By the time Nathaniel Wesninski was 9 years old, he was convinced that the idea of having a soul mate is a bunch of bullshit.
He saw the way that his parents’ marks never matched. He watched the way his father beat his mother until she was more of a canvas than a person; an experimental art piece spattered in dark purples and fading yellows and navy blues. None of her bruises were green or orange or pink, Nathaniel noticed, and her face remained untouched.
His father was nearly pristine in comparison, not a single spot of color to be found.
He asked his mother about it one day over breakfast, careful in the words he decided to use. He struggled in silence for a moment, trying to decide where to start. His mom caught his eye, frowning at the apparent struggle on his face.
“What do you want?” She asked, and Nathaniel flinched a bit at the tone. He pushed his scrambled eggs around on his plate, avoiding eye contact.
“I was just wondering if, maybe,” he let himself trail off, and his mother grew impatient.
“Spit it out, Abram.”
“I was wondering why I haven’t gotten any soulmate marks yet.”
It came out in a rush, as if he could push the words by her before she could catch them. But his mother had always been quick, fast, able to grab and run and steal the things she needed. She snatched the words by the collar before they could escape, and she frowned across the table at her son.
“You’re only 9,” she said. “You won’t get your marks until both you and your soul mate are at least 10.”
“Oh,” he said. His mother’s eyes narrowed.
“Listen to me, Nathaniel,” she snapped, and he looked up almost immediately. His name and her tone were not something to ignore. “The idea of a soul mate is a frivolous concept that holds no necessary meaning. You marry for necessity or you don’t marry at all. The idea of getting close enough to someone to love them is something that you need to stop thinking about right now.”
“Yes,” Nathaniel said, and his mother nodded her approval.
“Good. Your father will most likely arrange for you to marry someone from one of the Families anyway. A nice girl that will help bring more income and trading deals. That’s the kind of marriage we have, and that’s the kind you’ll most likely get as well.”
“Yes,” Nathaniel said again, and a heaviness settled into his chest that he attempted to push down. He would do what was necessary, just as he always did.
He didn’t seem to understand the concept of love, he thought, watching his mother pick at her toast, and he didn’t think he ever would.
Three days after his 10th birthday, his father had branded him with an iron.
He had hoped his soulmate didn’t get one as well.
“How cute,” Lola said, grinning down at the indigo handprint on Nathaniel’s hip bone, exposed from where his shirt had ridden up during training. Phantom fingers squeezed his skin until it was numb. “Junior’s got someone out there after all.”
Lola took a step forward, and Nathaniel attempted to scoot back. He hit the training room wall as she closed in over him. He felt her knife before he heard her voice.
“Let’s let them know that they have someone out there somewhere, too.”
His legs were burning and his lungs were caving in. His left shoulder was numb and he was pretty sure the skin on his heel had rubbed raw -- he could feel the blood pooling in his shoe.
But Nathaniel picked himself off of the ground, gritting his teeth and staring down the court at Riko and Kevin, his grip on his exy stick tightening as a grin flashed across Riko’s face.
The splash of green along the edge of his wrists caught his eye, and he tried to ignore the tingle that traveled down to the tips of his fingers. He wondered briefly if the numbness would help the pain of Riko clacking his stick against his hands when they squared off.
He risked a glance at his mother in the stands, and pretended that her cold stare didn’t wrap itself around his neck like a noose, pulling tight until he could barely breathe.
“I said again,” Tetsuji said from the edge of the court, and Nathaniel nodded quickly as Kevin rushed him.
His mother didn’t tell him where they were going the night they left.
She shook him awake, throwing a duffle bag on top of his torso and dumping a handful of clothes onto his head.
“Quickly” is all she said, keeping watch in the doorway of his bedroom. Nathaniel took a moment to rub at his eyes, frowning.
“ Quickly ,” she repeated, hissing it through clenched teeth when he didn’t move fast enough. “Put it all into the bag. Anything else that you want to take, too. But it has to fit in the duffle. Nothing else.”
“Don’t ask questions, Abram. Just do.”
And so he did, sliding out of his bed and stuffing his clothes into the duffle bag. He didn’t bother with anything else; he knew that even though she’d suggested it, his mother wouldn’t approve of extra items. He slipped the strap over his head, letting the bag rest against his side as he slipped on his shoes and met Mary at the door. She took a minute to search the darkness of the hallways around them, her eyes glazed over and distant as she strained to listen for approaching footsteps.
She gripped Nathaniel’s still-numb wrist tighter, and dragged him behind her through the house to the garage.
His mother had a matching duffel of her own, and she used her free hand to hold it off of her hip so it didn’t make any noise as they half-ran through the foyer to the garage. Nathaniel mimicked her, gripping his own bag until his knuckles were white.
She was silent as she opened the door to the garage, not bothering to turn on the light as she tugged Nathaniel inside with her. She pulled out a small flashlight instead, clicking it on once the door shut behind them.
The garage was large enough to hold 12 cars, all sitting side by side, all sleek and black and exactly the same. Mary pulled a set of keys off of the wall beside the door, clicking the unlock button until they found one of the cars with its inner lights on. She tugged on Nathaniel’s duffel bag strap until he ducked and let it slide off of his back, and she tossed them both into the back seat before opening the driver’s side door.
“Get in,” she said, and Nathaniel did, opening the passenger door and sliding in silently.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“What did I say about questions?” is the only answer he received as she started up the car.
Nathaniel could feel the tingling of bruises along his arms and his hips as Mary pulled out onto the driveway. He couldn’t see the colors in the darkness of the night around him, but he clinged to the feeling of numbness they brought him, and tried to ignore the feeling of dread settling into his stomach as his father’s estate grew smaller behind them.
Nathaniel Wesninski’s eleventh birthday gift was a new name and a Kevlar vest.
Alex Garner woke up the next morning with yellow bruises on his shoulders and a new passport on the hotel side-table.
“Would you like paper or plastic?”
He broke his gaze away from the sliding doors of the supermarket, away from the car that had been parked on the curb a bit too long for him to stay comfortable. The woman bagging his groceries’ smile grew tighter.
“Paper or plastic? For the groceries.”
“Oh, either is fine,” he said, though right after he said it he shook his head, changing his mind. “Actually, paper.”
It’d be easier to burn, no fingerprints, harder to use to suffocate him with if it was Jackson or Romero or any of his father’s other men outside in that car. Paper was safer.
The lady gave him a once-over before nodding, dropping the bread, box of cereal, and bag of chips into a single paper bag and sliding the jug of milk across the counter. He collected them with a small “thank you” and ducked out of the store, hood up and head down.
He shrugged past the small crowds of people in front of the supermarket, avoiding the looks he from some, ducking under the whispers questioning why an eleven-year-old was gathering groceries by himself.
He adjusted the bag in his arms, tugging his sleeves down further to hide the bruising on his forearms.
The car behind him started up.
He picked up his pace.
He rounded the corner quickly, bypassing the car he knew his mother was waiting in and turning down an alleyway instead, dropping the bag and the milk jug and reaching for the gun strapped beneath his sweater.
He ducked behind a dumpster, holding his gun to his chest as he tried to control his breathing. He waited to hear steps, to hear voices, to hear his father crashing through the small alleyway to end the Wesninski line where he stood.
The voices he hears, though, weren’t his father’s.
“You’re sure it was him?”
“You saw the way he looked at us. He looks exactly like his dad.”
His heart stopped.
“How d’you know he saw us?”
“Fuck off, Harris. Do you think we’d be searching through this fucking alley if he hadn’t? He’s leading us away from the wife.”
“He’s a Wesninski.”
The gun in his hand was shaking, his breathing erratic, his head spinning as the footsteps grew closer to the dumpster he was hiding behind. He nearly toppled as a pain shot through his left leg, and he threw out his right arm to keep himself upward.
There’s a burning on his inner thigh; due to how many he’d received in the past few months he already knew it was a bruise, hand-shaped and heavy.
Not now, he prayed as his thigh began to go numb. Not when I need to run.
The voices were cut off by the sound of silenced gunshots. A moment of pure silence followed, heavy and panicked. He didn’t come out until he heard his mother’s voice.
The tone pierced through his chest, and he stood, stepping out from behind the dumpster.
“I thought I recognized the car.”
“You did good,” his mom said. “I would have had you take a less conspicuous place to hide, but you were good not to lead them to the car.”
He glanced behind his mother, taking a deep breath at the sight of two bodies behind her. “What do we do now?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.
His mother didn’t look at him as she strode past him, walking quickly in the direction of the car.
Alex Garner was left behind in an alleyway the same day Chris Pilensky boarded a plane to Germany.
“Eat,” his mother said, shoving a sandwich in his direction. The studio apartment was quiet save for the radio, some economic morning talk-show that he had no interest in.
“Not hungry,” he responded half-truthfully, not looking up from the magazine he wasn’t really reading. His mother pushed her chair back from the table, the legs crying out over the hardwood, breaking the semi-silent bubble around them.
“The attitude needs to go,” Mary said as she tossed his plate into the sink, sandwich untouched. “I’m getting sick of your shit, Abram.”
“They say pre-teens are the worst years.” He flipped a page in his magazine, skimming an article about a popular celebrity couple that he’d never heard of before. “Maybe I’ll grow out of it.”
“You should be more grateful,” his mother spit, strolling past him to the bed. She gathered some scattered clothes and began packing them, stuffing them into their duffels in a huff. “I’m doing all of this for you. Keeping you alive. Working my ass off and spending my money to ensure that you are safe. Keeping a fucking roof over your head. For you. For us .” She scoffed. “Get over yourself.”
“Like I said,” he half-yawned as a line of blue seeped across his left wrist. “Maybe I’ll grow out of it.”
He counted the knife wounds crisscrossing along his forearms one night. It was dark, with only the light from the flickering television to help him see, but it was enough.
He tried to remember if they were an old gift from Lola, before he realized that they were aquamarine and numb.
He was simultaneously relieved and sick.
He caught his mother eyeing the handcuff bruises on his wrists, and he tugged his sleeves down a bit lower.
He didn’t mention the corresponding cut on his leg and the sliced knuckles he covered with fingerless gloves. He’d picked up similar injuries from breaking and entering, though he was never caught.
He wondered if his soulmate could use some lessons in stealth.
The asphalt in Sweden worked a lot like sandpaper, he thought, as his entire left side was made raw after jumping from a moving car. His mother’s injuries were less extensive, as she was “smart enough to keep a thick sweater on, like I’d told you to do”.
He knew that this would be an eyesore for his soulmate, though he couldn’t help but feel like the constant string of bruises from fights and exy he received regularly made them even.
(He knew the size and shape of exy ball bruises.)
(If he relished in those bruises, and used them to stifle his jealousy through vicarious living, then that was his own business, right?)
It was raining the day their plane landed in Florida, and for a moment he thought that this life may not be much different from Europe.
The rain was hot, though, and humid, with a sky clear of any dark clouds. He could see the sun reflecting off of the puddles on the runway, the same yellow-white of the scars crisscrossing down his chest.
Chris became Jason, then Tyler, then Zack.
His bruises became purple, and blue, and different shades of red.
Stefan was shot in the shoulder somewhere just beneath the Canadian border.
Parker didn’t take his Kevlar vest off for nearly a month.
“You’ll probably never meet them,” his mother said one day at a diner in Texas. It caught him off guard.
The evening sun hit him at an angle that made him move his hat to better cover his eyes. His mother gave him a short look of approval; he didn’t bother to tell her the real reason for the adjustment.
“You’ll probably never meet them,” she repeated, nodding in the direction of the lilac bruise splashed across his forearm. “Your soulmate. You’ll most likely never live that long.”
“I know,” he said, and hoped that she believed him. “I’m sorry that these things keep popping up in the meantime.”
“I suppose it can’t be helped,” his mother said, in a rare act of kindness. She frowned, tugging on the sleeve of his sweater from across the table. “Keep your arms covered. We don’t need anyone questioning them.”
“I know,” he echoed. He wondered if his own soul mate had gotten the bruise his ribcage had picked up when his mother had kicked him awake earlier in the morning. He tried to imagine what color it might be.
He hoped that when he died, any bruises that he’d given his soulmate would disappear with him.
“Stitch it up.”
“I can’t, Mom, I can-”
“You can and you will , Abram. Now do it.”
His hands didn’t shake after half a bottle of whiskey, the other half poured onto his torso to disinfect the wound. He hissed through his teeth as his fish-hook needle eased through his skin. He paused for a moment, taking deep, dizzying breaths as he stabilized himself for a moment before starting up again, weaving the fish-hook and thread through and along his wound. His mother watched from the other side of the motel bathroom for a minute before she blinked, twice, and stood.
“Finish up. We’re leaving once you’re done,” she said, stripping out of her shirt and stuffing it into the trash bag full of the other bloody clothes that their latest run-in had left them with. “Run the shower when you get out. Make sure the blood is washed away.”
He hissed through his teeth again as a burning sensation bloomed on his right shoulder. He craned his neck to look down at his collarbone, and grit his teeth at the spreading ink-stain of navy blue that formed there.
There’s another jolt, another burn that caused him to full-body flinch hard enough to drop his needle. His left cheek went numb, and he knew without looking in the mirror that it was another mark.
His mother clicked her tongue from the doorway of the bathroom.
“You have a troublesome soulmate.”
He nodded in agreement.
“So you’re like, what, on a road trip?”
The redhead across from him took a large bite of her ice cream. He attempted to take a bite of his own, but it hurt his teeth. He nodded instead.
“Yeah, kind of. With my mom.”
“That’s awesome,” the girl said. She was 15, like he was. He wracked his brain in an attempt to remember her name. She had followed him to the bench they were sitting on after he’d gotten an ice cream in the park, waiting for his mother to finish meeting up with one of their connections for new IDs. “I wish I could do that. It sounds like fun.”
He let out a huff of sarcastic laughter.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s certainly something.”
The girl took another bite of ice cream. “So where are you from originally? Like, here in Canada or the United States?”
“Canada,” he said on instinct. “About an hour away from Niagara Falls.”
“Niagara Falls,” the redhead repeated. She set down her empty cone on the bench beside her. He watched, thinking about how much of a waste it was that she didn’t bother to eat it. The girl leaned across the space between them, letting her fingers inch forward until they rest on top of his own. “That sounds so romantic.”
“It’s a giant waterfall,” he said, confused. “Just thousands of tons of water falling over a cliff. I don’t really get how it’s considered something romantic.”
“I don’t really get it either,” the girl admitted. “But I heard that it’s supposed to be. And if you kiss someone while you’re there, it’s supposed to be super romantic.”
“Huh,” he said, brilliantly.
“Yeah,” the girl agreed. She leaned across the bench, nodding at his forearms. “What are those from?”
His eyes flit downward to follow her gaze, even though he already knew what she was referring to.
“My soulmate, I think,” he said, staring with her at the aquamarine scars crisscrossing along his wrists. “I don’t think they’re very happy.”
“That’s so sad,” the girl half-whispered. He nodded. She continued. “I don’t even know if I have a soulmate, yet.”
“I’ve never gotten any marks before,” she said. “None! Nothing has ever showed up. So how am I supposed to know whether or not I have one?”
“I’m sure one will show up eventually,” he supplied. “You can’t avoid being injured forever.”
The girl wrinkled her nose. “That’s a bit dark. I don’t wish my soulmate would get hurt.”
He shrugged. “It’s reality. They’re bound to get a paper cut or hit their foot opening a door or something. It’s how life works.”
The girl hummed. “That’s true. I never thought about it like that before.”
“You’ll find them,” he said.
“I know,” she said back.
He didn’t exactly know what to say to that, so he finished his ice cream instead, cone and all. The girl watched him until he was finished, and then slid across the bench until their knees knock together.
“I’ve never kissed anyone before,” she said.
He frowned, a bit confused by the sudden confession. “Me either,” he shrugged. There hadn’t been much opportunity, being on the run and all.
The girl scooted closer. “Maybe we could...” She trailed off, her fingers tapping on the back of his hand.
“Could what?” he asked, frowning. This girl was confusing. How did the subject of kissing even come up? Was it that Niagara Falls thing?
“Maybe we could... try it. Together. Like, you and me,” she said, hopeful. He whipped his head to look at her.
“If you want to,” she said.
He didn’t know if he wanted to, having met her maybe an hour ago, so he shrugged instead of answering.
She took it as a yes.
She leaned forward, placing her fingertips on both sides of his cheeks, pecking his lips with her own before pulling back and giggling like she’d gone crazy. He didn’t exactly react, just kind of nodded and confirmed that yes, that was a thing that had just happened.
He looked in the direction of the park’s parking lot in an effort to avoid her starry-eyed gaze, and immediately met his mother’s instead.
He wondered how long she’d been watching him, though judging by the silent fury that flashed across her face, he assumed it’d been long enough. The bottom of his stomach dropped to the floor, and he could feel himself pale as he stared. She mouthed two words to him, come here , and he found himself standing before he fully realized what he was doing.
“I have to go,” he said, hollowly, and didn’t bother to respond to the girl’s protests. “My mom is waiting.”
“It was nice to meet you,” she called out after him, and all he could think was that meeting her was not worth the heavy blows from his mother that were sure to appear on his soulmate that night.
He woke in the middle of the night screaming.
His body was on fire, his chest feeling like it’s caving in entirely. The numb tingling grew stronger as his mother turned on the light to their hotel room in a panic, watching her son thrash about on the bed with a calculating gaze.
He watched as a majority of his left forearm turned dark blue, followed by half of his leg turning a sunset orange. When he clawed at his shirt, yanking the hem up to his chin, a cyan stripe ran from his shoulder to his hip.
“A seatbelt,” his mother said quietly. “They were in a car accident.”
He calmed down enough to register the words, taking a deep breath before apologizing for waking his mother. She only nodded, turning the light back off and going back to sleep.
He was 16 when he and his mother ran into his father’s men in Montana.
His mother was sterilizing the resulting bruises and knife wounds on his arms and face when his knuckles turned green, followed by his left eye and his stomach. His ribs turned a sickly shade of yellow-white, and the underside of his jaw turned pink. His knuckles didn’t stop changing, though, piling on color after color as if it were a child’s paint project and they were unhappy with what it looked like. Layers on layers of blues and greens and pinks and oranges spattered his hands, and he knew they wouldn’t fade for at least a month.
He thought that if he weren’t already badly injured, his mother would have beaten him out of pure frustration herself.
The recurring bruises disappear nearly entirely by the time the colors on his knuckles faded. Nearly two months later, and he hadn’t received even a papercut.
His mother was pleased, though he would never let her know that he still lied awake at night, hoping for some kind of faint feeling that his soulmate was still okay, still alive, still fighting to survive the same as him.
The beach was cold the night that he burned his mother’s body.
He knew he was littered with bruises and open wounds, and should care for them before they became infected, but he was too numb to care.
He did as he should, though, and continued to run.
He made it all the way to Millport before he could finally breathe.
“Foxes,” Neil said, simply. “Palmetto State University.”
David Wymack looked surprised that he knew so quickly. “I guess you saw the news.”
“You can’t be here.”
“Yet here I stand.” Wymack looked a combination of amused and tired. “Need a pen?”
“No,” Neil said. “No. I’m not playing for you.”
“I misheard you.”
“You signed Kevin.”
“And Kevin’s signing you, so-”
He only made it halfway through the locker room when he was thrown off of his feet with the force of a racquet to his stomach, putting him on his hands and knees, strangled breaths barely reaching his lungs.
“God damn it, Minyard,” Wymack’s voice sounded too distant through the static in his ears. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
“Oh, Coach,” a voice said above him. “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 him and he’ll be good as new.” The voice seemed to be closer, and when Neil looked up, he was nearly eye-to-eye with a crouched Andrew Minyard. The racquet he used was slung over his shoulder, his left arm resting on his bent knee. He had a lazy smile painted across his face, and he stared at Neil with a burning curiosity. He scanned over Neil’s stomach, landing on his arms and the bright blue stripes just barely visible from where his sleeves had slid upwards, exposing his wrists. He seemed to piece something together, his eyes widening a fraction of an inch. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, that won’t do, now will it?”
The question seemed directed more toward himself, and didn’t give Neil time to answer as he tapped two fingers to his temple in a salute. “Better luck next time,” he said, and popped himself upward to make his way toward Kevin.
He could practically feel his mother’s fists as he signed away his life to a sport she never wanted him to play.
“How nice to meet you, Neil,” Andrew said to him in an elevator, on their way to the court. “It will be a while before we see each other again.”
“Somehow,” Neil said, “I don’t think I’m that lucky.”
Andrew had never wanted to meet his soulmate.
Why would he? They were bothersome, always getting him in trouble with whatever foster family he lived with, always covering his skin in ugly bright colors that would take forever to fade -- if they faded at all.
Most of them did not.
And yet there he was, staring down at his soulmate as he gasped for breath on the floor in front of him, a tingling sensation in his stomach and a matching set of scars on his own wrists, though Andrew’s were faded and white as opposed to the bright blue of this kid’s.
Maybe it’s a coincidence , his thoughts breathed. Maybe it’s the meds making your stomach go numb like this.
But his common sense refused to let him brush this under the rug, and he smiled, lazy and drug-induced.
“Oh,” he said, mostly to himself. “Oh, that won’t do, now will it?”
“We’re not taking you to Abby’s like that,” Kevin said after their first night of practice. “Wash up.”
Andrew was reset, his now-taken medication making his mind fuzzy but focused but calm but unpredictable. Ready to leave, ready to eat, ready to play with Neil until he knew if he was safe. He may have been his soulmate, but the world had never been so nice.
“I won’t shower with the team,” Neil said. “I’ll wait, and if you don’t want to wait on me, just go on ahead. I’ll find my way there from here.”
“Nicky going to be a problem for you?” Andrew asked, all smiles and venom and thinly veiled threats.
Neil met his eyes, seemingly unafraid. “It’s not about Nicky. It’s about my privacy.”
“Get over it,” Kevin said. “You can’t be shy if you’re going to be a star.”
Andrew leaned toward Kevin, though he didn’t bother lowering his voice. “He has to hide his ouches, Kevin. I broke into Coach’s cabinet and read his files. Bruises, you think, or scars? I think scars, too. Can’t be bruises if his parents aren’t around to beat him, right?”
His grin turned sharp, pointed in Neil’s direction like one of the knives in his sheaths. “Or maybe,” he said, “they’re from his soulmate. So bad and terrible that he’s too scared to show off.”
Neil’s face paled. “What did you just say?”
“I don’t care,” Kevin said to Andrew.
But Andrew cared. He cared because he knew, because he could name every scar that was probably on Neil’s torso, because he had a matching set that had earned him many looks and whispers and earned many others bruises of their own. He cared because he could easily expose Neil there and now, making him tell Andrew exactly who he was and why he was so suspicious.
“Showers aren’t communal here,” he said instead. “Coach put in stalls when he built the stadium. The board wouldn’t pay for it - they didn’t see the point - so it came out of Coach’s own pocket. See for yourself if you don’t believe me. You don’t believe me, do you? I know you don’t. That’s probably for the best.”
Neil spoke over him rather than answer, anger flashing across his face. “You had no right to read my file!”
Andrew only laughed. “Relax, relax, relax. I made that up.”
There was no need to read a file when he had the story written across his own skin.
“I’m right though, aren’t I?” He asked, and Neil looked ready to tackle him to the floor. Andrew only watched him in silence, smile still hanging on his face.
“I’m not a math problem,” Neil said to him one night in the dark of the stadium seats, as the sound of Kevin honing his aim echoed off the walls around them.
Andrew thought about the scars that littered his torso, about a rabbit on the run, about standing toe to toe with someone who didn’t seem to be as afraid of him as the others. He thought about matching scars on wrists, about growing up with pastel-colored bruises littering his body, about the questions from others that he was never able to answer.
“But I’d still solve you,” he said truthfully, eyes half-lidded but clearer than they’d been all day.
When the door to their dorm swung open with Neil on the other side, no one reacted. He was seething, face red, and it made Andrew smile as he flicked his cigarette out the window beside him.
“Try again, Neil,” he said. “You’re in the wrong room!”
“We locked that,” Aaron said in German to Nicky as he paused his game.
“Last I checked,” Nicky responded before switching to English and addressing Neil. “Hey, sounds like Matt’s back. Have you met Dan and Renee yet?”
The question only seemed to further anger Neil. Andrew couldn’t help but be amused. He did, after all, go through his things. He had thought he’d put everything back exactly the way he had found them, but he supposed runaways had their own systems of tripwires he may have unknowingly set off. He knew that Neil knew that he knew about his obsession binder full of money, and he couldn’t help but wonder what the connection was between Kevin and Riko, a runaway, a quarter of a million in cash, and a torso full of scars. He expected that he’d find out eventually, though.
What he did not expect was for Neil to turn to Kevin and bark out something angrily in French.
Andrew had no idea what he said, but he knew it wasn’t a compliment.
“Wow,” he said. “Another one of Neil’s many talents. How many can one man have?”
Neil ignored him, snapping something else at Kevin, who responded with a bored tone.
The conversation went back and forth at a rapid-fire pace until Neil spit out a word that had Kevin nearly frozen. Andrew watched, his interest piqued, as Kevin asked Neil something in return. Neil responded with the same tone, nearly sneering, a clear insult hurled at Kevin like a challenge.
And Kevin seemed to take it.
He knocked over his chair in his haste to get to Neil, who panicked and ran. Kevin was faster, though, and he wrapped his hands around Neil’s neck and lifted him from the floor with little effort, slamming him against the wall of the hallway.
Andrew followed them, slightly amused, standing in the doorway of their dorm as he watched Kevin seem to grow a spine.
Neil scrambled to pry Kevin’s fingers off with little results. He tried to knee him, but Kevin only responded by pushing him against the wall even harder.
“What the fuck did you call me?” Kevin asked, and Neil could only choke, his air supply gone.
Andrew realized too late that this meant his air supply was gone, too.
He tried not to draw attention to himself as he leaned against the doorway, struggling to breathe. He crossed his arms, waiting for the inevitable intervention by the valiant upperclassmen, and was not disappointed when Matt stepped in. He wrapped an arm around Kevin’s throat, pulling his head back to rest at an uncomfortable angle.
“Get off him, Day,” he growled. Andrew made a note to retaliate once he could breathe properly again.
He could hear Nicky calling out for Matt to calm down, though he sounded a bit distant as his head went fuzzy. Kevin let go of Neil with one hand in an effort to drive an elbow into Matt’s ribs, but when Matt responded by tightening his grip, Kevin let go of Neil entirely.
Andrew sucked in a silent breath at the same time Neil gasped as if he was breathing for the first time.
Andrew was brought back to the situation at the sound of Matt’s fist connecting with Kevin’s jaw, and Andrew decided that Matt has intervened enough for one day. He stepped between the two of them, a lazy smile on his lips, and Matt backed off almost immediately.
By the time the girls became involved, Neil was sporting a pretty bruise on his windpipe the size of Kevin’s hands.
Judging by the numb feeling across Andrew’s own throat, he was glad he chose today to wear a turtleneck.
“I know,” Andrew said to Abby as she stared at the markings on his torso. “But he does not.”
“We’re going to keep it that way, for a bit.”
Abby nodded once, and Andrew finished the rest of the exam without comment.
Andrew was woken up by someone pushing his shoulder. He swung, elbow flying backward and into the chest of the person next to him. He heard the resounding cry of pain and was satisfied with the reaction, gearing up for the next swing when Aaron snapped his fingers in his ear. It all came crashing back: where they were, where they were going, what they were doing tonight.
“Exit,” Aaron said, and Andrew could feel his chest going numb, spreading like the bruise he knew was probably forming there.
Ah, he thought. I hit Neil.
Something oddly close to satisfaction rolled through him as he used Neil as leverage to look out the windshield. “Not yet,” he said. “It’s the exit that has the Waffle House.”
“This is South Carolina,” Nicky said. “Every exit leads to a Waffle House. Still breathing, Neil?”
“Yes,” Neil said, but there was a hoarseness to his voice that nearly had Andrew laughing. “I think.”
The numbness in his chest told him that he had gotten Neil hard enough to make a good bruise. He didn’t have much time to relish in that, though, before his fingers were trembling and a white-hot feeling of sickness was working its way up his throat.
“Nicky,” he said, pushing the feeling down as best he could with as much willpower as possible.
“We’re almost there,” Nicky said, and Andrew frowned.
“We’re on an exit ramp-”
Nicky pulled over, slamming on his brakes at the same time Andrew opened the car door. He wretched into the bushes, any satisfaction at the numbness in his chest gone by the time he heaved himself back into the car.
“I didn’t kill my parents,” Neil said to him in Wymack’s apartment the next day, full of irritation and fear and exhaustion. “Riko’s family did.”
He spins a story of mobsters and theft and murder and escape.
“I took what he’d stolen and ran,” Neil said. “I’ve been running ever since.”
Andrew put the timeline together quickly. It wasn’t very hard to do, when the pieces were patched across his skin, color coded and all.
“If Kevin or Riko recognizes me and words makes it back to by father’s boss, I know what will happen to me.”
Andrew knew, too, and maybe even more.
He knew it can’t be the real truth. Not all of it, at least. He would have been too young to be on his own when half of these scars showed up on his skin. Neil was good, but he wasn’t that good, to the point where at 11 he could easily live on his own and survive. But it was something, and it made enough sense that Andrew accepted it, for the most part.
“Then why did you come here?” He asked, wanting some of the gaps to be filled.
“Because I’m tired,” Neil said. “I have nowhere else to go.”
Andrew searched Neil’s face as he explained, silent and calculating.
“I’m nothing,” Neil muttered, his hands curled around his lips. “I’ll always have and be nothing.”
Something burned in Andrew’s chest, hot and angry.
Be careful , a voice told him. Be careful, you don’t know him yet.
And yet Andrew reached out, uncurled Neil’s fingers, stared at him with an intensity that surprised even himself. Neil’s hands were softer than he’d thought they would be, though they were dried and cracked from his trip back from Columbia.
“Let me stay,” he asked Andrew quietly. “I’m not ready to give this up yet.”
Yet , the voice said. Yet.
Uncertain, scared, runaway.
Andrew let go of Neil. “Keep it if you can. You and I both know it won’t last long.”
“I’ll be gone by our match against Edgar Allen,” Neil said. “I don’t look now how I looked then, but I can’t risk Riko’s family recognizing me.”
Gone , the voice said. Gone .
It brought Andrew’s thoughts crashing back to reality.
Just because he’s your soulmate, they said, doesn’t mean he’ll stay.
“Such an unexpected will to survive from someone who has nothing to live for,” Andrew said, though at this point he wasn’t entirely sure who it was directed to.
Andrew watched as Neil set himself directly between Kevin and Riko on national television.
Runaway , the voice echoed. Or maybe not?
Something in Andrew’s chest stirred.
He wasn’t sure why he put his fist through his window.
He was mad. Mad at himself, mad at Kathy Ferdinand, mad at Riko Moriyama, mad at Kevin Day.
Mad at Neil Josten.
He was angry with the fact that Neil has somehow wormed his way into his head and under his skin. When it happened, he wasn’t entirely sure. But it was making his already fucked up emotions even worse -- making his head twist and turn and work harder than he’d had to in a while with new thoughts and emotions and plans and a new factor he hadn’t thought would matter this much.
He needed to bail.
A conversation, a deal, and a night in Columbia later, though, Neil Josten was his to protect.
As Neil plucked Andrew’s cigarette from his fingers that night, he spotted a number of green slices across Neil’s knuckles that mirrored the red originals on his own.
It took watching Andrew punch a wall so hard his knuckles split for Neil to finally piece it together.
“Try and put me on your court today and I’ll take myself off it permanently. Fuck your practice, your line-up, and your stupid fucking game,” Andrew said, his voice venomous while his lips were curled into a smile.
Kevin frowned. “That’s enough. We don’t have time for your tantrums.”
Andrew reacted almost instantly, twisting and punching the wall with as much force as he could muster. At the same moment, Neil’s right hand exploded, a numbing sensation taking him over as he watched bright purple spots bloom on his knuckles.
It hit him like a truck.
He moved while everyone was distracted with the scene in front of them, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets and tugging his sleeves down to cover his fingers. His heart raced a mile a minute, and his head pounded as much as his hand. Andrew made his way to the door, catching Neil’s eye and flashing him his grin before backing out of the room entirely. Neil felt like he was going to throw up.
Practice didn’t help, with Seth’s absence and Allison and Andrew taking the day off, it was almost too silent for Neil to bear. He felt like his chest was caving in on him, like he couldn’t think of anything other than the dots that were all spread out in front of Andrew, waiting to be connected so he knew everything , so he knew the truth, so he knew all of Neil’s scars, and all of Neil’s past.
He could practically feel his mother’s hands in his hair, yanking him back and screaming at him to run, run, run , but he paused before he took off through the court doors entirely.
Kevin nearly tripped him as he froze mid-drill, and Neil shoved any thoughts of Andrew to the back of his mind until the end of practice.
When they got back to Fox Tower, Andrew was waiting on the curb. Neil kept his distance as the others crowded him, asking questions and making idle conversation. Andrew didn’t perk up until the upperclassmen circle into the parking lot, and waited until they’re within earshot to raise his hand to call out in greeting.
“Renee, you made it! Welcome back. I’m borrowing you. You don’t mind, do you? I knew you wouldn’t.”
Renee nodded. “Do I need anything?”
“I’ve already got it,” Andrew said, standing and setting off across the parking lot. Before he made it past Neil, he raised his hand again, grinning lazily and saying low enough for only him to hear, “Sorry in advance, Neil, for the bruising.”
Neil nearly puked.
He was a nervous wreck as he sat in the living room of their dorm, every visible part of his skin from his neck down covered. He hoped that whatever Andrew would be doing with Renee would leave his face untouched.
He paid close attention to Nicky’s story of the twins, keeping his face neutral even as various parts of his body proceeded to go numb. He counted out all of the bruises, making notes as to where he’d need to cover from now until they faded.
He lost track by the time dinner and a movie had finished, but he wobbled his way through the rest of the night anyway, homework and all. Dan and Matt helped him straighten out his schedule, and by the time they’d finished, Renee had made her way to their door.
Neil watched as Dan helped her with an ice pack, piecing together the bruises on her knuckles and the bruises causing his body to go haywire.
“Andrew hit you,” he said brilliantly, and Renee smiled.
“A couple times. I forgot how fast he is when he’s high.”
“Renee and Andrew are sparring partners,” Matt said, and suddenly it made sense.
He wondered, as Renee left the room, if Andrew felt close enough to tell her the truth.
From the knowing look she shot his way in lieu of goodbye, he thought she might already know.
Andrew hadn’t brought up the soulmate situation, so naturally, neither did Neil.
It was like a game of soulmate chicken, with Neil on one end, panicked and ready to run, and Andrew on the other, uncaring and drugged out of his mind.
The more Neil thought about it, the more confused the situation made him.
It didn’t bother him that he was male. It wouldn’t matter to Neil either way -- but no, why Andrew ?
He asked it silently to himself as he watched Kevin shove a laughing Andrew backward into the lockers before they left for their next game. He asked it as he caught the slice of red that runs across Kevin’s shirt, Andrew smiling, knife in hand, as Kevin jumped backward and cursed. Their standoff ended with Andrew leaving before the others, wiping his knife off on his armbands before tucking it away.
Neil mentally traced the blue scars that crisscrossed along his arms. He knew the pattern by heart; he’d spent many nights on the run with his mother tracing them out along his wrists.
I don’t think they’re very happy , he’d told a girl in Canada who had eaten ice cream with him.
That’s so sad , she’d responded, and he couldn’t help but agree.
He pushed the thoughts concerning Andrew back into the corner of his mind, and headed out to help load the bus with the others.
“Your phone is ringing,” Andrew said in the locker room, staring at the flip phone on the bench between them. “You should answer it.”
“Riko will have a few minutes of your time later,” Jean hissed in angry French, so fast that Neil almost missed it. “I suggest you speak with him later if you do not want everyone to know you are the Butcher’s son.”
Kevin made a strangled noise beside him, and Neil nearly bolted for the doors out of instinct alone. Instead he shoved Kevin back, angling him toward the new table Abby had set up for them in the corner of the room.
Once they were seated, Kevin gripped Neil’s face in his hands. Neil let him look, let him search, and watched as the color drained from his face with fear.
Once Kevin left with Abby, and Wymack had them settled, Andrew leaned back in his chair far enough to catch Neil’s eye.
“I told you so,” he said, before Coach snapped at him to sit properly.
Neil was paying hardly any attention.
He was already planning his escape -- exactly how many steps it would take to get him to the door, and then how to get back to Fox Tower to grab his binder. He was already thinking of where he wanted to go, who he was going to become, who he was going to call for new IDs-
He cut off his plan as abruptly as he’d started it, feeling his phone in his pocket. He thought of his conversation with Andrew from the locker room and from his bedroom; two separate occasions and two separate promises, both enough to slow him down. He thought of green slices on his knuckles after Andrew put his fist through a window, thought of orange spattering his opposite hand after Andrew’s had hit a wall. He thought of the scars that must be plastered across Andrew’s own torso to mirror his, thought about the secrets he knows Andrew had kept and the ones that he could help him keep if he asked.
He thought about running from his soulmate.
He thought about running from the court.
He thought about the weight of a key in his palm, about the promise of home, about everything that his mother told him not to do that he’d done already, and the tentative happiness it had brought him.
“No,” he said in answer to a question from Wymack, finally finding his voice. “I knew this was going to happen. I just wasn’t ready for it. I’m fine.”
It was as honest as he could be, and Wymack seemed to take it with little problem.
“Kevin,” Neil asked the following night, watching Andrew run laps on the inner court. “What does he want?”
“I made him a promise.” Kevin pulled his eyes away from Neil and tracked Andrew as he ran. “He’s waiting to see if I can keep it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Andrew has neither purpose nor ambition,” Kevin said. “I was the first person who ever looked at Andrew and told him he was worth something. When he comes off these drugs and has nothing else to hold him up, I will give him something to build his life around.”
“He agreed to this?” Neil asked, skeptical. “But he’s fighting you every step of the way. Why?”
Kevin was quiet for a minute before he spoke.
“When I first said you would be Court, why were you upset with me?”
“Because I knew it’d never happen,” Neil said, “but I wanted it anyway.”
Kevin watched him expectantly, and it took Neil much longer than it should have to understand that he answered his own question.
I don’t think they’re happy , echoed his own voice in his head.
That’s so sad, a girl’s voice echoed back.
Neil began to understand.
“I won’t spend Thanksgiving with them, and I won’t play nice.” Andrew said, fingers curled in Neil’s collar rather than wrapped around his throat. “Get Nicky to change the date and get your invitation. Okay?”
“Okay,” Neil said.
“We’re all going to regret this.” Andrew let go of Neil with a smile. “Nicky most of all when his father winds up dead.”
Maria came back to the table with a smile on her face. “Five minutes, I think,” she said, and Neil felt something uneasy roll through his stomach.
Everyone looked at him as he stood, the right side of his forehead pounding with what he assumed was a headache from putting up with the Hemmicks.
“I’ll clear the table,” he said suddenly, though he was a bit uneasy on his feet. Aaron looked up at him, a bit confused, but stood too, after a beat of silence.
“Kevin and I will help,” he said. “That’ll give you guys a few minutes to talk without us.”
Neil moved to clear the table, but ended up nearly doubled over, breathing heavily. His head was pounding, above his eyes and his cheeks and his jaw. Nicky was watching him, attempting to steer the conversation away from Neil’s current situation.
He was halfway to the kitchen when the pain became too much. He could barely feel his fingers anymore, and he watched as bright green bruises wrapped their way around his wrists. He dropped the stack of plates he was holding, his legs going so numb that he could barely stand.
“Neil?” Nicky asked, but Neil ignored his question as he looked straight at Luther.
“Where is Andrew?”
He made it up the stairs on pure adrenaline alone.
He nearly collapsed when he broke down the door, but he didn’t need to worry about going any further.
Aaron was there, with a swing and a crack and a sickening amount of blood, and Drake was dead before he hit the floor.
Even through the static in his ears and the numb pain in his body, Neil could still hear Andrew laughing.
By the time Wymack made it to the hospital, Neil had nearly forgotten about the mirror image of bruises covering his own body. It wasn’t until Wymack froze in the doorway, looking more tired than Neil had ever seen him, for him to remember.
“Jesus fuck,” Wymack started, but Neil was already up and walking past him to get outside.
“What are you doing here?” Neil asked when they were settled into the small smoking area along the side of the building.
“Kevin called me,” Wymack said. “I brought Andrew some clean clothes.”
“They arrested Aaron.”
“Someone died on the other end of his racquet.”
“It wasn’t his,” Neil said. “It was mine. The police took it as evidence. Will they give it back or am I going to have to get a new one?”
Wymack was silent for a long time. He took a drag of his cigarette, watching Neil carefully. He could feel Wymack’s eyes pause on every bruise on his face, traveling down to the green on his wrists. Neil was glad he was covered, glad Wymack couldn’t see the whole scene.
“Neil,” he started, but Neil stopped him before he can continue.
“Give me that bullshit answer one more time and see what happens,” Wymack said. “One look at you tells me that you’re anything but.”
“It’s not me that’s injured,” Neil argued. “He’s inside.”
“Yeah,” Wymack said, clearly exasperated. “But that doesn’t mean that something like this doesn’t fuck someone up emotionally as much as it does physically.”
Neil was quiet, staring at Wymack until the man decided to move on.
“I stopped by the station on the way here and got a censored rundown of things. The police have labeled you as a hostile witness, you know. They said you wouldn’t talk to them, not even give them your name. They had to get that from Kevin.”
“I’m fine,” Neil echoed. “I just don’t like talking to cops.”
“Then don’t talk to them,” Wymack said. “Talk to me.”
“What do you want me to say?”
Neil shook his head. He didn’t exactly know where to start. How could explain the situation, the memory that was burned into his mind, and the hollow laughter that he’ll never be able to forget? He didn’t know how to explain the bruises on his own body, the fact that he and Andrew still hadn’t even established anything other than a somewhat-safe truce when this happened; they were still in their game of emotional chicken. This was something neither of them were ready to face.
How was he supposed to explain the sick feeling of knowing that he was a driving force behind handing his soulmate over to someone waiting for an opportunity like this?
He pushed Wymack into trying to reach Higgins instead, and retreated back inside to wait for Andrew.
When he was finally released back into the lobby, Neil nearly ran at the sight of him.
The clothes Wymack had brought did nothing to hide Andrew’s face, including the ear-to-ear smile he still wore like a terrible badge.
He took one look at Neil, and let out a barking laugh.
“Hey,” he said, “We match! Neil, one of us is going to have to change.”
He reached out and touched the lilac bruise that spread across Neil’s right temple. Neil didn’t move, resisting the urge to duck out of his reach.
“What a nice color,” Andrew said. “Mine is red. It looks a bit tacky, don’t you think?”
Andrew tilted his head, his grin brilliant, and Neil hated the very sight of it.
Neil asked Andrew to trust him, gave him a name in the kitchen of a place he called home, brought Andrew’s hand up to feel the scars on his torso, watched as Andrew mapped them out, cataloging them against the copies on his own skin.
“Don’t you understand?” Neil asked in German, heart pounding with the fire working across his skin wherever Andrew’s fingers lingered. “Nothing Riko does will make me leave him. We will both be here when you get back.”
Andrew left for Easthaven, and Neil left for Palmetto with Kevin at his side.
None of the Foxes mentioned Neil’s colored bruises, a silent acknowledgment passing through them that one situation was enough for one week.
“I would like to get to know you better,” one of the Vixens told him one night after dinner. “I think we could have a lot of fun together, just the two of us. You’re very interesting, Neil.”
He thought about the still-fading bruises on his face, thought about Andrew’s fingers mapping out his torso, thought about the smile that would be gone when he came back home.
“I wouldn’t call you,” Neil responded, tactless. “I socialize with the Foxes or not at all.”
“Yes,” Neil said, desperately wishing he had a weapon to use as he stared at Riko from where Wymack held him back. “I understand.”
“Apology accepted,” Riko responded, and Neil could practically feel himself skinning Riko alive.
“Did you know?” Jean had asked Neil in the locker room. “In Japanese, ‘four’ and ‘death’ sound the same. It is appropriate that the Butcher’s son should wear this number.”
And as Neil looked up at Tetsuji Moriyama and said the words “Make me”, he thought that the number 4 was appropriate, indeed.
“Did I break my promise?” Andrew asked on the roof, the wind threatening to knock the cigarette from his mouth. “Or were you keeping yours?”
“Neither,” Neil said.
“I know you have had ample time in my absence to come up with your precious lies, but you need to remember two things.” He held up his fingers to count off of. “One: I gave you a truth on credit in November. It is your turn in our game, and you will not lie to me.”
He held up his second finger. “Two: Every mark that was made on you was made on me as well.” His eyes tracked to the gause beneath Neil’s eye. “All of them.”
Neil was quiet for a moment.
“Neither,” he said again. “I spent Christmas in Evermore.”
Something hot and angry flared up inside of Andrew. He reached out without hesitation, reaching for the gauze on Neil’s cheek and ripping it off with as much force as he could.
He knew what was there - he’d received an identical one on his own cheek not long ago while in Easthaven, powder blue and numb - but seeing it laid out in front of him made his blood boil. His face remained neutral, though he was ready to take Riko apart piece by piece as slowly as he could.
“This is a new low,” he said instead. “Even for you.”
“I’m not wearing it by choice,” Neil said, as if that made any difference at all.
There was a numb kind of fury rolling in Andrew’s chest. He had been locked inside Easthaven for six weeks without contact with the others, and without so much as a single pastel scratch on any part of his skin. But the last week set him on edge, as color after color rolled out across Andrew’s body, causing him to burn and freeze and go multiple levels of numb.
The day the number had appeared on his face was nearly the last straw.
He needed out of there, even if it meant carving the demand into his own skin to notify Neil. Ne needed to make sure his family was okay. Needed to make sure that Kevin was nowhere near Riko, and make sure that Neil wasn’t doing anything stupid.
Two out of three was not good enough, in this situation.
He needed to be better.
“The next time someone comes for you,” Andrew said, “stand down and let me deal with it. Do you understand?”
“If it means losing you, then no,” Neil said.
“I hate you,” Andrew said, flicking his cigarette off of the roof. “You were supposed to be a side effect of the drugs.”
“I’m not a hallucination,” Neil said, reaching out to let his fingers float just above one of the colored bruises on Andrew’s face. “None of this is.”
Andrew was silent for a moment, letting the electricity that sat between their skin linger for as long as he could tolerate it.
“You are a pipe dream,” Andrew said. “Go inside and leave me alone.”
Neil smiled instead, nodding toward a splash of color on Andrew’s collarbone.
“Lilac,” he said, as Andrew tossed his keys off of the roof. “What a nice color. Mine is just red. It’s kind of tacky, don’t you think?”
Andrew remained silent as Neil made his way down the stairs to get his keys.
“Show me your scars,” Andrew asked Neil from his place in the goal, and was only slightly surprised when Neil said yes.
When Andrew lifted Neil’s shirt over his head and tossed it to the other side of the room, he already knew each scar that was laid out in front of him.
It was different, though, seeing them on Neil -- seeing the real versions, the ones that were made with practiced hands.
Andrew let his fingers find the burn of a hot iron.
It had appeared when he was almost twelve, hot and angry and enough to make his shoulder numb for nearly 2 days. He had screamed when it showed up in the middle of class, and the phone call home had made his current foster parents angry enough to send him to bed without dinner.
He moved on to the bullet hole beside it, letting his thumb brush over the flesh gently, as if it were brand new.
“Someone shot you,” Andrew said, though he already knows. He had been in the middle of an exy game when his shoulder seemed to catch fire. He found the orange spatter afterward while changing out, and had ignored his teammates' questions.
“I told you someone was after me,” Neil said.
“This,” Andrew pressed his fingers into the iron mark, “is not from a life on the run.”
Neil’s voice was steady when he answered. “My father gave me that.”
Andrew let his fingers fall to a group of slashes on Neil’s stomach. He had been in juvie when these ones appeared. The other kids had eyed him for days afterward, whispering about the probability of Andrew’s soulmate being dead entirely.
It was interesting, he thought, that two sets of scars could have such different stories attached.
He left Neil to finish getting changed before heading to Columbia.
“Roland seems to think you’re tying me down,” Neil said to Andrew in a booth at Eden’s Twilight.
“Presumably he thinks you’re as bad at following directions as he is,” he said. “Roland knows I don’t like being touched.”
Neil smirks to himself as he looks out over the dancefloor. “I didn’t think that would be a problem. You hate me, remember?”
“Every inch of you,” Andrew said. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t blow you.”
Neil looked like he might fall out of his chair entirely. It was almost enough to make Andrew amused.
“You like me,” Neil said.
“I hate you,” Andrew corrected.
“You never implied anything,” Neil said after a long moment. “About the marks, and what they meant to you.”
“Why should I have?” Andrew lifted one shoulder up in a half-shrug. “Nothing will come of it.”
“Nothing.” Neil echoed.
“I am self-destructive,” Andrew said. “Not stupid. I know better.”
Andrew doesn’t say you’ll be gone in five months.
Andrew doesn’t say you’re a runaway with a track record that speaks volumes.
Andrew doesn’t say stay, stay, stay here, don’t run.
Instead, he watches Neil say nothing but “okay”, and slips out of the booth to go visit Roland.
“What are they doing here?” Matt asked, furious as he stared down Riko and Jean from across the Longhorn’s court.
A fire raged inside of Andrew. His knives felt heavy in their sheaths.
“I’ll ask,” he said, starting toward them.
Wymack tugged him back, saying something about not murdering people, but he was too busy imagining all of the ways it would take him to tear Riko apart limb from limb to listen.
He shut down the goal instead, not bothering to search the stands for Riko’s most-likely infuriated face.
“The next time one of them says you’re soulless I might have to fight them,” Neil said on a rooftop, the taste of his lips lingering on Neil’s tongue.
The way he looked at Andrew was suffocating. Like he could save him from himself, like he could stop the world from being so cruel. Like all he had to do was ask, and Neil would stop running forever.
“Ninety-two percent,” Andrew said in reply. “Going on ninety-three."
“I need you to let me go,” Neil asked him in the living room of his dorm, half-buried in a bean bag chair.
Andrew thought of pastel scars to mirror originals, thought of Neil’s smart mouth and his inability to keep it shut.
“Give me one good reason,” he said, and Neil went quiet.
You’re a fool, the voice in his head whispered as he kissed Neil on the rooftop of Fox Tower.
Runaway, the voice said as he pushed Neil down, mapping the scars across his skin.
Attached, the voice said as Neil told him truths about running, and Andrew responded with truths about surviving.
He isn’t going to stay, the voice said as Neil offered a vacation, offered a hesitant future alongside Andrew that lasted longer than a month.
Let me have this, Andrew asked anyway, listening to Neil as he hung over the back of a bus seat, his silhouette framed by the halo of a setting sun.
“Don’t come crying to me when someone breaks your face,” Andrew tells Neil, looking back out the window to ignore Neil’s stupid smile.
“Thank you,” Neil said to him before they left the locker room. “You were amazing.”
He should have known.
There was a riot.
Instinct had kicked in almost immediately, his hands reaching for Nicky and Aaron and Kevin before he could fully register what is happening.
And then punches were thrown, his adrenaline stopping the pain from sinking into his muscle and bone as his fists were swung over and over again, meeting a mark each time.
It wasn’t until the dust settled that he had taken inventory, and came up one name short.
It wasn’t until he had found Neil’s duffel bag and racquet over a hundred feet away, untouched, that he began to panic.
It wasn’t until his fingers exploded with pain, knife marks coursing their way across his palms, that he realized exactly what was happening.
His first thought had been Riko.
Somehow, some way, he had made it all the way here, kidnapping Neil and taking him away by force.
He made it back to the bus from the other side of the stadium in one piece, though the pain on his hands had begun spreading to his wrists. Andrew knew a handcuff bruise when he saw one.
He was murderous by the time he reached the others.
Renee was the first to notice the colors blooming along Andrew’s hands. Of course she was. Sweet Renee, who had more concern than she knew what to do with. She gasped when she saw them, and Andrew clenched his jaw as she reached out as if to help.
“Get me to the bus,” he grit out, his hands nearly numb from the lacerations. “I need to make it to Riko.”
“What are you talking about?” Kevin asked, his face draining of color. “Riko isn’t here.”
“Not anymore,” Andrew corrected. “He stayed long enough to kidnap Neil and is probably on his way home now.”
Dan frowned before wincing from the cut above her eye. “Riko didn’t kidnap Neil, Andrew. He’s-”
“Where?” Andrew asked. “Have you seen him? Because I can tell you, oh Captain, that I can most definitely feel him.” He held up his hands to show the ever-adding scars crisscrossing along his palms.
“Maybe it’s something else,” Matt said hesitantly. “Maybe he fell or somethi-”
He was cut off by Andrew’s scream.
Pain exploded on Andrew’s cheekbone. It felt like someone had taken a flame to his face, carving it into his skin as it melted away the top layer of his skin. He felt blind fury, panic, pain on a level that he had never felt before. He dropped to his knees, taking heaving breaths as the pain stopped, though the buzzing numbness remained.
The others looked down at him, horrified, until Renee knelt across from him, staring at the spot on his face.
“I don’t think it’s Riko,” she said. “Because he would never burn Neil’s number off of his face.”
Andrew's rage could burn down Binghamton's stadium.
They went through Neil’s phone next.
Crowded together on the bus and hoping to find any clues as to what was going on, it seemed the most logical place to start.
There was a phone call from a number that Andrew didn’t recognize.
But Kevin did.
Andrew saw the color drain from his face first. He began shaking his head, mumbling something under his breath and digging through his pocket for his phone. He began typing furiously, his hands shaking so much that he had to retype the same word over and over again, until he finally got it right.
When he finally found what he was looking for he was silent for a moment, before letting out a whine and slamming his phone down onto the seat beside him.
“It’s no use,” he said, his voice barely cracking above a whisper. “He’s gone.”
Kevin was pinned to the bus window before anyone could react. It took Andrew a moment to realize that he was the one pinning him, the numbness in his hands not stopping him from gripping Kevin’s throat until he was choking. Kevin’s eyes were wide, brimming with tears.
“Where is he,” Andrew growled, and Kevin shook his head.
“Baltimore,” he said quietly, as if it were a curse on his lips. “With his father.”
It took three of the other Foxes to pry a furious Andrew away from Kevin.
He hated every minute of that night.
He hated every minute of the torture, of the burns and the slashes and the too-numb feeling of handcuffs on his wrists. He hated knowing that Neil was the one being put through all of this. He hated knowing that he couldn’t do anything but watch as color after color appeared on his own skin, seeming to taunt him, beautiful colors exploding from the worst pain Andrew has felt in years.
He hated the small sense of relief that rushed through him every time a new scar appeared, knowing that this meant that Neil was still alive.
He wasn’t sure if he was thankful or terrified when the torture stopped entirely.
“Neil’s in custody,” Wymack said, and though he addressed it to all of the Foxes, it was Andrew he stared down when he said it. “We’ll go see him today.”
He had been sent with Wymack to move the bus.
Or, more appropriately, he had been handcuffed to Wymack and forced to go with him to move the bus.
It wasn’t Andrew’s fault that the FBI had idiot agents with mouths that got them into trouble.
Maybe they should teach them how to speak before sending them into the field.
Whatever the case, though, he was sent away with Wymack. Sent to move the bus to the other side of the hotel parking lot. Sent away from where Neil would be. Sent away without any idea as to whether or not Neil would be gone before they got back.
When they finally made it back to the hotel, there were five black SUVs parked out front. Men who seemed to be attempting casualty but failing miserably were scattered around the building. A kid in a black hoodie was being herded into a room upstairs.
Into their room.
Andrew was off and running before Wymack realized what was going on. Andrew didn’t bother to stop, instead dragging Wymack along behind him as he took the stairs two at a time. The agents on the second floor jumped, suddenly more alert than Andrew had seen them all day. They called for him to slow down, and one began to reach for his belt.
Andrew body-checked him into the neighboring door, pushing off of him and slamming his weight into their own room’s door, as if the amount of force he used would open it any differently.
Neil was there.
He was there, in front of Andrew, eyes wide as the agent next to him began to reach for his gun. Neil noticed at the same time Andrew did, and he reached his hands out to grab at the man’s arm, yanking it toward himself. He hissed almost immediately after, clenching his hands to his chest and staring up at the agent with a dark anger.
“Don’t,” he said, and Andrew lost his breath.
He was across the room in two large strides, gripping at the back of Neil’s neck and forcing him to his knees. He dropped down with him, unbothered by the guards now moving toward them. If he needed to fight them all off, so be it. Even if it meant the disadvantage of being handcuffed to Wymack.
Neil looked so broken, kneeling on the floor in front of him with his hands cradled in his lap, and Andrew would have set the world on fire if it had meant keeping him safe.
He shoved his thoughts to the side, gripping Neil’s chin instead and documenting each injury, tilting his head this way and that in order to make sure that every scrape, burn, and bruise was catalogued to match Andrew’s own, mentally labeling each mark and remembering the exact time, the exact feeling, the exact amount of pain he would use when he confronted the person who did this to give them back their pain tenfold.
Andrew, though, wasn’t without his share of injury either. He saw Neil eyeing the bruise on his face, taking in his bloodshot eye and swollen cheekbone. Neil had a lime green bruise over his own eye to match.
“They could have blinded you,” Neil said, and Andrew felt a hot surge of anger flood through him, rolling through his belly and into his chest. “All that time fighting and you never learned how to duck?”
Andrew nearly sneered, the nerve of Neil’s mouth pushing him over the edge. How could he say these things, he thought, when Neil sat before him looking like this? How dare he treat Andrew as if he were the one in danger, as if it weren't him who had been kidnapped and tortured and very nearly killed.
Andrew let go of Neil to rip off his hood, exposing his bruises in an effort to remind him that Andrew’s bruise was not the problem. His fingers tightened in Neil’s sweater, unable to form the words -- but fuck, he felt them. He felt them with such a raw anger that left him scared.
Neil didn’t reply, so Andrew moved on to remove his bandages, documenting these scars the way he had done with the others. He settled for starting with the gauze on Neil’s right cheek, knowing before he saw them the way that the knife wounds had felt as they slid down his face like tear stains. The gauze on his other cheek was harder to peel off, and Andrew knew it was from the burns that he had received, the flames devouring his thoughts as they slipped beneath his skin to travel through his nerve endings until he was numb. Andrew let his hand hover above Neil’s face, tracing the outline of the scar that mirrored the orange splash across his own cheek.
Wymack and the FBI agent said something above him. He ignored it.
He used two fingers beneath Neil’s chin to guide his head in different directions, looking over his scars and bruises a final time. He could feel his blood boiling. He wanted to get his hands on his knives, and then on whoever had done this.
“I’m sorry,” Neil said suddenly, and the rage that had gathered in Andrew’s stomach snapped.
How dare he, Andrew thought. How dare he say he’s sorry as if that fixes things. As if he hadn’t just spent months lying to Andrew, his soulmate, feeding him lie after lie and half-truth after half-truth, setting him up for this, as though he were someone Neil could just run from as soon as it got dicey. As if he were the same as everything else.
How dare he tell him that he is sorry as if Andrew were the one who had been on the receiving end of a knife and a flame. How dare he tell him he is sorry as if he had any choice in the matter. Andrew could handle Neil’s second-hand pain on top of his own. He had been doing it his entire life. Andrew had always worn Neil’s scars across his own body. Not with pride, but still without shame.
What he could not handle was seeing Neil like this, and hearing him apologize to Andrew for living.
Andrew’s hand reared back, fist clenched, ready to swing.
But he didn’t.
He let his arm drop instead, too tired to move, too grateful to have Neil in one piece in front of him.
“Say it again,” he said instead, voice low and even, “and I will kill you.”
He could hear the FBI agent’s threats behind him, but he ignored him completely.
“Can I really be Neil again?”
“I told Neil to stay. Leave Nathaniel buried in Baltimore with his father.”
Andrew didn’t sleep at all, curled up next to Neil in the middle of his living room, surrounded by Foxes on all sides.
But he was okay, content to watch Neil sleep beside him, content to trace the scars on his wrists and let himself imagine - hope for - a life outside of all of this. A life for him and Neil.
He was almost happy.
“I don’t want this to end,” Neil said, his fingers tangled in Andrew’s sleeve, hope lining his words as he showed Andrew a future.
It was a future full of Neil and exy and freedom. A future laced with protection instead of fear, with the promise of splashes of color from exy balls instead of knives, with his soulmate standing beside him, any thoughts of running far from their minds.
But dreams are for children, Andrew had learned, and the thought of losing everything was nearly too much to bear.
“Everything ends,” Andrew said, attempting to remind himself not to get too close.
But he gave Neil a pair of armbands anyway, and if he felt a humming satisfaction in his chest at the sight of them on Neil’s arms, then that was his own business, wasn’t it?
Neil pounding his fist against the wall of the court had sent bolts of lightning through Andrew’s own hand.
But he defended the goal anyway, shutting out Kevin more than allowing him to score, and there was a fire inside of him that he hadn’t felt in years.
Maybe a future wasn’t something entirely out of reach.
“After everything they did to you,” Neil asked, “how can you stand me? How is this okay?”
“It isn’t a ‘this’,” Andrew said.
It was something else entirely. It was a give and a take, a truth for a truth, a red string that had been connected to the both of them since the beginning.
It was an understanding, but one that did not need to be said out loud. The words were written across their skin in colorful bursts, canvases filled with experimental spatter that would never wash away. It was knowing each other’s pain, sharing that pain, but never treating it as anything other than what it was: survival, their past, a part of them that they could not change, and something that no one else had bothered to learn.
“Andrew,” Neil called, reaching out for his sleeve. “Wait.”
“No,” Andrew said, and Neil’s hand froze, inches away from his arm.
It was an understanding.
It was a mutual respect.
It was Neil.
“That’s why,” Andrew said, and Neil did not follow him back to the Tower.
“I won’t be like them,” Neil said one night in their now-shared dorm room. “I won’t let you let me be.”
His future was in front of him, slightly disheveled, concern flashing in his eyes as he stared Andrew down.
“One hundred and one,” Andrew said, “going on one hundred and two.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” Neil said. Andrew didn’t have the energy to argue, so he kissed him instead.
Jeremy Knox’s gaze was a weight, his eyes traveling from the spatter of orange on Andrew’s cheek to the matching burn on Neil’s. It was no longer a secret, with the media jumping on the story like vultures to a carcass, but there was something about Jeremy’s stare that was narrowed and calculating.
He asked how quickly Jean could be flown to California, and Andrew thought he may know why.
Andrew put his racquet down in front of Neil and watched Riko’s breakdown with a bored stare.
His blood, though, was boiling in his veins.
“Your close calls are getting old,” Andrew said. “I thought you knew how to run.”
“I thought you told me to stop running.”
“Survival tip: no one likes a smart mouth.”
“Except you,” Neil said, smiling.
Andrew thought about scars on bodies and colors across skin. He thought about promises made and promises kept. About a runaway who decided not to run, about an angry, broken boy finding ways to mend some of his wounds. He thought about stories shared and secrets kept, about the past and about the future, about understanding and a sense of calm that he had never felt before.
He thought of late nights on the roof of Fox Tower, of feeling the scars that mirrored his own, of a future that he had never thought possible standing before him, just within arm’s reach.
He reached out, letting his fingers brush against Neil’s own.
“Except you,” Neil had said.
Except me .
I've been working on this piece for nearly a year.
I had decided to scrap it, and give up entirely. But I posted it on a whim, and was then overwhelmed by the support for this AU.
So, from the bottom of my heart:
Thank you for reading this until the end. Thank you for all of your kind words. Thank you for your support.