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tumbling ain't the same as falling

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Neil Josten lets his cigarette burn down without taking a drag, inhaling slow and even. It’s the smell he’s after, not the nicotine. The reminder it gives him is enough to keep him steady, keep him present, and also to remind him that he shouldn’t be here at all.

Neil Josten isn’t really Neil Josten. Neil Josten isn’t really real. The man behind the name and half-hidden behind the face is a born runner, barely outstepping his pursuers, and he should really know better than try to make a place for himself. The smoke reminds him of the cost of that – gasoline and charred meat and burning metal.

Then again, he figures, if his father comes looking for him again, this won’t be the place he looks.

“Neil,” Katelyn’s voice emerges from behind the door just before her head does. “Ugh.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he tells her, used to her complaints by now. Apparently smoking isn’t an approved Vixen habit, not even if you don’t really smoke. “What do you need?”

“I’m just checking you’re alright.” She slides around the door, closing it behind herself. The building the Vixens live in is amongst rows of similar campus housing, a three-story block of a thing amongst several turned-about twins facing different sides of the campus. “Too boisterous for you?”

“Something like that.” Neil’s high school cheer career was brief but went a long way in educating him in being part of a team. This is something else altogether, living together all the time when Neil has recently spent so much time alone. That, along with having an actual bed to call his own, has been the biggest adjustment for him. He’s already coming to like the Vixens, but they’re a team largely made of confident extraverts, and Neil isn’t the same as them.

“That means yes,” Katelyn translates with a smile. She’s a confident extravert too, but the buzzing brightness she approaches the days with is stripped back at night to a quieter kind of certainty.

She, he knows, wants to be a doctor. The partial scholarship they receive as Vixens was too good for her to turn down with years of study to go yet, even with the added pressure of practices on top of everything else, she’s a straight-A student. And for some reason she looked at Neil amongst the newly recruited freshmen and has adopted him straight away, folding him under her wing.

“It’s fine,” she goes on. “You’ll get used to it. And they’ll settle down, too.”

Katelyn is only a year ahead of him, but she sounds like a great elder when she talks like that. It’s a little bit amusing.

“Can’t promise they’ll stop hitting on you, though,” she continues with the ghost of a smile.

“You know I’m not interested in that,” Neil replies. All he cares about is scraping a tiny place out for himself here, having a reason to not just run and run and run until he dies, and the sweet exertion of his body bending and catching and holding up under someone’s weight.

Most of the team live for the crowds, for flirting and holding attention. Neil’s different from them, because he’s frightened of people looking at him long enough to see through him. That extends to his teammates who offer to help him with his classwork or want to sit next to him at meals or work with him in practice.

“That’s the fate of Vixens,” she says, holding a hand to her forehead in mock-distress. “Popular, surrounded by fans, and utterly unattainable.”

Neil snorts, rolling his eyes. “Sure.”

“It’s the truth. I would know.” Her tone is virtuous, and still teasing. There’s a knife-edge to her humour most of the time, but Neil is developing a soft spot for her when she’s gentle, too.

He doesn’t trust her, because he doesn’t trust anyone. What he’s finding is that not trusting people doesn’t always mean not liking them.

“C’mon,” she says, bumping their shoulders together. “Let’s go in. I’ll cover for you if you want to head to bed.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Neil replies, and follows her back inside.

 


 

The first time Neil meets Aaron Minyard, he feels the terrible grip of panic seize him. He breathes one, two, three, and then thinks – no armbands. Serious expression, no trace of the grin that is peak gossip-fodder at PSU. This, then, is the normal twin, and not the one reporters love to write about.

Katelyn looks up and smiles when she sees Neil, shoving books out of the way so he can sit next to her. He hands her the coffee he bought for her, keeping the other for himself.

“Sorry,” he says to the Fox in their midst. “I didn’t realise you would be joining us.”

“Aaron, this is Neil. He’s a freshman with the Vixens,” Katelyn explains.

Aaron looks him up and down, eyes narrowed. “You don’t look like a cheerleader.”

“The skirt doesn’t suit me, you’re right,” Neil replies, and then when Aaron blinks like he’s surprised by that rejoinder, “You think I haven’t heard that one before?”

Katelyn, always keen to keep the peace, says, “Neil, Aaron is in my biology class. I need some help on one of the concepts from this week.”

She’s talking too much. Neil, a liar himself, recognises that when he hears it. He also doesn’t give a shit, so he pulls out his books and gets to work in silence.

He didn’t really intend to make friends with any of the other Vixens when he arrived, and nor did he intend to join a library study group. Katelyn is a whirlwind, though, so he’s here at least once a week with her and a collection of other Vixens and then their various hangers-on – boyfriends, friends, class groups, whatever. Katelyn presides over all of them with benevolence and a little steel.

For all she smiles sweet like all the others, underneath that is a steel trap. Not that it’s a façade – Katelyn is genuinely warm, and genuinely intelligent, and likes to win. So it’s not entirely surprising that she, a girl with the pick of anyone on campus, would choose rough, wary-eyed Aaron Minyard who looks at her like she’s stars, beautiful and too far away to ever touch.

She picked Neil, too. And Neil and Aaron are much more alike than the latter can imagine.

Neil watches the two of them interact, so careful with each other, from the corner of his eye while he ostensibly does problem sets. It feels like two worlds colliding for him – this man is on the same team as Kevin Day, who Neil should be a long way away from and yet can’t seem to escape. This man is what Neil should have been in a better world, a backliner for a Class 1 Exy team.

Better is relative, when the alternative is being dead. Neil has and will settle for what he has now, because he’s alive to take it. That doesn’t include signing himself up for the entanglement that another Vixen would be, or the kind Katelyn seems to be interested in.

Katelyn catches him later in his room, letting herself inside and closing the door behind her. She smirks a little as she does it, like she knows exactly what people are going to say to her. A year ago, Neil would have had no idea what was putting that look on her face, but by now he’s well and truly accustomed to the concept of team gossip.

The smile falls off the second she’s inside. “I know you’re probably wondering about Aaron.”

Neil has been lying across his bed, trying and failing to read a section of his Spanish textbook. He drops it onto the mattress at his side. “I think you’ve got the wrong person.”

Neil Josten is quiet, doesn’t indulge in gossip, doesn’t listen to it either. There might be rumours about him and Katelyn, but both of them know the rumours are just that. His only real interest in this is an Ex-Raven, and he’s not stupid enough to think that Kevin Day is in any way involved in Katelyn inviting Aaron to studying with them.

“Okay,” Katelyn says. “Just – I know you…you can’t say anything to anyone, okay? We’re just…”

“Studying together?” Neil completes for her. He raises an eyebrow. “I’m not going to say anything to anyone. It’s not my business.”

She looks back at him for a long moment, her back pressed to his door, her brown eyes level. Then she sighs. “I wouldn’t ask for no reason.”

“I know you wouldn’t,” Neil replies. That’s all he really cares about, but he thinks it might not be all Katelyn needs to say.

“We’re not…we are just studying,” she continues, biting gently at her lower lip. “It’s just that his brother can’t know.”

There are all kinds of questions Neil could ask. Not a single one occurs to him as he pillows his head on his folded arm. “Well, I’m not going to tell him. I’ve never even met him.”

Later, he’ll look back on this moment, and think; famous last words.

Chapter Text

Aaron Minyard flits in and out of Neil’s life from then on, though they very rarely interact one-on-one. Aaron seems disinterested in Neil, which is fine, and Neil himself mostly feels like a chaperone. The two of them only ever seem to meet under the cover of studying, and if they see each other outside of school they do it so secretly Neil never sees a sign of it.

He’s just started to forget the significance of Aaron’s presence in a haze of practices and games and classwork when he’s forcefully reminded of it. He and Katelyn show up to the library and find Aaron and a few others with another Fox at their table.

Nicolas Hemmick is another backliner, and you’d never pick him out as Aaron’s cousin if you didn’t already know. Neil wouldn’t recognise him without the Fox hoodie he’s wearing with his name on the back, having only ever seen him across the Exy court in his gear, but between his considerably darker skin and the actual emotion on his face, he looks nothing like Aaron.

They’re sitting with Amanda, Leigh and Harry, who are more of Katelyn’s science major disciples. Katelyn slides into one of the empty seats, leaving Neil to sit beside Nicolas.

“Hi,” he says as soon as Neil pulls his seat in. “I’m Nicky. It’s Neil, right? Aaron’s told me all about you.”

“No I haven’t,” Aaron drones as Neil takes the hand Nicky offers to shake.

“Enough I wanted to meet you for myself,” Nicky says with a wink. He’s flirting – a year ago Neil might not have recognised it at all, but at least now he knows what he’s ignoring as he pulls his books out of his satchel. “You’re a Vixen. I’ve seen you at our games.”

“Yeah,” Neil replies.

“What classes are you taking? Do you know what you want to major in?”

“Um, Math and English and Spanish. Nothing exciting. And no, not yet.”

“Spanish? Ooh, that’s kind of hot. Are you any good?” Nicky asks, “I speak German, but it’s not quite as sexy as Spanish. Just don’t tell my boyfriend I said that, he’s actually German.”

Neil doesn’t quite know how to reply to that. “I – won’t?”

“Nicky,” Aaron says, earning himself a flashing grin and Neil a moment’s respite as Nicky digs out a book and pen from the bag hanging over the back of his chair.

They’ve been studying for about fifteen minutes when Katelyn stands. “I’m just going to run and grab a coffee. Do you guys want anything?”

Neil shakes his head, but some of the others ask for Katelyn to pick up drinks for them. Aaron stands too with a brusque offer to help carry things, following Katelyn to the stairwell. Nicky watches them go and whistles cheerily.

“Lovebirds,” he says directly to Neil, mouth curved into a smirk. Neil, who is used to Katelyn shutting down every whisper of her and Aaron being anything more than study partners amongst the Vixens, just stares at him. “It’s fine, you don’t need to say anything. You probably have insider information, though, and there’s big money riding on it, so if you wanted to just whisper something in my ear…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Neil replies flatly, turning his page. Nicky laughs but leaves him be.

Katelyn and Aaron return a short while later, distributing drinks around the table. Despite Neil not having asked for anything, Katelyn brings him a little bottle of the grapefruit juice he confessed to liking for its tartness, depositing it by his hand with a smile and a whispered, “Hydrate.”

After that things go pretty much as usual, with sparse gentle chatter and the sound of pens scratching on paper. Neil sinks into a reading, though he keeps getting distracted by thoughts of the routine they’re working on at the moment. He’s not good at sitting still for long, his mind drifting when his body can’t. He ends up borrowing Katelyn’s laptop and half-listening to a man talk through vague useless Spanish sentences about buying fish and cheese through headphones.

Katelyn’s fingers tapping the table in his range of vision bring him back to the present, out of consideration of the Foxes’ last game and his current floor work for practice later. She’s smiling when he pauses the disk and takes his headphones out.

“Welcome back,” she says. “Are you nearly done? It’s pretty much time to head to the gym.”

“Yeah,” Neil says. When he glances around, most of their group has left – it’s just the two Foxes who’ve stuck around, though they’re packing up as well.

“Hey, Neil,” Nicky says, faux-casual. “Have you heard about the banquet dinner they do for the Exy teams?”

“Yes?” Neil says, puzzled. He has – there’s been mass speculation in the media, now that the Ravens have come south. Ever since the interview Kevin and Riko did together on live television, it seems like the insanity over them as opponents has peaked into a total whitewash across the sports news channels.

“I really need a date to it,” Nicky goes on. “Erik – my boyfriend – lives in Germany, and seeing as Katelyn agreed to going with Aaron, I’m hoping you’ll come with me.”

Neil’s immediate reaction is to say no. That’s because by now he’s used to turning down anyone and everyone who propositions him, disinterested in the potential issues they might bring with them and usually them in general.

He hasn’t kept all of the promises he made to his mother before she died, but he knows that girls are off limits. Boys never came up in their conversation, but Neil doubts that they’re any different. He can’t afford the distraction, or the danger they might bring down on him.

“Uh,” he says. When he glances at Katelyn – and when had she agreed to go as Aaron’s date, because that doesn’t seem to Neil like a way to stop Aaron’s brother and teammate from finding out about them – she’s looking at him with big eyes. She mouths the word please.

She presumably has her reasons. Neil wishes she’d disclosed them before putting him on the stop like this, but he still says, “Okay?”

Nicky doesn’t look at all bothered by his non-existent enthusiasm. “Awesome!”

His cousin is staring at Neil, but he doesn’t speak. Neil can’t pick his thoughts from his expression.

“You’ll be able to travel with us, so that’s no issue,” Nicky buzzes. “Clothes, though. Do you have anything to wear?”

“He definitely doesn’t,” Katelyn says, and then takes mercy on Neil at last. “I’ll make sure he’s presentable, don’t worry.”

Nicky and Neil have to exchange phone numbers before the two of them finally leave him and Katelyn alone. Neil thinks he does well to keep a lid on demanding an explanation until they’re most of the way to the gym and well out of range of being overheard.

“I thought you two were just studying,” he mutters, adjusting his bag on his shoulder.

“He asked me,” she replies, a little helpless. She means I couldn’t say no – it’s right there in her tone. “And then we – Nicky needs a date. And it’s easier to explain if we both go?”

Neil doesn’t know how to feel about being used to deceive a man he’s never actually met. That said, Andrew Minyard can’t be that perceptive if he doesn’t notice how much time his twin spends in the library with a pretty cheerleader.

“Look, Nicky’s sweet, and he thinks you’re really cute,” Katelyn says, and then, when she remembers who she’s talking to, “Not that you care, just – for me?”

“Why do you think I said yes,” Neil says into his collar, adjusting his hood. The smile he gets for that is far brighter than the thinning autumn sun.

It’s one evening. Neil has made himself plain, so he’s a scrubby bush amongst the hothouse flowers that make up the Vixens. There’s no reason he’ll stick out amongst the Foxes, and he knows better than draw attention to himself. He’ll keep his mouth shut, and it’ll be fine.

 


 

The thing is, he’s forgotten that agreeing to associate with Foxes means actually having to associate with the Fox he really, really shouldn’t. They’re loaded onto the Fox bus ready to travel when Kevin Day climbs aboard the bus, forcing Neil to slide down the back of his seat towards the footwell.

Kevin doesn’t look twice at him anyway. He’s too pale, and makes no effort to disguise his discomfort as he walks past Neil’s seat to the back of the bus.

Nicky, who is closest to the aisle, says, “He looks like something crawled up his ass and died.”

Allison Reynolds, a blonde beauty queen who looks like she should be a Vixen with Neil – down to the musculature of her back and shoulders exposed by her tank top – says, “When doesn’t he?”

Nicky tilts his head like he’s acceding a point. “Good argument.”

Before he can say anything else, someone else comes to a halt in the aisle beside Allison’s seat. Neil doesn’t recognise him by sight, but he presumes it’s either Boyd or Gordon, all the other members of the team being accounted for.

“New boyfriend, faggot?” he asks Nicky. His tone is almost friendly, at odds with his words and the look in his eyes.

Well. Neil has heard that the Foxes are abrasive.

Nicky sinks down in his seat almost imperceptibly. Neil probably wouldn’t have noticed, except that he’s sitting right beside him. Allison looks up from her phone and says in a bored tone, “Go away, Seth.”

Neil can’t see her expression from here, but he can hear the edge in her voice. For all she’s perfectly capable of defending herself and Nicky too, for all it’s not Neil’s place, he still has to bite his lip to stop himself from cutting in. Making a scene is the last thing he wants to do with Kevin Day a few rows behind him.

These aren’t people he cares about. He’s here for Katelyn. Unfortunately, team participation has already turned him from a quiet loner into someone with stronger protective instincts than he previously thought himself capable of.

“Oh – you’re that Vixen that he’s always coming in his pants over,” Seth says, his attention shifting to Neil as though Allison hasn’t spoken.

“Are you deaf as well as stupid?” Neil demands before he can stop himself. “She told you to go away.”

He nearly gets hit for that. He’s practically bracing for it when Seth’s eyes flicker away from him to the aisle behind their seat. Neil waits a moment to see if his attention is going to return before casting a look over his shoulder.

Andrew Minyard looks distinctly unlike his brother in two ways. The first is his armbands: the second, the smile. Underneath the manic grin, though, is something Neil recognises from Aaron: they share the same wary stare, savage dogs who’ve been beaten one too many times.

It looks familiar. From the mirror, maybe, though Neil has gotten better at hiding it with a smile or a sarcastic comment.

“Gordon,” Andrew says through his smile, voice silken. “Fuck off.”

“You think you can tell me what to do?” Seth demands. Whatever he’s missing – basic decency, for a start – apparently he doesn’t lack courage.

“I do,” Andrew replies. He steps a little closer, putting himself at Nicky’s side. Neil doesn’t miss Nicky’s second flinch, this time from Andrew, and thinks: interesting. “Do you want to know why?”

“You don’t own this-” Seth goes on like Andrew hasn’t said anything, only to stop abruptly.

Neil is at the perfect angle to see the press of a knife in Andrew’s hand against the fabric of Seth’s shirt. It looks sharp. He feels Nicky grab his own wrist, probably more out of surprise than anything, but telling.

Neil is familiar with men who frighten their own flesh-and-blood families.

“You know why,” Andrew continues, voice softer. “Even your memory isn’t that bad.”

Allison turns, finds her view blocked by Seth’s body, and looks straight at Nicky expectantly. Maybe she thinks Nicky is going to step in. Neil doubts it.

He says, “Is that particular method approved by Wilds?”

Neither of them looks at him – they’re too busy caught in a staring match for a long moment, before Seth takes a step back, turns and walks towards the front of the bus. It seems impossible that every pair of eyes in the bus isn’t focussed on their little knot of people, but the standoff was clearly quick and quiet enough not to even attract attention.

When Andrew turns around, the knife has disappeared. Neil thinks for a moment he’s going to leave without saying anything else, but then he pauses with a hand on the back of the seat by Nicky’s head.

“You’re the cheerleader,” he says. There’s no particular opinion in his voice, negative or otherwise. It’s only the curve of his mouth that gives away a hint of disdain.

“One of them,” Neil replies. He doesn’t miss the flicker of Andrew’s gaze to Katelyn and away again. He remembers Katelyn saying it's just that his brother can't know. He wonders whether he’s going to have make himself a problem for Andrew on Katelyn’s behalf.

Hopefully not. Neil’s scrappy, but he wouldn’t win if it came to a fight between the two of them.

“So you don’t like cheerleaders either,” he says, because a win in a physical fight is out of the question, but that’s never stopped him opening his mouth. “Why not?”

Andrew tilts his head. Underneath the smiling light in his eyes, there’s the full force of a calculating mind lurking – Neil catches a glimpse of it in the moment it’s aimed at him. “The smiling. Vapid, don’t you think?”

“I thought you were going to say the skirts,” Neil replies, feeling his own grin going fine-edged. “The smiling, though. A little too much like looking in the mirror, perhaps?”

Andrew laughs. It’s not a nice sound. “Interesting. Little mouse has a sharp tongue. If I were you, I’d be careful how you use it, unless you want to find yourself without it.”

He doesn’t wait for Neil to reply before turning and heading back towards his seat. That doesn’t stop Neil from saying, “I’ll keep that in mind,” easily loud enough for him to hear.

When he turns back to the others, they’re staring at him. Nicky looks like he’s never seen Neil before, and Allison’s expression is calculating.

He asks, “What?”

“The monster talked to you,” Allison says.

“Yeah?”

“Andrew’s kind of standoffish,” Nicky explains, as though Neil didn’t just watch him threaten someone with a knife. He looks like he wants to go on – his eyes are serious enough that he looks like he wants to warn Neil about something – but he stops instead.

“But the rest of the team is so friendly,” Neil says, all sarcasm, making them both laugh.

“Hey, we’re not all bad,” Nicky says, flicking a glance at Allison. “Alright, it’s a few hours until we get there, and I want to use the time to get to know you. Twenty questions?”

Chapter Text

If Neil had ever considered it, he wouldn’t have imagined his first time back on an Exy court to be walking into one repurposed for a formal dinner. It does nothing to lessen the intensity of his feelings, though. Not that he can really understand what these feelings are.

It’s yearning, maybe. That he’s so close and yet so far away from something he loves, a Vixen and not a Fox, and while he wouldn’t change it, standing in the midst of the team makes him think, just for a moment, that things are different.

That illusion gets broken in the instant Dan Wilds finds their assigned seats for the evening, orange against a sea of black, and says, “Motherfucker.” The Foxes close in around Kevin, leaving Neil and Katelyn on the outskirts as satellites attached by the delicate gravity of their dates. Neil wonders for a moment if they might collectively baulk, but Dan’s the first to raise her head and walk towards the Ravens.

“Oh,” Andrew says. “Maybe this will be interesting after all. Come on Kevin.”

Kevin, pale as a corpse, follows right at his heels towards the splay of black that is the Ravens, seated across from the Foxes’ orange-bedecked chairs.

Neil has to resist the urge to duck his head as he trails along behind Nicky. Most of the Ravens he only knows by name and stats, but their king is infinitely more problematic.

Dan pulls out the chair directly across from the man in question. “Riko. I’m Dan Wilds.”

The handshake they exchange is pathetic on Riko’s part. Dan is a good enough person that she takes it, but Neil wishes she would spit in his face for the insult.

“I know who you are,” Riko says. “Class I’s sole female captain. You’ve done admirably, considering your disadvantages.”

“What disadvantages?” Dan asks, taking her seat.

“Do you want me to list them? We only have an evening, Hennessy,” Riko replies.

Boyd, who is standing behind his chair, one hand on the back, looms over and says, “Watch yourself, Moriyama.” He drops himself into his seat, and Kevin sits on Dan’s other side.

Neil has Nicky and Andrew between him and Riko, but he still feels too close. It would be smart to keep his attention on Nicky and Katelyn, but the familiar sound of French draws his attention back to the others almost immediately.

He doesn’t recognise the man on Riko’s right, but the number three tattooed on his cheek and the native accent to his French are a giveaway. Jean Moreau, supposedly a friend of Kevin’s, looks nothing like friendly tonight as he says, “Hello, Kevin. It’s been a while.”

“Hello, Jean,” Kevin replies. His voice is quiet, but he doesn’t look away from Jean’s frigid gaze for a long, silent moment.

“You’ve lasted longer than I thought you would. I was sure you’d be on the flight home with Riko after the interview with Kathy Ferdinand,” Jean says. “Lucky you didn’t. He was in a foul mood afterwards. Your dead-weight pet saw to that.”

Kevin visibly flinches. He doesn’t seem to have anything to say, shoulders shrinking under the weight of Jean’s words.

“How long do you think you can hold out?” Jean asks, almost gently. “Our offer won’t be good forever. You should rethink this team of rejects and come home before you run out of chances.”

There’s meaning behind the words that Neil doesn’t understand, but he recognises a threat when he hears it. He also knows what it looks like when a threat is working. Kevin Day, very subtly, is crumbling.

“That’s enough,” Neil finds himself saying in the same language from several chairs down. Nicky jumps at the sound of his voice, turning a shocked look on Neil. Jean, who clearly isn’t expecting French from the mouth of anyone else at the table, looks surprised and irritated at the interruption.

“I didn’t realise you recruited children as guard dogs for Kevin now,” he says to Dan in English, his tone almost amused. “Is this really the best Palmetto has to offer? This ragged child, and Doe?”

Andrew lets out his chill bark of a laugh, drowning out Nicky’s offended sound from Neil’s side. “Oh, dear. Is that the best you have to offer? You’re wasting your breath – you can’t cut down someone who is already in the gutter. And the dog comment – that’s funny, coming from the Moriyama lap dog. I hear you can’t go anywhere without your master.”

Whatever he’s aiming for, it’s a hit. Jean’s gaze turns even colder, with a flickering glare aimed at Kevin, but any colour leaches out of his face.

“And you, the goalkeeper who can’t even be bothered to stop players from scoring on him. The entire Fox line is shameful, but you’re the worst of the lot,” Riko cuts in, with a smile that’s all teeth. “To call yourselves a Class I team makes a mockery of the game.”

“That seems unnecessarily harsh,” Renee says mildly, from her seat down the other end of the table.

“It’s the truth,” one of the Raven ladies says. “Surely you must recognise that your team and ours don’t belong in the same grade.”

“We weren’t the ones who asked you to come south,” Boyd says. “You’re welcome to go back. We don’t want you here.”

“But you did take something that doesn’t belong to you,” the woman says. “Kevin doesn’t belong here, with a team like yours. We’re just here to prove that.”

“Kevin doesn’t belong to anyone,” Dan snaps. “He’s not a thing for you to assert your ownership over. He’s a Fox.”

“For now. But he was a Raven first. And your utter incompetence as a team must wear on him. There’s only so long that he’ll put up with it,” Riko says. “Then I expect he’ll be begging to come back.”

“Do you ever shut up?” someone demands. It takes Neil a moment to realise it’s him, the words stinging his mouth with anger.

Nicky’s hand clamps down so hard on Neil’s thigh he’s going to lose circulation to his foot. He barely feels it over the rush of his own blood.

Riko’s attention breaks from Kevin and turns to Neil again. His expression implies that Neil is barely worth the oxygen he breathes, like Riko can’t believe Neil would even speak in his presence. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Neil replies. “You talk a lot for someone chronically incapable of conversing like a decent human being. I figure it must be your upbringing – how could you be expected to behave normally when your only value as a person is your ability to catch and throw a ball and make money for a family who doesn’t even care about you? The combination of insecurity and delusions of grandeur isn’t charming, and pity will only get you so far.”

Katelyn’s hand seals on his wrist, but Neil is unstoppable now.

“I don’t know about the others, but I ran out of it a few insults back. So please, just shut the fuck up,” he says.

Up and down the table, Ravens and Foxes alike are gaping. Riko’s expression spells death for Neil, the more violent and painful the better. That’s technically less frightening than the fact that Riko is seeing him – there are connected parties that Neil is much, much more afraid of than an Exy player with a gross over-inflated idea of his own importance.

Dan, who looks as utterly stunned as the rest, stutters out, “Matt. Go get Coach.”

Boyd bolts at the command.

“And who are you, exactly?” Riko asks, and for all his voice is ice it looks like he’s scrabbling for control. Neil has an advantage here – he knows more about Riko than Riko does about him. At least for now.

“None of your fucking business,” Neil informs him, feeling the creep of a hard smile on his face.

 


 

They move tables afterwards. Kevin disappears for a while with a woman Neil doesn’t know. Nicky is buoying up all the conversation at their new table, with help from some of the Fox upperclassmen. Neil, feeling the attention of the team and still reeling with the prickle of the considering look Coach Wymack had given him when Dan had explained his outburst, excuses himself to the bathroom as soon as he can.

He takes a moment outside of the plexiglass walls to catch his breath. In the wake of the adrenaline, he can admit he just made a mistake. A serious one. None of your fucking business – well, it might just be that Riko is about to make Neil Josten his business. Depends how petty he is, Neil supposes.

He heads through the locker rooms in search of the nearest bathroom. It’s surprisingly deserted, but he supposes most people are in the middle of eating dinner right now.

As he enters the bathroom itself, Neil’s reflection in the mirror catches his attention, and he steps closer to examine it despite the familiar discomfort of doing so. In the silvered glass is Neil Josten, who is not Nathaniel Wesninski – the hair is several shades too dark, and the eyes are all wrong.

Neil Josten is not Nathaniel Wesninski. For a start, Neil apparently has a death wish.

There’s a scuff of a shoe outside. Neil suppresses the immediate instinct to flee because there’s nowhere for him to go, staying frozen in front of the mirror looking into his own eyes.

“You just made yourself an enemy,” Andrew Minyard says. Neil doesn’t flinch at the sound of his voice by strength of will, flicking a glance to Andrew’s reflection in the mirror. He’s not very tall, but he seems to fill the entrance entirely where he’s leaning against the doorframe.

Neil laughs, rough in his throat. “I know.”

“You know,” Andrew repeats musingly. The florescent light overhead turns his smile shadowed. “And do you know who exactly it is you’re making an enemy of?”

“Captain of the Edgar Allen Ravens, weird obsession with Kevin Day, entitled streak big enough for every one of your team mates put together,” Neil quips. Watched a man cut down right in front of him as a kid and didn’t flinch. From a family that associates with my father. “I didn’t exactly see you trying to make friends with him either.”

Andrew’s smile finally turns from something rote stretching his face to actually amused at that last part. His eyes glitter, too sharp by half. Neil feels unnervingly seen by them, like Andrew can look straight through him. Never mind Riko; this is a man to stay the hell away from if Neil wants to maintain his delicate existence.

“So you know a little about him,” Andrew says. “And within the evening he’ll know everything there is to know about you, down to where your mother and father live.”

“My mother and father are dead already,” Neil lies. Half-lies. “So if that’s meant to scare me, try again.”

Andrew’s head tilts. “An orphan? Is that the explanation for your reckless streak?”

“Why? Is it the explanation for yours?” Neil shoots back.

Andrew laughs. “Oh, Neil. I’m not reckless.”

Gossip says that that’s a lie. Neil’s experience with people like Andrew agrees with the whispers he’s heard. But the last couple of hours in Andrew’s company niggle at Neil, his very sharp threat to Gordon aside. You can’t cut down someone who is already in the gutter, Andrew had said before, but not caring about insults wasn’t the same as being generally reckless. Neil would know.

“Threats to my family seems a little extreme,” Neil says. “This is just over a game.”

“No,” Andrew replies. “This isn’t the same as whatever little high school games you did cartwheels and chants at. If you want to play our kind of game, then you better prepare yourself for the stakes to be higher than what you’re used to.”

Cartwheels and chants. Gritting his teeth, Neil asks, “No warning to stay out of it?”

“I think it’s too late for that,” Andrew says. “Don’t you?”

Riko probably has someone tearing apart Neil’s carefully hidden paper trail right now. If Neil is lucky, Riko won’t be able to trace all the way back to Baltimore, and his impulsivity won’t be punished with death at the hands of his father.

Neil isn’t lucky very often. It’s probably too late for him already. He says, “I guess I’ll find out.”

Andrew hums, takes half a step back so the door swings open under his weight. “That sounds like something someone reckless would say.”

He turns and is gone before Neil can reply. Which is fine – Neil doesn’t have anything to say to that.

Chapter Text

They’re doing tumbling when Katelyn, lined up behind Neil, mutters to him, “Did Andrew follow you to the bathroom at the banquet the other night?”

“Uh,” Neil says, and then catches sight of her smirk out of the corner of his eye. “Katelyn.”

“I’m just saying, if that’s your type-”

“Stop,” Neil interrupts her. “If you’re wondering if I said anything important about Aaron to him, I didn’t.”

He doesn’t miss the flash of relief that crosses her face. “Okay. Thanks. What did he want, then?”

“To tell me off,” Neil replies, just as Marissa goes to do her pass in front of him. She hits but it’s sloppy, too hard and then messy on the dismount. Once she’s cleared out of the way he takes his pass with a round off, back handspring and back tuck that comes off smoothly. He’s not the best on the squad at teamwork – that, besides his size, is big reason why he’s a flyer – but no one ever complains about his tumbling.

Katelyn joins him at the end of the queue again a moment later and picks up like they didn’t stop talking. “Tell you off? About what?”

“Picking fights with people bigger than me.” It’s not even a lie, really.

“Bigger than you,” Katelyn says, her expression all disbelief. “Andrew Minyard – he’s like five feet tall!”

Some of us are trying to concentrate,” Marissa says, and Katelyn elbows Neil like he was the one yelping over Andrew Minyard being a hypocrite.

“Sorry. I didn’t realise it took so much concentration,” Neil replies blandly. Katelyn elbows him again, but her lip twitches just enough for him to catch. Marissa steps up to do her next pass, and he says to her, “Why the secrets?”

“I thought you weren’t going to ask,” she replies.

“Are you telling me not to ask, or wondering why it took me so long?”

“I’m just wondering why now, in particular.”

Because Andrew is involved in things you know nothing about. “Because now I’ve met Andrew and I want to know why he can’t know about this.”

“No one can know about this,” she replies, and then, “Are you going to go, or…”

“Neil, you’re up!” Samara, their team coach, bawls from across the room. She could put a military officer to shame with that yell, and Neil is moving in response almost before his brain computes it. His mind is still half on Katelyn though, and it shows – he stumbles at the end of his pass and throws out an arm for balance.

“Sloppy,” Samara comments, voice mild but her eyebrow raised. If she has a temper, Neil has certainly never seen it. “Keep focussed, kiddo.”

He nods sharply and turns to join the back of the line, watching Katelyn finish her pass perfectly. When she jogs up behind him, he looks at her like a prompt, and she shrugs expansively.

“Tell me why,” he says, laying the guilt on thick. It’s ironic because everything about him down to his name is a lie, but he’s used to doing what he needs to.

Because it’s him, she folds, though she doesn’t look happy about it. “Aaron said Andrew doesn’t let him date, okay? He wasn’t specific but he said Andrew did horrible things to the girls he saw in high school. He’s crazy – everyone says that.”

Everyone does say that. However, everyone isn’t quite as familiar with cruelty and violence and the kind of evil that people like to call madness as Neil is. He doesn’t think Andrew is two of those three – he’ll reserve judgement on ‘violent’ because he did see Andrew threaten Seth Gordon with a knife.

But that’s in regard to himself. Neil knows just how quickly a knack for violence can be turned on anyone, even the people closest to you, and his finely honed instincts are saying that the risk isn’t worth it for Katelyn. He looks up at her and says, “Why are you even talking to him, then?”

Katelyn looks at him for a long moment. She says, “Because I like him.”

“I’m not sure ‘like’ is worth potentially getting hurt over,” Neil comments.

“Yeah, but that’s you. You would say being head-over-heels in love with him isn’t worth getting hurt over.”

She isn’t wrong about that. People like Katelyn fall in love – people like Neil do not. He’s not sure where Aaron falls on the spectrum, but he has a good idea he’s more towards Neil’s end of it. He says, “Are you in love with him, then?”

“No!” she squawks, and then claps a hand over her mouth when everyone looks at her. Samara does too, but when she notes that their concentration has wandered again she claps and then tells them to break for ten for a drink. Katelyn grabs Neil’s shirt and half-drags him towards the corner where their bags are lying on the floor.

“I’m not in love with him,” she whispers furiously.

Neil lifts his eyebrows. “Okay.”

She lets go of his shirt and uses her freed hand to cover her face. “Shit.”

Katelyn, for all she has a sharp tongue to rival Neil’s, rarely swears. He waits her out, and eventually she sighs and slides her hand down over her jaw. Her eyes look tired, and Neil isn’t sure he’s even seen them like that.

“I shouldn’t be,” she says.

“That doesn’t mean much.” ‘Shouldn’t’ means nothing at all. Neil shouldn’t be here, bound by his promises, and yet, here he stands.

“I can see in your face that you think I’m stupid.” Katelyn’s smile is small and self-deprecating.

Neil shakes his head. “That’s not-”

“I am stupid,” she asserts. “I know exactly why it’s a terrible idea. I keep telling myself we’ll be able to work it out, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m going to spend however long sneaking around to get ten minutes alone with him until his brother finds out and…whatever. It’s dumb. I’m meant to be smarter than that.”

“Uh,” Neil says, because he knows agreement isn’t the right thing right now, but it’s still what he’s thinking.

“Sorry,” she says after a moment. Her smile wobbles. “I’m not looking for you to tell me it’ll be okay.”

The yearning in her echoes what he’s seen in Aaron’s face, and it’s a strange thing to recognise it in someone so confident and self-possessed. It sparks a feeling in Neil’s chest, and it takes him a moment to recognise it for what it is – not pity. Just understanding.

Neil knows what it’s like to want something that you can’t have.

Katelyn leans down to pick up her water bottle, and by the time she straightens she’s recovered some of her composure. “Sorry for emoting all over you. I know how you hate that.”

“It’s okay,” he says uncertainly. She waves him off and changes the subject so abruptly she chuckles at herself before picking apart his last pass with an intensity that he can’t help but get involved with. Then they’re being called back to work, pairing off for partner stunts.

Even once he’s back in motion, Neil feels uneasy. He doesn’t like it. It’s been a long time since he was really, seriously concerned for someone’s safety besides his own.

Especially because the last person he felt that way for is dead and buried now.

 


 

On Thursday Neil is early to the library, so he picks a table in their usual area and sits down to get started rather than messing around waiting for them. The temptation of looking up Exy stats on one of the library computers is at the back of his mind, but he shoves it down. There’s no point. His self-control is why his grades are better than they ever have been.

There’s no point because he’s made himself into something different. He has lived through enough that Coach Hernandez being unwilling to give him a shot on his line back at Millport should have reaffirmed his mother’s lessons on giving up on team sports entirely.

Should have. Instead, he used his natural athleticism and threw himself into gymnastics, and then into cheerleading when Millport’s team offered him a spot. It’s not the same, not even close, but it’s something.

He’s good at what he does. He has a place here, offered by Samara after she saw his skills on video. It’s more than he ever should have gotten. That’s why he takes out his books and begins.

He’s consumed in writing when someone taps him on the shoulder, and he whips around so fast he startles them into stepping back. Neil opens his mouth to tell the person to fuck off, and then pauses.

Kevin Day looks different today out of a suit, and without most of a bottle of vodka on board. He’s smiling, but now that Neil has seen him without it he finds that he can see the cracks in the mask. He’s also alone. Neil didn’t think he ever went anywhere without his goalkeeper bodyguard. That said, the most dangerous thing in the library is Neil, and he has no reason to hurt Kevin.

“Can I sit?” he asks, voice warm as he rests a hand on the back of the seat by Neil.

“Why?” Neil says. He apparently got all of the horror at seeing Kevin face-to-face out of his system during the banquet, because right now he just feels puzzled and little irritated by the interruption.

Kevin’s smile doesn’t slip, but the skin between his eyebrows pinches just a little bit. There is still no trace of recognition in his face. “Uh…”

“Because my study group is meeting here soon, so if you’re studying you might want to find another table,” Neil continues.

“I wanted to talk to you, actually,” Kevin recovers. Neil feels himself tense but hides it well, gesturing to the chair Kevin is touching. He pulls it back and sits, passing a quick look over Neil’s books and Neil himself before he speaks.

Something about the assessment in his gaze rubs Neil the wrong way. He says, “Were you planning on thanking me for the other night?”

Kevin’s eyes jerk from somewhere on Neil’s right arm to meet his gaze, briefly incredulous before he hides it. “No.”

“Then I’m not sure what you want to talk about.”

The smile is gone now. There’s very little trace of the media-friendly smile full of white teeth and all the charm he oozes in the photographs. What’s underneath looks more like the serious child that Neil met a long, long time ago.

Kevin says, “I wanted to warn you.”

“About?”

“Riko Moriyama.” A shadow passes over Kevin’s face as he says the name.

“I know about him,” Neil replies, letting his tone imply he knows exactly what kind of man Riko is, and then realises that that might be inviting Kevin to ask how that is. Neil’s an experienced liar, but his fuse is short and he doesn’t want he watched my father kill a man once to come out of his mouth. “Andrew told me.”

Kevin’s brow furrows. “Andrew Minyard?”

“…do you know any others?”

“No, it’s just,” Kevin says, and then shakes his head. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you would have offended him badly with what you said. Be careful – stay away from him.”

“He’s in Virginia,” Neil points out. “That won’t be difficult.”

Kevin seems disappointed Neil isn’t taking his warning more seriously. “Look, he’s – he can be dangerous if you cross him. I’m…grateful that you defended me,” he says, though he doesn’t sound at all grateful, “But his reach is significant. If he tries to contact you, or anything-”

He seems to stall, like he doesn’t know what Neil should do if Riko does actually try to do something to him.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” Neil tells him. “I can look after myself.”

“Riko is – you’re a cheerleader.”

“Yeah, I am. And he’s famous for playing a sport,” Neil says, tone turning scathing. “So, if I’m so lowly, why do you think he’ll even bother with me?”

“That’s not,” Kevin attempts. “Look, I can’t really explain. You’ll just have to take my word for it.”

“Oh, so if I have Kevin Day’s word then I better believe it, right?”

Kevin by now looks totally nonplussed. “Just be careful. Please.”

Neil smiles like all good cheerleaders do. “Did you know that I get thrown in the air by my teammates pretty regularly? Careful isn’t really in my repertoire.”

When it comes to the squad, he leaves everything on the floor. Being careful is for staying alive in the most basic sense. When he’s in that breathless moment between being thrown and being caught, that’s when he truly comes alive.

Kevin stands then and leaves, waving a hand over his shoulder in dismissal. Apparently he expects better treatment from the general public. Having met the Foxes, Neil somehow doubts he’s used to it from that angle.

He’s barely disappeared when Aaron and Leticia, one of Katelyn’s biology classmates, walk up and pull out chairs for themselves at the table. Leticia is looking off in the direction Kevin just went, craning her neck, before she turns to Neil.

“Was that Kevin Day here before?” she asks conspiratorially, as if she doesn’t already know exactly who it is. There’s only one person on this campus with a ‘2’ tattooed on his face. “God, he’s hot.”

Her voice invites Neil to comment on Kevin’s attractiveness like they’re co-conspirators. He just stares at her until she looks away.

Aaron, meanwhile, is staring at Neil. “What did he want?”

Kevin is close with Andrew – even if the media has blown their relationship out of proportion, Neil has seen it for himself. Presumably, Neil and Aaron studying together might come up in conversation between them. Neil wonders if Aaron hung back until Kevin left.

Apparently Aaron is just as intent on keeping the secret as Katelyn. Neil smiles. “Just to chat.”

Chapter Text

Neil is having a normal day until Aaron Minyard corners him in a bathroom in the biology tower and pins him to the wall.

“Don’t you say anything to Andrew,” he says, his hand flat on Neil’s chest. Neil just barely resists the urge to punch him in the face to knock him away, and that’s only because he thinks Katelyn might complain if he damages Aaron.

“About what exactly?” Neil asks. He figures it doesn’t count as playing dumb if he’s genuinely curious what Aaron’s going to say.

“About Katelyn and-” Aaron starts, before cutting himself off with a hard glare at Neil. He can’t even say the words Katelyn and I – it figures, really. He’d hardly be the first man in the world incapable of putting words to his feelings. Or maybe it’s just too much of a secret.

“I’m not going to say anything to Andrew,” Neil informs him truthfully.

“You can’t trust my brother,” Aaron says. Which is interesting – Neil wasn’t planning on doing so, isn’t even planning on seeing Andrew again if he can avoid it, but it’s not exactly an indicator of a usual relationship between siblings. “He’ll do whatever it takes to ruin my life. If that means using you, he’ll do it.”

Neil thinks of Andrew in the bathroom door at the banquet saying I think it’s too late for that. He didn’t exactly walk out of that situation feeling used – Neil isn’t interested in being ammunition in a fight against someone else, but he doesn’t think that’s what Andrew is doing. To be fair, though, he really has no idea what Andrew is doing.

“I think you’re confused about where my loyalties lie,” Neil says. “Let me clear that up for you. I have nothing to say to your brother, and no interest in putting my friend in danger.”

Aaron eyes him for a long moment, before taking his hand off of Neil’s chest and stepping backwards.

It’s no effort for Neil to take his legs from under him, leaving him in a heap on the linoleum. He goes down hard onto his back, at least half winding him.

“I’m not done,” Neil says gently, from his new advantage of several feet of height. “You seem awfully worried about putting Katelyn in danger for the man who’s actually doing that. So why shouldn’t I whisper in Andrew’s ear that your eyes are straying and that he needs to shorten the leash? Or maybe I should just make sure you stay the fuck away from Katelyn myself – do you think telling her that you’re stalking and threatening me would do it?”

“You wouldn’t,” Aaron says. He doesn’t sound sure about that.

“You don’t know me very well,” Neil tells him. “Hey. You’re lucky. I’m not afraid of Andrew. I also suspect that you make my friend happy, so I won’t step in unless I have to. But I’m on her side, not yours – and certainly not your brother’s.”

He steps back to give Aaron space. The other man throws him a wary look before he pushes himself up onto his knees, like he thinks Neil might kick him while he’s already down.

“You should be careful,” Neil recommends, sweet as sugar. “If anything happens to her, I’ll be the one you should watch out for.”

He turns to leave, but pausing just before he pushes the door open and throws Aaron a glance over his shoulder. He’s on his feet now. “And let’s not meet like this again. Okay?”

“Fine,” Aaron replies shortly. Neil leaves him behind, but even as he does it, he thinks that this won’t be the end of it.

 


 

One thing that had made the Millport cheer squad so attractive was that they practiced in the same space as the Exy line, as well as going to all the games.

That had just been a converted soccer pitch, but it hadn’t mattered to Neil. He was hungry for it, had been starving half of his life, and even a glimpse of the game and the players had been enough to tide him over when that was all he was going to get.

Cheering for the Foxes is an exercise in frustration – they are so talented but so fractured. Even with Kevin Day on their court they don’t have much of a shot, and their upcoming game with the Edgar Allen Ravens in a few weeks is bound to be a whitewash.

The Foxhole Court is nothing like Millport High’s sports field. Neil’s memories of Castle Evermore are a little fuzzy after eight years, but the awe he feels when he stared at the exterior of the building was just the same. They’ve painted it white with a massive orange fox print on each wall, a little brash but somehow still breathtaking.

In between breaking into the locker room to use the showers, Neil had often stood out on the bleachers once the team had cleared out and not-smoked cigarettes. The Exy coach, Hernandez, had never caught him at it, but eventually Neil had started to wonder if he knew Neil was sneaking in anyway. Something about the intensity of the looks he’d sent Neil when they’d bypassed each other at games.

Neil isn’t bitter about not being afforded a chance. He can understand why. He’s not even surprised – people like him don’t get luck like that. It had gone a long way towards convincing him to take the chance Samara offered him, when she’d invited him to join the Vixens and become a PSU student.

It’s late morning, and Neil isn’t in class right now because he has a free morning on Wednesdays. He looks at the parking lot of the Foxhole Court to check for cars and then, seeing that it’s empty, walks down to the gate.

There’s a code to open it, but that doesn’t matter to Neil – he’s a gymnast. He just scales the fence, careful of the razor wire at the top, and then jumps down on the other side to land lightly on the balls of his feet. The door to the court itself is a simple lock, and he picks it in a couple of careful minutes.

It’s not dark inside – presumably the lights stay on all day, though it must cost the school a ridiculous amount to do so when there aren’t even any athletes in here. Neil slides through the door and pushes it closed behind him, feeling oddly exposed in such a brightly lit space. He’s in the athlete entrance, with the door off to the lounge and locker rooms to one side, but he ignores that.

Instead, he pushes the door at the far end of the hall open. It leads him out into a space with the bleachers stretching up above him, and the gleaming Plexiglass of the court itself in front of him.

He can’t resist walking down to it. The enormous cuboid that makes up the court itself is a little surreal-looking, especially from outside of it. College Exy players, like the professionals, use the walls and ceilings for rebounds in ways that the team at Millport hadn’t been able to. It makes the game even faster and even more unpredictable. Neil flexes his fingers and doesn’t allow himself to touch the court wall.

Neil had stood just along from where he’s standing now with the Vixens to cheer, but with the stands and the court empty it feels like another world. He walks along the home bench to the door and, without really thinking about it, lets himself through into the court itself.

The ceiling overhead is vented, and there are scoreboards hanging on every wall that are currently dark. Neil looks up at them, and past them to the darkness of the stands, and considers what it would be like to defend the Fox goal out here as a backliner in front of a home crowd.

His mother’s voice sounds in his ears. You need to forget about that game. He tried, and did a good job of pretending like he had, but the obsession has never really left him, no matter how much he tries to swallows it.

Out here, standing on the massive fox paw in centre court, Neil finds that he can at least be honest with himself about why he came here. A smarter man would have turned Samara down when she’d made him the offer. The chances of him living long enough to make use of a college degree are slim to none. The idea of him as a cheerleader is frankly ludicrous. He’s a hunted man, and trying to make a place for himself here makes Aaron’s infatuation with Katelyn and the risk he poses to her look practically meaningless by comparison.

Andrew Minyard might be dangerous, but he’s nothing compared to Neil’s father.

The thing is, he’s tired of running. He was tired before he picked Millport, has been exhausted and lost since his mother died. He’s also sick of living for nothing beyond the next meal and the next place safe enough to sleep, just another street rat.

He’s sick and tired of it all not meaning anything. So when Samara called from South Carolina and offered him a full ride and a place on her squad, he’d taken it.

It’s stupid for him to want for more than to stay alive. Neil just can’t seem to help himself.

And also, while he’s being honest, there’s another reason Neil said yes. That reason is Kevin Day, the man who Neil should be right now. The man who swapped fame and fortune for another Class I team after his injury, and who is rising like a phoenix from the ashes with legions of fans screaming his name.

Neil should be as far from Kevin as he can get. Instead, he chit-chatted with him in the library the other day, and wasn’t even afraid of being recognised. Neil isn’t sure whether it’s desperation to be something - even if it’s just a memory that Kevin probably doesn’t want to revisit - or pure and simple recklessness.

He’s not really sure whether it matters.

There’s also the little issue of the upcoming Ravens game. Now that Neil has mouthed off in front of Riko, he should probably be planning on a way to skip to game, even if it means running. He can’t count on the insular protectiveness of the Vixens against a threat like him, and he’s not sure he can rely on Riko not caring about him when Andrew and Kevin both have already told him to be afraid.

It’s stupid to stay, and Neil knows it. Not reckless, just stupid, and Neil’s mother would bruise him if she could see him now.

Especially when his thoughts are abruptly interrupted by the sound of a fist rapping against the court wall behind him.

Neil turns so fast he nearly slides on the slick court floor in his street shoes. His first instinct is to run, but the only door he can go out is the one he came through, and currently the Fox coach David Wymack is standing outside it with his arms crossed.

He doesn’t have much choice but to go over. Wymack doesn’t move except to follow Neil with his eyes. His face is a little indistinct thanks to the bright overhead lights, but Neil finds it as well as his stance forbidding. No part of him trusts men old enough to be his father.

“Hello,” Wymack says, once Neil has pushed through the door. “I would ask who the hell you are, but it turns out I recognise you. Neil Josten, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Neil replies.

Wymack taps his temple. “I’ve got a good memory for troublemakers. Comes with the territory. What are you doing in my court?”

“Checking out the scenery,” Neil says, before he can check himself. Wymack raises an eyebrow, unamused.

“You play?” he asks.

“That’s really what you want to know?”

“There’s no point asking how you got in here. I already know you climbed the fence and picked the lock – we had motion-activated cameras put in after the problems with assholes spray-painting slurs on the walls last year, and they send footage straight to my phone,” Wymack says with a thin smile. “So yeah. That’s what I want to know.”

Neil says, “I don’t play Exy. I’m a Vixen.”

“You ever play at all?”

“I didn’t realise you were going to want to hear my life story.”

“Ease up on the attitude, kid. It would be way easier for me to call campus security on you, so try not to make that option seem too tempting here,” Wymack warns.

“I played in the little leagues like just about every other kid in this country. I’m better at round offs,” Neil says.

“Why break into the stadium, then?”

“Looking for shit to steal,” Neil lies. Right now he’s just wishing Wymack would call the police and get this over with.

Unexpectedly, Wymack smiles. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve been standing right here for ten minutes, watching you stare into the distance and contemplate your existence,” Wymack says. Neil manages to resist wincing – he’s gotten slack about monitoring his surroundings, apparently. “Either you’re having some kind of mental breakdown – which fine, okay, tell me now, I have a psychiatrist on speed dial – or it’s something else.”

Neil doesn’t reply.

After a moment, Wymack relaxes, shoving his hands into his pockets. Again, Neil doesn’t wince, though he isn’t sure how – it’s hard not to when Wymack moves his hands quickly, even with his shoulders loose. He says, “You know, I’ve met lots of kids like you.”

“Like me?”

“The kind who can break into a building which supposedly has good security,” Wymack elaborates, with a slightly accusatory look. “I’m going to have to have the locks replaced now, so thanks for that.”

Neil looks back at him, unmoved.

“Kids who want what they can’t have,” Wymack says, after a moment. “I can recognise what it looks like from a mile away.”

For the third time in as many minutes, Neil has to stop himself from reacting. He finds himself looking straight into Wymack’s eyes, half a challenge. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice comes out hotter than he means it to.

“Okay, alright,” Wymack acquiesces. This time, he takes his hands out of his pockets and raises them like Neil’s aiming to kill. And this time, Neil flinches.

He masters himself, but it’s already too late. If Wymack’s look was intense before, now it’s tripled. Neil feels like he’s under a microscope, and like he just put himself there.

“Guess what,” Wymack says. “I recognise that look, too.”

“Are you going to call the cops on me or not?” Neil demands. Fuck.

Wymack stares at him for another long moment, and then says, “Nah. I don’t think so.”

“Great. Can I leave then?”

Wymack steps aside and motions to the clear space. “Any time you like.”

Neil stares at him for a second waiting for the catch, and then moves to leave. He puts as much space between him and Wymack as he can without looking like he’s doing just that, though he doubts Wymack misses it.

“I meant to say, too,” Wymack says. Neil pauses but doesn’t turn. “I’m not going to thank you for going after him – usually the dates are the only people I can trust to keep out of banquet drama, you know – but you should be careful of Riko Moriyama.”

“You’re the third person to warn me about him,” Neil says. “None of you needed to. I don’t care about him. I just think he’s an asshole.”

“The third?”

“Kevin. He didn’t thank me either. And Andrew.”

“Andrew Minyard?”

Neil turns and looks at Wymack over his shoulder, letting his expression be his answer. Wymack shrugs and just says, “Speaking of assholes.”

“I can take care of myself,” Neil says, instead of why sign him if he’s that bad? He’s heard about Wymack’s selection policies, and he’s seen Andrew on the court when he deigns to try. He knows why.

“Okay,” Wymack agrees. To his credit, he doesn’t sound dubious. Neil looks away and jogs towards the same door he came in.

“See you in a few days!” Wymack calls after him.

Neil’s jog turns to a run the second he’s back in open air, and he doesn’t stop until he hits the front door of his building.

Chapter Text

The entire school descends into chaos in the week leading up to the Ravens and Foxes facing off at PSU.

Neil ends up getting roped in to handing out fake tattoos and enormous orange foam paw prints in the amphitheatre with the rest of the Vixens. There are giggling girls asking for him to apply their tattoos – paw prints, of course – and he makes sure his smile stays fixed firmly in place until he turns back to the boxes of merchandise they have stuffed behind their table.

“They know they’re going to lose, right?” he mutters to Katelyn, who kicks him in the ankle in reply.

The Foxes are doing the best they ever have with Kevin on their line, but they’re still a fractured mess and there’s no way they can do anything except lose against the finely-oiled machine of the Ravens.

“Don’t be such a buzz-kill,” Katelyn says. “This is the most amped-up I’ve ever seen people over a Foxes game. You’d think you would be more excited about that, seeing as you’re obsessed with them.”

“I am not,” Neil replies, somewhat put off.

“You only ever look up Exy stats when you borrow my laptop,” she points out. When he opens his mouth, she cuts him off with, “Yeah, I know, you delete your history, but Deeva is a computer science major and I wanted to check you weren’t using it to watch porn.”

Thankfully Neil uses the library computers to search anything relating to his real name, or his father. He says, “Porn? Really?”

She doesn’t look even vaguely apologetic. “Do you know how many computer viruses you can get through porn websites?”

Neil has never looked up porn in his life. He’s stopped from saying as much by another group of people turning up. They want their tattoos applied as well, so he and Katelyn and Hayley divide them up between them. Neil ends up with a guy who strips his shirt off to an accompaniment of raucous giggles so Neil can press the dampened tattoo to his chest right under his collarbone.

Neil has a scar in the same place that his Vixen shirt just covers. The man, smiling, says, “Hey, what’s your major?”

“I haven’t declared yet,” Neil says absently. “Hold still. These things rip if you move at all.”

“You into languages? The language faculty is really fun,” he says. “Tu as de beaux yeux.”

Neil looks up to meet his eyes and says, “Merci.” There’s no warmth in his voice, and he doesn’t think the man expected him to understand what he just said. “You’re done.”

He turns away to discard the paper backing of the tattoo, nearly bumping into Katelyn who has finished hers. She looks like she’s about to laugh, her cheeks pink as she bites her bottom lip.

“That was so sad,” she whispers. “He was hot, though. You’re always extra mean to the hot ones.”

“I’m mean to everyone,” he reminds her. It just turns out that ‘the hot ones’ tend to be more entitled about hitting on him. “You know I’m not interested.”

“Yeah, but I still kind of want you to fall in love. I’m a sap, sue me,” she says, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Look alive, here come more.”

 


 

Tuesday is Orange Day, Wednesday is White Day, and on Thursday there is a pep rally with the Foxes in attendance.

Neil barely notices them at first, caught up in the routines and stunts of the Vixens. They rarely get to do their best and most exciting stunts during Exy games because of the limited space in the stadiums and the short half time breaks, so Samara designed their routines today to make the most of all of them. Neil spends half of his time doing floor work until they move to stunts and he gets thrown around instead.

They have a break after, handing over to Rocky Foxy and the Orange Notes so they can get drinks before they start leading chants. There are cameras everywhere – Neil grins and waves with the rest of the squad, despite the vague push of anxiety at the idea of being televised in the back of his mind.

Their single-file line manages to lead them straight past the Foxes themselves. Neil can’t help looking to Wymack, and finds him looking straight back with a half-smile affixed to his face. Neil looks away quickly, smiling at Nicky when he waves, before his eyes fall onto the strange couple that Andrew and Kevin make side-by-side.

They’re both looking at Neil, too. Kevin is smiling his media-smile, but his eyes above it are serious. Andrew is grinning, and taps two fingers to his temple in a jaunty salute.

“I didn’t realise you knew the Exy team, Neil,” Becca says from behind him. When Neil throws a look over his shoulder, he notes that Katelyn behind her is looking out to the crowd rather than at the Foxes, avoiding Aaron’s eyes entirely.

“I went to their banquet as a date,” Neil reminds her.

“Are they as crazy as everyone makes them out to be?” she asks, co-conspiratorial as she smiles.

“Not really,” he replies, and turns back around. Even he isn’t really sure whether that’s a lie.

 


 

Friday is game day, which means the Vixens are tasked with wearing uniforms all through their classes to encourage school spirit. They aren’t the only ones wearing orange and white – there are dozens of students dressed that way.

Neil goes back to the Vixens’ building between classes to swap books out of his bag, and stumbles across Katelyn peering out into the hall from her room. She looks flustered, cheeks pink and hair uncharacteristically messy, though she relaxes a little at the sight of Neil.

“It’s just Neil,” she says to whoever else is in the room with her. It immediately becomes clear who when Aaron steps out into the hall from behind her, still-faced but lightly flushed across his cheeks.

“I’ll see you later,” Katelyn tells him. Her smile is warm and private, a little bit sweet. Aaron only nods at her, but Neil, whose eye has become practiced at picking hints from trying to stay alive, can read a touch of the same warmth in his eyes.

“Good luck,” Neil tells Aaron as he walks past. Unsurprisingly, he gets no response. Once Aaron is out of earshot, he says, “Just Neil?”

“It’s not like he doesn’t know that you know,” Katelyn points out, neatening her hair. Neil raises an eyebrow at her. “Oh my god, don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

“Don’t you?” Neil asks. He’ll maintain to his grave that this is really none of his business – unless, of course, people are assaulting him in bathrooms over it – but there’s something delicately shaken in Katelyn right now which makes him pause rather than just leave.

“Probably,” she admits, shrugging. “He’s nervous. I think they all are.”

Neil hadn’t realised she was so close with the rest of the team. “They should be. The Ravens are going to destroy them.”

They’re pitting a fractured mess of a team against national champions, players who have devoted their lives to this sport in a level the Foxes can’t compare with. Neil watches enough games to know that, and after seeing the teams face off on a more personal level at the banquet he thinks that Riko Moriyama will be coming here with the aim of putting the Foxes down.

“You know, for a cheerleader, you’re a real pessimist,” Katelyn says wryly. “Get going, I’ll see you tonight.”

The Vixens get the court before anyone gets let in to warm up lightly and then stretch, though they file off when the doors open. By the time they’ve had a drink and come back out, the stadium is mostly full and the noise is crushing. Neil takes the pom poms Roxy throws to him and fixes a smile on his face, calling the chants along with the others.

This part isn’t his favourite, but there’s admittedly something nice about standing shoulder to shoulder with the others in the squad and calling out the first challenges to the people in black filling up a section reserved for them on the far side of the court.

When the Foxes enter the court, the crowd descends into madness, howling and pounding their feet against the floor in the stands. There’s no point cheering against it, but they wave their welcome to a very pinch-faced team while the Orange Notes blare the PSU fight song.

When the steady beat of drums start, Neil finds himself looking across to the other door. The Ravens are entering through the far door.

Edgar Allen doesn’t have a cheer squad - or at least not one that comes to Exy games - just their own travelling band. Their fight song is more of a dirge than anything else, slow and malevolent. It’s too loud to speak amongst themselves as the PSU students descend into hateful screaming and Raven fans reply with their own cries, but Neil sees several Vixens roll their eyes over how seriously the opposition takes themselves.

The teams both go to run warm up laps, the Ravens on the inner court and the Foxes inside the court itself. The Fox line looks tiny in comparison, a few bright spots of orange and white inside of a wall of black and red.

Neil doesn’t mean to, but he meets Riko Moriyama’s eyes as he jogs past. The other man is close enough to touch, and he’s looking at Neil. When their gazes meet, Riko smiles, and then he’s gone, jogging past with a loping athlete’s stride.

After that, Neil makes sure to stare past the Ravens into the court, ignoring them in his peripheral vision.

When the referees clear out the court, only Riko and Dan are left inside. This time they manage a proper handshake, though Neil isn’t entirely sure how. The Ravens win starting serve, and the captains both walk off to join their teams.

Both coaches line their starters up at the doors. Overhead, the announcer says, “For the Foxes – number two, Kevin Day.”

Pandemonium. Neil would swear that every single person in the stadium roars at Kevin’s name, no matter what colour they’re wearing. Kevin seems untouched by it, walking onto the court without acknowledging the crowd to settle into his spot at half court.

Gordon is their second striker, Allison the starting dealer, and Nicky as a backliner. Neil blinks to see Renee Walker come on as their second starting backliner – she’s meant to be their backup goalie. The Foxes were able to replace their striker sub at the beginning of the year after their last wound up in a psychiatric ward, but this is the first time they’ve changed their line because of it.

Andrew is the last one on in goal. As soon as he’s taken his place, the announcer starts to call out the Raven starters, with Riko as the first. The reaction to him is as loud as the reaction to Kevin, but Riko walks onto the court like he owns it.

Rather than taking his place, he halts at Kevin’s side. Pulling off his helmet, he says something to Kevin that probably even the other players can’t hear, never mind Neil, and Kevin removes his helmet as he answers.

Riko doesn’t move the entire time his players are filing in behind him. It’s not until the referees step up to check and close the doors that he steps forward and embraces Kevin one-armed.

It doesn’t last long, but the crowd eats it up – their response is deafening. Kevin stays frozen for a moment after Riko pulls back, before jerking and throwing a glance over his shoulder.

Andrew smashes his racquet into the wall behind him for a second time. The sound doesn’t make it out of the court, but the intent is clear, and Kevin pulls his helmet back on and raises his racquet as an okay to the referees who are watching him.

The ball goes to the Raven dealer, and then the court doors are closed and bolted.

There’s a breathless moment before the starting siren goes that makes even the crowd hush, expectant. It always, always, makes the same feeling flush through Neil – want.

There’s only one thing he misses about Nathaniel Wesninski, and this is it.

Then the buzzer goes off, and he’s jolted back into his body by the roar of the crowd and the thunder of his heart.

The Raven dealer serves to the home court wall, but Allison is in place where the Raven strikers are heading to – she gets the ball first, throwing it to Andrew who clears it back down to the strikers at the other end.

Kevin is the closest Fox, but Jean Moreau is tall enough that he gets the ball first. It turns into a fight, Kevin using his stick first to try and wrest the ball from him before giving in and elbowing him off balance. That shakes the ball free, and Kevin snatches it and throws it to Gordon, who loses it to his mark a second later.

It’s too quick for Neil to follow – the ball goes to the Raven dealer, to Riko, to the second striker, to Riko again, and then the goal lights up red.

It’s been two minutes. The Ravens jog back to their starting positions, but the Foxes are slower to move. Neil finds himself watching Andrew, half-turned back to his goal as the red lights fade back to black.

He doubts Andrew has ever been scored on that quickly before. He’d barely had a chance to defend the goal before it was too late. The moment before he turns back to the court seems to drag on interminably.

Neil remembers Jean accusing Andrew of being the most shameful of all the Foxes, and saying that Andrew barely bothers to try. Having watched some games, Neil might be inclined to agree with Jean – except that no one walked on a Class I Exy court just to lose. If you didn’t care, you didn’t get that far.

Neil is jerked out of wondering by the buzzer, the teams crashing together again. The Foxes seem to have been galvanised by being scored on already, but even that burst of energy doesn’t help – Riko scores again inside of five minutes.

The self-proclaimed king doesn’t move straight back to his starting spot this time – he steps up to the goal line, and Andrew mimics him on the other side of it. Whatever Riko says earns only a casual wave, but Riko doesn’t move until the referees knock on the door to warn him back to his position.

Neil catches an elbow in the side that makes him jump. When he turns to look, Katelyn is right there, yelling, “Let’s go, Foxes!” in his ear with a pointed expression.

After the buzzer, the ball is back down at the Fox goal within bare minutes. Despite himself, Neil feels his shoulders tense as the Fox backliners are outstepped again, adding an extra tightness to his cheering. Riko turns on a dime and aims again, but this time Andrew gets in the way and hammers the ball back down the court to his offensive line. Neil’s relief turns into a yell so loud he surprises himself.

After that, the Ravens don’t score for another fifteen minutes, but it’s pretty clear that the Foxes are outclassed. As good as Kevin is, the Fox offensive line is shattered with him and Gordon struggling to work together, and Andrew might be good but he can’t save the game on his own, and with his only sub playing as a backliner he’ll get tired eventually.

After a third Raven goal, Edgar Allen send on two replacement players, and Wymack uses the break to send on two substitutes of his own. Katelyn gives an extra loud cheer for Aaron and Matt Boyd as they take the court, and though Aaron doesn’t look to her Neil is willing to bet he hears it.

The two of them make an immediate impact on the tide of the game, too. Suddenly the Foxes look like they might be able to hold their own. It’s assisted by the fact that, for the first time all season, their strikers are too taxed by the opposition to start in-fighting – for now, anyway.

That becomes clear when Andrew darts out of the goal – terribly inadvisable, considering the size of the goal and the speed of the game – and bounces the loose ball off the wall to himself, batting it out of the air down to Kevin. Kevin and Gordon are both back almost as half court, but Kevin is ready. He snatches the ball and bolts, quicker than Jean, racing down the court and then passing to Gordon, who scores in a whip-quick move.

The stands overhead go wild. Neil can barely see the court because the other Vixens have all thrown their arms in the air in celebration, but over the glitter of the pom poms he sees the Foxes doing the same. Next to the cheer squad, the Fox subs – Renee, Dan and Nicky – are hugging each other and whooping.

Unfortunately, the Foxes getting onto the scoreboard also signals the death of anything even vaguely approaching sportsmanship. By the end of the half, there isn’t a player on the court without a yellow card, and most of the team seems to be bleeding as they come off for half time. The scoreboard is six-two, and Neil suspects as he and the Vixens jog onto the court for their turn that it’s only downhill for the Foxes from there.

He’s not wrong. The next half is a slow fall, bloody and violent, ending with a buzzer and a score of thirteen-four. The only reason the difference isn’t bigger is because the Foxes have Andrew in their goal. When the crowd starts to scream again, Neil looks to Kevin, realises that he’s doing nothing but jogging across the court towards his own goal, and then glances to who he’s aiming for. Andrew seems to have lost his racquet, and has sat down beside it. The scoreboard says he just turned away one hundred and thirty-seven shots on goal – Neil doubts he can feel his hands and feet.

The Foxes converge on him, and they’re not the only ones – the Ravens, headed by Riko, approach the little crowd of orange-clad players and subs, stopping a few yards away. It’s strange to watch them – Kevin and Riko – head to head rather than side by side, and doubly so for Neil with the sense-memory of them as children at Evermore in the back of his mind.

They talk. Whatever they say gets a smile out of Kevin, honestly pleased, as he reaches a hand down and levers Andrew off of the ground.

The teams don’t shake hands. The Foxes file past the Vixens on their way off the court, sweaty, bedraggled messes with Kevin pressed into the middle of the group and Dan at their head. Neil can’t help watching them waving to their howling fans in the crowd, still jubilant after the loss like still being upright is a victory in itself.

Aaron is at the back, just behind Renee with Andrew under her arm. Neil looks twice simply because Andrew doesn’t seem like the kind of man to accept help unless he’s nearly dead, and what he sees makes him pause for a split second.

Andrew isn’t smiling. Neil can only presume that the exhaustion has cut through the high of the medication he’s meant to be taking, but somehow seeing him without the grin is a shock.

As though sensing eyes on him, Andrew looks to Neil and meets his gaze. Neil finds he can’t read anything from his face with it turned inside out and plain, and he looks away first.

Then the Foxes are gone, whisked into the locker room by Wymack.

The Vixens are some of the last out of the stadium, breaking up into small groups. It’s a Friday night, and most of them are planning on heading out to join their friends who have already been partying while watching the game. Katelyn and Neil are the only two heading back to the dorm, Katelyn because she has a paper due on Monday and Neil because he has no interest in drinking or socialising.

It’s a quiet walk across campus. When Katelyn does speak, her voice is hoarse. “You were right.”

“Of course I was right,” Neil replies, his voice just as rough, and then admits, “They were better than I expected.” That’s mostly because they actually managed to score a few points.

Katelyn hums. “Is it bad that I really wanted to hug him afterwards?”

Neil doesn’t have to clarify who she means. “In terms of maintaining your secrecy, yes.”

Katelyn rubs her forehead lightly. “Yeah.”

She sounds conflicted, but she doesn’t bring anything else about Aaron up on the rest of the walk. Neil suspects that she would never usually discuss things like this with him, but she’s as short on friends who know about Aaron as he is on friends in general.

When they get in, Neil finds he’s still jittery with misplaced adrenaline. “I think I’m going to go for a run.”

Katelyn gives him a slightly dubious look. “Don’t get murdered.”

“I’m not a drunk freshman girl,” Neil points out, ducking into his room to change into a plain shirt rather than his uniform one. When he comes out, a wad of fabric hits his face – he catches it and unravels it to find a high-vis vest in neon yellow.

“Don’t get run over either,” Katelyn says sweetly, wriggling her fingers in a wave.

Neil likes the exercise involved in cheerleading, the tumbling and stunts and everything else, but he’s made to run. As he starts to stretch out his mind empties, lost in the pounding of his feet on the pavement and the thud of his heart. Even though it’s late, campus is busy with cars leaving the stadium and students walking in varying states of sobriety. Neil runs part of the ring road and then cuts back between the school buildings back to his dorm, eating up the miles.

It’s still quiet on the Vixen’s floor when he takes the stairs up. Neil rooms with Kenny, one of the three other men on the squad, but rather than go straight to the showers he heads towards the communal kitchen for water. The building is set out so the rooms branch off of hallways around a common lounge with a kitchen on one side, and it’s eerily deserted tonight.

Neil wipes his forehead as he heads through the common room, pulling his shirt away from his sticky skin. It takes him a moment – too long, his mother would bruise him for that if she were still alive – to realise that he isn’t alone.

“Hello, Neil,” Riko Moriyama says.

Chapter Text

“Hello, Neil,” Riko Moriyama says. He’s sitting on the couch in their common room, across from a steady-faced Katelyn. Behind him, there’s a tall man standing at the window, looking out – it takes Neil a moment to recognise Jean Moreau.

“Hello,” Neil replies, with a smile. “What do you want?”

“Oh, I was just hoping to catch up,” Riko says. He smiles back, all teeth. “After all, it has been a long time.”

Neil swears that he feels the floor tilt under his feet. He says, through the feeling of a drop like vertigo, “Katelyn, do you mind if I talk to Riko in private?”

“Now, now,” Riko says, before Katelyn can reply. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Nathaniel.”

Neil stiffens. It’s been such an impossibly long time since he’s heard that name said aloud, but the sound of it still ices his joints and pares his vision down to a point focussed on Riko’s face. “Shut up.”

“Neil,” Katelyn starts, her face creasing.

“Katelyn, leave,” Neil replies, “Please.”

She stares at him for a long moment and then stands, moving towards Neil in the doorway. Riko watches her go but doesn’t call her back. She lays a hand on Neil’s shoulder for a second as she leaves, closing the door behind her.

“Protective,” Riko says into the quiet. He’s amused. Neil wants to break his smug face.

“Does it get tiring?” Neil asks. When Riko doesn’t reply, he gestures to how Riko sits on the tired lounge couch like it’s a throne, his all-black clothes and the condescending expression on his face. “Being this pretentious, I mean.”

Riko’s smile flattens. “So you still haven’t had someone teach you how to control your mouth. I suppose we’ll have to take care of that.”

“My mouth is none of your concern,” Neil replies. The grinning sharpness of a cheerleader is falling off of him in the face of a more frightening enemy, but he fights to hold onto it. What’s underneath it is worse – the small cold smile he inherited from his father is a proper threat, and he thinks the part of Riko which is all predator will recognise it’s own. He’s safer as the cheerleader, even though Riko knows his name.

“Don’t you know who you belong to, Nathaniel?” Riko asks.

“My name is Neil,” he corrects, despite knowing it’s too late for that.

“Do not lie to me. You won’t like the consequences, if you do,” Riko says. “It took me a while to unravel the truth of your identity, did you know that? But what a surprise when I finally realised who exactly I had uncovered hiding here, in plain sight.”

Riko stands. He and Neil are basically of a height, but Riko uses both of the inches he has on Neil to his advantage. There’s an intensity and malevolence in him that makes him seem twice the size he really is. Neil holds his ground.

“It’s very curious that I would find you in the same place as Kevin Day. That surely can’t be a coincidence,” Riko says, looking Neil from head to toe. His expression says that Neil is being judged and found wanting. “Except he did not know who you were. But I think you know exactly what Kevin is, and that you know who are. So the question is; what are you doing here?”

Riko is close enough to touch. He doesn’t shift when Neil raises both arms to indicate the room around them. “I’m getting a degree. Not all of us can be professional sportsmen.”

Riko moves quick as a snake, catching Neil’s jaw and jerking it up unpleasantly. “A straight answer. Before I am forced to do something unpleasant to you.”

“You know I know who I am. Who my father is,” Neil replies. “Perhaps I don’t know who you are.”

Riko’s eyes are the flattest Neil has ever seen on another human. From this distance, it’s very hard to notice anything else. He says, “I find that hard to believe.”

“I know you watched my father kill a man in Evermore eight years ago. I know that you call yourself the king of the court, and that you and Kevin were close before he came here,” Neil says. “So I know who you are. Perhaps I don’t know what.”

“I am a Moriyama,” Riko replies. “You cost my family a fortune and eight years of irritation.”

Neil has that money, or the remnants of it, stashed in a safe in his dorm room. “That was my father’s money.”

“Your father’s?” Riko asks, and then shakes his head. “No. It appears I asked the wrong question before. You don’t even know who the Butcher of Baltimore belongs to.”

Neil flinches at the name. It’s the first time he’s heard it outside of the quiet of his own head in years. “What are you talking about?”

“You should be less afraid of your father than you are of the men holding his leash,” Riko replies. “My family.”

It seems – impossible. The Butcher is one of the most powerful individuals on the East Coast, and even Neil, who is accustomed to the idea of criminals presenting an innocent front to the world, can’t imagine how Kengo Moriyama, businessman, could employ someone like his father.

Riko must read the shock from Neil’s expression, because he is smiling. “All those years of running and you never asked why?”

“Have you met my father?” Neil asks, incredulous. “I didn’t need to ask why.”

“You should have,” Riko says. “Too late now, though. That money your mother took was given to your father in exchange for you, and your presence on our court. Don’t you remember playing with us? That was your audition, but your mother was so afraid you would fail that she ran and took you with her. We were cheated, losing both the money and the goods.”

Neil is reeling. “You were going to – put me on your team?”

“Perhaps. That, or your father would have disposed of you. There is no room for blood heirs in a family like yours,” Riko replies. “I’m here to reclaim what is rightfully mine.”

Don’t you know who you belong to, Nathaniel?

There is a long pause. Neil readjusts to the idea that Riko literally regards him as a belonging, kicks aside the truth about his father and his ‘audition’, and then finds his mouth is already speaking without his permission. “I don’t know if you’ve realised this, but I don’t play Exy. Even if I wanted to be a Raven – which I don’t – I couldn’t.”

Riko moves again, shoving Neil back against the wall and pinning him there with one hand. Neil’s head bounces off of the wall, noisier than it is painful. He bites his tongue and tastes blood.

“It’s in your best interests to try, though,” Riko says. “If you can’t make the cut on my team, I won’t have a reason to keep you a secret anymore. I think your father would be rather interested to catch up with you after all these years. You caused him so much trouble, you know.”

They stand there, eye to eye – and then there’s a knock at the door.

They all turn to look in the direction of the front doorway, out of sight. It’s not just one knock either – it’s a continuous rapping, quick-fire and insistent, impossible to ignore.

“I should get that,” Neil says.

“Leave it,” Riko commands. He is still holding Neil against the wall by his shoulder.

“I know you don’t live in the real world, but someone knocking like that isn’t about to just leave,” Neil points out bluntly, shrugging him off and darting out of his grip. “You can keep threatening me when I get back.”

Riko makes a grab for him, but Neil is quicker. He darts out of reach and goes to the front door of the Vixens’ suite, swinging it open to the little foyer where the elevator is and where the knocker is waiting. He blinks.

“Hello mouse,” Andrew Minyard says. He’s grinning.

“Go away,” Neil says, and moves to slam the door in his face.

Unfortunately, Andrew is both fast and strong, using one hand to force the door still open. The other he presses through the gap like he’s going to grab Neil around the throat, but when he connects there’s no force.

He taps his finger over Neil’s carotid artery, the rhythm quick – in time with Neil’s racing heart. “I don’t think that’s for me, Neil. Let me in.”

“Why should I?” Neil demands. “Why are you here?”

“Not for you,” Andrew replies. “I’m here for the Raven. Let me take him off your hands?”

How the hell Andrew knows Riko is here is one thing. Andrew coming here is another entirely. “Again, why should I? He’s here for me.”

“This is a one-time offer for me to fix your problems for you, Neil. You should really take me up on it.”

“What do you want in exchange, then?” Nothing ever comes for free.

Andrew’s smile grows wider. “Just the satisfaction of seeing the look on Riko’s face when I walk in there.”

Neil stares at him for a moment that feels long. Andrew isn’t here for him. He’s here because Riko is still here, and because Riko is a threat to Kevin. It has nothing at all to do with Neil. It still feels like Neil is getting entangled in this mess further and further, but he can lie to himself for a moment that this will make things better rather than worse.

He pushes the door open. “Get on with it, then.”

“Oh, where’s the gratitude?” Andrew asks, but steps around Neil anyway. He lets Neil lead the way to the lounge, a presence at Neil’s back that he can’t ignore.

In Neil’s absence Jean has come over from the window to speak to Riko, and they both look up as Neil returns.

“Minyard,” Riko says when he notices Neil’s new companion. There’s disgust in his voice.

“Hello!” Andrew says. “A little bird told me you were hanging around here.”

Unexpectedly, that returns the smile to Riko’s face. He flickers a look to Neil, and then says, “Oh, did he?”

It’s very curious that I would find you in the same place as Kevin Day. Except he did not know who you were.

Neil’s heart stops and then jump-starts in his chest. He says, “You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?” Riko asks. The threat in his eyes is naked, a knife to Neil’s throat.

“Hello,” Andrew repeats, knocking his knuckles against the wall. It takes Riko a moment to drag his gaze from Neil back to him. “Weren’t you leaving?”

“Was I?” Riko says.

Andrew makes a grand show of holding up his phone, waggling it in the air. “I would. Otherwise Neil might call the cops on his stalkers.” He throws it to Neil with no more warning than that. Neil considers for a split second letting it go by before he snatches it out of the air. Andrew makes a shooing gesture at Neil.

Neil looks at Riko and his shadow one more time before turning away towards the kitchen. Riko’s voice makes him pause in the doorway, but he doesn’t turn.

“Four weeks,” Riko says. “Use the time wisely.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Neil tells him, and then leaves. One more nail in the coffin isn’t going to make a difference at this point.

He hears a little more talking – not much – and then the door to the foyer slams closed. There’s the squeak of sneakers on the linoleum behind him, and Neil says, “You aren’t going to escort him off campus?”

“What happens in four weeks?” Andrew asks instead of answering. Neil ignores this in turn.

“Why are you still here?” Neil asks.

“Why are you?” Andrew says. “You look like you’re planning running even while you stand there.”

“Why the hell are you here?” Neil asks, turning to Andrew at last. He’s leaning in the doorway, blocking Neil in, a mirror of their first one-on-one meeting. “Why do you care if I’m here or not?”

“I don’t,” Andrew replies. “Personally, I hope that you run. You are drawing the Ravens here, and we have enough of an issue with that already.”

“Sorry to make your life more difficult,” Neil snaps. “I didn’t ask for your help.”

“No,” Andrew replies, “Your girlfriend did.”

“My what?”

“The girl cheerleader. She told Dan on Riko. Apparently she knows a dangerous man when she sees one.”

He means Katelyn. Neil nearly sighs with relief that it wasn’t Kevin who sent Andrew here, before he realises it doesn’t matter. Kevin still knows who he is.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Neil corrects, and then, in a parody of Andrew, says, “Weren’t you leaving?”

“No, I’m waiting,” Andrew replies. A second later, there is a single knock at the door. “You should get that.”

Neil gives him a deeply dubious look, but leaves the kitchen for the front door. When he opens it this time, Coach Wymack is the one waiting in the foyer. He looks back at Neil and says, “I don’t need this level of drama in my life, you know that? I have enough of it dealing with my own idiots.”

Neil doesn’t reply, instead looking at Andrew, who has followed him out. “You said you weren’t here for me.”

“I’m not,” Andrew says, and then points at Wymack. “But he is.”

Neil looks back at Wymack, who has crossed his arms. His biceps strain the sleeves of his shirt, but he looks surprisingly unthreatening considering. “What do you want?”

“We need to talk,” Wymack replies promptly. “We can either do it here, or we can do it at Abby's place where there is alcohol.”

“I don’t drink,” Neil says.

“Of course you don’t,” Andrew says, almost against the back of Neil’s neck, and then has to dance aside to avoid getting an elbow to the belly. He laughs.

Wymack watches this, unimpressed, and then says, “Well, I do. And I think I’m going to need it.”

Neil looks at him for a long moment. Considering the bombshell Riko just dropped on him, he needs to get all the information he can. He relied on his mother for that for so long – trusted her, and trusted that she would tell him the things he needed to know - that he isn’t sure where to start. Wymack might know something Neil doesn’t.

If he’d never come here, he wouldn’t need to take this chance. He should have listened to his mother. It’s too late for that now, though.

“Give me five minutes,” he tells Wymack, before telling Andrew, “Get out.”

Andrew laughs again, but gets out. Neil shuts them out of the suite before going to Katelyn’s room and knocking at her door. She throws it open, bursting out and hugging him immediately.

He pats her awkwardly on the back. The one-armed hugs or quick warm embraces the Vixens usually exchange aren’t quite this desperate. He doesn’t remember the last time he was held so tightly.

“Holy shit, Neil,” she says. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Neil replies, nonplussed. “He didn’t do anything. He’s just a dick.”

“He’s scary,” Katelyn replies, which is when Neil remembers she would have been alone with Riko for however long Neil took to come back from his run. Jean, who is so presence-less as to almost be invisible and who probably wouldn't move to stop Riko if he killed someone, doesn't count as a chaperone. Suddenly, Katelyn isn’t the only one holding tight.

“Are you alright?” He asks, pulling back to examine Katelyn.

“Yeah, of course,” she rallies, attempting a smile. “I just – I never noticed how…how dead he is behind his eyes when he smiles. It’s creepy.”

Neil hums his agreement. Katelyn didn’t grow up around the people Neil did, and he’s grateful for that. As strong as she is, as brave, she still flinches in the face of a true sociopath. It’s good instincts on her part. Neil could learn something from her.

“I’m sorry, I had to text Dan, she said someone would come around,” Katelyn rushes out. “None of this would have happened if we hadn’t gone to that banquet.”

“It’s fine,” Neil says, “Really. Andrew came and scared him off. I just came to tell you I’m going to go with them for a bit, okay?”

Katelyn’s brow crinkles. “Should I come with you?”

Neil imagines Katelyn and Andrew in an enclosed space together and says, “No, I’ll be okay. Are the others coming back soon?”

“Sarah and Kenny are on their way home, I’ll be fine,” Katelyn replies. She squares her shoulders, just a little. “Text me so I know what’s going on?”

“Sure,” Neil says. Checking in was something that shook him in the early days, because it was so like what he and his mother used to do, but he’s accustomed now. “I’ll see you later.”

“Okay,” Katelyn replies. “Neil…”

Neil had been about to leave, but he pauses at the uncertainty in her tone. She looks at him for a long moment, all consternation in her eyes and downturned mouth.

She says, “What he called you…”

Nathaniel. “Just…forget it, okay?” Neil says, and then curses himself. That wasn’t the right thing to say to a girl like Katelyn, with a mind like a steel trap. He should have just said Neil is a nickname. “I’ll try to explain later.”

“Okay,” she says again. “Text me. Don’t forget.”

“Of course,” Neil says, and then leaves. Wymack and Andrew are still waiting in the foyer, Wymack patient and Andrew fidgeting.

Andrew looks pointedly at his wrist, where he isn’t even wearing a watch. “Kiss your girlfriend goodbye?”

If only he knew.

“Fuck off,” Neil tells him, and then pulls Andrew’s phone out of his pocket and throws it back at him. He aims for the head. Andrew laughs again as he snatches it from the air, his reflexes unearthly. If he played like that on the court-

“Children,” Wymack says, warningly.

“I’m behaving,” Andrew says, insincere. “Come on, Neil. Kevin is waiting.”

As if Neil didn’t already feel like he was walking to the gallows.