The freshmen Foxes arrived in the second week of July, and Kevin Day had already prepared himself to be unimpressed. He’d vetted them all, of course, and was vaguely confident in their ability to not embarrass his team once they had some significant training under their belts. All of them, that is, except Neil’s pet striker pick. Kevin had fought him bitterly about it, but Wymack had put his foot down after the fourth or fifth shouting match, and she was moving into the freshmen girls’ room down the hall today, just like all the others. Kevin briefly tried to remember her name, before deciding she was Neil’s problem.
Perhaps that was petty of him, a stubborn tendency left over from years with the Ravens that made generosity difficult. The Foxes had risen above all expectations last year, Dobson had reminded him yesterday, so improvement could happen, even where Kevin might not think it was possible. She knew Kevin would be unable to cut the new players as much slack as they might demand at first, but he shouldn’t underestimate how much the team’s bonding over the last year contributed to their championship win. Kevin wondered if Renee or even Andrew had told her about that, since Neil certainly hadn’t. Aaron said Neil never confided in Dobson. (And Aaron knew all about not confiding in Dobson.) Either way, Kevin doubted that last year’s perfect storm was going to repeat itself (in fact, it had better not, considering it almost killed them all), but it was another year at Palmetto State, and the prospect of another exy season ahead of him made his blood sing. Something was starting, and Kevin might actually make it to the end unscarred this time.
In the end, though, anyone new was just that. Green. Unexperienced. And not just in terms of exy at Palmetto either. There were whole lifetimes in the last twelve months that they simply hadn’t lived. They may have followed the scattered details of the season and Neil’s past and Kevin’s entire life that were unfortunately available to too many people, but they had no conception of anything, really. They simply weren’t there. They didn’t understand. And could never understand, as long as they lived; Kevin firmly believed that. Neil talked about family sometimes, and Matt did too. Kevin wasn’t always sure that was the word he would use, but there was an unconscious language between the Foxes as they were until today, an undercurrent flowing through their words and expressions. Things they just knew, like why Neil got skittish at gas stations or that Allison preferred to be left alone at the end of August. Strangers didn’t know.
Two of said strangers were pulling their bags out of Matt’s truck in the parking lot when Kevin pushed open the doors of Fox Tower. He was headed to the court, preferring the sounds of exy to arguments about who would get the bottom bunk heard from down a hallway. He might have been able to slip by unnoticed, but Matt waved a hello around the open door of his truck, and the freshmen stared.
Kevin had been in the spotlight a long time. He was used to being recognized, even more used to being stared at, and understood the necessity of it in the face of his personal goals. Had he been in an airport, or a supermarket, or anywhere with press, he would have raised his carefully crafted and smooth-from-use public mask over his face, smiled brightly and politely, maybe shaken a hand or two. But these were the new Foxes, not the press. They would see soon enough who lived underneath the image they’d seen on the internet and television, so Kevin allowed himself to enjoy the looks on their faces as he swept a cool gaze over the small group on the sidewalk and pointedly did not smile.
The young woman groaning under the weight of a duffel bag wrinkled her brow at that, but the other freshman’s face had not shifted from its frozen state of awe since the door had shut behind Kevin. Kevin recognized him from the picture in his file. John Roberts, 6’ 1’’, striker, Nathan Hale High School. He had been Kevin’s number one choice from Wymack’s list of potential Fox candidates last year. He was ruthless and powerful, with exceptional statistics and an aggression that probably meant there were red cards in his future. Kevin watched as his newest teammate swallowed, found his voice, and held out a hand.
“Jack Roberts,” he said. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere on the court,” Kevin told him, because it was true. Just because John-called-Jack was evidently a fan, didn’t mean he had anything close to a free ride. It would be good if he outgrew that assumption quickly, if he had it at all. Kevin took his hand anyway, though. Talent like that deserved some acknowledgment.
“Yas, qween. Way to make the new kids feel welcome,” Nicky said from somewhere behind Kevin.
College’s premiere exy player ground his teeth against a rude comeback. Couldn’t Nicky have given him one day of peace before the freshmen caught on to the embarrassing nickname? The odds were good that they wouldn’t see the series of royal-themed emojis in his contact on Nicky’s phone for at least a few weeks, which would have bought him some time. Just because he didn’t want to be treated like a pop star, didn’t mean he wanted to be blatantly mocked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kevin noticed the other new freshman sending a small smile Nicky’s way. She was significantly smaller than Jack, which probably meant she was a striker (only the Minyards got away with being tiny and deadly on defense). Neil’s striker, then. Clearly she appreciated Kevin’s nickname. He hoped her similarity to Neil with regard to attitude ended there.
“Want to give me one of those?” Nicky asked her. “Lizzy, right?”
Lizzy nodded, and handed over the duffel. Nicky faltered under the unexpected tonnage.
“What have you got in there, girl? Bricks?”
Lizzy smiled and averted her eyes, tucking a strand of straight, black hair behind her ear. She didn’t look like much, but then, neither had Neil when Kevin had first laid haughty eyes on him. But Kevin hadn’t been able to see Neil’s scars at that first glance, and Lizzy’s were on display. He could see a small blemish on her bottom lip where she’d obviously split it long ago, and it tugged at her smile a little. That in itself had nothing distinctly Fox-worthy about it, but the three small, circular burn scars on her right cheek did. Kevin thought of Neil’s, and swallowed against the sick feeling that rose in his throat. He could suddenly smell the air freshener of the hotel room in Baltimore, and felt the specter of Andrew’s fingers around his neck. Despite the oppressive heat, he shivered.
If Lizzy had other scars, she didn’t appear to be hiding them, since her shoulders showed slightly pink where her tank top exposed them to the sun, and she wore shorts. Andrew had been wearing black and long sleeves this morning, if Kevin remembered correctly. But then, Andrew was Andrew. Kevin could already predict his non-reaction to the team additions. Maybe it would be more amusing this time around.
“Kevin, you want to take this one?” Matt was pointing at a suitcase on the curb. Lizzy and Jack were following Nicky into the dorm, though Jack turned once to get another glance at Kevin, like he still couldn’t believe he was standing there. Kevin did not want to take the suitcase.
“I’m going to the court,” he replied.
“In what car, Kev?” Matt hauled another duffel out of the trunk and slammed the bed closed. “See your fellow monsters anywhere?”
Kevin didn’t. Matt would never use the term “monsters” around Neil anyway.
“Andrew went somewhere with Neil,” Matt answered his unspoken question. “They’ll be back later. Just help me move in these two and then I’ll drive you.”
At least maintenance had repaired the elevator the previous week. Kevin would not have appreciated having to haul the suitcase up three flights of stairs. He had been planning on running to the court, but that had been before he’d spent more than thirty seconds outside.
“Who does this belong to?” he asked Matt when the doors opened.
The door to the suite was open. It was odd to see a room so similar to his own without beanbag chairs. Lizzy had thrown a backpack on one of the two still-empty beds — Sheena had moved in a few hours earlier — and was unpacking the duffel Nicky had brought up. As she took a book from the bag and placed it on the shelf above her desk, Kevin glanced at the titles that were already there. He felt his eyes widen of their own accord. He recognized more than one of the books, including two that he knew were sitting on his own desk across the hall. One of his copies even held several notes in Thea’s handwriting shoved into the binding. They were good books. Plus, Lizzy hadn’t brought that much stuff, and books took up a lot of weight at baggage claim. They were important to her. Kevin looked at Lizzy again. Neil’s striker had yet to prove herself on an exy court, but her shelf had certainly gained her a fair shot.
Lizzy noticed him standing there, and muttered a thanks for bringing up the bag. Kevin nodded in response.
“Hey,” she said before he could make a clean exit. She fiddled with the folding handle on the suitcase, but she looked Kevin in the eye. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this, judging by the way you reacted to Jack’s hello, but I watched your championship game. It was incredible.” She snapped the handle down into the suitcase. “Really. I’m really excited to play for this team.”
Kevin nodded again and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Thank you,” he said earnestly, feeling more human than he had all day. “I genuinely hope you’re worthy of it.”