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fear in a handful of dust

Chapter Text

QUESTION:
am i the wolf
or the savior?

is my smile too sharp
or just my teeth?

ANSWER:
come a little closer.
- efb


Andrew Minyard doesn't do interviews.

Everyone knows that, certainly everyone at the Daily Prophet, but Neil's editor is staring him down right now anyway.

“He doesn't do interviews,” Neil repeats. “He didn't do one when he signed for the Lions, he didn't do one when they won the league, and he sure as hell isn't going to do one now.”

“You have a good connection,” Dan says impatiently, waving a hand in his face. “You're the only reporter Kevin Day will really talk to. Minyard's practically his shadow. He'll talk to you.”

“But—”

“No more arguments,” Dan says. “He's the best Keeper this side of the Channel. I expect you to have gotten in touch with him by the end of the week.”

She pushes away from Neil's desk, and Neil stares after her in indignation. Dan's never been non-pragmatic before; he can't understand why she's decided to give him an impossible task now.

From the cubicle next to his, Nicky shoots Neil an apologetic look, then mimes slitting his own throat. Somehow, Dan doesn't notice.

Neil sighs, digs around for his parchment, and gets a quill.

*

Andrew Minyard is famous for being one of the most talented Keepers in European Quidditch and one of the most enigmatic public figures in the world. He rarely gives interviews and is rumored to have once threatened to cut off a journalist's fingers for daring to lift a quill in his presence.

Even Nicky, who is Minyard's cousin and knows both Andrew and his twin brother, Aaron, feels bad for Neil.

“Wouldn't wish him on my worst enemy,” Nicky says cheerfully over lunch. “Lucky Dan's not my boss, or she'd definitely be forcing me to talk to him.”

“Funny,” Neil says. “Really funny, Nicky. Hope you're having fun covering celebrities over in Entertainment—”

“Hey,” Nicky says, holding up both hands, all false innocence. “If I could help you, I would, but Andrew doesn't listen to me.”

“Famously,” Neil says dryly. “Who does he listen to?”

Nicky smiles impishly. “Only Andrew.”

*

“You're covering the Lions again?” Matt says over breakfast. “I thought after you'd almost died—”

“It's fine,” Neil says. “I asked Dan to put me back on professional Quidditch. Reporting on seventeen year-olds was getting old.”

“Still,” Matt says, shaking his head but slightly mollified by the thought of Dan, “seems … almost cruel.”

“Dan's not cruel,” Neil says, rolling his eyes. “She just won't go out with you because—”

“Because I'm a dumb Quidditch player with nothing to offer her,” Matt says sadly, shaking his head into his eggs. “I'll convince her yet.”

Neil privately thinks trying to convince a girl to go out with you is more trouble than it's worth, but then, he's never wanted to convince anyone to go out with him, so maybe he just doesn't understand the impulse.

“Covering the Lions again isn't the worst part,” Neil says. “She says I'm to profile their players. Not you, obviously, conflict of interest and all that, but—”

Matt gets it immediately. “No,” he says. “She didn't.” But he's grinning at the challenge. “You're not going to interview that monster—there's no way. He doesn't do interviews.”

“There has to be some way I can get him in a room,” Neil says. “Even if it's only for five minutes—I'm sure if I can talk to him, I can convince him.”

“Unlikely, but you can try.” Matt plays with his fork for a moment. “You're going to have to talk to Kevin Day.”

Neil hasn't spoken to Kevin Day since he helped him expose Death Eater affiliates who'd abused Kevin while he was growing up in a Quidditch academy. Neil's own family is still safely in Azkaban, and no one's broken out of there since the mass Death Eater escape in '95. Other than the scars he can't hide no matter how hard he tries, there's little to link him to his father or his father's men, and Neil relishes that fact every time he catches sight of himself in a mirror.

“Kevin trusts you,” Matt continues. “You can get to Andrew through him.”

“Thanks,” Neil says. “I owe you.”

“You don't owe me for one little piece of information,” Matt says, rolling his eyes. “It's basically public knowledge. But you can put in a good word for me with Dan—”

“No longer listening,” Neil says. “But I'll invite you to drinks with her next week, yeah?”

“Good man,” Matt says, and squeezes Neil's shoulder on his way to depositing his dishes in the sink.

*

Neil dreams that he's falling hundreds of feet through the air, and when he's supposed to land, he doesn't, just keeps falling, his broom floating somewhere above him, abandoned, useless.

He wakes up with a start—he hasn't been on a broom since one ill-fated turn as a Chaser at Hogwarts—and forces himself to relax.

Matt, who is used to Neil's nightmares, knocks at his door to check on him nonetheless.

“I'm fine,” Neil says, wiping at his brow with a corner of his sheet.

Matt doesn't say anything, only raises an eyebrow and sets a glass of water on Neil's nightstand before disappearing, bleary-eyed, back to his room.

*

Matt's right: everyone with any interest in British Quidditch at all knows that to get to Andrew Minyard, you first have to get through Kevin Day, Lions' starting Chaser despite a supposedly career-ending injury three years before.

“Josten,” Kevin says, staring from Neil across the table at his venue of choice, an over-priced Muggle lounge full of footballers and WAGs in London. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

But not everyone with any interest in British Quidditch had a front row seat to the nasty business surrounding Kevin's supposedly career-ending injury three years before.

That's Neil's advantage: they've known each other for long enough that Kevin doesn't put on airs with Neil anymore. While other journalists get Kevin's bright smiles and soundbites, Neil can usually wheedle real discussion of Quidditch or politics out of him—a trade off, Neil thinks, for helping Kevin expose the Death Eater affiliates who'd almost destroyed his hand and his career.

“I need to talk to Minyard,” Neil says, sipping at a soda. “How do I make that happen?”

Kevin chokes on his whiskey. “You don't.”

“It doesn't have to be on the record at first,” Neil says. “I just want to earn his trust.”

“Andrew does not trust anyone.”

“He trusts you.”

Kevin shakes his head. “He protects me. It's not the same thing.”

“Kevin,” Neil says, leaning forward. “He must know he can talk to me. If he trusts you with me—and he knows what I did with the—”

“Shut up,” Kevin says, looking around to make sure none of them are around even though, Neil's sure, the Moriyamas have gone the way of his family—wiped out or Azkaban. Even if they weren't, they'd hardly be anywhere near the corner booth of a Muggle lounge in London on a Wednesday evening. “I will talk to him. But I can't promise you he'll want to talk.”

“He will if you ask him,” Neil says.

Kevin shakes his head. “It's not like that. He does not listen to me.”

Neil, who has met the diminutive Keeper only once but seen him play at least a dozen times, very much doubts that. Andrew Minyard is very rarely not watching Kevin's back. He's probably in this bar somewhere waiting for Kevin to finish up with Neil.

“He is waiting in his car,” Kevin says, like he's read Neil's thoughts.

“He drives a car,” Neil says blankly. “A—Muggle car?”

“It's very discreet,” Kevin says. He pushes out of the booth. “This won't work.”

“Just try,” Neil says, letting himself plead a little, because Kevin likes to be begged. “Shoot me an owl with his response.” Then, the killer: “You owe me.”

Kevin shoots him a very dirty look, then walks away without looking back, and Neil tosses some random amount of Muggle money on the table in irritation before following in kind.

*

On Dan's orders, Neil is covering the Lions' Quidditch practice. The season hasn't started yet, and there's hardly any press there, but their captain, who has at least a foot on Neil, jogs over to him anyway. He's smiling, but there's an edge to it, and Neil isn't surprised: the Lions aren't new to controversy, and no Quidditch team loves the press.

“Jeremy,” Neil says, holding out a hand. “Been a while.”

Jeremy Knox, one of the best Chasers in the game, grins down at him. “Josten! Been a long time since Hogwarts, eh?”

Neil gives him a tight smile back: he only spent three years at Hogwarts immediately following his mother's death, and they intersected briefly. During Neil's fifth year, Jeremy was a seventh year and the Hufflepuff captain.

“Easy for you to say,” Neil says. “You still get to play every day.”

“You could've signed for someone if you'd really wanted to,” Jeremy says, shaking his head. “I seem to remember the Tornadoes, Cannons, and the Arrows all trying to sign you, and those were just domestic.”

The truth is, Neil didn't sign with anyone because of the press coverage Quidditch players receive—taking a position as a writer at the Prophet keeps him close to the sport without putting himself at risk. It doesn't mean he doesn't want to mount his broom and join them, though, so sharply it feels like an ache beneath his ribs.

“You know me,” Neil says. “Too humble for the Quidditch rockstar lifestyle.”

Jeremy rolls his eyes, gives a good-natured laugh. “Can I ask what you're doing here, then, if you're not trying to get a trial?”

“My editor assigned me to the Lions for the pre-season,” Neil says. “I'm doing a piece on Keepers.”

Jeremy winces, but his smile doesn't falter. “Well, you have every right to try.”

He mounts his broom and flies off, and Neil watches the Lions practice.

Minyard is a five foot-nothing wonder, equally as likely to injure the attacking Chaser as he is to float off in front of the left hoop and leave the other two wide open. Sometimes he shows up in front of the right hoop out of nowhere, impossibly fast, and knocks the Quaffle back so far that Jeremy can immediately score off it on the other side; others, he'll punch Seth Gordon in the face for threatening Kevin and then sulk in front of his hoops for the rest of the match, watching with disinterest as an opposing Chaser throws Quaffle after Quaffle past him.

He's an enigma, everyone says, but psychotic enough that it's not worth dealing with; some have called the Lions insane for keeping him on even if he is one of the top-ranked Keepers in world Quidditch. If he cared more, he'd probably keep more clean sheets than anyone else. As it is, he's in the top five.

And now it's down to Neil to figure out what his deal is.

*

He gets his first chance when the Lions emerge from their locker rooms into the press room. It's mostly empty, just Neil and the team photographer, so he catches Andrew immediately when he enters it.

“Andrew Minyard?” Neil says, then clears his throat. “Neil Josten. We've met. Hi. I write for the Daily Prophet?”

Andrew stares at Neil in silence, then starts to shift past him.

Neil blocks his path. “I know Kevin Day quite well—we worked together on the Moriyama story a few years back.”

Andrew looks him up and down. “Move,” he says.

“I'd love a chance to talk to you about the sport,” Neil says. “Your expectations for the upcoming season, your history with Quidditch, that kind of thing.”

“I don't talk to reporters,” Andrew says.

“Just five minutes,” Neil says. “We can go completely off the record, talk about whatever you want.”

Andrew peers up into Neil's eyes, his face mostly impassive.

“Why don't I believe you?” he says.

That's not a no, Neil thinks.

“Don't know,” Neil says. “Why don't you try me?”

“I don't do interviews,” Andrew says.

“Not an interview, then,” Neil says. “A drink. On me.”

“Big spender,” Andrew says dryly. “Eden's Twilight in Walthamstow, eight tomorrow night.”

He disappears past Neil, out of the press area, and Neil stares after him in faint shock.

“Any luck?” Matt says, appearing out of nowhere, looking much smaller outside of his Quidditch gear and without his Beater's bat. “Want me to give you a quote?”

“That's a conflict of interest,” Neil says dully. “I'm meeting him for a drink tomorrow.”

Matt freezes. “What, already? How'd you get him to agree to that?”

“I asked,” Neil says.

“I ask him to defend the bloody hoop every time we play,” Matt says. “Doesn't listen to me.” He blinks as Kevin walks past them, barely sparing Neil a glance. “You always did have a way with the monsters, though.”

He claps Neil on the back, then follows Kevin and Andrew out of the press room.

*

Eden's Twilight is a wizard nightclub, complete with a bouncer who looks Neil up and down and says, “No Trace—you're clear,” before escorting him through the doors.

Inside, the place is dimly lit, loud music blasting from every corner even though it's still early enough on a Friday night that barely anyone is using the dance floor. Neil makes his way to the VIP section (“Reserved for Quidditch players,” a bartender tells Neil helpfully) and finds Andrew there already, sitting at a table against the wall and tipping something from a flask into his goblet.

Outside of his Quidditch gear, Andrew looks impossibly small. Neil can't remember ever seeing him dressed in regular clothes before, and now Andrew's not even wearing robes, just an all black ensemble that makes him almost invisible in the already dark club.

“Hey,” Neil says. “Minyard.”

Andrew looks up at him—barely—and then glances at the seat across him. Neil gets the idea and slots right into it, and then the helpful bartender is back at his shoulder to take his order.

“Butterbeer,” Neil says.

Andrew rolls his eyes.

“You sure?” the bartender says. “Might want something a bit stronger to deal with this one.”

Andrew shoots the bartender a murderous look, but the bartender doesn't notice, only waits at Neil's side until Neil confirms that he does in fact only want a butterbeer, then zips off again.

“So you know him well,” Neil says. “You're a regular here?”

He looks around again: everyone who's here already is dressed in some absurd black outfit, many consisting of leather and laces and corsets. One girl has an ornate set of wings attached to her bodice; Neil wonders absently if they work.

“I used to work here,” Andrew says, which sounds true enough that Neil blinks in surprise. “Roland's an old friend.”

“Oh,” Neil says, wishing he had a quill. Then: “Thanks for agreeing to talk to me.”

“I agreed to have a drink with you,” Andrew says, swirling his goblet with one hand. “I didn't agree to answer any of your questions.”

“Well,” Neil says. “You're here, aren't you? You hardly need my money to buy your alcohol—” Neil's seen Matt's paycheck, and he's sure Andrew's is even bigger, given his unmatched ability on the pitch. When he tries, anyway. “So you must be interested in talking to me.”

“Or in hearing you talk,” Andrew shoots back.

“What does that mean?”

Andrew surveys him for a long moment.

“You work for the Daily Prophet,” he says.

“Yes.”

“You played Chaser at Hogwarts.”

“Yes.”

“Mediocre at best. But Kevin says he wanted you to sign for the Lions.” Andrew examines his fingernails as if they're infinitely more interesting than Neil. “You didn't. Why?”

“I prefer to be behind the scenes,” Neil says.

“Liar.” Andrew glances up at Neil. “You exposed the Moriyamas at great personal risk. Kevin won't tell me anything else about your relation to them. Why?”

“It pushed my career forward,” Neil says. The official story. “I got a raise and a better position at the Prophet out of it. Not to mention a close relationship with star Chaser Kevin Day—”

“Liar,” Andrew says again, and accompanies it with a sharp kick to Neil's shin under the table. Neil forces himself not to wince. “Tell me something true, reporter. I don't think you have yet.”

“I will if you will,” Neil shoots back.

Andrew looks at him, bored. “Of all the features you could have chosen, why these?”

Neil's heart stops.

“What?”

“You're a Metamorphmagus,” Andrew says. “Anyone with half an ounce's skill at Legilimency or Transfiguration could tell. Metamorphmagi are rare, but they aren't particularly special. But you've used your ability to turn yourself into a dark-haired, dark-eyed blank slate. You're so nondescript that your blandness itself is a point of interest. What are you hiding, reporter?”

Neil forces himself to breathe, and then makes a split second decision that he's sure his mother would kill him for were she alive: he decides to tell Andrew the truth. Part of it, anyway.

“My—natural looks,” he says, “resemble my father's. I'm not interested in being associated with him in any way, so I picked these instead.”

He stares steadily into Andrew's eyes, forcing images of his father out of his mind and replacing them with what Neil would see were he to look in the mirror undisguised: auburn hair, bright blue eyes. Andrew studies him for another moment, then, apparently satisfied, leans back in his seat.

“Why didn't we coincide at Hogwarts?” Neil says. “Your brother was there. Why not you?”

“I didn't go to Hogwarts,” Andrew says.

“So a Quidditch academy? There's no record of you anywhere at one.”

“That's because I wasn't at a Quidditch academy. I was in hospital.”

“For what?”

“Sounds like another question to me,” Andrew says.

“Tell me a truth on credit,” Neil says.

“Tut tut, reporter,” Andrew says. “You don't tell a shop owner you've just met that you'll pay him next week. How is it you're the first Muggle-born Metamorphmagus?”

The official story is that Neil's parents are both Muggles, but in reality, only his mother is: his father is a former Death Eater, somehow affiliated with the Moriyamas in a way neither Neil nor Kevin fully understands, but he's locked away in Azkaban, safely removed from Neil.

“You've wasted a question,” Neil says. “I'm not a magic theorist. I don't know if or why I'm the first, only that I'm a Metamorphmagus and both my parents are Muggles.”

“That's enough for now,” Andrew says. “But I'll want a better answer later.”

He drains what's left in his goblet, then orders another drink and finishes that too, all while staring at Neil in silence.

“So,” Neil says. “Why were you in the hospital?”

“We'll talk about it next time,” Andrew says, and leaves Neil sitting in the VIP section of Eden's Twilight alone.

Chapter Text

On Monday, Andrew skips practice.

Jeremy shrugs: “It happens sometimes,” he tells Neil on the sidelines.

“He gets sick a lot?” Neil says, knowing he'll find out the truth from Andrew later and not wanting to dig for it from Jeremy now.

“Yeah, once a month or so. Bee takes good care of him, though.” Jeremy gestures to a middle-aged woman standing with the team medic, who is taking notes on the various players' fitness levels on a clipboard. “We have Laila subbing in for him. She's a nightmare in the hoops.”

“So's Andrew,” Neil reminds him.

Jeremy gives Neil his good-natured smile. “Most teams aren't even lucky enough to have one,” he says.

Neil would think it a soundbite if he didn't know Jeremy is just like this. Matt loves him. Even Kevin adores him.

“You're welcome to hang out,” Jeremy says. “But if your piece is on Andrew--”

Neil nods. “I'll head home,” he says. “See you tomorrow.”

“He might not be back for a day or two,” Jeremy says. “Best wait til Wednesday.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Neil says, and watches as Jeremy jogs away to start practice.

*

Neil remembers a time when he looked into a mirror and played with his facial features for fun. Blue hair and orange eyes, massive duck's bill, snout like a dog's.

Now, burning through the last bit of a cigarette without ever taking a drag, he wonders if those even count as Neil's memories. If you come back with a different name and a different appearance, do you come back a different person? The memories are there, but they're buried so deep it takes him time and energy to access them. His real personality is buried even deeper. It requires all of his concentration to keep his appearance consistent, careful, to remember which bland features to maintain (that nose, small and straight, a last homage to his mother; eyes brown instead of their natural blue; hair black; chin and jaw naturally unextraordinary enough that he lets them be for the sake of his sanity). There's no disguising the scars on his chest, but Neil can cover them well enough with layers and layers of clothing. Even when he played Quidditch at Hogwarts, he changed out separately from the rest of the team, waited for his teammates to finish showering before he got in himself.

At Hogwarts, sometimes Neil woke up in his bed with the wrong color eyes, or with his shirt riding up to showcase the scars he can't conceal. He supposes he's lucky that his room has a lock now: at school, he woke himself up regularly throughout the night to ensure his eyes were still brown, his hair still black. He remembers checking obsessively in bathroom mirrors, tugging at his hair to show the roots as if he were using hair dye instead of actual magic to disguise himself. He sleeps better now, and it's helped his Metamorphic abilities enough that he almost always still looks like Neil Josten when he wakes up. He still checks his hair sometimes, only in weak moments, times when he's suddenly terrified of what he looks like or what people see when they look his way.

He hates to admit that Andrew looking at him and figuring out immediately that he's disguised rattled him. How often has he run into wizards who use Legilimency? How good is his own father at it? Was his mother right? Should he be practicing the Occlumency his uncle taught him? Does he have to practice Occlumency now, remember to keep everyone he meets out of his brain? Why hasn't he been doing that all along?

It's been three years since he was last assigned to the Lions, and he's been talking to them again for a week, and someone has already figured out he's more parts lie than truth. How long will it take Andrew to figure out more, to wheedle the truth out of Kevin? Andrew doesn't seem like he'd be a danger to Neil, but if he exposes him, anything can happen. Information, once out there, can't be controlled—Neil's a journalist. He knows that better than anyone.

He sighs, tucks his cigarettes back in his pocket (Marlboro Reds, Muggles, like his mother), and goes inside.

*

“Any progress on Minyard?” Dan says when Neil shows up to the office to hand in another story.

“We spoke briefly last week,” Neil says. “He's ill, though, so he won't be in practice for a few days.”

Dan stares at him in apparent shock. “What, already?”

“I—yeah,” Neil says. “You said to talk to him by the end of the week.”

“And you did?”

“Only for about half an hour, and only off the record, but—it's a start, isn't it?”

“It's more than a start.” She gives him a fierce smile. “I expected to have to wait another month for this at least …”

“Well,” Neil says. “He's sort of … intense. I don't know if I'll be able to get him to do a real interview.”

“Talking to him at all's more than any other reporter's been able to do since he signed with the Lions,” Dan says. “Good work, Neil.”

She glances down at the sheaf of parchment that is his first draft of another story.

“Is that the rundown of the new signings I asked for?”

“Yeah.”

“It's late.”

“Yeah.”

She sighs. “You have to stop exploiting my blatant favoritism,” she says. “Don't forget—drinks tomorrow night. I'll be pissed off if you don't show this time.”

Neil doesn't drink and doesn't see the point in spending time with his coworkers outside of work, but he nods. “See you then,” he says. “I'm up north all day tomorrow researching.”

“The rest of the new signings?”

“Yeah.”

Dan rolls her eyes. “Don't make me regret putting you back on pro Quidditch.”

“I won't,” Neil says.

“Sure. Just be at the Leaky Cauldron on time.” She bumps her shoulder with Neil's, then goes to check on someone else.

*

“So did you talk about me?” Nicky says, crowding an extra chair over next to Neil, who feels very trapped between Matt and Nicky.

The Leaky Cauldron is packed tonight, as it always is on weekday evenings, with wizards who work everywhere from the Ministry to nearby businesses to Gringotts. That means they have to share one small table even though there's at least six of them coming tonight, which means Neil just has to deal with not having his own space.

“Not even a little bit,” Neil says.

Nicky looks only slightly put out by this information. “Well, what did you talk about, then?”

“Don't be ridiculous, Hemmick,” Dan says, returning to the table with a tray full of drinks. “They talked about Quidditch.”

“Yeah, Nicky, they talked about Quidditch,” Matt says, shooting Dan a winning smile.

Dan raises an eyebrow, but otherwise ignores him.

“Right, Neil?” she says.

“Not exactly,” Neil says.

Dan's eyes narrow. “You're telling me you're the first journalist to get Andrew Minyard in a room—oh--ever--and despite the fact that you are, ostensibly, a sports journalist, you didn't talk about Quidditch?”

“Come on, Neil,” Matt says. “Bad move.”

This time, the corner of Dan's mouth twitches like she might be about to smile, but the full might of her rage is still directed at Neil, expectant.

“Not yet,” Neil says. “He clearly isn't interested in talking about Quidditch, it's like I have to—convince him that it's worthwhile first.”

Dan looks skeptical, but Nicky's boyfriend, a German journalist called Erik Klose, arrives in time to distract her, greeting her with kisses on both cheeks and leaning over the table to kiss Nicky on the mouth.

“Neil!” he says, reaching forward to squeeze Neil's shoulders with both hands. “Nicky says you've been working wonders on my cousin-in-law. Did you know he once beat up a group of men for threatening Nicky?”

“The way I heard it, he almost killed them,” Matt says. “Tossed his wand aside and went at them with his fists. Ironic considering he's about that tall.” Here he holds his index finger and thumb about an inch apart, then flicks his eyes toward Dan to see if she's watching. She shakes her head, but she's grinning. “No offense to short people, Neil--”

“Minyard isn't just short,” Neil says. “I'm short. He's—miniscule.” He frowns, considering this new information. “Is that why he never went to Hogwarts?”

On either side of him, both Matt and Nicky stiffen.

“No,” Nicky says. “Or, well—sort of. It was an unchecked aggression kind of thing. That's what that potion he takes is for.”

He's lying, Neil realizes, and so is Matt, who nods as if to confirm.

“So, what? The QA makes him take the potion?” Neil says, testing. “But if he never went to Hogwarts--”

“He was raised by foster carers,” Nicky says. “In the Muggle world.” He sighs, runs a hand through dark hair, and meets Erik's eyes across the table. “It's a long, complicated story, and I'll need a good deal more liquor in me before I'm willing to tell it.”

“It's a secret,” Neil says.

“Sort of. I think he prefers to tell it.”

“But don't wizards get—sort of feral, if they're not trained?” Neil presses. It's the whole reason his mother stole spellbooks for him the second she took him away from his father. “Is that why he's aggressive?”

“He taught himself,” Nicky says.

“He taught himself—magic?” Dan says. “What, alone?”

“He figured out he was doing magic, assumed he'd be committed if he said anything to his Muggle foster parents, and followed some wizards into Diagon Alley one day,” Nicky says. “I think he kept doing that until he was old enough to buy a wand, and then—” He shrugs. “Bought some books, kept sneaking into Diagon Alley when he wasn't at Muggle school, the rest is history.”

Even Matt looks vaguely impressed at this new information.

“You're telling me an under-eleven Andrew was wandering the streets of London alone hoping to stumble upon a wizard who would somehow not notice a child following him into the Leaky Cauldron and then through the back to Diagon Alley?” Neil says. “That's absurd.”

“He's,” Nicky says, then hesitates. “I wouldn't say it completely worked. It's like you said—if wizards aren't properly trained, they turn sort of—feral's not the right word, but his magic is sort of loose, not like yours or mine.”

Neil, who only spent three years at wizarding school, wraps his fingers around the wand tucked into the pocket of his robes. Matt notices, but he doesn't say anything.

“That's what the potion's for?” Dan says. “That makes sense. Neil, that'd make an interesting angle for your story, don't you think?”

But Nicky is shaking his head. “I've told you, the potion's for aggression. He had to start taking it after losing it when that group of men threatened me.”

“What did they threaten you with?” Neil says.

“Violent dismembering, a little Crucio here, a little Muggle dueling there,” Nicky says in a voice that's clearly meant to be casual.

“Evidently it was thanks to his sexuality,” Erik says, fingers clenching and unclenching on the table as if he can understand Andrew's behavior.

“So Andrew was defending you.”

“You didn't see him,” Nicky says. “It was almost scary, the way he attacked. Like he wanted to kill them, not just shut them up.”

It still sounds to Neil like Andrew was protecting his cousin, but he keeps that thought private. His own family situation is fucked up enough that maybe he's just missing something that makes Andrew's crime unforgivable. He's been known to do that in the past.

“Right,” Matt says, voice taking on an air of false cheer. “Who's up for a game of darts?”

Only Dan volunteers to play with him, and Neil watches as they compete halfway across the room.

“Six Sickles says that's going to happen before the first match of the season,” Nicky says.

“I'll take that bet,” Renee says, sitting in the seat Dan's just vacated. “Hello, everyone. Have I missed anything?”

“Only that you're about to lose six Sickles,” Nicky says.

“I think it'll happen by Halloween, but not before the first match.” Renee, who edits the Prophet's news section, watches Dan and Matt as well. “She'll be too busy for the next few weeks to think about dating, and he'll be spending too much time in pre-season practices.”

“A Galleon says it happens at the Prophet's Halloween party,” Erik says.

Nicky glances at Neil, but they all know him well enough to know he never takes bets. He's gambled enough, he thinks—that no one will recognize him, that his father won't be released from Azkaban or find some way to escape, that he'll be able to watch Quidditch from the sidelines in relative safety for the next few years. Taking one of these bets feels like stretching his luck.

“Snooker, Neil?” Renee says, and Neil, who doesn't much like Renee but who can tell they're approaching that point in the night where Erik and Nicky want to be alone, follows her away from their table.

*

The Lions' practice the next morning is as subdued as it was Monday. Without Andrew there, Seth seems to care much less about potentially harming Kevin, and they fight often. Despite this, the rest of the team is less intense, less focused, as if they know the game matters less when Laila is at the hoops even if she is incredibly effective. Neil remembers her, vaguely, from school—Gryffindor Keeper, a fourth year his seventh, vicious on the pitch but a friendly face off it.

She flies over when the team breaks for lunch and dismounts next to Neil, giving him a grin that bares sharp teeth.

“Josten,” she says. “You've been hanging around a lot lately.”

There's no reason to lie to her, so Neil says, “I've been assigned a story on Andrew Minyard.”

Laila whistles. “What'd you do to Dan Wilds to get that assignment? Kill her cat?”

“She doesn't have a cat, I don't think,” Neil says, faintly disturbed.

“No, but, seriously, why's she giving you a story like that? Minyard doesn't do interviews.”

“He's talking to me,” Neil says. “Where is he, anyway? Isn't he supposed to be back by now?”

“He usually comes back after lunch a couple days later,” Laila says.

Later than what, Neil thinks, but he asks, “Usually?”

She blinks. “Er—yeah. He's ill a lot.”

“So that's why he takes that potion of his?” Neil says. “It's just medicine?”

“Yeah, exactly.” She gives an exaggerated nod. “He gets ill about once a month, comes back a few days later good as new—potion helps, supposedly, though I haven't noticed a difference.”

“A difference?” Neil says. “Are you saying sometimes he doesn't take it?”

“Laila!” Jeremy says, voice an amplified shout from halfway across the sidelines, where he's been talking to the Lions' manager. “I thought I said no press for you until the season starts!”

“It's only Neil Josten,” she shouts back, but she gives Neil an apologetic shrug and jogs down the tunnel.

Neil looks after her, inwardly cursing Jeremy for interfering. It felt like Laila was about to tell him something meaningful, and after skirting around Andrew's issues all week with his teammates and family and Andrew himself, he's ready for solid answers.

As if in response, Andrew Minyard comes out of the tunnels in the next minute and starts warming up.

Neil waits for Andrew to notice him, then waits for Andrew to make his way—laboriously—over.

“You're back,” Andrew says.

“I could say the same to you.”

“Surprised Knox hasn't gotten rid of you yet,” Andrew says. “He knows I don't like being bothered.”

“You still owe me a truth,” Neil says. “Up for a drink tonight? Around eight?”

Andrew doesn't answer, but he doesn't say no, either, and Neil takes that as a yes.

*

This time, Neil is ushered straight into Eden's Twilight's VIP area, but he gets there before Andrew, sits there for a while nursing a butterbeer and flipping through his scarce notes on the Keeper until Andrew arrives. He has a drink already in hand, and he tips some of the contents of his flask into it.

“You lied to me,” Neil says.

“I assure you,” Andrew says, “I didn't.”

“You told me you didn't go to Hogwarts because you were at St. Mungo's. But I have it from a source that you were in foster care.”

“That isn't a question.”

“What's the truth?”

“Oh,” Andrew says, smiling. There's mirth in it, but it doesn't reach his eyes. “Both are true.”

“That's not a real answer and you know it.”

“I was in Muggle foster care, but then I had to go to wizarding hospital so I left Muggle foster care,” Andrew says.

“And that's why you take that medicine,” Neil says. “Not because of beating up those men who attacked Nicky.”

Andrew watches Neil, curious. “Medicine?” he says.

“That's what's in your flask, right? Medicine for whatever put you in the hospital?”

“I suppose that is one way to put it.”

“How would you put it?”

“Experimental treatment for a disorder that doesn't exist,” Andrew says, which Neil wasn't expecting since it's his turn to answer a question. “Where were you born?”

Neil blinks. It's an innocuous question, or it should be, except that he's been on the run for so long that the words haven't come out of his mouth in years.

“What?” he says.

“It's a simple question,” Andrew says. “For example: I was born in Bristol.

“That's on the record, I assume.”

“If you answer the question honestly, it can be on any record you please.”

Neil's breath hitches in his throat, but he forces it out anyway. “Baltimore. In America. East coast.”

“I know where Baltimore is,” Andrew says, propping his head up on his hand and looking up at Neil. “The accent's as fake as the brown eyes, then. I knew it.”

“It isn't fake,” Neil says, vaguely affronted. “My mum was English. We moved here when I was young.”

“She was English,” Andrew says. “She's dead?”

“Yes,” Neil says. “What's the experimental treatment?”

Andrew considers him through tired hazel eyes. “Aconite,” he says.

Neil feels suddenly like he's on the last leg of a long run. “And the disorder that doesn't exist?” Neil says, heart thumping wildly in his chest.

“Are you always this bad at following rules?” Andrew says. “No wonder you were shit at Quidditch.”

“I only played for about a week,” Neil says, annoyed, even though it isn't true—years as a Seeker on a youth team, a blown audition for the Ravens' academy at Evermore, three years at Hogwarts as a Chaser.

Andrew doesn't believe him, either, but maybe he thinks it's just an exaggeration.

“What's your real name?” Andrew says.

“Neil Josten,” Neil says.

“Really,” Andrew says. “Someone who disguises himself this completely still goes by the same name he was born with. As a journalist whose name is in the paper daily.” He leans forward across the small table so that he's right up in Neil's face. “You can't lie to me, Neil Josten.”

Abruptly, too late, Neil remembers Andrew's skill at Legilimency. Andrew wraps his fingers around the back of Neil's neck and looks straight into his eyes; Neil forces himself to look back and clear his mind.

A moment later, Andrew lets go, settles back in his seat, and says, “We're done here.”

“You had two truths for one,” Neil says. “Baltimore and my mother's death.”

“Second one doesn't count. You gave me that for free.”

“Nothing's ever free,” Neil says.

“Don't I know it.” Andrew orders another drink. “Leave me alone.”

Neil stays put, and it takes Andrew a moment to realize Neil isn't going to move.

He doesn't even look up. “You have three options: tell me the truth and stay, leave me alone, or keep lying to me and I'll kill you.”

Neil, who has spent too long surviving, chooses the second option.

Chapter Text

The Daily Prophet's archives are contained in a dungeon below the Prophet's offices, a room packed so full of old newspapers and Ministry records that when he walks in, Neil can almost imagine himself one of them. An obituary—Neil Josten is survived by his roommate, famous Beater Matthew Boyd; an article about his being sent to Azkaban for his father's crimes; an article about him in some alternate universe where he plays Quidditch instead of writing about it; records of his birth, his lack of attendance at Hogwarts, none of those would be here because he isn't British and, anyway, his name isn't Neil Josten.

The archivist in charge is an old wizard with a pointed beard who tells Neil that he can find articles organized by last name of the reporter or subject as well as by date, then teaches Neil a quick spell that will let him summon every article on whatever subject he wants.

He starts with the obvious: Andrew Minyard.

There are plenty of articles mentioning him, several written by Neil himself; there's one on his purchase by the Lions featuring one quote too many from Kevin praising him; quite a few discussing his performance during one match or another; none at all mentioning him before the Lions signed him.

Next, Neil tries aconite, which he's never heard of before. He gets nothing.

“Do you know anything about aconite?” he asks the archivist, who looks at him over a massive pair of glasses.

“Aconite?” the archivist repeats. “Well, if you just try this spell—” and then sets about teaching Neil the same spell from earlier.

“Thanks,” Neil says. “What would I look for if I wanted to research wizards who didn't attend Hogwarts?”

“I'm not sure what you mean,” the archivist says. “Wizards who were home-schooled? The Ministry keeps a record of all wizards born in Britain, you can find it if you search—”

“No, wizards that slipped through the cracks,” Neil says. “Not in the Ministry's records of wizards, at least not when they turned eleven.”

“Well, I'm not sure how you expect to find something if you already know the records don't exist.”

“That's not what I—” Neil says, then stops, hits on a different route to the answer he needs. “What if I wanted to look up crime records? London area, about four years ago?”

“Well,” the archivist says, “if you just try this spell—”

“I've got it,” Neil says. “Thanks for all your help.”

The archivist smiles sagely at him, then returns to his work, which seems to involve making his way through a very large bowl of hard candy and reading a romance novel.

Eventually, Neil figures out what to look for himself (it turns out he can filter by date if he stands physically in front of the section he needs) and flips through old stacks of parchment detailing small crimes. Whoever keeps Auror records does a poor job of it—some merely say, Fight outside a pub. No Death Eaters—HP or, Didn't see anyone suspicious, but apprehended witch selling doxy dung to Hogwarts students—RW. Others have more detail: locations, descriptions of the wizards in question.

It's mid-afternoon before Neil finds a few fights that might be Andrew, and then when he narrows it down further, finds what he wants: Four men nearly killed in Muggle duel. Perpetrator: wizard, seventeen, 5', no Hogwarts records, recently signed to LLQC. Claims of self-defense from eyewitnesses. Walthamstow. Name of perpetrator(s): redacted. Name of victim(s): redacted. Name of eyewitness(es): Nicholas Hemmick, Roland Pompey, Aaron Minyard

The only new information he's found here is that the fight was in Walthamstow, but Neil is sure Nicky would've given him that if he'd asked. He didn't know Aaron Minyard was there, either—Neil's never met Andrew's twin brother, but if he's as unpleasant as Andrew is, he's not sure he wants to.

“Any luck down there?” Nicky says when Neil gets back upstairs.

“Not really,” Neil says. “Do you think Aaron would talk to me?”

“Sure,” Nicky says. “But not about Andrew. They barely even talk to each other.”

“Where is Aaron now?”

“Briefly subbed as Beater for the Lions,” Nicky says, and Neil remembers that—but Jean Moreau showed up and immediately took Aaron's slot. “Works in the Ministry now. He and Andrew actually live together if you can believe that—I used to ask them how they paid the bills if they can't even exchange simple good mornings, but then Aaron told me Kevin takes care of it, so—”

“Kevin lives with them too?” Neil says.

“Thought you knew that,” Nicky says. “Erik and I live in the same building. Andrew wanted us to stay close.”

“Why?”

Nicky shrugs. “Family's family, I s'pose.”

It's not a real answer, and Nicky knows it judging by the way he's not looking at Neil, but neither of them argues the point.

“Roland Pompey,” Neil says. “Who is that?”

Nicky blinks. “That's in the records?”

“Yeah.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah. You, Aaron, and Roland are listed as eyewitnesses.”

“Roland's a bartender at Eden's Twilight,” Nicky says. “Eden's Twilight is—”

“I know what it is,” Neil says. “I've been there.”

You've—oh. With Andrew, right—it's his favorite bar. Roland loves him.”

Neil tries to picture anyone loving Andrew and fails, and then, in a sort of self-admonishment, tries to picture anyone loving him. He fails at that, too.

“I know, it's hard to believe,” Nicky continues, only partially misinterpreting the look on Neil's face. “He does have some friends and admirers, though. He tips well, never starts any trouble—well, except for that one time—and he brings in new customers.” He gestures at Neil, grinning. “You done for the day? Want to grab dinner? There's this new Muggle Peruvian place I pass on my way to work every morning, and I'm dying to try it—”

“Can't,” Neil says. “Sorry—I have to catch up on other stories.”

“Dan's giving you Andrew and other stories?” Nicky says. “Merlin, what did you do to her?”

“Introduced her to my roommate,” Neil says.

“I'd be thanking you for that, he's a babe.” Nicky slings his bag over his shoulder. “You sure you don't want anything to eat? I can have something sent over.”

“I'm fine,” Neil says. “Nicky, does 'aconite' mean anything to you?”

“Aconite?” Nicky repeats, frowning. “Nope, don't think so. Why? Is it important?”

“No,” Neil says. “Thanks. See you tomorrow.”

Nicky leaves, and Neil stares at his useless notes. He's fit everything he knows about Andrew Minyard into barely six inches of parchment.

And Nicky doesn't know what aconite is, which means Andrew lied about his potion—either to Neil or to Nicky. It must mean something, though, Neil thinks irritably. He'll go to the library in the morning—for now it's all he can do to stare at his notes and try to puzzle it out himself.

*

In the end, Neil stumbles upon aconite by accident: he's sitting at his kitchen table looking in a book on potions used to treat chronic illnesses when he finds something called aconitum used as a pain reliever. He digs around for a book on potion ingredients, thinking maybe that can lead him in the right direction, and then—Aconite, also known as monkswood or wolfsbane, is a rare plant most commonly found in Scotland.

After days of searching, finding this snippet of information at last feels like catching the Snitch. Wolfsbane is the more common name, Neil knows, and it's the main ingredient in the Wolfsbane Potion, which is taken by werewolves to keep them calm on full moons. They don't need to take it throughout the month, though, which means Andrew's taking something else.

“Maybe it is just for chronic pain,” Neil says aloud, thinking of Muggle opiates, how they dull the senses. Maybe the pain—internalized magic? Accidentally self-inflicted pain?—made Andrew aggressive, and this is the way Healers decided to deal with it.

Accompanying the description is a sketch of the plant: it's pretty, a long green stem covered in purple flowers, and Neil tries to picture Andrew making a potion with purple flowers but can't. Maybe he buys it. It's hard to picture Andrew caring about anything long enough to make a potion for it, even his own pain.

“What's the library for?” Matt asks, coming in from his Saturday morning practice just as Neil is clearing things up. He's soaked to the skin from the rain, but he looks to be in a good mood anyway.

“Researching wolfsbane,” Neil says, watching Matt closely for a hint of recognition.

Matt only grins in response. “We've been missing you at practice this week. Andrew says to meet him at Eden's Twilight tonight, by the way.”

Neil's heart actually skips a beat. “Does he?”

“Yeah, but he was smiling, so it might be a bad idea.” Matt pours himself a glass of water, drains it, then pours another. “That's not a joke. His smiles are almost always bad news.”

“It's still my job,” Neil reminds him. “Don't worry, I'm not scared of Andrew.”

“You should be,” Matt says, and hesitates. “I can come along if you need me to.”

“I'm fine,” Neil says. “I can handle Andrew Minyard.”

Matt still looks doubtful, but he drops it.

*

When Neil gets to Eden's Twilight, his butterbeer is waiting for him at Andrew's table. Andrew himself is surveying the club boredly, and he barely glances up when Neil arrives.

“He's back,” Andrew says. “Neil, Neil, the slippery eel. Are you slippery when wet, too?”

He's drunk, Neil thinks, or more heavily drugged than usual.

“It's raining,” Neil says, tapping his robes with his wand to dry himself off.

“And you still made it!” Andrew says, giving Neil a wide smile like he's delighted. Neil knows better.

“Aconite is more commonly known as wolfsbane,” Neil says. “Which has a few famous applications. Why'd you use the less common name?”

“Your question was 'what's the experimental treatment,' not 'what is the most common name for the main ingredient of the potion you take.' If you want better answers, ask better questions.”

“You led me on a chase for no reason.”

“There was some reason,” Andrew says. “It's funny to see you struggle.”

He doesn't look like he thinks it's funny, and when Neil raises his eyebrow, Andrew places a finger at each corner of his lips and deliberately raises them into some mockery of a smile.

“Ha ha,” he says. “Whose turn is it?”

“Mine,” Neil says, raising his goblet to his lips and then stopping, heart thudding wildly, as every instinct in his body recoils against it.

“Doesn't sound right,” Andrew says. “You were just about to tell me your name.”

Neil puts the goblet down.

“Don't be rude,” Andrew says. “I bought you a drink.”

“I don't drink,” Neil says.

“It's butterbeer,” Andrew says. “Your favorite.”

“What else is it?” Neil says.

Andrew smiles without manual assistance this time. “Not as dumb as you look.” He pauses, then: “Does it matter? I won't talk to you without it.”

“I'm not drinking this.” Neil casts around for their usual friendly bartender, but the table Andrew frequents is far from everything: the bar, the dance floor, people.

“Oh yes you are,” Andrew says. “Haven't you heard? I'm psychotic. If you don't drink it yourself, I'll make you drink it. And that isn't as pleasant as it sounds.”

Neil thinks fast: it's probably not Veritaserum. That's always on backorder and costs a ridiculous amount of money and anyway is practically illegal. He doesn't doubt that Andrew could get it, only that Andrew could get it in the few weeks since he's been talking to Neil. Occlumency works against lower-strength truth potions, and Neil's trained in Occlumency, but he's rusty enough that he doesn't want to risk it.

He could just do it. Andrew isn't likely to ask him anything too pressing, but Neil doesn't know Andrew well enough to know Andrew won't go straight to the authorities if he knows who Neil's father is. Neil wants his story, but he doesn't want it as badly as he wants to survive.

Worse, most truth potions actively work against self-Transfiguration, and that includes whatever magic is involved in being a Metamorphmagus. Even if Neil can resist Andrew's questioning, there's no way he can resist that, and he won't risk looking like his father here, even if there's no way the Nathan Wesninski of his memory would be caught dead anywhere like Eden's Twilight.

“Fuck off,” Neil says, starting to stand.

At once, Andrew seizes the back of Neil's neck and then his chin. The club is starting to fill up, but no one looks in their direction. Neil clamps his jaw shut, and Andrew rolls his eyes and pinches Neil's nose until Neil has to gasp for breath.

Andrew doesn't go for the spiked butterbeer. Instead, he drops something from a small bottle in his hand into Neil's mouth, forces Neil's mouth shut, and waits.

Then he sits back, satisfied, and says, “What's your name?”

Neil feels his nose changing shape, is opening his mouth to answer before he knows what he's doing and then, terrified and angry and not doing a good job of clearing his mind at all, takes off running.

He doesn't look to see if Andrew is following him; he doesn't care that patrons of the club are staring at him as he tumbles almost over his own feet; he ignores the fact that his name spilled out of his mouth and that his face has completely changed shape and tears away out of the club, down several blocks in a direction he doesn't know but hopes is south, and then just keeps running.

He's not well-hydrated. He ran once today already, and his legs are tired. But adrenaline carries him the first few miles, and sheer anger carries him another four, and then he sees water, and it takes all of his willpower not to leap in and swim.

He's not stupid. He knows this isn't the ocean. He knows that even if it were, he couldn't swim across it all the way to America. He probably couldn't even swim across the Channel.

If he jumps in here, he'll probably get some kind of toxic waste poisoning and be eaten by a radioactive shark. The ocean appeals to him only because it'll take him far away, away from Andrew Minyard, away from the Daily Prophet, away from Azkaban and Britain and all the issues with wizardkind he's had for so long. But Baltimore holds memories of his father and his father's people, and even if Nathan Wesninski ended up in Azkaban, his people are stretched out across the east coast of the United States.

Neil stares out at the river, faintly shocked that he's run so far. He looks at his watch: it's been around an hour since he left Eden's Twilight, and he has no idea how long truth potions stay in a person's system. Either way, he doesn't want to bump into any other people for the next few hours, including Matt—even without the drastic changes to Neil's appearance, what would he say if Matt asked him how it went? “He spiked my butterbeer with truth potion and I ran the eight miles to the Thames in an effort to ensure he not discover that I'm actually the son of a former Death Eater and one of the most notorious murderers in American wizarding history”?

Instead, Neil goes to the pier. It's a Saturday night in late summer, and there are people out, walking around, going to pubs, enjoying their nights and their friends. Neil thinks, bitterly, how nice it would be to be one of them—careless, having fun, having friends. Instead he's here, drenched in sweat, dizzy from dehydration, shaking so hard he can barely get a cigarette lit even with his magically enhanced lighter.

He cups the cigarette between his hands once he finally lights it, breathing in the scent that still, after all this time, reminds him of his mother. Marlboro Reds, her cigarette of choice, the scent she left when he burned her body—

Neil doesn't want to go to a hotel lest someone ask him his name, and he doesn't want to go to his flat while Matt is still up, so instead he just sits there, watching the water, counting as high as he can in every language he knows (mediocre French, decent German, very rudimentary Spanish) until he's so tired that the sounds of the river start making him drift off.

“I'm Neil Josten,” he tests, and it comes out of his mouth clearly, so it must be over. “My name is Neil. I'm a Muggle-born. I'm a reporter for the Daily Prophet sports section.” He tries another lie: “I can't wait to see Andrew Minyard at Quidditch practice on Monday.” He moves closer to the water and looks at his murky reflection in the streetlights. It's not enough for him to see anything, so he casts around for any Muggles and then takes out his wand and forces the water to go so still and clean that it becomes reflective enough.

It's been ages since he saw his real eyes, his real hair. He hates it just as much as he always has, but now he looks older, more tired, more like—

He coughs, puts his cigarette in his mouth, takes an angry drag. He coughs again, which would be funny if he were currently capable of finding anything funny, and stubs the cigarette out on the ground. Then he switches his hair back to black and his eyes back to brown and changes the shape of his nose and forces himself to breathe.

It's the worst thing he can imagine other than his father breaking out of Azkaban and coming to find him. A truth potion forced down his throat. If Neil tells the truth, he's dead.

Don't trust anyone, his mother always told him, and he doesn't. He doesn't trust anyone. But he can't exist in the world without putting himself at risk like this, not if he wants a job that requires him to interact with people. What if it happens again? What if it's not Andrew next time? What if it's someone who knows who he is, who knows who the Butcher is, who wants him dead instead of just figured out?

He can't risk this. Not again.

It's settled, then. He'll go back to the flat he shares with Matt. He'll pack his things. He'll leave. He can pick a different face, a different name, a different country—maybe he can move to Canada this time, alter his father's American accent so it fits in better there. He can get used to the cold. He can be blond, like Andrew Minyard, and have green eyes like Kevin Day. Maybe he'll pretend to be a Muggle, forge documentation and a degree and get a job doing something with his hands. Maybe he'll move to Montreal. His French isn't that bad.

But first he needs his trunk, his list of contacts, his money.

Exhausted, he Apparates back to the front door of his flat, digs around in his pocket for his keys, and lets himself in.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Matt, whose father is a very Protestant Muggle, says. “Thank God you're alright.”

He's sat at their kitchen table with a pot of tea and two empty beer bottles next to him. Also next to him is an angry-looking Dan.

Are you alright?” Matt says.

“I'm fine,” Neil says.

Something tugs at him, but he can't quite place it. He wasn't expecting Matt to be up waiting for him—he thought the two of them might run into each other by chance, Matt coming home from a night out with his friends or going to get a glass of water or something. Not like this. He can't remember the last time someone was concerned enough about him to wait up for him—probably because it hasn't ever happened. He wouldn't have dared to break curfew when his mother was alive, and after she died he kept himself carefully separate from anyone who would've cared.

He thinks about Matt bringing him water after his nightmares wake both of them up and thinks that maybe he's misjudged Matt slightly.

“Right,” Dan says. Her presence is even more surprising, and Neil wonders if she always had plans with Matt tonight or if he specifically called her. “Then can you explain how you're here now, at three in the morning, looking like you've just been out in the middle of the Thames, when Andrew Minyard got home two hours ago?”

“How did you know that?”

“I Flooed over to Kevin's,” Matt says.

“Since when do you and Kevin—”

“We don't,” Matt says shortly.

“I told you to interview him,” Dan says. “I didn't tell you to get yourself killed. Remember what Nicky told us? Minyard's capable of murder, Neil. That's not a joke.”

“I said I'm fine,” Neil says. “I just went for a run.”

“You're in robes,” Matt says.

Neil stares back at him, unable to formulate a response.

“Neil, if you want off the story, just say the word,” Dan says. “It'd sell papers, but if he's a genuine risk, it's not worth it.”

“I'm not scared of him,” Neil says.

“Really?” Dan says. “Because you look like you're figuring out the easiest way to get rid of us so you can bolt the fuck out of here right now.”

Neil opens his mouth, then closes it again and looks away.

“If we didn't have wards up, I swear you'd've Disapparated the second you saw us sitting here,” Matt says. “As it is, I'm almost surprised I haven't had to tackle you to keep you here.”

“You don't know me,” Neil says, throat raw. “You should just let me leave. It wouldn't make a difference.”

“Course it would,” Matt says, dismissing Neil immediately. “Here, have some tea.”

He pushes a steaming mug toward Neil, who is unable to stop himself from flinching backward.

“What the fuck,” Dan says flatly.

“It's nothing,” Neil says quickly. “I just don't want any tea.”

“When people don't want any tea, they say, no thanks, Matt, I don't want any tea,” Matt says. “When people have been involuntarily dosed with something—” He looks over at Dan, but doesn't elaborate.

“What did he give you?” Dan says. She sounds more dangerous and looks more angry than Neil has ever seen her. On the table, one of her fists is clenched so tightly that her knuckles are white. It feels, Neil thinks, like an overreaction; he wonders how he'd react if someone drugged her and comes up empty.

“He didn't give me anything,” Neil says. “I'm fine.”

“Neil,” Dan says. “We're your friends. We just want to make sure you're all right.”

“And I'm telling you that I am,” Neil says. “Seriously.” His throat tightens. “Thank you for—but I'm fine. I'm just tired.”

“Neil,” Dan says again.

“I don't ever want to see him again,” Neil says. “But—I'll finish the story.”

“No, you won't,” Dan says, standing up, presumably to leave. “I'm putting you on a different team on Monday.”

Matt gets up, too. “It's good to see that you're all in one piece, Neil, but next time you go out with a monster, check in every hour or so, yeah?”

Neil nods, voice catching in his throat. Dan looks tired as well as angry, he notices.

“You can stay here,” he finds himself saying. “If you don't want to go all the way home—you take my bed and I'll just—”

“Thanks,” Dan says. “But I'm not stealing your bed from you. Go have a shower and then get under the covers. You'll feel better.”

“Definitely spend the night, though,” Matt says, too eagerly, and Dan blinks up at him.

“Couch it is,” she says, smiling at last.

Despite every muscle of his body dying to leave, Neil listens to Dan, showers, gets in his bed, and stares up at the ceiling trying to force himself to breathe evenly.

Friends, Dan said.

He can leave in the morning.

Chapter Text

But then in the morning, Dan's there, and she spends most of the day in their flat watching old Quidditch reels on the television Matt has managed to rig. The three of them talk about various strategies, and Matt tells them what he thinks the QL will look like this season, and Neil and Dan give him their assessments, too. It feels comfortable, Neil thinks, curled up in the corner of his couch with a cup of tea he's made himself and Dan and Matt sitting next to him, joking and tossing peanuts at each other.

Afterward, Dan and Matt drag Neil out to dinner and drinks at a Muggle pub, and Dan has too much to drink and they Apparate her home and put her in bed. Then Matt says, “Good thing you can check in on her at work tomorrow,” and then suddenly it's like Neil is stuck, and he's not even sure if he hates being stuck as much as he thought he did.

It's very strange, having friends, though neither Dan nor Matt takes this as hard as Neil does, both acting completely normal around him and each other, as if the revelation of their friendship was less revelatory and more matter of fact for both of them than it was for Neil.

He makes tea when they get back to their flat, and Matt sits up with Neil to share a cup even though Neil isn't keen on talking and wouldn't have much to say even if he was.

Next to him, Matt is mostly silent, paging through Which Broomstick? and leaning into the couch, looking relaxed and content. Neil tries to a remember a time when he felt relaxed and content instead of on-edge and terrified, and realizes that he can't. Despite the day he's spent with Dan and Matt, he hasn't ever stopped feeling tense, that deep-set fear of what would happen if someone found out the truth hovering just beneath his ribs, surfacing at every quiet moment, any time he's alone with his thoughts long enough to give it a chance.

“Hey,” Matt says, nudging Neil with his foot. “You ever going to tell me what Andrew did?”

“No,” Neil says, and immediately feels guilty. “I—maybe. Not right now, but—”

“You don't have to,” Matt says. “Just tell me if I need to fight him at practice tomorrow.”

“Thanks for the offer,” Neil says. “But I'd rather do it myself.”

“Yesterday you said you didn't ever want to see him again.”

Yesterday, Neil was planning on disappearing from London for good, but now he's stuck here, at least for one more day.

“I don't,” Neil says. “That doesn't mean I won't fight him if I do.”

Matt laughs. “You talk like someone who's seen a lot of fights in his day, but I never once saw you hit anyone at Hogwarts.”

“Except when we played Quidditch.”

“Well, yeah,” Matt says. “Except for then.”

He's still watching Neil, and it makes Neil feel uncomfortable, so he says, “Dan seemed to be enjoying your company.”

“I like getting to know her,” Matt says. “We're—friends.” He smiles, a little bashfully. “I don't know. If she doesn't like me back, it's whatever, but I think we could be good friends anyway.”

“Happy for you, mate,” Neil says. “Hope she changes her mind.”

But Matt shakes his head. “Nah. It's like I said—I genuinely like her.” Neil wonders for a moment what the distinction is, genuinely liking someone versus just wanting to go out with them, but Matt is still talking. “If something happens, it happens, but I'm not trying to get her to change her mind. I just like being around her.”

“Oh,” Neil says.

Matt grins. “You're not interested in her, are you?”

“You know I'm not.”

“Well, let me know if you ever are interested in anyone. Maybe I can give you the same stunning emotional support you give me. 'Happy for you, mate.' 'Oh.'”

“I'm never interested in anyone,” Neil reminds him, and Matt laughs and pushes off the couch.

“I'm going to bed,” he says. “Good night.”

“Night,” Neil echoes, and watches as Matt disappears into his room.

Yesterday, he was going to leave, but now—

Well, he's still here. That counts for something, at least.

*

Except in extreme cases, using truth potion is mostly illegal. It's a substance so heavily regulated by the Ministry of Magic that it's almost impossible to get its ingredients, let alone the potion itself. The Prophet has a stash for interviewees that say things that seem potentially libelous, but it takes an endless stream of paperwork to get permission to use it, not to mention about a dozen signatures from the interviewee. Neil hasn't ever tried—the danger of messing something up and getting arrested has always outweighed the potential benefit. If you get caught, for a first offense, it's a fine and a short sentence. With a record, it's a longer term in Azkaban.

Why, then, would Andrew risk everything?

Because Andrew does have everything, Neil thinks, working mechanically on another team's season preview for Dan the next day. Andrew has the perfect career, a family he'd kill for, a famous friend in Kevin Day and a convenient friend in Roland Pompey. He's ill somehow, yes, but he's surrounded by his own flesh and blood and he wakes up every day and gets to play the best game in the world for a living. His parents are out of the picture, evidently, but he has Nicky to worry about him and a twin brother who must know Andrew better than anyone.

It isn't fair, Neil thinks suddenly.

Andrew doesn't even care about Quidditch. He doesn't care about it, but he plays it professionally alongside two of the best Chasers in the game. He gets to wake up every morning and mount his broom for a living, and it has to be a comfortable living, because Quidditch players are insultingly well-paid. When he isn't playing a game for his income, Andrew can do whatever he likes apparently—though some athletes, like Matt, avoiding smoking, Andrew always smells like smoke. While some athletes, like Kevin, are constantly doing press, Andrew hasn't given a single interview over the course of his entire career. While some athletes, like Jeremy, have endorsement deals and sponsorships and get paid ridiculous amounts of money to wear a certain pair of shoes, Andrew doesn't even have that to take up his spare time.

Neil isn't pretending the lives of athletes are easy—he sees how exhausted Matt is every day. But Andrew gets to do Neil's favorite thing in the world as his job. And Neil doesn't mind journalism, doesn't mind interviews or research or writing, but if he could come back as a different person with a different past, it's not the choice he'd make.

And Andrew doesn't care.

He doesn't, from what Neil can see, care about anything—except, for some reason, Neil's background.

It makes every one of Neil's carefully honed instincts for self-preservation go haywire. What is so special about Neil? From what Neil can tell, it's just that he's the only journalist in years to even try talking to Andrew. It can't be a protective thing—Neil's barely spoken to Kevin in the last few years, so he's not sure why Andrew seems to think of him as some kind of a threat. He sees Andrew's cousin every day at work, but that's not new—Nicky started at the Daily Prophet before Neil did.

“Hey.”

Neil looks up and feels abruptly like he's summoned Nicky by accident just by thinking of him.

“Hi,” Neil says, wary.

“I heard what happened,” Nicky says.

“From who?” Neil says. “Andrew or Dan?”

Nicky looks guilty, so Neil assumes the former.

“How do you do it?” Nicky says.

“What?”

“Andrew says your eyes aren't really that color. Do you take Polyjuice Potion?”

“Polyjuice Potion?” Neil says, heart hammering too quickly in his chest. Who else has Andrew told? What has he told them? Why did Neil trust him that first day at Eden's Twilight, why did he let Andrew see into his mind, why did he keep trusting him? “Do you know how difficult it is to brew Polyjuice Potion?” The ingredients are wildly expensive, and the instructions call for a full moon cycle in order to actually work. Neil would know: he tried making some for his mother once, so she could be equally as well-disguised as he was.

“I suppose so,” Nicky says. “Though I get why you'd want to look like whoever this is,” he adds, tugging at a lock of Neil's hair. “He's gorgeous, isn't he?”

“He's just me,” Neil says, leaning out of Nicky's reach. “Since when are you and Andrew close enough to talk about your weekends?”

Nicky still looks guilty.

“Jesus Christ, Nicky,” Neil says, because he, too, had a Muggle parent. “You didn't.”

“He said he wanted to make sure you weren't—” Nicky stops, shakes his head. “You don't know what it's like,” he says.

“You don't have to do everything he tells you,” Neil says.

“That's not what I mean. He—Andrew means well.”

He means well. Neil thinks of Andrew's raised eyebrow, the smirk, the way he looked at Neil like Neil was something to break open. He thinks of his mother telling him not to trust anyone, and then he thinks of how close he came to trusting Nicky. He thinks of Andrew holding his nose closed, and all at once his breakfast is coming back up his throat.

“Andrew slipped truth serum into my drink,” Neil says coldly. “Truth serum he got from you.”

“Neil—”

“I don't want to hear it. Leave me alone, Nicky.”

Neil—”

“I mean it. Fuck off if you don't want to end up fired or in Azkaban.”

Nicky's mouth opens, then closes again. Neil pretends to look for something in the stack of parchment on his desk, and eventually Nicky turns and goes back to his own desk to copy edit. Every so often, out of the corner of his eye, Neil sees Nicky glance up at him. Neil ignores him, ignores the sick feeling in his chest—betrayal, which isn't something he's supposed to feel because he isn't ever supposed to let anyone get close enough to betray him, and if he'd only listened to his mother, if he'd only been smarter, maybe he would've been able to avoid this—

He stands without meaning to. Nicky looks up at him, but Neil pretends not to see him and digs his running clothes out of his bag.

He changes in a restroom stall, and then he takes his lunch break. The concept of eating makes him feel like gagging, so instead he goes for a run.

Technically Neil's not supposed to be out for longer than an hour, but he's finished most of his work for the day, so he takes his time, runs five miles and then jogs slowly to an Apparition point, Apparates to his flat for a quick shower before Apparating back to work in clean clothes.

The run clears his head. He feels more alert than he has since his desperate escape Saturday night. He sits down at his desk with a renewed sense of purpose, starting the piece on Andrew Minyard and setting it aside once he's written down everything he knows (six measly inches he can publish; another foot he can't; half a roll of questions he still needs answered).

He makes edits to the other articles he's supposed to be working on. He meets with Dan and the other sports writers. He talks to one of the people in charge of getting the Prophet ads about putting some in the sports section.

It's the most productive day he's had in weeks, but when it ends, he feels oddly unfulfilled.

“You all right?” Dan says, ruffling his hair affectionately as she passes him on her way out.

“I'm fine,” Neil says automatically.

“Right,” Dan says. She looks at Neil for a moment longer, then sighs. “See you tomorrow, Neil. Tell Matt I said hello.”

He watches her leave, and when she's gone, follows her out.

*

He runs again after work, trying to convince himself to stay.

Dan and Matt want him to stay. Even with all his issues, even though he wakes Matt up at least a few times a week, they want him to stay. No one's ever wanted him to stay anywhere before, especially not in the lonely years since his mother died. Three long, solitary years at Hogwarts, where his only respite from being alone was Quidditch. Three long, solitary years at the Daily Prophet, where seeing his coworkers and roommate has done little to make him feel more like a real person.

Close to his flat, he sees Andrew, leaning against a lamppost and smoking. Neil blinks and Andrew's gone again, a figment of his imagination, there and then not.

His biggest fear, the truth potion slipped into his drink, has come true, and it's absolutely wrecked him. Neil can't think of a time when he wanted to leave London more.

If he leaves now, he'll be nothing but a memory to these people. Someone they once lived with. Someone they once worked with.

He likes Dan and Matt. He genuinely likes them. But he's not sure if he likes them more than he values his life, and he's not sure if he likes his life in London enough to risk staying here just for the sake of seeing it through to its end.

And yet—

He and his mother spent so long running. And what came of it? She might have extended her life, but it wasn't like she enjoyed those extra years. And Neil likes his life. If he runs, he might survive longer, but is there a point to surviving just for the sake of surviving?

When he gets back to his flat, he can't fall asleep, and the idea of taking a sleeping potion to make himself do so terrifies him. What if whatever potion he gets is spiked? What if he makes it himself and makes it too strong? What if something happens and he misses it because he's asleep? What if someone sneaks into his room in the night, what if Matt is Lola in disguise, what if he loses his grasp on his disguise at night and Matt comes in and—

He locks his door. He doesn't sleep, except when it happens by accident. He feels sick all the time, so he doesn't eat.

He can't stop thinking about it: Andrew Minyard destroyed Neil Josten in the time it took to pinch his nose shut and drop potion into his mouth. And now Neil feels like he's holding on to himself by the tips of his fingers, like if he falls asleep or doesn't run fast enough or maybe runs too fast he'll lose hold completely and just fall apart.

He feels like he's floundering. For the first time since the nastiness with the Moriyamas when he first started at the Prophet—when it seemed like they might reveal him to the world as the Butcher's son—he has no idea whether or not to run. He resisted then, purely because of his childhood obsession with Kevin and his desire that one of them live even if it wasn't him, but the danger for Kevin is over. It's just him now, waiting for someone to find out who he is, waiting for his father's remaining British strongholds—

He has no remaining British strongholds, Neil reminds himself. He's in Azkaban. You're safe.

But he's tense all the time anyway, and when he's not working he's a knot of anxiety, scared of his own shadow, worried about walking down streets in the dark, Apparating from place to place if he isn't running lest he move slowly enough for someone to see him and recognize him and catch him. Never mind that his face is fully disguised—he worries that he's going to give himself away by talking too much like he used to, or by walking like the boy his father and his father's people remember, or—

Stop it, a voice in his head says. Get it together.

But he can't get it together. He imagines his father's people around every corner, might actually be seeing Andrew near his flat every night. He can barely bring himself to go inside every day, wishes he didn't have to face Matt, wishes he were strong enough to leave, wishes he were brave enough to stay.

He can't remember ever having been this much of a mess before, but Andrew has ruined whatever grasp Neil had on his sanity. In one night, one quarter of an hour, Andrew destroyed Neil's carefully built facade, took apart Neil's lies, and found nothing beneath them. Neil Josten isn't real, but Neil himself can't find anything under the surface except fear and anger and resentment and envy.

*

The week progresses in much the same way: he wakes up, works, runs midday, works, runs after work, sees or imagines Andrew, goes to his flat, tries to decide what to do, fails. Sleeps poorly or not at all. Survives, barely. Falls, inevitably, apart.

*

“Josten!”

Neil's head pivots so quickly that he almost gives himself whiplash. Dan's boss, the Prophet's current editor-in-chief, doesn't miss it.

“You're a little on edge lately,” Rheman says, coming across the room and settling himself against the side of Neil's desk. “Can I ask you what the problem is?”

“It's nothing,” Neil says. “Just had an odd week.”

“Dan Wilds says it has something to do with the subject of one of your stories,” Rheman says. “One Andrew Minyard. Why does that name sound familiar to me?”

“Because you follow Quidditch, presumably,” Neil says. “He's one of the best Keepers in the league.”

“Yet you've stopped writing about him.”

Neil chokes back his pride, thinks about the parchment tucked into his desk drawer and hidden with about a dozen different spells. “Yes.”

“Explain.”

“He slipped something in my drink,” Neil says.

“Press charges.”

The idea of trying to get a Quidditch player sent to Azkaban, and a famous one at that, sounds much too public for Neil's liking.

“I don't want to,” Neil says. “I just never want to think about him again.”

“Yet you're here, looking like a thestral caught in wandlight every time someone says your name.” Rheman frowns. “I need your assurance that you're all right.”

“I am.”

“You know I never dug too deeply into your past,” Rheman says. “You're here on a good recommendation from your Quidditch captain at Hogwarts and your Head of House. And Dan likes you, and if Dan vouches for you, you must be good. But if there's something you think I should know—”

“There isn't,” Neil says.

“Neil,” Rheman says, voice gentle, but it doesn't make Neil forget that there's a man roughly his father's size and age in his personal space. Neil knows Rheman would never touch him, knows it intellectually, but his instincts don't always listen to his intellect.

“I'm fine,” Neil says. “Really.”

Rheman grips Neil's shoulder. Neil forces himself not to flinch and smiles up at Rheman.

“Your concern is touching,” Neil says. “But I'm fine.”

“If I had a Sickle for every time I heard that word out of your mouth,” Rheman says, shaking his head, but he seems satisfied, because he leaves Neil alone with his thoughts.

*

It all comes to a head on Thursday, when Neil is leaving the building after work and crashes right into the monster himself.

Andrew shoves Neil away immediately, but he holds him at arm's length, examining him.

“Neil!” he says, like it's a delightful surprise to see him. “You look like you're going to run. Surprised you haven't already.”

“What are you doing here?” Neil says, because they're several miles away from the Lions' practice pitch.

“Maybe I was worried about you,” Andrew says.

“Right,” Neil says. “You shouldn't have been. Goodbye.”

He sidesteps Andrew and starts to jog, but Andrew catches up to him and shoves him, hard, against a car. The alarm goes off, and Andrew hits it with his fist. Neil sees a faint light, and the car goes silent.

What?” Neil says, ripping away from Andrew so he isn't caged between him and the car. “What do you want? You have everything, and I'm nothing. Why are you so obsessed with torturing me?”

“As I recall it, you were the one who showed up at my place of work and started asking questions,” Andrew says. “I just want to know why.” He steps closer again, and he's smaller than Neil but undoubtedly stronger. Neil wonders what Nicky meant about Andrew's magic, if Neil could take him in a duel or not.

“It's my job,” Neil says. “I'm a journalist.”

“I thought reporters were supposed to tell the truth.”

“We're supposed to report the news,” Neil says. “Just because I'm—” But he can't bring himself to say just what he is, because he can't bring himself to admit out loud that Neil Josten is a fabrication. It's been so comfortable living in Neil Josten's life for so long that the idea that it might be over, that it might not be him after all, actually hurts. “Just leave me alone.”

“Kevin never asks me for anything that isn't related to Quidditch,” Andrew says. “So why did he ask me to do you a favor?”

“Because he owes me,” Neil says. “You have to know about that.”

“Why would you do that?” Andrew says. “Why would you risk everything to help Kevin? You don't add up, Neil Josten.”

“I'm not a math problem.”

“No,” Andrew agrees. “Math follows a logical set of rules and patterns. You—you're something else.”

“Leave me alone,” Neil says again, exhausted. “Stop following me. Stop talking to me. You got what you wanted—I'm not interviewing you, I'm not writing about your team, I'm not even supposed to be in your vicinity.”

“But you've gotten my attention,” Andrew says, stepping closer. “Do you know how long it's been since anyone's done that?”

Neil pushes Andrew away from him.

“I don't care,” he says. “You obviously don't want me to write a story about you, so I'm not. I got what I wanted. I'm writing about professional Quidditch again. Stop fucking following me.”

He turns away and starts running again, but Andrew catches up to him again.

“Stop running away,” Andrew says. “I get that it's in your nature, but—”

“We're supposed to be trading truths,” Neil says. “That's what you want, right?”

Andrew stares at Neil, hand still curled around his arm.

“I want to hear any truth from you at all,” Andrew says. “Not a half truth. A whole one.”

“Fine,” Neil says. “Fine.”

He turns around and walks back into the Daily Prophet building, signs Andrew in, and drags him to the mostly secluded bathroom in the archives.

“If I show you,” Neil says, “you have to call off your dogs.”

Something in Andrew's expression flickers.

“My dogs,” he says.

“I don't want Nicky hounding me, I don't want to worry everything I drink is going to expose me to the world, I don't want to see you anywhere near here again.”

Andrew doesn't answer, which Neil takes as agreement.

“Fine. Ask away. Whatever you want.”

“You said I have everything,” Andrew says. “What did you mean?”

It catches Neil by surprise. He expected Andrew to ask about his name or his real face, not a comment he said half in passing in a moment of desperation.

“You play Quidditch for a living,” says Neil. “You're surrounded by people who care about you. You've been in trouble, but you escaped barely scathed. Everyone knows who you really are, and you still get to live exactly the life I always wanted, and you don't even appreciate it. If you disappeared completely without a trace—people would miss you.”

Andrew's gaze changes from impassive to something darker, something more intense, and he wraps his fingers around Neil's neck to pull him close and stare up into his eyes.

“Get out of my fucking mind,” Neil says, and his voice sounds wrecked even to him.

“But that doesn't make sense,” Andrew says, but Neil's mind stops feeling like it's being probed. “No one would miss me.”

Neil doesn't understand that, doesn't know why it feels so cataclysmic to hear Andrew say that.

“You have Kevin,” Neil says. “Nicky. Aaron. Your team. They always have your back. I have—” But he can't bring himself to say it, that he has nothing, that he is nothing as far as the world is concerned.

“You don't know anything,” Andrew says. His mouth twists, and Neil thinks it's the most honest thing he's ever seen on Andrew's face even if he can't understand it. “Take your turn.”

Neil opens his mouth to ask about whatever Andrew takes his medicine for, but something else comes out instead: “Why did you beat up those four guys?”

Andrew's expression gives way to surprise before shuttering again.

“Haven't you heard?” he says. “I'm aggressive.”

“You could've killed me any of the times we've been alone together,” Neil says. “You haven't. Even though you don't trust me, even though you hate me, you haven't once tried to hurt me.”

“I spiked your butterbeer with truth potion knowing it would expose your real looks in public,” Andrew says.

“That's not aggressive,” Neil says. “It's strategic.”

Again, Andrew's expression betrays something other than its insistent blandness.

“Tell me the truth,” Neil says.

“I attacked them because they would've killed Nicky for being a gay Muggle-born,” Andrew says. “Not what you expected, is it?”

Neil exhales, realizing that he's been holding his breath. “It's exactly what I expected. Is that the fake disease, then? Aggression that doesn't exist because you were just defending your family?”

“Oh, I assure you,” Andrew says, “the aggression exists.”

“What does that mean?” Neil says, feeling again like he's on the last leg of a race, the finish within his line of sight.

“Show me something real, Josten,” Andrew says.

Neil inhales and holds it. This was his plan originally, to show Andrew the truth he's been hiding from everyone for so long, to pray for Andrew to keep it to himself even though he knows there's no one out there to answer his prayers and anyway Andrew probably wouldn't listen to any god.

He points his wand at the door to lock it. Andrew looks unimpressed.

Neil closes his eyes, then lets his face shift back to its natural features, opens them again.

“I look like my father,” he says. “You were right. I'm not a Muggle-born.”

Andrew doesn't say anything.

“My father pissed off the Moriyamas, stole from them, and I've been living off that money ever since. I'm hiding from them—they still have people outside of Azkaban, and if they find me and find out who I am, my life is over.”

Andrew watches, scanning Neil's face as if he might be able to find a lie there. Neil holds Andrew's gaze if only to avoid looking at himself in the mirror, knowing it opens him up to Andrew's Legilimency. But this half-truth seems to be enough for Andrew, because he looks away, crosses his arms.

“You must have a death wish,” Andrew says. “Why not stay in Baltimore?”

“People think Voldemort didn't reach America,” Neil says, “but he did. Through the Moriyama stronghold in Baltimore, which was—”

“Headed by your father,” Andrew says, which is close enough to the truth that Neil nods. “There's no way you survive this.”

“Probably not,” Neil agrees. “But I'd like to stay alive as long as possible, and flashing my real looks at everyone probably wouldn't help.”

Andrew studies the wall opposite him.

“Ask me again,” he says.

“What?” Neil says.

“You really are awful at remembering rules,” Andrew says. “It's your turn.”

His turn. It's almost shocking to hear it—as if Neil still cares about his story, about this game, when it feels like Andrew has opened him up, looked inside him, and decided it's too boring to be worth caring about.

“What's the wolfsbane for?” Neil says.

Andrew was expecting it. He stares up at the ceiling. “Mid-lunar cycle lycanthropic presentation,” he says tonelessly. A moment later, he glances back at Neil, grinning at the expression on Neil's face. “That's right, runaway. They think I'll be aggressive all the time because I'm aggressive once a month.”

Andrew has set Neil's heart on triple speed again, but this time it's different.

“Because you're—” Neil says, and then stops, the truth too awful to say aloud.

“Can't say it?” Andrew says. “Don't worry. I've had plenty of practice.”

He comes back over to Neil, up into Neil's space, and grabs Neil around the back of the neck again to pull Neil down to his level. His breath smells faintly like alcohol and cigarette smoke.

“Werewolf,” Andrew says right into his face.

Neil tries to piece it together. Foster care, then St. Mungo's. “You were—you were trying to learn magic. And it was full moon, and you couldn't have known, and you—”

“There you go,” Andrew says. “A damning truth for a damning truth. Mutually assured destruction.”

“But you're—”

Andrew looks at him, bored. “Enough. Give me something real, Josten.”

“I'm real,” Neil says, but knows it's a lie, and knows in the same instant that he's lost Andrew.

“Time's up,” Andrew says. “Better make your face boring again.”

“Same time next week?” Neil says.

“But you're still lying,” Andrew reminds him.

“I just showed you who I really am.”

“You showed me what you really look like,” Andrew says. “It's not the same thing. I'm not going to tell you all my secrets while you run around calling yourself a Muggle-born.”

“It's not a secret if your whole team knows,” Neil says. “And they must, right? If the QA has you taking wolfsbane—”

“Send me an owl when you're ready to tell me the truth,” Andrew says, and walks off without another word.

“Werewolf,” Neil repeats into the empty bathroom once he's gone.

Werewolf.

Chapter Text

Even if, in a kind of fucked up Jungian way, it sort of makes sense that Andrew's a werewolf, the rest of the story doesn't add up.

Neil is in the library again, which is more than a little irritating: he can't remember ever having been forced to spend this long doing actual research, and he's not a fast enough reader for it to be going quickly. The Daily Prophet has devoted an entire floor to its library in an effort to ensure it reports the facts correctly—all part of an editorial shakeup in the years following the wizarding war, which also included a new hyper-diligence about avoiding pressure from the Ministry. That means the Prophet's library is better stocked than most others in Britain, with the notable exceptions of Hogwarts and some famous witch's personal collection, and the room—like the archives room—is beset upon by a trickle of Prophet writers, editors, and fact-checkers every day.

It's all very distracting, and it takes Neil forever to get any work done. Even so, the spell the archivist taught him works here, too, and Neil is surrounding by tomes on werewolves presenting—or not presenting—on days other than the full moon.

There isn't much. There's record of one werewolf, a Voldemort-affiliate called Fenrir Greyback, attacking wizards on nights other than the full moon—but there's no evidence that it's a consequence of lycanthropy. If anything, it's a consequence of him just being an asshole.

There's also a lot about werewolves working for Voldemort during both wizarding wars, but Neil chalks that up to the werewolves' own desire for survival: the wizarding world at large doesn't have much room for them, and it's nearly impossible for them to get employed despite law changes in the aftermath of the war. Neil is surprised Andrew's able to play for a professional Quidditch team, and he wonders if Andrew is the first werewolf to play Quidditch professionally.

But in no book that isn't blatant propaganda with a title like “Family Values: How Werewolfism Will Destroy Our Children” and “Lycanthropy as a Threat to the British Way of Life” is there any proof that the werewolf gene leads to aggression. There's no evidence for it at all. In fact, famous werewolves have been completely tepid when not in wolf form. Plenty live their lives normally the rest of the month. Others go mute, live in seclusion, are forced to stay in certain wards of St. Mungo's. That's probably more a result of trauma from either the transformation or the potential abuse that follows it than the gene itself, Neil thinks privately, but he values his limbs enough to not bring it up in front of Andrew.

“Neil!”

Neil starts at Nicky's voice, half turns in his seat to meet Nicky's eyes. Nicky looks at him only briefly before looking down in guilt.

“Dan said to find you,” he says. “She wants to meet with you during lunch. Rheman'll be there too.”

He looks at the books in front of Neil, and his mouth drops open.

“You know,” Nicky says.

Neil doesn't say anything.

“Who told you?”

“He did,” Neil says.

“You can't tell anyone,” Nicky says. “If it gets out—”

“I'm a reporter, Nicky,” Neil says. “I can't just not report.”

Neil—”

Neil won't tell anyone, of course (“Mutually assured destruction,” Andrew said), but that doesn't mean he isn't taking a slightly sick pleasure from watching Nicky squirm. It's funny—

Until it isn't anymore.

“Drop it, Nicky,” Neil says. “I'm not telling anyone. I'm not trying to ruin London Quidditch, which is exactly what would happen if people started showing up with protest posters at all their matches.”

Nicky looks more than a little relieved. “Right,” he says. “Well—Dan says—”

“Got it,” Neil says, and pushes past Nicky without looking back.

*

Lunch with Dan and Rheman goes about as well as Neil expected, which is to say, not well at all.

He shows up to the break room expecting concern from his bosses, but instead it's an ambush, Dan leaning forward in her chair with her mouth set angrily, Rheman sitting back with his arms crossed.

“Hi,” Neil says.

“Mind telling us why Andrew Minyard was signed into the building last night?” Rheman says. “Thought you two didn't get along.”

“We don't,” Neil says.

“You're off the story, Neil,” Dan says. “You don't have to keep talking to him.”

“If he put your life in any kind of danger—” Rheman says.

“I'm fine,” Neil says, but he can tell neither of them believes him. He spreads his arms out in an effort to get them to see just how fine he is. “Look, I am—we've figured out a way to make it work, so I think the story will actually be really interesting.”

“I took you off the story for a reason.”

Neil considers taking the out for only a second. “I want back on it.”

“You've been spending more time in the library and the archives room than any sports writer I've ever seen,” Rheman says. “Good to see you back on the professional beat, Josten, but don't hurt yourself. It's only Quidditch.”

Dan shoots Rheman a murderous look, but seems to decide she'd rather scold Neil than disagree with this assessment.

“We'll keep you on pro Quidditch,” Dan says. “Your pre-season reports have been excellent. You have a knack for getting people to talk to you. You're better at analysis than half the rest of our sports writers, but—”

“I want to write the article,” Neil says. “No one else is going to talk to Andrew Minyard. I think I can—” He thinks of Andrew's fingers on the back of his neck, Andrew's breath in his face, smelling faintly like cigarette smoke. Werewolf. “I think I can get through to him. A story on the London Lions' Keeper—the first story on him—that'd sell thousands of copies.”

Dan opens her mouth to say something, but Rheman shrugs.

“If you're not opposed to it—you're right. It would sell.” He looks over at Dan. “We could get it in our Quidditch weekly, make it a long form piece, sell ads on it. It'd be good for the Prophet, but—” He peers at Neil. “You're sure you're all right to write this?”

“Yes,” Neil says, adamant.

Dan sighs. “Fine,” she says. “You're back on it. I don't want you neglecting the rest of your work, though, and definitely not hurting yourself.” She leans closer still, her lunch abandoned. “You'll tell me if anything goes wrong, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Neil says. “Course I will.”

“Still a liar,” Rheman says cheerfully. “Good luck, Josten. I want to hear about it the second any of this goes south.” He stands, claps Dan on the shoulder, and leaves the break room.

Dan glares at Neil.

“We mean it,” she says. “The second anything comes up—he threatens you, or he slips something in your drink, or he looks at you wrong—anything, I don't care, you come to me and you tell me.”

“Okay,” Neil says. “I will.”

“Promise.”

“I promise,” Neil says, trying and failing to remember the last time he kept a promise. His mother's voice comes rushing back to him: don't stay in one place for too long. Don't show anyone your face. Don't trust a soul. Promise me, Nathaniel.

Well, he's broken every one of those promises, Neil thinks, walking numbly to the restrooms to change out for his run. And here he is, asking to stay on a story that's been nothing but trouble since he started it, for no reason other than sheer curiosity. It doesn't make sense, doesn't add up, and in the past things like that have set off Neil's survival instincts, sent him running.

It's so stupid to stay here, to stay on this story, just because of curiosity, that Neil doubts that he ever had any desire for self-preservation to begin with. Maybe he's been running on residual instincts from his mother for the last six years, and now he's run out of it, and it's just him alone, and maybe Neil alone doesn't know how to survive.

He doesn't have long to run because Dan and Rheman took up most of his lunch hour, but he doesn't have the energy for a long run anyway. He just wants to feel it as his feet slam against the pavement, as it gets harder to breathe, as he starts to sweat.

Matt is there when Neil shows up to shower, and he glances up from the kitchen table when Neil enters.

“What are you doing here?” Neil says.

“Good to see you too,” Matt says. “Boss let the Beaters out early. Keepers and Chasers are doing drills.”

“What about the Seekers?”

“Speed work, I think,” Matt says. “Evidently it's our turn next week. Not looking forward to it.” But he's grinning, leaning back in his chair and spinning his wand in his hand. “What are you doing back here, anyway?”

“Just here to shower before I go back to work.”

“Are you running mid-day now?” Matt says. “And at night, too? You should start doing drills on a broom.”

Neil gives him a smile that he hopes looks sincere and then departs to the bathroom.

*

His original plan was to return to the Prophet offices, but Neil takes a detour instead, goes to the Lions' training pitch to watch their Keeper and Chaser drills. Jeremy waves over at Neil when he sees him, but he doesn't fly down, instead keeping an eye on the feud between Kevin and Seth, which seems to be approaching yet another boiling point.

“You can't take a hint.”

The voice comes from behind him, and Neil turns abruptly even though he already knows who it is.

“I'm back on the Minyard story,” Neil says. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

“Didn't realize you were off it,” Andrew says. He's in all his gear except the outer robes, which neither he nor Laila ever wear to practice. They're too bulky, Neil assumes. “You didn't send an owl. Are you here to tell me something true?”

“Ask me a question,” Neil says.

Andrew doesn't say anything, just moves forward so that he's standing next to Neil, watching as the Chasers practice their aim.

“Wouldn't it work better if you were there with them?” Neil says.

“Seth can barely score on an empty hoop,” Andrew says. “I'd just serve to frustrate him further.”

“And that isn't fun for you?”

“Sometimes,” Andrew says. “Not today.”

Neil watches as the Chasers practice, and he sees that Andrew is, for the most part, wrong. Seth isn't the best Chaser in the league by any means—Kevin and Jeremy are both better, and so was Riko Moriyama before he went to Azkaban.

But he's good anyway, good at timing, powerful. He's more strong than he is good at aiming, but Kevin's aim is good enough for both of them, and sometimes Seth can pass to Kevin and Kevin is fast enough to grab it even if it's off and just bat it into a hoop. Then Kevin will unleash a torrent of irritation at Seth—presumably for not aiming well enough, but Neil can't hear them—and Seth will get right up in his face, sometimes with his wand, sometimes with his fist.

“They play well together, considering,” Neil says, but when he looks over at Andrew he sees that Andrew isn't watching the pitch at all; instead, his eyes are trained on Neil. “What?”

“Why didn't you play?” Andrew says. “You're one of those pathetic Quidditch obsessives, aren't you?”

Neil doesn't answer, because saying “no” would be a lie, and saying “yes” would be an admission he doesn't feel comfortable owning up to.

“Jeremy said teams wanted to sign you. Kevin would've at least convinced the Lions to give you a trial.”

“I wasn't good enough,” Neil says. “And it's too public. Someone would put me in a newspaper, and then everyone would want to know who I was, and something about me wouldn't add up. Or worse, someone who knows my family's relationship to the Moriyamas would figure out who I was—”

“So you're not even confident in your own skill at disguising yourself,” Andrew says, turning away from Neil. “Why am I not surprised?”

“You can't hide everything,” Neil says, irritated. “Facial features, hair color—that's easy. Babies can do that. You can't conceal magical scars or—or your voice—”

“Scars?” Andrew says, looking back at Neil's face. “I don't see any.”

“Well, no, you wouldn't, that's the point,” Neil says.

Andrew's gaze drops to Neil's chest. Neil crosses his arms defensively. “Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Come out with us tonight,” Andrew says, turning to face the pitch again. “Eden's Twilight, around ten. Kevin will be there. Nicky too.”

“What makes you think I want to see Nicky?”

“Maybe you two can make up,” Andrew says, his voice indicating that he's never cared about anything less than Nicky and Neil making up. “Don't worry—I won't drug you this time.”

Neil doesn't know why, but he believes him. Maybe it's just that Andrew knows—or sort of knows—the truth about Neil, and that Neil knows the truth about Andrew, and there's an ugly sort of trust that comes from knowing the truth about people you hate and who hate you back.

“Do we still get to play our game?”

“As long as you still have truths worth sharing,” Andrew says.

“You ever going to tell me how much of this is on the record?”

“What makes you think I care what is and isn't on the record?”

“You said it yourself,” Neil says. “Mutually assured destruction.”

Andrew's eyes flick over to him, bored.

“Why are you inviting me out?”

“Isn't that a thing journalists do?” Andrew says. “Go out with the people they're featuring? Get to know them?”

“Not when the people they're featuring are bloodthirsty Quidditch players who've never done an interview before.”

“Bloodthirsty?” Andrew says. “That's vampires. I'm a werewolf, remember?”

“It'd be hard to forget.”

They stand in silence for a while, Neil watching the Chasers, Andrew not watching anything in particular, and then the Lions' coach calls Andrew over to finish Keeper drills with Laila.

Jeremy flies over to Neil then, hovers next to him on his broom.

“You're back,” Jeremy says.

“Miss me?”

“I thought the monster might've murdered you,” Jeremy says cheerfully.

“He invited me out for a drink,” Neil says. The monster, they call him. It should be funny, but it digs into Neil for some reason.

“Don't tell me you're friends now.”

“Not quite.” Neil considers Jeremy, his bright eyes, his tan skin, that wide smile. “He told me about his medicine.”

“Did he?” Jeremy's face doesn't change. “Sucks, right?”

“I'm just confused as to why he has to take it throughout the month.”

“When you're sick you're sick,” Jeremy says vaguely.

“But he isn't sick,” Neil says, impatient. “He's a werewolf. So why does he have to take wolfsbane when it isn't full moon?”

Jeremy grins at Neil as if Neil has just done something particularly pleasing. “QA thinks he's dangerous.”

“Is he?”

“Sure,” Jeremy says. “But no less so on the meds, since he's not aggressive because he's a werewolf.”

As if he's listening to them, Andrew aims a Quaffle for Jeremy's head. Used to this kind of behavior, Jeremy catches it.

“You coming to the match next Saturday?”

“I think so,” Neil says.

“Skip the press box,” Jeremy suggests. “You can hang out in the section for commentators—might be easier to watch Minyard from there. You'd have to fly, though.”

“Sure,” Neil says. “Thanks.”

Jeremy nods, claps Neil on the shoulder, and, Quaffle under his arm, tears up toward his team.

*

It soon becomes evident that not every Lion agrees with Jeremy Knox's assessment of Andrew's aggression.

Neil waits in the press room to talk to Laila and the Lions' Seeker, Allison Reynolds, for his last season preview, due Monday. He gets standard quotes from them—Laila says she's excited for her first professional season even if she might only get to start in early cup matches. Reynolds, who has adequately covered up the black eye Andrew gave her when he lobbed a Quaffle into her face an hour ago, says the Lions have outgrown the English league and that she can't wait to play in the European championship.

“The Lions were fourth last season,” Neil reminds her. The season before that, eighth. They won the season before that, but everyone is sure that's due to a combination of luck and the Ravens' collapse after the January transfer window and the mass exodus from the team.

Reynolds bares her teeth at Neil in something that might be a smile.

“Exactly,” she says. “Hard to care much about finding the Snitch when you know you're surrounded by mediocre—”

“He's a journalist, Allison,” Laila says dully: she hasn't talked to Neil since that day she almost spilled Andrew's secret, and Neil snorts at the evidence of press training she demonstrates now.

Allison glances up at Neil's laugh, and her possibly-a-smile grows wider.

“Neil Josten, right?” she says, like he hasn't just told her who he is. “I've heard of you.”

“I write for the Prophet,” he repeats.

“No, elsewhere. From the monsters.” There it is again, that nickname. “You're the only reporter Kevin Day ever wants to talk to.”

“I haven't interviewed him in years,” Neil says.

“Doesn't make much of a difference, though, considering.”

But Allison wasn't there for the shit with the Moriyamas. She was one of the players that transferred to the Lions immediately after from the Holyhead Harpies, a move that caused Dan to call her a traitor in an editorial that went viral. Evidently the two played together at Hogwarts and bonded over their joint female non-Englishness: Dan is Welsh, and Allison sounds English enough to Neil but plays for the Scottish national team.

“Thanks for the quote,” Neil says. “Have a good weekend.”

But as he's starting to leave, Seth Gordon shoves past, giving Neil a filthy look and glaring at Allison as well.

“What's his problem?” Laila says.

“Deep discomfort with journalism as a field,” Allison says, at the same time as Neil says, “Kevin Day.”

Allison actually laughs at that. “So you're aware of their issues, too. One wonders why you haven't written a tell-all on the Lions yet.”

“Still waiting on the Minyard interview.”

“You are shockingly good with him,” Allison says. “Wonder if you'll feel the same way on match day.”

“What does that mean?”

Allison gives him that vicious smile again. “Well, so far you've probably only ever seen him some degree of medicated or drunk, right?”

Medicated. Andrew looked confused when Neil called his potion medication.

“Right,” Neil says.

“You know what he takes the meds for, don't you?”

Allison,” Laila says

“This is all off the record, of course,” Allison says, even though Neil hasn't been writing anything down.

“Of course,” Neil says.

“It's some kind of genetic aggression issue.”

“He takes wolfsbane for a genetic issue,” Neil says, hoping his tone conveys his lack of belief.

Allison raises an eyebrow like she's pleased. “It works like low-level sedation. He's vicious off it.”

“He's vicious on it,” Neil says. “He just doesn't direct it at you.” A moment later, he remembers her black eye, but Allison doesn't point out his mistake.

“He doesn't take it on match day,” Allison says. “For a whole match, unless it gets too long, he stays mostly sober. You should see the withdrawal.”

“I guess I will next Saturday.”

“Guess you will.” Allison smiles again. Despite having just finished practice, she looks like a celebrity, like Neil should be selling photographs of her for hundreds of Galleons. Her hair is styled, her face is fully made up, and she's in heels and a Muggle dress. Next to her, Laila, in sweatpants and running shoes, looks remarkably underdressed. In his robes, Neil must look even stranger. “I like you, Neil Josten.”

She lets Laila half-drag her away from Neil, then, and Neil hauls his bag over his shoulder to leave.

Kevin catches up to him as Neil searches for the exit.

“Hi,” Kevin says.

“Hi,” Neil says.

“How's it going?” Kevin says.

“Er—yeah,” Neil says. He and Kevin have never small-talked in their lives. Neil can barely do it with his roommate, Matt, who is somewhat normal. With Kevin, the idea seems so absurd that Neil can't think straight. “What's—can I help you with something?”

“How's it going with Andrew?”

“He told me he's a werewolf,” Neil says. “What's the potion for?”

“He can be violent,” Kevin says. “The QA thinks he is better off taking it, in case he bites someone when it isn't full moon.”

“That's never happened before.”

“No,” Kevin agrees.

“Andrew is just as violent on the potion as he is off it.”

Kevin doesn't answer.

“So—the QA is just doing it because—”

“Equal employment laws for werewolves have only been passed in the last ten years,” Kevin says. “And most of them do not apply to werewolves who did not attend Hogwarts.”

“Werewolves don't get to go to Hogwarts?” Neil says. He and Kevin are walking side by side now, and Neil has no idea where they're going except that they seem to be tracking through a Muggle parking lot.

“Most victims tend to get bitten when they are older, but there have been some records of Hogwarts students who are also werewolves.” Kevin starts to rattle off a few names, and Neil forgot this, that Kevin is secretly a massive history buff. He probably keeps a copy of Hogwarts, a History under his pillow, even though Kevin himself never attended Hogwarts. Ravens academy in West Virginia. Ravens academy at Evermore up north. Neil shivers at the thought.

“So you're saying the QA thinks Andrew will be aggressive on nights that aren't full moon just because he's a werewolf, even though werewolves don't exhibit lycanthropic behavior on nights other than full moon, and anyway said lycanthropic behavior can be almost completely controlled through use of the Wolfsbane Potion and a decent locking spell on a door.”

“Yes,” Kevin says.

“But it sedates him,” Neil says.

“Yes,” Kevin says.

“Your Seeker made it sound like he's addicted to wolfsbane.”

“He has been taking it every day for years,” Kevin says.

They arrive, finally, at a car. Neil knows nothing about cars, but he knows this one is particularly nice. It's black, sleek, and has a logo he doesn't recognize, probably from some car company in Germany or Italy.

Andrew is in the back. He rolls his window down and waves at Neil.

“Do you have a job?” Andrew says. “Or are you just free to bother us all day long?”

“I thought this was your car,” Neil says. “Why aren't you driving?”

“Oh, you know,” Andrew says. “Delayed motor skills due to—” he waves his fingers in the air—“low level opiates.”

Neil bites the inside of his cheek. He glances at the driver's seat. “So who's driving?”

“We're waiting on Nicky,” Kevin says, opening the door to the passenger seat. “You want a ride? Get in.”

“I'm good, actually,” Neil says dryly, not commenting on the strangeness of Kevin offering Neil a ride when it's Nicky who's going to be driving a car that belongs to Andrew.

Andrew grins up at him as if he can read Neil's mind—which, Neil thinks, he sort of can. “See you tonight,” he says. “I'll be less sedated. We'll have fun.”

He actually winks, and Neil wonders just how strong his potion is, when he's on it, when he's off it, when he's on more than usual. He thinks that day in the Prophet restrooms, Andrew was barely on anything. Today, he seems to have dosed up, possibly preparing to go off them for the night.

“Oh, and—” Andrew gestures to Neil's clothing: standard black robes, his daily go-to when he isn't running. “Wear something a little nicer for once.”

Before Neil can protest, Nicky is there, coming out from a nearby alleyway half-obscured by an ugly tree that Neil didn't notice before.

“Neil,” he says. “What are you—” But he stops at the look on Neil's face and goes to climb into the car. “Where are you going? You want a ride?”

“Don't think so,” Neil says, and leaves without saying goodbye.

Chapter Text

An owl arrives with a package not long after Neil gets back to his flat, pecking at his window until Neil opens it. It's not often that he gets owls here: usually people write to him at work, and if they do decide it's urgent enough for their owl to figure out where he lives, the owl will typically arrive in the morning.

Matt gets owls more often than Neil does, but he usually gets them on the weekends from his parents. He gets Muggle mail, too, packages and letters from relatives on his father's side, all of whom are very excited about his vaguely-articulated job in sports. Neil gets the idea those of Matt's relatives not in-the-know think Matt has secretly signed for Arsenal and is just waiting to be brought on as a substitute in the eightieth minute when Arsenal are 3-2 down against Barcelona or something in the Champions League. Matt does nothing to dispel these rumors; if anything, Neil thinks Matt encourages them.

“How are you carrying this?” Neil mumbles at the tiny black owl sat on his windowsill, detaching the package attached to its leg with a tap from his wand.

The package has no sender, and Neil is immediately wary.

“What is that?” Matt says, following Neil into the front room with a beer in hand.

“No idea,” Neil says.

“Who sent it?”

“Wish I knew.”

Matt frowns at the package. Neil wonders if Matt would be this suspicious of an unlabeled mail item if it weren't being sent to Neil. “You can try a spell to detect any tampering charms, but that wouldn't check for the sender sending you something dangerous. I think there's a charm that'll let you see if there's an explosive inside, too, but it carries the slight danger of blowing up the contents even if they're perfectly safe.” He laughs a little. “I don't know. I'm shit at coming up with spells. You know I only went to Hogwarts so I could play Quidditch.”

“What if I just hold it far away from my face and open it with magic?” Neil says.

“Sounds potentially suicidal,” Matt says, but he's smiling when Neil glances over at him. “Let's do it in the kitchen.”

Neil drops the package on their kitchen table, then backs away and points at it with his wand. He's slightly surprised (and then slightly ashamed at his surprise) to see Matt standing next to him, mimicking his pose.

Neil opens the package with a cutting spell, and then he and Matt wait and watch.

Nothing happens.

“Move the wrappings,” Matt says. “Maybe there's something under—”

Neil waves his wand, watches as the wrappings move away, to reveal—

“Is that clothing?” Matt says, lowering his wand and moving forward. “Neil, it is! It's Muggle clothing. And shoes, too, look—”

Neil follows him, removes the rest of the wrappings himself.

“It is clothing,” he says.

“Did you order something?” Matt says. “Didn't realize Topman sent clothes by owl, Neil.”

“I don't think I've ever ordered clothing in my life,” Neil says.

“So who sent this to you?”

“Andrew.”

Matt actually laughs. “Really? How do you know?”

“We're going out for a drink tonight and he told me to dress nicely,” Neil says. “Guess he assumes I don't have anything nice.”

“You don't,” Matt says, and then, as if what Neil said has just set in, turns abruptly. The hairs on the back of Neil's neck stand up at the sudden movement, but he forces himself to relax: it's just Matt, he reminds himself. “You're not going out with Andrew again.”

“It's fine,” Neil says. “Kevin's going to be there. Nicky too.”

“Kevin'll do anything the monster tells him to do,” Matt says. “Including murder you, if that's what he wants.”

“I've told you about a hundred times. I'm not scared of Andrew.”

Neil,” Matt says, pleading. “I know you know this is a stupid decision to make.”

Neil thinks of the six inches of information he can actually use tucked into his desk drawer at work. He thinks of the full roll of parchment on Andrew locked in the secret compartments of his trunk in his bedroom. He thinks of Andrew's fingers on his neck and Andrew's breath in his face and the word “werewolf.”

“I know,” Neil says. “But it's a week until the season starts, almost three til full moon—now's my chance, isn't it?”

Matt freezes mid-motion again: “What did you say?”

“Andrew told me,” Neil says. “I'm officially ITK.”

“Does Dan know?”

“No,” Neil says.

“And you're not going to tell her.”

“No,” Neil says.

Matt contemplates him.

“So Andrew told you he's a werewolf,” Matt says. “And instead of either writing about it immediately or running in the opposite direction—you've suddenly become his best friend?” He shakes his head. “I swear just last week you weren't this intent on getting yourself killed.”

“I think that's a fair assessment,” Neil says.

Matt stares at him for a moment, and then he laughs again. “Well, stay in touch this time. If you're not back by two, I'll get Harry Potter himself to come and find you.”

Neil doesn't know how to say that he's pretty sure if Harry Potter saw him he'd send him straight to Azkaban with his father, so instead he doesn't say anything, just gathers up the clothing and goes to his room to change.

A slip of parchment falls out as Neil lifts the top piece of clothing from the pile.

Written in messy third grader handwriting: true blue? It doesn't take Neil very long to figure out Andrew means his eyes.

He ignores it and changes into the clothes Andrew has chosen for him.

They're all Muggle, tight and black with heavy boots, and Neil checks and double checks that his scars don't peek through. Matt stops in to tell Neil he's going out with Jeremy and some other London-based Quidditch players and, as always, invites Neil along. Neil ignores the curious up-and-down Matt gives him.

“I'll be fine,” he says. “Really.”

“You sure Andrew didn't just tell you his secret so he'd have an excuse to kill you?”

“Andrew doesn't need an excuse to kill me,” Neil says.

“And yet here you are, letting him dress you up and take you out.”

“It's not like that,” Neil says. “Nicky and Kevin are going to be there. Probably Nicky's boyfriend and Andrew's twin, too.”

“Okay,” Matt says, squeezing Neil around the shoulders. “I trust you. Be safe.”

Neil watches him go, and then, looking anywhere but at the mirror, turns his eyes blue.

*

Eden's Twilight is more full than Neil has ever seen it when he arrives, but when he tells the bouncer he's with the Minyard party, he's ushered in ahead of the line and pointed toward the VIP section.

It takes longer to get there than usual—the club is packed with its usual shady, all-black-dressed clientele, and Neil has to fight his way through what looks like a gang of vampires and several people wearing wings who are actually floating a few inches off the floor, their wings beating rapidly, like hummingbirds'. Music blares from every corner, and it's dizzying and overstimulating, but it's quieter past the roped-off VIP section.

Only Kevin is at Andrew's usual table, staring woefully into a drink.

“Hi,” Neil says to alert Kevin to his presence.

“Neil,” Kevin says, voice weary.

“What happened?” Neil says.

“What if Riko gets parole?”

“Wasn't aware Azkaban had parole,” Neil says.

“New laws post-war,” Kevin says, and Neil lets him go on about wizarding history and teenagers in prison and how rehabilitation might actually be better for them—“because it was the teenagers last time who came back as adults and helped the Dark Lord return”—if only because it seems to distract Kevin from whatever battle's going on in his head.

Neil forces himself to ignore the implications of Riko getting out of Azkaban. Riko's escape would be mostly meaningless for him—Neil would do whatever it takes to keep Riko out of his life, and it feels like a waste of time to contemplate what exactly that would entail. A new persona, a new disguise, a new job, a new life in the Muggle world—he's done it before, and, if he has to, he'll do it again.

Eventually, Nicky comes to the table, and then Aaron Minyard, who looks eerily like Andrew except instead of that forced blankness looks more genuinely apathetic, and finally, Andrew.

Kevin disappears into the restroom, and Andrew glances up into Neil's eyes, checking to see whether or not he's let them go blue.

“Unexpected honesty,” Andrew says.

“Call it a thank you for the outfit,” Neil says.

“Andrew got you that?” Nicky says. “He never gets me any presents, and I'm his—”

But he stops just short of calling himself whatever he is to Andrew—family, cousin, friend—and falls silent.

“We need more alcohol,” Aaron says, and Andrew stands to get it. Not wanting to be alone with Aaron and Nicky, Neil follows.

“The teetotaler's drinking?” Andrew says once he notices Neil shadowing him.

“You know I'm not,” Neil says.

“How would I know that?”

Neil doesn't know how to answer that—he's not sure when he started thinking of Andrew as all-knowing, but it's more than a little problematic.

“I don't know,” Neil says. “Lucky guess?”

Andrew raises an eyebrow at him, then continues to the bar. Roland the bartender waves at them, shooting Neil an apologetic smile.

“Wasn't expecting to see you back,” Roland says.

“He has a death wish,” Andrew says, and Neil can't even disagree with him.

“What're you having?”

“Butterbeer,” Neil says. “In a bottle, if you don't mind.”

Andrew snorts. “Paranoid.”

“Are you surprised?”

Andrew doesn't reply, more concerned with staring at his own fingertips. It's a moment before Neil understands why: they're trembling.

“You're off the wolfsbane,” Neil says.

“He's observant, too,” Andrew says.

“I thought you were never allowed to come off it,” Neil says. “But you don't take it on match days, and you've gone off it for the night.”

Andrew doesn't say anything, but he does tuck his hands into his pockets while Roland gets them drinks.

“Andrew,” Neil says. “Answer the question.”

“It's possible I've gone slightly deaf,” Andrew says, “because I didn't hear one.”

“Why do you go off it? If it makes you miserable?”

“Call it an exercise in willpower.”

“Is that what it is?”

“Sure,” Andrew says, his hand out again, fingers clenching and unclenching. “Or maybe it's because I always have to take it, and I fucking hate it.”

“Unexpected honesty,” Neil shoots back, reacting more to the heat in Andrew's voice than the words he's saying.

“Your habit of repeating exactly what I've just said back to me significantly more smugly is not attractive.”

“You can understand why I'm smug, though.”

“I hate you,” Andrew says, sounding incredibly bored.

“Noted.”

Kevin is still gone when they get back to the table, and Andrew immediately makes a beeline for the restrooms after setting down the tray of drinks. Neil, who hasn't brought any parchment with him but has a decent memory, follows him.

The door is locked, but Andrew forces his way into it with a flat hand near the knob and a flash of light. Neil makes a mental note to ask Andrew about magic later, but the second they enter the restroom his attention goes to Kevin.

He's standing there alone, leaning over the sink, wand in his hand as he taps the tattoo on his cheek, turns it into a two, taps it again—queen. Again. Two.

Everyone knows the story of Kevin Day's tattoo: etched onto him by Riko, transfigured by Andrew the Transfiguration prodigy who never went to Hogwarts immediately before Kevin's testimony at the Moriyamas' trial.

Andrew comes up behind Kevin now and wrenches Kevin's wand out of his grip.

“Stop it,” Andrew says, replacing it with a firewhiskey.

“What if he comes back?” Kevin says, voice barely above a whisper.

“I've told you,” Andrew says, “I will kill him if he comes near you again.”

“He does this when he's drunk.”

Neil turns: Aaron is behind him, bored, and beyond him Nicky, apologetic.

“Every time?” Neil says. “Still?”

“It's a wonder you're the first journalist to catch him at it,” Aaron says. “Where's your camera? Wouldn't this make front page?”

Neil ignores him. Somehow this Minyard is even more annoying than the other one, which is surprising—he's heard Aaron be called the normal one.

“Neil, your eyes,” Nicky says, his own eyes wide, and Neil turns away from him.

Andrew manages to get Kevin back to the VIP section eventually, by way of a firm hand around his wrist and a few words hissed under his breath. Neil has no idea what to think. He knew Andrew kept a tight leash on Kevin, but he never realized the leash was Kevin's own protection.

Neil sits down at the table with them, sips at his butterbeer while the rest of them throw back firewhiskey after firewhiskey, watches as Nicky and Aaron dance with strangers—Erik is in Germany, Nicky informed him, not that Neil asked—and contemplates this new development.

They aren't just friends, then. Andrew is more than that—a guard dog of sorts, protecting Kevin from Riko and, it would seem, whatever goes on inside Kevin's own head.

“You're staring,” Andrew says, when Kevin is so drunk he can't talk anymore and the others are off dancing.

“I'm thinking,” Neil says.

“A shocking development,” Andrew says, and Neil forces himself not to laugh.

*

In the morning, Neil has gone for a run, showered, made a bland breakfast of toast and eggs, and read the Saturday paper before Matt shows his face, though he did knock on Neil's door to check in the night before.

“All right?” Matt says now, looking the opposite.

“You look like you had fun last night.”

“You look like you went for a run this morning,” Matt says, shaking his head. “You are inhuman sometimes, I swear.”

“Humanity is overrated,” Neil says. His own head hurts too, a dull thud, though he knows it's probably more from consistent lack of sleep than a hangover.

“Don't I know it.” Matt steals a slice of toast off Neil's neglected plate and snags the sections of the Prophet Neil's finished. “How was the night out with the monsters?”

Neil considers it: he met Aaron, who is at least as irritating as his brother in his own way, and he discovered that Andrew protects Kevin from the Moriyamas, evidently at any cost.

“Fine,” he says.

Matt laughs. “Give me something more than that. Did Kevin vom all over Aaron Minyard's shoes? I've met him, he always looks like there's something disgusting under his nose, nothing would be better than giving that expression some meaning—”

Neil snorts at the idea. “Unfortunately, no, but Kevin did drink a lot.”

“Yeah, he, er—does do that,” Matt says, and then looks like he's going to say something else, but they're interrupted by the doorbell.

“Who is that?” Neil says. They never have guests, other than Dan the week before and Matt's family for two days before Christmas the year before.

“No idea.”

Matt's hand is already at his wand, and Neil wonders when that happened, when Matt became as paranoid as Neil is. He feels momentarily bad about it, but then the doorbell rings again, and Neil goes to see who it is.

“It's only Nicky,” he calls back to Matt, but he doesn't let Nicky through.

“Morning,” Nicky says.

“What happened?” Neil says.

“Nothing, I just—” Nicky lifts multiple greasy bags in offering. “Thought you might like lunch.”

“Like I'd trust anything you brought me.”

“Neil,” Nicky says. “Look, I'll try all of it first, I bought it, Andrew hasn't been anywhere near it.”

“It's not Andrew I'm worried about,” Neil says, but he backs away, lets Nicky come inside.

“Hemmick!” Matt says cheerfully. “Is one of those curries for me?”

“Your sense of smell is impressive,” Nicky says. “Chicken, lamb, or paneer?”

“Lamb,” Matt says, accepting the sack of food and disappearing into the living room to give Nicky and Neil relative privacy.

“He's eating it,” Nicky says.

“He doesn't have a particularly negative history with you and your family slipping things into his drinks,” Neil says.

“Right.” Nicky looks down. “Neil, I don't know what to say. I miss talking to you at work. We're—” he doesn't say friends, but Neil can hear the word in the space between them, and it makes him feel a little shaken to think that Nicky, too, is his friend. “I'm sorry.”

“I trusted you,” Neil says. “I didn't mean to, but—”

And Nicky's face absolutely shatters, gives way to a dozen emotions all at once. Among them guilt and shame, but also anger, and—Neil can't understand why, but—pity. “Andrew had to be sure—he didn't know why you were sniffing around, he—”

“You were there when Dan assigned me the story.”

“He had to know for himself. Why you suddenly came back after outing the Moriyamas, why you were still disguised—for him, it could've meant you were double-crossing Kevin, or trying to get dirt on him to save yourself—”

“Don't try to justify it,” Neil says. “You know I wasn't going to hurt you.” Or Kevin, he doesn't say, or Andrew, but he means them, too, and Nicky has the grace to look ashamed.

“You don't know what he's like,” Nicky says.

“I know exactly what he's like.”

“I'm sorry,” Nicky says. “I won't do it again.”

Neil doesn't know what to say—“Nicky, I could've died” seems somehow trite—but he stares back at Nicky's wide, desperate eyes, and the anger drains out of him all at once.

Nicky is sweet. Nicky is friendly. Nicky is flirty, kind, well-meaning. And Nicky is weak.

“Fine,” Neil says.

“Fine?”

“Yeah. We're fine.”

Nicky's mouth twitches. “I'm sorry,” he says again.

“You're—” Not forgiven. “Excused.”

By the looks of it, Nicky notices the word choice. He reaches forward to squeeze Neil's shoulder, gives Neil enough time to shrug him away, and then does, squeezes Neil's shoulder then grabs Neil and wraps him in a hug.

Neil tries to remember the last time someone hugged him and fails. He knows, thanks to Dan and Matt and their easy affection, that touch doesn't always have to be painful, but hugging still doesn't come naturally to him, and so Neil doesn't hug back, but he doesn't resist, either, lets himself be enveloped in Nicky's generous warmth and thinks that this feels almost, if he lets himself experience it properly, nice.

When Nicky lets go, Neil accepts the chicken curry passed over and takes a careful bite. When his appearance stays the same—that is, bland, uninteresting, very Neil Josten—Neil takes another bite, and Nicky breaks out into a smile.

The afternoon devolves after that: Matt rejoins them in the kitchen, and he and Nicky talk about some celebrity Neil knows nothing about. Eventually, Nicky drags Neil and Matt out for dinner with Dan and Renee—or, more accurately, he drags Neil out while Matt bounces up at the chance.

“It's a Muggle place,” Nicky says. “So wear something other than those plain black robes, Neil—do you even have anything?”

“We could Transfigure some of my things to fit,” Matt suggests.

“Thanks, but I think I can manage one Muggle outfit,” Neil says.

They leave for dinner shortly after, and Dan and Renee are waiting for them outside. They've been having a serious conversation by the looks of it, because Renee's usual serene smile has been replaced with an odd blank expression that reminds Neil of Andrew the night before, off his meds and apathetic.

But when Neil, Nicky, and Matt reach them, the girls beam at them.

“We have a table,” Dan says. “I love these fancy Muggle places. They give you these tiny portions of food, but they look all pretty so you don't even realize you're paying a ridiculous amount for them.”

“Do you even know how to convert Muggle money to wizard?” Nicky says, and Dan swats at him playfully.

The host posts them at a round table near the exit; trying not to be too obvious about it, Neil takes the seat that puts him closest to the door and listens in tired mostly-silence as his coworkers and roommate discuss whatever it is people talk about. The news, Quidditch, entertainment, music, their lives—Neil only half pays attention, but he thinks he likes the way their voices wash over him. He tries to think of why he resisted coming out tonight, why he's been resisting it so long for so many years (“We're your friends,” Dan said that horrible night, and Neil hasn't been able to stop thinking about it, which he thinks makes it feel almost true), but nothing comes to him.

Even so, when everyone decides to go for a drink at some wizard pub called Cask & Flagon, Neil dismisses himself and Disapparates, claiming a headache. It's not altogether untrue: the point of tension in the back of his skull has spread to the front of his head, going from irritation to real issue, and Neil finds that all he wants to do is curl up under his sheets and go to sleep.

The silence in his flat seems louder than usual, and he can't figure out why.

Chapter Text

It turns out their weekend was the calm before the beginning of the season, because with preseason friendlies and mini-tournaments over and the Quidditch officially starting on Saturday, Neil and Dan are flooded with work.

While Dan has an entire section to manage, Neil is drowning in his own relatively small portion of work: making edits to and fact-checking his season previews, ensuring that they're ready to go to print every day of the week.

It's exhausting, but it's a good distraction, and Neil needs one. For the first time since he started his story, he barely thinks about Andrew Minyard. Instead, he's swamped in statistics—distance flown, maximum height reached, time taken to catch the Snitch, goals scored, goals defended, shots on target, shots off target, clean tackles, red cards, yellow cards, heights, weights, Hogwarts records, Quidditch academy affiliations—and Neil has always loved statistics when they have to do with Quidditch.

Dan keeps making pots of tea, refilling Neil's mug every time he takes so much as a sip. Other sports section writers and photographers are just as swamped as Neil is even though he was assigned all the season previews for English teams. They're all arranging travel to away matches, ensuring they have space in press boxes, trying to get one-on-ones with Quidditch players and managers and coaches and medics. Owls zoom around the Prophet's hectic offices all week, which is why Neil thinks one has made a mistake when it lands on his desk.

A moment later, he recognizes it: the same small, black owl Andrew used to send him a new outfit.

Have you forgotten our interview? the note says, in that same horrible handwriting. Friday, 8, east stand upper tier

Neil assumes Andrew means the Lions' stadium, though why Andrew would want to meet there the night before matchday is beyond him. The Lions' first match is away, and their stadium has only been used for poorly attended preseason friendlies thus far.

Nevertheless, on Friday, Neil finishes work, stops at Nicky's favorite Pakistani place to pick up dinner, and goes to the Lions' stadium.

The row Andrew has chosen is at the very top of the already high-up stands. Neil has to climb a long row of stairs to reach it—usually on matchday they're animated, but it's too long since their last home match, Neil supposes, for all the magic to be properly in place.

Andrew is lying across the bleachers, second row from the top, taking up barely any space, and smoking.

“Thought it was bad form to smoke before a match,” Neil says.

“Why?” Andrew says. “I won't be doing any running.”

That's fair enough, Neil supposes. He sits in the bleacher just beneath Andrew's and plucks the cigarette from between Andrew's fingers.

Andrew smokes Muggles. Not Marlboro Reds—the taste is all wrong, too strong, too much like tobacco and not enough like burning paper—but not the self-lighting wizard variety, either. It should be surprising, Neil thinks, exhaling in one long stream of smoke, but it isn't.

“Wasn't aware you smoked,” Andrew says, lighting another cigarette and digging through the bag Neil has passed him. The only thing he takes out is a mango lassi.

“I don't,” Neil says.

“It's called doublespeak, I've heard, when you do one thing and say exactly the opposite.”

“Like in 1984,” Neil, who read the book in eighth grade in Seattle, says.

“He's well-read,” Andrew muses. “Muggle required reading, but it's better than nothing, isn't it?”

“When did you read 1984?” Neil says, trying for a timeline.

Andrew gives him one: “When I was thirteen and stuck in Muggle school.”

“Before you were bitten, then.”

“Is this all you're ever going to want to talk about?” Andrew says. “You're starting to get boring.”

“You invited me,” Neil reminds him, and only then does he wonder what, exactly, he's doing here, in some of the nicest seats in the house—far away from the pitch, but higher than any others, giving the viewer an unobstructed view of the Seeker and not forcing them to crane their necks up at everyone else.

Lying there, smoking and sipping from a mango lassi Neil meant for himself and staring up at the darkening sky, Andrew looks the most relaxed Neil's ever seen him. Neil considers Andrew's hatred for his wolfsbane, wonders if Andrew takes it at night, and watches for the signs. The slight tremor in Andrew's hands. The monotonous tone of his voice.

“I thought you might want a pre-match interview,” Andrew says.

“Are you going to give me one?”

“What'll you give me if I do?”

“What do you want?”

“To hear the rest of your thoughts on 1984.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Winston was an idiot who took unnecessary risks, and the idea of an all-knowing, all-seeing government is not as far off as we like to think.”

“Typical.” Andrew leans over to ash his cigarette into Neil's lap and doesn't react when Neil bats his hand away, scattering the ashes all over himself. “The Lions will lose because the Falcons take no prisoners and Knox has a heart of gold. Quote me.”

“I will,” Neil says. “You think the Lions should be more violent on the pitch?”

“I didn't say that,” Andrew says.

He still hasn't looked at Neil. Neil watches him: it's jarring, seeing Andrew look almost content. If he didn't have those circles under his eyes and the lean but wiry build of someone who's been in one too many fights, he'd look younger than his age, seventeen, a Hogwarts student perhaps. Neil tries to picture what Hogwarts would have been like if Andrew had been there and fails; he doesn't think they'd have been friends, but if they'd both been on the same Quidditch team, in the same House, maybe he'd have found Andrew intriguing and strange and a little bit tragic. Maybe Andrew would still be as curious about him as he is now.

“You're staring,” Andrew says, and Neil thinks how odd it is to see Andrew look almost at peace. Neil does a quick mental calculation: it's been a little over two weeks since full moon, which means new moon must have just passed. He wonders what effect that has on werewolves.

“Anything else you want to tell me about your match tomorrow?” Neil says.

Andrew exhales a puff of smoke that seems laughably small. “No,” he says.

“Why'd you have me come here?”

“Because I thought you wouldn't.”

“Why not?”

“Because you keep insisting you have some degree of self-preservation,” Andrew says. “But that seems like another of your lies.”

Neil cradles the cigarette between his hands, letting its heat warm his cold fingers and thinking about his mother. Maybe Andrew's right. He's not supposed to get attached to anyone, but he has friends in Dan and Matt, and Nicky seems like he thinks of himself as Neil's friend as well. He's not supposed to stay in one place too long, but he was so tired of running after she died that he picked a name, picked a life, and stuck with it. He's been Neil Josten for six years, and though sometimes he thinks Neil Josten is barely real, others it feels impossible that he was ever anyone else.

He's not supposed to trust anyone, but he's alone with Andrew even though Andrew has almost killed him at least once. He's not supposed to trust anyone, but when Matt brings him water in the middle of the night, Neil drinks it without a second thought, even when Matt has to Alohomora his way in. He's not supposed to trust anyone, but he ate Nicky's curry and drank Dan's tea. He's not supposed to trust anyone, but here he is, sitting near Andrew Minyard, noted werewolf, athlete, delinquent, monster.

There's a sharp pain at the back of his head. Neil turns to glare at Andrew, but Andrew isn't even looking at him.

“Get bored waiting for an answer?” Neil says.

Andrew doesn't reply.

“Maybe you're right. Maybe my instinct for self-preservation has gotten rusty.”

Andrew still doesn't say anything, and then—because he really isn't lying—Neil bops Andrew's head back.

Andrew huffs out something that might be a laugh.

“Was that a poor attempt at a joke, Josten?”

“Did you think it was funny?”

“Don't you have a quote to deliver to your printers or something?”

Neil takes the dismissal for what it is and leaves.

*

Neil played Seeker growing up, did half a trial at the Ravens' youth academy in the States in the position, and he liked it. He was fast, and the position required speed and vision and little else.

But he played as a Chaser at Hogwarts since that was what his House team needed at the time, and he fell in love with the position immediately.

It requires teamwork, forces you to cooperate with your Keeper and fellow Chasers, to depend on and trust your Beaters. It forges bonds, Neil thinks, even though he's barely spoken to most members of his House team since leaving Hogwarts.

He wasn't bad. A few teams wanted to sign him as a substitute Chaser, start him in cup matches and against weaker sides, nurture his potential and build him into something better, stronger, faster than he was as an eighteen year old. He refused, despite wanting to so badly he still wakes up thinking about it sometimes, and he hasn't been on a broom since.

Until now. Neil doesn't have a broom of his own, but when he arrives at the Lions' first match of the season—away at Falmouth, far but not as far as it could be all things considered, and anyway he Floos with the team—Jeremy immediately hands him one.

“Stay outside the bounds of the pitch,” he says. “If you need to land, do so in the press box.”

“Good luck,” Neil says.

Jeremy grins. “Aren't you supposed to be objective?”

“This is off the record,” Neil says, and Jeremy laughs and bounds off toward his team.

Neil waits until the pitch is clear of players warming up to fly up to where the commentators and referees hover, just outside of the pitch but close enough to see any action. The linesmen will move in, weave in and out of the players while the match goes on, but the commentators will stay here.

It's been years since Neil was on a broom. He almost expected himself to have forgotten how to use one. But the broom Jeremy has given him is decent, turning at his slightest touch, and Neil remembers for a moment why he liked Quidditch in the first place. The sport, yes, the strategy, definitely, but the flying—even as a child, it pained him to be stuck on earth, caged in on the ground, and flying was his way to escape that. He's always been jealous of birds and flies and bats, even if they do trade their freedom for shorter lifetimes. He's not much of an ecologist, but he's never seen a flying insect survive for eighty or ninety years. That's the price humans pay, he supposes, staying grounded in exchange for long lives.

Except wizards have found a way to cheat it in broomsticks. Muggles, too, with airplanes and helicopters, but broomsticks are individual, let you fly as if you've been built for it, and Neil soars around the stands and the pitch and almost forgets he's here to observe Andrew.

When he returns to the area Jeremy has pointed out, Andrew is waiting for him.

“Didn't know you could fly,” Andrew says.

“You don't seem nervous,” Neil says.

“Hard to be nervous about a sport you don't care about,” Andrew says.

“How's sobriety treating you?”

“Poorly.” He looks it, too, paler than usual, expression somehow more blank.

“I heard a rumor you get more aggressive when you're sober.”

“You'll have to wait and see, I suppose.”

“The Falcons are vicious,” Neil says. “Violent. Terrible. If they come at Kevin, do you hit back?”

“My wand is in my locker,” Andrew says, but Neil remembers Andrew performing wandless magic like it was nothing.

“Forgive me for finding it hard to believe you're unarmed.”

Andrew doesn't smile, but his mouth twitches like he might be about to. He tugs the sleeve of his robes free and shows Neil the black armbands he always wears.

“I'm not,” Andrew says.

“I didn't mean literally without arms,” Neil says, rolling his eyes.

Andrew doesn't dignify that with a response. Instead, he turns toward the pitch, expressionless.

“Galleon says you win,” Neil says.

“That sounds dangerously close to unethical journalism,” Andrew says. “Not to mention match fixing.”

“And yet?”

“Pick a number,” Andrew says.

“Four.”

“Okay,” Andrew says, and flies off to his hoops.

*

Andrew plays the entire match, which lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes. The Lions lose, one-ninety to eighty, because the Falcons' Seeker shoves his elbow into Allison's face and ignores her bloody nose before catching the Snitch himself, and it's always been Quidditch's biggest flaw and the thing that makes it so thrilling: the Snitch, the amount of points it's worth, that the scoreline does so little to describe the match itself.

The referee's whistle comes too late, and the opposing Seeker has already shot into the sky, triumphant, Snitch raised high above his head as the Falcons' motto echoes around their pitch: If we cannot win, let us break their heads!

The Lions' medic, a world-weary but kind woman named Abby, sprints onto the field immediately. Behind her is the Lions' manager, sending a stream of profanities at the referee who has allowed the Snitch-catching to stand—“Snitches have flesh memory! It's a contact sport!” the linesman is saying, and Neil rolls his eyes as he lands on the soft grass with the rest of the press. His quill records all of it, moving rapidly across the parchment floating next to him, and Neil worries more about making it to the press section for post-match interviews than writing anything down.

Because even though the Lions lost, Andrew only let in four goals, and the fourth actually looked like it might have been saved, except Andrew's eyes flicked over to Neil at the last second, and in the Quaffle went.

Neil's seen Andrew play before—once or twice, back when Andrew was a season in at the Lions and Neil still went to Quidditch matches that weren't at Hogwarts; constantly, at the Lions' practices—but never from this angle, never able to fly behind the hoops or around them to see what it is that Andrew does during an actual match.

He moves impossibly quickly when he wants to, appearing out of nowhere to block a shot. He's so short that he looks dwarfed by the hoops around him, but he makes up for it in sheer willpower, almost always accurately predicting the direction a Chaser's shot will take and managing to block it with his foot or hand or broom.

Alone, this would make him a strong Keeper.

What makes him top five is what he does with the Quaffle once he has it: he's capable of reading a match so well that he can thrust it back toward where the Lions' Chasers will be by the time it reaches them. Jeremy barely has to think to score off one of Andrew's passes; Kevin is so well linked up with him that he's in position to score before Andrew has even saved the shot. Seth isn't as good at it, but Neil can't tell if it's because Andrew can't read him as well or if it's because Andrew just doesn't like Seth and doesn't bother sending him any passes.

It's breathtaking to watch, and Neil finds himself awed, thinking about when he played at Hogwarts and before that, the lone happy memories of his childhood, flying through the woodsy areas near his house, searching for the Snitch. He wonders what he'd be like as Chaser with Andrew behind him and Kevin at his side, and the thought fills him with some unspeakable emotion, so he blots it out and focuses on his job.

The press room is packed—it's opening day, and the Lions are always a source of interest for Quidditch fans. The Lions filter through the press room slowly: Jeremy and a patched up but pissed off Allison are on press duty today, and Jeremy gives generous quotes while Allison snarls about sportsmanship.

“The Falcons have always been unnecessarily violent,” she says, ignoring a reporter who asks her if the Lions might have won had Seth not thrown a punch at Kevin when they were four goals up. “It's a cowardly way to play the game.”

Instead of admonishing her, Jeremy backs her up.

“We don't like to see that kind of violence on the pitch,” he says. “There's a reason the Lions are one of the least red carded teams every season—we know where sport ends and violence begins.” Except when it comes to their own teammates, apparently, Neil thinks but does not say.

Neil lets his quill scrawl all of their words of its own accord, watching absently for Andrew. It's not until all the press clears out that the rest of the Lions come out of the tunnel, most of them barely sparing Neil a glance. Matt gives Neil a wave (“Nothing like flying, is there?” Matt says, and Neil can't think of a response) but follows his teammates.

“You played pretty well for someone who doesn't care about the sport,” Neil says.

Andrew gives him a wide, bland smile: re-dosed, Neil guesses.

“Imagine how well I'd play if I did care,” Andrew says.

Behind him, Kevin glowers. Andrew turns to him.

“Did you hear that, Kevin? Neil says I played pretty well.”

Kevin turns his gaze to Neil.

“He would be better if he tried,” Kevin says, then: “You should be playing.” There's an unfathomable expression on his face. His American accent (east coast, Neil thinks, those rounded o's: Baltimore, or close enough), as always, both unnerves and comforts.

“If only I had the skill, talent, and perseverance for such a career,” Neil says. “Unfortunately, I think I'm right where I belong.”

“I saw you flying,” Kevin says, which is faintly alarming. “I wish you had let us give you a trial.”

Neil's heart thuds desperately, hopelessly in his chest. He's stayed alive this long because he's stayed under the radar, and he hasn't played in years, and he was barely any good when he did play. He thinks of himself at eighteen and fresh out of Hogwarts, and thinks if Kevin had come to him in person and asked, there would've been no way he could've resisted it. His head screams danger danger danger, and Neil looks away.

“I don't—” Neil says, unsure what he's going to say, but then Kevin leaves and Neil is left with Andrew.

“You look like you're going to make a run for it,” says Andrew, amused.

“No I don't,” says Neil, petulant.

Andrew wraps a hand loosely around Neil's neck, and it's a moment before Neil's reflexes tell him to pull away and another moment before he realizes Andrew is feeling for Neil's pulse. When he finds it, Andrew taps lightly on Neil's throat, a rapid two-step that refuses to calm itself despite Kevin's disappearance.

“Stop being the rabbit,” Andrew says.

“What?”

“You still always look like you're being hunted,” Andrew says. “If your father's dead and the Moriyamas are in Azkaban, who'd be looking for you?”

“Their people are still around,” Neil says, another half-truth or else a lie by omission. His father is anything but dead.

“If you were in the spotlight, you'd be harder to kill.”

“If I were in the spotlight, I'd be much easier to find.”

Andrew contemplates him for a moment, then lets go of Neil's neck and follows his teammates to the Floo spot.

Neil, not wanting to see Kevin again, Disapparates to his flat.

Chapter Text

It strikes him still, maybe because he's accustomed to being careful with his own feelings and being around people who were careful with theirs, how open Dan is with all of hers.

She's capable of controlling them, of course—there have been times when it's midnight and they go to print at two and she's ordering copy editors to finish the front page features with a kind of manic glint in her dark eyes; and, vice versa, there have been times when a reporter is having a meltdown because their subject is refusing to give a proper interview and she's stepped in and calmly diffused the situation before dragging Renee (and, lately, Neil) out for a drink and talking for hours about how irritating people who can't handle their own shit are, how subjects should be grateful and open with reporters because the free media is all they have, isn't it, and without that freedom look what happened last time, et cetera, et cetera, until Neil is raising his eyebrow and Renee is actually laughing, both of them drinking only butterbeers, both of them considering breaking the habit for once.

Dan is open now, beaming at Neil, holding Saturday's copy of the Prophet high above her head. It's the one with Neil's Lions match preview, the one where he quoted Andrew, and that's why Dan is so delighted right now.

“Neil Josten, you incredible genius,” she says happily. “Your Minyard quote sold a thousand copies alone--can't wait to see the rest of the interview. Matt says he's never seen Andrew be this friendly with anyone, ever.”

“He isn't friendly,” says Neil, who didn't realize Andrew was enigmatic enough to sell a thousand copies for one quote, even if that quote did accurately predict the outcome of the match. Maybe he hasn't chosen the lowest profile career possible after all. “He just talks to me because I'm willing to trade him for quotes.”

“Don't tell me you're paying him to talk to you,” Dan says. “Neil. That's checkbook journalism, and we can't afford—”

“I'm not paying him,” Neil says. “We've just worked something out.”

Dan blinks. “Right,” she says. “Well—why don't you go down there, then? Tell him the good news?”

“Clearly you have never met Andrew Minyard,” Neil says, but he takes the opportunity for what it is and Disapparates to the Lions' practice.

There's more press there today, photographers at the sidelines taking pictures, a few reporters taking notes. As a result, Neil is stuck with the press for at least an hour before one of the Lions spots him. It's Allison Reynolds, searching for bewitched glass balls around the practice pitch, who flags him down.

“Josten!” she says, giving him a wild kind of smile. “What are you doing over there?”

“I'm press,” Neil says. “So I'm with the press.”

“Don't be absurd. How are you going to interview Andrew Minyard from so far away?”

Neil blinks at her, but Allison's smile doesn't change. She lets him through as the rest of the reporters and photographers watch, and Neil follows her to the pitch. He's about to ask her why she let him in, but then he remembers Dan saying Andrew has been close to friendly with him.

“He didn't seem very aggressive,” Neil says.

Allison turns to look at him. Her smile is gone now, replaced with a much more haughty expression now that she's finished her performance for the press.

“Who?” she says.

“Andrew.”

“That's because no one went for Kevin,” Allison says, “and his brother wasn't in the stands at the time.”

“What does that mean?”

“Normal Quidditch violence isn't a problem for him usually, but eventually you'll see a Beater aim a Bludger at Kevin's head or something, and you won't even notice him move, and then he has the Beater in a headlock and this dead expression on his face.” She rolls her eyes. “Melodramatic, that one.”

“He'd do that with the wolfsbane, too,” Neil says.

Allison shrugs. “I had an owl from Dan this morning,” she says. “Says you're to be given the star treatment during your interview with the monster.”

“I thought she said no checkbook journalism.”

“Oh, she isn't paying us,” Allison says. “Call it a personal favor.”

“I thought you two hated each other.”

“Did you?” When Allison smiles, she does so like a shark: wide and hungry. “But she gave me so much press that one time.”

Neil doesn't know how to respond to that, so he lets Allison return to her drills and then parks himself on the bench, watching the team practice above him.

For once, he doesn't have an ulterior motive. He isn't trying to see Andrew play, or get a quote from him, or figure anything about him out. It's always quiet on the ground at the Lions' practice pitch; sometimes he can hear shouts or calls or the smack of a Beater's bat against a Bludger, but that's just background noise.

He likes it here, he realizes. He keeps coming back, and part of that is because of Andrew, but—he thinks of the Lions' empty stands, the broom Jeremy gave him the other day, and—Andrew's a major part of it. The story is important to him. Journalism is important to him. But Quidditch reminds him of the only happy parts of his childhood, of himself a foot shorter and on a broom and winding through the trees in his backyard looking for tiny golden objects, an oversized magpie, and even if his playing had that ugly reasoning behind it—even if his father wanted to sell him to the Ravens and the Moriyamas—it was still the purest joy Neil's ever felt. The truth of the transaction hasn't tainted the memories for Neil, and if he closes his eyes just for a second he can imagine himself back on a broom—but in his imagination now, he's a Chaser, smaller than most other Chasers but faster, like it was at Hogwarts, and—

It's an unproductive line of thought. Neil puts it out of his head and stands up to pace along the sidelines, thinking about anything but himself as a Quidditch player.

*

Neil doesn't interact with another Lion until their lunch break, when all of them land and head toward the tunnels except for Andrew (typical) and Kevin (less so, but only slightly).

“You sold a thousand copies,” Neil says.

“You sold a thousand copies,” Andrew corrects.

Kevin's eyes flick from one to the other.

“You didn't see his quote?” Neil says. “He predicted the outcome of the match.”

“I do not read the Daily Prophet,” Kevin says. “I prefer Quidditch-centric magazines.”

“Kevin's still upset about the Prophet's libel in the nineties,” Andrew says, rolling his eyes. Drugged, Neil thinks.

“I saw you watching our practice,” Kevin says. “You should be playing.”

It's almost exactly the same thing he said after the Lions' last match. Neil sucks in one of his cheeks, chewing on the soft flesh there. “No,” he says. “I have a job. I like it. I don't want to play professional Quidditch.”

“Liar,” Andrew says cheerfully.

Kevin looks like he agrees. “I can train you,” he says, and Neil's senses sharpen and narrow, so that the only thing he can see is Kevin standing in front of him, and the only thing he can feel is his own heart hammering away in his throat with desperate, murderous, traitorous want.

Neil opens his mouth to respond, but he doesn't trust himself with his own life, so all that comes out is a kind of strangled gasp.

Andrew does it for him. “You're going to have to find another project, Kevin,” he says. “Look—this one's malfunctioning.”

“Neil,” Kevin says, but if he was just Neil, he'd be able to play, wouldn't he? Neil Josten could play. Neil Josten wouldn't have to worry about—any of this. It's not Neil Josten that's the problem.

“Neil. Neil. Hey. Neil.” Andrew, his finger digging into the hollow at the base of Neil's neck, forcing his attention downward.

“No,” Neil says. It takes every ounce of willpower he has not to take off running, and Andrew looks like he knows it, because he's still holding Neil there with his finger.

“But—” Kevin says, and then stops. Neil realizes why a moment later: Andrew's other hand has found its way to Kevin's wrist, and it looks like it's gripping hard enough to hurt.

“No means no, Kevin,” Andrew says. He's smiling, and for the first time Neil thinks he can imagine Andrew as a werewolf, smiling that same smile at whatever prey he finds. “I'm hungry,” he adds, as if he's reading Neil's mind and wants to underscore that thought. Which—Legilimency. He might be. “Let's go eat.”

Kevin opens his mouth like he's going to say something else, but he lets Andrew drag him away while Neil stands there, dizzy, his heart thudding wildly.

He does the only thing he can think of doing, then: he runs.

*

It starts raining a mile in, and Neil Transfigures his robes into something less unwieldy behind a garbage dumpster.

*

Two miles in, Neil remembers that he's supposed to be at work. Three miles in, he slows to a jog.

Five miles in, he digs the key to his flat out of his pocket. Five and a half miles in, he ducks behind another dumpster and Disapparates.

*

His flat is empty, and it has that loud ringing silence again.

His instinct, always, is to run. He knows it shouldn't be anymore. If he was going to run, he would've run before—when he found out about the Moriyamas, when Andrew forced truth potion down his throat. He's not going to run. So he needs to stop running, always, at the first sight of any trouble, at the first instance that it seems like he needs to get away from something or get something away from him.

Still. There's no other way to keep his panic at bay. He thinks if he doesn't let himself run as far and hard as he can, he'll end up with his heart exploding right out of his chest and splattering someone—Matt, probably—with Nathaniel Wesninski's blood.

The mental image makes Neil gag a little. He showers as quickly as he can, and then—because Andrew's right about him, isn't he, and so is Matt, he really does have a death wish—he goes back to the Lions' practice.

Their lunch break is over, and Allison lets him in again, and Neil makes a beeline for the empty press section down the tunnels. He sits in one of the rickety chairs, takes his quill and parchment out, and forces himself to breathe.

He doesn't know how long he's down there, but eventually players start emerging from the locker rooms, looking at him in faint surprise.

“You good, Josten?” Jeremy says. “Missed you after lunch.”

“Er—yeah. I forgot something at my flat.”

Matt comes out next, looking concerned at the look on Neil's face, but he knows enough to leave Neil alone, at least until Neil sees him later tonight.

Andrew comes out last and, mercifully, alone: Kevin was tailing Jeremy with Seth in tow, talking about some new Chaser formation, and barely glanced at Neil on his way out. Andrew does not extend Neil the same courtesy.

“You're still here,” Andrew says.

“I'm here again,” Neil corrects.

“Password's 'fox'.”

“What?”

“To get into the pitch.”

“What?”

“Are you actually as stupid as you look?” Andrew says. “It's so you don't have to crowd outside the fence with the rest of the press.”

“Why do I get special treatment?”

“You're writing a feature on Quidditch's most difficult player,” Andrew says. “Job has to come with some perks, doesn't it?”

“I guess.” Neil pauses, then: “You going to give me another quote?”

Andrew doesn't answer. He looks tired, Neil thinks, calculating for full moon. It's at least a week away. Too early for this, then.

“You're staring,” Andrew says.

“I'm thinking.”

“Did you hurt yourself?”

Neil rolls his eyes and looks away. Andrew only humors him for a moment longer before disappearing after the others.

It'd be better for his mental health, Neil decides, if he stayed away from the Lions' pitch for a while.

*

The Lions' first win of the season comes the next weekend, at home to the Tutshill Tornadoes. Allison catches the Snitch when the Lions are ten points down. The Tornadoes are a good team with a strong defense, so that the Chasers managed to score at all is well-done on their part.

Andrew plays poorly, or at least, he plays worse than he did last week. Afterward, he stalks off the pitch and doesn't talk to anyone. When Neil approaches him, Andrew—looking exhausted and clearly in withdrawal—tips his head back, drinks deeply from his flask, and completely ignores Neil's presence.

“So much for not caring about Quidditch,” Neil says, and Andrew flicks cigarette ash at him.

*

On Wednesday, Andrew skips practice. The star chart Neil dug out from his old Hogwarts things says that Tuesday was full moon. Neil considers going to Andrew's flat after a quiet dinner with Matt, decides he'd be better off waiting until Andrew's return to practice to bug him for a quote, and goes for a run instead.

He takes a different route tonight, cuts a meandering trail through Muggle London, barely pays attention to where his legs take him, and is somehow unsurprised to discover that he's passed through the mostly empty parking lot where Andrew's car is usually parked and ended up in front of the old fence that is the bewitched entrance to the Lions' practice pitch.

“Fox,” Neil says, and a door appears in the middle of the rundown fence. It reminds him of his first time going to Diagon Alley, or maybe the first time he saw someone fly. All that potential. All that magic. He pushes the door open.

Immediately, he's in the tunnels under the practice pitch. He's been here before, mainly only in the press room, but now he has access to almost everything. The tunnels reveal a vast open space, the locker rooms and showers on one side, a canteen, a kitchen, a room filled with screens and old Quidditch reels and blackboards with what must be the manager David Wymack's scrawl all over them. There's a locked room marked only “brooms” and another marked “gear” even though the lockers must have all the players' things in them. There's a room for the Healer, Abby, and another for the team psychiatrist, Betsy.

It's also dead quiet, magical lights flickering on as Neil enters rooms and then flicking back off as he leaves, not a trace of anyone there. Quidditch stadiums when they're empty are extraordinary: beautiful and hollow and epic, the promise of what's to come, competition, triumph, defeat. He hasn't been on a Quidditch pitch this late at night since—well, since his seventh year at Hogwarts, when he snuck out late at night on the eve of his last ever Hogwarts Express ride to bid it goodbye.

Neil conjures a glass and fills it with water at the sink, considers himself rested enough, and decides to do a lap around the pitch. But when he makes his way up and out of the tunnels, the pitch's lights are already on, and there is already someone there, practicing.

It only takes Neil a moment to realize that it's Kevin, forty feet up, practicing his aim on empty hoops with his uninjured right hand.

He really is good when there's no Seth to hinder him, no Jeremy to pass to. Even with the wrong hand, Kevin's aim is near perfect, his shot powerful enough that the Quaffle soars through the hoops even when Kevin is on the other side of the pitch.

Kevin waves at the ground, and at first Neil thinks Kevin has spotted him. Then he realizes he's waving for someone to send the Quaffles back up, and as he watches, Neil sees none other than Andrew, stretched out on a bench and smoking a cigarette, waving his wand so that the Quaffles fly up to Kevin and hover just out of his reach.

“Wouldn't it work better if you were up there with him?” Neil says.

Andrew shifts to look at Neil, barely, but he doesn't respond, just lies there, smoking. Neil sits on the end of the bench near Andrew's feet and watches Kevin, waiting for Andrew to say something.

“I mean, I'm sure he asked you. Do you say no just to fuck with him, or--”

Neil trails off, but Andrew doesn't seem interested in this line of conversation.

“Late night practices don't hurt,” Andrew says at last.

“Evidently not,” Neil says. “He's top scorer already this season, and it's only been two matches.”

Andrew glares at him. There's a mostly-healed scratch running from his cheek to his neck, disappearing under his collar, barely visible in the semi-darkness on the ground. “I meant you.”

Neil doesn't speak until he trusts himself to breathe again: “Since when do you care about my athletic development?”

“I don't. It's just annoying to watch you mope every time you see a broomstick.”

“Stop staring, then.”

Andrew shoves Neil with the foot next to Neil's thigh. Neil ignores him, watching Kevin, forcing himself not to contemplate playing.

Late night practices wouldn't hurt. Who would know? Only Kevin and Andrew and maybe the manager, maybe Jeremy. Neil knows Kevin wouldn't tell anyone—too scared of the Moriyamas and their associates. And there's that whole mutually assured destruction thing with Andrew.

They might not come to anything. They wouldn't have to come to anything. They could just be—a way to play. A way to get exercise.

It would be so stupid. His mother would kill him for entertaining the idea—but Neil can scarcely breathe at the thought of it, and he watches as Kevin, again and again, makes impossible shots with the wrong hand.

*

Even though Andrew is supposedly doing better post full moon, Laila starts in the Lions' match that weekend. It's her first league start, and it's against the Wasps, last season's champions. The Wasps pelt her with the Quaffle, and she doesn't move quickly enough to defend all the hoops. Across the pitch, Seth spends the entire match complaining about her, and Kevin yells back at him, and Jeremy looks so frustrated that he's nearly tearing his hair out. They score two goals between them, very much against the run of play, and look so unlikely to score more that when Allison spots the Snitch she grabs it before the Wasps' Seeker can.

A draw.

Laila walks off with her head low. On the bench, Andrew taps his fingers to some unknown beat but doesn't gloat. Jeremy, who has never not been cheerful in all the years Neil has known him, smiles at the cameras and herds his team into the tunnels, a hand on Laila's back.

Neil's photographer, a first year on the Prophet called Alvarez, makes to follow Laila into the tunnels.

“We'll see her in the press room after,” Neil says. “Don't.”

Alvarez's jaw works. “We're--” she says, and looks angrily away from him. “Friends.”

“Even more reason not to follow her. She won't be able to talk to you right now. You're press, and she's press-trained. Do your job. Let her do hers.”

He's not had a photographer with him since the last time he covered the Lions three years ago. Apparently he's important enough now to be assigned one. It's irritating to have her following him around, but Jeremy hasn't given her permission to watch from a broom, so Neil hasn't had to deal with her much yet.

Around them, the stadium is almost empty. Lions fans started evacuating after the Wasps' tenth goal skimmed past Laila's fingertips. Those who remain are singing Andrew's chant: “He can't reach the ball, he can't reach the ball, Andrew Minyard, he can't reach the ball.” Usually it's a jeer sent from the opposing team's support, but today it's Lions fans desperate to have him back on even if he did play poorly last week.

Alvarez still looks antsy, and Neil sighs. “Let's go see what's happening with the post-match interviews.”

Jeremy's is straightforward: “Four points from nine isn't exactly a good result, is it, Jeremy?” a reporter asks.

“Honestly, we've played two of the teams that were above us in the table last season,” Jeremy says. “We've managed to take four points from them. Personally, I'd call that a job well done.”

“What was Wymack thinking, debuting Dermott against the reigning champions? Was Minyard dropped for his poor performance last week?”

“Andrew's not feeling his best. We have full faith in Laila. She's an excellent Keeper and this was her first start for a professional team. I have every expectation that she'll only improve from here.”

“The Quidditch Champions League is about to kick off. What does today's match say about your chances on Wednesday?”

“We're looking forward to the trip,” Jeremy says. “I've never been to Rome.”

The Lions' manager's interview goes smoothly as well:

“What was the reasoning behind starting Dermott?” another reporter asks him.

“Minyard's ill,” Wymack says. “Laila started because she's one of the best Keepers in the league, and she impressed more than Andrew did at this weeks's practice.”

“So you weren't just resting him in preparation for Wednesday's match against Rome?”

“As we saw today and all last season, the Wasps are a top team,” Wymack says. “It'd be disrespectful to rest players against them.”

It's the Beaters, Matt and Jean, who add interest to the interviews.

“We're disappointed with the result, obviously,” Matt says. “Neither of us has ever let in quite so many goals in one match.”

“We are supposed to work as a unit, and we did not do so effectively,” Jean says. “When that many Quaffles reach the Keeper, the blame lies on the Beaters.”

Matt shoots a fierce smile at Neil, and Alvarez captures it. It's the image that makes the front of the sports section the next morning, along with a writeup of the match and a generous and only slightly sarcastic quote from Andrew: “Dermott is the most dedicated Keeper playing for the Lions.”

Neil can't resist a laugh when he hands his final draft off to the printers, and the next morning, Dan nearly smothers him.

Chapter Text

The Lions have an away match on the coast of Wales, and all Neil can think is that they're barely a mile away from where he buried his mother.

He's hovering near the hoops while the Lions do their warmups, and he can smell the sea breeze, and it's all he can think about. Her body inside a car, burning. The last time Neil was in a car was driving from Cardiff to Swansea with her, the sea salt scent of the ocean, the metallic scent of her blood, and then the stink of petrol and fire and the burning of a body late at night. There was no moon in the sky that night. The only light came from her lighter; the only heat came, moments later, from the fire. If he flies higher, he can see the ocean just beyond the Quidditch stands.

“Why do you look even closer than usual to nervous breakdown?”

Andrew's voice and sudden presence by his side startles Neil so completely that Neil nearly falls off his broom. Andrew looks unconcerned.

“My mother died near here,” Neil says, honest despite himself. She was a Muggle, so her death wouldn't be in wizarding death logs, and Neil never reported it, but if Andrew looked hard enough he might find it anyway. “I burned her body and scattered the ashes.”

“Even more of a runaway than I thought.” But his body heat next to Neil is grounding anyway.

“What about your mum?” Neil says, because the Minyard twins are famously orphans and he's tired of Andrew having the upper hand. “How did she die?”

“I never had a mother,” Andrew says.

“And none of your foster parents ever broke through that exoskeleton of yours?”

He thinks Andrew is going to ignore him, or issue some cutting retort, but instead Andrew just stares out at the pitch. “One did.”

“What happened?”

“I got bitten by a werewolf,” Andrew says, “and remaining in Muggle foster care was no longer a viable option.”

“Is that why you never went to Hogwarts? You didn't want to leave?”

“No one knew I was a wizard. I didn't understand—that anyone could go.” Andrew pauses, then volunteers: “Her real son was a wizard.”

“And he didn't tell you that you could go?”

Andrew glances at him. “Don't make me repeat myself.”

“Why? Why keep that to himself?”

“Ask him.”

“Andrew, that's insane. Why would he—”

“I'll push you off that broom if you make me say it again.”

Neil blinks. “Fine. Do it. I'll drag you down with me.”

Andrew doesn't react. “Knox sent me to tell you you're too close,” he says. “You're supposed to be with the commentators.”

“Right,” Neil says. “Good luck, then.”

Andrew gives him his version of a dirty look, which is just a sort of bored glare, and wanders off toward his hoops. Distracted from thoughts of his mother, Neil contemplates Andrew: a teenager, a wizard teaching himself magic, his Muggle-born foster brother keeping him away from Hogwarts. But it was the one foster family Andrew actually liked, which doesn't make any sense at all.

The Lions win, a solid three points accompanied by goals from all three Chasers and minimal in-fighting between Seth and Kevin. Jeremy drops deeper to set up plays, and Seth doesn't complain about Andrew, and Andrew isn't nearly as antagonistic as he has the potential to be, and it seems to work reasonably well.

Afterward, Jeremy nearly smashes into Neil, delighted. “You're brilliant,” Jeremy says, grabbing Neil's shoulders. “Absolutely—sodding brilliant.”

“I didn't do anything,” Neil says, bewildered, but Jeremy only claps him on the back and goes to meet the rest of his team.

Neil watches as they all cheer for each other, Jeremy burying his head in Jean's chest and thumping him on the back, Seth and Allison kissing, Kevin and Matt getting along for once on either side of an Andrew who looks like he's about to slump off his broom without the next dose of his potion. It's camaraderie, Neil thinks, and without meaning to feels how badly he misses it, being on a team, that symbiosis, the knowledge that their successes were your successes and their failures were your failures. A safety net. The kind of family that wouldn't throw you under the bus or try to sell you for parts or slap you around and claim it was for your own protection.

Neil lands on the ground, and immediately Alvarez pops up next to him.

“Shit, I really miss Quidditch, don't you?” she says, and rather than reply, Neil pulls clean parchment out of his bag.

“Post-match interviews are starting in a bit,” he says. “Let's go.”

*

Everyone is saying it's the last nice weekend of the year, and anyway it's Renee the news editor's birthday, so Neil gets dragged to a garden party at her house. He brings Matt with him as a sort of buffer and because Renee said they should invite anyone they wanted, and anyway he doesn't much like Renee, finds her kind of unnerving, and his thinking is that Matt might make her seem more normal the way he makes Dan seem more like a friend and less like a boss. Nicky has brought Aaron and Erik along, and Neil's never been to a party like this. Dan keeps drawing him into conversation, sometimes about Quidditch, sometimes not, and Nicky is affectionate with Erik and everyone else—a hand on Erik's knee, an arm around Neil's shoulders, lightly kicking Matt's ankles with the toe of his shoes.

Everyone is drinking, and Neil fades into the background, watching them all get along, enjoying it despite himself. He sticks to pumpkin juice and butterbeer, but Renee makes sure everyone's drinks stay full, and it's loud and full of laughter. It's nice, Neil thinks.

Eventually, though, it gets to be too much: surrounded by all those people, it's easy to forget where he is, or who he is, and sink into the falseness of Neil Josten. It's not until Neil remembers that Aaron's only met him with blue eyes that Neil startles, shifts away from the group he's sitting with— Erik and some of the copy editors, embroiled in a discussion of the Quidditch Champions League—and excuses himself.

“Neil—” one of them says, but Neil stumbles into Renee's house, takes his time catching his breath in the bathroom.

You're fine, Neil tells himself, leaning against the door. No one knows. No one can tell.

Aaron doesn't seem to have noticed, or if he's noticed, he hasn't brought it up. Nicky knows, of course, but he seems to think Neil's changing eye color is a purely aesthetic choice instead of one of the few changes Neil can safely make. He'd change more—he's debated changing the entire shape of his face in the past, making himself completely distinguishable from the father he hates, but it never works. He'll forget that he changed his chin or something and show up looking different from the day before and terrify his classmates. That's why he and his mother had to leave Chicago.

He's older now, but he doesn't take that risk anymore. It's simple changes. The shape of his nose, the color of his eyes and hair. Things he can remember.

In the mirror, his eyes are brown. Neil watches himself, intent, but they stay that way.

“You're real,” he says. “You're Neil.”

It reminds him, absurdly, of Andrew, who looked at Neil's blue eyes and called them honesty instead of what they really were, which was evidence of a death wish. Neil puts the thought out of his head and wanders back out to the party.

“But it's self-affirming, isn't it?” Matt's saying. His back is to Neil, and he and some of the others are in a half-circle around a fire.

“Yeah,” Dan agrees. “It's supposed to be about whichever ideals you value or whatever, but if it thinks you're an arsehole and pops you in a House with a bunch of other arseholes, your eleven year-old self is never going to learn not to be an arsehole.”

“Wonder what House you're talking about,” Laila Dermott says. Alvarez's head is nestled on her shoulder, short dark hair pooling in the fabric there.

“They're not all bad,” Nicky says. “I mean, to be fair, Renee said she almost got Sorted into Slytherin, and she's an angel—”

“Yeah, but she didn't, did she,” Alvarez says. “The only one who's at all all right is—”

“Neil, yeah,” Matt says. “Speaking of which, where—”

Neil slinks backward, wanting to stay unnoticed now that he's been mentioned. He's always known what people say about Slytherins, and he also knows that they're not all bad—they accepted him into their House and onto their Quidditch team, after all, and if he never had close friends, it was more because he resisted it than because the others didn't want to get close to him. He likes Slytherins. They keep to themselves. They protect their own.

And anyway, Neil never put much weight on his Hogwarts House. He knows the stereotypes. Voldemort was a Slytherin, as were most Death Eaters, but there were some that weren't bad. He's not sure yet if he's a good one or a bad one. He doesn't suppose it matters: it's a stupid division, he thinks, and one that doesn't reflect the different situations people find themselves in. His mother risked her life to protect him, but was she good? Maybe not, but she wasn't bad either, not the way his father is.

Neil shrinks so far inside Renee's house that he actually runs into her. She's levitating a tray of empty goblets in front of her, and Neil almost knocks them all out of the air.

“Hello, Neil,” she says, giving him her usual smile. The crucifix around her neck is, as always, at odds with the ease with which she practices magic, almost as if she's not even thinking about it.

“Hi,” Neil says, stepping out of her way. “Happy birthday. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Of course,” Renee says. “I hoped you would come.”

“Wouldn't miss it,” Neil says, and he swears Renee can tell it's mostly a lie. He would've missed it if Matt hadn't found out and guilted him into coming, half as a way to excuse Matt's own presence there and half out of apparently genuine concern for the state of Neil's social life.

“Neil!”

Erik's voice comes out of nowhere, a fortunate distraction from the non-conversation he's having with Renee.

“Hi, Erik,” Neil says, as Renee slips past him to her kitchen. “How was Germany?”

“Well, you know,” Erik says. “Home is home, right?”

“You don't think of London as home yet?” Neil says, evading the question: he isn't from London, and the closest thing he's ever had to a home is a place he'd rather never visit again.

“It's hard to say,” Erik says. “I love my flat, and of course I love Nicky—they are my home, but my family lives in Stuttgart, and I miss them often.” He's walking back outside, and with nowhere else to escape to, Neil follows. “But it's good to be back, too. Do you know how much mail I had waiting for me when I returned? My desk, covered in owl droppings. Thank you, by the way, for going out with Nicky while I was not here—sometimes I worry he doesn't have enough company.”

“He has his cousins,” Neil says. “They're all right.”

Erik is perpetually friendly, but his mouth turns at this. “Andrew does not care about Nicky,” which isn't true, Neil thinks, Andrew's criminal record proves that, “and Aaron is—well, I'm glad he has you.”

Neil, who can count the amount of times he's hung out with Nicky outside of work in the past month on one hand, shifts uncomfortably at this and doesn't respond.

“You should come to our home for dinner,” Erik says. “Nicky isn't much of a chef, but he mixes an excellent cocktail.”

“I don't drink,” Neil says.

“He can pour you a butterbeer, then. Nicky's invited Katelyn and Aaron over next week. You should join us.”

“Who's Katelyn?”

“A friend of Aaron's,” Erik says. “We aren't supposed to ask much more than that—you know how the Minyards are.”

“Private?” Neil says.

“Creepy,” Erik says. “How Aaron managed to convince Katelyn—but I suppose in comparison to Andrew, anyone seems normal, right?” He glances at Neil's face after Neil doesn't respond. “Of course, I don't mean—you two seem friendly, but—”

“We aren't friends,” Neil says. “I'm fairly certain we hate each other. He definitely isn't normal.”

Erik laughs and drags Neil into the seat next to his to ask him something Quidditch related—“You're the Hogwarts expert, right? How do you foresee Dawson doing at Stuttgart? I've been covering the big German teams and haven't had a minute to see my own team play—”

It takes Neil at least until later that night to realize he's been cajoled, with German efficiency, into what seems like yet another party.

*

Neil's been avoiding Kevin for a while, and he thinks he's been doing a decent job at making it seem subtle.

That is, until Kevin's head shows up in their fire one evening, causing Matt to drop all his Exploding Snap cards on their very flammable table. “If you don't open your fucking door, Josten, I swear to fuck—” Kevin is saying, and Neil barely notices that their table is on fire.

“Jesus, Kevin,” Matt complains, putting it out. “You just nearly killed us, you know.”

Kevin doesn't even look at him, only raises his eyebrow at Neil and waits.

“I said no,” Neil says.

“Which is why I'm here,” Kevin says. “Let me in.”

“Floo gate's closed,” Matt says. “Strictly used for fire calls.”

“I know that,” Kevin says, looking annoyed. “That is why I told you to open the door.”

“Unnecessarily violent,” Matt says, but he waits for Neil's nod to stand to open it.

A moment later, Kevin's out of the fire and has Apparated to their doorstep, arms crossed, looking every bit the Quidditch star.

“Pleasure, as always, to see you on off hours,” Matt says.

“You should not have any off hours,” Kevin says. “You are a Quidditch player. Act like one.” He shoots Matt's beer a pointed glare, which Neil thinks is rich considering he's seen Kevin so sloshed he could barely stand. “Neil. You are wasting your potential.”

There's no way to be secretive with Matt sitting right there, wand still poised over the table, so Neil switches to French: “You know why I don't play anymore, Kevin.”

“Neil,” Matt says, but Kevin cuts him off.

“If I can risk Riko to play—”

“You don't understand,” Neil says, angry despite his resolve. “You've never understood—the Moriyamas would never have killed you. You're too important. But I'm nothing. The reason I don't get found is that I stay in the background, I stay out of the spotlight—the Moriyamas themselves aren't even sure who I am. If I'm suddenly in the public eye, they can figure it out, and I am trying to survive—”

“That's what Andrew said you would say,” Kevin says. “But he also said there's one thing you care about more than surviving.”

“Yeah, what's that?”

“Quidditch,” Kevin says.

“If I cared more about—” Neil says, but his voice catches in his throat. He tries again. “If I cared more about Quidditch than surviving, I'd be a professional Quidditch player, but I'm not, because I—”

“I have told you,” Kevin says, “nightly practices. Nobody needs to know.”

Neil opens his mouth to say no again, but Andrew's voice comes back to him: stop being the rabbit.

“No one can know,” Neil says.

Kevin smiles, fierce and real, and across from Neil Matt says, “What?”

“Come on, then,” Kevin says. “We need to buy you gear.”

“I have gear from Hogwarts.”

Kevin looks at him, already annoyed. “Proper gear. We are going to Quality Quidditch Supplies.”

“They're still open?”

“For me? Yes.”

“How do you know you can trust them?”

“Andrew is coming along,” Kevin says. “We will play it off. Journalist wants to try Quidditch for his story.”

His heart—as always, traitorous—is thudding in his chest so rapidly that Neil feels dizzy. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. Let's go.”

*

“You are incredibly behind,” Kevin says, landing on the wet ground hard enough that he kicks up water.

“Well, I haven't played since Hogwarts,” Neil says, landing beside him, but he can barely muster the energy to be annoyed.

His arms are so worn out he can barely feel them. He feels like he's chafing. His face is wind-chapped. His fingers are numb. He's soaked. It's late, he's been on two runs today already, his body can't take much more abuse, he's exhausted.

“Again,” he says. His heart hasn't stopped rocketing around in his chest since Kevin showed up. He could barely hear the shopkeeper at Quality Quidditch Supplies, a store at which he has not trusted himself since the year after he left Hogwarts, when he used to find himself there regularly during lunch breaks, staring longingly at brooms and Quaffles. Kevin picked everything out anyway.

“No,” Kevin says. “You will not play better if you injure yourself the first time you try.”

“I can go again,” Neil says. His broom is new, top of the line, but not one of the flashier ones some of the younger players love. It's fast and reliable and heavy enough to be sturdy without being slow. “I know my limits.”

“How?”

It's Andrew who intrudes, a pale figure heading toward them, the only thing illuminated in the floodlights.

“What?”

“How would you know your limits?” Andrew says. Closer now. So clearly tired, off his meds this late in the evening, hands tucked into the pockets of his sweatshirt. “You said it yourself. You haven't played since Hogwarts. I doubt you ever tested your limits then.”

“Have you ever tested yours?” Neil shoots back. “Why don't you practice with us? You know it'd be better if there were a Keeper in the hoops.”

“Andrew is lazy,” Kevin says. “He will not practice with us.”

“Why?” Neil says.

“Because I like to tell Kevin no,” Andrew says. “Look how angry he gets.”

But Andrew takes Kevin's broom, passes it idly from hand to hand as if he's testing it, and then mounts it.

He doesn't say anything, but Neil follows him back up, Quaffle under his arm.

He can't make a single shot. Andrew doesn't even look like he's trying, clearly not even close to his maximum power. He might as well be smoking a cigarette up there for all the effort he's expending. Neil shoots again and again, but Andrew saves it with an idle hand or foot nearly every time.

Eventually Andrew, either out of pity or boredom, comes out of the hoops toward him.

“It's never going to happen,” Andrew says. “You're not any good, and I'm tired. Go inside and shower.”

“Go back to the hoops.”

“No,” Andrew says. He has this odd, blank sort of expression on his face, and Neil recognizes it as sobriety. “It's showers then bed for me.” He glances up toward the sky, where the moon has waned almost completely. “It's night.”

“I can see that for myself.”

Andrew arches an eyebrow. When Neil doesn't move, Andrew sinks into a dive that's almost perfectly vertical, lands on the ground so gently that Neil doesn't hear it.

He stays there, high above the ground, for as long as he dares before following Andrew and Kevin to the showers.

*

That night, Neil can't sleep.

He's so tired he can barely move, flopped into bed boneless after waving his gratitude to Matt, thinks he'd be hard-pressed to so much as flip over—but he can't sleep.

There's nothing, nothing, nothing like Quidditch. Neil doesn't know how he forgot. Or maybe he didn't forget—maybe it was just a necessary repression, a need for his survival.

It's not quite Quidditch, of course, not without the rest of the team, but even when he was getting endlessly frustrated shooting on Andrew he loved every second of it, the ache in his arms as he stretched for an overhand throw, the burn in his fingers as he caught yet another Quaffle from Kevin, the thrill when Andrew saved it.

Neil isn't good. He wasn't amazing at Hogwarts, but he's terribly out of practice now—the instincts are still there, but his body's responses are wrong. His aim is off. His power is gone. He's fast—he's always been fast, and his new broom is hyper-responsive—but speed can only take a player so far.

But nevertheless, his heart is going absolutely wild in his chest, hammering against his ribs, and again he has the sensation that it might just tear its way right out. He hasn't felt like this since Hogwarts, like he's not Neil or Nathaniel or the Butcher's son or a journalist or anything but a broom and an arm reaching for a ball.

And he's thrilled. He doesn't know how he's going to go to work at the Daily Prophet tomorrow knowing that this exists, that Quidditch exists even if he can't have it. He knows that. It's not for him. If he wanted to play Quidditch professionally, he should've stayed Nathaniel and he should've let the Moriyamas buy him and he could've been a mess like Kevin or like Jean was when the Lions first got him, but at least he'd have gotten to play.

It's a terrible thought. Neil forces himself to ignore it, buries his head deeper in his pillow, and closes his eyes.

On the insides of his eyelids, he sees, again and again, Andrew blocking the Quaffle. Kevin's drills. Kevin's passes. The tightness of his own muscles, and then their looseness afterward. The dark red of the ball. The dark red of his mother's blood as she died next to him in her car. Earlier, his mother, tugging at his hair and making him promise never to touch a broom again. Kevin's hand right after Riko destroyed it, when Kevin could barely move his fingers. The green of a Quidditch pitch. Andrew in the floodlights, toying with Kevin's broom for no reason other than to irritate Neil.

He's playing again. He's not a player, but he's playing again, and that—that has to be something. It has to be enough.

Chapter Text

A Quidditch Weekly article comes out in early October that gets absurdly in depth about the uneven start to the Lions' season, blaming the loss against the Falcons on the team's lack of cohesion. The Lions have only won three of their first six games, and despite a good start in the Quidditch Champions League, look like they might not qualify for European competition next season.

Of course, the writer qualifies, the Lions have played two of the three teams who placed above them last season; they have yet to play recently promoted sides; they've had some issues with illness and injury; they're working up to involving their newest player. But they should be doing better—Jeremy Knox and Kevin Day are two of the best Chasers in the sport. It'd be close to impossible to find better individual Beaters than Jean Moreau and Matt Boyd, and Andrew Minyard would be a top three Keeper if he didn't lack consistency. The real issue, the writer argues, is that the Chasers can't get along, the Beaters seem like they've never met each other, the Keeper only occasionally seems to care for long enough to pass the Quaffle to a teammate rather than just chucking it in any random direction, and the Seeker radiates hostility even when she's already holding the Snitch.

It's Minyard's fault, the author believes. He and Gordon have a streak of criminal aggression separating them from assimilating with their more normal teammates, both are violent to a fault, Minyard nearly killed four men, et cetera et cetera, not a single mention of the men's assault on Andrew's cousin nor their homophobia and Muggle hatred.

The writer has quotes from Jeremy saying he loves the entire team like they're his family, Wymack saying his players would take bullets for each other (the writer doesn't fail to include a snide remark about Muggle bullets and Wymack's Muggle father), and Allison saying something vaguely brash in response.

“Your thoughts?” Dan says, passing Neil the magazine.

“Not totally inaccurate,” Neil says, looking down at a photo of Seth and Kevin arguing at practice while Jeremy tries to calm them down. He must've been there when it was taken because he remembers this fight—it was about Seth's gym schedule. In the photo, Seth is flexing and his jaw is working as the little image of him shouts at Kevin; in response, Kevin's arms are up in the air and he's actually stomping his foot.

“You've mentioned their lack of ability to get along in your articles,” Dan says. “But you've never blamed it on Minyard.”

“It's not his fault,” Neil says, which is honest. “He's an instigator, but Kevin doesn't need to be provoked. Look at him—massive prick.”

“I thought you were friends,” Dan says. “That's why he gave you that exclusive about the Moriyamas, isn't it?”

“It's complicated,” Neil says. “But I don't think we've ever been friends.”

“You sure?” Dan says. “I swear two months ago you'd have said the same about me.”

Neil stares at her, a little surprised at his own transparency. She raises an eyebrow.

“Don't let Nicky catch you making that face,” she says. “You'll give him heart palpitations again.”

“What?”

Dan only winks and flags down Alvarez to ask a question about photography from the past weekend. Across the open layout of their office, Nicky is leaning forward in his chair, quill between his teeth, utterly still for once as he reads through a massive sheaf of parchment.

*

It's the home leg of the Lions' tie with Rome, and Neil, who doesn't usually cover QCL, gets to come and watch anyway.

“We're not in charge of this one, so you'll have to stay on the sidelines or in the press box,” Jeremy tells Neil. “Up to you which, but the European Quidditch Association won't tolerate anyone but linesmen and players in the air.”

“Sure,” Neil says. “Thanks.”

It's the first home QCL match for the Lions. They're top of their group and smart money says they'll stay there considering their tight defense and more than capable Chasers—and also considering the lack of real competition in their group. Rome were third in the Italian league last season, but over the summer fell into money troubles and had to sell most of their best players. The other teams are from much less prestigious European leagues—no one really expected Warsaw to put up much of a fight against London, and the Portuguese league has been in free fall for years.

The real challenge, the Prophet's QCL reporter tells Neil, is in the knockout rounds. If they top their group, the Lions will either play a vicious, fiercely defensive team from Amsterdam or Lyon's stoic park-the-hippogriff side.

“If they can win there, they'll have proved the Lions do deserve to play in the Champions League,” the reporter is saying eagerly. “It'd be a sign for English Quidditch—a beacon of hope! When the World Cup rolls around, England'll be—”

“Half the team isn't even English,” Neil says. “Day's American. Moreau's French. Reynolds is Scottish. Anyway, you know the manager's just going to pick Morrey for Seeker and ruin England's hopes again, just like he did in the Euros last year.”

“Maybe not,” the reporter says, as the Lions line up in front of them. “Quick question—how do you get Minyard to give you quotes?”

“I ask.”

“That can't be right. I've asked—I've asked before every Champions League match, and he hasn't so much as acknowledged my presence.”

“Maybe you haven't got a presence that's worth acknowledging,” Neil tells him, and walks over to the opposite side of the pitch to watch.

*

The Lions win again, and again Jeremy finds Neil afterward—on the sidelines this time, near the Lions' bench—and practically attacks him.

“You're our good luck charm, I swear,” Jeremy says, clacking brooms with a passing Jean. “We're going to do so great this season.”

Until they play Lyon and Andrew takes a Beater's bat to their Seeker's skull, Neil thinks, but he only nods his agreement.

“I wanted to ask you a favor,” Jeremy says. “Don't feel obligated to say yes or anything—really, really don't want to pressure you into doing anything you're not comfortable with.”

Neil stares at him. “What?”

“We were talking earlier—Matt, Allison, and me—and we thought it'd be nice to throw a kind of team Halloween party, try and encourage, like, camaraderie after the end of the group stages, just when the league's starting to get really competitive? Matt was saying it might work to have it at your place?”

“You want to throw a party at our flat?”

“Well—yeah, but that's not—” Jeremy laughs suddenly. “Right, fine. I wanted to ask you if you could ask Andrew to go? It's the only way Kevin will come along, and I'm convinced it'd help us all sort of—right, so this is off the record, but I really think Seth and Kevin could use a good drunken heart to heart, don't you?”

“He probably won't listen to me,” Neil says.

“Yeah, if it's like a team thing, maybe not—but if it's at your place, you could invite your journalist chums, we could make the whole night off the record, right? Think about it—firewhiskey, pumpkin juice, spooky music.”

“Journalist chums?” Neil says.

“Yeah, exactly.” Jeremy beams at him. “Even if he says no—can you just ask? See what happens? Please?”

“Yeah, I—yeah, all right.”

“Excellent,” Jeremy says. “Thanks, mate.” He claps Neil on the back and lets the Prophet's other reporter flag him down for a quick quote.

*

“You haven't been in all week,” Nicky complains, sliding into the chair across Neil's in the Prophet's break room and unwrapping a sandwich from the Muggle shop down the street that he likes. “Haven't seen in you in ages, and you don't have even have a draft of the Minyard profile—”

“I'm assigned to the team for the season, so I'm there most of the time,” Neil says.

“But wasn't the whole point of this your article?”

Neil considers it. “I'm still trying to find an angle,” he says. “It's not like I can just write 'Werewolf Keeper Takes Britain by Storm,' right?”

“You could do something clever with the headline,” Nicky says. “Something with the full moon and the Quaffle or the hoops, maybe—no?”

“We don't have headlines like that in the sport section,” Neil says. “Our audience is adults, not—”

“Oh, no,” Nicky says. “You write about Quidditch. Don't pretend it's something life-or-death just because I work for Entertainment.”

Neil opens his mouth to argue that it is life-or-death, but Nicky continues: “Speaking of. Have you heard about this? New Minister for Magic's trying to push through werewolf rights legislation.”

“What?”

“Yeah, it's in tomorrow's paper, Renee had me do some copy-editing since half her team's out reporting on the European Magic Confederation's conference—look, sneak peek.”

Neil takes the parchment Nicky passes him, but Nicky doesn't stop talking. “Look, it's brilliant. No forced treatments—bet Andrew'll like that one. Better care at St. Mungo's, including free Wolfsbane Potion once a month. An end to job discrimination—that one's unlikely, but—”

“She's trying to see it treated as a medical condition,” Neil says slowly, reading the Minister's quotes. “She's mad, isn't she? Who's going to vote for this? 'Werewolfism is far from a damning condition in this age, and those afflicted with it are fully capable of existing in normal society. In fact it is society which must prove itself capable of existing with them—' Do you think this will go through?”

“Renee thinks so,” Nicky says. “She says the Wizengamot's been trending further left for years. If you read the end, the Minister mentions the werewolves You-Know-Who recruited to his side during the second war as a reason for the legislation, not against it.”

“Well, she is a politician,” Neil says. “Has to spin it some way.” He feels strange, lighter than usual. “Have you told Andrew about this?”

“Sent him an owl with the draft as soon as I got the okay from Renee,” Nicky says. “She seems to like him, you know—they've only met once, but I've never seen him click with anyone like that. Well, except for you, obviously—”

“Right,” Neil says, putting the remains of his lunch away and trying to figure out why he feels like he hasn't eaten anything at all. “I have a bunch of work to finish up, all right? See you later?”

“Erik's making something elaborate,” Nicky says. “Our flat's smelled like sauerkraut for days. We're so glad you're coming.” He smiles at Neil, looking a little helpless; and Neil, unsure how to respond, nods and leaves.

*

Neil works late that day, so he Floos straight to Erik and Nicky's from the Prophet's offices. Neil emerges, coughing, into a small but cozy kitchen occupied only by Erik and a small table with five chairs shoved haphazardly around it.

“Neil!” Erik says, turning away from the stove to beam at him and clap two oven-mitted hands together. “We were not expecting you for another hour or so. Nicky's just out to pick up some wine. Tea?”

“I'm all right, thanks,” Neil says, handing Erik the bottle of wine he bought during his lunch break. He has no idea if it's any good or not—a Muggle shop owner recommended it. “Is Andrew coming for dinner tonight?”

“Even if I wanted him to come, I doubt he would,” Erik says, voice much cooler than usual. “His twin will be here. Why? Prophet business?”

“Sort of, yeah—why do you hate him so much?”

“I don't hate him,” Erik says. “But—Nicky gave up a good portion of his future to take care of the twins when their mother died. They've never given him so much as a 'thank you'. Andrew regularly threatens to dismember him. Aaron tells him he's disgusted by Nicky's lifestyle choices every chance he gets. They are not—the best family to have.”

“Nicky did what?”

“Yes, he—we were together in Germany, but he came back when their mother died, stopped working to help them adjust, and then he stayed when it became apparent Andrew could not go to Hogwarts.”

Neil's curious about that—he still doesn't have a straight answer about why Andrew didn't end up at Hogwarts—but he decides he'll ask Andrew about it later. He's more likely to get an unbiased answer that way, oddly enough.

“But you're having Aaron over tonight.”

Erik sighs. “What can I say? Nicky loves him. The twins are the only family he has left. And Katelyn is lovely, so Aaron wears his decent human being costume around her.”

“Right,” Neil says. “Er—could you tell me which apartment Andrew's in?”

“Sorry?” Erik says.

“He lives in your building, right? What's the number of his—”

“Ah, right. He's in B just downstairs.”

“Thanks,” Neil says. “I'll be back soon.”

Neil leaves through the front door, finds Andrew's apartment, and knocks.

No one answers.

He knocks again, waits, then knocks again.

It's Aaron who lets him in eventually, looking fundamentally unconcerned with Neil's very existence, let alone the fact that he's just made Neil wait ten minutes at their front door.

“What?” Aaron says.

“I'm Neil, remember?” Neil says. He remembers, so faintly it might as well not be real, playing Quidditch against Aaron at Hogwarts. He's pretty sure Aaron played dirty. “We went to Eden's Twilight together? Renee's barbecue?”

“I know who you are,” Aaron says. “What do you want?”

Neil holds up his quill and parchment. “I'm working on a story on your brother. Is he home?”

Aaron looks suspicious. “Your eye color,” he says. “It changes.”

“Just a little fun Transfiguration for a night out,” Neil says. What was it Nicky had said? Polyjuice? That's ridiculous, obviously, but maybe there's something in it.

“Right,” Aaron says. “Andrew doesn't really have guests.”

“Well, he does now,” Neil says. “Just let me in.”

Aaron shrugs, letting Neil push past him. Andrew's flat is bigger than Neil would have expected and furnished minimally with trendier black furniture than Neil would've expected. Open layout straight out of a magazine. Big window that looks out onto the street, though they're far enough off the ground that it's not particularly noisy. Very few places to hide, Neil thinks, but an escape wouldn't be impossible.

Kevin is sitting on the couch, reading, and Neil isn't sure why he didn't expect that, either.

“Neil,” Kevin says.

“Just looking for Andrew,” Neil says.

“He is in his room.” Kevin points it out. “What do you want with him?”

“I want to ask him something.”

“He will not practice with us again,” Kevin says.

“That's not it,” Neil says. “I think I'm going to ask him for something he's even more unlikely to give, actually.”

“Do not provoke him,” Kevin says, like Andrew is wildly unstable and might at any moment attack. Then again, Neil supposes, that could actually be true. “Andrew is lazy.”

Neil thinks of Andrew's white knuckles around his broom on match day, but he changes the subject rather than try to argue. Kevin knows Andrew better than Neil could ever hope to anyway—maybe it's Neil who's missing something, not Kevin.

“Can I ask you a question?” Neil says instead. “Why does Jeremy think you won't go to a party if Andrew doesn't go?”

“Because I won't,” Kevin says.

“But you and Jeremy—that's like, a legendary friendship. You're really telling me you won't see him without Andrew present?”

Kevin doesn't answer Neil, his book evidently distractingly interesting, and Neil chalks it up to a loss and knocks on Andrew's door.

The door flies open, and it must be another instance of Andrew's wandless magic, because Andrew is sitting on the windowsill smoking out the window and his wand is halfway across the room.

“You'd think a professional Quidditch player would be able to afford, like, a balcony or a fire escape,” Neil says. “Let alone two professional Quidditch players.” And whatever Aaron does. Ministry? Healing? Neil doesn't know or, frankly, care.

“What are you doing here? Did you figure out it's rude to show up early to parties and come down here to save face?”

He says it without looking around at Neil. Instead, Andrew's eyes are trained out the window at whatever lies beyond it. He's in a tee shirt and trousers, ominous black armbands present even now, the open window doing little to prevent cigarette smoke from blowing back into the room. His room is small, sparsely furnished with a bed and desk. It's tidy other than the parchment on Andrew's bed, which reminds Neil of what Nicky said earlier, that he'd sent that draft to Andrew. Neil ignores it for now, turning to the more important matter at hand.

“I have a question to ask you.” It's a risk, Neil knows, but Jeremy has been beyond helpful this season, bending at least a dozen rules for him. “A favor, really.”

Andrew doesn't say anything, which Neil takes as an invitation to continue: “My roommate's throwing a Halloween party for the Lions and some other people. You—should come.”

“Are you asking me for a favor, inviting me to a party, or making a suggestion?”

“All three, really.”

“Why should I?” It's a challenge, but it's curious, too, like he's genuinely asking, and Neil considers it.

“You care about the Lions. Maybe not about Quidditch, but definitely about Kevin, and if you care about Kevin, you care about the Lions. Maybe you don't care if they win, but Kevin does, and—”

“The Kevin angle is not going to work anymore,” Andrew says. “It got you in the room, remember? You can't ride it all the way to the finish line.”

“Fine,” Neil says. “Jeremy cares about the Lions doing well, and they won't do well if they all hate each other, and a good way to urge them to get along is to throw them all in a party together with alcohol and civilians. You and Kevin are both essential parts of that team, so your presence is vital.”

“Why do you care?”

“Because I do.”

“You think my attendance of this party is going to lead to—what? Bonding and friendship?” Andrew makes a huffing noise. “Your optimism is unearned.”

“Just come,” Neil says. “Couldn't hurt, right?”

“When is it?”

“Night before Halloween,” Neil says, not quite able to believe that he's succeeding. “Is that a yes?”

“There will be alcohol, you mentioned?” Andrew says. “And I can finally inspect your flat without setting off whatever litany of security charms you no doubt have installed at every junction.”

“Inspect my flat?” Neil says, nonplussed. “What, are you going to do some kind of ocular pat down?”

Andrew ignores this, looking around at Neil and ashing his cigarette out the window. “How are you going to pass off accosting me at home as innocent journalistic research?”

“I'm not accosting you, I'm inviting you to a party, and you said you would come.”

Andrew looks unimpressed. “Tell Knox to do his own dirty work next time,” he says. “Go away before I kill you.”

“A duel might actually be sort of fun,” Neil says, but he catches the look in Andrew's eyes and leaves, closing the door behind him.

Everyone is right about him, Neil thinks, especially his mother: he clearly doesn't value his life one bit.

Chapter Text

“Neil!”

Neil glances up from where he's buried in match reports and notes from a recent interview with Allison Reynolds about the team's lack of a back up Seeker and what it means for her to see Nicky standing over him with a massive box of files.

“Did you piss off Rheman?” Neil says.

“No, these are for you,” Nicky says. “Consider it a thank you for dinner the other night and a gesture of faith in your ability to get Andrew to your Halloween party.”

“He said he'd be there,” Neil says. “Should be interesting.”

“He said—really?” Nicky drops the box on Neil's desk. “Already? How'd you get him to agree to that?”

“I asked,” Neil says.

“Just like you asked him to interview with you and instead of turning you into a toad he agreed, yeah.” Nicky frowns. “Take a look at these. They're pretty much everything I have from the Minyards' adoption and, uh, teenage years. A lot of it is pictures of Aaron, but—” Nicky takes the lid off the box. “I haven't looked at any of this in ages, but Andrew said I could give it to you. Most of the Aaron information is off limits unless you talk to him, and you might want to run anything you use by Andrew first, but—”

“Wow,” Neil says, looking at the contents of the box. It is mostly pictures of Aaron, but Neil doesn't care. There's so much missing from what he knows about Andrew's past, and there are only so many half-answers he can wring out of Andrew. “Thanks, Nicky. I don't know what—this will be really helpful. Thank you.”

“It's really nothing,” Nicky says. “This box has been in the back of my closet for years. Seriously, don't look like that, it's just some pictures.”

When Neil looks up at him, Nicky looks almost heartbroken, the expression a non sequitur considering his lighthearted tone.

“Thanks,” Neil says again. “I'm going to take some time to look at these, and then I'll get them back to you, yeah?”

Nicky smiles and ruffles Neil's hair before returning to his own desk.

Neil flicks through the files. A lot of them make no sense to him without context: their mother's death certificate, adoption papers, Aaron's letters from Hogwarts including one making him a prefect, a series of photographs of Aaron at Hogwarts.

One in particular falls onto Neil's desk, and Neil looks at it. It's a picture of one of the twins—must be Aaron, of course it's Aaron—on his broom at Hogwarts. Smiling, head ducked down, glancing at the camera and then up at whoever was taking the picture. Quidditch robes that must be Ravenclaw blue. A Beater's bat hanging lazily from one hand, swaying slightly in the wind.

It's not Andrew. It doesn't look like him really, not if you've ever met him, but knowing that his face is capable of moving like that and no longer does, maybe never has, makes the lining of Neil's gut twist painfully. He doesn't understand why, so he puts the photograph away and moves on to some of the other papers: an ancient Muggle photograph of the twins at their birth, Andrew's first contract with the Lions signed in green ink, a picture of a teenage Nicky with a couple Neil has never seen before that must be his parents.

Neil looks at that photo of Aaron again, then shoves the box under his desk, resolving to get back to it another day.

*

The morning before full moon, Kevin sends Neil an owl: No practice today. See you tomorrow.

Frustrated, Neil writes back. You really can't go one night without your bodyguard? What's the harm in Apparating to the stadium? No one can get in, and I'd be there.

Andrew says that's not enough.

Neil rolls his eyes, but he's already gotten Andrew to agree to one paradigm shift recently in the form of Matt's Halloween party—it's unlikely he's going to get much more without reciprocating, and between late night Quidditch practices and his daily runs, he's barely had the spare energy to interview Andrew outside of regular practices. Nicky's right, though—he is pushing it with the deadline, even if Dan hasn't mentioned it.

Neil tells himself he'll deal with it after full moon and works on his match preview.

*

Laila has a mediocre start in the Champions League match at home to Warsaw on Wednesday, but the rest of the team plays well enough that it doesn't matter. By the end of the match, she's making impossible saves and throwing her fist up in the air in delight. Neil watches from the bench and is almost surprised when Andrew shows up to late night practice with Kevin that evening, looking tired but otherwise none the worse for wear.

*

On Saturday, the Lions play Chudley Cannons. In his match preview, Neil predicted another Dermott start, but instead it's Andrew lining up for what's sure to be a fairly low-energy match. Cannons haven't played well in at least a hundred years, and despite their recent acquisition of the best Chaser from the second division, they're floundering in the league. Last season they managed to stay up thanks to a series of lucky (for them) injuries to their opponents; the season before that, their last four matches were against four teams whose spots mid-table were already cemented and who were therefore more concerned with the League Cup than the league itself.

Except that it quickly becomes apparent that this is a textbook example of what that smug Quidditch Weekly writer would've called proof of the Lions' lack of ability to compete at the highest levels. Not forty-five seconds in, Seth has thrown at least one punch; five minutes later, Seth takes an impossible shot and misses instead of passing to a nearby (and irate) Kevin. After that, it's chaos in the Lions' offense as the Chasers play keep-away against each other and Jeremy struggles to make them cooperate, swamped as he is by Cannons' Beaters, two massive oafs who Neil is certain aren't fully human.

Cannons, meanwhile, have the opposite strategy: every time they get the Quaffle, they pass it to their new Chaser, who is quick and clever enough that she almost always makes it to the hoops without being disarmed by either Matt or Jean.

She is not, however, quick or clever enough to get it past Andrew, who saves every one of her shots with the same kind of ease he used against Neil the one time they played together. Somehow Andrew predicts every shot she's going to take and moves to block the hoop almost before the Quaffle is even out of her hand. A half hour into the match, he's saved all eighteen of her shots. The Lions have scored twice.

That's when it starts getting messy. Cannons' Beaters, apparently not content with blocking the sole attacking threat who isn't attacking one of his teammates, start trying to buy their team time by aiming the Bludger at Allison. Twice, she pulls off near-impossible swerves to avoid getting her skull cracked open; once, the Bludger actually makes contact with her arm and she grits her teeth and signals that she's all right to play on. From his vantage point on a broom not far from her, Neil can see the odd way her arm twists, the way her opposite hand clings to her broom, but he watches in silence instead of pointing it out, making a mental note to discuss it in his roundup for Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, Cannons' new Chaser starts getting angry; instead of attempting to actually score, she hurls the Quaffle at Andrew at every instance. He bats it away in irritation, usually as far in another direction as he can manage, causing her to ricochet off to try and recover it.

It's not the most interesting match, all things considered: Cannons have decided to try and bully their way to a point or three, and the Lions have responded by bullying each other. It happened half a dozen times last season. It's the reason the Lions aren't the world-beaters they could be, and if Cannons' Seeker catches the Snitch before the clearly injured Allison does, the Lions' undefeated streak will have ended thanks to their own lack of cooperation with each other, not the opposing team's skill at Quidditch.

And then, out of nowhere, when Neil is busy watching Andrew's increasingly bored interactions with Cannons' Chaser, Allison shoots up into the air, uninjured arm held high above her head to show the Snitch. Before anyone can applaud, though, one of Cannons' Beaters has shot forward toward Andrew, knocking the Bludger at Andrew's head with such force that the Beater actually falls back slightly. Andrew just stares back, motionless, something like curiosity on his otherwise expressionless face.

Neil rockets toward Andrew, but it's too late: the Bludger has made contact with Andrew's head, and Andrew is falling off his broom.

Neil's wand is out before he can think to do anything—conjure a stretcher? Attack the Beater? Shout uselessly?—but a Healer gets to Andrew first, and Andrew lands on a stretcher with his eyes open and his head bleeding. Neil drops into a dive, but he's beaten to the scene by a red-faced Aaron Minyard, whose wand is at the Beater's throat.

“That's a fucking sending off, that is, a Bludger to a Keeper's head? Are you mad? Are you actually trying to kill him?”

From his stretcher, Andrew stares at Aaron like he's never seen him before, but otherwise makes no effort to agree or to defend himself at all. He's paler than usual, Neil thinks, his stomach churning, but that could just be from his lack of wolfsbane. Maybe the injury looked worse than it was, knocked Andrew off his broom but didn't knock him out—but then Andrew looks at the team's head Healer, Abby, says, “I'm going to pass out,” and promptly does.

Around them, the pitch is wild: the referee is whistling, but she'd been looking in another direction. Aaron charges her, gesticulating wildly, sparks flying out of the end of his wand. Matt is pulling Aaron away from her. Allison is hovering a few feet away, her injured arm forgotten, red in the face from how hard she's screaming. Somewhere around Neil, Nicky shows up, a hand on Neil's shoulder—“Is he all right? I didn't see what happened, is he awake?”—and the Lions start to crowd the Beater, then get swamped by Cannons players.

Neil ignores Nicky, drops his broom where he stands, and follows Abby and the Healers in their green medic robes as they levitate Andrew into the tunnels.

“No press,” one of the Healers says. “We'll ban you from the stadium if we have to.”

“I'm not here as press,” Neil says. “I'm just here as—” But he can't think what it is he's there for, and his voice dies in his dry throat.

“Go, Neil,” Abby urges. “He'll be fine. I promise.”

Neil has no reason to trust her, but he's being bodily shoved away from the room, and all he can think of is how much blood is coming out of Andrew's head right now and that odd dazed expression on his face and, fuck, head injuries are supposed to bleed more, aren't they? Scarier than they look? Isn't that what his mother always said?

Not wanting to face the mania of the field, Neil goes to hide in the press room, only to find that it's already flooded with journalists.

“What's the diagnosis?” a reporter from the Herald asks him. “You going to keep that exclusive, too?”

“They wouldn't let me in,” Neil says numbly. “Don't know a thing.”

“Right, just like you don't know why you get special treatment from this club,” the reporter says. “Running around saying Andrew Minyard's the best Keeper in the league—”

“He is the best Keeper in the league.”

“Course you'd say that, you're best friends, aren't you? Your paper's always positive about his club, you do him a favor, he does you a favor, I'm a reporter, I know how it works, quid pro quo—it's all transactional, isn't it—the fuck, mate?”

Neil blinks, realizing that he's inches away from the Herald reporter and has his wand pressed up against the reporter's ribcage.

“Shut up,” Neil says. Transactional. It's accurate, isn't it? “He's hurt. Unchecked violence in Quidditch, head injuries, that's your story, not whatever fabrication you've made up about me and Andrew Minyard.”

The reporter moves back slightly, and Neil puts his wand away. It's almost a visceral sensation, coming back into his body, regaining his careful control. The managers have come into the press room now and are getting ready to answer questions, and Neil has no idea how he's going to force himself to sit in a chair and take notes for the next half hour.

Wymack catches Neil's eye across the room and frowns. Neil, who has met Wymack maybe twice, doesn't understand the expression. Wymack looks like he's going to call Neil over when the press conference ends, but Neil, unable to stay still anymore, shoves his things in his bag and runs.

*

When Neil gets home, he's expecting an empty flat—usually Matt stays out with the team when they win, and they did so so terribly today that Neil is sure all of them will be out drinking at a Muggle pub near the Lions' stadium.

Instead, when Neil gets home, it's to Nicky, Dan, Matt, Allison, Seth, and Renee—of all people—drinking in the sitting room, already most of the way through a bottle of firewhiskey.

“Er,” Neil says. “Hello.”

“We have guests,” Matt says, drunk. “Or, well, I have a few guests and you have one guest.”

Nicky pouts at this. “I thought we were friends, Matt.”

Matt shakes his head, but he's grinning. Judging by his teammates' demeanor, it's unlikely their Keeper is lying in a hospital somewhere half dead, but Neil isn't taking any chances.

“Where's Andrew?” he says. On the couch, Matt reaches over to drop a handful of Sickles into Allison's outstretched palm.

“He's fine,” Nicky says. “That's why I'm here. I'm his legal guardian, so even though he's technically an adult, they let me in to see him.” He waves a hand in the air, embarrassed. “Safely recovering at St. Mungo's. Kevin's with him.”

“Aaron's all right, too,” Dan says.

Neil looks at her, confused.

“Oh, he got in a fight after you ran off after Andrew.” Dan gives Neil a wicked smile, but she's misinterpreted his expression: why should he care what's happened to Aaron? Aaron can defend himself. Neil's pretty sure Aaron hit more than one Bludger at him during some Quidditch match or other.

“How's your arm?” Neil asks Allison, and she shrugs, holds her hand in front of her face and stretches her fingers.

“Good as new,” she says. “Abby's great at what she does.”

“I wasn't doubting that,” Neil says irritably. He hates that he's exposed himself to clearly to all these people. “He looked like he'd—not everyone just survives a Bludger to the head.”

“It's Andrew Minyard,” Seth says. “He's survived a lot worse. You couldn't get a quote from him for tomorrow's paper, but you'll get one for Monday, won't you?”

Neil looks at him. He thinks he's exchanged maybe ten words total with Seth Gordon since he started covering the Lions, and these are definitely the most civilized ones.

“I mean, he's fucking mental, isn't he,” Seth continues. “If you could kill someone like him with a Bludger to the head, wouldn't've been a problem when they all started working with the Death Eaters, would—what's your fucking problem?”

Neil blinks, realizing that his fist is clenched so hard around his wand that his fingers have actually gone numb.

“Neil,” says Renee, standing up and making her way over to him. She sets two gentle hands on his shoulders and pushes him into a chair that he's sure isn't usually here. “Tea?”

“Er,” Neil says. “Yeah, thanks.”

“How come you suddenly care about this shit, anyway?” Seth says. “That why you've been hanging around us all season? That why you were all worried when Minyard got hit? Might not get to finish your story?”

“He's hanging around you all season because it's his job,” Dan says. She's sitting between Matt and Allison on the couch, and now that he's paying attention—now that he knows Andrew is fine—Neil notices that Matt's arm is around her shoulders. “I personally assigned him to it. But Neil, you know you can always—”

“I like the assignment,” he says. “Seth, if you ever want to stop being a prick long enough for an interview, you know where to find me.”

Neil stands up again, pushing past Nicky to the bathroom to shower.

When he gets out ten minutes later, everyone's still there, but Nicky is in Neil's room holding a steaming mug of tea. He holds it out in offering, and Neil accepts it, sipping at it slowly. It's hot enough to scald.

“You looked really worried,” Nicky says.

“I thought Aaron was going to kill that Beater,” Neil says.

“Well, it's his brother.”

“Why was he even there?”

Nicky shrugs. “He's a Quidditch fan. Both his roommates are professional Quidditch players.”

“I thought Aaron did care about that shit,” Neil says. “Andrew certainly doesn't.”

“You think so?” Nicky says.

“Their relationship is a disaster.”

“You don't know the half of it. I'm going to tell you something, but you can't repeat it outside of this room, all right? Definitely can't write about it.” Nicky sighs. “We're pretty sure Andrew's responsible for the twins' mother's death, but he's never really admitted to it.”

What?” Neil says. “Why?”

“Well, he was with her when she died, and—”

“No, I mean—” Neil doesn't doubt for an instant that Andrew would kill Aaron's mother. “Why'd he do it?”

“She wasn't the greatest woman, my aunt,” Nicky says. “I mean—she separated Andrew and Aaron at birth, told Hogwarts they'd made a mistake when they asked her where the other A. Minyard was, tried to beat the magic out of Aaron—she was really scared of that shit. My parents, too. Fundamentalists.” Nicky shrugs, but he doesn't look happy about it. “Aaron only went to Hogwarts because McGonagall herself personally intervened—got Hermione Granger in there to teach Tilda about magic and everything. Apparently the Minyard father was a wizard, but none of us have ever heard anything from him.”

“So—what? Andrew was upset about being left behind and found her and killed her?” But that doesn't sound like Andrew. Neil can't think of him once defending himself.

“Not exactly,” Nicky says. “Ask Andrew about someone named Higgins—he connected Andrew with his brother after some shit with his foster family, and then Tilda let Andrew come and live with her for a bit. She died in a car with him, like, barely a week later.”

“So it was just an accident?”

“No,” Nicky says. “Aaron was supposed to be in the car with her. Andrew made up some convoluted reason to switch with him, and—my guess is she went to hit him thinking he was Aaron, and Andrew wasn't having that, so he swerved into oncoming traffic.”

“Andrew did,” Neil says. “How did he know he wouldn't get hurt?”

“Dunno,” Nicky says. “Magic, I suppose.”

But Andrew was so young then, Neil thinks, remembering Tilda's death certificate—who knows how good his magic was at thirteen or fourteen years old? Without ever having gone to Hogwarts, would he have been able to redirect an entire car? Neil's own magical education was fractured, to say the least, but his mother always ensured they could fit in some formal classes with tutors as they hopped from place to place. Even then, he never felt like he had real control over it until Hogwarts.

“No,” Neil says. “That can't be right.” Andrew'd almost killed the men who'd attacked Nicky, and that was—presumably—for one offense. What about Aaron's mother, who'd tried to beat the magic out of him? Who was still hitting him even after he started attending Hogwarts? “He didn't care if he got hurt.”

“How could he not care if he got hurt?” Nicky says. “He was defending himself. That's, like, the definition of caring if you get hurt.”

“He wasn't defending himself,” Neil says. He thinks of Andrew staring down the Beater earlier, not moving an inch as the Bludger came at him even after correctly predicting nearly all Cannons' Chaser's shots. “He was protecting Aaron.”

“I don't know,” Nicky says. “They really don't get along. Seems unlikely, don't you think?”

“They live together,” Neil reminds him.

“You don't need to like someone to live together.”

“Their house must be a fucking nightmare,” Neil says.

“Right?” Nicky says. “Imagine being Kevin.”

Neil opens his mouth to respond, and then he actually does imagine it: playing Quidditch every waking hour, shielded from his past by fame and international adoration, surrounded by people who would take at least a punch if not a curse for him. It sounds—nice, actually.

“I hate when you get that look on your face,” Nicky says.

“What?”

“You just—you look so sad.” Nicky gives Neil what's probably supposed to be a comforting smile. “I'm sure it's not that bad being Kevin.”

“Right,” Neil says. “I'm—I think I'm going to go out for a cigarette.”

“I didn't know you smoked,” Nicky says.

“I don't,” Neil says, digging the red and white packet out of his drawer and fishing for a lighter before remembering the wand in his pocket.

“Andrew smokes too,” Nicky says, standing and making to follow Neil out of his room. Only Matt and Dan are still there, talking in low voices and sitting deliberately far apart on the couch. “He gets away with it somehow.” Nicky rolls his eyes as if he doesn't know exactly how Andrew gets away with it: by caring much less about anything than anyone on his team does about Quidditch, and by being—Neil's heard—the best Keeper in Quidditch by a mile. “Just because he keeps a clean sheet more often than not—but he's always gotten away with things, hasn't he.” Then Nicky seems to realize what he's just said, blanching. “I don't mean—I only meant—what we talked about earlier. Off the record, right?”

“Yeah,” Neil says, thinking his profile on Andrew's going to be little more than a physical description with so much of his past and present off the record. “Off the record.”

Chapter Text

On Monday, Neil starts off the week on the worst foot imaginable. When he arrives at work half an hour late, his boss is standing at his desk looking annoyed.

“Josten. You're late.”

“Yeah, sorry, was having some issues with Harpies' Seeker,” Neil says, putting his things down hurriedly and following an arms-crossed, brow-furrowed Rheman to his office. “She wanted to meet for breakfast, and I thought she meant at like, a normal breakfast time, but turns out when Quidditch players say breakfast, they actually mean five in the morning, and I had some difficulty getting to Holyhead—”

“You've never been one to give excuses, Josten,” Rheman says.

For a man who played Quidditch in his youth, Rheman is astonishingly thin and also astonishingly clever. He must have taken at least a few Bludgers to the head—few players haven't—but despite that, he's sharp even as he ages. His shrewd eyes are trained on Neil now.

“You're right,” Neil says. “Sorry.”

“A reporter from the Daily Herald wrote me,” Rheman says. “He says you pointed a wand at him after the Lions' match against Cannons this weekend.”

“In fairness, sir, he deserved it,” Neil says.

Rheman's jaw works. “I don't doubt it,” he says. “Everyone at the Herald's … well, anyway. He could've insulted every woman in your family tree and it wouldn't have been appropriate for you to pull a wand on him.”

Neil isn't really listening, focusing instead on the moment Rheman's referring to: he doesn't know why he snapped then, why the reporter's taunts made Neil want to hex him out of existence, but they did, and he hasn't lost control like that in a while. Neil Josten isn't supposed to act like that. Neil Josten is supposed to stay under the radar. Quiet. Blandly likable, but easily forgettable. Don't get too attached. Don't draw too much attention.

“Josten! Stop ignoring me!”

Neil actually flinches, and though he tries to suppress it, takes an involuntary step backward. Rheman's face is calculating.

“I wasn't ignoring you, sir,” Neil practically mumbles.

“What's with all this 'sir' nonsense?” Rheman says. “The last time we spoke, you were openly defiant.”

Neil stares at him. Rheman sighs.

“Write the reporter a note of apology,” he says. “Look, Neil, you're a good journalist. You've always been a hard worker, even when we had you doing Hogwarts duty. I've never seen you care as much about anything as you care about this profile, and I like seeing that side of you. But you've been erratic, too—long lunch breaks out of the office, late nights at the Lions' stadium—don't look at me like that, David Wymack and I talk—and this profile isn't even finished yet. You need to reevaluate this behavior. You're selling papers, but you need to consider whether you want to do that at the expense of your reputation and potentially your career.”

“Don't you need to consider that?” Neil says.

“I'm not going to sack you, if that's what you're asking,” Rheman says. “But you have to consider the way things look. You live with their Beater, you got that Kevin Day exclusive when you were fresh out of Hogwarts, and now suddenly you're all buddy-buddy with Andrew Minyard of all people. The Herald's had it out for us since the nineties—don't give them more ammunition. Especially not against you.”

“Right,” Neil says. “Thanks. I'm going to go work now, if that's all right with you.”

Rheman sighs again and waves Neil off.

At his desk, Neil dashes off a non-apology to the Herald reporter in question—Sorry if you were frightened. Yours, Neil Josten—and focuses on the Harpies-Lions match preview.

*

Despite having made a full recovery, Andrew sits out of practice that day. Neil finds him sitting in the room with all the blackboards in it at the Lions' practice pitch, several binders in front of him.

“Desk duty?” Neil says.

Andrew doesn't react to Neil's entrance. He looks—the same, Neil thinks. Neil doesn't know why he was expecting something else, but he can't stop seeing it whenever he closes his eyes, Andrew's hair matted against his skull with blood, that blank expression he gets when he's off his drugs even as it became clear the Bludger would make contact, his body falling through the sky, burgundy robes billowing above him—

“Abby says it's a good idea if I stay out for a bit,” Andrew says. He hasn't opened a single binder; instead, he's glaring at a blank bit of parchment in front of him. “What do you want?”

“I'm here to continue our interview,” Neil says. “Just wanted to get some notes on your injury.”

Andrew doesn't look away from his parchment.

“Are you feeling all right?” Neil says.

Andrew's eyes flick upward. He raises an eyebrow, then looks back down at the parchment.

“Right,” Neil says. “Can you tell me a bit more about the potion you take? What else is in it?”

“Mild stimulant to counteract the effects of wolfsbane, which is an opiate,” Andrew says.

“That's why you're all jittery all the time.”

Andrew is still focused on the single scrap of parchment. He doesn't look jittery just now.

“What are you reading?” Neil says.

“I'm not reading,” Andrew says. “I'm writing.”

Neil moves closer to get a better look, and sure enough, there are words on the parchment. It's a scratchier version of Andrew's usual messy handwriting, but there's something odd about it.

“You did this without a quill or a wand?” Neil says. “No one knows how to do that.”

“You just saw me,” Andrew says.

“This is what you do when you're bored?” Neil says. “Impossible magic?”

“Obviously it isn't impossible,” Andrew says. “It's a wandless version of something everyone at Hogwarts learns how to do their first year.”

“Yeah, but that's just it, isn't it? It's wandless?”

Neil looks into Andrew's face, and up close, it's clear that he's not well at all—paler than usual, dark circles under his eyes. He looks like he does when he's about to transform, except that full moon isn't for over three weeks.

“That's ridiculous magic,” Neil says.

Andrew glares at him. “I didn't always have access to a wand.”

“But you do now.”

No response.

“So when you're having trouble focusing, you learn insanely difficult wandless magic,” Neil says. “That's why you laughed when I said there was no way you'd play a Quidditch match unarmed.”

“No,” Andrew says. “This is why.” He holds up his wrist, flashing his black armbands at Neil, and slides something out of one.

For a moment, Neil thinks, absurdly, that it's going to be Andrew's wand—but instead it's a plain knife. Good blade, strong handle, simple design. Andrew pokes it against the base of Neil's neck experimentally.

“You don't,” Neil says. “How do you get away with playing with knives on your person?”

Andrew does his version of a shrug, which is the very slightest uptick of his right shoulder. The point of his blade scrapes upward against Neil's neck.

“You don't look very scared for someone I would love to kill,” Andrew says, very conversational. Now that he's not paying attention to his parchment anymore, it's clear that he's back on wolfsbane. Neil wonders if he got in trouble for being off it.

“You've written 'fuck you Neil' on a bit of parchment using your mind and nothing else,” Neil says. “No other wizard I've heard of has ever demonstrated that level of control, and I'm willing to bet that if we ask Kevin he'll say the same thing. You don't scare me, Andrew.”

Andrew's gaze intensifies. Neil's never seen anything like it: Andrew goes from looking like it might be all right to kill Neil, but it'd be so complicated to deal with, such a headache, not worth it—to actually looking murderous. His blade pokes a little harder against the delicate skin at the base of Neil's neck, and for a moment Neil wonders if this might actually be it—but then Andrew stands, puts his knife away, and crumples the parchment in his hand. It falls through his fingertips like dust and vanishes.

“There's a match Wednesday,” Andrew says, lighting a cigarette right there in the tunnel—without, Neil notes, reaching for his wand. “You have a preview to write.”

“Right,” Neil says, and leaves it at that for now.

*

“Yeah, no, Wymack's gotten earful after earful from Abby, but Andrew went off the meds for the match at Harpies and he's probably going off them again this weekend,” Jeremy says.

It's conversational, but it's on the record, technically. Jeremy rarely says anything that isn't.

“He wasn't supposed to be off his potion, did you know that?” Jeremy combs a hand through windswept hair and sighs. Halfway down the pitch, Kevin is watching them; a bit further down, Jean is watching him. Neil's quill and parchment hover next to them, taking notes of their own accord. “Look. He plays better when he doesn't take it because at least then he has something resembling an attention span. He's also willing to trade the opportunity to stop taking the potion for gameplay. Abby didn't know until she examined Andrew's injury. The QA still doesn't know, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell them.”

“You could've told me not to write anything down,” Neil says.

“Right, and I didn't,” Jeremy says. “So if you want, you can publish all of this. I'm sure Andrew told you his werewolfism is off the record, but you could publish it as speculation if you wanted—line up his absences from practice with a moon chart, look up hospital records from eight or nine years ago, get an interview with a QA official—it's not exactly easy to disguise.”

Andrew hadn't said his werewolfism was off the record, actually. Neil can hardly remember anything Andrew did ask him to keep off the record, even if everyone around him spouts the phrase constantly.

“I'm trusting you to not get Andrew kicked off the team for something he can't control,” Jeremy says.

“What do you think would happen?” Neil says.

Jeremy's brow furrows.

“If he told people, I mean. If everyone knew he was a werewolf—”

“We've considered it,” Jeremy says. “Wymack and I, I mean. But he's too vicious, and he has that violent attack in his past—” he shakes his head. “If he were a more sympathetic figure, then maybe. But as-is, people'd just assume he has that history because he's a werewolf, and for all we know, I mean, maybe he does—not that I, you know, whatever—but anyway, it'd become very difficult to get him cleared to play.”

“Why should it matter if he's sympathetic?” Neil says. “Shouldn't people just agree that he shouldn't have to be drugged because there's no evidence werewolves are at all aggressive outside of full moon?”

Jeremy sighs. “People don't always act the way they should, unfortunately,” he says. “You must know that as well as anyone.”

Neil feels that he's about to flinch and tries to suppress it. “What does that mean?”

Jeremy's face is a mask of friendliness and concern. Then again—he's never been anything other than friendly to Neil. Maybe it's not a mask. Maybe he's just concerned.

“Look, I just mean—obviously you've been through some shit, right, you know people aren't all good or whatever.”

“Right,” Neil says. “So you don't think he'd want people to know.”

“It's hard to say what Andrew himself wants, but I doubt it'd be good for the Lions if the QA was flooded with anti-werewolf sentiment.” Jeremy runs a hand. “If we could attribute it to something else—I don't know, Neil.”

It's Seth who ends the conversation then, jogging over to tell Jeremy how irritating Kevin's being. Neil lets Jeremy go back to work and retreats to the back offices to work on his preview of the midweek match.

*

The Halloween party comes at the end of a long week during which the Lions somehow manage to maintain their unbeaten streak with a draw away from home. Unlike some of their other draws, this one was unlucky, the product of Allison missing the Snitch by a fingernail's length while the opposing team's Seeker edged her out of the way.

“Put it this way,” Allison tells Neil while she's fixing herself a very strong drink in his kitchen. “I'm going to get fake nails put in first thing tomorrow.”

She's wearing a costume that shows off her Quidditch-honed body, most of her skin uncovered. She also happens to be fighting with Seth, which is why she's in the kitchen with Neil right now drinking, her arm pressed against his not far from Seth's line of vision.

Neil separates himself. “Seekers' fingernail lengths are regulated per bylaw seventeen point eight,” he says. “And fake nails are explicitly banned.”

“That's sexist,” Allison says. “They don't ban finger length, do they? How am I supposed to play against a male Seeker with naturally bigger hands? Unfair, isn't it?”

“Yeah,” Neil says. “I—I s'pose.” He looks past her into the sitting room, where everyone is crowded together talking loudly and laughing. Seth keeps shooting them dirty looks.

Allison sees him looking and bursts into actual laughter. “All right, fine,” she says. “I'll stop.” She winds her fingers through Neil's anyway and leads him out of the kitchen, her other hand wrapped around an oversized goblet of the punch Matt made earlier that day. On the opposite side of the room, Andrew and Renee are deep in conversation; elsewhere, two or three people are attempting to make a dance floor out of the entryway.

“Presenting one Neil Josten,” she says, sitting him down in a group made up of Matt, Dan, Laila, and Alvarez. Seeing Neil, Nicky and Erik join, too, both with drinks in hand, and then Jeremy and Kevin settle in nearby, too.

It feels, Neil thinks abruptly, like an ambush.

“Er,” Neil says. “Thanks for coming. I'm just going to—”

But Allison's grip on his hand has become vicelike, and he can't pry his fingers out of hers.

“So,” Dan says. “We've decided we want to get to know you better, Neil.”

“What?” Neil says, panicked. “You already know me—I'm not—”

“Relax, relax,” Matt says quickly, and immediately Allison lets go of Neil's hand. “We're not going to, like, ask you on oath if you've ever committed a crime or anything.”

“We just want to get to know you better,” Jeremy says. “Nothing you aren't comfortable with.”

“Like—what's your favorite color?” Nicky says.

Adrenaline still rushing through his veins, Neil says, “Grey,” and forces himself to stay put.

“Don't be ridiculous,” Allison says. “Your favorite color can't be grey. That's barely even a color.”

“That's like the color everything looks when there's no other color,” Matt says, drunk.

“Seriously,” Dan says. “You sure it's not green?”

“Well,” Neil says, thinking about it. “I don't mind orange.”

Orange?” Laila says. “Who likes orange?”

“Your favorite food?”

“I don't know. I like fruit.”

“Film?”

“Don't really watch them.”

“It's true,” Matt supplies. “I've got a huge collection of DVDs, and he never touches them.”

“What's a DVD?” Dan says, and Matt feigns horror and takes her to see all of his.

And on it goes, until the conversation shifts away from Neil and he can get up and find some quiet.

He's hyper aware of the fact that Andrew has left the sitting room, but then Andrew isn't in either of the bedrooms or the bathroom or the kitchen, either, so he must have left the apartment.

Except Kevin's still there, having a silent competition with Seth to see who can do the most shots, which means Andrew must still be in the building.

That leaves the roof, and sure enough, when Neil ducks into the stairwell he sees that the door is just slightly ajar.

“Aren't you cold?” Neil says. Andrew isn't wearing a cloak over whatever his costume is supposed to be.

Andrew glances over at Neil, then holds up a bottle of some dark liquid—not in offering, more in explanation.

“You left the party,” Neil says.

“So did you.”

“I was looking for you.”

“You would've left anyway,” Andrew says. “I saw you dying to get away from the interrogation your friends were delivering.”

“It was a bit much.”

“Asking your favorite color was a bit much?” Andrew says. “You have too many issues.”

“They thought it might be green.”

Andrew makes a huffing sound that Neil has come to interpret as his not-on-wolfsbane version of a laugh. Trying his luck, Neil reaches over and plucks the cigarette out from between Andrew's fingertips. Andrew doesn't react except to watch as Neil takes a drag and then pull out his packet for another. “They're very loud, your friends.”

That word again. His friends. Matt, yes, and Dan and Nicky, but the rest? The Lions? Alvarez and Renee?

Andrew is watching him, though, and Neil doesn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing about any more of his issues, so he deflects.

“Yeah, well,” Neil says. “That's just what they're like, isn't it? Half of them were in Gryffindor.”

“I'm taking a turn,” Andrew says. It's been so long since they've acknowledged the trade-off between them that Neil smiles into the darkness in faint surprise. “What House were you in?”

“I would've told you that for free,” Neil says, playing with his stolen cigarette. “I was in Slytherin.”

Andrew doesn't say anything, only ashes his cigarette off the roof in response.

“You know what they say about us,” Neil says. His father would've been in Slytherin, probably, if he hadn't gone to school in America. “Evil and all that. The House of Voldemort himself.”

Or maybe he wouldn't have. It's hard to picture his father at eleven, smaller than Neil ever saw him. What features would the Sorting Hat have seen inside his head? His father is no coward, and he's clever, too. He cared about Neil's education if nothing else, had tutors at the house as soon as Neil was old enough to sit up. His wrath was enough of a threat to keep Neil studying most of the time, even when it was with one of his father's hench-people, learning Dark magic or how to cut someone into ribbons using a knife instead of a wand.

“You probably made a good Slytherin,” Andrew says, pulling Neil out of his destructive train of thought. “Always ready to run, so you're not brave enough for Gryffindor, but you're still here, so clearly not clever enough for Ravenclaw.”

“It wasn't bad,” Neil says. “Course, some of them thought I was a Muggle-born and wanted to have nothing to do with me, but others were all right. The Quidditch team were all—” Not his friends, not exactly. “There when I needed them.”

“Did you ever admit to needing them?” Andrew says. “Or did you just play Quidditch and run and pretend to be fine all the time?”

Neil sucks in a breath. “I don't do that.”

Andrew looks unimpressed.

“Fine,” Neil says. “You seem to know a lot about the Houses. Which would you have been in?”

Andrew doesn't even have to think about it. “Hufflepuff,” he says.

“What?” Neil says. No one wants to be in Hufflepuff. “Really? Why?”

“Close to the kitchens,” Andrew says, and tosses the butt of his cigarette off the roof. He pauses and seems to contemplate something before lighting another and offering Neil the pack.

Neil takes it, lights his cigarette with a flick of Andrew's lighter, and cups it between his hands. Above them, the moon is a sliver, just about to start waxing again. Neil stares up at it. He's never understood astronomy, not really—at Hogwarts, he committed practical magic to memory and barely paid attention to the rest. Astronomy counted as “the rest.” It feels odd to have done that now, like he should've cared more. It's fascinating when he thinks about it, how big the universe is, how it doesn't care about them but controls them anyway, the stars, the moon.

“What are you doing here?” Neil says, mainly to distract himself from this treacherous line of thought. “Why do you need to go to and fro with Kevin?”

Andrew doesn't answer him for three drags from his cigarette. Then he says, “Kevin doesn't go to and fro alone.”

“What, never?” Neil thinks back to the day he asked Kevin to get him an interview with Andrew—even then, Kevin said Andrew was driving around in his car outside. He thinks about what Allison said about his so-called aggression, what Nicky said about Aaron's mother. “What about Nicky and Aaron? Do you keep that tight a leash on them, too?”

“It isn't a leash,” Andrew says.

“You protect them all. Everyone.” Neil's voice comes out flat. Andrew doesn't say anything. “But one person can't do all that, they'd go—”

He stops, blinks at the stillness of Andrew's face, forces himself onward.

“You protect all of them. From everything? Aaron's mother, sure,” and is he imagining things or is that a flicker of surprise cutting through Andrew's blank expression? “Those blood purists who went for Nicky, yeah, but what about fanatics who want everyone who was ever associated with Voldemort dead? What about Quidditch ultras, former Death Eaters, Hogwarts bullies who still have a bone to pick—”

“Get to the point,” Andrew says.

All Neil can think is that Andrew looks so small. He can pack a punch magically and otherwise, sure, but how is he supposed to stand up against the whole world? And why does he do it for everyone except himself? Neil, whose goal for so long was only survival, can't begin to understand it.

“You don't protect yourself. Who protects you?”

In the sliver of moonlight, Andrew's nostrils flare. The movement is subtle enough that Neil is surprised he noticed it, except that it makes Andrew look immediately more threatening, a bull about to attack. It's all false bravado, though, because he's leaning on the railing and Neil is far enough and fast enough that he could get away if he needed to.

“I don't need protecting.”

Neil's mind drifts to Andrew's blank face as a Bludger veered toward him, and then to Andrew's body falling from the sky, limp—the rocketing of his own heart in that moment, the speed with which Neil shot toward Andrew. Seth and the Herald reporter and that annoying Healer were wrong—it wasn't about the story. Neil had been, absurdly, concerned about Andrew. He knows that's a normal human thing to be, concerned about someone getting hurt, but Neil can't remember the last time he cared about someone else in that way. His mother always told him not to bother with other people's pain, to worry about himself first and only, but—he was worried nonetheless, relieved when Nicky told him Andrew was fine, glad to see Andrew at practice the following Monday.

“Everyone is wrong about you,” Neil says finally.

Andrew looks up at him, then discards his cigarette and lights another.

“I hate you,” he says, and sounds like he means it. “You aren't real.”

“What?”

“Go away.”

Neil doesn't need to be told twice.

*

In bed, Neil's hands smell like cigarette smoke.

Hogwarts never really felt like home to Neil. He was on his guard the whole time, sure he'd be found out at any second. The Sorting Hat even mentioned that Neil was obviously keeping secrets, suggested Hufflepuff for its sense of community and then laughed when Neil recoiled so strongly at the thought. Potential for bravery, the Hat said, though it acknowledged that Neil clearly didn't much value the trait before announcing Slytherin to everyone in the Headmaster's office.

Neil slept in that dormitory every night terrified he'd wake up looking like anyone other than Neil Josten. He never made friends with his dormmates or his teammates or his classmates. He expected the same from his post-Hogwarts roommates, and until Matt, that worked out well.

But then Matt's classified came along when Neil's last lease was up, and Nicky told Neil that Matt was an all right sort of guy from what he could tell (“He came to Eden's Twilight with us once—doubt he'll ever do it again, but it was fun,” Nicky said, all those months ago), and now Neil is suddenly cursed with more friends than he knows how to handle.

He likes it, he thinks, startling himself.

When he closes his eyes, he sees the sliver of the moon hanging alone in the vast darkness in front of him. He inhales the scent of smoke on his fingers and wonders why it is Andrew knows the layout of Hogwarts without ever having been there.

Chapter Text

The Prophet's sport team is massive. Aside from Neil and the rest of the English Quidditch League weekly coverage staff, there's a reporter and a photographer who work at Hogwarts, several reporters writing daily rumor and update roundups, and a whole team dispatching updates to subscribers via Floo network. There are also staffers who only write weekly or monthly analytical columns, one to a team, usually confined to the weekly Quidditch circular. And then there's the European Champions League-dedicated group, several of them currently dispatched because the English teams are actually doing well in the QCL for once.

Every year, the Prophet and the rest of Europe's Quidditch press get together to do an awards ceremony. It usually takes place just before the new year, and it rewards the best Quidditch players and teams as voted on by Quidditch's top reporters.

Dan calls a meeting this year, and the Prophet's Quidditch team sits down to decide on a “Best Seven” halfway through November.

Other than nominating Kevin, Neil leans back in his seat as people make suggestions—“Morrey for Seeker? You're out of your mind—just 'cause he's English doesn't mean he's world class” “Yeah, all right, Kevin Day's an obvious one, I'll second that”—and only pays real attention when they reach Keeper.

“Minyard's the best Keeper in the league,” Neil says.

Half the table nods in agreement. The other half looks at him like he's insane.

“It's true,” Neil says. “He has the best record in Europe—”

“—he didn't play against Warsaw,” one of the QCL reporters says.

“You sure this isn't just favoritism?” another reporter asks. “You're the only person he'll talk to.”

“Yeah, but I want to talk to him because I know he's a good player, not the other way around,” Neil says. “Listen, look—he's let in fewer shots on target than any other Keeper this season. He was a one-man barricade against Puddlemere United this weekend—Puddlemere United. Last week, he assisted half the goals against Lisbon in the Champions League. No other Keeper has numbers like those—how many other Keepers make one or two assists per match, let alone eight or nine? He's a unique player, and an excellent one at that. The only times he doesn't play up to par are the times when he's clearly ill.”

“Well he did suffer that awful head injury a few weeks ago,” the circular's editor, a retired player called Spinnet, says. “Missed two practices and came back the next weekend to help carry the Lions to a win at Manchester, didn't he? Nominating him for Keeper of the Year could tie in with Parker's feature on head injuries.”

“Not just Keeper of the Year,” Neil says. “Player of the Year.”

People are outraged at that—“What about Muldani? Barely a better Beater in Europe let alone England—” “Where would Minyard even be without Day and Knox, though?” “Who nominates a Keeper for Player of the Year?”

“Look,” Neil says. “The Lions have a good squad. Individually, they're all excellent. But they can't play together to save their lives, and if it weren't for Andrew Minyard's performances this season, they'd be floundering mid-table. Instead they're second, behind only Wasps—who, might I remind you, nearly beat the Lions only because Minyard wasn't in the hoops.”

A few people nod; others shake their heads; still others stare at him like he's just grown a second head. Alvarez opens her mouth, probably to defend Laila, but Dan cuts her off.

“Naming a Keeper our Player of the Year is unorthodox,” Dan says. “I like it. Josten, do the Minyard, Day, and Knox write-ups—don't forget to do two for Andrew. Go down there this week, have Alvarez take some photos. Fisher, I want you on Morrey and Muldani. Johnson—”

Neil tunes her out, sketching Snitches on his parchment and staring at his notes from the meeting. He wonders what would happen if he tried to do this with just his mind. He'd set the parchment on fire, probably.

At his desk, he tries it. He hasn't done wandless magic on purpose since—maybe ever, certainly never when his life wasn't explicitly threatened. Now, he stares at his bottle of ink, willing some of it onto the parchment.

Instead, he knocks the bottle over—which, he supposes, is progress.

*

At night, Neil does drills with Kevin. In the morning, he runs. At lunch, he jogs again, usually at a less intense pace, mostly just to get his thoughts in order.

Most evenings, Andrew sits on the bleachers, staring at the sky, smoking, undrugged, then drives himself and Kevin home.

Neil is exhausted.

Time, inexorably, passes.

*

Neil meets Andrew at the Lions' stadium later the Friday before their match, Thai takeout in hand. Andrew's in his usual place at the top. Even before Neil sits down, he can tell Andrew is in a particularly foul mood, lying flat on his back and smoking. When he exhales, the smoke comes out in unnaturally shaped puffs; it isn't until Neil comes closer that he notices they're crude versions of animals. A duck, a giraffe, a rabbit.

“How are you doing that?” Neil asks, sitting a row down from Andrew.

“Magic,” Andrew says. “What do you want?”

“To give you a warning,” Neil says. “Nominations for the Best Seven of Europe will be in the Prophet next week.”

“A warning,” Andrew says. He accepts the food Neil hands him.

“You're going to be nominated for Player and Keeper of the Year.”

Andrew laughs. Neil thinks he's never heard a laugh that humorless in his life. “For someone so concerned with staying under the radar, you call a lot of attention to yourself.”

“It's deserved,” Neil says. “You're the best Keeper in Britain. If you actually cared about the sport, you could lead your team to the Champions League and English league titles. If you just—”

“If I just,” Andrew echoes. “You sound like Kevin.”

“You could be the best,” Neil says. “Why are you actively sabotaging yourself?”

The look Andrew gives him is murderous. “Do not talk about things you don't understand.”

“That doesn't make any sense. You could—”

“It's my turn,” Andrew says, and before Neil can try to figure out if that's right, adds, “What's your real name?”

Neil sucks in a breath. “Ask me something else.”

“Exactly,” Andrew says. “You do not get to judge anyone for their issues when you cannot even say your own name.”

“Andrew—”

“Here's a question. Why did you nominate me for this award?”

Neil exhales. “You don't have to do anything you don't want to do.”

Andrew sips from his flask of wolfsbane, which is odd because he usually doesn't take a dose in the evenings.

“That doesn't answer my question.”

“It would make the public like you more. If you won. If you were England's next big thing, their best chance for the World Cup, they'd be more sympathetic toward you.”

“What makes you think I want public sympathy?”

“Because when you win, and when the Minister's anti-discrimination bill passes, you can come out as a werewolf and bully the QA into letting you go off the wolfsbane.”

Andrew goes completely still for a moment, and then he laughs again. Neil gets the awful urge to dump his flask out on the ground.

“I didn't ask you to do that for me,” Andrew says.

“It's destroying your mind. You said yourself you hate it.”

“You said yourself you hate me.”

“Doesn't mean I want to watch you suffer.”

“Since when are you noble?”

“Since when do you turn down something that could be good for you?” Neil says. “I mean it. Stop sabotaging yourself.”

Andrew is still smiling, but he looks murderous anyway. He opens a styrofoam container and pushes noodles around with a plastic fork, and then he upends the entire thing on the bleachers next to Neil.

“Go away,” Andrew says, putting a new cigarette in his mouth.

“You don't have to do it,” Neil says. “Just—please consider it.”

The tip of Andrew's cigarette ignites of its own accord even though Neil's sure it's an American Spirit, not a wizard cig. In the same breath, one of the lights on the pitch across them explodes.

“I don't like that word,” Andrew says.

“What word?” Neil says, combing through the last thing he said for a possible explanation for Andrew's temper tantrum.

Please.” He says it with such disgust that Neil glances toward the field again, half-expecting another light to burst.

Neil opens his mouth, but Andrew cuts him off: “I told you. No room to judge.”

“My turn,” Neil says. “Why are you taking wolfsbane at night?”

“An extraordinarily irritating reporter is interviewing me for a newspaper that almost collapsed thanks to libel lawsuits in the nineties, and I like to make myself as numb as possible in order to find his voice slightly more bearable.”

“Ever heard of 'the lady doth protest too much'?”

“Stop trying to be clever,” Andrew says. “It doesn't suit you.”

Neil bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from smiling and offers Andrew the remains of his own dinner. Andrew ignores him in favor of digging the dessert out of the bottom of the bag, then offers Neil a cigarette.

Neil accepts, and they smoke, for a while, in silence.

*

The following morning, Andrew starts against the bottom-ranked team in the league and floats, motionless, in front of his hoops as their Chasers try to score.

Despite his abysmal performance, the Lions win, 220 to 90.

*

On Sunday, Neil decides it's as good a time as any to try and get quotes for Andrew's profile from his roommates and family members.

He goes to their flat mid-morning with a bag of pastries, and again it takes several knocks for the door to open. Despite this, Aaron and Kevin are sitting at their kitchen table only a few feet away, playing chess and drinking coffee.

“Good morning,” Neil says. “I brought breakfast.”

“Why?” Aaron says.

It's an almost Andrew-esque question, except that Andrew has never questioned food, and it strikes Neil how little they actually look alike. He thinks of the picture of Aaron in his Ravenclaw robes jammed under his desk at work. The photo almost fooled him because it was in black and white and taken so long ago, but close up, in full color, there are too many obvious differences. Andrew carries himself differently. Aaron's face is more obviously disdainful. The black armbands, obviously. Aaron is thinner, while Andrew looks like he could probably separate your head from your body if he could only pay attention long enough.

“I wanted to ask you for background interviews,” Neil says. “For the profile I'm writing on Andrew.”

Aaron still looks suspicious, but Kevin nods.

“Ask away,” he says. “Obviously anything about his being a werewolf will be off the record, but as for his game—”

“That's all I'm going to ask about,” Neil says. “You ready?”

Kevin nudges his pawn forward. It goes, but only reluctantly; a moment later, Aaron's bishop viciously attacks it.

“Yeah,” Kevin says. “Shoot.”

*

Two hours later, Neil is leaving their apartment with more on Andrew than he's managed to gather in the entire three months since he's been on the story. Some of it is too technical, of course—Kevin being, after all, Kevin—but it's oddly energizing anyway, and he goes through the rest of his day feeling almost at peace.

*

“You nominated Andrew,” Kevin says the next night.

They're on their brooms, high above Andrew's sleeping form, and they're halfway through their drills. Neil's gotten marginally better since they've started—he hasn't perfected all of them, but he's at least moved on from the most basic ones.

“I nominated you, too.”

Neil doesn't ask Kevin how he found out, but it's mostly because he's too distracted to care. Neil's day was strange—he started his day with a nightmare where his father was a dementor, and then his Prophet sport team coworkers were almost openly hostile toward him after Andrew's performance on Saturday. He barely got any work done, sat at his desk staring at his notes for the Minyard nomination, told Dan he was going out for research and then ran ten miles.

“Everyone nominates me.” Kevin's mouth twists.

“Are you upset?” Neil says, and there's the spark of panic at not being able to play Quidditch every night anymore, almost immediately swamped by irritation at Kevin's disbelief.

“No,” Kevin says. “Just figuring some things out.”

They're quiet for a while after that, passing the Quaffle back and forth in drills Neil's never seen the Lions do. For once Kevin isn't getting frustrated when Neil isn't good enough, and too early, Kevin says, “That's enough.”

“It's not.”

“It is. You're getting tired. You're not going to get better if you injure yourself.”

“We'll just have Aaron patch me up. Andrew can give me a ride to yours, and I'll just—”

“Magic is no substitute for rest.”

“You've given up on me,” Neil says, voice sounding high-pitched and absurd even to him. “You said I should be playing—you said I could be playing—but you're giving up on me.”

“No,” Kevin says. “If I gave up on you, you would know. You are tired, your focus is gone, and your speed is off. I will see you tomorrow.”

He turns to dive, but Neil surges forward, grabs his shoulder.

“Kevin—”

“Neil.”

“You don't get it,” Neil says. “I have to play. I—”

Somehow, Kevin stays completely calm. “Of course I get it,” he says. “Who else would?”

Neil lets his hand drop, and Kevin leaves him there in the air by himself.

Eventually, Neil descends and ducks into the shower. It's completely deserted, and he assumes Kevin and Andrew have left him there.

He huddles against the wall of the shower stall for what feels like much too long, closing his eyes against the hot stream and letting the heat melt away some of the aches in his arms and legs. The cold air outside shocks him, and Neil hugs himself, squinting in the relative direction of his building. He's pretty sure he's too tired to Apparate, which means he definitely shouldn't be running, but it's probably safer to sprain an ankle or something than accidentally splinch himself.

But then Andrew's car drives up to him, and Kevin rolls the window down.

“We're giving you a ride,” he says. “You're too tired to Apparate, and you'll hurt yourself if you run again today.”

Neil wants to argue that he is neither too tired nor at risk of injury, but then he has to stifle a yawn. Andrew leans over onto the steering wheel and glares at Neil.

“Get in,” Kevin says, impatient.

Neil gets in. The car is much too nice for a wizard, he decides; he's not sure if he's ever seen Andrew Apparate, and maybe he can't when he's on wolfsbane the same way he can't drive when he's on wolfsbane. Still, there are fireplaces everywhere and portkeys and brooms—he doesn't need to drive.

Maybe he just likes it: though he's not drugged within an inch of his life, Andrew drives with the mania he demonstrated at the Lions' stadium the other day, so quickly that Neil can barely see the streetlights as they whiz past. He swerves wildly at every opportunity, and Neil leans against the window, staring out at the dark pavement. He hasn't been in a car in years, but it feels like too much effort to recall those memories now, and he shuts his eyes against them.

No one talks until Andrew deposits Neil at his building. Neil half expects Andrew to follow him out, but Andrew stays put behind the wheel, speeding off almost before Neil shuts the door.

Neil climbs the stairs to his apartment slowly, and when he gets to his room, doesn't even change before collapsing into bed.

*

The Lions top their group in the Champions League, and knockout stages won't start until February. After the last group match, the team and all their assigned journalists go to a local Lions pub to celebrate. It's decked out in Lions gear, burgundy scarves all over the place, signed robes and brooms hung up on the walls. All the patrons are delighted to see them—some are vaguely nationalist about how well the Lions are doing in the European league, but others are just happy the team they support is drinking with them.

Neil settles into a booth with Alvarez, Laila, and the Lions' QCL reporter, letting their conversation surround him. He's exhausted again, and it's late enough at night that he knows he's going to end up sleeping fewer than eight hours—but he can't leave yet, because his nominations for the yearly European Quidditch awards are coming out this weekend, and he has yet to glean any quotes from his nominee.

He's hoping Andrew will be less combative with a few drinks in him, even though Neil's fairly certain that's never been the case. Though he usually doesn't mind going toe to toe with Andrew, the idea of doing it now, when he's running on too little sleep and filling each day with too many things, just makes him feel more tired.

“He's alone, look,” Alvarez says, pointing to where Andrew is leaning against the bar ordering a drink. “Now's your chance. And then you can go to bed.”

“Yeah, not looking great, are you, Neil?” the Lions' QCL reporter says. Neil tries and fails to remember his name.

“Yeah, all right,” Neil says. “I'll be back in a bit.”

“If you're not, we'll have Laila save you,” Alvarez says.

She's in a particularly good mood because all signs are pointing to her being able to play Quidditch again by the summer, which means she'll be able to do trials at some clubs. That's another reason Neil doesn't want to be here: he's finding it difficult to be happy for her, which isn't fair because she's a good player and a good photographer to boot. He would know—he wrote about her injury himself back when he was on the Hogwarts beat.

Andrew is the only Lion not surrounded by either journalists or fans. They've learned by now, Neil supposes, that Andrew is just as likely to sign a child's replica robes as he is to put a cigarette out on a fan's arm. Maybe that's what Jeremy meant by sympathy.

“Good match today,” Neil says, standing next to Andrew at the bar.

Andrew glances at him. “Cigarette?” he says, and it comes out almost like a request even though Neil's sure he means it more like a command.

“Sure.”

Neil follows Andrew outside even though it's really starting to be too chilly for them to sit out here all the time. Andrew looks awful, Neil thinks: it's Wednesday, full moon is Thursday, the Lions have an away match Saturday. Neil expected a Dermott start today—the Lions were all but guaranteed to make it to the next round. Wymack started Andrew instead.

Andrew lights two cigarettes at once using his lighter, whose flame is unnaturally large, and hands one to Neil. They smoke in silence for a while, and then Neil says, “I wanted to ask you for a quote. The Prophet's nominees come out in our Quidditch weekly this weekend, and that's all I'm missing from mine.”

“Let's trade,” Andrew says.

“What do you want?”

Andrew doesn't have to consider it: “A truth.”

“All right.”

“Why are you writing this profile?”

“Because my boss made me,” Neil says, which sounds disingenuous but isn't.

“That isn't true.”

“Course it is. I told her you don't do interviews, she told me to try, you said you'd answer some questions, and here we are.”

“But you haven't written it yet,” Andrew says. “You have enough material by now to fill a page at least.” It's true. Neil could end his career and probably put Andrew in Azkaban, but instead he's sitting there next to Andrew, asking him for a quote and nominating him for best player.

“I wouldn't write something damaging just for the sake of doing damage,” Neil says.

“Yes,” Andrew says. “Why?”

“I don't know,” Neil says. “I don't want to see you in prison. You're too good at Quidditch.”

Andrew raises an eyebrow. “Of course. You're no better than Kevin.”

“No,” Neil admits. “I'm not.”

“But you still want me to tell people I'm a werewolf. Or rather, you want to tell people I'm a werewolf. And you want my blessing to do it.”

“I've told you—”

“So a yes or no question for you, Neil Josten,” and Neil sometimes hates the way Andrew says his name, like he knows how fake it is, like he knows how little of Neil is real, “are you just doing all of this so you can get famous? Win a Cudlipp Award and get a little prize for activism? Tell all the pretty girls at the pub you're the Neil Josten who stood up for werewolves everywhere?”

“Oh, fuck off,” Neil says, cigarette slipping from between his fingers and releasing a thin column of smoke from its new spot on the ground. “You know that isn't true in the slightest. I don't care about fame at all, there's nothing activist about thinking you shouldn't be on a drug you don't like and don't need, and there's no part of me that wants to tell any pretty girls at any pub anything. If you want me to never write another word about you, I won't.”

“I don't care if you write about me,” Andrew says. “Maybe it'd help keep your shit paper from going under.”

Neil grinds the remains of his cigarette out beneath his foot. “Right. Thanks for all your help. Have a terrific night.” He stands abruptly, unsure why he's suddenly so furious, and Disapparates.

His flat is empty. That isn't surprising, because of course Matt is out celebrating with the Lions and all their press and all their fans. Neil is torn between going to bed now and going for a run, but he feels overwhelmingly like if he goes for a run just now he'll collapse in the middle of the street and get run over by a car or something, which would royally piss off his mother.

Instead, he finds a bottle of dreamless sleep in his potion cabinet, throws it back, and tucks himself into bed.

*

Neil gets to work morning of the full moon to find a familiar owl at his desk. It pecks at his finger until he digs an owl treat out of his drawer, then lets him untie the scroll attached to its leg.

In Andrew's awful handwriting: I play Keeper because it means I don't have to move around much.

Despite his exhaustion, despite his lingering irritation, despite himself, Neil smiles.

“What're you so happy about?” Dan says, showing up at his desk with a steaming mug of tea. “You're past deadline on the nomination piece.”

“I've just got to add one line,” Neil says. “Er—listen. Something might be coming out about Andrew soon, and I think you'd like it if we had the exclusive, so the profile might be a few more weeks.”

Dan's eyebrows shoot up. “What's that? Neil Josten telling me an article's going to be later than expected? Shocking stuff.”

Chapter Text

Neil gets to see Andrew's so-called aggression first hand at the Lions' match three days after full moon, a midweek clash against a midtable team that promises to be a dull and textbook Lions win.

Except that Seth loses his temper at Kevin in the tunnels before the match even starts, threatens him with an actual Beaters' bat, and then Andrew's up in Seth's face with his fingers around Seth's throat like it's the most casual thing he's ever done.

People jump in to separate them—Jeremy and Matt tug at Andrew's wrists, while Jean and Allison go for Seth—but Andrew squeezes with both hands.

“Neil,” Jeremy says, sounding pained.

“What?” Neil says.

Andrew lets go, shooting Jeremy a dirty look.

“What the fuck, Minyard,” Allison says.

“I told you what would happen if you touched what's mine,” Andrew says. “It is not my fault if you don't listen.”

“What have we been talking about, Andrew?” Jeremy says, his hand still tight around Andrew's upper arm. “Violence isn't the answer, remember? Isn't that what Betsy says?”

Andrew stares at Jeremy, expressionless, and then his gaze drops to Jeremy's hand. Jeremy takes the hint.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Matt mumbles, letting go of Andrew as well and tugging his bat out of Seth's limp grip. He looks over at where Neil is standing, his quill and parchment motionless in the air next to him, and throws his free hand up in the air in misdirected frustration.

Outside, the person calling the match starts naming the Lions' opposition. Next, he'll call out the Lions themselves, starting with Andrew.

As Andrew passes Neil, he whispers, “How's that for sympathetic?” and—still coming down from his last dose of wolfsbane, Neil supposes—laughs at the lack of response.

*

Because there is nothing textbook about a team that features two of the last Moriyama generation of Ravens, a recovering drug addict from a family of Death Eaters and another from a family of rich Muggles, Quidditch's golden boy, a Seeker from one of the wealthiest families in Scotland, and a werewolf, the Lions lose. It's Seth's fault from what Neil can tell—he's still pissed off with Andrew, and Andrew's still pissed off with him, but instead of reacting by sending Quaffles to Kevin, Andrew skies every one that comes his way. Meanwhile, Seth won't make a pass if it means Kevin will be within sight of the Quaffle, and Allison plays erratically, failing at channeling her own irritation at Andrew into anything that'd be of any use for a Seeker.

Jeremy still plays all right, and Andrew guards the hoops as well as ever, but that can't make up for the opposing team's Seeker catching the Snitch to the delight of his home fans. Kevin makes a beeline for an Andrew who is already taking a sip from his flask, and then Seth piles on, too, and though Jeremy and Matt try to break it up and Jean stays carefully apart, it looks like an awful brawl up there in the air.

Rather than engaging in the fight—he can't help but think of Jeremy's urgent “Neil” earlier—Neil sinks to a dive, landing on the grass with a soft thud. He makes his way to the press room to wait for the Lions' managers and players to shower and show up.

The Herald reporter he always sees sits behind him, tapping Neil's shoulder. Neil forces himself not to react with a jinx.

“What?” Neil says.

“What's wrong?” the reporter says. “Upset your team's just destroyed their own unbeaten streak for no discernible reason?”

“They aren't my team,” Neil says.

“Right. I read your nomination for Minyard, by the way,” the reporter says. “What do you think the chances are he actually wins? Especially after that display?”

“He kept a clean sheet,” Neil says.

“He provoked his teammates into a fight.”

“I don't know if you somehow forgot because I apologized to you, or if you're genuinely stupid as well as blind,” Neil says, “but I would happily curse you back into whatever gossip rag hole you came from if it wouldn't really, really upset my editor. And I still might if you don't stop talking about things you know nothing about.”

“The Herald isn't a gossip rag,” the reporter says, affronted, and then: “You can't threaten me.”

“That's so strange,” Neil says. “I feel like I just did.”

The reporter leans back in his seat, wary, wand in his hand. Neil wishes he were any good at wandless magic and resolves to learn more of it, if only so he can surprise irritating Herald reporters in press rooms, and annotates his notes from the match until Wymack and two of his players show up.

It's Jeremy and Jean doing press today, which was probably a good choice—Jeremy is always upbeat and optimistic, even in defeat, and Jean provides sharp technical analysis of the game without being as much of a media firework as Kevin. Alongside them, Wymack is even-toned, discussing his team's loss with a kind of forced remoteness.

Afterward, they break up to take questions, and Jeremy makes a beeline for Neil.

“Not the best game ever,” Neil says.

Jeremy actually laughs. “You think?”

“What went wrong?” Neil says. “I've seen them uncooperative, but that was unbelievable.”

“I don't know,” Jeremy says, sighing. “I really thought we'd be all right by now. Andrew's doing loads better—this was the first time he's really attacked Seth in weeks.”

“You didn't think one Halloween party was going to solve all your problems.”

“I don't know,” Jeremy says again. “I've tried getting to Andrew through Kevin. I've tried getting to Seth through Allison. Seth's an arsehole, but Andrew's—” Jeremy runs a hand through his hair. “I don't know. I don't understand how he works, but you seem to, and—”

“Kevin does,” Neil says. “He's the one who got Andrew to talk to me.”

“Yeah, but Andrew likes telling Kevin no,” Jeremy says. “I'm willing to bet Andrew decided to talk to you because he was interested in talking to you, not because Kevin told him to.”

“Maybe he just did it because Kevin was asking about something other than Quidditch for once,” Neil says. “There's nothing Andrew cares less about than Quidditch.” Except maybe his own well-being, Neil thinks privately.

“How do I get him to care?” Jeremy says.

“He doesn't care about anything when he's drugged out of his mind.”

“You think he should go off the potion.”

“Yes.”

“But—” Jeremy runs a hand through his hair again. “You saw him today. He can't control himself when someone puts their hands on Kevin. He's even worse if it's his brother, which is so strange, isn't it, because they don't even talk.”

“He did control himself,” Neil says. “If he didn't, Seth would be dead.”

“But I just don't understand—why the melodrama in the first place?”

“He told Seth what would happen if Seth put a hand on Kevin, and Seth did it anyway. And from what Allison Reynolds told me, that's not the first time someone's threatened what's his.”

“Seth wouldn't have really hit Kevin with the bat,” Jeremy says.

“How's Andrew supposed to know that?”

“People don't just do that,” Jeremy says. “Hit people with bats, I mean—that's absurd, right? Come on.”

Neil shrugs. “Andrew would've done it with or without the wolfsbane.”

“How can you know that?”

“Because I know Andrew.”

Jeremy's expression changes suddenly from exasperated to determined. “How are we going to get the QA to agree to it?” He looks over at where Jean is talking to a reporter from another paper, smiling and going through the motions. Jean seems to sense it, because he looks back at Jeremy. They exchange a series of glances Neil doesn't understand. “That's why you nominated him,” Jeremy says at last. “Jean said it last night. Didn't realize you had a dog in this fight, Neil.”

“I don't,” Neil says. “It's just—wrong, isn't it? I mean just because he's—you know. It doesn't mean anything.”

“Jean says you wouldn't care if you didn't care,” Jeremy says, which is true enough that Neil looks around at Jean, half-expecting him to be watching them again. He's not, though, leaning against the doorframe in conversation with a freshly showered Kevin. “How is it that Jean knows you so well?”

“I don't know,” Neil says, but he does know: they're the same, he and Jean, and though he wasn't the one who dragged Jean out of Evermore kicking and screaming, he was there in the aftermath when Jean recovered, babbling in French almost too fast for him to understand while clawing at Kevin's sleeve.

“You never even talk,” Jeremy says. “You talk to Seth more than you talk to Jean.”

Neil didn't realize Jeremy was even paying attention. Which is stupid, he knows: Jeremy gave him a broom and told him to watch from the air instead of the ground. Jeremy gets him into closed practices. Jeremy would have to be enormously careless not to pay attention to Neil, a Hogwarts transfer student with a fake accent and fake features and a fake past—and a Slytherin to boot.

“Look, Neil,” Jeremy says, and his voice drops. “I know what you did for Jean and Kevin when you wrote that article. If it weren't for you, Jean would still be in the north somewhere getting beaten half to death and still playing at the weekend, and for all we know Kevin would've lost his other hand. If you say this is what needs to be done—” he glances at Jean again, and both Jean and Kevin are doing a poor job of pretending not to watch Neil and Jeremy talk. Meanwhile, other reporters are looking over, vaguely curious at how long their conversation has gone on. “I'll help you.”

“It'll make him a better player,” Neil says. “If he has an attention span that can last for longer than twenty seconds, if he's not on opiates every second of his day—”

“—But what if going off the potion is the only thing convincing him to play a full match?”

“If he weren't playing Quidditch, he wouldn't need to take the potion,” Neil reminds Jeremy. “You trust me with your team, right?”

Jeremy nods.

“Trust me with this, then.”

Jeremy nods again, clasps Neil's shoulder. Feeling like he's violating all sorts of journalistic codes of ethics, Neil says, “Er, can I have a quote, though? Just so it doesn't seem like we've been stood here for the past half hour co-conspiring.”

Jeremy laughs his trademark Jeremy Knox laugh, and then Kevin and Jean are making their way over while Jeremy says something cliché about the comeback the Lions will make against the Ravens next week.

Jean and Kevin both go pale at that, but then Jean gives Neil a quote, too, something about how the Ravens haven't learned to expect the Lions to play well yet, how they're still a fractured team after the imprisonment of their manager and star player and the subsequent departure of half the team, including Jean himself. Jean's accent has changed in the last few years—it used to be a strange combination of French and West Virginian, but now it's taken on some London affectations. Neil wants to comment that it's funny that Jean never picked up anything from the English branch of the Ravens' academy, but he resists. It's not really funny, anyway, now that he thinks about it.

“Thanks,” Neil says instead, spotting a drugged-looking Andrew leaning against the entrance and tucking his quill and parchment away.

“What were you two—” Kevin starts, but Jean shushes him with a pointed look, and Jeremy beams at both of his players.

“We'll talk at drinks later,” he says. “Kevin, you are coming, aren't you?”

Kevin's jaw works. “Andrew—”

“Has plans tonight,” Andrew himself says, slotting in next to Neil, “and anyway, wouldn't dream of keeping you away from the love of your life.”

“I'm not—” Kevin says. “I don't—”

“He means Quidditch,” Jeremy says, ruffling Kevin's hair good-naturedly and then disappearing with Jean. Kevin, apparently terrified of the concept of a conversation with both Neil and Andrew, hurries after him.

“You have plans tonight,” Neil says. “Really.”

“We have plans tonight,” Andrew clarifies. “Since you want me off wolfsbane so much, I'm showing you what that actually means. We'll have to drive, though, so pick me up at mine in an hour.”

“I thought you couldn't drive on wolfsbane,” Neil says.

Andrew looks at Neil like Neil is truly the least intelligent person he's ever met, then follows Kevin out to the team portkey.

Left alone, and not far enough from his flat for it to be a problem, Neil Disapparates.

*

When Neil arrives at Andrew's, Andrew is already outside, sitting on the steps with a cigarette in his mouth. It's a Muggle building, but Andrew doesn't seem to care—he's doing his usual tricks with the smoke, puffs shaped like vague approximations of animals.

“Don't the Muggles see that?” Neil says.

“What Muggle is going to see smoke shaped like a cat and think they aren't imagining it?” Andrew says.

“Probably one no one would believe anyway,” Neil admits. He follows Andrew down a block or so to where his car is parked, and is faintly surprised when Andrew drops the keys into Neil's hand and gets into the passenger side.

Neil gets in, too, and forces the bile that comes up his throat back down. The last time he drove a car, he was fourteen, much too young to be driving, could barely reach the brakes—

But this is Andrew's car, and so it's tailor-made for him even if it's usually Nicky driving it, and Neil can reach the brake and gas with ease. He looks over at Andrew.

“You can drive, can't you?” Andrew says, like it's a perfectly normal thing to expect of a wizard.

“Where are we going?” Neil says in lieu of answering directly.

“North,” Andrew says, rolling down his window to smoke even though it's starting to rain.

Neil goes north, following Andrew's directions until they hit a stretch of motorway and Andrew falls silent. It's not that late, but Neil is thinking that maybe Andrew's gone off the wolfsbane for the night anyway until Andrew turns to him and says, “What is it about cars?”

“What?” Neil says, because he's lost in his own train of thought—his mother lost too much blood on that last drive, and halfway through they'd had to switch places. The car was a manual, and Neil barely knew how to drive it, and he's sure even now that it was magic that got them where they were going without their car stopping once. It was raining then, too, and it was cold, but Andrew's car is heated and theirs wasn't.

“You can drive, so it's not like you have some wizard aversion to Muggle things,” Andrew says.

Oh. “It's—” Neil swallows hard, forces himself to breathe regularly, in through his nose, out through his mouth. “The last time I drove a car, it was my mother's, and she was dying in the seat next to me.”

“Yet here you are, driving one anyway.”

“It's not like you could've done it,” Neil says.

“And you wanted answers.” Andrew is smiling; Neil can see it out of the corner of his eye. He doesn't look toward Andrew, keeps focused on the dark road ahead of them, slick with rain. “Your grip on your own neuroses is almost admirable.”

“Almost?”

“If you hold the steering wheel any tighter, you won't be able to catch a Quaffle for a week.”

“Isn't your brother a Healer?”

“He doesn't take house calls.”

“Then I'll go to St. Mungo's.”

“We both know you won't.”

Neil forces himself to relax his grip, flexes first one hand and then the other. “Better?” he says.

Andrew laughs. “Take the next exit,” he says.

He's led them into what seems like a densely packed wood—Neil can barely find enough of a trail to drive on, and eventually Andrew tells him to pull over.

They walk the rest of the way, a mile further into the forest, and Neil gets the sneaking suspicion that Andrew's about to either show him a dead body or turn him into one.

Instead, they come upon a crude cabin cloaked in magical wards. Andrew lets them in with another key—“Bewitched,” he tells a bemused Neil—and glances at a nearby torch so that it lights.

Once lit, it becomes apparent that the cabin is actually much larger than the outside makes it out to be, but it's even more sparsely furnished than Andrew's flat. There's a rug on the floor, and the windows are covered. On one side of the room, there's a couch turned on its side. One other, a cupboard with another lock on it.

“Wolfsbane and alcohol,” Andrew says when he sees Neil looking. “For the recovery.”

“This is where you …” Neil says, gesturing and hoping Andrew gets the point.

Andrew does. “This is where, once a month, I turn into a monster.” He sits down on the rug and looks up at Neil, expectant.

“What happens if you're not on the Wolfsbane Potion when that happens?”

“I get—” and here Andrew smiles even though the last of his potion must be wearing off—“aggressive.”

“I thought most werewolves transformed at St. Mungo's.”

Andrew doesn't say anything.

“You have a thousand wards on this place,” Neil says. He felt it when they crossed the threshold, like being doused in cold water. “The key gets you in. How do you get out?”

“Alohomora,” Andrew says, shrugging. “Easy.”

Which makes sense. It's not like Andrew would need the extra security to get out.

“So even without the Wolfsbane Potion, you'd be locked in here.”

Andrew nods.

“What do werewolves do?” Neil says, because he's curious—most of the books he read months ago focus on the effects of a werewolf bite, werewolf hunting habits—but there's very little about what a lone werewolf would do without Wolfsbane.

“Alone?” Andrew says. He's stalling, Neil thinks. “I used to tear myself apart. Before I had access to Wolfsbane Potion. Just—locked in a basement.”

“Like you would be here.”

Andrew's gaze is unfaltering.

“That's why you don't want to go off it,” Neil says. He read it himself: wolfsbane is habit-forming. A monthly dose would almost certainly cause relapse.

“No,” Andrew says. “I do want to go off it. I'm just making sure you know what you're asking for. I know I seem lovely and even-tempered, but a werewolf is a wild animal barely-tethered.”

He waves his hand at the couch, and it turns itself back to its original position. It's covered in bites and scratches, so deep the stuffing is coming out in some places.

“I thought you were taking Wolfsbane on full moon,” Neil says.

“Usually,” Andrew says.

“Usually,” Neil says. “You mean—the other night. You didn't take it?”

He remembers Andrew's performance this morning, erratic, like his concentration was even more shot than usual. Neil thought it was a side effect of Seth being a massive piece of shit, but evidently it's not.

“It was an experiment.”

“An experiment,” Neil says.

The last dose of wolfsbane looks to have fully worn off, because Andrew just stares at Neil in response.

“You were experimenting with going off Wolfsbane on full moon. Because—you're considering doing it. Full time.”

Andrew looks back at him. “What is your aim here?”

“I told you,” Neil says. “I think you'll be better off it. I think you'll be happier off it.”

“Happier,” Andrew says. He doesn't look happy just now, cold gaze locked on Neil. “Is that it?”

“Maybe,” Neil says. He thinks of the light exploding on the Lions' pitch, the careful control Andrew has over the little flames he uses to light his cigarettes, and then he looks over at the couch with chunks torn out of it. “Maybe I just want to see you lose control.”

Andrew's expression doesn't change. He pushes himself up off the floor and holds something out to Neil.

It's a key, an exact copy of the one he used to open the door.

“Luckily for you, I lose control on a schedule,” Andrew says, which is so ridiculous that Neil has to force the smile off his face. “You probably won't enjoy being there while it's happening, so I wouldn't recommend it.”

He drops the key into Neil's palm. Neil closes his fist around it; he's not sure if it's just warm from Andrew's body heat or if it's actual magic.

The walk back to Andrew's car is silent, and when they get there, Andrew slides into the passenger seat again and falls immediately asleep.

Chapter Text

“So what do you think his chances are?” the Prophet's QCL reporter—one day, Neil will remember his name—asks.

They're both early to the Monday meeting, an accident on Neil's part and habit on the QCL reporter's. Neil sat down second, halfway across the room, but the reporter followed him and is now sitting at his elbow, trying to pick Neil's brain about the Lions' match at home to the Ravens the day before.

“High, obviously,” Neil says. “Otherwise I wouldn't have nominated him.”

“He saved his team this weekend,” the reporter agrees. “I thought Day choking was bad enough, but Moreau—”

“They didn't choke,” Neil says, and it's half true: the Ravens stacked all their players against the Lions, blocking their hoops with not only their Beaters and Keeper but also two massive Chasers. Their only truly mobile players were their Seeker and the third Chaser, a light, quick player too young to have witnessed the Ravens' collapse three years before. Against a strategy like that, it's unlikely Kevin would've been able to make much of a difference even if he weren't playing against the Ravens. Jean simply didn't have the speed to catch the Chaser.

But Andrew did, and he kept a clean sheet, closing the hoops against the Ravens. The three goals the Lions' Chasers knocked in—one a piece—and Allison's tidy capture of the Snitch earned the Lions their three points.

“Right, I know you're all friends,” the reporter says as their coworkers stream in around them. “But you have to admit—it was Day's worst match this season.”

“Worse than last week, when his teammate picked a fight with him and the Lions lost?” Neil says.

“What is it about them?” the reporter says. “You're not from London, right? So why are you such a big fan of the Lions?”

“I'm not a fan,” Neil says. “Dan assigned me the Minyard profile, then tacked on covering the Lions for the season. I'm literally just doing my job.”

“Where is that profile, anyway?”

“It's coming along,” Neil mumbles, grateful that Dan herself has just entered the room.

“Good morning, team,” she says. “Finalists for Europe's Best Seven are out, and two of our nominees are on it. Who's coming to the awards ceremony? Neil?”

Blatant favoritism, Neil thinks, but he nods and writes down the date.

*

“What's the parchment for?” Andrew says.

They're at Eden's Twilight, Neil's first trip there in weeks, presumably to actually do some work on his profile.

“It's for notes,” Neil says. “You've seen me take notes before.”

Andrew stares at the quill in Neil's hand, then looks back up at Neil, giving him a toothy smile that Neil finds himself hating.

“Right,” Andrew says. “So. What do you want?”

“It's my turn, I think,” Neil says. “Why didn't you go to Hogwarts? Genuinely? Surely you could've gone after you met Aaron?”

“I'd got myself locked up before I could finish the paperwork,” Andrew says. He twirls a finger next to his temple. “They decided I was too crazy to sic on students.”

“But you aren't,” Neil says, picturing Andrew at Hogwarts. A little irritating, sure, potentially in a lot of fights—not picking them, though, never picking them, just responding and defending his people the way he does now.

“That's not what the Healers say,” Andrew says. Next to his goblet of firewhiskey is his flask, ever-present. “How did your mother die?”

“My father killed her,” Neil says. “Or—he had her killed. He was already--” in Azkaban, Neil almost says, and then remembers he's still concealing that particular aspect of his past from Andrew. “Dying,” he finishes instead.

Andrew looks at Neil like he knows this isn't the full truth, but he accepts it, finishing his drink and signaling for another.

“Why did you give me that key?” Neil says, because Andrew told him the password to get into the Lions' practice pitch for a plausible enough reason and so he must have a reason for this too.

Andrew contemplates him. “You said you wanted to see me lose control.”

“Yeah, but you don't actually want me showing up while you're mid-transformation.”

Andrew doesn't confirm or deny this, but Neil knows it's true: Andrew has too many spells on that cabin to want anyone getting in while he's a werewolf.

“It is just a key,” Andrew says.

“You're a foster child,” Neil says. “You know it isn't.”

“And what are you?” Andrew retorts. “An orphan who's still terrified of his dead father? A half-blood whose father—what—worked for the Dark Lord? What does that have to do with keys?”

“It's not the keys,” Neil says, but he recognizes the question for what it is. “It's the running. I spent half my life being tortured by him and the other half running away from him, and keys always meant permanence, a home that could never really exist—the only place I ever thought of as home was his house, and living in it made me terrified every waking minute.”

“So your place with Boyd? Not home?”

Neil shrugs. “Closer to one than any other place has been, I suppose.” He can't fit all his belongings into a duffle bag anymore, and that must count for something. He keeps his bedroom door unlocked most nights, and that must count for something, too.

Andrew looks at Neil through wide, uncaring eyes. “You ascribe too much importance to that word,” he says.

“This coming from someone who hates the sound of the word--”

But Andrew's hand shoots out across the table, presses against Neil's mouth so hard Neil can feel Andrew's pulse—or maybe it's his own, quickening, made more obvious by the press of Andrew's skin against his, Neil's need for survival battling his need for answers from Andrew.

“If I hate it, why repeat it?” Andrew says, very casual. “You really do have a death wish, don't you, Neil?” He reaches for Neil's parchment, on which Neil has written only no Hogwarts—ill. “Is that your angle? I'm sad and sick and pathetic, so everyone should vote for me to win Best Keeper?”

Neil raises an eyebrow. Andrew laughs and pulls his hand away, wraps it around the stem of his goblet, drinks.

“Profile's coming out after the awards ceremony,” Neil says. “If you agree, we discuss your being a werewolf in it and start to lobby the QA for your release from that particular stipulation of your contract.” He indicates the flask Andrew's playing with. “I have another question for you. Who's Higgins?”

The torch above their table flares before going out, but Andrew goes completely still, one hand draped over the top of his flask, the other still wrapped around the stem of his goblet.

“He's the Auror who connected me with Aaron,” Andrew says after a brief silence.

“That it?”

“Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answers to,” Andrew says, and he's smiling again. “What is it you have on the Moriyamas? Why haven't they come after you?”

Neil shrugs. “I assumed they couldn't figure me out, so they just—gave up.”

It's not the answer Andrew wanted. “The Moriyamas just gave up on the man who landed them in Azkaban and ended their Quidditch legacy.” Andrew fiddles with one of his wristbands. “Terrified of your dead father, but the Moriyamas are nothing to you?”

“If they wanted me dead, I'd be dead,” Neil says. “I'm not exactly hiding.”

“Something must be stopping them, don't you think?” Andrew says. “Maybe someone wants you safe more than they want you dead. Or maybe someone wants you dead more than they do, but wants to do it themselves.”

There's the uncomfortable heaviness of anxiety in the pit of Neil's stomach. He considers his father, Kengo Moriyama's righthand man, sitting in a cell in the same prison as Riko and Kengo himself—though the latter, Neil remembers, had the soul sucked right out of him.

“Nothing would stop them if they wanted me dead,” Neil says.

“Liar,” Andrew says. “Ninety percent of the time I want you dead, but I haven't killed you. Why's that?”

“I don't know. Too much effort, I suppose? Too many irritating consequences?”

“Exactly.” Andrew tips his goblet in Neil's direction. “Though if you annoy me anymore, I might decide they're all worthwhile.”

Neil takes his useless notes back from Andrew and makes an addendum: potentially murderous but too lazy to be actually dangerous. Andrew watches him through narrowed eyes, and then flashes a knife casually at Neil.

“For someone so lazy, I do play Quidditch astonishingly well,” Andrew says. “Want to know what else I do well?”

“Carve up human flesh?” Neil guesses. It reminds him of his father, who is famous for his knife work despite the knife itself being a distinctly Muggle tool.

Andrew only smiles blandly back at him, and Neil, understanding that he's unlikely to get anything else out of Andrew except for more creative death threats, takes it as a dismissal.

*

Neil dreams about Andrew that night, Andrew falling off a cliff but trying not to for once, his fingers scrabbling for something to grasp and failing to find it. Neil is useless, teetering off the edge himself, incapable of reaching out to help Andrew or gain a foothold for himself.

He wakes up breathless, sitting up, Matt blearily holding out a glass of water.

“You all right?” Matt says.

“I'm fine,” Neil manages, then, “I'm sorry I woke you.”

“'S okay,” Matt says.

“Why do you do that?” Neil says. When Matt looks confused, Neil clarifies: “Come in here. When I wake you up. Why not just cast a silencing spell and go back to sleep?”

Matt stares at Neil for a long, quiet moment, and then says, “Who would do that?”

Neil sips at the water to excuse himself from answering. He doesn't think Matt is fooled, but Matt reaches out, squeezes Neil's shoulder.

“You want to talk about it?”

“No,” Neil says, leaning forward and pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes as if it'll stop him feeling like he's about to fall into some perilous cavern.

Matt doesn't seem surprised at Neil's reticence.

“Go back to sleep, Josten,” he says. “Remember, I'm just across the hall.”

Neil nods. “Thank you.”

“It's nothing.” Matt gives Neil's shoulder a last squeeze, and then he leaves Neil to his traitorous thoughts.

*

The awards ceremony takes place in early December in an event hall in Geneva. Dan personally shows up to Neil's flat an hour before the Prophet's writers are set to portkey out to ensure that he's dressed properly.

“Who knew you owned a set of dress robes?” she says, straightening Neil's collar. He doesn't feel particularly well, but he rarely gets sick, so he chalks this up to his lunch not agreeing with him.

“Andrew made me buy them,” Neil says. The shopping trip was bizarre, Andrew tricking him into going to Madam Malkin's and watching as she fitted Neil in a set. Meanwhile, Kevin tapped his foot, impatient, and then dragged both of them to Quality Quidditch Supplies to look at broom polish.

Perhaps wisely, Dan does not comment on this. “Boyd's already gone?” she says.

“Yeah, the Lions who aren't going are having a viewing party at the Reynolds estate or something.”

“They went all the way to Scotland?”

“We're going all the way to Switzerland.” And Neil won't be returning with the rest of the Prophet team—Nicky has managed to convince his cousins to make a mini-vacation out of the trip, and though Erik couldn't get the next day off, Kevin, Aaron, and Andrew have all agreed to spend the night in Switzerland before returning to cold and dreary London. Muggle Switzerland. They've exchanged money and everything.

“Fair enough.” Dan gives Neil one last once-over. “We're ready, I think.” She holds out an arm. “May the best player win, right?”

Neil thinks of his draft of the Minyard profile, locked in his desk at work, and the photos Alvarez has been getting to accompany it.

“Right,” he says, and takes her arm.

*

The seating at the ceremony is such that the English press are seated with their nominees, so Neil sits down at a table featuring Jeremy, Jean, Kevin, Andrew, and players he doesn't know as well, including a Beater called Thea Muldani and a Seeker nearly everyone in the country hates called Owen Morrey.

The ceremony is stuffy, but the United European Quidditch Association is liberal with its alcohol, and most of the Quidditch players invited have been given the next day off. Dan is in journalist mode the whole time, networking and doing mini on-the-spot interviews with players while Alvarez snaps photos from behind her. Neil, whose assignment for the rest of the season is just “cover the London Lions,” has no such issues, and he watches the players around him instead, trying to distract from the twisting in his gut.

He's never noticed it before—perhaps because he's rarely seen them in such an informal environment—but Jean and Jeremy seem almost subconsciously drawn to one another. When Jeremy is talking to the rest of the table—which, being a friendly and animated celebrity, he frequently is, whispering across the table as awards are handed out for the best referees and the fairest playing teams—Jean just sort of watches him. When Jean is engaged in conversation with someone else, Jeremy's body is always angled toward Jean's anyway. No one seems to think it's out of the ordinary, so Neil almost thinks he's imagining it until Andrew, next to him, pokes him in the thigh with his fork.

“What was it you said about those pretty girls at the pub, Neil?” Andrew says.

“Nothing,” Neil says. “And I'm not saying anything now, either.”

“No,” Andrew says. “Just looking.”

“Not like that,” Neil says. “I'm not interested in—any of that.”

Andrew laughs in response and pokes Neil with the fork again. Neil is too distracted by the announcer to retaliate, because they're about to start shouting out the names of the top players in the sport.

Kevin is the first to win. He wins Best Chaser and is put on the Best Seven along with a Portuguese witch and an Argentinian wizard, both of whom play as Chasers in the Spanish league. Neil half-pays attention to the winning Seeker, who, to no one's surprise, is not Morrey; Jean is one the Best Seven but doesn't win Best Beater; and then it's time for Best Keeper.

When Andrew wins, the rest of the English press is silent. Around them, European reporters applaud; Jeremy howls, Jean smiles, and even Kevin is on his feet, though he avoids hugging Andrew or even shaking his hand; across the room with Erik at a table full of German reporters, Nicky hoots and hollers. Andrew stands, shoots Neil a dirty look, and walks up to accept his award.

His speech is very short: “This ceremony was a very good excuse to get out of practice. I particularly enjoyed the open bar.” Reporters who don't know him laugh; Neil rolls his eyes, and across Andrew's empty seat, Kevin looks mildly annoyed.

The Best Player award goes to someone else, a French Seeker. Neil ignores his irritation at that in favor of congratulating Andrew—“See,” Neil says, feeling vindicated despite the churning in his stomach, “sympathy,” and Andrew stabs him in the thigh with his fork again. It doesn't stop Neil grinning at him (“Don't look at me like that,” Andrew says, and Neil says, “Like what? Like you're the best Keeper in Europe?” which makes Andrew reach up to physically push Neil's face away).

The rest of the ceremony is a blur: Andrew drinks, Kevin and Jeremy socialize, and Neil thinks about his profile. He's written down Andrew's short speech, but he has it committed to memory anyway, and he tucks the parchment deep into the pocket of the dress robes Andrew made him buy.

Afterward, Neil separates from Dan and the rest of the Prophet team—he's spending the night in Switzerland with Andrew and his lot, a mini-vacation engineered by Nicky. Erik and Dan can't stay thanks to late night alterations to the Prophet, but Neil and Nicky have all the time in the world—or at least until the next morning.

“Aren't you pleased, though?” Nicky says, practically skipping out of the banquet hall, a Muggle venue complete with a parking lot. Kevin is lingering behind them singing autographs, and so Andrew is, too. “You said he deserved to win, and fuck everyone who disagreed, and he actually won. You must be happy.”

“Yeah, I am,” Neil says. He doesn't know why he doesn't feel very happy just now—the brief moment of fierce joy he felt when Andrew won has since been flooded with a sick sense of dread, and at once he realizes whatever was going on in his stomach was anxiety, not something he ate. “Just not super keen on this whole concept.”

“What? Clubbing in Geneva?” Nicky rolls his eyes. “It's supposed to be one of the best cities for nightlife in the world, Neil, honestly--”

“Neil's driving,” Andrew says, popping up behind them with alarming speed and dropping his car keys into Neil's hand. “You're too drunk, Nicky.”

“You drove here?” Neil says, incredulous. “From London?”

“Don't be stupid, Neil,” Nicky says. “We brought the car with us.”

Neil doesn't have the opportunity to ask, because they've reached the car and Aaron Minyard is leaning against it, arms crossed.

“Why do you already look tipsy?” Kevin says.

“You've had a head start,” Aaron replies. “I had to balance the scales.”

He holds up a flask that looks alarmingly like his brother's, but he looks remarkably sober in comparison to a sloppy Kevin and a touchy-feely Nicky.

“Hotel first,” Aaron says. “You two might be famous Quidditch players, but the pound's down and I'm not paying Swiss nightclub prices for alcohol when we've got a stash in our rooms.”

“Which is rich, considering he doesn't pay any rent,” Nicky stage-whispers to Neil.

Neil drives, following Aaron's half-hearted directions to a mid-tier Muggle hotel not far from Geneva's clubbing district. It'll be convenient for getting home at the end of the night, he supposes, though part of him sort of wishes he'd turned down this trip and gone back to London with Dan instead. He could've helped with the last minute changes to the Prophet, gone to bed on time, and woken up and gone for a run. Instead he's stuck in Geneva with his coworker, the best Chaser in Europe, and a belligerent set of twins.

There's a decent amount of alcohol in Nicky and Aaron's room, and they split it up between them, doing shots and then slowing down a bit when they realize it's not actually late enough to go to a nightclub yet (“Be a bit embarrassing, wouldn't it?” Nicky says. “Two of the best Quidditch players in the world showing up at the club at ten pm?” “Shut up, Nicky,” Aaron says, mixing himself a drink).

Nicky turns on the TV and sprawls across the bed, flicking through channels. “We're out of hard liquor,” he says. “There might be a bottle of wine or two somewhere, and there's always the mini-bar, but as Aaron said, we aren't all rich sports players.”

“Sports players,” Kevin repeats, looking affronted.

“I'm getting more,” Andrew says, and walks off.

“Their room's across the hall,” Nicky says, indicating Kevin. “Most of the alcohol's in there. For obvious reasons.”

Kevin looks even more affronted at that, but he doesn't say anything, choosing instead to glower at the bottom of his glass.

They watch music videos on the channel Nicky has chosen in semi-silence for a bit, both Kevin and Aaron working themselves drunker while Nicky sings along to the Muggle pop songs. They get through four entire songs without either Kevin or Aaron saying anything despite the fact that they must have some degree of comfort with one another considering they literally live together. Neil's even seen them play chess. Neil wonders if it's always like this with them, just Aaron and Kevin drinking while Nicky tries desperately to pretend this is some version of normal instead of absolutely fucked, and tries to bridge the gap in the room.

“I still don't quite understand the logistics of this,” Neil says. “How did you get the car here?”

“Magic,” Aaron supplies, which is somehow an even less helpful answer than Nicky's.

“What, did you shrink it down and put it in your pocket before you took a Portkey over?”

“Something like that,” Nicky says. “We used a weightlessness spell, a Disillusionment Charm—you should ask Andrew, he's really good at things like that.”

Neil opens his mouth, but then there it is again, that heavy dread in the pit of his stomach. It's worse than before, and it takes him a moment to figure out why: it's been too long. Andrew's room is across the hall, and he should've been back by now.

“Aaron,” Neil says, choosing the one person in the room who might be sober enough to potentially understand that something might be wrong, “where's Andrew?”

Chapter Text

Aaron is right behind Neil as they tear out of the hotel room. Across the hall, Andrew's door is locked. Aaron goes for his wand, but Neil gets there first. The lock has been reinforced with magic—Neil can feel it humming through the wood—but it doesn't survive his kicking the door knob until it breaks and then shoving through its splintered remains shoulder first. If there's magic involved on his part, it isn't intentional.

It takes Neil longer to take in the scene than it takes Aaron to act. The man on top of Andrew moves, and the second he's away from Andrew's body, Aaron attacks, hitting the base of Andrew's hoop-shaped trophy against the man's head hard enough that the man crumples before he can react, gloved hands curling into fists. Aaron keeps hitting, and Neil stops watching, forcing himself over to Andrew's body.

Andrew's fingers are still wrapped around the bars of the headboard. He's naked from the waist down, and he's bleeding from the side of his head, and he's laughing.

“Andrew,” Neil says. “Andrew—”

The noise they're making hasn't gone unnoticed. Neil forces himself to move, to act, to cover Andrew's body with a sheet before Kevin and Nicky show up.

“What the fuck?” Kevin says, and then he sees the man's body and immediately backs away. “Who is—”

“Andrew,” Nicky chokes.

Andrew has finally stopped laughing. He lets go of the headboard and tests his fingers, then turns onto his back and winces. Laughs again.

“That's uncomfortable,” he says. His entire body shakes under the sheet Neil has wrapped around him, at odds with the vicious smile plastered on his face. “Neil, I think I'm concussed.” A pause, another violent laugh: “Again.”

“Andrew, are you—” Neil says, and cuts himself off.

“I might throw up on you,” Andrew says.

The feeling, Neil thinks, is mutual.

And then—“Andrew.”

It's choked out by an Aaron who is still hovering near the man's body, bloodied trophy in hand, face smeared with blood. Andrew goes still, turns abruptly, pushes Neil out of the way so he can see his brother.

“Aaron,” Andrew says. Neil doesn't think he's ever heard Andrew say his name before. “Aaron, come here.”

Aaron obeys, dropping the trophy on the floor and sitting, trembling, on the edge of the bed. Andrew reaches for Aaron's wrist, brushes at the bloodied spot on Aaron's face.

“What did he do?” Andrew says. “After everything I did—”

“It isn't—what did—Andrew, you—”

“Did he touch you?” Andrew says.

“No! No, Andrew, I'm fine, he's dead, Andrew, what—”

“Dead,” Andrew repeats, and looks at the man's body at last.

“Andrew,” Aaron says, “who is he?”

“His name is Drake. He's my brother,” Andrew says. The sound that comes out of Aaron's mouth isn't human. “No, I don't—my foster brother. He's—”

“Oh, is he—” Nicky says, and falls silent at a look from Neil.

But Andrew laughs again. “Yes, Nicky. He's the werewolf who turned me.”

*

The Muggles in the hotel haven't missed the commotion, and Kevin is hardly a calming—or calm—enough presence to convince them all to stay away. The Aurors he calls for are significantly more helpful.

The Aurors speak both German and French, and Kevin and Nicky give them a decent statement. They are more irritated by Neil and Aaron, who, though they can both communicate with the Swiss Aurors—Neil in multiple languages—only stare at them in silence.

Kevin has also called for Abby and Betsy, two of the Lions' medical team, and their manager, David Wymack.

“You didn't think we should call actual Healers?” Neil says, because Aaron is in magical restraints and anyway too much of a mess to treat anyone right now, especially his bloodied brother.

“They will take him to St. Mungo's,” Kevin says. “Better he wake up somewhere familiar, right?”

Because Andrew did promptly pass out when the first Auror appeared. He's still out now, despite the flurry in the room—Wymack, Abby, and Betsy arguing with Swiss Aurors through a Nicky who can barely get a sentence out without glancing toward his cousin or the dead body; Kevin shakily trying to rehash the events of the evening as if to figure out some place where they could've stopped what was going to happen; more Aurors photographing the crime scene (Drake's blood; the trophy; the broken bottle of Muggle whiskey on the floor near the door, crusted with Andrew's dark blood; the bed) and modifying Muggles' memories.

Neil sits still, back pressed against the wall. He's still reeling from Andrew's second revelation, one meant just for him, or maybe just an accident—Andrew stripped off his wristbands and gave them to Neil to smuggle out, and before he could hide them, the undersides of his wrists were there, carved up, scarred worse than Neil's chest, and Neil is both confused—why would anyone, much less Andrew, want to destroy their own chances at survival—and filled with rage, because he knows the answer to that question now.

The body is being removed from the room, but Neil keeps staring at the spot on the wall covered in Drake's blood. The werewolf who turned me. The same foster brother, then, who'd been a wizard and hadn't told Andrew about Hogwarts being accepting of everyone? The wizarding equivalent of a state school?

He raped Andrew. He kept him trapped in the Muggle world. He turned him into a werewolf.

Neil feels, suddenly, viciously glad that Drake is dead. It's a disturbing feeling, and he stuffs the armbands further into the pockets of his dress robes, hoping no one pats him down, hoping no one's watching him.

Except that someone is. The Lions' manager, Wymack, who has always been vaguely friendly to Neil but is the exact size and musculature of his father, has been staring at Neil off and on since he came in the room.

The Aurors leave, finally, off to their precinct to chat with British Aurors and figure out how they're supposed to deal with this—a British werewolf killed by a British Healer protecting his British famous Quidditch player brother in Switzerland, the exact kind of European disaster Switzerland has been giving a wide berth for the last sixty years at least—and Neil is alone with the Lions' medical team and manager.

“We're taking him to St. Mungo's,” Abby says. “Neil, can you—”

“I'm coming,” Neil says, voice dry, like he hasn't spoken in hours. “I'm coming with him.”

It looks like she's going to say no, but she sighs and nods. “His brother's going to stay in Swiss custody for the night, so—”

“I'll stay here,” Nicky says. It's the first time he's spoken in English since Andrew told them about Drake. “It's my fault we're in this country at all, isn't it? So I'll stay with Aaron.”

Except, Neil thinks, his heart swimming up to the vicinity of his throat, it isn't Nicky's fault. It's his. If he could've just stayed out of it, nominated someone safe, not nominated anyone, none of them would be here right now. He was designated driver, deposited Andrew at this hotel for his foster brother to attack. If it's anyone's fault, it's Neil's, and Neil opens his mouth to say it when—

“It's not your fault, Nicky,” Wymack says. “It's no one's fault but Drake's.” He shoots the blood on the wall a dirty look, then sighs and says, “Let's get out of here. Kevin, go with Nicky and pay any bail they post. Neil—”

“I'm coming,” Neil says again.

“Okay,” Wymack says.

Andrew is already bandaged up, the cut on his head healed by Abby the moment she finished inspecting him, but his eyes are still closed. He looks small, Neil thinks, as Abby levitates him onto a stretcher. He looks small and weak. And Andrew is short, even shorter than Neil, but weak—

They all grab onto the portkey Wymack has made—Kevin's trophy, since Andrew's is in an evidence locker in a Swiss jail alongside his brother—and are transported to the St. Mungo's entrance hall.

Betsy, the psych Healer, is watching Neil, too. She and Wymack have looked at little else.

“Are you all right?” Betsy says when Neil meets her eyes. “What you witnessed tonight—it can't have been easy for you.”

Neil stares back at her, incredulous. “I'm fine,” he says. “He's who you should be worrying about.”

But Andrew, of course, is fully out, currently being checked into a hospital—again—and unlikely to be very responsive to anything Betsy asks.

“His pain doesn't make yours less important,” Betsy says. “Or less real.”

“I'm fine,” Neil repeats. “I just want to see Andrew get better.” But Andrew's laugh is echoing inside his head. “And I think—he should go off that potion.”

Betsy's smile gleams with something like approval. “I agree,” she says. She didn't have to see Andrew unable to stop himself from laughing as his brother, cousin, teammate, and Neil burst into the room, but she agrees. Neil lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding.

“I have an idea,” he says, “for forcing the QA's hand. That's what all this—” he gestures to Kevin's trophy—“was supposed to be about.”

He explains his plan: garner sympathy with the win, get even more with everything that's transpired in the last few hours, get Betsy's approval and Abby's endorsement, and get Andrew off the medication now before the QCL knockout stages.

“We'll talk about it with Andrew when he's awake,” Betsy says, though she doesn't seem to disagree. “It shouldn't take much longer.”

“Betsy,” Neil says, “he's a werewolf. He's not dangerous.” It's not quite the right phrasing, because Andrew can absolutely be dangerous when he wants to be—but it's a defensive kind of danger. He doesn't attack. He is, Neil thinks, a Keeper to the core, the last line of defense when the Chasers have lost the Quaffle and the Beaters have failed at keeping it away.

Betsy smiles. “It's good to know he has an advocate.”

“I'm not an advocate,” Neil says, looking away, embarrassed. “It's just—wrong, isn't it?”

“I think you're right,” Betsy says. “I'm going to recommend he go off it for his own good, regardless of what the QA says.”

“Right,” Neil says. “Great.” He sits down in a waiting room chair and ignores the fact that Betsy is still staring at him.

*

When Andrew gets discharged, they all head back to his flat, Wymack and Abby and Betsy and Neil.

Kevin's there already, sitting at the kitchen table where there's an abandoned chess set, the pieces unanimated, halfway through a game.

“Where's Aaron?” Andrew says.

“Sleeping at Nicky's,” Kevin says.

“I'm glad you're here, actually,” Wymack says. “Andrew, it's going to come out. There will be press about this.” He casts a significant look at Neil. “It's going to be news, who and what Drake was. You miss practice around the same time every month. People will connect the dots. What do you want to do?”

“If you come out with it now, you can control the story,” Neil says. “If you don't, whoever gets ahead of it can peg you as a deranged maniac—they'll keep you on the potion forever. If you take advantage of it now, you'll get sympathy—”

“Sympathy,” Andrew repeats.

“It's not that anyone thinks you want sympathy, Andrew,” Abby says. “But if they feel bad for you, they'll feel bad about the anti-werewolf propaganda from the QA.”

Kevin's mouth opens, but Wymack cuts him off.

“It's up to you,” Wymack says. “You know we'll support you whatever your choice.”

“You want to come off the potion?” Kevin says. “Now? In the middle of the season?” He looks at Neil. “You can't seriously endorse this.”

“I can't seriously endorse Andrew prioritizing his health over your obsession?” Neil says. “Really?”

“It isn't just my—”

But Andrew has had enough of this argument, apparently, because he makes his way toward his room without looking back. Neil hurries after him, Betsy trailing behind him. He's not sure if she's going to be helpful or not, but as far as Neil's seen, Andrew rarely snaps at her.

Betsy repeats Neil's plan to Andrew, but hazel eyes swing over to Neil the moment the word “wolfsbane” leaves her mouth.

“Your idea, reporter?” Andrew says.

“It's my recommendation as the Healer in charge of your psychological well-being,” Betsy says.

“Yes,” Neil says. “But it isn't—if you don't think you can, then don't.”

“I can do anything,” Andrew says, with the carefree confidence of one who never wants to do anything.

It's an act, though, Neil thinks suddenly, remembering the thick scarring on Andrew's wrists. This is false bravado, a combination of an affected personality and the side effects of drugs.

“Then do this,” Neil says. “You hate the potion. You can barely feel a thing. You're miserable.”

“And you think I should want to feel—this.”

“I think you want to be able to.”

“I don't want anything.”

“Andrew, you don't have to do it if you don't want to.”

There's a tightness around Andrew's mouth. “It isn't just me I have to think about,” Andrew says. “I know that's hard for you to understand, but—”

“Kevin.”

“Andrew,” Betsy says, “you can't compromise your own health and safety for—”

Without missing a beat, Neil switches to German. He has no reason to think Andrew will understand it, except that Aaron does, and Nicky does, and so—“Give Kevin to me. Just while you're in recovery.”

“It isn't recovery,” Andrew says, in accented German. “It's rehab.”

“Whatever,” Neil says. “You can't keep Kevin on that tight a leash. He'll start to resent you. You'll both go mad.”

“Oh?” Andrew says. “Why don't you ask him how he feels about his leash?”

“Trust me with him,” Neil says. “I'm good with magic, I'd never betray him to the Moriyamas, and I've known your secret for months and not told a soul.”

“It's ironic, I think, that a man who is every inch a lie is asking me to trust him and to tell the world my biggest secret.”

“We both know it's not your biggest secret,” Neil says. “You couldn't care less if everyone knew.”

Andrew stares at him. “Betsy, give us a second.”

Betsy, who has been watching their conversation without an ounce of comprehension on her face, leaves without question. She shuts the door behind her.

“It's still your choice,” Neil says. “If you want, everything can go back to the way it was tomorrow morning. People can find out and protest the Lions, but I know you don't care about that. Or I can publish the profile that paints you in a sympathetic light tomorrow, and you can get off wolfsbane for good.”

“You haven't given me a reason to trust you,” Andrew says. “I don't even know your name.”

Neil stares back at him, waiting.

“Show me something real, Josten.”

It's that same request from when they first met, and for the first time Neil thinks to wonder why it is Andrew needs that so badly.

“Fine.” He pulls off his shirt. “This is why I don't like to think about my name. Because the person I'm named after—”

Andrew reaches out with one hand. “Yes or no?” he says, voice completely toneless.

“Yes,” Neil says, bewildered.

Andrew's hand presses against Neil's scars. His skin is almost unbearably hot as it runs over Neil's chest, tentative at first, then harder, as if he's testing to see if the scars are real.

“They aren't fake,” Neil says. “I can't rid of them. Magical scarring.”

“Your father,” Andrew says.

“I know—what it's like,” Neil says, “not being able to—trust the people who are supposed to take care of you. If you need more convincing—I won't hide either.” He lets his hair and eyes go back to their natural auburn and ice blue. “This isn't a trade or anything, it's just—think of it as solidarity. You shouldn't have to be the only one exposed.”

Andrew stares at him. His fingers are still pressed against the scarred mess of Neil's chest.

“Andrew—”

“Stop being such a fucking martyr, Josten,” Andrew says, pulling away. “Put your shirt back on.” He shoves both his hands in his pockets. “Betsy!”

It takes her a moment, but she comes back in, offering Neil and Andrew two steaming mugs of coffee. She doesn't react to Neil's changed appearance. “Made a decision?”

“I'm coming with you,” Andrew says. “Better let Kevin know.”

*

Kevin does not take it well.

He reacts first to Neil's changed appearance, switching immediately to French: “You think no one will figure out that you are the Butcher's son? You are not that stupid.”

“I've had enough,” Neil says, though his heart rate speeds up at the time it took for Kevin to recognize Neil's father in his face. But Kevin must've known already, must've had some idea—“I've spent my entire life hiding—I can't exactly tell Andrew to stop if I'm going to keep—”

“Okay, so you are that stupid,” Kevin says.

“The Moriyamas are in Azkaban with my father,” Neil says. “We're safe.”

“How long?” Kevin asks Betsy, switching to English.

“We don't know,” she says. “Could be three weeks. Could be three months.”

“If he's not back by the knockout stages of the QCL—”

“You'll survive, probably,” Andrew says, patting Kevin unhelpfully on the cheek. “Let's go, Betsy.”

“Don't you want to say goodbye to Aaron?” Abby says.

Kevin actually snorts at that. Andrew stands up, wrapping himself in his cloak.

“He can just wave at himself in a mirror and pretend it's me,” Andrew says. “Let's go.”

And just like that, Andrew's gone.

*

Neil hasn't been so happy to see the flat he shares with Matt since—maybe ever.

He sits down on the edge of his bed, dumping out the contents of his pockets. In the mess of the last few hours, he forgot to give Andrew his wristbands back, and now it's too late to, so Neil stashes them in his bottom drawer. On his nightstand, next to his own set of keys to his flat and the keys to Andrew's car—which, shit, they probably have to get at some point—there's a key to Andrew's hidden cabin.

In the last few weeks, he almost forgot about it, but Neil picks it up. It's still warm to the touch, and though it must be magic, it feels to Neil more like body heat.

Andrew had no reason to give him this key. The car key sort of makes sense—everyone was too drunk to drive in Geneva. The key to that little house, though—Andrew knew he was leaving, knew he'd have to in order to get sober. He knew, also, that Neil has nothing and nowhere he thinks of as home, as someplace safe, and maybe Neil's ascribing too much meaning to this little bit of metal, but Andrew does nothing without reason, and he gave Neil the key to his safehouse.

Neil stretches out in his bed, and is asleep before he can get under the blankets.

Chapter Text

That the Minyard story breaks with little information about who or what attacked Andrew is a small miracle made less miraculous by Dan showing up at Neil and Matt's flat mid-afternoon, ringing the doorbell until Neil wakes up, and telling him in no uncertain terms that he needs to deliver every fact he knows to the reporter on the story.

“No,” Neil says.

“What do you mean, no?” Dan says. “What happened?”

“The Minyard profile needs to go to print this weekend,” Neil says. His mind is still foggy from exhaustion, and he sets about making a pot of coffee. The events of the night before are still there, raw images on the insides of his eyelid every time he blinks. His instinct is to run. He feels it roaring in his ears, and he ignores it. Again. “And a long read in the Quidditch circular.”

What?”

“I'll tell you everything,” Neil says. “But first I need to meet with the Lions.”

“Technically it's still your day off.”

“I'll take a day off next year.”

“Fine,” Dan says. “But I'm expecting an explanation. For this, too, by the way.” She gestures to his face.

“You're not going to get one,” Neil says. He wishes he could tell her more, and the desire surprises him. “I just wanted a change.”

“Sometime in the last fifteen hours?” Dan says. “Between Minyard getting hospitalized and his twin getting arrested? Neil. You know you can trust me.”

“I know,” Neil says, but it comes out sounding horrible and choked out. Dan notices. “I'll tell you what happened with Andrew when I get back. Put a hold on the story if you can.”

“That sounds journalistically unethical.”

“Not if I'm about to give you a story that's going to break our printing presses.”

Dan sighs. “Fine. Send me an owl when you've finished with them. We'll meet at the pub.” She runs a hand through her short hair. “I know I'm going to need a drink.”

“Thanks. I'll see you in a bit.”

“Neil.”

“Yeah.”

“You're sure you're all right? You don't look—it's not just the eyes and hair, you don't look like yourself.”

“I'm fine,” Neil says.

Dan stares at Neil for so long that he gets uncomfortable.

“I'm fine,” he repeats, and leaves her sitting at his kitchen table alone.

*

David Wymack has never been anything other than amicable—if a little gruff—to Neil The Daily Prophet Reporter. He's never known Neil in any other capacity, though Neil's sure Wymack knows about his nightly practices with Kevin and his extended interview with Andrew.

Nevertheless, the squint Wymack levels at Neil in his office (the door at Neil's back is closed but not locked; Neil knows because he checked, and Wymack saw him do that too) is calculating.

“What's your deal, then?” Wymack says.

“I'm covering Andrew for the Prophet. Editor wanted a profile on him, and it ended up taking longer than I expected, so--”

“You know that's not what I'm asking. Why does Andrew listen to you?”

“He doesn't,” Neil says blankly.

“You're the one who convinced him it'd be all right to go off the potion. You're the one who said you'd look after Kevin. You nominated him for that award. You're the only reporter he's ever talked to. So how many violations of journalistic codes of ethics are we looking at here?”

“Andrew doesn't ever do anything he doesn't want to do.”

“So why does he want to do the things you suggest?”

“I don't know,” Neil says. “Ask him.”

Wymack watches him. “I'm calling a team meeting, and I'm going to want you to explain what exactly you're doing here. They deserve to know if they're about to become the biggest spectacle in Quidditch after Owen Morrey.”

“You think Morrey's still going to be a bigger story than Andrew?”

“England's number 7, isn't he?”

“Right,” Neil says. “Kevin'll want to be here for it.”

“Will he? Or do you just think that's your best bet at getting them to agree?”

“I think you're my best bet at getting them to agree,” Neil says, but he's already talked to Jeremy about it, and Jeremy and Jean have obviously discussed it. That leaves Laila, who will appreciate the opportunity to get some starts under her belt; Matt, who will have Andrew's best interests at heart even if they don't like each other much; Allison Reynolds, who is a wild card; and Seth Gordon, who will absolutely be difficult.

Wymack frowns. “You any good?”

“What?”

“At Quidditch. You practice with Kevin at night, right? You any good?”

“You must've seen me play at Hogwarts.”

“And you ignored the owl I sent you proposing a trial. But now you're practicing with Kevin at night.”

“We should talk to the team,” Neil says.

“Neil, I don't send owls to everyone.”

Everyone knows Wymack's method of choosing players: with one or two notable exceptions, he ignores academy superstars in favor of damaged goods who show potential. Neil stands up.

“Is Kevin here?” he says. Neil might be damaged goods, but he's not focused on himself just now. “We need to finish this up so I can get Andrew's profile to my editor.”

Wymack sighs. “There's a fireplace in the press room. Go get him.”

*

Neil? What happened to your face?”

Matt's greeting shouldn't be as surprising to Neil as it is. Neil scrubs a hand over his face, wishing he'd never gone back to his natural looks in the first place.

“I needed a change,” Neil says.

“What, since yesterday?”

“I'm not here to talk about me,” Neil says. “Wymack filled you in on the basics of what happened last night, but I'm here to tell you the rest.”

Even Seth is paying attention to Neil's words, frowning slightly in that way he has, leaning on his broom with his arms crossed.

“Betsy recommended he go off the wolfsbane. I'm publishing the article about him this weekend, and it'll include a push to force the QA's hand. The proposed werewolf anti-discrimination law will be voted on in the Wizengamot next month, and it's expected to go through because of the werewolf advocates the Minister has gathered. So Andrew's going off the wolfsbane. For good.”

Seth's broom hits the floor. “That is so fucking stupid,” he says. “Just because you want to break a story, you're putting all of us at risk? No. Boss—”

“Josten's right,” Wymack says. “Minyard plays better off the wolfsbane, and we have to prioritize our team's mental and physical health.”

“What if the team's physical health is in danger because the person you're talking about is literally murderous?” Allison says.

“He has never been violent without provocation,” Jean says.

“Betsy recommended it,” Kevin says. “We need him, and we need him healthy.”

“You condone this?” Seth says. “You? With your Quidditch obsession and all? What if he, I don't know, gouges my eyes out? Won't be very good at passing you the Quaffle then, will I?”

“Are you implying that you are any good at passing me the Quaffle now?” Kevin says.

Seth opens his mouth to respond, but Jeremy steps in. “Andrew Minyard is our teammate. Without him, we wouldn't be anywhere near second in the table, and we certainly wouldn't have the European season we're having. Seth, Allison, if you're really worried, keep your wands on you for a few practices and see how it goes. Does anyone else have a problem with this other than the myth that he'll be more violent?”

“He nearly killed four men a few years ago,” Seth says. “That's what got him into trouble. Not just being a werewolf. What if we're next?”

“He nearly killed them for attacking his cousin Nicky with anti-Muggle-born, homophobic slurs,” Neil says. “He was defending Nicky. Just like he defends your hoops and your star Chaser. I know that might be hard for you to get, Seth,” because Seth's parents were Death Eaters, weren't they, and he might have some anti-Muggle-born sentiment himself, “but some people don't want their friends and family members attacked for things they have no control over. Like Andrew doesn't. Over being a werewolf.”

“Oh, you have to be fucking—you're not fucking Andrew Minyard, are you?” Seth says. “That's what this has been about the whole time? I thought you were just some activist reporter, but you actually like him, don't you?”

“That's enough, Seth.”

It's Matt who says it, looming over Seth in a way that is probably meant to look vaguely threatening. Jeremy's arms are crossed, too, and Laila is glaring at Seth with her hand wrapped around her wand.

“What are you trying to say, Seth?” she says.

“Andrew's the subject of a story I'm writing,” Neil says. The concept of anything else is—well, something to address with Andrew, probably, if Andrew has any interest in talking to Neil once he's sober or continuing their relationship once the profile is published. Neil's never been interested in anyone that way, anyway, not since he tried kissing a girl and received his mother's ringed fingers on the underside of his jaw. “I care about his well-being because he's a person,” and, Neil's heard, you're supposed to care about the well-beings of the people who surround you, though he thinks that if Seth got hurt, he'd more concerned with the Lions' lack of a third Chaser than Seth himself.

“And anyway,” Neil continues, “it doesn't matter what you think. This is just a head's up. I'm publishing the Minyard story, I'm writing a story about the Quidditch Association's discrimination against werewolves, and the Minister's bill is going to pass next month. Andrew's Healers said he shouldn't be on wolfsbane. You don't get a say anymore. But you're about to be flooded with publicity because of it, and I thought it'd be impolite if I didn't let you know.”

“Impolite,” Wymack repeats, sounding both amused and irritated. “Well. If that's all, we really do need to get on with practice.”

Across the room, Kevin is giving Neil a very strange look. Beside him, Matt grins, though he, too, looks unsure of whether or not this is the right choice.

“If it ends up being unsafe for any of us, we'll rethink his position on the team,” Jeremy says. “Luckily, Laila is an excellent Keeper, and she'll keep the hoops safe in his absence. But Wymack's right: we need to get back to the pitch. Saturday's coming quicker than you think.”

Laila goes pale at that, but she and the rest of the team follow Jeremy out of the room. Only Kevin lingers, looking at Neil like he's going to say something, but then he doesn't and the moment's over.

Neil only follows them because he knows he needs quotes to fill out his stories.

*

“Finally,” Dan says when Neil settles in across from her several hours later. She already has a drink in hand. “Meyers wasn't very happy when I told her to keep so much out of the Minyard story. I called in a favor with Renee, though, and it's two hundred words that don't mention Drake Spear by name.”

“Thanks,” Neil says, grateful. “It'll be worth it, though, because Drake is—”

“A werewolf,” Dan says, nodding. “I know. It's public record since he works for Azkaban. This better be good, Josten, because that'd have been an incredible story to break considering the Minister for Magic's werewolf bill is going to the Wizengamot floor in a few weeks.”

“Drake's not just a werewolf,” Neil says. “He's Andrew's foster brother and abuser, basically the reason Andrew didn't go to Hogwarts, and the werewolf who turned Andrew.”

Dan is capable of controlling her feelings, but it's her nature to wear everything she's thinking on her face. Just now, her mouth falls open, eyes widen, fingers clench into a fist.

“Minyard's a werewolf?” she says.

“He's a werewolf who the QA have forced to take a low dose of wolfsbane multiple times a day during the season, which is highly addictive and which has prevented him from fully healing from all the shit he went through as a teenager. His team of Healers recommend he goes off the wolfsbane, which would be perfectly in line with the Lupin bill's incorporation of werewolves into UK anti-discrimination law. That means—”

“Is that safe?”

“Yes,” Neil says impatiently. “Werewolves are only dangerous on full moon, and there have been no documented cases of them attacking people other times of the month since Fenrir Greyback, who was one of Voldemort's followers, and if we're going to discriminate against him we might as well discriminate against all the Death Eaters, but he isn't representative of all werewolves, so—”

“You feel bad for Minyard,” Dan says. “Neil. I know you're friends, but—”

“We aren't friends,” Neil says. “He's the subject of my interview, and he shouldn't be forced to take a potion that has no documented effect on the made up condition it's supposed to be treating. That's the real story: the QA are forcing one of England's best Keepers to stunt himself out of anti-werewolf bigotry.”

“You're meant to be objective.”

“Being objective doesn't mean pretending one side is doing something good while the other side gets fucked over in the process.”

Dan drinks from her glass, contemplating him. “This is a big story, Neil. We aren't going to be able to fit all of it in the Prophet.”

“Profile goes in the paper. Story on the QA's anti-werewolf bigotry goes in the weekly circular. I have drafts of both.”

“Already? Since when are you a fast writer?”

“I've been working on the profile for months. Seeing—” seeing Drake on top of Andrew, seeing Andrew's fingers wrapped around the bars of the headboard, that laughter, how his body shook— “Seeing him when he left St. Mungo's let me fill in all the gaps I had left. I finished it after meeting with the Lions for last minute quotes and to let them know about the amount of publicity I'm about to force on them.”

Dan stares at him.

“Dan. It's going to be good for the paper. We'll have to do reprints. Everyone's obsessed with Andrew, always have been, especially since he's young and English and hasn't managed to fuck up at an international tournament yet.”

“Okay,” Dan says. “All right.” She finishes her drink. “I have one more question for you.”

“Yeah.”

“What happened to your face? Really?”

It's too complicated to explain to her. At this point, Neil thinks he really should trust her—he does trust her, really, if he thinks about it, drinks the tea she makes him, doesn't mind if she shows up to his place unannounced—but it's too much for any one person to have to take. Even Andrew doesn't know the whole of it, and that's Andrew, who has never looked like any of Neil's secrets might be too much for him to handle. But then, Andrew has so many secrets of his own that knowing one or two of Neil's can't have made that much of a difference.

“I can't tell you about that,” Neil says. “Not yet.” Maybe after his father dies, or after Riko is too old to get parole for being so young when he was caught for being a Voldemort supporter, or whenever Neil needs to leave London anyway. “It doesn't have anything to do with Andrew, though, and it won't be a problem.”

“Neil,” Dan says. “You can trust me. I won't tell anyone. I won't hurt you.”

It strikes Neil that it hasn't even been twenty-four hours since she showed up in his flat and checked that he was actually wearing something nice. He feels so tired, suddenly, like his head is too heavy for his neck to hold up, and he nods jerkily.

“I know,” he says. “So trust me. It isn't a problem.”

She reaches for his hand and squeezes it. “All right,” she says. “Get some rest, yeah? Don't come in tomorrow.”

“I'll have to make changes to the articles after you and Renee read them.”

“All right, so come in for an hour to do it, and then go home.”

That word again. If he weren't so tired, it wouldn't bother him, but—

“Okay,” he says.

Dan's thumb runs across Neil's knuckle. “I meant it,” she says. “Go to bed.”

Neil nods, hands her the folder with the profile and QA story, and leaves.

*

Neil doesn't intend to meet Kevin for Quidditch practice, but Kevin's head shows up in Neil's fire not an hour after Neil gets back from the pub. Neil is sitting at his kitchen table, eating a quick dinner and trying to decide whether or not it'd be self-destructive to go for a run.

“Come get me,” Kevin says.

Neil does, digs Andrew's car keys out of his drawer, Apparates to Kevin's, and climbs into Andrew's car. Kevin is waiting for him in the doorway.

“You sure we shouldn't be getting some sleep?” Neil says.

“We can sleep when the season's over.”

“What happened to 'that's enough, you need to rest'?”

Kevin looks out his window. “That was before we lost our second best player.”

“So you're going to get good enough to compensate for his not being there.” Neil laughs, but it comes out sounding twisted, wrong. “Laila's not a bad Keeper.”

“She's not,” Kevin says, which is charitable coming from him, “but she is also not Andrew.”

They spend the rest of the drive trying to coordinate the terms of their situation—Neil can't be expected to drive Kevin to and from practice, so Nicky will do that, and Neil will double down on the wards on their car. He's always been good at protective magic, since it was the one thing he could do that his mother couldn't when they were on the run together. Her car took an age to burn, surrounded as it was by layers and layers of shields. Neil's better at offensive magic, fighting, spells meant to hurt, thanks to years of training from his dad, but, Neil manages to convince Kevin, wards aren't difficult for someone who's spent as long as Neil has trying to survive.

Their practice is quieter than normal, but Kevin plays better than usual despite how exhausted he must be. Halfway through, he switches to his left hand without warning and throws the Quaffle with such power that it bounces off the hoop right back into his chest. Kevin swears and does it again. This time, it's a perfect shot, and though he flexes his fingers with discomfort, the next time Neil passes to him, Kevin makes the shot again.

“Kevin,” Neil says, because he was right about how tired Kevin is: this is restlessness, adrenaline and anxiety rather than real energy. “You're sure this is a good idea?”

“You think I would risk my career if it wasn't?”

He starts going through their drills with his left hand, catching Neil's passes with it, shooting with it, even though it must be painful.

“Kevin.”

“I just haven't used it in a while,” Kevin says. He stretches his fingers and stares down at his hand, then looks back up at Neil. “What's it to you, anyway?”

“What?”

“You do not play for the Lions. You do not support the Lions. Why do you care if I hurt myself?”

“I told Andrew I wouldn't let you do anything stupid.”

“You told Andrew you would protect me for him,” Kevin corrects him. “You did not need to do that.”

Neil tosses Kevin the Quaffle; caught off guard, Kevin catches it with both hands against his chest.

“You don't need to do this,” Neil says.

Kevin fixes Neil with a long stare.

“We should go to bed,” he says, and sinks abruptly into a dive.

Neil doesn't disagree, following him down and into the locker room in silence.

Neil showers quickly—usually Kevin is gone by the time Neil is clean and changed, but today Neil's driving Kevin home, and the sooner Neil drops him off, the better. The idea of climbing into his bed is so intoxicating that Neil can barely think past it to the morning, when he'll be back in the office to make the editors' proposed changes to his pieces and no doubt answering a flurry of questions.

He dresses in the stall quickly, but steps out to put on his shoes, and as he does, catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

Neil's been avoiding his reflection all day, but now that he's seen it, it's like he can't look away. There they are, his father's cold blue eyes, striking against skin several shades darker than Nathan's. It always made him stick out, his father's light eyes and his mother's dark skin, and Neil feels a shudder rake through his entire body. If he were just another Pakistani Muggle-born in wizarding London, it'd be fine, but like this—he looks like a beacon, just asking for someone to figure out who he is.

“You don't look like him,” Kevin says. “Not really.”

Neil's eyes flick up. He doesn't know when Kevin joined him by the sinks, but he's there now, dressed in sweats, hair still wet, towering above Neil.

“I mean, the hair and eye color, yeah, obviously, but no one's gonna make the connection.”

“You made it instantly.”

“But that's because I knew you were hiding something, I knew you were connected to the Moriyamas somehow—I'm telling you, Neil, no one who doesn't already know who you are is going to think you're the Butcher's son.”

It's half-hearted comfort at best, but that Kevin is making an effort at all does its part to help Neil tear his eyes away from the blue-eyed monster in the mirror.

“Okay,” Neil says. “Fine. Let's go home.”

He shoves his feet into his sneakers, and Kevin trails after Neil to Andrew's car.

“How do you do that, by the way?” Kevin says.

“What? Drive?” Neil pushes the key into the ignition. “Do you want me to teach you?”

“No, I meant the accent.” Kevin's own is still pure Baltimore, like he never picked up any affectations from the Ravens' academies in West Virginia or up north. “You're from Baltimore, right? Like your dad. But you sound—I don't know, like, generically British or whatever.”

“I'm good at languages and accents,” Neil says, double checking the locks. “Had to be.”

Kevin takes that at face level, and for the short drive back to Kevin's block, neither of them speaks again.

Chapter Text

“Something's different about you,” the Prophet reporter who covers the Lions in the QCL says.

He's perched by Neil's desk holding two mugs of coffee. He offers one to Neil when Neil arrives.

“You'll probably need it. Busy day ahead of you and all.”

“What?” Neil says.

“You've changed your hair, right? And your eyes?”

“Have you been reading this?” Neil says, glancing down at the mark ups to his stories, which are sitting on Neil's desk courtesy of Renee and Dan's speedy work.

“Just a bit. First couple of lines are good, but don't you think that bit's cliché?”

“Thanks,” Neil says, “but you aren't an editor.” He accepts the coffee and sets it on his desk, intending to drink absolutely none of it.

“It looks good.”

“Again, you aren't—”

“I meant the changes,” the reporter says. “Like, to your face. A lot of people, when they do the self-Transfig thing, it looks really unnatural, but yours is well done. You just look—like, cool.”

“Right,” Neil says. “Well—if that's all—”

“You busy? After work today?”

“Yeah,” Neil says.

“With Lions? You're not off the beat now that Minyard's in hospital or wherever?”

“No,” Neil says. “Listen, I've got to get started on this so I can get out of here, so—”

“Right!” the reporter says. “Right, right, course, sorry to bother you—”

But Neil finds the silence in the reporter's absence close to deafening, and he stares blankly at the mark ups on his desk for a quarter of an hour before forcibly making Dan and Renee's corrections.

Being immersed in work again is helpful. Finishing his draft of Andrew's profile the day before was the best distraction he had all day, and now that he's editing with a full night's sleep behind him, Neil finds himself growing absorbed in the story. In writing about Andrew, Neil feels like he's starting to understand him, maybe better than he did when Andrew was there with him.

There's his protective streak, which often gets nasty—his Quidditch disciplinary record is long, but the referee in charge almost always notes that he was provoked in some way or other by someone attacking a teammate.

Then there's his honesty—Andrew might talk around the truth sometimes, but he never lies. Neil picks around his notes as he fact checks, matching the timeline he's come up with from interviewing Andrew with the paperwork Nicky gave him. The hospital check-ins line up, the foster care papers line up, and Neil even finds the original Wolfsbane Potion prescription from when Andrew first started to transform.

And then there's Cass Spear.

Andrew's foster mother for nearly two years. She lasted longer than any of his other foster parents, and Neil knows why—what was it he said? The only one to break through his exoskeleton?

There's a photograph of her, a Muggle photograph, in the folder. She's a normal looking woman, friendly smile, wrinkles around her eyes that indicate frequent laughter. Foster father: Richard Spear, an equally normal looking man. Foster brother: Drake Spear, who doesn't look particularly evil—but, Neil thinks, few people do.

Next there are an Auror's notes on Andrew leaving foster care—something about Andrew meeting his twin brother, then immediately causing a huge legal ruckus that caused him to get kicked out of Muggle foster care and hospitalized him for long enough that going to Hogwarts was no longer viable. He finished—or started, really—his education in the long-term patients ward at St. Mungo's. He played Quidditch there as part of Healer-recommended recreational exercise.

There's nothing about Drake's abuse except for the Auror's hasty scrawl: Spears removed from foster care database.

Neil ducks down to the archives room to fact check everything he's written about Drake—Drake's parents likely don't get the Prophet delivered considering they're Muggles, but if their son had a subscription, the owl might show up at their house, and Neil doesn't want to deal with any libel issues if everything he's been told and figured out about Drake is incorrect.

Being a werewolf isn't public record, but being a werewolf who works in the public sector is. Drake was a guard for Azkaban, so Neil does the spell the archivist taught him and searches for everything on Drake Spear.

It's ironic that he was a guard at a prison, Neil discovers, because Drake isn't exactly clean himself. He has a series of minor transgressions of the law, including violations of the International Statute of Secrecy and using magic while he still had the Trace. He got into fights at Hogwarts, enough that his detention records were deemed necessary for this file. He was turned into a werewolf age twenty, was unemployed for two years after that, started at Azkaban at twenty-two—Andrew would've already been at St. Mungo's by then. He was never punished for biting Andrew, and Neil's vision blurs slightly at the thought of that, of Andrew being such a footnote to wizards that it didn't even register when he was bitten by a werewolf. No one followed up on Andrew when he didn't show up to Hogwarts, no one took care of him when he was a child stumbling through multiple foster homes (all of which his records give only vague reasons for leaving), no one knew his foster brother turned him into a werewolf or spent months abusing him. It was a mystery to everyone that he even existed until this Auror Higgins showed up, responding to calls about wolf noises on full moon from the Spears' Muggle neighbors.

Andrew never told anyone who bit him, but the Auror must have figured it out. Still, without Andrew explicitly mentioning Drake, it was always unlikely to find the evidence necessary to punish Drake for it. It's almost impossible to prove intent with werewolf bites anyway, and ironically the punishment is a slap on the wrist for biting someone by accident.

Neil rubs at his eyes. He's gotten distracted: he's only supposed to be fact checking, and not much of this is actually going in either article. He stands up, waves his wand to put the records away, and takes the lift back upstairs.

This time, it's Dan waiting at his desk.

“We agreed on an hour,” she says.

“I was just—”

“It's lunchtime, Neil.”

“I'm done,” he says. “Look, I just have to rewrite it.”

“Just do it by magic,” Dan says. “And then I'm taking you home.”

“I can make it there on my own.”

“Yeah, but you won't go if someone doesn't force you.”

“I like working,” Neil says.

“So do I, but I'm also aware that if I don't get enough sleep I start to get sick and turn in work that's subpar.” Dan nudges a cup of tea toward Neil and swipes his abandoned coffee off his desk. “Finish rewriting it, and then we'll leave. Be quick—I'm getting hungry.”

She goes off to do whatever it is she does all day, and Neil stares blankly at the parchment in front of him. He casts a spell—she's right that rewriting it himself would waste too much time—and drinks the tea she gave him. It tastes good; Dan always uses honey instead of sugar, and it does its part to relax him. He actually feels kind of sleepy, and there's a moment where Neil wonders if she slipped something into it, but then he considers that this is his first quiet free moment since he was getting ready for the awards ceremony two days ago.

“Ready to go?” Dan says, popping up at his elbow again and stealing his mug to take a sip. “I'll buy you lunch. You like that Muggle Japanese place near yours, right?”

“How do you know about that place?”

“Boyd mentioned it.”

Neil hands her the two sheafs of parchment. “Did he take you there?”

“He's not taking me anywhere, we just went there and happened to be together.” But she's smiling, and Matt has been around a lot less lately now that Neil thinks about it.

“Right,” Neil says. “Okay. Japanese it is.”

*

Neil sleeps until late afternoon, and then he blinks at the dim light in his room and sleeps some more.

*

Neil is two miles into his morning run when he senses a presence at his back.

His instinct is to run faster, and for once Neil listens, running a swift zigzag while he digs his wand out of the makeshift sheath he has wrapped around his chest.

It's not until he's ducked into a back alley that he turns around, wand out, and starts to cast a spell—until he realizes it's just Kevin in workout gear, much more out of breath than Neil is.

“How did you find me?” Neil says, not lowering his wand.

“You are not hard to find. You always run the same path.”

“How do you—”

“Andrew used to tail you,” Kevin says. “I went with him a few times.”

“Jesus Christ. You came here alone?”

“Well, not alone exactly. I was following you.”

“How long?”

“Since the start of the second mile.”

“Why didn't you say anything?”

Kevin shrugs. “I wanted to see if you were actually any good at self-defense.”

“Why can't you just be straightforward?” Neil says, frustrated. “You could've asked me, but instead you nearly got yourself cursed for literally no good reason. You want evidence that I'm good at self-defense? I'm still alive, Kevin, how's that? And I never had a werewolf bodyguard following me around making sure I didn't get into any trouble.”

Kevin has the grace to look a little guilty, which doesn't make any sense because Kevin doesn't usually have any kind of grace and so probably means Kevin is at least half-lying.

“Okay, why are you really here?”

“You didn't come to practice last night,” Kevin says.

Neil sighs. His second night in charge of keeping Kevin safe, and he slept through it. “I was sleeping.”

“I figured,” Kevin says.

He's quiet for a moment, then: “It's okay that we missed practice. I needed to sleep too.”

“Were you worried?”

“I tried Floo-calling you. No one was around.”

Neil stares at him.

“You've never missed a practice before,” Kevin says, looking more than a little embarrassed. “It's not weird that I thought—”

“Right, well, I'm alive,” Neil says. “And I'd really like to finish my run. Can I help you with anything else? Need someone to Side-Along you home?”

“No, that's okay,” Kevin says, gesturing to the street beyond them, where a familiar shiny black car is idling by the curb. “No practice tonight since tomorrow's game day, so I'll see you.”

“I'm stopping by to do last minute analysis anyway,” Neil says. “Kevin, the article on Andrew's going to print tonight. Your game might be a mess.”

“Luckily I'll have you there.”

“Somehow that sounded sarcastic.”

“It was,” Kevin says. “Nicky says hi.”

He jogs over to the car, and Neil resolves to map out a new path to run as soon as he gets to work.

*

Neil's right: despite Andrew's absence, the Lions' stadium is flooded with supporters and protesters alike, masses of people holding signs outside the gates and being generally irritating enough that kick off gets delayed by nearly two hours.

Matt waves Neil and Alvarez over to the tunnels where the Lions are waiting for the match to begin as soon as he sees them, which is lucky, because the press section is filled with people alternately hounding both of them with questions and shooting them irritated little glances. Alvarez wasn't expecting it—her photography is good, but it's always been secondary to Quidditch—and so is significantly more rattled than Neil.

“Are they all bad?” Jeremy says, pushing a nervous hand through his hair. He's looking much twitchier than usual, and rocking up and down on the balls of his feet. Neil makes a note of it, but he's never been one to write about players' moods before a match.

“No,” Alvarez says. “A lot of them are pro-werewolf rights. Some are just general Minyard fanatics. They have, like, posters begging him to be their husband. Some of them are doing that 'he can't reach the ball' thing and some of them are singing that he saves when he wants, so—”

“Hilarious,” Jeremy says faintly. “I'm going to check with the officials—”

“No, you are not,” Jean says, hooking his arm through Jeremy's. “Neil and Pilar were just out there. They can tell us what it looks like.”

“Who's Pilar?” Neil says.

Alvarez stares at him. “Seriously? We've been working together for six months.”

“You go by Alvarez. I just assumed—”

“That I didn't have a first name?”

Kevin does a very bad job at hiding his laugh. Matt doesn't even try.

Neil glances over to see Laila's reaction, but she isn't paying them any attention. Her extra Keeper's gear is on the floor near her feet, and she's leaning against the tunnel wall with her arms crossed. She has several inches on Andrew, a sleek dark ponytail, the kind of complexion that looks right in red instead of sallow or sunburned depending on the weather. She's what Neil would've pictured a Quidditch player looking like before, with all the easy arrogance of having been born talented at something and all the musculature of someone who spent most of her life honing herself for it anyway.

Except that it's a cover for nerves. Her jaw is clenched, and she's grinding her teeth against each other, and Alvarez has been watching her since they stepped into the tunnel. There's no substitute now—if Laila plays poorly, she's still going to have to gear up and play in the cup match mid-week. If she lets in twenty goals in the first fifteen minutes, Wymack can't take her off and put Andrew on. If Matt and Jean slip up, she's the last thing keeping the Lions in their cozy spot in second.

Andrew's a more complete Keeper, but Laila's a better sweeper, can come forward more reliably and zip back into place with a speed Andrew lacks. Neil tells her this in an effort to make her feel better, but Laila only stares back at him in silence.

“Nice,” Alvarez—Pilar—says.

Neil is saved from having to think up some way to apologize for his apparent lack of tact by the appearance of Wymack.

“We're starting in fifteen minutes,” he says. “Warm up again. Josten, I'll give you that quote.”

The rest of the team disperses to do another warmup. Wymack levels a long look at Neil.

“Sold a lot of copies?”

“Probably,” Neil says.

“Was it worth it?”

“Only if the QA loosens its regulations.”

Neil isn't sure, but he thinks there's something approving in Wymack's gaze.

*

The Lions win, meaning any narratives about the lack of Europe's best Keeper destroying the second best team in England's title challenge immediately vanish in favor of a new narrative: how will the London Lions do in the derby at Croydon next weekend? They're on a winning streak, Seth is from south London and so might be considered a traitor or something, Laila's never played in a derby or even slightly heated rivalry before unless you count Gryffindor-Slytherin at Hogwarts, they'll be away without Minyard for the first time, et cetera.

Neil doesn't stick around for very long after the post-match interviews. He drives Kevin home, declines a hesitant dinner invite, and goes back to his flat.

He can't say he's surprised when a thrilled—and already drunk—Dan and Matt greet him.

“Rheman's so pleased,” Dan says. “You've sold thousands of copies internationally already, and that's not even counting the werewolf feature that's coming out in the weekly. We've already gotten letters from half the werewolf rights advocates in the country, apparently even Harry Potter wants to write a bit, and you know what he thinks of the Prophet. Rheman says sales are up eight percent since you started writing about Minyard, and who knows what they're going to look like after this week? Honestly, Neil, you may've saved the paper, it's just—”

“Terrific,” Neil says. “Any word on the Wizengamot's vote?”

“Apparently they've been receiving letters all day, and that's sure to double or triple after the rest of the story comes out.”

She looks delighted, but Neil is realizing that his job is a lot more public than he expected it to be. He should've thought of this before, but he was too caught up in getting Andrew off the wolfsbane, in seeing how Andrew plays when he's not in withdrawal, in seeing what Andrew's like sober. He forgot that his goal is meant to be survival. His mother's last words come to him again, and abruptly Neil feels like he needs a cigarette.

“Right,” Neil says.

“Why don't you look pleased?” Matt says.

“I am pleased,” Neil says. “Just—a bit tired. Sorry. I'm going to head to the roof.”

“For what?” Matt says.

Neil doesn't know how to say that if he doesn't go up, he's going to run, and he's not sure he'd be able to stop, so he says, “A cigarette.”

“Since when do you smoke?”

“I don't,” Neil says. He pretends not to notice Dan and Matt exchanging worried glances. “Seriously, I'm fine. I'm just going to go up to the roof, have a cigarette, and come back down. Okay?”

“All right,” Dan says. “But really. Great work. I'm glad I didn't once threaten you with dismemberment for being so late with it.”

“Told you it'd be worth it,” Neil murmurs, and heads to his room for his cigarettes.

It'll be fine, he tells himself. There's no headshot next to his byline. Only some fellow reporters and a smattering of Quidditch players even know what he looks he looks like. “Neil Josten” is as much a shield as his dark hair and dark eyes were. It'll be fine. He's fine.

*

Despite Neil's fears, life has mostly groaned its way back to normal by Monday afternoon. The all hands meeting in the morning was a lot, but now Neil's sitting at his desk alone, trying to decide with of the pile of letters on his desk he's going to answer, which Dan and Nicky will find funny, and which to toss directly in the garbage.

Afterward, he goes to his flat, has dinner with Matt and meets up with Kevin for practice.

The next day, the same thing happens, except that Dan comes over for dinner. The day after that, he covers the Lions' midweek cup match. The next day, he's back at the office. At the weekend, he covers the Lions' derby in south London. He gets harassed by that one Herald reporter. He says something vaguely threatening. He goes out for a run. He goes to work. He goes back to his flat. He goes to practice with Kevin. He goes to bed. Sometimes Kevin shows up on Neil's morning run. More often, he doesn't.

Rinse, repeat.

None of his father's people show up. The Moriyamas are still in Azkaban. The worst Neil has to deal with are a couple of Howlers from lycanthrophobes and unrelenting rain.

Time passes.

*

Neil arrives at work one morning to find an owl on his desk. He finds an owl treat in his drawer, detaches the scroll, and waves the owl off.

It's from Rheman, who apparently didn't want to come all the way down to the reporters' bullpen. It's an op-ed trio, due to be published tomorrow, the day before the Wizengamot's decision on the Lupin bill.

The first op-ed in the pile is called “The Sport Argument,” and Dan wrote it. Neil's faintly surprised at that—she writes op-eds weekly, but she didn't mention this one to him, and she's been at his flat enough in the last few weeks that he really feels like he should've heard something about it. Her argument is dispassionate, focuses solely on England's need for a new Keeper for the World Cup summer after next and says that alienating players solely for a condition outside of their control that is nevertheless easily predicted and mitigated will only serve to hurt England's chances in the long run. It makes Neil smile to himself: Dan, for all that she's capable of being friendly and even kind, is still single-minded in her devotion to Quidditch.

Next is an ethical and legal argument written by the Minister for Magic herself: she discusses everything at length, from the definition of lycanthropy (“Scamander tells us that werewolfism affects the affected only 'once a month, at the full moon,' when the 'otherwise sane and normal wizard or Muggle afflicted' turns into a wolf”) to UK legal doctrine (“Mental health laws in the UK indicate that individuals cannot be treated without their express consent unless they lack the mental capacity to give that consent (Mental Capacity Act, 2005). When it is not the night of the full moon, humans affected with werewolfism possess the full mental capacity that they did prior to being bitten. Furthermore, UK law prohibits the discrimination of individuals on the basis of disability. Forcing a medication on an individual who does not want it and who in fact has been cleared by multiple Healers not to take it—and then precluding them from employment based on their reluctance to take such a medication—violates both anti-discrimination laws and the MCA”).

At the bottom of the pile is a personal appeal, written by Harry Potter and Remus Lupin's son. It's supposed to be touching: “Remus Lupin was the best Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Hogwarts ever saw, a freedom fighter who died to stop Lord Voldemort, an adoring father who sacrificed his life so that his son might have a chance at living in a slightly brighter world, the only good influence on my father when he was in school, and, least importantly of all, a werewolf. It's difficult and depressing to imagine what he might have done had anti-werewolf sentiment not afflicted every aspect of his life, even worse than the lycanthropy itself. He was clever and brave, capable of kindness to strangers, and liked chocolate. He did not deserve to live in misery for so long.”

But this one's missing the point, Neil thinks. It's not about Remus Lupin, and it shouldn't be about someone not having to live in squalor because they're a good person. Andrew isn't particularly kind to strangers, but that doesn't mean he deserves to be on wolfsbane every minute of his life. It's not just that some werewolves are good; it's that being a werewolf doesn't have an affect on a person's goodness, and so it shouldn't have anything to do with the treatment they get from the Quidditch Association. Or whatever other employer.

“You enjoying those?” Dan says, passing Neil a cup of tea.

“Why didn't you tell me you were writing this?”

“Wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Since when do you care about the English national team?”

“I don't,” she says. “Secretly I'm hoping Minyard'll have a fit in the qualifier against Wales in March, and then Davies can carry us all the way to the quarterfinals.”

“High hopes.”

“Got to stay optimistic.” She's smiling at him. “Rheman's really pleased. Harry Potter hasn't had an interest in the Prophet for, like, literal decades. Rheman's doubling the order for this edition.”

“I thought Harry Potter's was the worst one.”

“Yeah, well, he's competing with the Minister for Magic and me, so of course it is.”

“What do you think the chances are?” Neil says.

“Of the bill passing, or of England losing to Wales if Andrew doesn't play or punches Gordon or Morrey in the face? Either way, almost a hundred percent.”

“He needs someone to convince him,” Neil says. “He'll never play for England on his own, and Kevin's not English.”

“Maybe that'll be you. He does everything else you ask.”

“Yeah, maybe because I was the only person who didn't want him constantly drugged out of his mind.”

“You're sweet.”

“What?” says Neil, who has never been called that in his life.

“You want your friend to be happy.”

“He's not my friend.” Automatic.

“Right,” Dan says, winking. “Sure. You can take a few hours off on Friday to go to the Ministry if you want.”

“Blatant favoritism,” Neil says.

“No, I'm just trying to get you to use some of those personal days before the end of the year,” she says. “You know if you don't use your paid holiday, you're working for free five weeks a year, right?”

“When am I supposed to take a vacation?” Neil says. “During the Quidditch season, when there's Quidditch every week? Or in the summer, when there's Quidditch every day?”

“Luckily there's no Quidditch this summer,” Dan says. “If you don't take minimum four weeks off in July, I'm firing you.” She gives Neil a heavy clap on the back that tells him she'll do nothing of the sort and wanders off to bother someone else.

*

As it turns out, she's right.

Neil isn't writing the Wizengamot story—he's not a news writer, and anyway he doesn't know nearly enough about British or Wizarding law for that—but he uses some of that holiday time and goes to the Ministry anyway to hear their decision.

The vote isn't even close. 35-16 for the Lupin bill.

Neil goes back to work, where Dan and Nicky are whooping and popping champagne—no matter that Dan hated Andrew only months ago; apparently she's wholeheartedly on whatever side Neil decides to plant himself on, which Neil tries not to find touching—and other writers and editors are waiting to clap Neil on the back. Neil, feeling like he hasn't done anything near what these people think he's done, tells Dan he's going to head to the Lions' stadium.

Once there, he slips into the tunnels, sends Andrew an owl with a draft of the news writer's report on the Wizengamot's decision, and returns to his and Matt's. He's not sure he wants the Lions' congratulatory and/or thankful and/or (from Seth and possibly Allison) angry remarks.

It's stupid, but Neil doesn't feel like he's done all that much. The bill looked like it was going to pass before he wrote anything. He just wanted to ensure that the British public would look at Andrew's situation and consider it just like any other werewolf's—and, as such, not stand for the QA making him take wolfsbane.

Why Neil cares so much about that remains to be seen. It's not like he and Andrew are friends—Andrew hates him, or at least he hated Neil when he could muster up the attention span to hate anything. Neil doesn't know what he'll be like sober, if he'll be more apathetic or less, if his excess restless energy was a product of wolfsbane or whatever was going on inside Andrew's head.

But it's done. They won. Andrew's still off getting sober, but when he's back, he'll be allowed to stay that way.

When Neil gets home, he buries himself in sheets and blankets and goes to sleep.

*

On Christmas, Nicky shows up to Neil's flat with no warning and refuses to leave until he's let in.

“Where's Matt?”

“Off with his dad's family.” His mother's family had Neil over for a Christmas Eve party the night before, and Neil dragged Kevin out with him just to see Kevin be somewhat sociable. It was more fun than Neil expected, especially because Kevin was on his best “humble celebrity Quidditch player” behavior.

“What are your plans today?” Nicky says.

“I don't know,” Neil says. “I was going to go for a run, then maybe catch up on some sleep.”

“Right, so you don't have any. Come to ours, then.”

“What?” Neil says.

“It's just me, Erik, and Kevin,” Nicky says. “And Aaron, but he's going to Katelyn's parents' for dinner, so we can just sit around and drink wine and play video games.”

“How are we going to play video games?”

“I fixed our television for it ages ago. Kevin's, too. Let's go.”

When Neil hesitates, Nicky crosses his arms.

“Come on, you've been moping around for weeks. All you do is work. No one's seen you except Kevin.”

“I have dinner with Dan and Matt like every night.”

“Right, because they eat in your house at your kitchen table.”

“So what you really mean is that you haven't seen me in weeks.”

“Except at work, I haven't,” Nicky says. “You don't even come in when you pick Kevin up at night.”

Neil sighs. “Let me get dressed.”

“No need,” Nicky says. “This is a very relaxing day off for all of us. Today, we drink and play games. Tomorrow, we shop until you need to go cover the Lions' match. The day after, you go back to spending your life wishing you could be a Quidditch player.”

That should sting, but Nicky is so earnest about wanting Neil to spend Christmas with him that Neil sighs and shrugs into his cloak. Nicky takes Neil's arm and Apparates them both.

Neil hasn't been in Nicky's apartment for months, and it's clear that Nicky and Erik have very much gotten into the holiday spirit even if their idea of celebrating is just getting drunk with Kevin and Neil: there are fairy lights strung over every high area, there's mistletoe stuck onto half the ceiling, every door bears its own wreath, and one corner of their living room features a Christmas tree so tall there must be some magic helping it keep from scraping against the ceiling.

“Wow,” Neil says. “You've really gone all out.”

“Yeah, well, I've also tricked you,” Nicky says. “You're here to play chess with Kevin while Erik and I cook, and then you're here for Christmas dinner. You'll have to dress up.”

“I haven't gotten any of you gifts,” Neil says, and he feels suddenly bad about it. “I'm sorry, I didn't realize—”

Nicky's expression softens. “Oh, stop it. Your presence is gift enough. Get it? Presence? Present? Merlin, you have no sense of humor—”

“How am I supposed to dress up?”

Nicky shoves a heap of fabric into Neil's arms.

“Your Christmas present from the Hemmick-Klose household,” he says. “I got your measurements from Kevin—why does he have those, by the way?”

“He and Andrew took me dress robe shopping before the awards ceremony,” Neil says.

It wasn't even two months ago, but it feels like it's been years. Was the ceremony and everything that happened after—Neil still can't think of that Swiss hotel room, of Geneva, of Switzerland, of the entirety of continental Europe without wanting to gag—only a month and a half ago? Has the Minyard article only been out for five weeks? Has Andrew only been gone for five and a half?

Nicky's laugh breaks the tension. “That explains why you were wearing those ridiculously expensive plain black robes that night.”

“Yeah, well, Andrew's taste doesn't exactly allow for much variety.”

“And yours does?” Nicky looks him up and down. “Your entire wardrobe consists of leftovers from your Hogwarts uniform and clothes for working out. That's why we're taking you shopping tomorrow. Surely you got some kind of bonus from how much money you're making the Prophet right now. Go get dressed.”

Neil obeys, if only because he knows he's going to feel ridiculous once Kevin shows up in some kind of overpriced opulent mess of fancy fabrics.

Nicky and Erik open the first bottle of wine as soon as Kevin knocks, and Kevin watches as they pour three glasses, then looks abruptly at Neil.

“You can drink if you want to. You're safe here,” he says, and it takes Neil a second to register that Kevin's speaking French.

“I'm good,” Neil says.

“I can watch you. Make sure you don't say anything.”

“How are you going to do that when you're also drunk?”

“Obviously I wouldn't drink.”

“This is very rude, you know,” Erik says. “I don't start speaking German in mixed company.”

“No, it's fine, I can read their expressions,” Nicky says. “Kevin probably just offered to buy Neil a new broom or something, and Neil doesn't know how to accept it because—” but he cuts himself off, leans over to ruffle Neil's hair. “Whatever it is, Kevin doesn't make offers if he doesn't mean it.”

He passes Kevin a glass, and Kevin gives Neil one last look, shrugs, and throws the entire thing back.

“Might want to slow down, Kev,” Nicky says. “We've still got the whole night to go, and you haven't even heard Erik's singing yet.”

The afternoon is a nice one, all things considered. Kevin beats Neil in chess three times in a row, but then he loses at both Exploding Snap and FIFA. Erik's singing, when it comes two bottles of wine later, is surprisingly pleasant. It's bleak outside, rain alternately hammering against the windows and calming into a fine mist, but inside Nicky and Erik have their fire going, and they serve good food, and even though he's dressed up in robes that are slightly more oppressive than his usual, Neil feels comfortably warm and full by the end of the night.

“Just stay over,” Nicky says, when the rain shows no signs of letting up. “We'll get you a blanket, and our couch is comfortable.”

Neil wants to say that he doesn't mind a little rain, that he could Apparate home quickly enough to barely feel any of it, that his own bed is probably more comfortable than their couch, but his head is full of an odd buzzing that makes him want to stay. His flat will be empty and too quiet, and if he goes back Nicky will just wake him up at some ungodly hour to go shopping in the morning anyway.

“Okay,” Neil says.

Chapter Text

Andrew's release is set for a dreary day toward the end of January. This Neil knows because, against all odds and probably some standards of journalistic ethics, he's privy to all kinds of information other reporters aren't—and not because Andrew told him himself.

In fact, other than the three owls Neil sent Andrew—one when his profile was published, one when his werewolf rights version of the profile was published, and one when the Wizengamot voted—they haven't had any contact since Andrew left his own flat with Abby and Betsy.

Wymack promised Neil an exclusive on Andrew's return, and so Neil is waiting with the Lions in the blackboard room in their tunnels. His nerves are all on end, but he knows they have no reason to be: Andrew is unlikely to pay him any attention. His first priority will be Kevin, and his second, if it even registers as a priority for him, will be playing Quidditch.

The unease in the room is palpable. Jeremy's hands are so nervous that he's sitting on them. Seth looks alternately terrified and furious. Matt keeps glancing at the door and looking back at Andrew's empty chair next to Kevin. Only Jean looks perfectly calm.

At some point, someone suggests a scrimmage to kill time, but though they're all dressed for practice, not a single Lion has mounted a broom when Andrew finally arrives at half past noon.

The first thought Neil has is that Andrew looks tired. He's standing up straight, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, but there's something in the line of his body that makes it look like there's nothing it'd rather be doing than collapsing into bed and just—staying there.

The second thought Neil has is that Andrew looks young. Maybe it's just the outfit, an ancient t-shirt made soft by wear that's in an actual color and Converse sneakers, but he looks fourteen instead of twenty-something, and Neil is reminded of seeing Andrew fall from his broom and then later seeing him lying in a hospital bed, how small Andrew looked, how weak.

Andrew's eyes pass over Neil in the same way they pass over everyone else except for Kevin, who gets a more thorough inspection. Then, still silent, he sits down.

“Josten, this is on the record until it's not,” Wymack says.

“Right,” Neil says, his quill and parchment hovering next to him, ready to transcribe the interaction, which is convenient considering Neil doesn't feel capable of following a conversation just now.

Andrew looks stripped down, like an outer layer is gone from his skin. It's bizarre, like seeing a teacher outside of school or his father without a knife in his hand. He stares at nothing in particular. The smile that came and went when he was on wolfsbane and always felt out of place on Andrew's face looks a thousand years away. His face looks like it hasn't ever expressed anything before at all, let alone the specific brand of mirthless glee that Andrew's potion gave him.

“You're good to practice?” Wymack is saying.

Andrew nods.

“Did you get any exercise at that place? I didn't see a gym on their list of amenities.”

“I improvised,” Andrew says, which is the first time he's said something out loud since entering the room.

Jeremy laughs, which does little to break the tension in the room. Jean gives a false sort of chuckle, possibility in solidarity with his captain, but that's all anyone gets until Kevin stands up.

“We should get started,” he says. “Game in three days, and Laila needs competition.”

There's no way he means it—Andrew will be the Lions' favored Keeper for as long as he's capable of producing his usual performances—but it does what Jeremy's laugh couldn't, dispelling the lingering uncertainty about Andrew's return and bringing them all back to the only reason they're all together in that room anyway: Quidditch.

Neil still has questions to ask Andrew, both on and off the record, but he'll wait til after practice.

*

Andrew sends Neil an owl that afternoon. No note, just the owl. It pecks at his fingers until he gives it a treat, then it flies off again.

Neil assumes that means Andrew wants to meet, presumably so Neil can give him all his possessions back.

He hesitates picking out dinner, and instead of the usual actual meal that he knows Andrew will ignore, stops at a Muggle store and just buys a sackful of sweets. Then he makes his way to the Lions' stadium, east stand upper tier, where there's a body dressed all in black huddled up against the overhang of the rarely-used roof.

Andrew's expression is still blank at the sight of Neil, but he takes the proffered sweets nonetheless, tugs his armbands back on when Neil holds them out.

“I should've given them back when we were in your room that day, but—” Neil doesn't have an excuse. He forgot. It slipped his mind. He was prioritizing other things.

Andrew doesn't react, anyway. He glides his car key off Neil's keyring when Neil drops it into his palm.

And then, nothing. They have nothing to talk about. Neil's profile is published. He doesn't expect a thank you from Andrew. He doesn't really expect anything.

Neil says, “Somehow the Lions didn't manage to completely fuck up their standing in the league without you.” There was a scare in there—a draw on Boxing Day, a loss the week after—but they're in third place now thanks to goal difference, otherwise on even points with second-place Puddlemere United. It's an easy gap to make up: they have a few straightforward matches in the next few weeks, and all it takes is Allison delaying catching the Snitch for a bit. They haven't played Puddlemere at home yet, and Puddlemere haven't played Wasps away yet. Everything is in place for the Lions to at least displace second, maybe even go top.

“Are you capable of talking about anything else?”

“I like Quidditch. I like talking about Quidditch with you.”

Andrew looks unimpressed. He lights a cigarette with his lighter for once and stares at the darkened pitch.

“You got Harry Potter to mend his relationship with the Daily Prophet,” Neil says. “Did you know he hadn't done an interview with us since 1994? And thanks to you, he's a fan now.”

“Do not attribute that to me,” Andrew says. “You wrote that article, not me.”

“Yeah, but I wrote it about you,” Neil says. For you might be more accurate, but Neil knows better than to say that to Andrew's face.

Andrew doesn't answer Neil, but he doesn't tell him to leave, either, so Neil decides to try his luck.

“It's my turn, right? I have a question for you. I've been wondering—how do you know the layout of Hogwarts if you've never been there?”

It's not what Andrew's expecting. His fingers still, only briefly, but Neil is watching for it, so he notices when Andrew jerks back into gear and takes his cigarette out of his mouth.

“I saw a map,” Andrew says.

“You saw one? What, once? And you remembered it that well?” Neil blinks. “Do you always remember things that well?”

Andrew doesn't answer him, which isn't a denial, which might as well be confirmation.

“Why were you looking at maps of Hogwarts?”

“Children always want things they can't have,” Andrew says.

And Andrew wanted Hogwarts. Not just Hogwarts. Hufflepuff. The Hogwarts House known for taking those who didn't belong anywhere else, for loyalty, and honesty, and kindness.

Neil stops breathing. Andrew remembers everything. The layout of a map of Hogwarts must be the least awful of his memories. Neil only saw the aftermath of Drake's assault, and the image might be seared into his mind forever. For Andrew to have to remember that—all the times it must have happened—

Hufflepuff's is the only common room that protects itself against intruders; the others just have some type of a password, but Hufflepuff has a defense mechanism designed to keep non-Hufflepuffs out. Neil stares at Andrew. Of course he wanted to be a Hufflepuff. Of course he did.

“I have told you before, and I will tell you again,” Andrew says, “I do not need your pity.”

“You would've made a good Hufflepuff,” Neil says. “Their Keeper was shit.”

Something in Andrew's expression finally changes. For a moment, Neil isn't sure if Andrew's about to stab him or reveal some other secret, but instead Andrew just flings Neil's keys into Neil's lap.

“I hate you,” he says. “You weren't supposed to be real.”

“You know I'm not,” Neil says, because Andrew has always known, knew from the moment he saw Neil hanging around the Lions' practice pitch the day Neil asked him for an interview back in August. It's why he agreed to talk to Neil. It's why he forced truth potion down Neil's throat.

“Go away,” Andrew says.

“Sure, see you tomorrow,” Neil says.

Andrew flicks a bored look at him, which Neil chooses to interpret as fond irritation even though Andrew probably hasn't ever been fond of anything in his life, and tosses his cigarette off the bleachers. Neil tucks his keys into his pocket, walks out of the stadium, and Disapparates.

*

The next day, practice goes poorly.

Neil watches from the sidelines, not having been granted explicit access to the sky and not wanting to try his luck, but the ground is definitely the better choice: Andrew seems to care even less than usual about the sport, but he's more malevolent than ever. Every time a Quaffle comes his way, he aims for the back of someone's broom, presumably to get them tossed off. Seth has to pull off a deft swerve to stay in the air, and then Kevin's broom actually gets hit and he slips almost all the way off it, hanging on with only his finger tips for one probably terrifying moment.

Next to Neil, Wymack is growing increasingly irritated.

“I can stop taking notes if you—”

“No,” Wymack says. “The English public deserves to know who they're trying to make the face of their Quidditch comeback.”

He gets on a broom and flies right up to Andrew, but Andrew's throws only grow more hostile when Wymack returns to the ground: he aims for Allison, which pisses off both Allison and Seth; he aims for Jean, which annoys Jeremy; and then, because apparently he truly has a death wish, he aims for Jeremy. This gets Jean, Kevin, and Matt to turn on Andrew, who stares back at them, bored, as they voice their protests.

“It's not going to work,” Neil says. “Jeremy Knox could inspire a revolution, probably, but he's not going to inspire Andrew.”

Wymack looks around at Neil, his gaze indecipherable.

“No,” he says. “But you might.” He holds his broom out to Neil.

Neil stares back at him.

“I'm supposed to be an impartial observer,” Neil says.

“We both know you stopped being that a long time ago.”

“He doesn't listen to me.”

“He listens to you more often than he listens to anyone else.”

“This is a bad idea,” Neil says.

“Hasn't stopped you before.”

Wymack's right. This whole mess has been an awful idea from the start, and Neil somehow has a group of friends he actually trusts and is experiencing some odd degree of career success. Maybe Neil just isn't any good at judging what is and isn't an awful idea. He takes the broom.

Andrew doesn't stop pelting his teammates with stray Quaffles until Neil is within earshot. Even then, he only tucks a Quaffle under his arm and watches Neil with his new disinterest.

“Wymack wants to know why you're trying to get charged with murder right before the knockout rounds of the Champions League start,” he says.

“Aren't you supposed to keep out of it?” Andrew says.

“I think that ship sailed months ago.” When Andrew pinched his nose shut at Eden's Twilight, maybe, or after that, when Andrew pulled him close and told him the truth about where he went every month. In any case, Neil's been riding the ethical journalism line since August. “You play Quidditch, but you don't have to. You never would've been on wolfsbane at all if you didn't let Kevin recruit you. No one plays a sport they don't want to win, and that must mean you want to win. But that's not going to happen if you break everyone's legs. How are you going to get them to trust you if you've spent every practice trying to get them bucked off their brooms?”

“You don't know what I want,” Andrew says.

“Then tell me.”

“Nothing,” Andrew says. “I want nothing.”

“Sure,” Neil says. “That's why you went through rehab. That's why you protect Kevin and Aaron. That's why you're here. Because you want nothing.”

“What will you give me if I stop?”

“Sounds dangerously close to unethical journalism,” Neil says.

Andrew stares at him, unruffled.

“What would it take?” Neil says.

“Your name.”

There isn't any reason not to tell him. Andrew can keep a secret, obviously, and it's not like he's exactly an ally to the Moriyamas. But though Neil opens his mouth, the name gets caught in the back of his throat. He looks Andrew in the eyes and wills him to see it for himself, but Andrew looks unmoved.

“If you really need something other than Neil—my middle name is Abram. It's what my mother called me when we were alone. She didn't like to say my dad's name, either.”

Andrew doesn't look satisfied. Neil sighs.

“Something else.”

“Where did you get the scar on your shoulder? The burn scar.”

Of course. Andrew remembers everything.

“I thought you weren't capable of pity,” Neil says, but his bad half-joke doesn't have any effect on Andrew. “Right, fine. Hot iron. My dad was angry with me—I don't remember what I did, but it was enough that he just grabbed the first thing he saw.”

“Why hasn't it faded?”

“Magically heated.”

“What about the bullet hole?” Andrew says.

“My father's people bewitch their guns,” Neil says. “They never miss.” And Dark magic scars permanently.

That must be good enough for Andrew, because he turns away and punts his Quaffle into the sky. Neil sinks into a dive, lands softly, and gives Wymack his broom back.

“So have you two figured out your shit yet?” Wymack says.

“What shit?”

Wymack stares at him. “Nothing. Forget I said anything. That was a nice dive.”

“Thank you,” Neil says, bemused.

*

Andrew's first match back in front of the hoops is away to Tutshill Tornadoes and messy, but he plays well enough that it doesn't matter; despite the anti-werewolf protestors outside the pitch, the Lions inch closer to second-place Puddlemere with every goal scored. Kevin and Jeremy are miles better than Puddlemere's Chasers, but Puddlemere's Seeker is better and is fully capable of knocking opposing Seekers around until it's the ideal time for him to catch the Snitch. Allison always catches too early, and Neil makes a note of it in his match preview, which earns him a dirty look from her when they pass each other in the tunnels.

In the press room after the match, that pesky Herald reporter makes eye contact with Neil and sits down in the seat next to him.

“How much do you hate knowing one of your team's Keepers is shit and the other's unstable?” he says.

“How much do you hate knowing that you spent seven years at Hogwarts and three years doing various apprenticeships just to end up making up fake quotes from imaginary sources for the least interesting tabloid in the U.K.?” Neil shoots back.

The reporter opens his mouth, but then Tutshill's manager starts talking—something about their strong defense not falling over to the Lions' star-powered offense, which Neil makes note of so he can dispute it in his write-up.

The next weekend, Andrew's first match back at the Lions' home pitch is the complete opposite. Their stadium is always sold out, but this week it's flooded with Lions supporters dressed in head to toe burgundy and surrounded by supporters. The Lions-affiliated pubs in the neighborhood are overflowing, and on his way in Neil catches sight of a slew of werewolf rights activists crowded right up near the gates, as close as security will let them get without actually having tickets.

“We sent about a hundred of those werewolf haters on their way for the safety of our Keeper,” one of the security guards tells Neil. “If they think they're going to get some kind of psychological advantage from shouting slurs at him—”

“Thanks,” Neil says, self-writing quill scribbling this down. “Would you say they were genuinely anti-werewolf, or were they just Harpies fans looking to get a rise out of Andrew?”

The guard is torn on this one, but there isn't enough time left before kick off for Neil to press.

The match itself is unremarkable—typical stuff from the Lions at their best—but the crowd is the most excited Neil's ever seen it. From kick off to the moment Allison catches the Snitch, the crowd sings Andrew's name and both his songs. Andrew doesn't seem to notice at all, but he plays one of his best games of the season, keeping a clean sheet despite an off day from Jean and an absolute battering from Harpies' offense. Andrew saves a remarkable twenty-eight shots on target, sending the Quaffle all the way across the pitch to his Chasers, who knock enough of them toward the goal to push the Lions back into second place.

Afterward, Neil takes notes dutifully in the press room. The Herald reporter tries to catch his eye when Wymack says something about starting Laila in the midweek League Cup match, but Neil pulls a trick from Andrew's book: he glances over and lets his gaze sweep right over the reporter as if he doesn't exist.

In his write-up of the match, Neil makes sure to include a bit about the werewolf rights movement showing up to support Andrew, and when Nicky reads it the next morning, he envelops Neil in yet another hug.

*

Andrew comes to practice on full moon looking awful, but he plays as well as ever before glancing toward the sky mid-afternoon and departing with Betsy.

The next day, he doesn't come to practice at all, and Neil leaves the Lions' practice pitch after only a few hours.

He's distracted most of the day, and he knows he shouldn't be—werewolves were transforming for millennia before the Wolfsbane Potion, and this isn't Andrew's first without it. It's nowhere near the worst thing that's ever happened to Andrew. He has access to the best Healers around.

Dan notices, of course, and she also figures out why—“I wondered if you might be off interviewing him all day or something,” she says.

“Profile's already done. Why would I be interviewing him?”

“I don't know,” Dan says. “Follow up? There are more awards coming out, you know, the UEQA award, and FIQA—maybe you want to endorse him for those, too?”

Neil thinks she's making fun of him, but he can't be sure, so he says, “That's not until June.”

“I think you should take the rest of the afternoon off.”

“I don't need to take any—”

“Clearly you do. You haven't gotten any work done all day, and I doubt you'll do much more in the next two hours.”

“Dan—”

“I'm making you use those personal hours this year, Josten. Don't work for free.”

“It's February,” Neil says.

“Yeah, and you didn't take any time off in January, so we're already off to a rocky start. Go home.”

Neil doesn't have a real argument to make, and anyway she's right: he hasn't gotten any work done all week, actually, and Dan's just assigned him the Lions' Champions League beat—“Without the profile you'll have plenty of time on your hands, and you know the Lions better than anyone”—so maybe taking an afternoon off before the knockout rounds start will actually be good for him.

Neil doesn't go back to his flat, though; instead, he goes for a run.

It feels good to be outside, to be moving, even if it is February and frigid. For once, Neil follows no trail, deciding on his path based on whims—turn a corner here, slip through an alley there, run a half mile in one direction before looping around again. For once, he's not trying to outrun his own desire to run away; the restlessness is due to impatience, not anxiety. So instead, he pays attention to the feeling of the pavement under his shoes, to the cold air in his lungs, to the way his body feels when it moves.

It's not long before he's in a familiar neighborhood, and Neil's surprised at his own lack of surprise at having ended up here.

Aaron opens the door, and it's jarring to see him—it's the first time since Geneva, Neil thinks, and Aaron has clearly not been doing well.

“Hi,” Neil says.

“Andrew's ill,” Aaron says.

“Yeah,” Neil says. “I know.”

Aaron leans against the doorframe, arms crossed. “Why did you publish that profile?”

“Why do you think I published it?”

“He's not grateful, you know,” Aaron says. “He's never going to be.”

“Don't you have a trial to be preparing for?” Neil says, which is a low blow but gets Aaron to shut up and let him in.

As usual, the door to Andrew's room creaks open seemingly of its own accord when Neil walks up to it.

Andrew looks—fine. The same. Tired. He's sitting on the windowsill smoking, and Neil absently wonders if he ever does anything other than smoke and play Quidditch.

“What?” Andrew says.

“I just wanted to—” But what it is he wanted to do, Neil doesn't know. It's not like he came here on purpose. Or, well, he did, but it's not like he intended to.

He stares at Andrew. Andrew looks back at him.

“Are you okay?” Neil says.

“That's a loaded question.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Do I?”

“Was—transforming. Without the potion. Was it okay?”

“I have done it before.”

“You know that's not what I'm asking.”

Andrew closes his eyes and leans back against the window frame. It isn't trust: it's the knowledge that he has something Neil wants, and that Neil won't harm him—or leave him alone—until he gets it.

“Do I?” Andrew says again. “You seem to think your motivations are clear, but—” There's the tiniest uptick of one shoulder, which Neil interprets as a shrug.

Andrew's confused, and why shouldn't he be? Neil could've written a profile after knowing him for two weeks and fucked off back to the Prophet offices to cover a less insane team. And even though he didn't, the profile has been out for weeks now, so what does he want?

He steals a cigarette from the packet near Andrew's leg and lights it with a flame from his wand. He doesn't smoke it, just holds it between his palms. Andrew doesn't look at him, so Neil watches him instead.

He was wrong. Andrew doesn't look the same. There's a slowly fading scratch on his neck, long, starting at his chin and dipping down beneath his collar. It must've been worse before, but even now, Neil doesn't like the look of it. And Andrew doesn't usually slump backward like this; he's typically less insouciance and more tightly coiled anger. There are dark smudges under his eyes, and the set of his mouth is tense, and he's holding on to his cigarette too tightly, and in the setting winter sun, his hair gleams gold.

“Don't look at me like that,” Andrew says, opening one eye to glare at Neil.

Neil cups his cigarette in his hand and looks out the window instead. They don't have a great view, but it's not an awful one either. There's something soothing about the layout of the buildings on the blocks surrounding them, roof after roof after roof, brick and cement and laundry and a few stray footballs. Andrew is still glaring at him. Neil forces the smile off his face.

“Like what?” he says.

Chapter Text

The Champions League knockout rounds start on a Tuesday in February, but the Lions' first match is away to Lyon on Wednesday.

Neil and Alvarez are taking a Portkey from the Prophet offices—Neil's never covered a QCL match before, but Dan asked if he wanted to add more to his plate and Neil, who apparently hates getting enough sleep, said he did.

He tries not to think about the last time he took a Portkey out of this building and into continental Europe. He tries not to think about the last time he was in France, either, when he was going by Stefan and spent long hours after school practicing a perfect Parisian accent while his mother stood over his shoulder and watched, hypervigilant as always.

“What's wrong?” Alvarez says when their Portkey lands, checking her camera and switching out one of the lenses. “You have that look on your face.”

“What look?” Neil says. He doesn't have a camera to fiddle with, so he plays with a scrap bit of parchment, shredding it between his fingertips.

“That look you get sometimes, like when the match got delayed in November and Jeremy looked like he was going to have a nervous breakdown? Or when Andrew came back and he didn't talk to you? Or—”

“Right,” Neil says. “That look.” He turns toward the pitch, where players have just started to warm up.

“That's what I'm talking about. What is it?”

“I just haven't been in France for a while,” Neil says, and then immediately realizes his mistake.

But Alvarez doesn't pick up on his discomfort, only says, “Yeah, last time I was here was summer after fifth year. We were in Paris, though, obviously, no one ever visits Lyon unless it's for a sport.”

Neil is rescued from making more conversation by the commentator starting to call the players out onto the pitch.

The match makes for a decent distraction. Lyon only got this far in the Champions League because they play brutal, defensive Quidditch, ugly to watch and uglier to write about. Their only strategy is to block the opposing team's Chasers and catch the Snitch before they do. It's the worst kind of Quidditch—other commentators call it anti-Quidditch—but if played properly, it can be extremely effective.

It's bound to be frustrating. Neil's spent the days since the last Lions match reading up on Lyon; their Beaters are twice the width of Matt and Jean, their Chasers look like American football players, and their Keeper could be three Andrews stacked on top of each other in a giant set of blue and white robes. Only their Seeker is small, one of the fastest players in the world and the current Best Player in Europe. Matt and Jean will be primarily concerned with keeping her from catching the Snitch before Allison. Either way, it's guaranteed to be a low-scoring game.

For the Lions, not having their home support while being in a foreign country means extra pressure, especially considering anti-werewolf hysteria in France after a werewolf bit a child in the center of Paris. Neil's been trying to figure out if Andrew is worried about that all week, but Andrew has looked as apathetic as ever and Neil doesn't want to bring it up.

Lyon's stadium isn't as old as the Lions', but it's not as new as some of the ones Neil's been to either. It's mid-size, sufficiently pretty, and packed almost entirely with home fans. The small away section is behind Andrew's hoops, not that he needs the assistance.

It's an ugly game, the kind Neil would've hated playing and doesn't like watching, even from a removed semi-intellectual standpoint. Lyon win despite Seth playing the best he has all season, breaking the Lions' winning streak in Europe but giving them hope for a return leg—Lyon didn't score once, and Seth bagged three away goals. As long as the Lions win their home leg and don't concede more than three goals, they'll be on to the next round.

*

Write-ups for the Champions League have to be in the next morning's paper, but Champions League matches end late enough in the day that it's close to midnight by the time Neil gets back to the Prophet offices. He put together a write-up during the match, one eye on the players and the other on his parchment, and what he has now is a decent analysis plus a few quotes from Wymack, Jeremy, and Seth.

Neil doesn't think he's ever seen the Daily Prophet offices this dark. All the torches are out on the sport section floor even though there are meant to be other journalists here handing in their write-ups; given his track record, Neil wouldn't be surprised if he were just later than the rest of them.

He's never seen it this quiet, either, no owls, no people, no copy editors running around trying to fact check things. Neil goes up an extra flight of stairs, searching for anyone who might be around to proofread, but the only office lit is Rheman's.

He'll just have to reread it himself, send it downstairs to the printers, and hope for the best. He turns to leave and practically jumps out of his skin when Rheman calls out to him.

“You need someone to look over that?” Rheman says, emerging from his office.

Neil doesn't bother to ask what Rheman's still doing here. He's not sure he can make words come out, anyway: his throat is tight, heart pounding, fingers clenched around the wand in his pocket.

“Relax,” Rheman says. “It's just me.” Rheman stays late all the time, though Neil didn't realize it was this late. He thought Rheman had a family or something. “You need someone to read that, right?”

Neil finds his voice at last. “Er, yeah, but it doesn't have to be like—anyone here can do it. It's short.”

“You're back late. Everyone else already handed in their pieces. I'll look at it,” Rheman says. “Lions win?”

“No, but they'll take the return leg and go through.”

“You seem confident.”

“They're the better team.”

Rheman looks down at the parchment Neil is holding out, his expression indecipherable.

“Not too long ago, you and I spoke and you could barely look me in the eye,” Rheman says.

It happens sometimes and not others. Neil doesn't know how to explain that Rheman only occasionally holds himself like the man who made Neil's childhood hell, so he stares at the parchment, too.

“I told you to be careful a few months ago, remember?” Rheman says. “Do you have a quill?”

Neil holds one out. Rheman marks something on the parchment.

“You've completely changed your reputation since that day. For one, you're the closest thing to a household name a sports journalist is ever going to be.” He marks something else, then crosses out an entire line. “You're considered a werewolf rights activist, a progressive writer who isn't afraid to call out the government and organizations as big as the QA. The Daily Prophet's reputation is changing, too, and it's at least in part thanks to you.”

“Well, it was Dan who really let me do it,” Neil says, breath and heart rate slowly returning to normal. “If it weren't for her—”

Rheman doesn't let him finish. “Where do you see yourself in five years, Neil?”

If he's being honest? He's surprised he isn't dead already. “I don't know. Here, I guess.”

“You visualize your future at the Daily Prophet?”

“Where else would I go?”

This draws a low chuckle from Rheman.

“That's true,” he says. “Unless you end up working on the Lions' public relations team, I think you've suitably upset half the journalists in London.”

It can't be that bad, Neil thinks. One or two of them, sure, but half?

“But that's good to hear,” Rheman continues. “It's good to have you here. I look forward to seeing what you do next. I'll send this to the layout team.”

Neil stares after his retreating form, and then he absolutely panics.

Five years? Neil still can't believe he's survived that long after his mother's death. He's been at the Prophet for nearly four years now, but he's only had any sort of reputation at all since he started writing about Andrew. But household name? Surely that can't be right—

The only thing stopping him from having a complete meltdown is the fact that no one actually knows what he looks like. He's a byline, not a famous player—

Except, he thinks, heart in his throat, that everyone who has season tickets to the Lions must know what he looks like, because he's been covering them from the air all season. Sure, he's not actually within the boundaries of the pitch, but he's just near the commentators, and anyone who looks in his direction will see him and know what he looks like and know who he is and—

He's meant to be hiding. He's not meant to be getting attached to a Quidditch team and his coworkers and his roommate and Quidditch itself. He's meant to be keeping a low profile so that he survives. He's doing this all wrong. If his mother were alive, she'd kill him, if only to save him from the slow and painful death his father's people are sure to inflict upon him the second they find him.

The Daily Prophet was only meant to put a roof over his head and food in his mouth. Five years.

Neil runs. He doesn't know where he's running to, and all his muscles are exhausted from the long day, but he runs anyway, because he knows that if he doesn't, he'll get on his broom and fly away and probably end up spotted by Muggles and thrown in Azkaban, and what would he do then?

It's maybe the worst run of his life, made worse by shoes that are completely wrong for the task, by how cold it is outside, by the rain, by the darkness. Usually when he runs at night it's relaxing, cathartic even, but tonight he can't stop thinking the shadows around him are people following him, that the typical noises of a city street are people calling out to him. It's close to terrifying in a way it rarely has been in the past, and he knows he can take care of himself, but if someone catches him off guard, if someone Disarms him before he can react, what is he supposed to do? He's been practicing wandless magic, but it's harder than anything else he's ever tried, so if someone were to pop up right now there's no question he'd be completely fucked—

A car alarm goes off, and Neil startles so badly that he has to stop running. He leans against a building, bends over so that his head is in the vicinity of his knees, and forces himself to breathe.

“It's just a car alarm,” Neil says aloud. His voice sounds wrong, but he can't figure out why. “Someone didn't hit the right button on their remote, and they set off the alarm. It's just a car alarm.”

He has to stop. He has to go back to his flat, pack his things, and leave. Running right now won't be of any use to him.

Already, he's mentally cataloguing everything he has. He'll need his broom, of course, a few sets of robes, some of the Muggle clothes he rarely wears anymore, all the Muggle money and Muggle checks he has stuffed into various books in his bedroom, a spare pair of shoes, his wand—

He Apparates the rest of the way and ducks into the bathroom for a quick shower without saying hello to Matt.

On the way out of the bathroom, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

His father's eyes stare back at him. Beneath them, dark circles, his mother's nose, a drawn mouth. He's still out of breath. He's shaking from head to toe.

He's useless like this. He'll leave in the morning. First, he needs to sleep.

*

But with morning comes a surprising calm, a resolve that he will not leave. What was it he told Kevin? The Moriyamas are in Azkaban with his father. Kevin and Neil are safe. If Neil continues to hide, to run, he's just going to waste his life hiding and running. Which just sounds—exhausting. Lonely.

Instead he makes his way to work, goes through all the motions despite the fog in his head, barely notices the people around him talking. Afterward, he sits through dinner with Dan and Matt, both of whom exchange worried glances.

“You need a real day off,” Dan says.

“Season's almost over,” Neil replies.

“Maybe you shouldn't have taken on the QCL.”

“I wanted to,” Neil says. “You didn't make me.”

“At least skip your practice with Kevin tonight,” Matt says.

“No.”

He doesn't have the option to, anyway: Kevin and Andrew show up in Andrew's car before Neil can decide whether to jog or Apparate to the pitch. He slumps into the backseat; Andrew and Kevin are talking quietly about the history of giant persecution, which Neil knows nothing about, so he stares out the window as they drive through darkened streets.

It takes Neil a stupid amount of time to figure out they're not actually heading in that direction, and when he does, he sits upright.

His mother would kill him, she really would, because what is he doing trusting these people? He has no reason to think they wouldn't murder him, or maybe trade him to the Moriyamas, or maybe just drop “him in the middle of the Thames for no reason other than sick pleasure, and isn't he supposed to know by now that people do get a kind of sick pleasure out of torturing each other? His heart is hammering away in his chest again; Neil thinks that if he goes on like this, it's just going to give out altogether and save everyone the trouble of killing him.

“Where are we going?” Neil says.

Andrew's eyes meet Neil's in the rearview mirror. It shouldn't be reassuring, just that glance, but it is, and Neil clutches the armrest and forces himself to breathe regularly.

“We are not flying tonight,” Kevin says.

“What?” Neil says. “Why not?”

“You have mastered the drills,” Kevin says. “What you continue to lack is power. You are going to start lifting.”

They pull over at a Muggle gym, and Kevin gets them through with a flash of his ID and a cheerful fake smile. Andrew drapes himself across a machine and pulls out a knife to play with while Kevin teaches Neil his circuit.

“Why aren't you working out?” Neil says.

“Overworking your muscles leads to injury,” Kevin says. “I already lifted today. In the future, you will go to the gym alone, but I need to show you what to do first.”

“What's the point?” Neil says.

“The point?”

“Why should I work out of it's all for—” For nothing, Neil wants to say, because it's not like he's going to play professionally. He doesn't need to be particularly strong just to scrimmage with Kevin and Andrew and whoever else will play with him—a game with Dan and Matt in the summer, maybe, he thinks, and then reminds himself that he's not supposed to be thinking of the future.

“Chasers do not peak until 28,” Kevin says. “And you have come so far in just a few months. I think by the end of summer, you will be ready for a trial. You could be great.”

Neil drops the weight he's supposed to be lifting. Kevin swears, hopping out of the way, but Neil barely notices.

“I'm not doing this for that,” Neil says. “I was never—”

“Did you think there was no end goal?” Kevin says. “Were you just going to play for the sake of playing until I stopped playing with you?”

“What would you have done?” Neil says. “My father tried to sell me, Kevin, I'm not supposed to—” To want this, to play, to care.

“The Butcher is in prison,” Kevin says in French, because Andrew glanced up at Neil's outburst. “You said it yourself. We are safe.”

He wants to let himself be convinced, he really does, even if Kevin's not the most reassuring person Neil's ever met.

“Neil. Pick up the weight.”

Neil picks it up.

*

Dan takes Neil out to dinner the next night, apparently wanting to discuss something or other related to Quidditch.

“You have your match preview in for tomorrow?” she says.

“Yeah, even got your mandatory monthly Minyard quote.”

“Good.” She takes a sip of her drink. “I wanted to wait until you were done with work for the week to let you know.”

“What?”

“Rheman and I are trying to figure out better ways to delegate work in the sport section,” Dan says. “With all the competitions—you said it yourself. There's Quidditch twice a week during the season, and then nearly every day in the summer, and that's not even including Quodpot or school sports. We need to structure it better. So we've decided that at the end of the season, we'll be breaking it down into smaller sections. We wanted to promote you to Editor of English Quidditch when that happens.”

Neil's mouth opens, then closes again of its own accord.

“I can't do that,” Neil says.

“Why not? You've proven that you have good judgment and a strong eye where Quidditch is considered. You're excellent at building relationships with players. The team you work with week to week likes you, and there's no reason other teams won't like you as well. You've also established a reputation as a good writer who isn't afraid to stand up for his beliefs. Give me one good reason you shouldn't be our top choice for the position.”

Neil can't think of one. He should be happy for the opportunity. It's what he wanted, isn't it, to be closer to Quidditch, to write about it—and Kevin's offered him a trial, and he should be happy about that too, except that he feels like he's barely holding on to any semblance of normalcy.

He stares at Dan. Yesterday morning's resolve has frayed almost completely.

“Think about it,” she says. “If you really don't want it—that's difficult, since you're going to get it anyway, but think about it.”

“I have to go,” Neil says.

“Neil—”

“No, I—thanks for dinner.” Dan gives his untouched meal a pointed look. Neil pulls his cloak on. “I'll see you.”

Neil—”

He leaves the pub, but then he stands outside in the rain, not sure what his next steps should be.

If he runs, he's going to leave. He knows that. He might be tired, but it's not late and he doesn't have an excuse to keep him there like he did the other night.

He tries to examine where this is coming from—he's been in the U.K. for over six years, and he's still very much alive. His father's people haven't found him. He's safe. He's safe.

But it's the idea of it, isn't it? The idea of having a future, of being responsible for other people—whether it's for his team's successes and failures or for the sport section's sales in a given quarter. He can't do that if he's sure he's going to die if he makes the wrong move. And he hasn't been sure what the right move to make is in months. The only thing he's done since summer that he's still sure was right was publishing the Minyard profile, and now that's gone and made him into someone who gets considered for promotions.

He needs a cigarette. He needs—something.

For once, it's Andrew who opens the door when Neil shows up at his flat soaking wet.

“Where's Kevin?” Neil says.

“With Jean and Jeremy.”

“You're letting him make friends?”

Andrew glares at Neil, who is dripping water all over his floor.

“What do you want?” Andrew says.

Neil opens his mouth, but he can't think of anything more specific to say than, “I don't want to leave.”

Andrew stares at him, then snags a bottle of firewhiskey from the kitchen and leads Neil back out the door and up to the roof.

It's cold and dark, but the rain is significantly less oppressive now, and Andrew huddles against the side to light a cigarette. He passes it to Neil, then lights one for himself and sits down as close to the edge as he can get.

They sit in silence while Andrew smokes his way through two cigarettes and drinks several swigs from his bottle. Neil dries off with his wand and forces himself to breathe; again, Andrew's presence is more calming than it should be.

“It's your turn,” Neil says eventually. He's expecting Andrew to ask what happened, why he's such a mess, why he came here instead of going to his own flat or Nicky's, but Andrew looks over at Neil's cupped hands with something that might be curiosity.

“Why don't you smoke them?”

Neil stares at the cigarette burning to bits between his fingers. Andrew's own cigarette is in his mouth, which Neil supposes makes sense considering that's where cigarettes are supposed to be.

“I told you I burned my mother's body, right? The smell reminds me of her. She smoked, too, so it's—comforting.”

Andrew doesn't ask him for more details about his mother or to explain how this can possibly be comforting. He just leans further over the edge of the roof. “Your turn,” he says.

Neil thinks of Andrew facing Chasers twice his height and four times his width, thinks of a Bludger catapulting toward Andrew's skull, thinks of Drake. Sometimes Neil feels like he's terrified of his own shadow, like if he paid even a little bit of attention to his fraying emotional state he'd find that he's just scared all the time.

“What are you afraid of?” he says.

Andrew is quiet for so long that Neil thinks he doesn't hear him, but when Neil looks he sees that Andrew's expression is thoughtful.

“Heights,” Andrew says finally, looking out at the busy Muggle street below them.

“Fuck off,” Neil says, but when Andrew doesn't respond, realizes it might actually be true. “Heights? You play a sport on broomsticks a hundred feet in the air for a living, Jesus Christ Andrew—”

Andrew stares ahead. No, not ahead. Down.

“Okay,” Neil says. Maybe Andrew's vice-like hold on his broom before matches was never just thanks to being off wolfsbane. How pale he always is before a match, his trembling fingers, all of it made worse by sobriety. “Fine. You're scared of heights. So what are you doing playing Quidditch?”

Again, it takes Andrew an age to answer.

“Feeling,” he says.

They lapse back into silence, Neil contemplating this, wondering why Andrew can't go watch funny movies and try to make himself feel some positive emotion, and then, because Andrew has never lied to Neil or put off answering a question, and because Neil kind of got a two-in-one there, says, “My real name is Nathaniel. For my father. Nathan.”

Andrew doesn't look at him, which is for the best, because Neil feels like he's already shattered and is about to scatter in the wind. At least if he's going to die, Andrew will know who he really is. Not Neil the reporter-slash-wannabe-Quidditch player. Nathaniel, the Butcher's son.

“You look more like a Neil,” Andrew says.

It's a relief to hear. Neil is immediately a hundred pounds lighter, his aching muscles aching less, breaths coming out easier. “That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me.”

Andrew looks at him at last. Neil can't begin to understand the expression on his face. “I hate you.”

“Bit strange, isn't it, that someone who has to fly a broom and hang off roofs just to feel happens to experience so much hatred every time he sees me.”

“Stop talking,” Andrew says.

He takes Neil by the chin, and for a moment he just holds him there. Anything is possible, the roof collapsing or the sky falling or the stars exploding, but instead Andrew kisses Neil, hot and angry and the opposite of everything Andrew has been since he got back from rehab. Neil drops the remains of his cigarette, tries to figure out what to do with his hands, remembers Andrew doesn't like to be touched and plants them on the cement beneath him.

The motion catches Andrew's attention. He pulls away, so minutely that Neil feels slightly crosseyed looking at him.

“Tell me to stop,” Andrew says.

Neil can see every freckle on the bridge of his nose. He opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a ragged breath.

Andrew backs away, stiffening. “We are not doing this right now,” he says.

Right now. “Why not?”

“Because you're a mess.”

“I'm always a mess.”

“That's your problem.” Andrew's mouth is a thin line that he scrubs a finger against. “I won't be like them. I won't let you let me be.”

Neil doesn't know how to answer that, so he leans back on his arms and stares ahead of him at the roofs of the shorter buildings around them. “I'm going to fight the next person who calls you a monster.”

Andrew doesn't say anything, only shoots Neil a withering glare, which isn't really funny but makes Neil smile anyway. For the first time in days, he feels like he isn't struggling to breathe.

He's tired, he realizes, and there's no practice with Kevin tonight because the Lions have a match tomorrow. Andrew doesn't seem likely to talk anymore, so it's the perfect opportunity to catch up on some sleep. Neil stands up only a little reluctantly.

“I'm going home,” he says, and Andrew glances up at him. “Thank you.”

Andrew doesn't reply, only slides a new cigarette into his mouth and lights it with tense, jerky movements.

Neil starts to make his way down the stairs alone, but he's not even halfway down the first flight before Andrew is sprinting past him.

Neil doesn't think he's ever seen Andrew move that quickly on the ground. The wards must have gone off, Neil thinks, alerting Andrew to an intruder. He follows close behind Andrew, wand out even though it's a Muggle building, but—

“Oh,” Neil says. “It's only Kevin.”

But Kevin is so drunk he can't get his keys out of his pockets, and when he whirls around to look at them it's with wide, haunted eyes. Andrew doesn't have to ask, because the words come tumbling out of Kevin's mouth.

“Riko,” he gasps. “Riko got parole.”

Chapter Text

Andrew goes to Kevin's side immediately. Their front door opens for him, and Andrew drags Kevin in before depositing him unceremoniously on the floor.

Their flat isn't empty: standing in front of the fire are a dusty Jean and Jeremy, brushing themselves off, Jean's fingers tight around a bottle of something or other. They must be what set off Andrew's wards, which makes sense: Kevin never goes anywhere alone.

“We told you to wait for us,” Jeremy says. “You shouldn't have Apparated. You could've splinched yourself, honestly, Kevin—”

Jean turns to Neil, contemplates him for a moment, then says in his harsh southern French, “It's not just Riko. The lord is out, too.”

Neil turns to look at him. There's no way he means Kengo—no one who received the dementor's kiss would be released from Azkaban; what would the point be?—and so it must be Kengo's son, Riko's older brother, the rightful Moriyama heir, Ichirou.

“What does that mean for us?” Neil says.

“It means you had better hope the lord wants to keep you alive for some reason,” Jean says. “Riko may lack the resources to have you killed without getting caught, but Ichirou does not.”

Neil turns to look at Andrew, but Andrew is preoccupied with Kevin. He meets Jeremy's eye instead.

“Are you two done?” Jeremy says. It's the first time Neil has seen a fracture in his sunny disposition that isn't just anxiety over a match, which, to be fair to Jeremy, makes sense. “This is going to be all over the papers in the morning. Neil, we need you to do damage control.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we need you to ask questions in the post-match for once,” Jeremy says. “Anything other than Riko. I don't care if you ask about Allison's haircut or that pink broom she keeps trying to get Wymack to approve. Anything. Please.”

“Yeah,” Neil says. “Yeah, of course.”

Jeremy scrubs a hand over his face in relief as if there were ever any possibility Neil would say no. This is Jeremy, Jeremy who gives him exclusives and lets him watch the Lions from the air instead of the press box, Jeremy who asked him to host a Halloween party and believed Andrew wouldn't be any worse off the wolfsbane.

But Neil doesn't plan to be there tomorrow anyway. The Moriyama brothers getting parole has to be the final straw. Everything else has been leading up to this, hasn't it, and he should've seen it coming—there's no way Neil can stay in London for another night if he wants to survive. Not looking like this. Not after he got the Moriyamas sent to Azkaban. Jean might still not recognize him, but Riko must know who he is. He mentally catalogues all his things—it's going to have to be Canada, Montreal is cold this time of year but better cold than dead, and maybe he's better off faking a resume and getting a job as a bartender or something. He can pretend he's a Muggle, live like that for a few years, dart from place to place, never make the mistake of making friends again.

He looks back at Andrew, remembers the heat of Andrew's fingers on his chin, but one kiss can't be enough. Andrew will keep Kevin safe. There's nothing keeping Neil here. Maybe he can send in questions for Wymack and Jeremy to answer, mundane things about haircuts and their preferred Quaffle brand, and that'll be his last goodbye, his last thank you to them for giving him the last few months.

“What?” Jeremy says.

“Nothing,” Neil says.

“Are you sure?” Jeremy glances toward the door. “Because you look like—”

“Jeremy, don't say anything,” Jean says, “but I'm having a drink.”

Their match is early the next day, a one o'clock start, but Jeremy doesn't say anything. Jean drinks.

*

“Just because he's out, doesn't mean he's going to come for you,” Jeremy has said about a thousand times, but it's not doing a very good job at convincing Jean or Kevin, both of whom are very drunk on the floor of Kevin's living room only a couple of hours later. Aaron came home with Katelyn at one point, saw them all there, and promptly turned back around, which is for the best, really. “If he touches Jean or Kevin, he's back in Azkaban for good, right? He's not eighteen anymore, it'd be permanent, a life sentence. And the QA's banned him from all Quidditch-related activities forever. He can't come to our stadium. He can't come here. You're going to be all right.”

“You do not know Riko Moriyama,” Kevin says. Neil's convinced he'll only be able to play in the morning because Kevin's one of those people who would die, sharklike, if he stopped. He's seen Kevin practice hungover before, though, and it's not pretty.

“You're both going to be fine,” Jeremy says.

“You don't know what you're talking about,” Jean says. “It is not just Riko we have to worry about. The lord is free as well.”

“We are not going to be fine,” Neil says. “We need to be on our guard. Riko hates Kevin, and he won't be happy to see how well Kevin's doing without him in the picture. Right now, you're two matches away from winning the League Cup, in the ideal position to nick the league, and the dark horse for the Champions League. Kevin and Jean won awards in the fall, and they're going to win more in the spring, and if you top it off with the treble, Riko's going to lose his mind.”

It always was the inferiority complex with Riko. He was always too obsessed with getting Kevin back to figure out who Neil was, but now—with Neil back to his father's looks, and with Neil's father probably in an adjacent cell in Azkaban—it's hard to believe Neil will be so lucky.

“Ichirou shouldn't be your priority right now,” Neil says, though of course Ichirou should be his priority. “Our priority is keeping Riko away from you. Get restraining orders if you have to.”

“How are you so calm?” Jeremy says. “It's because of you the Moriyamas are in Azkaban.”

“It's because of Riko,” Neil corrects. “If he'd backed off and let Kevin have success without him, I wouldn't have written a word.”

Jeremy looks at Neil like he's never seen him before, and maybe he hasn't. He wasn't at Lions then, was still the Chaser meant to save Chudley Cannons, but Wymack bought him the summer after that mess, moved him and Jean into the same house. Jeremy doesn't know Neil Josten isn't real. All he knows about Neil is that he likes Quidditch—he's never seen the shadow of Nathaniel behind it, the all-encompassing fear of his father coupled with a sort of recklessness Neil's mother was never able to stamp out.

“I gave you a broom,” Jeremy says. “I told you to watch us from the air. I thought all you cared about was Quidditch.”

“That is all he cares about,” Andrew says.

It's the first time he's spoken in hours. He's drinking, too, though at a much slower rate than the two former Ravens sitting on his living room floor. He's been playing with a knife all night, spinning it endlessly between his fingers.

“We all need to go to bed,” Jeremy says. He hauls Jean off the floor, and despite his tone Jean rises obediently, slumps against Jeremy. “We'll see you in the morning.”

“Wait,” Neil says. “What spells do you have on your house to prevent unwanted guests getting in?”

“Don't worry,” Jeremy says, giving Neil a sunny smile despite everything. “Andrew showed us how to do about twenty of them when Jean first moved in.”

What he really means is when Jean finally escaped the Ravens and Wymack moved him into a house with the Lions' newly purchased Chaser thinking Jeremy would be the least likely Lion to give him any issues. Neil looks over at Andrew, who is still playing absently with that knife.

“I'm going to leave, too,” Neil says.

Andrew walks Neil to the door. Neil can't figure out why until Andrew steps out with him.

“I'll,” Neil says, looking at the door to the apartment opposite them, unsure what to say. This is the last time he's going to see Andrew, maybe ever. How is he supposed to say goodbye to him? There are a thousand things he wants to say, but he can't think of a single one just now. He'll write a letter, maybe.

But Andrew's hand is at the back of his neck, forcing Neil to look him in the eye. His breath smells like cigarettes and expensive firewhiskey. His expression is, as always, impassive with the slightest edge of exhaustion.

“Don't run,” Andrew says.

“What?”

“Do you really want to do that forever?”

If Andrew's fingers weren't there, Neil would absolutely look anywhere else. As it is, he has to face Andrew when he says, “I don't know.”

Andrew lets go of Neil, but he doesn't back away.

“Go home,” he says. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

Andrew disappears inside, but Neil stares at the closed door for too long, remembering the press of Andrew's fingers, the heat of his mouth, and thinking he has no clue what's going on there.

*

The next day, Kevin and Jean play their worst ever game. The Lions win only because Andrew locks down the hoops—again—and Jeremy and Seth have a decent match at home to bottom-ranked Appleby Arrows.

Nearly every question at the post-match interview is about Riko's release. Neil distracts from these, but not enough—reporters shout over him as soon as they realize what he's doing, uninterested in his mundane questions about everything from Andrew's tendency to drive a car to the actual match.

Wymack says at least three times that he's there to talk about Quidditch, and then, when the Moriyama questions don't stop, leaves the press conference. Jeremy takes a few questions about scoring, says Andrew's his pick for man of the match, and follows suit.

Neil lingers even after other reporters dissipate, intending to check in and see what Kevin is up to or maybe just make good on Andrew's promise. He waits near the back exit to catch them on their way out, but someone else seems to have had the same idea.

“Wesninski,” Riko says. “Why am I not surprised?”

Riko looks—the same. Thinner than he used to be. Tired. Angry, presumably at Neil for outing the Moriyama clan for being Voldemort supporters in the highest echelons of the Ministry a few years back.

“It's Josten,” Neil says. “Aren't you supposed to be getting your soul sucked out of you?” Like your father, Neil doesn't say, but Riko gets the message anyway.

“I was a kid,” Riko says coldly. His accent—American, east coast, hint of an Appalachian drawl—is enough to send Neil's pulse skyrocketing on its own. That he's here at all makes Neil feel like he's just run a marathon. He should've left last night, should've left the week before, should've left the day the Moriyamas got sentenced. Why, why did he listen to Andrew? “I didn't get a life sentence.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question.” Riko raises an eyebrow, leans back slightly as if trying to make himself look bigger. But he's barely taller than Neil, and it's obvious. “Trying to get a trial with this sad joke of a team?”

“The Lions are second-ranked in England,” Neil says. “They're about to progress to the next round of the Champions League. They're doing better than the Ravens have in years.”

“That's because the best manager in the world is in Azkaban,” Riko says, “and the best Chaser in the world is serving a ban from the sport.”

“You were never the best Chaser in the world,” Neil says.

“So who is? Not Kevin? Tell me, is he still scared of his own shadow?”

“What are you doing here?”

“I'm here to claim what's mine,” Riko says.

So Azkaban has changed Riko: he would never do something as stupid as show up to one of Kevin's matches before, not like this. He used to wait for Kevin to come to him.

“Nothing here is yours,” Neil says, because Kevin isn't the same Kevin he was before. “You and your family are Muggle-baiting Death Eater trash, and you belong with them.”

“Okay, so then what's your family?” Riko says. “Muggle-baiting? Didn't the Butcher slaughter Muggles to feed to his three-headed dog? Or were those just rumors?”

Neil forces himself not to react.

“That isn't my family,” Neil says.

“You'll be happy to hear your father hasn't forgotten you,” Riko says. “Talks about you all the time. Promised my brother he'd help him get revenge for you destroying our family.”

“If my father ever sets foot outside of Azkaban again, it'll be the job of every dementor and Auror in the world to find him.”

“Who says he has to leave Azkaban to do it?” Riko says. “What if you're the one who ends up there? Apparating without a license, faking a name, living off money your family only gained through the black market—”

“Fuck off,” Neil says.

“I'm not here for you, anyway,” Riko says. “It's Kevin I want.” He pauses. “What about Jean? Still failing to live up to expectations, I'm guessing?”

“Stay away from them.”

“What about the werewolf?” Riko says. “Is he still around? I met a friend of his in Azkaban. A guard. He seemed like he really wanted to see Andrew again. It was touching, you know. Brothers reuniting.”

Neil doesn't think before he does it, just shoves Riko bodily against the side of the building and pokes his wand into the underside of Riko's chin.

“What about your brother?” Neil says, ignoring the sirens going off in his head. “Does he acknowledge your presence at all, or is he still pissed off with you for being the reason the Moriyamas all ended up in Azkaban?”

Riko flinches, but apparently his pride isn't wounded enough to keep him from replying: “What are you going to do, Wesninski? Kill me? Like father like son?”

Neil hesitates for too long, and Riko blasts Neil backward with his wand. Neil scrambles for a spell—any spell—but comes up empty.

“Drake just wanted to send money home to his mommy,” Riko says. “I gave him the perfect solution.”

Neil drops his wand and punches Riko in the face instead. Riko wasn't expecting it, but in the next instant he's reacted, kneed Neil in the stomach and then forced him to the ground. Neil hits him back with a ferocity he hasn't felt in ages, and dimly he's aware that it feels good to hit something that will react, flinch and bruise and bleed.

But then he's flying off Riko, and he hits the ground with a thud that should hurt more than it does. Neil looks around and is only a little surprised to see half the Lions there, wands out and pointed at Riko.

“What's going on back here?” Jeremy says. Behind him are Matt, Allison, and Andrew, all looking equally intimidating in their wet hair and street clothes. Lingering back: Kevin. Jean is nowhere to be seen.

“Someone broke out of his cage,” Neil says. “I was just seeing if I could get him back in.”

Riko goes for his wand, but Andrew is faster: “Expelliarmus!” he says, and Neil thinks it might be the first time he's seen Andrew do a spell with an actual wand, though of course it can't be.

Riko's flies out of his hand, and Neil catches it. It's short and slender, the color of bone.

“You're not supposed to be anywhere near a Quidditch stadium,” Jeremy says. “What are you doing here?”

“Just wanted to see my old friend play Quidditch with his remaining hand,” Riko says, shooting Kevin a murderous smile. “But I can see that I'm not welcome.” He raises both his hands in surrender, or innocence—Neil doesn't know.

“You're not supposed to have a wand,” Allison says. “Where'd you get that?”

“It's easy to procure things if you're willing to pay for them,” Riko says. “You must know all about that. Give it back, Neil.”

It's a trade. He wants his wand in exchange for not telling everyone who Neil really is.

Neil starts to hand it back, but Andrew plucks it from between his fingers. His fingers brush against Neil's back, feather light, and then Andrew makes for Riko himself.

“Here you go,” Andrew says, and for an instant there's some of that murderous cheer he used to wear when he was on wolfsbane all the time. “Don't come back, or I'll kill you.”

“Sure,” Riko says. “Can't defend yourself from someone who practically failed out of Hogwarts, but—”

“Riko, leave now or I'll put you back in Azkaban myself,” Jeremy says. Neil doesn't think he's ever seen Jeremy look dangerous before, but he sees it now, whatever it is lingering beneath the sunny surface that makes it possible for he and Jean to be so close.

Riko must see it too, because in the next second he's Disapparated.

“Can he go back to Azkaban for that?” Matt says. “That must violate the conditions of his parole, right? Someone send an owl to his probation officer—”

“It doesn't,” Jeremy says. “Well, fighting with Neil might, but there's no record of it and he'll just say Neil picked the fight and he was defending himself. Otherwise, it's the QA that's banned him from our grounds, not the British government.”

“Right, but surely there's a way to keep him away from Kevin and Jean at least.”

“Kevin and Jean filed restraining orders first thing today,” Jeremy says. “No one will be in to approve them until Monday morning, so they're on their own til then.”

“When did you become an expert on all this?” Matt says.

“I read up when I met Jean.”

“Where is Jean?” Neil says.

“Laila and Seth are babysitting,” Jeremy says. “Which reminds me. I'm going to get him, and then we're all going for a drink at mine. Neil, you're coming.”

Allison, Kevin, and Matt follow him back inside. Andrew doesn't.

“Why didn't Kevin stay inside with Jean?”

“Kevin thinks people can change.”

“Surely not Riko, though.”

Andrew stares at Neil like he's literally never seen anyone less intelligent in his entire life. “Not Riko,” he says.

“Riko asked if he was still scared of his own shadow.”

“Did you tell him yes?”

“I told him to fuck off.”

“Speaking of which,” Andrew says, “I didn't expect to see you here.”

“You told me to stay.”

“I didn't think you were stupid enough to listen.”

“Apparently I am.”

Andrew looks like he's going to say something else. Neil wants to say something else, too, but he hasn't had a spare moment to think about what happened between them last night before the whole world fell apart. But it doesn't matter, because they're interrupted by Kevin coming back outside, his bag slung over his shoulder.

“Are we going?” he says. “Jeremy says it's mandatory.”

Andrew doesn't even look at him, opting instead to unlock his car and get in the driver's seat.

Kevin rolls his eyes. “Come on,” he says to Neil. “You're riding with us.”

“To Jeremy's?”

“You can cover it,” Kevin says. “'Lions' Captain Throws Party After Horrific Performance from Star Chaser Kevin Day.'”

“Yeah, you played like shit,” Neil says. “Which is exactly what Riko wants. Keep playing like that, and he wins.”

Neil walks past Kevin to Andrew's car. The trip to Jeremy's is silent.

*

Between working out, running, Quidditch, and his actual job, Neil doesn't get a chance to think through Friday's events until the next Friday.

He's still alive. That has to mean something. Ichirou hasn't come anywhere near him. Even Riko didn't do real damage. And it's not like Neil is hiding—if Riko knows who he really is, then Ichirou must know as well, and Neil is close to singlehandedly responsible for exposing the Moriyamas as Death Eater sympathizers who managed to infiltrate half of British and American wizarding institutions. Everyone with even a passing interest in English Quidditch knows who he is and where he works. He spends every weekend at the Lions' stadium, every day at their practice pitch or the Prophet offices. He is not difficult to find.

The only possible explanation for Ichirou staying away is the Butcher. Not that Neil has any illusions about fatherly love—if Nathan wants Neil alive, it's only so Nathan can kill Neil himself. That's the extent of his sympathy, if it can be called that.

Nathan is still locked up. He's old enough to have been around when Voldemort's power was at its peak, so there's no opportunity for him to get parole. He's never getting out of Azkaban; if he ever even tries, it's the dementor's kiss for him. But Neil knows better than anyone that prison isn't a good permanent solution—Nathan was in Azkaban when he had Neil's mother killed. There are plenty of times when he caught up with them or came close to catching up with them while they were on the run even though he was meant to be in prison in America. His people were all over Neil and his mother in the U.S., which is the only reason they came to Britain in the first place. His mother's brother helped hide them, but then it was Wales and the Butcher's people catching up to them at last.

Neil is going to die. The certainty of it fills him with a kind of leaden resolve. He's not running away, because Neil Josten doesn't run away. Neil Josten has been here for years. Neil Josten likes it here.

Okay, so he's going to die. That's fine.

Which means Neil can let himself focus on last Friday's other major event.

Andrew kissed him, and then Andrew stopped, but Andrew said right now.

Andrew hates him.

It doesn't make any sense, except that of course it makes perfect sense, because it's Andrew, and he's right that Neil was a walking psychological disaster that night. If Neil can breathe easier right now, it's because he's in his own flat, warm, and has been suitably distracted from the messiness of his life all week. Andrew didn't accept that Neil wanted to kiss him because how could Neil have made a decision in that moment, drenched with rain and exhausted and barely capable of forcing himself to breathe—for all that he'd been doing it his entire life?

He's not supposed to be getting attached to anyone. He's definitely not supposed to be kissing someone who not even seven months ago slipped him some truth potion, and yet Neil trusts Andrew almost on instinct. His mother would kill him if she knew, but then—Neil's going to die either way. What's the point in denying himself this, when he feels like if he so much as glances at a calendar his entire life will come screeching to a halt? His days are numbered—not literally, because he has no idea when or how his father will kill him, but numbered nonetheless, and Neil doesn't think that number is very high.

It's fine if Andrew hates him. It's better, even—if Neil wants to kiss him and Andrew wants to kiss him back, it's better if Andrew hates him, so that when Neil inevitably dies at the end of all this, he won't have to feel guilty about leaving Andrew, too.

Neil tells Andrew this at the Lions' empty stadium later that night, both of them wrapped in their cloaks, sitting knee-to-knee on the bleachers. Not in so many words, of course: he's learned not to tell everyone that he knows he's going to die soon. It tends to worry people.

“It's fine if you don't want to. But if you aren't opposed, I'm not opposed either.”

“'Not opposed' still doesn't sound very much like yes.”

The stadium is empty for now, dark, quiet. The floodlights are on, but they're angled toward the pitch, not the seats, especially not the seats this far up, this far back. Andrew is cast in shadow, but the expression he wears is a neutral one, and his hands are loose on either side of his body.

“Yes,” Neil says. He keeps his arms wrapped around himself, but moves his face closer to Andrew's and waits.

“Keep your hands there,” Andrew warns, all breath, and then kisses him.

Andrew kissing is all heat, brute force giving way to something else, and if Neil didn't already know Andrew is human after all he'd be surprised by the softness of his skin. Andrew pushes him down and Neil lets him, head thudding uncomfortably against the bleachers, Andrew staying carefully distant everywhere they aren't already touching.

They're there all night, or maybe they're only there for a few minutes. Neil thinks he could stay there forever in this strange safe space where it's just him and Andrew, no Moriyamas, no Daily Prophet, no Quidditch even—but it's late, the eve of a match, and attendants are showing up to make sure everything at the stadium is up to par for the next day.

Andrew's breathing when he separates from Neil comes out ragged. He presses his forehead against Neil's for only a moment before pulling away.

“Okay,” Neil says. His voice sounds wrong. “I'm—goodnight?”

Andrew doesn't look at him. His eyes are trained forward. He nods, a little jerkily, and Neil, disheveled as he is, scrambles down the stairs and Disapparates.

*

Riko's return does what Jeremy's efforts all season couldn't: the Lions, for once united against a common enemy, can actually play together. Even Seth doesn't seem interested in blaming two of the team's star players for Riko's antagonism, and for the days leading up to the return leg of the Lyon draw, their practices—though tense—run smoothly. This might be marginally helped by Andrew's absence for full moon, but Neil chooses not to point that out in his match preview.

Jeremy tries to hide it, but Neil can tell he's pleased: he grins as the Lions gear up for the home leg, confidence in everything from his posture to his complete lack of fidgeting for once.

It's raining, and it's another ugly match, but this time Kevin wrestles a goal or two away. Seth, who is on something of a hot streak, actually assists one of them. Laila gets the start, and Lyon—whose Quidditch is as anti as ever—only get a single goal past her, their sole effort to fight back against the away goals Seth scored in February.

Allison, who has spent the last month perfecting her in-air tackles, shoves Lyon's tiny Seeker away and catches the Snitch. Laila screeches and dives toward Allison to celebrate. Lions on aggregate, 220 to 160. Semifinals await.

Chapter Text

“Remember when we talked about you taking a vacation?” Dan says when Neil shows up to her office carrying two cups of tea. “It's an international break. Ideal moment.”

“Hilarious,” Neil says, even though he's only half sure she's joking. “Are you going to Cardiff tonight?”

“Why? You need a ticket?”

Neil waves a press pass at her. “I'm already in. Andrew's first call up that he actually responded to. Not likely to start, but Northgate's known for substituting Keepers strategically.”

“You aren't doing the England writeup, though,” Dan says. “I've given all England duties to Martinson since you took over his Champions League beat.”

“I know,” Neil says. “Just want to see how the Lions do.”

“Who else got a shout?”

“Not Matt, if that's what you're thinking, but everyone thinks he'll be on the shortlist for the World Cup by next summer. Jeremy Knox will probably start. Reynolds is almost definitely starting for Scotland, Moreau's making his triumphant comeback for France against Cyprus, and obviously Kevin Day's in Panama for the USAMQNT.”

“What was that alphabet soup you just spit up?”

“United States of America Men's Quidditch National Team.”

“Why can't they just call it their national team?” Dan says. “Why all the letters?”

Neil shrugs. He remembers when it used to be his dream to play for the American national team. Even then, the nickname was a bit much. “You think you have a chance against England?”

“Only if someone shows up with a silver bullet,” she says, and then catches the look on Neil's face. “Sorry, sorry—”

“That's a Muggle myth,” Neil says. He would know—he still has four or five books on werewolves sitting on the floor of his room. “So are you going?”

“Boyd and I are planning on it, but we're not sitting with press. We're sitting with civilians.”

Neil makes a face. “Good luck.”

“We're staying the night. Meeting the family, you know—but you should come to dinner with us after the match. I know a place. I know you like your post-match huddles with Minyard, so you can bring him along.”

“He won't want to come,” Neil says. Matt is too much of a gossip. “And I think it'd be good for me to just go home and go to bed after.” With Kevin off practicing with the national team in America, it's the best possible plan for him: a night in, maybe some time spent making more feeble attempts at wandless magic. An early night.

“Good,” Dan says. “Get some sleep. We can Portkey out of here together, but I have to warn you, I'll be in full Wales gear singing Welsh drinking songs.”

And, true to her word, when Neil meets up with her later in the afternoon, she's in Wales red, green stripes on the shoulders, dragon crest emblazoned in the front. The song she chooses to go with is “England's full of shit,” and she's singing it even as she digs a Portkey out of her drawer. Matt is laughing, arm loose around Neil's shoulders—“This doesn't bother you? She's cheering against your team.” “She has to comfort herself somehow. She won't be singing anymore when the entire stadium's throwing up a rousing rendition of 'Three Lions' in the middle of Cardiff, will she?”—and dressed to match in England colors.

“You ready?” Dan says, holding out the cracked mug they're using as a Portkey. “To lose, I mean.”

“You wish,” Matt says, and they're off.

*

Unfortunately for Dan, England win. Andrew and Jeremy gel nicely with the national team—partly because Andrew is a Keeper and so doesn't actually have to interact with them much, partly because everyone loves Jeremy.

Between them, they more than make up for Morrey's poor Seeking (he gets lucky in the end, England's Beaters getting the better of the Welsh Seeker and Morrey catching the Snitch by accident), and Neil takes enough notes to make up the skeleton of an article that'll go out to the Quidditch circular's subscribers—something about the Lions making up the backbone of the England national team, especially with the addition of Matt Boyd by the summer and with Seth Gordon's uptick in form the second half of the season. It's an interesting argument because it's an unconventional one: barring Andrew's good press this season, Jean and Kevin are the Lions' biggest superstars, and some of their teammates are doing just fine without them.

He goes to the post-match purely to see if the England manager, Northgate, mentions this. Northgate drops a line or two about how substituting Andrew on after Hart proved himself unable to distribute the Quaffle well against Wales' big Beaters changed the flow of the match, how the Chasers linked up well with Andrew to score enough goals to make up for a subpar performance from their Seeker. Neil makes a note of it and stands to leave.

England are the away team, so they shuffle out of the press room first. Neil tucks his parchment away and hangs by their exit to wait for Andrew.

Andrew trails out of the showers last. He doesn't look surprised to see Neil, but he also doesn't say anything when Neil falls into step beside him, just waves a lingering Jeremy off. Neil wants to talk tactics with Andrew—his distribution keeps getting better, how is that even possible—but he knows Andrew doesn't want to hear it, so instead he says, “Matt and Dan are here somewhere. They're spending the night in Cardiff. Taking full advantage of the international break.”

Andrew glances at Neil over his shoulder but says nothing.

“I'm betting Aaron's home, and things have to be awkward without Kevin around to cut the tension.”

“Are you trying to ask me something?”

“Come to mine.”

Andrew looks at Neil again. “You'd better have food.”

Neil doesn't, but they can pick some up.

“Are we Portkeying with the team?” Neil says.

“I told Knox they could leave without me.”

“Presumptuous.”

“I needed to make sure there were no witnesses,” Andrew says.

“For what?”

“For when I murder you.”

“Right,” Neil says. “I'd forgotten. Ninety percent of the time you want me dead.”

“You're up to ninety-three now.”

“Does that make it worth the effort and irritating consequences?”

Apparently not, because Andrew shoots him a bored look as they get past the last of the Quidditch stadium's anti-Apparition wards.

“Did you drive?” Neil says, looking around for Andrew's car.

The car that pulls up in front of them is black and fancy like Andrew's, but that's where the similarities end.

Riko steps out of it, looking much less tired and much more tidy than he did the last time Neil saw him. The car drives off, and Andrew's reaction is immediate, wand out, entire body tense with that careful control of his.

“Kevin's puppy,” Riko says. “I should've killed you years ago.”

“I could say the same to you,” Andrew replies.

“Not with him now, though, are you?”

“Neither are you,” Andrew says, but that Riko is here and not in Panama is probably more a function of the magic of wizarding restraining orders than his better nature.

“This habit you have of showing up where you're not wanted is starting to get irritating,” Neil says. “Is that why your father shipped you off to a Quidditch academy?”

There is a kind of cold fury in Riko's gaze: “Speaking of fathers,” he says. “I'm supposed to pass on a message: hello, Junior.”

Andrew lunges, and in an instant he has a knife against Riko's throat. His expression is still completely neutral, like he's not doing anything more pressing than choosing between different brands of butter.

Neil's heart stops. Andrew has a wand and a knife on Riko, but somehow those two words have done more damage than either. He searches for the exit: down a tunnel, and then—he'll need to go back to England to get his things eventually, but maybe he can leave from Wales, get on a flight to fucking France or something and just wait it out—Matt will take care of his stuff, and Neil can survive off what he has on him for a few weeks at least—

“Stop it,” Andrew says.

It takes Neil a second to realize he's speaking German. His accent is enough to shake Neil back to the present, so English it barely sounds like German at all.

“Get it together,” Andrew says. He's standing above Neil—when did Neil end up crouched on the floor?—and has somehow gotten Riko to fuck off. “We are leaving.”

Neil forces himself to stand up.

“Where's Riko?”

“Gone,” Andrew says.

Neil accepts this. “How are we getting back?”

“We are going to Apparate.”

“That's a bit far, though, isn't it? All the way to London?”

Andrew looks unimpressed.

“I'll do it,” he says, seizing Neil's arm.

Andrew has them in front of Neil's building a moment later. Neil steadies himself against Andrew's unyielding weight before digging his keys out of his pocket to let them in.

Andrew doesn't let go of Neil's arm until they're in Neil's kitchen.

“We should order something,” Neil says, sinking into a chair at his kitchen table. “All we have are some—”

But Andrew has already pulled Matt's tin of biscuits off a shelf and started picking through it. He gets through at least six before Neil says, “Yes or no?”

Andrew eats another, contemplating him—trying to figure out, Neil thinks, how much of a mess Neil is at the moment.

“I'm fine,” Neil says.

Andrew glares at him. Neil sighs.

“I am,” he says. “Riko's not a real problem. He can't touch me or he'll end up back in Azkaban.”

“Riko is not a real problem,” Andrew agrees. “But 'hello Junior' was.”

“Fine, it was, but I'm okay now,” Neil says. It's the truth: the momentary panic is gone. His father is in Azkaban. His father's people, the ones who aren't in Azkaban, have made no effort to find him. He's fine. “You got rid of him, right? You brought us here. It's safe here.”

Andrew eats another biscuit.

“How did you get rid of him?”

“I threatened him, and unlike you, he is smart enough to take threats seriously.”

Neil rolls his eyes, and in the silence that follows, becomes extremely aware of the fact that they're alone in his kitchen, that they'll be alone in his flat for as long as Andrew wants to stay or until Matt shows up in the morning.

There's the scrape of a chair, and Neil can tell Andrew's just had the same thought.

“Are you or aren't you a mess?” Andrew says. “And don't give me that 'I'm fine' shit, I can see right through it.”

“I'm not a mess,” Neil says. “Not more than usual.”

Andrew pulls Neil up by the collar of his shirt. “Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

And then they're kissing, Andrew walking Neil back so he's against the wall, scrabbling for something to hold but coming up with only the flat plaster until Andrew takes a wrist in either hand and brings them up to the sides of his head.

“You can touch me here,” he says. “Just here.”

And then he's back to kissing Neil, all the tension gone out of him, even when Neil buries both his hands in Andrew's hair. It's stupidly easy to kiss Andrew, the most natural thing in the world, and they might be there for an age before Andrew's hand drops below Neil's waist and pushes between the folds of Neil's robes.

He just stays there for a moment, like he's testing Neil's reaction, his control. Neil lowers his head just enough to kiss Andrew's neck and make note of the resulting shiver, and it's too fast after that, and then Neil is gasping, “Andrew,” and Andrew is kissing him quiet and wiping his hand unceremoniously on the front of Neil's robes. Andrew steps just far back enough that his forehead is pressed against Neil's, eyes closed, and Neil's hand makes its way to the side of Andrew's face.

The skin there is softer than Neil expected, just like Andrew is always softer than Neil expects.

“Do you want,” Neil says, but Andrew's eyes fly open and he says, “Get out.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere I can't see you.”

Neil gives Andrew a chance to back up, and then he steps away. He hides out in his bedroom for a while, impulsively decides to make his bed and clean up a bit, spots too many books on werewolves and the one massive tome he found wolfsbane in. Embarrassing. He tosses a cloak haphazardly over them and hopes that if Andrew does come in here, he doesn't investigate too hard.

Afterward, Neil waits until Andrew comes into his room.

“Are we getting food?” he says.

“Do you even eat food?” Neil says. “I'm sure I've only ever seen you eat dessert.”

“You and your roommate have bad taste. Do you have a telephone?”

Neil doesn't, but there's one in the lobby of the building they can use. They order from the only place that's still open, and they eat in companionable silence in Neil's kitchen.

“Hey,” Neil says, when they've put the dishes in the sink and cast a simple cleaning charm. “I want to take a turn.”

“It's not your turn.”

“Give me one on credit, then.”

Andrew fills the kettle with water for tea but says nothing.

“Something good from when you were a kid.”

It takes Andrew so long to respond that Neil thinks he isn't going to, but then Andrew says, “Christmas at Cass's. She got my first stocking after I'd only been living there a few weeks.”

“How old were you?”

“Twelve.”

“What did she get you?”

“A toy car,” Andrew says. “And a book.”

It's quiet again, and then Andrew says, “What about you?”

“The only thing I enjoyed as a kid was Quidditch. I knew if I could just get good enough, I could get away from it all, but—I didn't even think of any of that when I was flying. I wasn't a person with all these problems anymore, it was just me and my broom and the bat. I was fast and small, so they thought I'd make a good Seeker, but apparently I liked fighting too much, so Beater it was.”

“You said you started playing at Hogwarts.”

“A half lie. I started playing as Chaser at Hogwarts. But I always played. My dad,” Neil says, and then looks away, because that's it, isn't it, the thing he doesn't want to remember. “It wasn't true. I know that now. If I'd played well enough, I would've been given to the Ravens and I would've ended up like Jean.” Beaten to a pulp, viciously abused, all of Riko's inferiority complexes taken out on him.

“And there'd be no Neil Josten to save you.”

“But at least I would've been playing.”

“I started playing at St. Mungo's,” Andrew says. Neil knows this already, of course, but he lets Andrew continue. “They recommended recreational activity as part of my treatment. They thought it might help mitigate the excessive aggression associated with lycanthropy for which I was being treated.”

He sounds like he's parroting a treatment plan, but he hasn't taken his eyes off Neil's face since Neil asked to take a turn.

“Why Keeper?”

“I told you already. Least movement.”

“Seriously.”

“I am serious. It was decided that I was least likely to display aggression in a position that required minimal interaction with other players.”

“But you got yourself hospitalized on purpose.”

Andrew shrugs. He's picking at a loose thread on his sleeve.

“Stop pretending you get it. We both know the only thing you understand is Quidditch.”

“Maybe, but I'm starting to understand you, too.”

“I hate you.”

“I've heard.”

Andrew glances at his watch. Neil looks out the window.

“You can sleep here,” Neil says. “If—if you want.”

Andrew considers him. “Do you move in your sleep?”

The last time Neil shared a bed with anyone, it was his mother, and if he moved at all, she'd wake up, terrified, gun in her hand, and not fall asleep again for the rest of the night.

Neil says, “No.”

Andrew stays.

They don't do anything more than kiss, and Neil has grown unused to the feeling of another body in his bed in the last few years, but Andrew's weight is comforting because it's Andrew, steady, steadfast, predictable.

Andrew falls asleep before him. Neil isn't expecting that, but he closes his eyes too, and yeah, he was right. It's comforting. It's easy.

*

Neil wakes up feeling oddly content, and it isn't until he spots Andrew still asleep beside him that he remembers why.

He wants to stay in bed, but he has work in a few hours and he needs to lift at lunch today, which means if he wants to get a run in he's going to have to do it now.

He dresses in the semi-darkness and chugs water from the sink before jogging out his front door.

Andrew wouldn't have stayed the night if he hadn't wanted to. Andrew wouldn't have fallen asleep if he didn't—for whatever reason—trust Neil.

Neil doesn't understand it. He doesn't know if, given the same circumstances, he'd want anything to do with himself at all. Neil has lied and lied and lied, and yet Andrew trusts Neil with this anyway.

It's something to ask Andrew, he supposes. That's the nice thing about Andrew: even if things around him seem mysterious, he's always willing to clear them up. For a price. But Neil's been more than willing to pay that price for months.

Neil keeps the run shorter than usual, but it clears his head anyway.

When he gets back to his flat, Andrew is fully dressed in the kitchen making coffee.

“Morning,” Neil says. “I'm going to shower before I sit down. Matt hates it when I get sweat on anything. We have some bread if you want toast or anything, and the Prophet should be here in a bit if you're interested. I'll be right back.”

Neil only notices Andrew's tension because some of it eases out of the set of his shoulders. Still, Andrew says nothing, only digs through the refrigerator for milk.

The Prophet arrives not long after Neil gets out of the shower. Typically he skips straight to the sport section, but when he unfurls this one, the face staring up at him from the front page is so familiar that Neil nearly falls off his chair.

Andrew plucks the paper out of Neil's stiff fingers.

“Riko's Revenge: Younger Moriyama Orchestrates Azkaban's Biggest Breakout Since 1995,” Andrew reads.

There's a beat, and then he says, “You said your father was dead.”

“I wish he was.”

“Another of your lies.”

“Yeah.”

“I'm taking my turn.”

“Okay.”

“He's the one who gave you that,” Andrew says, pointing to the spot near Neil's shoulder that he knows bears a scar the shape of a hot iron.

“Most of them were from him. Some were on his orders.”

“That's why you were going to leave when Riko broke out. Because he knows your father.”

Neil nods mutely.

“You're scared of him. You didn't care about Riko threatening you until he called you Junior.”

Scared doesn't seem like the right word to convey the sheer terror that feels like it's completely invaded every bit of Neil's body.

“That's not a question,” Neil says.

“Why him? Not Riko. Not werewolves.”

“I spent most of my life running away from him,” Neil says. “Even when I lived in his house, I was always trying to get out of his way.”

“Why?” Andrew says. “You seem so eager to die most of the time.”

Neil doesn't know how to articulate it—it'd be dying for nothing, it'd be losing the fight he's been fighting his entire life, it'd be pointless, it'd be predictable—so he just shakes his head and sips at his coffee.

“Are you going to leave?” Andrew says.

He says it with all the apathy with which he says everything, is looking at Neil's hand wrapped around his coffee mug, and abruptly Neil remembers the last time Andrew gave him something to drink. He takes another sip. Andrew is giving him that “I can't believe you're this stupid” look.

“No,” Neil says. Neil Josten doesn't run away.

“How are you actually more stupid than you look?” Predictable.

“I'm a Metamorphmagus, so. Magic, probably.”

Andrew glares at him, but the truth is that Neil's been rationalizing away his fear all year, and it's gotten him friends and Quidditch and Andrew. If he has to die, at least he's going to go down fighting, not running, and at least it's going to be after nearly a year of being exhausted but happy about it, after doing something he considers worthwhile instead of just running from country to country pretending to be someone else for the sake of nothing but surviving, after playing Quidditch and having Christmas dinner and going out with friends and kissing Andrew.

There isn't a point, he wants to say, never getting to know anyone, never feeling safe or comfortable coming home, having to leave as soon as people start to remember you. It was such a terrible, lonely existence, even with his mother there, and in hindsight Neil isn't surprised that the first thing he did when she died was enroll himself at Hogwarts. He was so tired of running, and he defaulted immediately to playing Quidditch and going to school like he was just a normal boy again.

Maybe he's known from the beginning that he was going to die as Neil Josten. Otherwise, when he saw that the Slytherin Quidditch team needed players, he would've been able to resist, wouldn't he? For the sake of his own survival? And after, when the Prophet needed a new Quidditch writer, when Kevin Day showed up to a London club with a broken hand and a mountain of evidence he just needed eased out of him, and then when Neil had the chance to live with a Quidditch player and he leapt on the opportunity just to be closer to the sport, and after that, when Kevin started giving him lessons—

If he wanted to live, he shouldn't ever have gone to Hogwarts.

“So you're staying,” Andrew says.

“You asked me to.”

“I told you not to run.”

“If I were going to leave, I would've done it by now. You were right. I'm tired of running.”

He means it literally, the bone-deep ache of exhaustion when he thinks of a life on the run again, and Andrew seems to take it that way, because he says, “Then you should get going. You're going to be late for work.”

Chapter Text

“Did you see this?”

Neil is stumbling into work, numb, when someone grabs his arm. He whips back, wand in hand, but—

It's only the QCL reporter whose beat Neil stole. The one Dan says is reporting on the national team now. Neil lowers his wand.

“Yeah, I was going to ask if you're worried.” The reporter gestures to that morning's copy of the Daily Prophet. “But I suppose I don't need to. Never seen you this tense before. Put your wand away, honestly, I'm not a Moriyama henchman.”

They take the lift up to their floor together. Neil holds his wand loosely in his hand but doesn't put it away.

“Why should I be worried?” he says.

“Er, maybe because it's your fault they were all in Azkaban in the first place?”

“It's Riko's fault,” Neil says. “They're punishing him for it. Why do you think he's the one who broke all of them out? Trying to redeem himself now he doesn't have Quidditch to waste his life on.”

“There's a warrant out for his arrest. You think they'll catch him?”

Neil knows first hand how ineffectual wizarding law enforcement can be, especially when money's involved. “Not really.”

“Since when are you this nonoptimistic?”

Optimistic? Him? “That's not a word.”

“What are you doing tonight? I know you aren't working—international break, Lions don't play again until next week. Minyard had a good game yesterday, in case you were wondering.”

“I know. I was there.”

“Oh.” The reporter stares at him. “So …”

“What?”

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Er—I don't know, really.” He doesn't: what are Andrew's plans tonight? What are Dan and Matt's? Can he sneak onto the Lions' practice pitch and play alone? Would Andrew play with him? “Why do you want to know?”

The reporter is staring at him. Neil busies himself making tea in the little kitchenette.

“No reason,” the reporter says. “Nothing. Are you going to see England play Andorra Saturday?”

“No, I'm off to Scotland to see them play France.”

“What? Why?”

“Because two Lions are playing in that match against each other and my article can't just be about Jeremy Knox and Andrew Minyard.”

“Why not? Everything else you've written has been.”

It's not remotely true—he's written about Kevin plenty—but Neil looks toward Dan's office. Maybe there's something he should be disclosing.

Then again, it's not like he's privy to more information than he was when he was interviewing Andrew, and it's not like he feels particularly different. He's still objective, journalistically speaking, or at least as objective as he's ever been. And anyway, if he's going to be dead in a few days' time, what does it matter?

“Shouldn't you be working on a preview?” Neil says. How this reporter has the time to make so much small talk during work is beyond him.

“I heard a rumor you're going to be promoted at the end of the season.”

“You shouldn't listen to rumors.”

“So, what? Hoping to be poached by another paper? Unlikely. We're the only ones you haven't insulted.”

“I've only insulted the Herald.”

“So are you or aren't you going to be promoted?”

Neil shrugs. “I failed Divination, mate. Excuse me.”

He pushes past the reporter—Martinson?—and makes his way to his desk. The reporter doesn't follow him.

*

It's more normal than it should be.

Renee joins Matt, Dan, and Neil for dinner that night. It's casual, vegetables he and Matt scrounged up and some chicken with dessert and drinks courtesy of Renee and Dan. Renee keeps trying to catch Neil's eye, maybe because she can tell he's falling apart internally. Neil ignores her.

Another night, before the Scotland game, Allison takes Neil, Dan, and Renee out on her parents' Galleon. It's not new. Neil's been to at least a dozen of the Lions' post-match trips to nearby pubs for late dinners, has been to Renee's house for a party and Dan's for drinks and had Allison and the rest of the Lions over his—but now that he knows death is around the corner, Neil documents every interaction, every smile and laugh and joke, at his expense or otherwise. Allison points out that Neil's wardrobe has improved very marginally; Dan says it's because Andrew has been taking him shopping; Allison makes a comment about a bet. Dan points out that Allison needs to play well to avoid being torn apart in Neil's article; Allison mentions that it wouldn't be the first time; Renee laughs. Neil soaks it in.

Some nights, it's him and Andrew on the roof of one of their buildings or at the Lions' stadium between practices. Others, it's extra workouts alone, or snagging gym time with Matt and Seth since they haven't been called up for international duty. Seth is less disagreeable when they're in the gym, though he points out a couple of times how light the weights Neil lifts are, then seems suitably impressed by the strength of Neil's legs.

The week passes. The international break ends. Kevin comes back last, arriving in the middle of the night after a match in California that the U.S. barely won. He complains through practice the next morning about the squad's lack of dedication to the sport, about the country's insufficient infrastructure for truly excellent Quidditch especially now that the Ravens' academy is a skeleton of what it once was. He casts significant looks at Neil the entire time.

The Lions lose their first match after the international break, a messy draw during which fifth-place Carephilly Catapults completely dominate and Andrew casts a shaken look at the hoops behind him after the eighth goal goes in. The Lions drop to fourth in the league, Harpies going up to third—only a point ahead of them—and Puddlemere United rising to second. But all three of them are gaining on Wasps' lead, which has gone from eight points in October to only three in early April. If Wasps lose to Puddlemere and the Lions beat both, the Lions will go top on goal difference.

This, at least, is the story Jeremy eagerly tells after the loss—disappointing, most of the team was on international duty and didn't have sufficient rest, Catapults only had the one player on Belgium's bench, they still have a chance to win the league and even if they don't will have done well enough to qualify for the QCL again next season.

There are questions about squad depth—the Lions have one of the smallest squads in the country, certainly the smallest in the top four—and about fitness levels. One or two questions about how Wymack plans to change his tactics and lineup during the transfer window. Whether Wymack over-relies on his excellent Keeper. A question about why the Lions don't win more with the kind of star power they have. A comparison to Madrid's star-studded team from the early 00s that never won a title because its stars couldn't get along. A question about whether Wymack should go, quickly stamped out by Jeremy saying no one could do the job like Wymack does.

Neil writes about all of it. Dan makes him take the next morning off.

“New policy,” she says. “You can no longer work six full days a week. You're running us dry with all your overtime.”

Neil doesn't know how to reply to that, so he says, “Okay,” and then, “Thanks,” and lets himself sleep an extra hour.

Another week passes.

In the Champions League, the Lions do well to hold Madrid to a draw away from home. Unlike France, Spain holds no old memories for Neil; it's just a nice place to visit as far as he's concerned, a big city, good food, an article dashed off about the Lions' record at home and how well they're likely to do when they host the second best Chaser in the world in a few weeks. (His private prognosis: it'll be halfway between two full moons, so they're bound to do well).

Neil settles. He stops thinking every meal with his friends is some kind of biblical last supper. He stops saying goodbye to Matt in the mornings like it might really be goodbye this time. He runs without fearing a henchman or two might pop up out of nowhere to kidnap and/or murder him.

Andrew notices, too:

“You're still alive,” he tells Neil on the roof of Neil's building one evening not long before full moon.

They're sitting side by side on the ledge, legs pressed against each other. Andrew keeps casting dirty looks downward even though the drop isn't very far. He's started to get that tired look he gets when full moon approaches, like he isn't sleeping or eating enough. Even on the wolfsbane, it was always apparent. Off it, Andrew almost looks ill.

“Keen observational skills,” Neil says.

Andrew's car is parked across the street, gleaming, an anomaly in this part of the city. Their building is at least half wizard, and the half that isn't wizard isn't driving sports cars.

It's always struck Neil as an odd affectation, the car. “Why do you drive?” he says.

“I learned how to drive when I was still living at Cass's. Took my portion of Tilda's life insurance and bought a car with it after.”

“What about Apparating?”

“I took a class a few years ago, but I couldn't do it on wolfsbane.”

“So you got Nicky to drive you around because you didn't trust anyone to Side-Along with them.” He's probably too claustrophobic to take the train. Neil can't stand it, being underground, all those people around him, no way out—

Andrew doesn't confirm, but he doesn't deny either, which might as well be confirmation.

“Matt says it's a nice car,” Neil says. “I wouldn't know. My mum and I only ever drove nondescript, like, Toyotas or whatever. The least noticeable things in the world.”

Maybe that's why Andrew got such a flashy car. All those years as a foster child, and then suddenly more money than he knew what to do with, so he forced himself into public visibility. Wizards don't typically drive, but Andrew Minyard, the boy even Hogwarts forgot, drives a car so nice it'd be impossible to ignore.

“You're projecting,” says Andrew.

Neil didn't say any of that out loud. He turns his head to look at Andrew, who is glaring at him.

“Stop reading my mind,” Neil says.

“It's not reading your mind if you're projecting all your thoughts and feelings out at me.”

“So did you get all of that?”

“The gist of it,” Andrew says. “Not words or full thoughts, just feelings and images.”

“On purpose?”

Andrew shifts next to him. Neil interprets it as a shrug.

“How did you get so good at Legilimency?”

“Practice.”

Figures. Didn't even go to Hogwarts but can do more advanced magic than half the Ministry. “How did you do that? Read about it in a book at St. Mungo's?”

“Sort of. Speaking of books, though,” Andrew says, “exactly how many did you read when you found out I was a werewolf?”

So he did see them. “Why? Curious to see if I find you as interesting as you find me?”

“I'll get bored of you eventually.”

“That's fine. Chances are I'll be dead in the next two weeks anyway.”

It's such a throwaway—the kind of line that's been running through his head at least since Riko got out of Azkaban and comes out by accident—that Neil isn't expecting a reaction from Andrew. He gets one: Andrew smashes his barely-smoked cigarette against the ground, then lights a new one as if nothing happened.

“Since when do you care?” Neil says, mostly out of surprise.

“I don't.”

“That's what I thought.”

“You are nothing to me.”

“You want me dead ninety-three percent of the time.”

“I hate you.”

“If that's what you need to tell yourself.”

The second cigarette bursts into flames.

“Andrew,” Neil says.

“You are so annoying,” Andrew says. He doesn't light a third cigarette. “Yes or no?”

“It's always yes,” Neil says, leaning in, one hand on the ground behind them to steady himself.

“You said it yourself. You'll be dead in two weeks. Always doesn't apply.”

“Okay, it's yes for the next two weeks. Including and especially right now.”

Andrew's arm is warm across his back, fingers on Neil's neck to pull him closer, breath heavy with its usual scent of cigarette smoke.

“Don't talk like that,” Andrew says. “It makes me want to push you off this roof.”

“Do it,” Neil says. “I'll take you with me.”

“Merlin,” Andrew says, “shut up,” and kisses him.

Neil doesn't want to die, but he can think of worse ways to spend his last few weeks.

*

“It's not that we lack squad depth,” Matt is saying, leaning on his broom the day before the League Cup semifinal. “It's that we're in three competitions at once, and all three of them get more intense as the season goes on. After the League Cup lets up, we'll all be able to get the rest we need and focus on the QCL and the league.”

“Would you say your mindset is more that you just want to get through the last couple of League Cup matches so you can focus on possibly winning the league or the Champions League?”

“No, of course not,” Jeremy says. “The League Cup is an attainable trophy and it's a fun competition.”

“Some critics say the proof that you're not taking it that seriously is Wymack's starting Laila over Andrew for most League Cup matches.”

“Andrew can use the rest, and Laila's an excellent player,” Jeremy says, though they all know the real reason Andrew hasn't been starting in League Cup matches is that they frequently line up with full moon.

“Two matches until the final, the Lions' best shot at a trophy in four years,” Neil says. “You excited?”

Jeremy and Matt wear matching fierce grins. “Absolutely we are.”

The match preview will be a good one. Lions are set to play Harpies in the semifinal, with a rematch against Catapults in the final unless Chudley Cannons pull off a major upset.

“Thanks for the interview,” Neil says. “Good luck.”

“Is the luck off the record?” Matt says.

“Course not,” Neil says. “Is Jean around?” Kevin and Andrew have left on time for once since tomorrow's full moon and Andrew needs the rest. Matt and Jeremy are only still here because Neil asked them for an interview last minute.

“He's in the locker room.” Jeremy and Matt exchange a look. “Neil.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you all right?” Matt says. “You've seemed sort of—off the last few weeks. Since the international break, I'd say. Did something happen in Wales, or—”

“I'm fine,” Neil says.

“Are you sure? Because—if it's something with Andrew, or—we thought maybe, since all the Moriyamas' people are out of Azkaban, you might be worried.”

“If they haven't come for me yet, they're not going to come for me now,” Neil says.

“You can tell us, you know. If there's something.”

Neil stares at both their earnest faces and whatever protest he was going to make dies in his throat.

“I know,” he says instead. “Thank you.”

*

“This is unexpected,” Andrew says. “Usually you show up the day after full moon to harass me.”

Neil leans against the doorframe. Kevin let him into their flat and then immediately went back to playing with the figurines on his model of a Quidditch pitch, testing out different tactics.

“Just wanted to check in, maybe get a quote.”

“About what?”

“The League Cup.”

“I haven't played in it.”

“Is that disappointing for you?”

“No.”

Andrew looks exhausted. Neil wonders if Andrew ever wants to go back on the wolfsbane, to make these transformations easier for himself—but it's April and he's been transforming without it since December. Neil hasn't heard a complaint yet.

There's silence, then: “What do you want?” Andrew says.

“You” seems too trite a response, so Neil says, “I wanted to ask you about magic.”

“You went to Hogwarts. Ask one of your teachers.”

“They probably couldn't answer as well as you can. How did you get so good at it?”

Andrew lets Neil into his room at last, sits down on the ledge by his window to smoke. “I followed some wizards into Diagon Alley one day, and then I kept doing it.”

“Did you get a wand?”

“I didn't have any money,” Andrew says. “I just read about the spells in books and practiced them with my hands.”

How—”

“It wasn't easy,” Andrew says. “That's why I got into Legilimency. I didn't need a wand to do it. I could just look someone in the eye and figure out what he was going to do to me.”

The phrasing makes Neil's heart stop, but he doesn't say as much to Andrew.

“When did you get a wand?” he says instead.

“Higgins found out about me,” Andrew says. “I don't know how. He just did. He took me to get one and told me I could start at Hogwarts the next school year.”

“But you got yourself locked up.”

“Yes.”

Neil remembers Andrew's fingers on Aaron's face in Geneva, after everything I did—

“To keep Drake away from Aaron?” Neil guesses.

“He wanted a matched set,” Andrew says.

Andrew gave up Cass and Hogwarts for Aaron. Neil wonders if Aaron knows.

“You two don't even talk,” Neil says.

Andrew doesn't react except to ash his cigarette out the window. “I'm remembering why I don't like you.”

Neil can't comprehend it. How does Andrew let Neil touch him when he spent his child being abused by the people who were meant to take care of him? He wants to ask, but he already owes Andrew a truth or two, and the tone of their conversation has gotten so dark that Neil doesn't know if he wants to make it any worse.

“Do you miss her?” Andrew says, and when Neil doesn't follow clarifies, “your mother.”

Neil considers it. “I don't know,” he says. “I loved her, but—I think she was always going to die, the way we were going.”

“You loved her.”

“She was my mother. She did everything she could to keep me alive.”

“You've managed all right without her.”

“She got me out of my dad's house. Without her, I'd be—” Without her, he'd be Jean, the three tattooed on his face instead, a Beater for the Ravens and miserable, in constant fear of Riko. “A lot worse off.”

“She hit you.”

“Because I put us both at risk.”

Andrew stares at him. Neil looks away.

“Aaron's mother used to hit him,” Andrew says. “She blamed it on things he did, too.”

“I don't,” Neil says, but he doesn't know how to end the sentence. Andrew is still watching him. Neil steals a cigarette, wanting to remember the smell of her even if Andrew's American Spirits don't smell quite right.

“Kevin will kill you if he catches you smoking,” Andrew says.

“He can get in line.”

Andrew gives a little huff. It isn't laughter, but it's something like it. Neil lights the cigarette with the tip of his wand and, almost despite himself, smiles.

*

Harpies play their best possible seven against the Lions, but their best possible seven includes two Beaters who don't stand a chance against a determined Kevin Day, especially a determined Kevin Day who remembers how to pass and assists several Seth Gordon goals.

On the other end of the pitch, Harpies' incredible Chasers give the backline a battering they're all expecting. Between them, Laila and the Beaters let in only six of the thirty-three shots on target. Allison catches the Snitch, and the Lions are on to the League Cup final.

Neil takes down quotes from Laila, Kevin, and Allison, puts together an article quickly, and then heads to the Prophet offices to find a copy editor who can take a look at it before they go to print tonight.

It's not late enough for the building to be deserted. Nicky's still working, and he waves when Neil comes in.

“Is anyone around?” Neil says. “I need this edited. Might need a fact check, too, but I've written about the Lions about a thousand times this season so probably not.”

“I can do it.”

“No sports editors are here?”

“They're drinking and working on the Hogwarts preview.”

“Why are you still here?”

“Duty,” Nicky says, sighing dramatically. “And Erik's in Germany, so I volunteered to pick up some late night hours in case anything good came in. Which—” he gestures to a pile of parchment next to his elbow—“it has.”

“What happened? Did one of the Harpies' girlfriends sleep with a Weird Sister?”

“Very funny,” Nicky says. “No, it's mainly last minute news articles. Renee asked me to take a look. Since I was staying anyway.”

“Is she here?”

“Yeah, she's upstairs talking to Rheman. You're not working tomorrow morning, right? Want to get breakfast somewhere? There's this place that has daily brunch near our block, it's excellent, actually a wizarding place too—”

Neil opens his mouth to say no, but Erik's in Germany, Aaron and Nicky don't always get along, Andrew's off in his cabin for full moon, and the rest of the Lions are celebrating their win somewhere. Nicky is working extra hours so he doesn't have to sit alone in his flat.

“Yeah, all right,” Neil says. “Send me the address.”

Nicky smiles. “Great. See you tomorrow.”

Neil takes the stairs down. He needs to stop at home to pick up his gym clothes, and then he can go take his time working out since he can sleep in tomorrow. He'll stop at Andrew's before work with lunch since Andrew seems abysmal at feeding himself and anyway seems to like Neil's company after full moon. Or maybe Neil's just projecting again.

It's chilly outside. Neil wraps his cloak more tightly around himself and waffles between Apparating to his building and just walking there.

He's just about settled on walking when he hears his name.

Not Neil.

Nathaniel.

He turns.

There's a car idling not far from him, both the people in it familiar more from nightmare than memory. Lola is hanging out the back window, giving him the same wide, demonic smile she used to wear when teaching him how to use knives and suggesting she show him how to do it on whatever poor Muggle they had locked up in the basement.

“Don't run,” she says. “Or I'll blow up this building and all the little friends you have working inside.”

How does she know? How can she possibly know who's inside?

“Get in,” she says, opening the door.

Neil looks back at the Daily Prophet building. It's ancient, kept standing by magic instead of foundations. He's spent so much time there it almost feels like a second home. He knows it top to bottom, from the printing presses in the lower levels to the editor-in-chief's office on the top floor. He's never appreciated how nice it is before.

It strikes him that he's saying goodbye to a building, and it isn't even the one he lives in.

“Get in or it goes up, Junior.”

Neil gets in.

Chapter Text

“Why don't you just kill me now?”

He's pressed into the corner of the backseat, as far as he can get from the heat of Lola's body, which is pressed against his side anyway. She's holding her wand to the side of his face, a silent threat. His own wand is tucked into her pocket. His wrists are raw and chafed, but to no avail: his captors have layered the rope bindings with magical ones, and without his wand, there's not much he can do about them even if he does somehow get free of the rope.

His skin is on fire. He doesn't know the extent of the damage, but he does know that there's blood dripping down the side of his face, that the inside of his mouth is metallic, that his fingers and arms are numb with pain. In Lola's other hand: one of her usual bewitched knives, held so close to Neil's throat that if he swallows too sharply it'll cut into his skin.

“You know that's not how it works, Junior,” Lola says. “Don't you remember? I like to break a man before I kill him.”

They're driving north. What's north? Neil can't put it together—the British wing of Castle Evermore? Why would they be going there?

“You're famous, Junior,” Lola says. “Did you know that? And your father misses you. He's wanted to get his hands on you since Riko showed up in Azkaban and started running his mouth about you. I heard you put up quite the fight.”

Neil doesn't remember those days well, but he does remember waking up and falling asleep in pain, the bright lights of St. Mungo's, a beating that nearly killed him and an article that meant he was triumphant anyway. The Ministry was purged of the Moriyama branch of Death Eaters. The Prophet's subscriptions rose for the first time since the end of the Second War. Rheman said the Daily Prophet owed Neil but to never risk his life for a story again, and then he had Dan put Neil in charge of Hogwarts coverage. Until last year, when Dan trusted him to write about league Quidditch again at last without bringing the full rage of a crime empire upon himself and the Prophet, and now he's fucked that up too.

“But Azkaban is hard to break out of,” Lola continues, clearly reveling in the fact that she's managed to do it. “Luckily Riko is such a blight on his family's name that he'd do anything to make up for it.”

“You could've killed me at any point in the last few weeks,” Neil says. “You didn't have to wait this long.” Didn't have to give him this false hope, didn't have to convince him that maybe, just maybe, they for whatever reason decided to let him stay, that maybe he'd get to live.

“We needed to get you alone,” she says. “Without your little pet.” She gestures to the sky outside, the full moon high above them. “What would your mother think of you cavorting with werewolves, Nathaniel?”

“It doesn't matter what she'd think,” Neil says. “She's dead.”

“Liar,” Lola says. She strokes his cheek with a spare finger. “You look like yourself for once. Do you know how much trouble you caused us, changing your face all the time?”

Neil stretches to try to get away from her, but he only succeeds in accidentally scratching his throat on her knife.

“Don't worry,” she says. “We'll mark you more permanently this time. You won't be able to hide again.”

“Fuck you,” Neil says.

She presses her wand to Neil's face—nothing. For a split second, his treacherous heart thumps back to life, hope searing its way through his skin—but wait. That isn't hope. It's—

He screams. It's not a conscious choice, and he doesn't realize he's doing it until he's doing it, throat sore but not sore enough to distract from the burning flesh of his face.

And then it's too much. He's there, in the backseat of that car, having the skin burned right off him, and then he isn't. He's drifting off somewhere, the way he used to when he was a kid, disappearing within himself, searching for a foothold.

At first it's fragmented thoughts: Matt and Dan poking fun at Neil's height over dinner; Jeremy holding out a broom; Kevin, bright-eyed in the lights of the Lions' practice pitch, giving Neil a rare sign of approval; Nicky and Erik inviting him to Christmas; Alvarez rolling her eyes at Neil forgetting her first name; Andrew giving Neil permission to touch despite all odds, letting Neil bury his hands in Andrew's hair—

But then it shifts again. Whatever Lola was doing, she's stopped. His brain is back where it's supposed to be. His wand is in Lola's pocket on her other side. The two men in the front seat are keeping eyes on him. There's no way he can get to his wand without at least one of the three of them noticing, and if they do, chances are he won't survive to cast a spell with it.

He doesn't have weapons on his person. He used to carry knives or a gun, but as he got better at magic, he stopped—having a wand has always been enough.

Except that now he doesn't have a wand.

If he tries to take Lola's wand, she'll probably blind him. He doesn't know how well a Healer would be able to fix that considering he's never been able to fix most of his scars—though maybe that's Neil's fault for never going to a proper Healer in the first place.

Okay. No wands. He's going to have to do this the Muggle way.

But he can't come up with anything. If there were only two of them, or if they weren't in a car, or if he even had the smallest of blades on him, he could've figured something out. But in this close proximity, all three watching him, there's no way he can make an escape.

Hope, so desperately scrounged up from memories of his friends, dies again, just as quickly.

Fine. He's going to die here. He accepts it.

He only wishes he could've said goodbye to everyone. Nicky's going to show up to brunch tomorrow and think he's been stood up. Matt'll have to find a new roommate with little notice—and who knows, maybe he'll start using some of his professional athlete salary to live somewhere nicer. Dan will need to fill his position quickly. Maybe Martinson can take over, though his Quidditch writing lacks nuance. For that matter, she'll have to find someone else to promote to Editor of English Quidditch. Kevin will return to practicing alone. Andrew will—not care, probably.

Thank you, then. Andrew deserves one at least, a thank you for saving Neil's career and urging him to start playing again and kissing him on the roof and telling him not to run. Kevin, too, for the late night practices. The Lions, for letting him in. The Daily Prophet for hiring him. Dan for trusting him. Matt for—everything. The glasses of water. Christmas Eve with his family.

Neil pushes this painful series of thoughts out of his head. He's doing himself more harm than good. His job now is to make this as awful for his captors as possible. They can kill him if they want, but he's not going down without a fight.

He'll have to wait until they stop. He's not sure if he can Apparate without a wand, but he'll have to try—but if he does it here, with Lola wrapped around him, he'll take her with him.

He tries to see where they're going. So far, all he knows is north; they sped out of the city quickly enough that he barely caught the highway signs. The car they're in is modified, more wizard than Muggle, and seems to slide in and out of traffic without being noticed. That's a problem: he's not going to catch the eye of a sympathetic-looking Muggle if the Muggles can't see him.

But his time for plotting runs out. They pull over somewhere secluded, and—knives, wands, and guns all pointing at him—Neil is forced to climb into the trunk of a Muggle police car. Another person from Neil's nightmares, this time Romero dressed in a police uniform, gets in the front, while Lola climbs in after Neil.

“Why all this?” Neil says. “Why not just Apparate me?”

“Because, Junior, the Ministry's watching out for Apparition, but they'd never expect hardened criminals to use Muggle technology.”

Her disgust for it is evident. Neil still doesn't know what bizarre dealings with the Hatfords caused Nathan to marry a Muggle in the first place, but he spent most of the early years of his childhood cursing them.

“Where are we going?” Neil says.

“You didn't ask this many questions when you were a kid.” Lola shoves a knife between Neil's teeth, cradles it against the side of his mouth. “If you don't keep your mouth shut unless you're addressed, I'll give you a pretty new smile.”

Neil doesn't move. He finds, at some point when they've driven (in a straight line, he notes—still north) for another thirty minutes, that he isn't even really breathing. Even the adrenaline has faded, so he's just lying there, cramped, Lola's lethal body pressed against his back, her knife in his mouth and her wand at his ribcage.

If only they weren't touching. If only they'd put him in the trunk by himself. He can probably take Lola in a fair fight, but like this, bound, without a wand, while she has an assortment of weapons on her, he's doomed if he even seems like he's going to try.

“I have another question for you,” Lola says. “What do your little newspaper friends know about us?”

“Nothing,” Neil says. “I was pretending to be someone else. Neil Josten. An English Muggle-born. They believed me.”

“You were working with investigative journalists, and you expect me to believe you didn't tell them a word?” Lola says. The knife digs into the corner of his mouth. “Nathaniel, I thought you knew better than to lie to me.”

More pain. She's trying to drag their names out of him, all the people he's supposedly told, and he swears over and over that he hasn't told a soul, that they all think his parents are dead and he's alone, holding onto that last thread of himself that still feels human because it's connected to them, his coworkers and the people he was interviewing and his flatmate. Again and again, Neil chose to stay with them all, to establish a real home and real relationships, and even if he's exhausted all the time, even if he's gotten himself caught, it was worth it. If he'd left he might've survived another year or two. But he would've burnt out eventually, and then what would the point have been? They won't get a single fucking name out of him. He'd rather die.

He closes his eyes against the pain. He's known he was going to die for his entire life. He's outlived his own mother's predictions. His life has been better than it should have been.

He's going to die tonight. But it won't be without a fight.

*

Eventually, he's dragged out of the car, carried through chilly spring evening air into a room and down a flight of stairs, then flung haphazardly on the floor. They clean his face with a quick spell (“So your father can see you,” Lola says, and she makes it sting). It's dark wherever they are. Neil can't see any light through his blindfold. All he knows is that the floor beneath him is hard and cold, that his wrists and legs are still bound with both rope and magic, and that no one in the room is making any noise. He might be alone. It's impossible to know.

And then—a voice.

“Where is he?”

It's from somewhere above him. The sound of that voice sets Neil's teeth on edge, his skin on fire. His heart is thundering so maniacally in his chest that it threatens to give out altogether. Neil needs to get out of the ties, struggles to undo them with torn up fingers, and then, too close to his face—“Junior.”

Neil freezes. He's stuck. Magic has failed him. Don't scream, he thinks, wildly, as if that might help anything.

“I want him to look at me when I kill him,” Nathan says.

Neil's blindfold slips off his face.

His father is Neil's nightmares realized, cold blue eyes deep set in pale skin that stretches, waxlike, across bone. In one hand a wand. In the other: a cleaver.

The Butcher of Baltimore, here, in Britain. Everything his mother did, and now here Neil is, facing him for the last time.

“Can't run away this time, can you, Nathaniel,” Nathan says, pressing the blade of his cleaver against Neil's legs, just hard enough for Neil to feel the pressure. “No mother to untie you. No pesky uncle to undo the spells. It's just you and me, son.” He examines Neil's face. “How long did you think you'd be able to hide in plain sight? Did you think Azkaban would keep you safe?”

“No,” Neil says. He wants to say more, to tell his father he hates him, but terror has consumed him so fully that Neil can't form a full sentence.

And anyway, what would he say? To beg for death would be stupid. Nathan won't give Neil what he wants.

Neil looks around for some respite, but there's nothing, just the room and the stairs leading up out of it.

And then he sees it: an electrical outlet. The light from upstairs isn't from a torch. It's from a bulb.

It could mean nothing. His and Matt's flat has plenty of electrical outlets. They have a television. Matt has a DVD player. Their light is electric.

But his father is a pureblood, and he's old-fashioned. The house Neil grew up in was fully magical, so much so that his mother struggled every time she had to do anything in the kitchen.

Nathan Wesninski doesn't believe in Muggle and magic coming together, for all that he married a Muggle. Nathan Wesninski doesn't see the point. Nathan Wesninski won't have done the spells.

It's hope, again, burning in Neil's lungs, an altogether different pain from the kind stretching across the rest of his body. This house isn't compatible with the kind of full-scale magic it would take to put wards into place. Not if the lights still work.

“Hold him down,” Nathan says. “He won't stop moving—”

Lola's hands at Neil's shoulders. His father's bodyguard's hands at his legs. His father bends over him.

“Nathaniel,” he says. “My only son.” He shakes his head. “You could have been a star. Instead you're going to die, alone, unwanted, in north nowhere, England.”

“Fuck you,” Neil says, and hates that it makes Nathan laugh.

“Where is your mother?” he says once he's stopped.

“She's dead,” Neil says. “She's buried in Wales.”

“She's not dead,” Nathan says. “How would you have survived this long without her?”

“Luck, I suppose,” Neil says.

“What is that accent? You talk just like them now. Lola, remind my son where he's from.” Nathan's hand cradles Neil's cheek. “Be quick.”

Lola's favored techniques usually involve knives and fire, but she's adept at this too. Her “Crucio” is cool and toneless, but it sets Neil aflame again, pain everywhere, and it's this, isn't it, that shows up in his nightmares time and again, has him waking up screaming, Matt at his bedside with a glass of water—

The pain stops.

“Where is she?”

“She's dead.”

“Lola.”

Crucio!”

Neil's mind is blank, or, more accurately, it has been fully consumed by pain—rage—fear. When the spell stops, he feels hollowed out, desperate to do anything to keep from ever feeling that pain again. He stares up at his father's looming face, its smug air of satisfaction.

“Where is she?” Nathan says again.

“She's dead,” Neil says. “You killed her. Years ago. When your people caught us in Wales—” He remembers the drive, his mother's set jaw as she bled out in the driver's seat, switching seats with her, fourteen, no idea how to drive stick. Lola raises her wand again, and Neil flinches so hard it actually seems to surprise his father's bodyguard. “She's dead, she's dead, I never would've gone to Hogwarts if she'd been alive, you know that, please, please—”

“Do we believe him?” Nathan says.

Lola's face is a Cheshire smile above Neil.

“We'll find out, won't we?” she says.

Nathan's cleaver rests on Neil's legs.

“Please,” Neil says, and once it comes out he can't stop it: “Please, just let me go, I haven't done anything, I'm just a journalist, I write about Quidditch, it's not dangerous to you, I could help, I could help you, please just let me—”

Nathan hits him across the face. It sets all of Neil's wounds aflame all over again, and he can't stop the cry that comes out of his mouth.

“You made me look like a liar and a fool to the Moriyamas,” Nathan says. “Do you know how much you and your mother cost me? Let you go? But you owe me, Nathaniel.”

Lola's wand is still raised. Neil is completely trapped: in one direction, the cleaver; in the other, pain worse than he can imagine.

“I'm sure Lola told you how annoying it's been trying to catch up with you all these years,” Nathan continues. “You haven't made it easy for us. Changing your face. Changing your accent. You sound fucking ridiculous, son. I'm going to make sure you never run away from me again.”

He turns Neil over. It's immediately evident that he's going to cut Neil off at the legs, or maybe he's going to tear through Neil's hamstrings. Neil screams, praying someone will hear him, anyone, but hasn't he learned by now that people don't care about other people? How many times have screams been ignored—the bystander effect—sheer terror pulsing through every one of Neil's veins—he'd take a thousand Crucios over never being able to run again, a million—what will they do with him if they keep him here, unable to get away? How long will they keep him alive?

Lola's hands are still at Neil's shoulders. Another henchman is holding down his bound arms. Nathan rests a hand on Neil's ankle to steady himself. He raises the blade.

Neil Disapparates. He isn't thinking when he does it, just trying to get out of there, and his wand is in Lola's pocket which is close but not close enough, and she's still touching him, and so is his father, that other goon holding him down, a giant monster called Patrick DiMaccio—

They're in a forest.

Lola, his father, and Patrick look around. It takes Neil a moment to recognize where they are, and then immediately, despite the pain and sheer terror, he feels guilty. Instinct brought him here, the only place he could think of not far from here, certainly the safest place he could remember.

They're in the thicket that precedes Andrew's cabin. If it's getting close to sunrise and Andrew manages to stumble upon them on his way back to civilization, he's dead too. If he happens to wander around the woods in wolf form, he might bite someone, and that'll get him back on wolfsbane if not in Azkaban for sure. Neil curses his traitorous mind.

But he's done it, hasn't he? Wandless magic? And if he's done it, that must mean he can do it, even if it isn't focused, even if it isn't concentrated. He needs to break the ties, needs to get all of them away from him as quickly as possible. His magic saved him once. It's going to have to save him again.

Fuck,” Lola says, pulling her hands off him. “How did he do that? He burned me.”

Neil ignores her. He ignores the pain all over his body, takes only a split second to relish the fact that his wrists and ankles are no longer bound, magically or otherwise, and then he leaps up and runs.

God, running. The air here is clean, burns Neil's lungs, but it's fresh, not the stale basement air of the room he thought he would die in but the clean air of a forest—

There are spells coming at him. He still doesn't have a wand.

But he's alive, isn't he, and that has to mean something, doesn't it?

He tries to Apparate again. Nothing. He runs, veers off in a random direction, prays he isn't heading toward Andrew's cabin. One of their spells hits him, but he can barely feel it—his entire body is on fire anyway, so he what does it matter?

He needs a plan. He can't just run indefinitely. Eventually he'll get tired, or he'll hurt himself, or his body will just give up on him.

And then it does.

He's had enough of a head start that he hasn't seen the light from one of their spells in a few minutes. He's faster than all of them, of course, but he's injured and bleeding and has been bound in a cramped space for most of the night. So when his body gives out, it really gives out, and he trips over an exposed branch and stays down.

What is it all those survival books say? If you fall in the woods, cover yourself with leaves and things so you look dead to any potential predators. It won't work on his father, but Neil does it anyway, ignores how the twigs feel on his open wounds.

There are cracking sounds around him, likely from his father and his father's people chasing him, breaking twigs and branches as they do. He needs to stay hidden. He stays perfectly still. He tries not to make a sound. Even breathing feels dangerous.

He stares up at the glimpses of the night sky he can see through the trees. He can't make out the moon, but he thinks it'd be comforting if he could, its schedule ever-consistent, cyclical. There's a fog setting in, but it's the wrong weather for it, cool and dry.

Footsteps surround him. Neil accepts it for real this time, the reality of death. He's going to die here, on the ground in a forest, alone, his legs having failed him at last. His mother was wrong in the end: running couldn't save him.

“He's over here!”

The voice isn't his father's. Neil doesn't recognize it at all.

The fog grows closer.

“Nathaniel?”

Someone is brushing the twigs and leaves off Neil's face, hauling him up.

“I don't want to tie you up, but I will if I have to.”

Neil blinks. In the dim light, he can make out the Ministry robes the person is wearing.

“Are you an Auror?” Neil says.

“Auror Browning. You're meant to be American.” The Auror looks around at someone else. “Your father's about to receive the Dementor's Kiss. You probably don't want to watch.”

Neil wants to watch.

“You look hurt, so I won't bind you if I don't have to, but one wrong move—”

“I couldn't if I wanted to.”

“Good.” A pause. “Not a good man, was he?”

“Why the Kiss without a trial?”

“He had a trial,” the Auror says. “MaCUSA might be upset we've administered the Kiss without allowing them to question him, but that's what you're for.”

“But he was sentenced to Azkaban before,” Neil says. “Not this.”

“This is for breaking out of Azkaban when he was meant to serve a life sentence. He and Lola. The other one—we don't know who he is. We're thinking he's Patrick DiMaccio, but we have no record of his being in the U.K. We're hoping you can clear that up.”

Neil doesn't say anything.

“You know, we have this spot marked as known werewolf territory and it's full moon.” The Auror squints down at Neil. “Did you come here on purpose?”

Neil isn't listening. There are only two dementors there, but they're descending upon Nathan and Lola already, one each.

He's seen people die before. He's seen people chopped to bits, seen skin flayed right off someone's bones, seen a dull cleaver cut into someone's flesh. Seen them hit with blasts of green light and seen them fall to the ground, their expressions set in stone on their faces.

But he's never seen anything like this. Somehow he's never thought of the soul as a corporeal thing. He's never really thought about souls at all, but he never would've imagined them looking like this, pearly white, dragged out of his father by that odd skeletal creature. It holds his father by the neck with a bony hand and yet seems too ethereal to take a physical form. Neil's never seen a dementor in real life, but he knows even now that if he survives this night, this thing is going to haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life.

He remembers learning about dementors in Defense Against the Dark Arts. The very worst punishment. A fate worse than death. For a long time, Neil couldn't imagine it. The idea of dying was so terrifying that survival at any cost, even the loss of a soul, seemed preferable. But he was wrong. It's not preferable.

And then nothing. His father's body falls to the ground. Alive, but soulless, a shell, empty.

Someone is laughing. It takes Neil a moment to realize it's him, excess adrenaline and terror and sheer aching relief scratching their way up his throat.

“Nathaniel,” the Auror says.

It's remarkably sobering to hear his name. Neil stops, presses destroyed fingers to his throat.

“How did you find me?” he says.

“We've been watching all Apparition by unregistered wizards. When four people Disapparated from a Muggle house in Leicester where there'd been a murder reported, we thought it might be prudent to check in on them.”

“She has my wand,” Neil says. “Lola.”

“No, I have your wand.” The Auror holds up two. “How did you Disapparate without one?”

“I don't know,” Neil says, stretching for his wand. “Magic, I guess.”

The Auror backs out of Neil's reach. “Not yet, I'm afraid. We're taking you in for questioning. Then you'll go and see a Healer, and then you can have this back before you head to America.”

“I'm not dangerous,” Neil says. And he's not leaving Britain, not without seeing his friends, not if he can help it.

“Then you can trust us to take care of you.”

Not likely, Neil thinks, but if he's going to live, he can hold off without his wand for a little longer.

The Auror in question—Browning—levitates Neil onto a stretcher.

“Ministry first,” he says. “We'll have a Healer look at you there.”

Neil nods and immediately regrets it, pain searing the back of his neck. He sits up in the stretcher, takes the Portkey when Browning hands it to him, and ignores the way his insides climb up his throat at teleportation's characteristic whirl.

“Will you take Veritaserum?”

“No.”

Browning looks exasperated.

“I'll talk,” Neil says. “But not on Veritaserum. If you want everything I know about my father's men and their whereabouts, you'll have to just take my word on it.”

“You're a known liar.”

Neil shrugs. “Your choice.”

“We could put you in Azkaban. You have the record for it.”

“You've already had my father's soul sucked out of him. How do you think you're going to catch the rest of them without me? And what's MaCUSA going to say if you put their only witness in prison?”

The Auror levels a long, tired look at him. “Merlin's beard,” he says. “Right. Fine. Stay here.”

It's unlikely that Neil would move. The Auror helps Neil into a chair, and then Neil watches as the door closes.

Neil doesn't normally just fall asleep, but he's exhausted and in too much pain. The adrenaline has fully drained out of him. And anyway, the worst thing that could happen to him has happened, and he came out the victor.

It's a small, hollow pride, but he feels it nonetheless. He lets his head fall forward onto his chest. They'll wake him when they need him.

Chapter Text

When Neil wakes, it's to a loud thudding sound, and then the flash and bang characteristic of Andrew opening doors without his wand.

Seeing him feels supernatural, like Neil has signed a devil's deal to stay alive past his expiration date. Andrew looks furious, hot rage in the set of his mouth, skin torn apart, more than one scratch still dribbling blood.

All his attention is on Neil despite Auror Browning following Andrew into the room. Behind Browning, huddling in the doorway: Nicky, Matt, Dan. Behind them: Erik. Jeremy. Kevin.

Andrew comes right up to Neil, doesn't stop until he's inches away from his face.

“Mr. Minyard,” Browning says, “I understand you two are close, but this behavior is—”

Neil brushes some of the blood off Andrew's chin. “Did you get in a fight?” he says.

Andrew doesn't answer, and that's when Neil realizes that Andrew is actually shaking, trembling from head to toe, all barely-suppressed fury.

“You need a Healer,” Andrew says.

“Andrew,” Neil says. “I'm fine.”

Andrew's hand shoots forward as if he's going to hit Neil, but he stops millimeters away. There's Browning's shout of, “Mr. Minyard, really, you can't—” and Dan's harsh, “He hasn't seen a Healer yet? What did you say your name was?”

“What happened?” Andrew says.

Browning perks up.

Neil switches to German. “My father's people showed up at the Prophet offices to kidnap me. They were timing it for full moon, I guess because they thought you'd garner too much unwanted attention. England's bright hope and all. Is that how you got up here? Played the I'm-a-celebrity-who-might-win-you-the-World-Cup card?”

“You were right about them coming for you.”

“I thought they'd given up.”

“You should have run.”

“You know I shouldn't have.”

“I thought you had.”

It takes Neil a moment to figure out what he's talking about. He glances down at his watch: he's missed brunch with Nicky, didn't show up to his customary pester-Andrew-after-full-moon session, and is very late for work. Not to mention he never went home last night. No wonder the rest of them worried.

“I'm sorry,” Neil says. “I didn't think you'd care.”

The response is there—I don't—but Andrew doesn't say it. Instead he brings both his trembling hands up to Neil's face. His fingers are feather light on the torn open skin of Neil's face, and Neil stares up at him in wonder. He's always known, or at least known for a long time, that Andrew is capable of being defensive and protective and possessive and awful; but somehow Neil never associated him with gentleness.

“You can do this, but you can't be bothered the heal the scratches all over your face?” Neil says.

“Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” Neil says. He doesn't want to think about why Andrew's so good at wandless magic, or why he's good at Healing when there isn't a wand handy, or why he hasn't touched the werewolf scratches all over his face and peeking up from under his collar, or why it's a surprise to feel this softness from him. He just wants—“Yes or no?”

“Your face is still bleeding.”

“So's yours. Just be gentle.”

Andrew looks at Neil like he's shocked at the suggestion.

“I'm not,” he says, or maybe it's, “I'm not—,” like he's cutting himself off.

“I know you are.”

“You don't know anything.” Automatic.

“I know you have a freckle right there,” Neil says, pointing at the spot just under the loose collar of Andrew's ancient t-shirt. It makes his finger burn to move it like that, but he doesn't care. “Andrew.”

Andrew holds Neil's face in his hands, very carefully, and kisses him. It's nothing like their usual kisses, fire and anger and hatred and want, but Neil feels unsettled by this one all the same, maybe because he can feel that Andrew's fingers are shaking, maybe because for the first time Andrew seems terrified of breaking him.

There's an intake of breath. Neil remembers they aren't alone.

“Mr. Minyard,” Browning says.

Andrew steps back, but it's only to take his place at Neil's side.

It's a mistake: the rest of them pour in, take in Neil's destroyed face, and look away. Behind them are more Aurors in Ministry robes.

“It was probably worse before Andrew fixed some of it,” Neil says.

Dan looks like she's going to cry. For that matter, so do Matt and Nicky.

“Sorry about brunch,” Neil says. “Rain check?”

“I don't think so,” Browning says. “You won't want to stay here. MaCUSA's taking over your protection as soon as—”

“Auror Browning—” Nicky says.

“He is not going anywhere,” Andrew says. “Least of all to America.” Andrew looks around at Neil. “Unless you think running will help you now.”

“If you say I can stay, I'm staying.”

“You're staying.”

Nicky looks very rapidly from Andrew to Neil, then back again. Neil ignores him and watches Browning.

“I have to advise you not to do that,” Browning says. “If any of your father's people come for you again, we might not be able to protect you.”

“Because you protected me so well this time 'round,” Neil says. “Thanks for that. I feel so safe.”

“We still need your testimony,” Browning says. “Even if you choose not to leave. And we'll need to hear about how you Apparated without a wand.”

“I'll tell you everything,” Neil says. “But first—I want to see my friends.”

“They're right here,” Browning says, more than a little annoyed.

“Without you here.”

Browning looks conflicted, but in the end he seems to decide that Nathaniel is already borderline uncooperative and is likely to only be worse if he doesn't get what he's asking for. “You get twenty minutes. One hint of magic and we'll throw all of you in Azkaban, World Cup qualifiers next month be damned.”

He leaves, but he doesn't close the door. It's only the illusion of privacy: he's barely ten feet away, back to them, positioned to hear every word they say.

Neil relishes it anyway. He looks up at anything other than his carved up fingers and takes in the people around him: Jeremy, looking pale and horrified; Matt, on the verge of tears; Kevin, looking out the small window instead of at Neil.

“Shouldn't you all be at practice?” Neil says.

Jeremy looks like Neil's just slapped him. “When we heard you were here, we had to come down. It took us forever to get up here, even with Kevin doing that celebrity smile thing he does and Andrew threatening everyone we came into contact with.”

“You didn't come home last night, which, you know, I'm not your parent, but it was a bit weird,” Matt says. “Especially since I knew it was full moon, so you wouldn't—” But he cuts himself off.

“Nicky told us you missed brunch, and you didn't show up to work,” Dan says. “And then Andrew came looking for you, so—”

“How did you find out I was here?”

“Has no one showed you a paper?” Erik says. He and Dan exchange a look, and then he pulls the morning's copy of the Prophet from his robes.

The picture above the fold is of dementors. The headline proclaims an Auror victory in finding some of the escaped prisoners. Neil flips through to the page the article is continued on: photos of Nathan and Lola and Patrick DiMaccio, more information about the Butcher of Baltimore's gang, something about the investigation being ongoing, a note that the Butcher's son was on the scene and was taken in for questioning.

“Kevin and Andrew knew who the Butcher's son was,” Erik says. “And Dan called in a favor once she found out. Your name won't be mentioned in later editions. Er, either of them. You will have to trust these Aurors to keep quiet about it.”

“They'll have to,” Neil says. “They're investigating his gang. They think I can help him find the rest of them—the ones who broke out of Azkaban and the ones they never caught in the first place.”

He glances up at Kevin as he says it, ignores the way Kevin pales. They'll want to know everything Neil knows about the Moriyamas. There's not much he hasn't already written about, but his father's debt to them is something he avoided. He'll also be able to ID the people who drove the cars that took him to that house up north, not to mention where the house is. And he's supposed to help them take down the Butcher of Baltimore's strongholds in the U.S. and the U.K. Who knows how many are Moriyama people and how many are Butcher people?

Better—or maybe worse—he knows Riko broke them out of Azkaban on his brother's orders. Ichirou will be trying to distance himself from all this, but Neil can ruin that with one piece of testimony.

He wasn't supposed to survive. He was supposed to be buried somewhere no one would ever find him. They knew he wouldn't have told anyone his real identity, except that he'd told Andrew, and now that Andrew is standing next to him, still angrier than Neil has ever seen him, Neil can imagine Andrew getting himself killed. It was a mistake to say anything to him, but he did, and now Andrew knows at least a little of the truth of who Neil is.

And now Neil's father is gone and Neil can tell him the rest. All of it. Endless time. Questions Neil will answer readily. Things he can ask in exchange—about magic, about Andrew's childhood, about transforming.

“Your father did this to you?” Jeremy is saying. He sounds horrified. “Jean says—” And then his face twists. “Jean knew, didn't he?”

“He suspected, I think,” Neil says. “I don't know if he knew specifics. Just that I was supposed to be sold to the Ravens just like he was.”

Andrew's hand is heavy on Neil's shoulder, silent support Neil wasn't expecting.

Jeremy closes his eyes. Opens them again.

“You're going home,” he says. “Right? After this? And then—” He hesitates. “Will we be able to see you?”

“Yeah,” Neil says. “Of course. Yeah.”

“Right,” Jeremy says. “I'm glad you're all right.” He gives Neil an approximation of his usual sunny smile, then leaves the room.

It draws Browning's attention.

“The rest of you had better leave as well,” he says. “We're going to take down Nathaniel's testimony now.”

“We haven't gotten the full story yet,” Dan says.

“You'll get it later,” Neil says. “I promise. We can all—have a drink at ours.”

He looks to Matt to confirm, and Matt nods eagerly.

“We'll see you tonight, then,” Matt says. “Do you want me to bring you anything before then?”

“No,” Neil says. “Thank you.”

Only Kevin lingers, staring Neil in the face for the first time.

“I didn't know,” he says. “You shouldn't have written that article. I—”

“Why not?” Neil says. “Now the Butcher can't touch me, and I have the full might of the Ministry of Magic protecting me.”

“Not yet,” Browning says. “Mr. Day, Mr. Minyard—”

Kevin leaves without another word, but Andrew doesn't move.

“You should probably let him stay,” Neil says. “I'm not very cooperative.”

Browning sighs. “If he becomes a problem, he's gone and you're on the first plane to New York. I'm bringing in—”

“First he sees a Healer,” Andrew says.

“Did you not hear what I just said?”

“I'm already a problem,” Andrew says. “If he doesn't see a Healer, he'll sue the Ministry for gross negligence and you'll be out of a job. And don't forget he's a reporter. Ministry doesn't exactly need more bad PR after it let all those Death Eaters break out of Azkaban, does it?”

“You're learning about PR,” Neil says. “Finally.”

“A Healer first,” Andrew says again.

Browning looks to Neil, then back at Andrew. He sighs.

“Fine. A Healer first.”

*

They get switched to a nicer room, one with more windows and a chair for Andrew, and it takes most of the day for Neil to relay all the information he has to the American and British Aurors. Andrew sits by Neil's side the whole time.

Other than the obvious—who is the Butcher, who are his men, who should the Ministry and MaCUSA be going after—the Aurors are mainly concerned with Neil Apparating because he was sure the house didn't have good wards on it (“Those spells were developed in the last ten years, and my father never trusted Muggle technology, so I just assumed he wouldn't have bothered to do them.” “You bet your life on an assumption?” “I was going to die either way.”) and Neil doing wandless magic.

“It was a fluke,” one of the wizards says. “Because you were under duress. It has to be. No one does that kind of wandless magic without years of advanced education.”

“It was an accident,” Neil admits.

“The Apparition would've worked because Lola was so close to you,” a MaCUSA witch says. “That makes sense, right? Wizards don't need to hold our wands when we Apparate, we just need them to be close by.”

They ask about the Moriyamas, too. Neil lies through his teeth, says he has no idea if the Moriyamas were involved with either the escape from Azkaban or the previous night's activities. His father might be dead, but Ichirou Moriyama isn't, and Neil's already gotten him thrown in Azkaban once.

The Healer cleans up some of the mess Lola made of Neil's face and arms. She looks at him twice, first before the Aurors question him and then again when they've all left. She can't fix all the burns, but she does a better job of healing his open wounds than Neil ever did on his own, before. Between her work and Andrew's quick patch up job, Neil's face looks like it's definitely been through hell, but maybe has been back for a couple of months instead of just a few hours.

Or at least, that's what Matt tells him when Neil and Andrew make it back to Neil's flat. Matt's greeting is relieved, like he wasn't expecting Neil to come back at all.

As for Neil—he takes his time undoing the laces of his shoes with numb fingers, shrugging off his cloak, and stepping into the hallway that leads from their front door to their kitchen. He didn't think he'd ever be back here. He didn't even let himself want to be back here last night.

“Dan's coming over in a bit,” Matt says. “She said to let her know as soon as you got here. Some of the Lions want to see you, too, and Nicky and Erik obviously. Should I tell them to come?”

Neil is exhausted, and he probably looks it, because Andrew stops walking toward wherever he was walking and returns to Neil's side.

“Yeah,” Neil says. “I'm—”

But Andrew is glaring at him, and Neil knows what that means.

“Okay, I'm not fine,” Neil says. “But I'm not going to be able to just fall asleep, and I'd rather be with them than by myself in my room hoping I don't wake Matt up.”

Andrew holds up a bottle: it's Dreamless Sleep, which Neil has been prescribed for the week. Neil rolls his eyes; Andrew knows better than anyone that Neil doesn't want to medicate himself through this. If he needs it, he'll take it, but he doesn't want to force himself to sleep just yet.

“You need a shower,” Matt says. He looks around at Andrew. “Can he shower? What did the Healer say?”

“He can shower,” Andrew says.

He steers Neil toward the bathroom. Matt very pointedly turns the television on, and that, too, fills Neil with a rush of warmth, because wasn't it awareness of the fact that televisions can be rigged to work in wizarding households that saved his life in the end?

“Are we showering together?” Neil says, watching as Andrew roots through the cupboard for clean towels and avoiding looking at the mirror.

Andrew turns to look Neil up and down.

“You can manage on your own,” Andrew says, which is fair: Neil is mostly scar tissue now, and though it's still tight some places, he feels almost as mobile as usual.

Usually Neil's showers are brief; he doesn't see the point in dawdling, doing whatever it is people do when they spend a long time in the shower. But this time, it feels open-ended. There's nowhere in particular he's meant to be except, eventually, his own living room. There's Andrew just outside, the door opening and closing and then opening and closing again.

He stands in the hot water for what feels like an age, ignoring the burn on his new scars and relishing in the newness of wasting time just because he wants to, of having time to waste. He climbs out of the tub eventually, wrapping himself in a towel and bringing another to his face. Andrew is perched on the sink, watching him, looking bored.

By habit, Neil glances at the mirror to ensure that he still looks like Neil Josten—

And stops breathing.

His face is so mangled that half of it looks like it's come from a different person, or maybe a wax figure. That's ignoring the long, thin scars on the other half—more faded than if he'd done them himself, but still there, markers of the night before. His father's blue eyes stare back at him, horrified, because he's been able to cover his chest this long, hasn't he, but how is he supposed to disguise his face—?

“You're dripping water everywhere,” Andrew says, plucking the towel out of Neil's hands and standing in front of him, blocking most of Neil's view of the mirror. He dries Neil off carefully and clinically, not rubbing as hard as Neil would have at the places on his chest and arms that bear new and old scars, and then he catches Neil's gaze again. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil says, almost desperately, because it's just struck him that he has no idea what it is they're doing. Andrew hates him, or he's supposed to, and yet here Andrew is, taking care of him. Andrew hasn't let Neil out of his sight since walking into that office in the Ministry hours ago. Andrew is drying him off with a clean towel as gingerly as he might a baby.

Andrew's kiss is slow but all heat. He crowds Neil against the wall to kiss up the line of his jaw, and it reminds Neil of that time they kissed in Neil's kitchen and Andrew got him off for the first time.

Outside the bathroom, the doorbell rings. Andrew tenses. They stand in silence for a moment, then:

“It's Dan,” Neil says. “I should get dressed.”

Andrew steps away, hands Neil a pile of loose Muggle clothing to put on. Neil dresses quickly and makes his way out of the bathroom. Andrew doesn't follow him.

When Neil gets to the living room, he's gathered up in a hug before he can even take stock of who's in there. It takes a moment for him to figure out that it's Dan with her arms wrapped tight around him, and Neil awkwardly hugs back.

“Have a good shower?” Nicky says when Dan steps away. He chuckles, but it sounds forced. He's hanging back, hovering just outside of Neil's reach, like he's not sure how close he should come.

“Hi,” Neil says.

“Drinks?” Matt says. “Yeah, drinks, definitely. We've got firewhiskey and vodka.”

“Can you mix both?” Kevin says.

Neil isn't sure if he's joking, but Nicky laughs again, and so does Jeremy. It's just them, Kevin, and Dan here. No Jean. No Erik. Neil is secretly relieved—he likes Erik, and he understands Jean, but he doesn't feel as close to them as he does to Jeremy, Nicky, and Kevin. Dan and Matt, obviously, are givens.

“Rheman says you can have the rest of the week off,” Dan says. “Actually, he insists. You're not to come in to work. Someone else is writing the preview for the Lions' weekend match, but you can do the write up if you feel up to it.”

“It's not Martinson, is it?”

“You've finally learned his name!” Dan says. “Didn't think you'd ever reach that point. But yeah, it is Martinson, he knows the team and he's a decent writer.”

Andrew pads into the living room then, looking much cleaner than before, the werewolf scratches on his face and down his neck—and probably everywhere else, too—now fully healed. He sits in the empty space next to Neil. No one points out that the clothes he's wearing clearly belong to Neil, though by the looks of him Nicky is dying to say something.

“So,” Neil says. “I'm taking questions.”

He tries not to feel like he's back in the interrogation room, everyone looking at him eagerly—but then, this isn't eagerness. It's worry.

“Are you all right?” Dan says.

“What?” Neil says.

“The Healers fixed you up well?” Dan says. “Do we need to get Renee on the exposé? Because she'll do it, you know, she's very upset by this whole situation, she and Allison were the ones to get your room switched.”

He stares at her. That's what she wants to know? Not why he's been lying to her for four years? Not who he's really meant to be? Not what Nathaniel Wesninski did to get himself sent to American witness protection or prison or whatever?

And since when do Renee and Allison even know each other? No wonder people think the Daily Prophet has a pro-Lions bias.

“Neil,” Matt says gently. “We don't have to do this if you don't want to.”

“I'm fine,” Neil says, and winces at himself. “I mean—I wasn't, but the Healer I saw was good at her job, and even though I'm tired, I think I'm as well as I could be, given the circumstances. I—you've all been so great to me since I met you, and I owe you at least the truth, so anything I can tell you, I will.”

“The Moriyamas,” Jeremy says. “Is that all going to be fine?”

Kevin leans forward slightly at this.

“I don't know yet,” Neil says. “I'm sorry I can't tell you more. I know it's hard, with Jean and Kevin and everything, but—if you can just trust me, I'm figuring something out.”

Jeremy doesn't like the answer—why should he trust Neil, really?—but he attempts a smile anyway. Kevin doesn't fare as well, reaching immediately for the goblet Nicky's just refilled.

The rest of the questions they ask are in the same vein—things about whether Neil's face will heal, how he's feeling, what medicine they've given him, how he got away, how he managed to do magic, how he knew he'd be able to Apparate (“I knew this television was a good idea!” Matt says, waving his wand so earnestly that the TV sends up sparks), Dan clearly angrier than she's letting on, Matt pretty obvious with his own anger.

“Do you have any other special skills?” Jeremy says. “Other than the wandless magic Andrew's apparently been teaching you, I mean.”

“I can't really do wandless magic,” Neil says. “The Ministry thinks it was just because I was 'under duress.' You know, like children who do accidental magic when they're in danger? Except I'm not a child, obviously, so I could actually focus it.” He doesn't fully understand it, but he's not complaining, not if it saved his life.

“No special skills, then?”

“Well—I'm a Metamorphmagus.”

This triggers its own set of questions—what he can actually do, what he really looks like (“This,” Neil says, gesturing to his wrecked face), if he can do any party tricks like animal noses and multicolored hair.

Then Nicky says, “What about you two?” and gestures to Neil and Andrew. Andrew hasn't spoken since they sat down. He's tapping absentmindedly on the inside of his wrist, and Neil gets the idea that he'd very much like to be playing with his knives right now but isn't for Neil's benefit, which—yeah, Neil has no idea what they're supposed to be now. It was supposed to be casual. Purely physical.

“I'm a private person,” Neil says. “You all know everything I've been keeping private for the last few years now. So let me have this one thing.”

Nicky opens his mouth as if to protest, looks from Neil to his cousin, and shuts up.

“On that note,” Matt says, “I think we should all let Neil get to bed. Everyone out.”

“Everyone” apparently means everyone except Dan and Andrew, because when Dan gets up it's only to make her way toward Matt's bedroom. Andrew, not to be outdone, follows her out of the room.

Matt and Neil clean up mostly in silence, gathering goblets and carrying them to the kitchen sink. Neil does the dish-cleaning spell since Matt's not very good at it and watches as the dishes scrub themselves.

“You were supposed to let me know if you were ever interested in anyone,” Matt whispers.

“You were supposed to tell me if anything happened with Dan.”

“Are you joking? She's been having breakfast and dinner here for months.”

“Yeah, but you didn't say.”

“It was subtext!”

“So was Andrew,” Neil says, enjoying the bewildered laugh Matt lets out in response.

“Well, I'm happy if you're happy,” Matt says. “I'm not saying I get it, and if you'd told me yesterday I'd've called you mad, but—” He shrugs.

“Thank you,” Neil says. “For—everything. I thought—” He thought they wouldn't want to be anywhere near him, if he's being honest, a Death Eater's son who's been lying to everyone about his identity for most of his life, but instead they were concerned about his well-being.

“Don't,” Matt says. “Can you imagine if I'd had to find another roommate? I can't live alone, Neil. I start talking to the portraits. Not wizard ones that move and talk back, either, just normal Muggle ones.”

“Yeah,” Neil says. “I don't like living alone either.”

“Good, because you're stuck with me.” Matt grins at him, something melancholy tugging at the edge of his smile. “I'm glad you're all right, Neil.”

When Neil gets to his room, Andrew is sitting by the window, smoking and playing with one of the knives he keeps in his armbands. He waves a hand to Vanish the smoke when Neil gets there, tosses the cigarette butt out the window (rudely, Neil thinks, but then, they aren't Andrew's neighbors), and says, “This book is medically inaccurate,” poking at one of the werewolf books Neil still hasn't returned with one of his feet.

It's the first thing he's said since they were in the bathroom earlier. The others might be used to that kind of silent treatment, but Neil isn't.

“Is it?” Neil says, approaching him. Andrew is wearing Neil's clothes still. “Luckily my werewolf article has been published for months and no one's come forward to contest any of the facts in it.”

“Yet,” Andrew says.

Kissing Andrew is easy. The taste of cigarettes is a totem; the feel of Andrew's hands on him grounds him; the sounds Andrew makes remind him that he's here, he's real, he's alive. Andrew walks him backward until his legs hit the bed, and Neil takes the opportunity to kiss down the side of Andrew's neck and smile at Andrew's reaction.

He doesn't want to have to figure out what they are to each other right now. He just wants to lie in his bed with Andrew and, eventually, sleep.

Chapter Text

It's Dan's idea to get Neil on the radio, all part of the transition to Editor of English Quidditch that he's still not sure he wants to make but now has time to consider.

“The Lions are the only English team left in the Champions League. We've got the Daily Prophet's Neil Josten in studio to tell us why that matters. Neil?”

“It doesn't matter that they're English,” Neil says. “It matters that they've made it this far while having such a small squad compared to their closest competitors. Wasps and Puddlemere have the maximum fifteen player teams, and Harpies are up there with fourteen, but the Lions have only got eight. For them to make it to the semi-finals of the Champions League and the final of the League Cup, not to mention play well in the English league, proves that Wymack's doing something right.”

“It's their style of play, I think,” another commentator—this one a regular on the radio—muses. “That tiki-taka European thing they do, you know, total Quidditch. It works better in European competition than it does in England. Minyard plays out the back like an extra Chaser. That's why he adds so much value to the team.”

“That's right,” Neil says. “Most plays start with him, which means most goals start with him.”

“But how will that work against Lisbon's counterattacking style?” the host says. “Lisbon famously sit back while their opposition tire themselves out, then take the Quaffle and batter up the pitch to dominate score lines.”

“Lions will have to depend on tight passes and the psychological upper hand to get themselves through to the final,” the regular says.

“Unfortunately, Lions haven't always had the psychological upper hand, have they, Neil? Between all the terrible things that happened to Andrew earlier this season and the known animosity he and Seth Gordon have for each other, how are they supposed to battle a team that's as perfect a unit as Lisbon?”

“If the Lions were psychologically weak, they wouldn't be in the Champions League semifinal,” Neil says.

“You think they'll win?”

“They've got the best Chaser and best Keeper in Europe, not to mention an excellent back line and a physically strong Seeker in Allison Reynolds. Gordon's on a goal-scoring streak, and Jeremy Knox keeps them all together.”

“If they're so good, why aren't they winning in the league?”

“On a week to week basis, you see their weaknesses add up,” Neil says. “So far we've seen them play their best in knockout competition. When everything's on the line, the Lions tend to win. When there's less riding on a match, the rifts in the team can sometimes overpower that.”

“So you foresee a positive result for Lions today?”

“I think they'll win,” Neil says.

*

They do.

They take the first leg by the skin of their teeth. They draw the second leg in Lisbon.

The party to celebrate fills half of London's wizarding pubs—the half that explicitly support the Lions and not Croydon or second division Fulham—and lasts well into the night.

Neil leans against the bar next to Andrew, playing with the idea of taking one of the shots the bartender offers him. He can't match Andrew drink for drink, but one wouldn't kill him, and now that everyone who matters knows all his secrets, it's not like he's going to reveal anything dangerous.

Andrew watches as Neil throws the shot back. It's not his first time drinking—his mother used whiskey for anesthetic—but it's his first time drinking firewhiskey. It burns, which makes sense, he thinks, considering the name.

“What happened to not drinking?”

“What do I have to hide?”

“There are other reasons not to drink,” Andrew says, looking across the room to where Kevin is engaged in conversation with Jeremy, grinning, cheeks flushed from alcohol. Neil thinks he's making a point about alcoholism or something until Andrew tugs his packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and tilts them toward Neil, questioning.

Neil follows Andrew outside, and they huddle together against the cold brick of the building's facade.

“I wanted to ask you something,” Neil says, accepting the cigarette Andrew passes him. “But I don't have any truths left to trade.”

“Think of something else.”

“What do you want?”

“What would you give me?”

“Don't ask questions you already know the answers to.”

Andrew doesn't look impressed. Neil smiles anyway.

“You hate me,” Neil says.

Andrew inclines his head as if to confirm. “Every inch of you.”

“And yet.”

Andrew doesn't react to this. Neil doesn't know how to say that he's rarely been touched by anyone whose intention wasn't to hurt him. He can count the instances before this season on one hand. Maybe one finger.

Kissing Andrew, letting Andrew get him off in his kitchen and then later in his bedroom, wanting more—it was meant to be purely physical, an experiment in being touched. But Neil can't stop remembering Andrew's fingers on his face, more gentle than anything Neil's felt in his life, more gentle than Andrew even seemed to think himself capable of being.

“I don't know how this works,” Neil says. “I've never done this before.

Andrew exhales a stream of smoke that looks too big to have come out of his body. It twists in front of them for a moment, then disintegrates into shapelessness.

“I'm still waiting for a question,” he says.

“You were right,” Neil says. “You told me to stop being the rabbit, and it changed my life. You asked me if I really wanted to keep running forever, and you were right. I didn't.”

Andrew is perfectly still next to him, almost a statue if he didn't exude warmth.

“The second I had something I wanted to keep, I stopped being able to make myself run away all the time,” Neil says. “Like, what was the point, if the second I got invested in something I had to leave again?”

“What was the thing you wanted to keep?”

“Everything,” Neil says. “I wanted to keep—everything. Having friends. Playing Quidditch again. Having a flat to go home to. A job I liked. Coworkers I liked. You, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Andrew says, like it isn't.

“I missed you,” Neil says. “When you were in rehab. I didn't even like you then, but I missed you. I never had the chance to miss anyone before. Not even my mother.”

“I'm going to get bored of you,” Andrew says.

“I'm interesting, remember?”

“You're much less interesting without that target on your back.”

“It's still there,” Neil says, thinking of the Moriyamas, of his name kept out of the papers and yet obvious anyway. “Just smaller. And you like me better that way.”

Andrew doesn't contest this. He leans into Neil's space instead, discarded cigarette still smoking on the damp sidewalk, and says, “Yes or no?”

“Like I said,” Neil says, “it's always yes with you.”

For once, Andrew doesn't argue the point.

*

The weekend goes poorly for the Lions. It's fatigue from the Champions League, or maybe a loss of momentum, or maybe Wasps are just better than they are.

It's another draw, which is fine, but it's another draw, which means the gulf in points between Lions and Puddlemere grows. Puddlemere go top on goal difference, though most pundits have them losing to Wasps in two weeks. Lions are in third behind Wasps. Harpies drop to fourth after a loss to a team facing a relegation battle.

Kevin is pissed off—shouts something at Allison about learning how to catch the Snitch instead of just Quaffle-watching, ignores her retort, loudly mentions needing a new Seeker when the summer transfer window comes—and doesn't talk to a single journalist, not even the ones who overhear his tantrum.

“He seemed so normal,” one of the reporters near Neil says. “I suppose all that Ravens shit had to catch up to him eventually, though, eh?”

He's always been a prick. Neil doesn't think that was the Ravens' influence, and if it was, the Lions are lucky Jean's mostly managed to avoid it.

“His team let him down,” Neil says. “He's right. Reynolds had a horrific match.”

“Do Day and Minyard pay you or something?” the Herald reporter says. The other reporter looks eagerly to Neil for his reaction. “You like them too much.”

No one in the press room has mentioned Neil's changed—again—appearance. Instead, they've all taken to ignoring him. Until, apparently, today, because Neil's still the only reporter Kevin Day will really talk to, and Kevin's in a foul mood.

“It's like I said,” Neil says. “The Lions can't get along, and it shows in the league because they play in it every week. They need a deeper squad so they can switch out when one of them isn't playing up to par.”

“They need counseling,” the Herald reporter says.

“You need writing classes,” Neil says. “Unfortunately, we don't always get what we need.”

“No wonder you like them,” the reporter says. “You're an asshole too.”

Neil shrugs. It's not exactly untrue. At least he's managed not to outwardly threaten the guy this time.

Jeremy comes out then, flanked by Wymack and Matt. He says something about still having a chance to win the league—“But it's mostly out of our hands now; for us to win, everyone around us has to do poorly”—and then grins and says they'll just have to bring home the Champions League trophy to make up for it.

It seems to appease everyone. Neil makes a note of it—that's why Jeremy's the captain—and heads home.

*

The Butcher rarely used the Cruciatus Curse himself. It was beneath him; he preferred more concrete forms of torture, liked feeling the breaking of flesh beneath his blade.

But Neil dreams him doing it anyway, and not the Butcher of his childhood, but the new one, the soulless shell that's rotting somewhere in Azkaban. Even without a soul, the Butcher's primary goal is to hurt Neil, and he's doing it now. This hurts worse than any of his knives ever could, like every inch of Neil's skin is being torn open and flooded with acid—

A hand on the back of Neil's neck wakes him. It takes him a minute to remember that he's in his bedroom in the flat he shares with Matt, not in a forest somewhere west of Leicester. The hand belongs to Andrew, who dropped Kevin off at theirs after evening practice before driving straight on to Neil's neighborhood. It's Monday night. He's safe.

“Sorry,” Neil says, sitting up and leaning forward, pressing his sweaty forehead into heels of his hands. “I—”

“Do not apologize,” Andrew says. “Just get some water and go back to sleep.”

The way Andrew says it makes it seem so simple. Neil obeys, padding out of his room to find Matt already in the hallway, bleary-eyed, holding a glass.

“I'm sorry,” Neil says again. “I know I keep waking you. I don't know how to fix it.”

“Dreamless sleep prescription's used up?”

Neil nods; he took it, but only reluctantly, and only because his sleep quality as well as Dan, Matt, and Andrew's suffered so thoroughly in the weeks following that night. Neil suspects Dan and Matt only kept sleeping here for the same reason Andrew is: to ensure Neil doesn't disappear in the middle of the night. He has a weaker version of the potion in his potion cabinet, but his Healer advised him against taking too much of it.

“I'm supposed to talk to someone,” Neil says. “I don't think it'll work, but.” He shrugs. Maybe there's a spell they can do that he hasn't heard of yet.

“Maybe Andrew has a strategy he's keeping to himself,” Matt says. “Try to get some sleep.”

“Thank you,” Neil says. It's never felt like enough, but Matt accepts it with a squeeze of Neil's shoulder and disappears back into his bedroom.

Inside Neil's own room, Andrew is still awake. He waits until Neil gets into bed to close his eyes. Neil stares at Andrew's face—at peace for once, not that carefully blank expression it usually takes on—until he falls back asleep.

*

Laila starts in the League Cup final even though it's nowhere near full moon.

“It's her competition,” Wymack says in the pre-match presser. “She brought us this far. I think she can take us all the way.”

Common belief is that she's the better passer, but Andrew's better at distribution—she can thread a needle with the Quaffle, but doesn't always pick the best player to send it toward, whereas Andrew can see several passes in advance. Kevin says it makes him good at chess, too, but no one else has ever seen him play.

The Lions win again, and again tear up London. It's their first trophy in four years, and it makes the blow of the previous weekend's draw seem inconsequential. They'll win the league next year. For now, they have a trophy.

It's galvanizing, and Laila—who has offers from several other clubs lower in the league—signs a contract extension. In her interview with Neil, she says she wants to stay and fight for her spot in the Lions' starting seven. Wymack has promised to bring on at least a substitute Chaser and a substitute Beater in the summer, and in the meantime, the rest of the Lions seem to be staying put. No one will take Seth anyway, Allison wants to win the league and this is her best shot of doing it, Kevin has too much loyalty to Wymack, Jeremy is the captain, Jean is staying with Jeremy and Andrew's staying with Kevin.

“And I've got a good thing going in London,” Matt tells Neil as Neil tugs his shoes on for a run. “Girlfriend I love, flatmate I love, hefty paycheck, one trophy and a few weeks away from another—why would I want to leave?”

“I guess you wouldn't.”

“You can use that, by the way. I think it's a good quote.”

“You practically mentioned me by name,” Neil says. “I know I skirt the line of journalistic ethics, but that feels a little close for comfort.”

Matt snorts into his tea. “Right,” he says. “I'm off to Dan's for the night, just needed to stop here to get my toothbrush.”

“And make tea,” Neil says.

“Obviously,” Matt says. “Have a good run. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” Neil echoes.

Neil starts on his usual path. His mind is clearer than it usually is when he runs; he has an article to get to Dan by tomorrow night on the long-term implications of the Lions' League Cup win, and he has a long form interview with Wymack for the end of the season to plan for, but none of it is enough to cause him real stress. It was always going to be more relaxed this time of year; there's only two more matchweeks and the Champions League final to cover, then transfer window to keep track of, and after that preseason previews. He probably won't be allowed to cover the Lions next year thanks to the levels of conflicts of interests he's now participating in, but maybe Editor of English Football just gets to watch Quidditch and write about it more generally. That doesn't sound so awful.

He's torn out of the—for once—relatively mellow cycling of his thoughts by a car stopping abruptly in front of him before he can cross the street. He starts to back up, but the window rolls down, and—oh. He's gotten so caught up in daydreaming about the future that he almost forgot that target on his back.

“Get in,” the driver says.

Neil opens the back door, ignoring the prickling on the back of his neck.

Even though they're brothers, Ichirou doesn't look like Riko, really. There's less of the half-starved athlete look about him. He looks like an actual adult, not a kid someone put in Quidditch robes and told to act like an adult before he was old enough to know what it meant.

Even so, he has nothing on Neil's father, and Neil survived that, so he has no reason to be scared. Not really.

“May I come in?” Neil says, before thinking to add, “Please?”

Ichirou raises an eyebrow and waits.

Neil climbs in and closes the door, trying not to feel like he's freed himself from one trap just to walk willingly into another.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” Neil says. “Lord Moriyama.”

“And you?” Ichirou says. “Who are you today?”

“Neil Josten, lord.”

“Neil Josten,” Ichirou says. “You have made my life very difficult.”

It's an understatement. The knowledge of it sits between them, heavy. Neil has the information necessary to get Ichirou sent back to prison, especially because Ichirou is back to working with the same people Riko broke out of Azkaban. Neil will be present as his father's posthumous trial, a witness for the prosecution, and if it suits him, he can send Ichirou right back to Azkaban alongside his brother. For once, Neil has all the leverage, and he intends to use it.

“It wasn't on purpose,” Neil says. “My issues were never with you. They were with your brother.”

“My brother,” Ichirou says delicately, “has redeemed himself.”

“Or has he gotten both of you in more trouble?” Neil says. “My father's people told me Riko was in on their kidnapping me. If he was in on it, who can say it wasn't a Moriyama operation? A family of four Muggles was murdered in the house they took me to. Aurors might believe that was solely the Butcher's work, or they might not.”

“I hope you are not threatening me, Nathaniel Wesninski,” Ichirou says.

“Of course not,” Neil says, forcing himself not to speak too quickly. “Only ensuring that you are fully informed of the events that took place that night, lord.”

“You should be dead,” Ichirou says. “That you are not is purely due to my respect for your father.”

“My father would have killed me,” Neil says. “Lord.”

“Then we should trade,” Ichirou says. “I give you your life. What will you give me in return?”

“Freedom,” Neil says. “The Daily Prophet owes me. Let them profile you. Tell them about your business. Tell them about how you're making amends for your father's actions.” What was it he told Matt about skirting the line?

“And Kevin and Jean?” Ichirou says. “They are ours. What do you propose happens to them?”

“They were yours,” Neil says. “You went to Azkaban. They had to find a way to survive.”

“We went to Azkaban because of you.”

He's too young, Neil thinks. He would've been a child when Voldemort was actually around, just like Neil himself.

“My father was given the dementor's kiss because of you,” Ichirou continues.

“So was mine,” Neil says. “I don't mind.”

“Now you sound like a Wesninski. Unfortunately, that doesn't absolve you of your crimes against us.”

“With respect, your father was given the dementor's kiss because he was responsible for atrocities during the second war, and then he and your uncle got sloppy with the Oblivating,” Neil says. “You're in charge now. Voldemort's been dead for nearly twenty years. You have the potential to be smarter and do better.”

“I should kill you,” Ichirou says.

“Apparently it's kind of difficult. Too much effort. Too many irritating consequences. You're free. I can help you stay that way.”

“Your life for my freedom.”

“Yes.”

“And you want me to throw Jean and Kevin into the bargain.”

“I think they're more trouble than they're worth.”

“Again,” Ichirou says, “I must advise you not to threaten me.”

“I'm not,” Neil says. “Jean and Kevin are Quidditch players. That's it. But they have intimate knowledge of the Moriyama empire, and they aren't frightened enough to keep quiet about it anymore.” It's a bald-faced lie, but Neil's good at those. “An even trade, don't you think? Their lives for the chance to rebuild. And my help doing it.”

Neil remembers the last time he openly defied the Moriyama main branch. He nearly died. He doesn't want to have to do it again. An article, and then he wants to be done with them for good.

“My family funded their training,” Ichirou says.

“Then it makes sense that your family will stay out of Azkaban thanks to their discretion.”

“Very well,” Ichirou says, and it's meant to be a dismissal, but Neil says, “Riko is the real liability.”

“Excuse me?”

“He's erratic and unpredictable. He's violated the terms of his parole at least twice in the weeks since he's been released. He'd certainly have done worse if it weren't for Jean and Kevin's restraining orders. If anything is going to send you back to Azkaban, it's him.”

“Thank you for your opinion,” Ichirou says, his voice betraying no gratitude. “You will live. For now. Send me an owl regarding the interview.”

“Yes, lord,” Neil says. “Thank you.”

Ichirou's driver pulls up in front of Neil's building. Neil scrambles out of the car and forces himself to wait until the car drives away to have a panic attack—but when it comes, it comes in full force. He doubles over, trying to steady his breathing or his heartbeat (getting both back on track seems impossible), but instead gets so dizzy that he throws up right there on the sidewalk. He feels lightheaded, and it takes him a second to figure out that it's because even that last target seems to be, if not gone, at least thoroughly covered up.

And telling him Riko is a liability—is Neil an idiot? The two might not get on, but they're still brothers. Neil thinks of Andrew and Aaron, protecting each other despite the fact that they never even speak.

Andrew's right. Neil is stupid, has at least a dozen death wishes—but at least he's not going to die. Not like this, anyway.

He collects himself eventually, scrambles up the stairs to his flat, takes the fastest shower of his life, and sticks his head in the fire to call Kevin.

“Merlin, Neil, what do you want?” Kevin says. “Andrew's on the roof, but I can get him—actually, I need to talk to you about something, I was going to wait until practice tomorrow, but—”

“No,” Neil says. “Get Jean. Maybe Jeremy, too.”

“It's late,” Kevin says. “Can't it wait til—”

“I just met with Ichirou,” Neil says. “Get him. I'll be over in a minute.”

At Ichirou's name, Kevin scrambles up. “Right,” he says. “Get out of my fire. Aaron and Katelyn are here, so—”

“Then come to mine,” Neil says. “Matt's not home.”

Kevin nods jerkily. Neil pulls himself out of the fire, brushes Floo powder and soot off his shoulders and face, and sits to wait.

*

“Explain it again,” Jeremy says.

It feels surreal, deja vu, the five of them here, Jean and Kevin and their shadows—and Neil. The Moriyamas again. Neil almost feels nostalgic.

“It's like I said,” Neil says. “Ichirou doesn't want to go back to Azkaban. He could have us all killed, but the Aurors already suspect I haven't told them the full truth about the Moriyamas—they don't have the kind of ironclad security they had before. They've been to Azkaban. They only got out because they're young. Riko's the liability, not us.”

“Liability,” Kevin echoes. He's wide-eyed, the queen tattoo on his face quivering like it wants to leap right off him and take down the former king in question. The coverup is well-done, but you can still see the two if you squint, especially since Neil's seen a drunk Kevin Transfigure it back and forth.

“Your lives aren't riding on the sport anymore,” Neil says. “No more borrowed time. You're just normal players now.”

Something in Jean's face splits wide open. He brings shaky fingers up to his own tattoo, a three only a few shades darker than his own skin. Neil's always wondered why Jean never removed it, but—he thinks, remembering his own scars and Jeremy's surprise at Jean's intuitive understanding of Neil—maybe there's a power in keeping the reminder there. What you were. What you could have been.

They drink in half-silence after that, Kevin and Jean not looking at each other but sitting so close together on the couch they might be touching. Jeremy just watches them.

“Shouldn't you be happy?” he says.

“Haven't you learned by now not to expect them to react to things normally?” Andrew says.

“You're one to talk,” Jeremy says, an eyebrow raised. Andrew ignores him.

“It's not happiness,” says Neil, who feels much the same as Kevin and Jean. “It's relief.” But it's also purposelessness, the loss of that motivating need to survive. He can't imagine a life without Quidditch. He doesn't think Kevin and Jean can, either. But the option is there, if they want it.

Jeremy drags Jean off the couch eventually—“We still have practice in the morning, Moreau”—and bids Neil goodnight. Andrew follows them out. Kevin lingers for only a moment longer.

“You have trials at Fulham and Watford second week of June,” he says. “Andrew will play with you if you ask him.”

“What?”

“You need to stay in London or close enough so we can continue our practices. Help your team get promoted or just play well and get sold to a first division team. Wymack says if you impress him he'll consider buying you next summer.”

What?”

“You need to choose a nationality also,” Kevin says. “Obviously I'd prefer it if you chose the USAMQNT, but if you feel more English than you do American—”

Neil stares at him. “You think I'm going to be called up to the national team?”

“Depends on which you choose and how well you play the game,” Kevin says. He looks at Neil. The queen on his cheek is leaning menacingly forward. It looks odd in two dimensions, squashed. “It's up to you.”

It's up to him. Neil feels like he might choke on the freedom.

*

“Here, have some tea,” Dan says. “Why didn't you bring any food? How are we supposed to have a lunch meeting if you aren't eating?”

“I don't think it'll take too long,” Neil says. “I just wanted to let you know that I can't take the promotion.”

“This again?” Dan says. “Don't be ridiculous. You'll do great. Just learn your writers' names and you'll be set.”

“It's not that,” Neil says. “I'm leaving the Daily Prophet at the end of the season.”

Dan's mouth drops open, bite of sandwich almost falling out. “You're not,” she says. “Who poached you? How much? Not the Herald? Not Quidditch Weekly? You know they're technically a Prophet property, right, you'll still have to see me—”

“Kevin got me trials at Fulham and Watford,” Neil says. “I've been practicing with him all season. That's why I always look tired.”

Her mouth forms a small “o.”

“You've been practicing—?” She scrutinizes him for a long, quiet moment, and then she smiles. “That's amazing,” she says. “Anyone could see you were dying to play. We won't go easy on you just because you're one of ours, you know, but Matt and I will come see you whenever we can—let me know which so we can get season tickets, yeah? Good thing you're staying in London, you know we can't trust Matt to find himself another flatmate.”

“You're not upset?”

“I mean, it's a little annoying that we'll have to replace our most popular writer,” Dan says. “But more than that, I'm happy for you, Neil.”

“Even though you'll have to find someone else for the Editor position?”

Dan waves a hand dismissively. “We created the position for you. If someone else comes up who deserves it, they can have it. But when you retire—just know that, as long as I'm at the Prophet, your desk is waiting for you.”

“Former player punditry,” Neil says. He's nowhere near good enough to be a top flight player, but plenty of second division retirees work at newspapers and Quidditch magazines. Nothing they write is objective, obviously, but maybe everyone's right and that ship sailed for Neil in August. “Can't wait.”

“Neil,” Dan says when he stands to leave. “You're going to have to tell Rheman, you know.”

“I know.”

“He'll be happy for you,” Dan says. “And just as proud of you as I am.”

Neil doesn't know how to respond to that, so he just makes himself smile. “Thanks.”

*

The Champions League final takes place on a Saturday afternoon in Oslo. The Lions are set to Portkey out of London at noon; Neil and Alvarez are leaving an hour later.

Until then, Andrew is sitting on Neil's roof, cigarette in hand. Wymack wouldn't be happy with that, Neil thinks, but then, when has Andrew ever cared about that?

The next few weeks of their lives will be messy. Renee is writing the article on the Moriyamas, but Neil's shadowing the interview process on Ichirou's orders. It doesn't help that Riko turned up dead of apparent suicide last week—or maybe it does. The sympathy angle is what helped force the QA to comply with the Lupin Bill, after all.

After that, Neil has trials at two clubs, which means all his time will be spent on the pitch practicing with Kevin—and, as has become habit, Andrew. Neil has yet to get a Quaffle past him, but the other night he got close enough that Andrew had to hang off his broom to grab hold of it with the tips of his fingers. Kevin actually laughed. Neil is getting better.

There are also the less fun kinds of trials to come: the Butcher's trial is in July. Before that, Aaron's. It'd be bad enough if it were just them and the Wizengamot, but Aaron's lawyer has let them know Cass Spear will be brought in to testify.

“Stop it,” Andrew says.

“What happened to no Legilimency?”

“I can't help it if you're so bad at Occlumency you actually project your thoughts outward instead of the other way around.”

Neil rolls his eyes, but Andrew has a point; maybe staring at him while thinking about his brother's trial isn't the best way to prevent Andrew accidentally getting glimpses of his thoughts.

“She didn't deserve you,” Neil says.

“I know.”

“I didn't mean it like that. I meant you deserved someone better.”

Andrew turns to look at him. “You're going to get yourself killed if you don't start minding your own business.”

“Right,” Neil says, looking away, smiling despite himself. He doesn't know what to say. He hasn't ever allowed himself to hope for anything like this: a future, wide, limitless, like the ocean—no, like the sky. The idea of a life without an expiration date other than normal human mortality has never occurred to him. He has so much time—what's he meant to do with it?

“You have that look on your face.”

“What look?”

“Like you're going to run.”

“I'm not going to run,” Neil says. “I'm just appreciating that I'll never have to anymore.”

Next to him, Andrew is warm and perfectly still. He doesn't say what he obviously knows, which is that never having to run anymore terrifies Neil. Not the same way his father did, not the same way death did, but it terrifies him nonetheless. What's it called, those people who have a phobia of open water?

“We should go on vacation somewhere,” Neil says. “After this is over.”

“Where?”

“I don't know,” Neil says. “Anywhere you like.”

Andrew is quiet for a moment, staring ahead of them at the array of buildings. Then: “As long as we don't have to fly.”