Neil sat in the stands of the stadium, watching the workers clean up after the match. He felt a pang of disappointment when he realized that he wouldn’t be playing again this season. They had lost their match that night which got them eliminated from the semi-finals.
He sighed, wishing he had a cigarette to ground himself but settled on letting flames dance across his fingertips. He wished he could waterbend at that moment but he couldn’t risk anyone seeing a supposed firebender doing waterbending. He had to stick to his story, only allowing himself to firebend while he was Neil Josten. No one could know he was the ‘Avatar’ and no one could know where he came from.
He still wasn’t used to firebending in public and it sent a jolt of revulsion up his spine everytime he used his flames. He had only chosen to do firebending because the team was short a firebender and it was almost guaranteed that he would get fighting time. He could normally ignore his distaste for the flames when he was hopped up on the adrenaline during a match, but there was nothing to prevent him from remembering his father’s cold smile and burning hands when he was alone.
He startled out of his memories when he heard the door slam and footsteps coming towards him. He relaxed minutely when he realized it was only Coach Hernandez. Neil liked Hernandez well enough; the man let him be for the most part and allowed Neil to squat in the locker room most nights for reasons unknown to Neil. He wasn’t used to the kindness or understanding of strangers and it still baffled Neil as to why Hernandez let him play on his team in the first place.
“You fought well tonight,” Hernandez spoke up, sitting a few feet from Neil.
Neil shrugged, “Not well enough to win.”
Hernandez shook his head in exasperation. “Kid, you fought harder than everyone in that match and you know it.”
Neil just shrugged again, staring at his hands but not denying the coach’s words. Neil had fought hard that night, really wanting to make it to the finals; not wanting to let go of this chance yet. It hadn’t mattered in the end as they had been basically desamated on the floor, clearly outranked and inexperienced.
“Too bad your folks couldn’t make it,” Hernandez was clearly trying to get Neil to explain why his parents had yet again failed to show up to a match.
Neil nearly scoffed, imagining his parents coming to a game. His mother would kill him if she was alive and knew what he was doing and his father wouldn’t be able to wait to get his hands on Neil. Instead he gave the same excuse as always: “They were working. Dad’s out of town again and mom picked up some extra shifts downtown.”
“Still a shame they missed your last game, especially one as important as this,” Hernandez said.
“No one knew for sure that this would be the last game and it really wasn’t that important,” Neil was slightly confused as to why Hernandez was still talking about it. He normally dropped the subject after Neil gave his excuse. And the game really hadn’t been that important.
“It was more important than you think. I tried to get ahold of your parents to talk to them about it but they didn’t pick up,” Hernandez continued.
“What are you saying?” Neil had a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
As soon as the words left Hernandez’s mouth there was the sound of a door opening and more footsteps. Neil clutched his duffel and was ready to run when the man came into view. Neil sized him up and realized that he didn’t recognize him.
The man had dark skin and the traditional airbender tattoos on his arms. He had more tattoos around them, snaking up his arms, in flame patterns. Neil thought it was an odd pairing but he wasn’t one to judge others appearances so he focused on the man's stance and body language.
He was big and could definitely be a problem to fight if it came to that. Despite all of that, he had kind eyes. The type of eyes that show exactly how you feel and don’t hold anything back. Neil wasn’t familiar with people being so open. He had been trained from a young age not to give away any emotions so that people couldn’t use that against him or ask too many questions.
“You’re Neil Josten, I assume. Your coach sent us your files and a video of you fighting,” Neil couldn’t help but feel betrayed as he glanced at Hernandez before settling his gaze back on the stranger, “We want you on our team.”
“No you don’t,” Neil said lamely.
“We had some technical difficulties with our last recruit and we need another player, specifically a firebender. Coach Hernandez says you haven’t chosen a school for fall. It works out perfectly, doesn’t it? You need a team and I need a firebender. All you have to do is sign the dotted line and you’re mine for the next five years.”
The man tossed the file that he was holding onto the bench in front of Neil. Neil didn’t move to touch it. No one was supposed to notice him. He was supposed to graduate in five weeks and then he’d be gone. He’d been Neil Josten for too long now and he knew it couldn’t last, no matter how much he wanted it to.
Signing with a pro team meant breaking every rule and promise he’d ever made. He’d be stepping into the spotlight and making his name and face known to everyone. He might as well just paint a target on his back and go back to the Fire Nation. Neil knew that prison couldn’t stop his father for long, and Neil wouldn’t survive a rematch with him.
It was a simple choice but it didn’t make it easier. Signing for a team meant a future, something Neil could never have, but something he wanted so badly. For a moment he hated himself for trying out for Millport’s team. He’d known better than to bend in public. His mother told him to never let anyone know and under no circumstances to participate in Pro-bending and he’d disobeyed her. But now that she was gone, what was he supposed to do? He didn’t know how to go on without her and bending was the only thing he had left that was real. Now that he’d had a taste of it again, of fighting and winning, he didn’t know how to walk away from it.
“Please leave,” he said.
“I know it’s sudden, but I really need an answer tonight. The Committee’s been hounding me since Jaime got locked up.”
Neil was still trying to process what he was saying when it all the sudden clicked. He knew that name. He knew that team. Which meant… His stomach dropped. He had to get out of there.
“You’re team is the Palmetto Foxes. You signed Kevin Day,” Neil hoped he was wrong.
The Foxes were notoriously known for being the worst team in the league. They’d gotten better the past couple of years thanks to their captain and the strength of their new defensive benders, but they were still considered the joke of the pro league. But that was before the national champion Kevin Day joined their team. It was the best thing to ever happen to the Foxes and it was the sole reason that Neil could never play for them. Neil hadn’t seen Kevin in almost eight years and he’d never be ready to see him again.
The man-Coach David Wymack- looked surprised that Neil had put it together so quickly. He sighed and mumbled something about the nosey news reporters. He shook his head and looked straight at Neil.
“Yes, and he wants you to pla-” Neil didn’t stick around for any longer. He bolted to the door and through the locker room. Forget “Neil Josten”. He’d leave tonight and run until he forgot Wymack ever said anything to him.
Neil wasn’t fast enough. He was almost out when he realized he wasn’t alone. He felt the shift in the wall to his right but before he could react he ran into the piece of the wall that had suddenly jutted out. His stomach slammed into the hard stone, hard enough to crush his lungs into his spine. He didn’t remember falling, but suddenly he was on his hands and knees, desperately trying to breathe and get up. His body wasn’t cooperating.
“God damn it, Minyard. This is why we can’t have nice things,” Wymack sounded miles away from where Neil was still trying to gasp for breath, ears ringing and hands clenched.
“Oh, Coach,” someone said over Neil’s head. “If he was nice, he wouldn’t be any use to us, would he?”
“He’s no use to us if you break him.”
“You’d rather I let him go? Put a band-aid on hi and he’ll be as good as new.”
Neil was finally able to get precious air into his lungs and he inhaled so sharply he choked. He wrapped an arm around his middle to hold himself together and looked up at his assailant.
Andrew Minyard. He was an earthbender, as was made obvious by the wall and Neil’s current state, and was the Foxes deadliest investment. He didn’t look like much but he could knock anyone on their ass in seconds and would laugh about it afterwards. He was the only person to turn down the first-ranked team at Edgar Allen, even with Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama themselves personally inviting him. Instead he had joined the dead-last Foxes instead with his twin Aaron and their cousin Nicky.
Andrew smiled down at Neil and tapped two fingers to his temple in salute. “Better luck next time.”
“Fuck you,” Neil said, resisting the urge to shift the floor enough to knock Andrew on his ass. He took a deep breath (lungs still on fire) and clenched his fists, tamping the urge down. He knew nothing good would come if everyone saw a supposed firebender earthbending. He was already screwed as it is, he most definitely did not need to bury himself alive in the grave he was already digging for himself.
“Jesus, Neil, are you alright?” Hernandez helped pull Neil up.
“Andrew’s a bit raw on manners,” Wymack said as he came to stand between Neil and Andrew. Andrew threw his hands up in an exaggerated shrug and backed away to give Neil more room. Wymack watched him go before looking Neil over.
“He break anything?”
Neil carefully pressed a hand to his ribs and breathed while his muscles screamed in protest. He knew from past experience that he had gotten lucky this time. “I’m fine. Coach, I’m leaving. Let me go.”
“We’re not done,” Wymack said. He turned to Hernandez. “Give us a second?”
Hernandez hesitated for a second but left with a quiet, “I’ll be out back.”
Neil waited for the door to close before he turned back to Wymack.
“I already said that I won’t sign with you.”
“You didn’t listen to my whole offer. Give us five minutes, I didn’t fly three people here to see you for nothing,” Wymack said.
Neil felt his face drain of color. He took a step back from Wymack, trying to get his lungs to work. He gripped his duffel again, knuckles going white. “You didn’t bring him here.”
Wymack stared hard at him. “Is that a problem?”
Neil wasn’t about to tell him the truth so he gritted out, “I’m not good enough to fight on the same team as a champion.”
“True, but irrelevant,” a new voice chimed in and Neil stopped breathing. He turned around before he could stop himself. He really should have guessed when he saw Andrew here, but he hadn’t wanted to think about the possibility. There wasn’t any reason for Andrew to be there to see Neil. Andrew was only there because Kevin Day never went anywhere alone.
Kevin was sitting on the table against the far wall. He had watched the entire spectacle and, judging by the cool look on his face, was unimpressed by Neil’s reaction.
It had been eight years since Neil stood in the same room as Kevin, years since they had watched Neil’s father cut and burn a screaming man into a hundred bloody pieces. Neil knew Kevin’s face well from years of watching Kevin grow up in the public eye from a thousand or more miles away.
Everything about him was different and yet everything was the same. From his dark hair, green eyes, and the number two tattooed on his left cheekbone. Neil was thrown into memories of the two young boys, Riko and Kevin, promising Neil that they would be champions one day. And they had, while Neil became a jumble of lies and dead-ends.
Neil knew that Kevin couldn’t recognize him. It’d been too long and they’d grown up a world apart. Neil had disguised his looks with dark hair dye and brown contacts.
But why else would Kevin Day be here looking for him? No Class 1 bending team would stoop so low, not even the Foxes. Niel’s records said that he’d only been fighting for a year. He’d been very careful that year to act like a know-nothing, trying to make sure everyone thought he was an inexperienced firebender who just wanted something to do.
It wasn’t that hard to act like he didn’t know what he was doing since it had been years since he had firebended. He had to relearn the basics of both firebending and the rules of Pro-bending. It helped that the last time he had Pro-bended he had been a defensive waterbender. Playing a new position with a new element helped his lie become believable. He’d had an inevitable and unavoidable learning curve but he’d still fought hard not to stand out.
He’d obviously slipped at some point.
“What are you doing here?” he asked through numb lips.
“Why were you leaving?” Kevin asked.
“I asked you first.”
“Coach already answered that question,” Kevin said, impatiently. “We are waiting for you to sign the contract. So stop wasting our time.”
“No,” Neil said. “There are a thousand firebenders who would jump at the chance to play with you. Why don’t you bother them?”
“We saw their files,” Wymack cut in. “We chose you.”
“I won’t fight on the same team as Kevin.”
“You will,” Kevin said.
Wymack shrugged at Neil. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we’re not leaving here until you say yes. Kevin says we have to have you and he’s right.”
“We shouldn’t be considering you at all based on your files,” Kevin said. “I don’t want someone as inexperienced as you on our team. It goes against everything we’re trying to do with the Foxes this year. Fortunately for you, your coach knew better than to send us your stats. He sent us a tape of you fighting so we could see you in action. You fight like you have everything to lose.”
His inexperience. If Kevin remembered him, he would know that file was a lie. He’d know about Neil’s little league teams. He’d remember the practice that was interrupted by that man’s murder.
“That’s why,” Neil said quietly.
“That’s the only kind of bender worth fighting with.”
Neil was beyond relieved. Kevin didn’t recognize hi and this was just a terrible coincidence. Maybe it was the world’s way of showing him what could happen if he stayed in the same place for too long. Next time it might be his father who finds him.
“It actually works that you’re all the way out here. No one outside of our team and school board even knows we’re here. We don’t want your face all over the news this summer. We’ve got too much to deal with right now and we don’t want to drag you into the mess until you’re safe and settled at campus. There’s a confidentiality clause in your contract that says you can’t tell anyone you’re ours until the season starts,” Wymack explained.
Neil looked at Kevin again, searching for his real name on Kevin’s face. “It’s not a good idea.”
“Your opinion has been duly noted and dismissed,” Wymack said. “Anything else or are you going to start signing stuff?”
Neil knew the smart thing to do would be to bail. Even if Kevin didn’t know who he was, this was a terrible idea. The Foxes spent too much time in the news and it’d only get worse with Kevin on the line. Neil should tear the contract into a thousand pieces and leave.
Leaving meant living, but Neil’s way of living was survival, nothing more. It was new names and new places and never looking back. It was packing up and going as soon as he started to feel settled. But he wasn’t sure he was ready to be on his own again. He wasn’t ready to give up bending, either. It was the only thing that made him feel real.
Wymack’s contract was a way to keep bending and a chance to pretend to be normal for a while longer. Wymack said it was for five years but Neil didn’t have to stay for that long. He could run whenever he needed to, couldn’t he?
He looked at Kevin again. Kevin didn’t recognize him. Neil made his decision. If he lived, practiced, and fought with Kevin, he’d know when Kevin started to get suspicious. The second Kevin started asking question or started looking at him funny, Neil would leave.
“Well?” Wymack asked.
Neil still hesitated.
Wymack looked towards Kevin and Andrew. “Go wait in the car.”
Kevin gathered his files and slid off his perch. Andrew waited for Kevin to catch up and led him out of the locker room. Wymack waited until they were gone, then turned a serious look on Neil.
“Coach Hernandez said that you spend several nights a week here. He thinks there’s something going on since you won’t change out with the team or let anyone meet your parents. That’s why he nominated you to me; he thinks you fit the line. You know what that means, right? You know the kind of people I look for. I don’t know if he’s right, but something tells me he isn’t far off. Either way, the locker room is going to be shut down once the school year ends. You’re not going to be able to come here during the summer. If your parents are a problem for you, we’ll move you to Palmetto early.” Wymack told him all of this with an indifferent voice and understanding eyes.
“You’ll do what?” Neil asked, surprised.
“Andrew’s lot stays in town for summer break,” Wymack said. “They crash with Abby, our team medic. Her place is full but you could stay with me until the dorm opens in June. My apartment’s not made for two people but I’ve got a couch. We’ll tell everyone you’re there for conditional early practice. Most the team won’t believe that but it doesn’t matter. Foxes are Foxes for a reason and they know we wouldn’t sign you if you didn’t qualify. They won’t know specifics unless you choose to share. It’s not my place to ask and I sure as hell won’t tell them.”
All Neil could do was ask, “Why?”
Wymack was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t make this team as a publicity stunt. It’s about second chances, Neil. Second, third, fourth, whatever, as long as you get at least one more than what anyone else wanted to give you.”
Neil had heard that Wymack was an idealistic idiot but Neil couldn’t help but believe that he was sincere with what he was saying.
“Are your parents going to be a problem?” Wymack asked.
Neil couldn’t walk away from this opportunity, no matter how much he knew that he should. He nodded.
Wymack had that same understanding look settle in his eyes.
“You’re graduation ceremony is May eleventh, according to your Coach. We’ll have someone pick you up from the airport Friday the twelfth.” Wymack said.
Neil almost pointed out that he hadn’t agreed to anything but he didn’t.
“Keep the papers tonight,” Wymack offered, pushing his folder at Neil. Neil took it. “Your coach can send me the signed copies on Monday. Welcome to the team.”
Neil couldn’t manage the ‘Thank you’ that he knew was appropriate. He kept his stare on the floor as Wymack went to look for Hernandez.
The back door shut behind him and Neil’s nerves broke. He ran for the bathroom just in time to dry-heave into a toilet.
He couldn’t imagine his mother’s rage if she knew what he was doing. He remembered too well the savage yank of her hands in his hair. All these years spent trying to keep moving and hidden, and now he was going to destroy their hard work. She would never forgive him for this and he knew it.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped out between coughs. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He stumbled over to the sinks to rinse his mouth out and stared at himself in the mirror. With black hair and brown eyes, he looked like an average firebender. No one to notice in a crowd, no one to stick in one’s memory. That was what he wanted but he wondered if it would hold up against the cameras and news reporters.
He checked his roots, assuring that they were still dark enough. He relaxed a bit and leaned back.
“Pro Bending,” he said quietly. It sounded like a dream; it tasted like damnation.
He unzipped his duffel bag enough to put Wymack’s paperwork away. When he returned to the main room, the two coaches were waiting on him. Neil didn’t say anything to them as he went past them to the door.
As soon as he was out the door he was running. He passed by Kevin and Andrew, catching a glimpse of Andrew’s manic smile and taunting salute. He left the stadium and the Foxes and their too-good promised behind him, but the unsigned contract in his bag felt like an anchor dragging him down.