Well, don’t get any of it into my pancakes.”

“That’s definitely not the secret ingredient my mom taught me.”

Going away being followed by Neil’s cheerful laughter was something reassuring. Peaceful even. Andrew had to wonder, was there any part in his life when he felt like that? Peaceful? That woman and the first few months when the monster wasn’t in the house was perhaps something similar. But it didn’t last long enough to actually be able to hush his fears. Andrew always anticipated the moment when they would realize, he wasn’t worth it after all, when they would just kick him back to the system because they wanted a less fucked up kid.

That insecurity was still in him, but there were moments like this when he could forget all about them. When he felt content because Neil appeared to be – could have been – something to hold onto. And someone who wanted to hold onto Andrew. That was… that was an incredible, ground shaking thing to hope for. To believe in. But he wanted to believe in it at these moments. He couldn’t deny that completely. These were the moments when he didn’t want to just wait for Neil to walk away, he actually wanted to hope for him to stick around. To want Andrew for a long time the same way he seemed to be now.

As he looked down at his arms under the splashing water, he felt the fear clawing into his insides, wanting him to be afraid, to give up on these strange, new hopes. It was there, and he doubted it would leave anytime soon. One step at a time. Because even if it was a slow process, progress happened until he didn’t give in to his fears.

“Hey, you!”

He startled at the knock and voice. He turned the faucet to hear better. “What?”

“I forgot to buy whip cream. Do you want me to go back and get some?”

Andrew just stood there for a few seconds in baffled silence. Such an ordinary question. Question that normal people ask on a Saturday afternoon. A question that Andrew couldn’t even imagine getting one day.

“Andrew?”

“No need. I can eat it with ice cream and jam,” he answered.

He could hear Neil snorting. He could see him waving at him for having a sweet tooth. The door was closed but he knew Neil did all that. He could see his amused smile just like he was standing in front of him. And it made him feel so normal.

As he let the water run again, the sight of his scars didn’t disturb him all that much. That was rock bottom, the last six years in darkness and apathy were rock bottom. But Neil came, and the connection that meant nothing more than pain for twenty years, slowly started to be something more than a way of life to torture him. Now it was something he could see in positive light, and maybe, just maybe, one day he could be grateful for it to exist. Because without it, Neil wouldn’t have ended up where he was. Neil probably wouldn’t have been even alive anymore, because he stayed alive all those years for the tiny hope that one day they could meet.

Now it was Andrew’s turn to grab that hope and not let go. To not cut their ties, but actually make it stronger, strong enough to hold both of them up.

“Neil is my soulmate.” It was the first time he acknowledged that. He was standing again at the door of the kitchen, watching the younger one fidgeting with the frypan, doing something just for Andrew. He was watching him turn around, sweat shining on his face, hair sticking to his forehead and neck, then Neil’s face lit up, his silly smile was widening, and Andrew let the warmness he caused sink deep into his soul. “Neil is my soulmate.”

But that didn’t mean more than a base. It was the foundation and it was up to them what they would build on it. They seemed to have strong pillars, but nothing was ever just safe from destruction. Andrew knew that more than anyone. Even if things seemed to be leading somewhere, everything could get wrecked in the end. It all depended on them, it was up to them to protect it. And Andrew was fucking good at protecting things he really wanted. He didn’t need a promise to want to do so now. Neil’s smiling face was enough.

He wanted to protect that smile for his own sake, too. Because Andrew did not want to be pushed back to rock bottom ever again. He saw the sun rising, and now he wanted to stick around enough to see it raise to the highest point. To the point where everything could be just fine. That’s all they needed. To be finally, really, really fine.

At that moment it really did not matter how old he was. It felt like, he was just about to start really living.