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Lessons in Cartography

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Neil suspected always sleeping with one eye open all those years was what had kept the nightmares at bay.

After their victory over the Ravens, after Riko's life was snuffed out for good, the Foxes caught a few hours of sleep in a hotel and then hightailed it back to South Carolina in the late morning with friends and family following in rental cars. Kevin stayed behind in West Virginia for the funeral and Wymack stayed with him to try to hold him together. Even after a night in the hotel and some short naps on the ride home, the Foxes were exhausted by the time they dragged themselves back into the Tower. Neil fell face-first onto his mattress and sank like a stone into a heavy, numbing sleep. The feeling of warm relief, the fresh possibility of a real future rolled out before him, unlocked the tension that had hummed in his veins for as long as he could remember.

Neil's father was dead. Riko was dead. All the people Neil had ever pretended to be were dead too. They rose like vengeful ghosts in Neil's vulnerable subconscious. Bloodstained, agonizing memories were dragged out into the forefront of his dream, one after another. Knives. A hot iron. The weight of an ax on his throat. His father's eyes. Andrew's fingers digging into a headboard. The awful last gasp his mother took. “4” on his face. “0” on the screen of his phone. Handcuffs. Cruel hands dragging him away from the Foxes. Fear. Pain. Fire. I didn't get to say good-bye.

Neil startled awake, panting and soaked in cold sweat. The memory of his own screams rang in his ears for a few long moments before giving way to the sound of Nicky and Erik's light snoring on the other side of the room. His heart slammed furiously against the wall of ice in his chest.

Going back to sleep in sweaty sheets and lingering terror sounded less appealing than moving his aching body. As usual, his first thought was of the pint-sized goalkeeper in the loft above, who was just as exhausted as he was. Disturbing him was an unfortunate inevitability, but Neil knew if Andrew didn't want to get up he wouldn't. Once his breathing was even and his heart no longer felt like it was going to punch out of his chest, Neil peeled back the blankets and put his feet over the edge. His whole body throbbed like one giant bruise as he moved. He held his breath. Pain shot from the soles of his feet to his hips and then splintered in white-hot lines up his back as he stole across the carpet.

He didn't breathe again until he was out in the living room. He found his way to the kitchenette in the dark and turned on the light, hoping it wouldn't shine through the cracks around the bedroom door and disturb the others. His head felt stuffy from too many hours of fitful sleep. The clock said it was two in the morning and he wasn't sure if staying awake to avoid his nightmares was really worth ruining his sleep schedule even further.

Neil's hands shook as he filled a glass with water and gulped it down to try to ease the tightness in his throat. He could almost still feel the heavy press of a dull blade against his neck and a hard shudder ran through him at the thought.

It's over, he reminded himself. All the lies, all the desperate running to stay alive, was behind him for good. He had a home now- he had the Foxes and Andrew and a real name. He felt like he finally made it onto the ledge he'd been dangling off of for years.

The adrenaline that had kept him sharp enough to survive was leeching out of his system, though, and that meant trouble for his half-crumbled psyche. He knew he would have to deal with the psychological fallout of all he'd been through. He just hoped he could do it quietly.

It shouldn't have been a surprise when Andrew appeared in the doorway, sleep-rumpled and squinting against the light. His long-sleeved shirt fit him enough to hint at the shape of his arms and chest; his legs were vague ideas lost in the bagginess of his sweatpants and the hems pooled around his feet enough that only his bare toes poked out. There were still pillow lines in his cheek and a few tufts of hair were sticking straight up. The sight of him was enough to loosen some of the knots in Neil's chest.

An apology perched at the tip of Neil's tongue, but before it could tumble out of his mouth Andrew turned and padded out into the main room. Neil abandoned his water and followed. The television was on, the volume set almost too low to hear, and Andrew was slumped into a beanbag. He stared blearily at whatever show was playing and didn't spare Neil a glance as he sank into the beanbag next to him. As Neil fell asleep to the low drone of TV chatter, he didn't focus on all the unfairness, torment, and fear of his past, but of how right it felt having Andrew by his side and the surreal happiness of still being alive. The warmth of it couldn't chase away all the nasty shadows lurking in his skull, but it was enough to allow him some peace.

When Neil woke again it was eight and he could smell coffee brewing. A blanket he didn't remember grabbing covered his body neatly and the beanbag Andrew had slept in was pulled up against his. Andrew wasn't beside him anymore, but Neil could hear him shuffling around in the kitchen. Smiling softly, Neil pulled the blanket higher over his shoulders and closed his eyes, allowing himself a few more moments of rest.