The stands were roaring as they filed out of the locker room for warm ups. Neil was full of nervous energy and pulled Renee and Andrew into a light jog around the court. He kept his head down, focusing on the rhythmic sound of their shoes slapping as they ran. He let the sounds of the fans wash over him in a dull, indecipherable roar, trying to avoid the tightness in his chest. This was the qualifying game for playoffs and it meant everything to Neil.
Kevin dragged Neil across the court to run some last minute drills and stretch out before the game started.
Matt came to a stop by Neil and offered him a fist and a smirk.
"Breathe, man. This is our night," he said.
Neil took the advice and took a sharp breath in through his nose and huffed it out his mouth. This was their night. The team had been doing amazing in practices, and Kevin and Neil had attempted to tempt Andrew into giving it his all. Neil was confident. The Bobcats really didn't have shit on the Foxes. Looking into the stands, the bright orange that had come to mean home easily drowned out the smattering of blues and greens.
Dan hip checked him just hard enough to jostle him out of his thoughts. She shot him a toothy grin before taking her place on the court. It settled something that was out of place in his chest. There was no one else he would rather go to the playoffs with.
Kevin tapped the butt of his racquet on the court before passing his racquet from his right hand to his left.
Coach Wymack banged his fist on the plexiglass and shot Kevin a proud smile that screamed, "That's my boy!" And Kevin lit up like a firecracker before settling into an easy reverential seriousness that he reserved for exy and could most readily be found in a monastery. Exy was Kevin Day's deity of choice and Neil didn't think there was anything that would keep them from winning.
Neil closed his eyes for a moment. The ground was solid beneath his feet, and the permanent smell of sweat and hard work overpowered the sharp smell of cleaner. He was strong. This was home. He could do this.
He opened his eyes and allowed a quick glance over his shoulder at Andrew. Where Neil had to convince himself he was capable, looking at Andrew, he needed no convincing at all that the other man was capable. He gave a brief pause for the anticipation of the conversation he was going to have with Andrew after the game, before he got his head back in the game.
Mirroring Neil was Eyan Matthers, the biggest player on the Bobcats. He towered over Neil at 6'3" and 210 pounds, but Neil wasn't concerned; he was faster. Neil took a minute to shake out the kinks.
And then the game was on. Neil focused down to a pinpoint. The only thing in the world was the game. All of his focus was in the game and only as a secondary thought did he consider the pull of his muscles. "Make it to the playoffs." Was a mantra on a loop in his head. The longer the game wore on, the more settled Neil became. Andrew was on fucking fire, he hadn't allowed anything past him. And Kevin played with the versatility his ambidexterity brought. Neil had never been more impressed in his entire goddamn life.
It happened with seven minutes left in the third period.
A poor pass from the Bobcats had Neil snagging the pass mid-play before launching it down the court to Kevin right after yelling, "Back right, down," in French. Kevin spun hard and angled his racquet down to scoop the pass before making a beautiful shot on goal. 3-1, Foxes.
Neil was still riding the high of his interception and Kevin's goal when he got hit.
He hadn't seen it coming and hadn't had time to brace for it.
He felt the body hit him on his blind side. His momentum paired with the hit took him forward too fast. Too fast.
He felt himself go airborne and time slowed down. It was almost comical, it was slow enough that his mind could catalogue all the ways he might save himself, but it was too fast for his brain to get the message to the rest of his body.
He heard the crack of his helmet on the court and had a hysterical thought that his head had bounced like a basket ball.
And then nothing more.