Days like these hurt more than others.
Not in a necessarily bad way, but in the way bones ache after a long run. Accomplishment blurs with exhaustion and everything loses focus. Neil, breath still coming out in sharp gasps, really wants it to stop.
Neil tugs at his uniform, a nervous habit he'd adopted from Kevin. The Foxes are promptly escorted off the court, and Neil can only vaguely comprehend their cheery smiles and uproarious laughter. Some wins don't feel like you've won anything at all.
It takes everything in him to avoid Andrew's stare. He can feel it, heavy and concerned, branded against the back of his head. Neil keeps his gaze forward.
Which, honestly, isn’t all that helpful. Crowds of people shuffle towards the exit, ranging from screaming children to college kids with the Palmetto State colors streaked across their faces. Neil knows what it’s like to suffocate and finds this situation eerily similar to that.
"Do you want me to ask?" Kevin says from beside him. Neil hadn't heard him approach, and feels a slight hint of uneasiness at the realization. His mother would have been furious.
"Later?" It's a cheap trick, he knows, but can't help himself from saying it.
"Okay. At least try to smile for the cameras, though? Coach says you always look like a frightened cat in photos."
Neil rewards him with an, albeit shaky, camera ready grin. Kevin grimaces at the sight.
"Nevermind, just go change," Neil knows a dismissal when he hears it.
Changing, however, is hardly a reprieve from his sour mood. The locker room is noiseless and desolate in a way that Neil can only equate with being alone. It's difficult to remember that he has friends, a family, who care for him even on his bad days. His locker slams and he feels it like a stone in his throat.
Neil slips out of his uniform and binder, placing them on the metal bench beneath him. The silence is deafening while he changes into casual wear, eyes unfocused and hands incapable of staying still. He feels like running, but knows there's only one place he wants to run to.
He tries to maintain a blank face when exiting the locker room. Though, from Renee’s questioning stare, he knows he’s failed. He silently curses her ability to see through whatever mask he puts on. Neil tries his best to avoid walking past her.
"What do you need?" Is the first thing Andrew says upon greeting him.
Neil blinks, unfazed. "Home?"
"Let me get Kevin, then," Andrew replies, like it's that easy. Getting Kevin away from reporters is no easy feat. Though, if you had Andrew's death stare, Neil supposes it couldn’t be that difficult.
Neil, somewhere in the midst of his melancholy, finds himself grateful to his boyfriends. Different kinds of support but the same effect. He has a home, something he's never really had before. He has this, and this is everything.
Neil looks up just in time to see Kevin and Andrew approaching him. They walk in step, which would be much more intimidating were Andrew not half of the other's height. Kevin loves their height differences, yet Andrew nor Neil will never admit they feel the same way.
He allows himself time to take in the view. Kevin's lanky frame contrasting against Andrew's sturdy stature, hands nearly brushing as they make their way closer. The familiar pit of affection stirs in Neil's chest, mixing with the nerves and anxiety.
"How do you match your strides with such small legs," Neil directs at Andrew, mostly to lift the otherwise tense atmosphere. They have questions and Neil has very few answers.
"How do you fit so much idiocy in one small brain?" Andrew bites back.
Kevin sighs that special sigh reserved just for the two of them.
"Can we go home now?" Kevin breathes out, and his boyfriends nod in resigned agreement.
They walk to the car in relative silence, save for Kevin's hushed complaints about the game. Neil wonders how one person can possibly notice so much detail while playing as though their life depends on it. He cringes at his own choice of words. Their lives do depend on it.
Neil regrets that train of thought as soon as it appears.
Life has never been precious to him. He has seen people beheaded a mere few feet away, could describe in exact detail how the world tilts before a bullet finds its destination. He has seen the flighty nature of life and learned to unflinchingly come to terms with death.
Until now. The thought of losing those he loves, of going to practice and seeing one less fox, burns deeper than a car lighter possibly ever could. With the Moriyama’s watching their every move, Neil can’t help but think it’s inevitable.
So when you have a game where you stumble too many times, when you miss too many shots, it doesn’t feel like winning. It feels like pure terror, as though there is a gun cocked to your head and every misstep is another bullet. They won the game but Neil is always losing.
He can’t lose this.
Neil drags his feet on the way to their apartment. It’s times like this that he wishes they still lived at a dorm; close but with much more breathing room. Places to run.
Kevin has the decency to wait until they’re inside the apartment to run his full scale investigation of Neil’s mood. Both of his boyfriends stand in the dimly lit kitchen with obvious concern and curiosity directed at him.
“Do you want to tell us what’s up?” Kevin questions, hands twitching at his sides. Neil wonders if he’s trying to stop himself from reaching out.
Neil steps closer to the two, possibly just a few steps nearer but the gesture says enough. It’s okay , he’s saying. You haven’t done anything wrong.
“I didn’t do well today.”
This could mean a lot of things in their house. It could translate to having nightmares. Whether ones while sleeping or awake, this is a possibility. More often than not, this means I did something I shouldn’t have done . They must be thinking he ran.
Neil clarifies to be safe. “During the game, I mean. I messed up. A lot. Too much.”
Kevin looks like he wants to agree. Andrew’s cautionary glare seems to be the only thing preventing him from lecturing Neil on exy techniques. Some things never change, relationship or not.
“So did Nicky. And Aaron. Do you have a point?” Andrew asks, flippant as ever. Neil feels the barest flicker of annoyance mixing in with gratefulness. He appreciates the familiarity.
“Nicky and Aaron don’t have a crime family waiting to crucify them at every wrong move. I do,” and yeah, maybe that was a bit too much, but Neil is tired. And scared. Both in equal measures, really.
“We won, Neil. That’s all they care about,” Kevin says.
“It’s not all I care about. What if they don’t like my playing and use one of the foxes as a warning to me? What it--fuck, what if he hurts one of you? I wouldn’t…” he trails off, too overwhelmed to continue that line of thought.
His outburst stretches into an uneasy silence. Neil knows it’s unfair to say these things in front of Kevin seeing as they’re in the same predicament. Yet, he doesn’t want Kevin having these same thoughts.
“Can I hold your hand?” Andrew asks, breaking the silence.
Neil, though confused, nods his assent. Andrew closes the short distance between them, moving forward to slip his hand into Neil’s. The contrast of Andrew’s rough and familiar hands against his lift a bit of the weight off of his chest.
“We won against one of the top three today. But your footwork was sloppy and you were dragging.”
Neil feels a part of his brain shut down. Sloppy . Dragging .
“What does that mean, Neil?” Andrew asks, softly despite the harshness of his words. He grips Neil’s hand in his, brushing his thumb against the other’s palm.
What does it mean? It means that, sometime in the near future, one of the foxes will be dead and their murderer will be Neil. He may as well have put the gun to their head and pulled the trigger himself.
Instead he says,” I don’t know.”
“It means,” Andrew continues, as though it’s something Neil should know already “that you have to work harder. If you don’t want a dead fox on the court, then do better. Stop thinking about failing and start playing like the exy junkie you are.”
He’s not done. “And if you care about your own life, which is unlikely, stop being a martyr. Play your fucking exy and start being a striker instead of a walking disaster. We’ll do more night practices if you think it would help,” Andrew suggests.
“And if I don’t do better?” Neil asks, fear climbing up his throat. He can’t lose this.
“Don’t let that be an option,” it’s Kevin who speaks this time, surprising the other two.
Neil knows that they’re right. He’s certain that, if he put his mind to it, he could shake off his nerves and play up to Ichirou’s standards. But if he can’t, which is always a possibility, then he’s only quickening the inevitable.
“If I don’t play well, he’ll come after me. Or you. I just… can’t lose you guys,” Neil nearly begs, in a rare bout of honesty. Kevin instinctively moves closer, placing a comforting hand on Neil’s shoulder. It takes a moment for them to accept this information and Neil’s sincerity.
“If he went after you,” Andrew says “we wouldn’t let him take you.”
And that’s that. Neil feels the last of his resistance crumble as he shuffles into Andrew’s arms. The shorter of the two holds him against his chest, hands brushing over his hair relaxingly. Neil lets his gratefulness win over his embarrassment at the situation.
“Should we go to bed now?” Andrew murmurs into Neil’s neck. Neil simple nods in reply.
The three boys stagger to their bedroom, a union of intertwined hands and brushing shoulders. The stillness of the room is broken by their low-pitched breathing and soft treads. The three hardly bother with getting undressed before climbing under the comforter.
It takes mere moments for them to get comfortable, routine and boundaries guiding their movements. Kevin’s arm splays across Neil’s torso, pulling him back to rest against the taller boy’s chest. Andrew faces the other two, one hand still wrapped around Neil’s. They drowsily make conversation.
“Did you see that goalkeeper? She was crafty,” Kevin comments, earning a nod of agreement from Neil. The air warms with the easiness of this. Of being with them and moving forward.
“Can we not talk about stickball when I’m trying to sleep?” Andrew complains, but presses a barely there kiss to Neil’s palm.
“No one’s stopping you,” Kevin retorts. Andrew reaches his free hand to tug lightly at Kevin’s hair. The latter feigns injury to amuse Neil.
The days grievances and damage fall away as Neil rests beside his boyfriends. He’s scared, and he’s worried, but he knows what he has. And he knows what it will take to keep it. To keep this.
He watches Andrew’s lashes flutter closed, slowly and prettily, until his breathing evens out. Behind him, Kevin lets out thin puffs of air against Neil’s hair, signaling his descent into sleep. He feels safe.
The next day, they wake up earlier than usual to practice scoring past Andrew. There’s a silent agreement to put in more effort, try harder, move faster. Neil is able to score past Andrew seven times, a new record. Though, of course, not beating Kevin’s record of twelve.
Even Andrew puts in extra effort, going so far as to call out the two on their mistakes. Neil feels appreciation double over in his chest, pouring into every shared word between the three. If anything would be worth the time and energy, it would be this.
“Satisfied?” Andrew asks as they leave the court. Neil smiles, something secret and gentle.
“Yeah. I am.”