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Becoming Neil Josten

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It was only when his family was situated on the bus and Edgar Allen was fading in the distance behind them that Neil Josten could finally breathe. He sat with Andrew at the back and surprisingly—or maybe not so surprisingly, anymore—the rest of the team had joined them. Andrew and Neil were in the last two seats of one row and the Foxes grouped around them as if it was natural; Dan drifting off against Matt’s shoulder, his arm wrapped around her and an affectionate look on his face, Nicky had fallen asleep, his head bent at an uncomfortable looking angle and resting against Aaron (who remembered to look pissed off by their positioning when anyone looked his way but made no move to jostle his sleeping cousin), Renee sat with Allison, sharp eyes at odds with the exhausted slump of her small frame against the seat, vigilantly guarding her friends.

Kevin was alone just in front of Neil, his sense of victory completely eclipsed by his inexplicable grief. Neil had considered not saying anything about Riko’s death and Tetsuji’s resignation, the solidification of the deal he’s struck with Lord Moriyama—but there had been enough secrets between the Foxes, and Kevin deserved to know before the story broke. Everyone might have reacted differently if not for the obvious and damaging effect the news instantly had on Kevin. Aaron and the upperclassman (excluding Renee) kept scathing comments to themselves, Nicky seemed conflicted about his feelings and fidgeted, stifling the urge to physically comfort that would doubtlessly end badly.

Andrew didn’t react at all, his gaze blank as he appraised Neil, but his irritation at the dangerous situation Neil had found his way into was evident in the way he briskly checked Neil for injuries, the almost affected growl of “102% Josten.” Neil just smiled and tipped their heads together.

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It wasn’t till the next evening that anyone had the energy to celebrate. A solid twelve hours of sleep back in the safety of the Tower had done everyone well; by the time the sun was setting all the Foxes were stuffed into Abby’s house, most everyone arguing and laughing as they piled paper plates with food and started to work their way through the sizable collection of alcoholic beverages.

Last night’s match was up on the living room TV and Kevin, to no one’s surprise, was camped out on the couch watching it. Neil would have joined him but Wymack beat him to it, sitting just out of reach but offering silent support. Neil watched them for a second, wondering how their relationship would change now that the storm had passed, wondering if Wymack resented having the truth kept from him but mostly wondering how it felt to have a father who considered you a son instead of a nuisance, a tool, such disappointment Junior.

“Jealous?” A bored voice sounded behind him. Neil turned away from Kevin and Wymack and faced the impassive blonde, black-clad arms crossed and leaning against the wall.

“Relieved.” Neil responded, swaying closer into Andrew’s orbit but not touching him, smiling as the other huffed in annoyance, breath sweet with alcohol but eyes sharp—I know my limits.

Nicky came to infiltrate their comfortable silence moments later, trying to push a drink into Neil’s hands.

“Come on Neil we just won the championships!” He whined, bumping the cup against Neil’s arm enough that it almost sloshed onto his arm band.

“If that isn’t something to celebrate I don’t know what is!”

Neil regarded the cup warily before accepting it—more for fear of it spilling than anything else. Alcohol still tasted like his past, to numb pain and sterilize wounds, but Andrew was a grounding presence behind him, and his family was all around him, and Neil thought now might be as good a time as any to work on rewriting his triggers with happy memories.

Nicky cheered as he took his first sip, Allison raised her glass in his direction with amusement, and Andrew had slipped into the kitchen to mix them new drinks, his low opinion of Nicky’s bartending abilities evident in the disgusting look he gave it after stealing a sip. Nicky pouted as his concoction was confiscated, but his annoyance was forgotten when Erik came in through the front door. Dan’s sisters had left the night of the match with tearful goodbyes and middle fingers raised at Edgar Allen, but Erik had come back with them and Katelyn had joined them as soon as the Foxes’ bus pulled up to the school.

As the night wore on Kevin drank enough to think more about their impossible victory than the team they had beaten, he was drunkenly explaining Exy rules to Erik. Aaron was tangled with Katelyn on the couch and arguing about plays with Matt. Dan, Renee and Allison were perched on a single arm chair together and talking amongst themselves. Nicky was in the kitchen with Abby, and Andrew wasn’t in the room at all.

Neil slipped out onto the porch where he knew the blond would be, appraising his silhouette on the steps, the glow of a cigarette lighting only half of his face. Neil sat next to him and the truths they had each earned stretched the space between.

Neil had thought he would die as Nathaniel back in Baltimore, and even after death had been avoided, he thought he would be cast aside by the Foxes, that they’d be disgusted by the empty shell he was, the lie of Neil Josten—he’d be alone again. But they hadn’t left, you are a Fox, you aren’t going anywhere. Affection, sticky sweet, spread warmly through Neil as Andrew held out his cigarette for Neil to take.

It wasn’t over, life would go on and continue to be difficult, it would be a fight but Neil was ready for it, he had had enough of running. Smoke, grey and reminiscent of waves and fog, curled around his fingers and Neil smiled a smile all his own. His mother and father were buried with the rest of his past, Neil Josten sat on the porch and looked forward to his future.