See no evil
There is something very wrong with Riko Moriyama.
Neil stands in Evermore, half a step behind Jean Moreau, and he can feel the magic rippling in the air. Jean bends when faced with Riko Moriyama stalking towards them, like a willow in the wind, but he keeps his position in front of Neil, and Neil does not yet know to be grateful to him.
When they're in the locker room and Tetsuji tells him to kneel, Neil stays on his feet until they are swept out from under him and his knees hit the floor.
When they're in the dorm room and Riko tells him to kneel, Neil has every intention of ignoring him too, even though his knees are a swollen, bruised mess already, but he finds his body moving without his consent until he's at Riko's feet.
Three days, or thereabouts, pass in a blur of exhaustion and pain and anger before it happens again. They're on the ice, Neil doing Raven drills that he recognises from Kevin's training sessions, but all of the Ravens can do them in their sleep and Neil hasn't had any in three days. He can barely move half of his muscles in pain anyway, so. It's not exactly going well.
The ball rebounds off one of the plexiglass walls and ricochets towards Neil. He's too slow to lift his racquet and it smacks into the side of his head. He staggers and trips backwards, stunned, and Jean runs over, careful non-concern sealed over his face, so he can haul Neil off.
"No," says Riko, his voice a lazy drawl. Neil has come to associate that voice with the measured consideration of a new idea, and he does not like it. Jean slowly slides into the background and Neil pulls himself to his feet. The entire side of his face aches, and his vision in one eye has exploded into bursts of white stars that don't go away when he blinks.
"Catch them," says Riko as he scoops the ball off the ground and flings it at the wall. It hits the plexiglass in exactly the same place and this time, Neil's at least had enough warning to throw his racquet in front of him. He doesn't quite catch it; it strikes the hard plastic edge of the net and falls away, but the force of it still reverberates through his knuckles and jars his wrists.
But that's just the first one. Riko's got a bucket of balls from somewhere, or maybe someone is passing them to him, but he fires them at the wall in quick succession, the rapid shots like gunfire and Neil barely has time to breathe before he swings his racquet.
He wants to just sidestep them, get out of the way and give himself a moment to regroup but there's something, something about what Riko said that keeps him rooted there, racquet upright even as his legs threaten to collapse out from under him. He gets some of the balls—he's not that bad—but he's not quick enough to avoid them all. One smacks his shoulder armour and he barely notices it but another one catches him on the thigh, and one flies towards his feet and he narrowly avoids falling over himself again.
He's not sure how long Riko keeps going for, but Neil finally sees a moment to breathe, a miniscule gap between two shots and he has a ball in the net of his racquet and he swings his entire body because his arm muscles are locked into place. It smacks into the wall and rebounds straight back at Riko.
Neil wishes he had the strength to swivel and see the expression on Riko's face, but really, he doesn't have to. He hears the whoosh of Riko's racquet swinging through the air and the sharp crack as he smacks it away.
"Come here," snarls Riko, and half the team staggers three steps towards him before he gets himself under control enough to stab a finger at Neil. "No. Just you."
When Neil wakes up at an airport he recognises, he blinks. He's not sure how he managed to get on and off the plane and through the queues and airport if he wasn't even conscious, but then he remembers Jean Moreau, reaching out, his hand hovering over Neil's arm as if he understands perfectly why Neil would never want him touching him.
"Let me," Jean had said. "Let me help."
Neil had started to laugh, an awful muffled hitching of air, and then Jean had rested his hand on Neil's arm and Neil's consciousness sank into himself.
Well. He's awake now. Neil can't quite feel his toes, but he can see his feet moving, so he gets himself to a corner with an outlet, charges his phone and wedges himself in with his back against the wall. He reaches in for the thin, copper-red streak of magic he's always had inside and settles it over himself, and instantly feels better.
He can't heal; the son of a Butcher and a runaway thief wouldn't have that sort of power, but he's always been good at illusions. He's assuming that he doesn't exactly look great right now, but he can appear normal to other people. People who just see a teenager waiting for his phone to charge, with no black eye and bruise-riddled skin.
Neil waits until he's in the car with Wymack before he lets the illusion drop; even that small use of magic has exhausted him. Wymack is visibly furious. Everyone is. But Neil can't tell them what happened, can't tell them the secret that everyone at Evermore knows; all he remembers is Riko looming over him and saying, "Tell no one."
The thing is, Neil is good at getting around the truth.
"I can't tell you," he says when the team jostle to surround him, eyes boring into the raw number four on his cheek. Dan bristles, and Neil holds up one hand. "I can't. But he can."
Heads swivel. Kevin is pale, resting against a wall as if he needs the strength it lends, and hesitates before he nods. "You would have to know sooner or later."
"So of course you picked later," says Matt, uncharacteristically sarcastic. Neil looks at him, and it takes a moment for him to realise that Matt is angry at Kevin. On his behalf. He doesn't know what to make of that.
"Riko's magic," says Kevin. "It's not what you think it is. He has the power to command you to do what he wants."
It's strange, hearing it said aloud. Nicky looks at Neil, and then very quickly at the empty space next to Kevin, and Neil knows exactly what he's thinking. Riko has the same kind of magic as Andrew.
"Well, that's creepy as fuck," says Nicky, but it falls flat when they look at Neil and the state he's in and he knows that they're wondering what exactly Riko commanded him to do.
"Why couldn't you tell us?" asks Renee, her face so carefully blank.
Neil shrugs, and his shoulders ache with that small movement. "He told me not to."
Kevin nods. "He does that. It's an open secret within the Ravens but we – they've been forbidden from telling anyone."
"Then how can you do it?" asks Allison impatiently.
Kevin is already turning away, heading towards the Court, his focus already veering away from Neil and towards Exy. "He didn't have to. There was never anyone for me to tell."
Hear no evil
The rooftop is familiar territory now. Andrew already has a cigarette lit by the time Neil makes it up there for his second round of practice for the night.
"Go ahead," says Neil when he's seated next to Andrew, inhaling the wafts of smoke that Andrew blows in his face.
"You're a fucking idiot," says Andrew flatly.
Andrew says this at least once during each of their late night practices; Neil alternates between ignoring it, and asking, "And what's new?"
Andrew doesn't answer. He never does. He smokes the whole of that cigarette and immediately lights another before he speaks again, and Neil is content to wait for him because Andrew has to want to do this if it happens at all.
"Stand up," says Andrew quietly.
Magic courses through Neil's body so strongly that he nearly falls over with how quickly he stands up. Andrew watches him as he steadies himself.
"Sit down," says Andrew, and there's enough compulsion that Neil's knees buckle, but not enough that he actually sits. The tiniest of frowns betrays Andrew's annoyance.
They do this for as long as Andrew will tolerate it each night. The meds he'd been on had suppressed his magic, Andrew's ability to protect himself, and now he's off them, his control is shot to fucking hell. And unlike Neil, who can quite easily practice his magic in front of a mirror and by himself, Andrew can't figure out how effective his is without the aid of someone else.
Neil tries not to think of a teenage Andrew, teaching himself magic from battered books from the detention centre library, never really knowing whether what he learned would work until it was too late.
"Sit down," says Andrew again, and this time Neil sits so hard that a sharp twinge shoots up his tailbone; he's too slow too hide the wince. Andrew taps the ash from his disintegrating cigarette. "Enough."
"That was barely anything," protests Neil.
Turning his back on Neil, Andrew stares out over the rooftop. "Haven't you had enough of being a puppet?"
Neil props his feet up on the ledge. "This is different. You wouldn't make me do anything weird and you need to get this under control."
Andrew inhales like Neil's trust is suffocating him. "You have a problem, wherein you only invest your time in worthless pursuits."
Neil frowns. You're not worthless, he wants to say, but Andrew will neither appreciate the sentiment nor believe him. "This isn't worthless."
"There is no 'this'," says Andrew, flicking the cigarette butt over the edge of the roof. His fingers twitch, as if he wants another one immediately. "This is nothing."
"And I am nothing. And as you always said, you want nothing."
Andrew gets his magic very much under control, and then Neil doesn't see him use it anymore.
"Thank you. For everything."
Andrew knows him well enough to know that something's wrong; they all do. Neil leaves his bag and his phone on the pavement outside the stadium, and doesn't expect to see them again.
Lola gets her hands on him, and erases Riko's mark, and Neil screams until his throat is hoarse, and remembers exactly why he's never seen Riko as a real threat.
He reaches for the power that always lurks inside him, pulling it over himself even though there's no real point. He paints himself as a blank canvas; he won't give Lola the satisfaction of being able to see what she's done to him even though his face is on fire.
He lets it slip, forgets to keep his mask in place when there are gunshots fired and his father slumps against the floor like a sack of potatoes. It doesn't occur to him to put it back on when Stuart Hatford looks him in the face and sees his dead sister, or when the FBI show up and drag him to a hospital bed.
One of their agents use detection magic on him. It's not quite the same power as Andrew, or Riko, but it tells them when he isn't telling the truth. It's strange, telling the truth, and Neil feels a pang of regret that he didn't get to tell the Foxes and Andrew first, because they deserve it more.
He uses himself as a bargaining chip to see his team. To see Andrew. He can't believe, doesn't believe that they would have just left to make the journey back to Palmetto, and is triumphant when the FBI finally agree.
"You should have said something."
"They would have hurt you," says Neil.
Andrew is the last person to dwell on how the past could have been different, but Neil can still feel Andrew's disagreement. Andrew's anger is a familiar sharp edge, and Neil leans into it, his forehead pressed against Andrew's, and says, "You couldn't have stopped them all."
Andrew's growl disagrees, but he doesn't say anything, just curls his fingers into Neil's shirt and doesn't let him go, even though Neil asked him to.
This comes back around to Riko at some point. Riko was a lynchpin in Neil's life before Neil ever knew it. Riko has always fallen second in Neil's worries to Nathan, but now Nathan is gone and Neil knows the bigger picture and there's a sleek black car driving him to an empty construction site.
Neil doesn't know if Ichirou Moriyama has any magic, and he doesn't get the opportunity to ask. The man doesn't need it; he has real power in his hands. Neil bows to him and answers his questions as truthfully as he dares, and in the back of his mind, he thinks how much of a pale, pale shadow to this Riko is.
Kevin is overwrought. Understandably so: he's had Riko as the centre of his existence for over a decade. It must be crushing to find out that not only is he not even a pawn, he doesn't even exist on the board.
They take to the court, and Neil feels for him, he really does, but that pity is overshadowed by the realisation that Andrew is following him onto the court. Neil's waited months for this but Kevin's waited a year, and it's the only thing that could bring them back from this obsession with Riko.
Speak no evil
Kevin has never had any abilities. Actually, no, that's unfair. Kevin is the best Exy player Neil can think of, after all.
There have been dozens of articles speculating on Kevin's powers over the years; there are bets on whether he casts spells that enhance his strength or speed. But there was never anything on his record, and everyone just assumed that he kept it a secret to give himself an advantage during games. In the same vein, Riko's early declaration that he could heal any injury overnight was a show of intimidation.
But now Neil knows better. Kevin has as much magical aptitude as a brick. Neil can't imagine what that's like; he started learning spells and techniques the moment he discovered what he had an affinity for, and he's been using his magic every day since his mother took him from Evermore.
But this is what makes Kevin so good at Exy. He just plays; he doesn't worry about whatever other magic is on the Court, because there is nothing he can do about it. Neil will always wonder if he'd play better if he'd pushed to learn other kinds of magic instead, something that would help against the Raven offensive dealer who sets the ball on fire every time he shoots or the defender who throws a wind at Neil every time he runs in that direction.
There is nothing he can do, he already knows, against the power of Riko's whisper in his ears.
So he leaves it up to Andrew.
"Don't listen to him." Andrew says, almost casually. Neil nods; he knows by now that there is nothing casual about Andrew. The doors in the walls open, and they march onto the court before breaking into a jog. Neil watches Andrew head towards their goal, and the weight of his words settles across his shoulders. It's a comforting weight.
Neil is facing off against a Raven he doesn't remember the name of—he can't be that good, since it's not like he has a number on his face—but he can see Riko standing too close for comfort next to Kevin, and he can only hope that Andrew gave Kevin the same magical boost.
The game is vicious from the get-go. Magic swarms the air in abundance, but Neil knows how tiring constantly using it can be. Dropping his mask of brown hair and brown eyes has given him more energy than he's had in years; he's almost grateful to Riko for it. Now he doesn't have to worry about illusion, he plays with abandon.
When Neil subs in to face up against Riko, he dogs Riko's footsteps, darting in and out and blocking him. Once or twice he's close enough to hear whispers eek out from under Riko's helmet and he feels it now he's aware of what it is, feels the magic snake out and try to ensnare him. This must be how he gets other teams; whispered suggestions they don't even register hearing.
Riko shouts louder, perhaps thinking that Neil can't hear him, and Neil smirks. He's pretty much incapable of keeping his smugness off his face and maybe Riko sees something specific or maybe Neil's face just pisses him off because the next time he checks Neil, he hooks his fingers into Neil's face guard and roars, "You will listen to me."
Neil feels the magic like a slap in the face; his head jerks involuntarily but Riko's still there holding him, and then Dan is there, shoving her racquet between the two of them, and Riko throws Neil away from him. Neil staggers. Exhales and sucks in fresh air through his mouthguard.
"You holding up?" asks Dan, racquet still in front of her, and Neil nods. He glances behind him towards Andrew; it's too far to see any sort of expression hidden in the shadow of the helmet, but Andrew is there, behind him, watching.
The next time Riko orders Neil to let him through, Neil feels the magic slide off him, and uses his racquet to make up the extra reach he needs to knock Riko in the back of the knees and trip him up. Andrew's word is evidently stronger than Riko's. Neil dodges Riko's lunge at him, and takes a moment to wonder what makes persuasion magic stronger, if it's the intensity of his feelings or the specificity of the demand or the volume. He wonders how strong Andrew's magic is.
They win. They win and Neil stares up at the scoreboard incredulously. His hands feel glued to his stick and there's sweat dripping into his eyes, stinging until he blinks it away. His mind is starting to catch up to his body, and he can feel the ache in his back settling in. Riko is mere feet away from him, his face ashen and shocked, and then he turns to look at Neil, and his face twists into fury.
"How," says Riko, whisper-screaming. "How did you do it?!" He seems torn between wanting to know the secret behind Neil's immunity, and so much rage that he doesn't care.
Neil sucks in a deep breath. "Didn't have to do anything."
It's great, because it's the truth, but it's also the answer that's going to piss Riko off the most. And oh boy, does it piss Riko off. Riko raises his racquet and Neil hears someone scream his name from across the court and it's only when it starts to come snapping whipping down towards him that he realises what's happening.
Riko freezes, his arms in mid-air and heaving with strain and Neil feels the billow of magic whistle past him, as strong as a real wind. Andrew's suddenly there, next to Neil, and oh, that must have been Andrew's voice just now, laced with enough power to stop Riko from moving with just one word.
In an almost comical swivel of his body, Riko turns to face Andrew, and understanding lights in his eyes. "You. It was you."
Andrew says nothing.
Quick as lightning, Riko raises his racquet once more and brings it down again – but this time Neil's not the target and shit, Neil knows how this goes. Andrew will save him, will use the power he so carefully cultivated to save him, but Andrew is not in the habit of saving himself. Neil doesn't even think about it, he just heaves his racquet with every ounce of strength he has and it makes the most horrific crack when it makes contact with Riko's racquet, and an even worse one when it snaps his arm.
Riko screams, a piercing sound that echos back at them across the court. He staggers back and collapses onto the ground, cradling his arm against him, and Neil stands his ground, his chest heaving with the effort. "Heal that overnight, you fuckwad."
"So dramatic," says Andrew, as if he would not have done exactly the same thing. The team swarms them, checking them over, and demanding to know if they're all right. Dan pats Neil down for injuries, Matt and Allison puts bodies between them and Riko and Nicky quietly asks Andrew if he's all right, if they're both all right.
Neil doesn't mean to laugh, but he does. His grin is so wide that he can feel his scars stretching uncomfortably, and he locks eyes with Andrew, who raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him: "Guys. I'm fine."