Neil wakes to the feeling of cotton in his mouth, every muscle in his body screaming at him from hours of abuse, and he groans as he tries to roll over on the bed.
“Thirsty,” he croaks, cracking his eyes open. Before his vision can focus, someone puts a bag to his lips. Cold water trickles in his dry mouth, and his body finally starts to relax. With that, he makes a feeble attempt to sit up, but immediately, a hand shoves him back down. Neil groans irritably as his sore back hits the bed.
“Stop it.” a voice says that is certainly not one he’s heard before. Unless he’s finally lost it, Neil is sure he’s in the med bay, typical for after fights. But the elderly woman who smelled funny wasn’t the one at his bedside this time. Instead, his eyes focus on the small but firm figure next to him, a head of blonde hair, and a scowl that makes a young man, probably Neil’s age, look much older.
“Don’t be an idiot or you’ll rip open your stitches, and I don’t have time to sew you back up again,” he says, looking altogether unimpressed with Neil’s existence. Neil instantly takes a disliking to this new med worker. Georgia was never exactly gentle and warm either, but something about this guy just screamed asshole.
“Maybe I will just to waste your time,” Neil shoots back. The medic rolls his eyes and walks away, and Neil gets just the slightest bit of satisfaction from it. Despite his medic’s wishes to sit completely still, Neil slowly rolls over to look on the left side of his bed, and winces at the sharp pain of a broken rib. He eyes his neighbor, a taller, more brute figure lying on the bed next to him.
Kevin’s face is covered in bruises and small cuts, but he looks like he’ll recover.
“Damn. I thought I’d never have to see your ugly face again. Too bad you won,” Neil says.
Kevin grunts. “I wish someone would put that scrawny ass of yours six feet under.”
“If another fighter doesn’t, my medic is gonna.”
“He at least smells better than Georgia.”
“So you’ve been smelling him?”
“Eat shit and die, Josten.”
Neil wants to laugh, but he knows his broken ribs aren’t exactly going to allow for that, so he settles for laying back and “taking it easy” as he’s told to do every time. He closes his eyes, and wonders how long it’ll be until he’s back in the ring this time.
His mind is still foggy from the sleepiness, but if he remembered correctly, he’d been paired with a shapeshifter who had underestimated Neil because of his height and invisible power. Typical of fighters like him, he went down like a pile of bricks, but not before getting a few hits in here or there. The crowd roared even as Neil struggled to stay conscious. He had won the battle, but there was no pride in it, because as long as he wins, he is still Nathaniel Wesninski to the world, and he is still The Butcher’s gladiator.
Moments later, as Neil felt himself drifting back to sleep, rough fingers tug on his hair, and he startled, eyes landing back on his medic from earlier.
“Don’t sleep,” the blond tells him. “You need to drink more water. Here.”
The medic force feeds him water, faster than Neil can drink, and some of it ends up dribbling down his chin as he coughs, moving his head away.
“You trying to drown me?” he chokes, wiping his mouth.
“How’d you get approved as a medic again, Andrew?” Kevin says from next to him. The medic Neil can now identify as Andrew gives him a smile that’s anything but genuine.
“By knowing which patients to save, and which to let die. Both of you are toeing the fucking line right now.”
“Andrew, keep that alcohol away from Day, he might make a dive for it,” a gruff voice says as David Wymack enters the med tent, looking, as he always does, irritated and far too busy for his own good. Despite this, he looks at Kevin with a sharp, knowing grin, and nods at Neil in acknowledgement. As the two most powerful gladiators in the ring at present, Kevin Day and Neil both end up in the med bay more often than they’d like to admit, and see Wymack just about every single time.
He turns to Neil. “Neil, I see you’ve met Andrew. Georgia left last week. Moved to Rome, says she’s had enough of the gladiator life.”
Neil doesn’t care about Georgia’s whereabouts in earnest, but he nods at Wymack, passing up the opportunity to comment on the way Andrew moves faster, more efficiently than the previous medic. He’s less nosy, which is a relief in itself. Whether or not Neil’s injuries will heal just as fast is the real question.
“She’s not the only one who’s had enough,” Neil replies. He doesn’t mean it as a joke, but Wymack laughs anyways, moving on to another section of the tent, where more of the mobile patients are. Wymack, along with his cohort, Abby, run the med bay with a precision and efficiency just tight enough to keep up with the gladiatorial games. While Abby, the head doctor, is more accustomed to working with physical injuries of the bones, blood, and organs, Wymack’s specialty is in the more supernatural elements. Injuries that leave magical scars, or controlling spastic powers when a patient needs to be held down to have their injuries treated. Neil has never seen Wymack’s power, but he’s willing to bet it’s fairly powerful.
“How long are they out for, Andrew?” Wymack asks, cleaning his hands. Andrew’s eyes drag from Kevin to Neil.
“Kevin can be back in by next week. Wonder Boy here has broken ribs. Two or three for him.”
“When are we up against Riko, Kevin?” Neil asks, spine prickling with a twinge of fear. He can fight with broken bones, not a doubt. But any handicap is dangerous in his line of work, especially with how his father trains. Especially considering that Kevin and Neil are due for a two-on-two battle with two other feared and powerful gladiators from the mob.
“Three weeks,” Kevin answers, and Neil breathes a sigh of relief. He’ll have to take it easy for a few days, make it look like the injury is nothing. Then, it’s back to work.
Andrew glares down at him, acknowledging the bag of ice resting on Neil’s chest.
“I’ll kill you myself if you so much as look at that ring until then,” he says. “Don’t take advantage of my mercy.”
Neil rolls his eyes and sends Kevin a look as Andrew moves on to other patients. The new medic doesn’t return again, and Neil is shuffling back to the Wesninski manor in a matter of hours, ice bag clutched closely to his broken bones.
“Lola will be your sparring partner while you recover,” his father told him. Neil throws a ball at the wall of his room, sitting in the corner as he rests from the last aching session. It took everything in Lola to hold back. He could tell, because her claws didn’t sink in his skin too deep, and when he lost, she left him alive. Bleeding, but alive. He tends his own wounds and hides away in his room. He thinks of a sport he once played, back when adrenaline and aching muscles and anticipation didn’t mean someone had to die.
Neil closes his eyes, and thinks of a time when he didn’t have to be Nathaniel. When Neil was good enough.
It had really seemed as though he and his mother had found a permanent escape from Nathan, in a little town just north of Rome. It was where they’d settled the longest, and it was plenty far away from where Neil is now. Neil took his new name, and settled in with his mother. Soon, though, he had gotten careless, playing Exy for a local team and winning them game after game. He made no friends, but the sport was really all he had cared about.
It was when he came home to a dead mother lying in a pool of blood that he knew his life was over. But even so, he gave Romero a good fight before he was eventually pinned to the ground with a knife at his throat.
“Wait,” the chilling voice of Nathan Wesninski, his father had said. “Keep him alive. I’ll decide how we dispose of him.”
It was there that Neil had died, and Nathaniel was dragged back to the Wesninski manor without a will to fight. His father had chased him around a dungeon with a knife, and Neil only lasted as long as he did due to his power.
With just his mind, Neil could summon a shielding of sorts. Discs that glowed a faint orange and floated and moved at Neil’s command. It was an untamed power, his mother had once said. But she claimed Neil could hone in on it, and learn to manipulate the discs’ shape.
The shielding had blocked many of Nathan’s knives and minimized the damage done to Neil. He was circled for what felt like hours, and the more Nathaniel blocked, the more frustrated his father became.
“You’re such a nuisance. You and your mother,” Nathan stood above him and snarled. He seemed to think for a moment, a dozen knives floating around him, pointed at his son. “But maybe it could be profitable, keeping you alive, since you seem so desperate to stay that way.”
From there, Neil was assigned to be a fighter on behalf of the Wesninski clan, a great group that controlled half of the city under their own set of laws. The Butcher’s son entering the gladiatorial world was incredible news, and gained his father incredible amounts of money, much to the Moriyama’s dismay.
From that day forward, Neil lived in constant fear. His victories determined his survival within his own house, but they also meant a constant threat outside the Wesninski manor, where the Moriyamas became greatly inconvenienced by Neil’s life. That being said, Neil can’t call his own reality living. He’s a pawn, through and through, and the minute he becomes anything less than a champion, he’ll be disposed of. That’s the simple truth.
A boy just a couple years younger than Neil breathes heavily just a few feet away, as they both take a moment to collect themselves. It’s hard though, especially in front of thousands of screaming people. They’re all excited about the first round of the tournament, and with Neil’s injuries just about healed, he shares their rampant energy. The ring is already scarred with burn marks. Both their energetic attacks must be deflected somewhere.
They both take another breath, before the boy tries again, hurtling towards Neil with a look he can only recognize as one shaped by a mentor, a parent, someone who raised this boy to kill and then promptly be disposed of. He screams as orbs of light rocket from his bare, scarred hands, flying towards Neil at alarming speeds.
Neil responds by throwing out his hands, and bright orange discs of light fly out and block the projectiles in their path. He dodges as the boy dives at him, recognizing that for his shields, which are mostly defensive measures, he needs distance, at least for a little bit. Then he’ll stop holding back.
The boy keeps screaming, swiping light projectiles at Neil wildly, desperately. He’s dangerous, yes, but his uncoordinated shots will be his downfall.
Finally, Neil backtracks, putting yards between them, as the boy prepares for another round of projectiles. A breath later, he fires off eight, all of which are aimed for Neil’s head. If he lets one of them hit, he’s in for an electric shock. That’s why a shot to the head or heart is to be avoided.
Neil clears his mind and takes the projectiles one by one. As each grows closer, his shielding appears and dissipates. With each projectile dissolved, Neil takes another step towards the boy, who stands his ground with ferocity. He keeps firing off balls of light, and Neil blocks them over and over, making himself look bigger as he takes large strides- not fast enough to be running, but confidently enough that he sees uncertainty flash over the boy’s face. More light missiles are fired at Neil, and all are blocked. As each projectile hits his discs, he begins generating more, firing them off just within the boy’s line of vision. It’s distracting enough that it allows Neil to get some extra distance.
Neil is just feet away when the boy glares at him, screams, and holds out his hand, where an especially large missile charges. Neil copies his movement and puts his own hand out, conjuring a disc. This one can’t be destroyed by the boy’s projectile. In fact—
The missile hurtles towards Neil, hits the shield, and immediately ricochets. The boy doesn’t even have time to react as his own missile hits him square in the stomach. The crowd is almost silent as he collapses on the ground in front of Neil, twitching from the shock. A moment passes as hundreds wait for the boy to get up, to respond. Neil counts to ten.
Then the crowd goes wild.
“The Wesninski Fox takes the victory!”
Neil turns away from the boy as medics rush the field and take him off. If he’d calculated correctly, the boy will live. As for the effects to a magnificent shock to his gut, he’d probably be out of the ring long enough for him to find something else to do. Good. If Neil could help not killing people like he’s permitted to do in tournaments, he’ll do it every time. If for nothing else, just to spite his father. Nathan Wesninski couldn’t argue that Neil isn’t a champion if he wins the match without murdering a child.
By the end of the day, Neil has won all of his matches without taking a single life; he counts himself lucky, there were some battles where he had no choice, and the faces of the three lives he’s taken still haunt him. He couldn’t get away from his last match without a few openings in his thighs and arms, and is helped to the med bay and sat down on a bed.
“Well, well, look who’s back and trying to kill himself again.”
Neil looks up to see an unkind smile and a head of pale blond hair. There’s blood smattered on his tunic, presumably from a lost battle with someone’s life, yet he seems relatively undisturbed by it.
“In case you haven’t noticed, this is my job,” Neil takes off his leather gloves and shoves them in his bag. Andrew reaches into a pouch and pulls out fresh cloth and other items, presumably to treat the rather deep wound that’s starting to numb Neil’s thigh.
“Whatever. Get rid of the armor,” Andrew gestures to Neil’s measly chest plate. Neil unbuckles it with ease, exhaling as the weight of battle is quite literally off his shoulders.
“Now the shirt,” Andrew says. Neil bristles. Despite being able to feel the blood seeping through his shirt and dripping down his arms, he remembers how Georgia would pull the curtain between them and the rest of the med tent. It wasn’t much, but it hid the battles Neil lost outside of the ring from the rest of the world. Andrew must have sensed him hesitate. In an instant, he reaches up and snatches the curtain, pulling it around the cot in one smooth motion. Neil stares at him for a moment, wanting to say something, but not knowing exactly what.
“I know what you are, Butcher’s son,” Andrew answers for him.
Neil gulps and goes to remove his shirt, stopping stiffly as pain shoots up his arm. The gash won’t allow him to move any further. Andrew sighs loudly, reaches over, and helps yank the rest of the shirt off of Neil’s head.
If Andrew can hear Neil’s pounding heart and racing mind, he makes no show of it. There are scars littering Neil’s body, this is no mystery. The Butcher is not a kind man, this is no mystery either. But some scars are too large, too obvious, too easily written off as a weak spot. It would be hard for anyone not to stare.
“Right arm,” Andrew commands, and Neil obediently puts out his arm. He clutches the sheets of the cot as Andrew makes quick work of the knife wound, cleaning and stitching it up quickly, before wrapping it in cloth. He moves on to more shallow wounds, cleaning and patching them accordingly, until Neil’s arms are properly cleaned and treated.
“Trousers,” Andrew says, pointing at the short trousers Neil wore that hid a deep gash in his leg. Neil hesitated again, prompting Andrew to speak again, irritably. “Well?”
“Nothing,” Neil says, and removes his breeches. He’s now stripped down to his undergarments, almost completely exposed to a man he is forced to trust.
Andrew goes to treat the gash on Neil’s thigh without hesitation. He’s seen all the scarring, there’s no way he didn’t, but he says nothing, implied nothing, simply works on the task at hand unflinchingly. Neil can’t relax his muscles, the discomfort evident as he allows Andrew to see him for what he is.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Andrew cuts through Neil’s thinking like a knife, giving him a humorless smile. “This is my job.”
Neil scowls at his own words being used against him, but makes no comeback as the man works, frowning intently.
“This one is deep. You’ll need this leg tomorrow,” he says under his breath. Neil smiles for just a moment.
“Yes, so cancel your plans of amputating it.”
Andrew glares at him, needle in hand. “Don’t tempt me, smartass.”
Before Neil can say anything else, Andrew moves his hands right by the opening, making Neil flinch. But as he thinks to move away, a gentle coolness begins to radiate from Andrew’s hands. Neil watches in awe as they give off just the slightest glow, and slowly, as if stitches could be made from skin, he feels a tug in his leg as the wound closes on its own.
When Andrew takes his hands off Neil’s leg, he takes a cloth and wipes away the rest of the blood. Neil’s heart is in his throat as he searches for a sign that there was even a cut in the first place, but not a trace remains on his leg. No gash, no scab, no scar. He just… put Neil back together.
A “thank you” is an order. A “how did you do that?” is heavily implied. Instead, what comes out of Neil’s mouth is: “Why didn’t you do that last time?”
Andrew yawns, picks up Neil’s clothing on the cot, and unnecessarily throws them at Neil. “Put those back on.” He promptly walks out of the curtained space, leaving Neil alone.
Some powers are more spectacular than others. Take Riko Moriyama for example. Forcing others to face their past is nothing to sniff at, especially when dealing with a man like him. In the line of gladiatorial battle, every fighter had their own set of ghosts— people they’ve lost, people they’ve watched die, and people they’ve killed. Riko makes his opponents come face to face with their own ghosts, the mental fortitude going hand in hand with his own brutal physical abilities. That raw power alone is enough to scare the masses. Neil, with his defensive force fields, has his own wit to depend on as well, adjusting his power to his liking.
Riko’s own right hand man is a force to be reckoned with. A quiet man that hides a raging storm in his psyche fits perfectly with powers such as his own: The ability to summon and manipulate a wrathful thunderstorm at will. He inflicts damage recklessly and severely, perhaps the most disastrous form of a cry for help. It isn’t easy being in the path of his storm. Even more difficult, being such a man who possesses a power desirable enough to be sold in exchange for a petty debt.
Then there are other powers. A girl just outside the arena can go without one ingredient and still make the perfect loaf of bread. An older woman with a good heart convinces others to open up to her by her personal charm. It’s helpful that when they were around her, they smelled whatever they found most desirable. A young, but skilled medic works outside an area where he stitches heroes and warriors and villains back together, relying on his power only when absolutely necessary. He isn’t one to play god, so even the most diabolical individuals are healed by his hand. If a bone is shattered, organ or skin tissue was torn, or anything of that kind, he can regenerate what was lost, according to the energy he put out. And just so, he can reverse the healing done by his hand if he chooses. Intra bodily manipulation is a powerful thing, yes, but a very quiet thing, and Andrew goes most days without most the world knowing it’s even there. Though he works as a medic, he chooses only to use his powers when it seems absolutely necessary. Given the consequences of his worst ghosts knowing what he is, he prefers it that way.
Dust flies in the empty ring as two figures seem to dance around each other, alike in intentions, but not so much in personality. Pale hair swings around the carefully neutral face of a young woman, the closest thing to an ally her opponent possesses.
“You’re talking about the medic, right?” Renee asks Neil as he narrowly dodges her leg flying at his face, which would definitely be a painful kick if his reaction time wasn’t so quick.
“Yeah. You know Andrew?” he says, the medic’s name tasting weird on his tongue. He talks of the medic as though they’re friends, when really they’ve only had a few conversations, most lacking any real friendliness. Renee nods as Neil throws a few punches, missing every time. He has to give her credit where it’s due. Her reaction time bests his.
“He’s had to use his power on me as well, and sometimes I volunteer at the medical tent. He’s quite an excellent teacher. Much more efficient than Georgia.”
Neil stumbles as Renee lands a hid on his chest, struggling to find his balance as he looks at Renee, who isn’t necessarily a friend either, but rather a confidante he trusts not to spill everything he says. She’s just his sparring partner, one he didn’t even pick. For what little he knew about Renee, she had never rubbed off on Neil as the type to get anywhere near Andrew, much less praise him.
“You’re confused, aren’t you?” she says with a smile, blocking his hits with her arms. “That doesn’t surprise me. But I’ve found Andrew and I see eye to eye with our powers.”
Now that he thinks about it, her being able to understand Andrew comes as less of a surprise. “Both invisible?”
“Well, yes. But invisible because we only choose to bring them out when we find it is truly needed.”
Neil gulps, switching back to defense as she takes a few swipes at him. Renee’s power is unique, but more importantly, it’s hidden away. Empathy isn’t something Neil is an expert in, but Renee has enough to consider it a power. So much so, that when Neil finally figured it out, he was frightened of her. She caught onto that. After a few sparring sessions, however, it became clear that she wasn’t an agent of his father. In fact, she had told him, Nathan himself doesn’t even know that she possesses powers. It was then that Neil figured out that hiding from Renee was useless, and thus, there they were.
Renee successfully lands a kick and sends him spiralling towards the ground. She smiles and helps him up.
“You were thinking too much again. Something on your mind?”
“Just thinking about the tournament. I guess I shouldn’t rely on the medic’s power for that.”
“No. I think you’re too skilled for that. If you’re looking for an excuse to see him, though, I bet you could convince him to play Exy with you.”
Neil stops. “I never said—”
“I know,” she helps him stand. “Let’s go again. Try bending the shields like we practiced yesterday.”
She comes for him once more, physical prowess as powerful as ever, and Neil summons several force fields in front of him.
Technically, their sparring is meant to solely increase Neil’s skills in hand to hand combat. But Renee knows that Neil wants to be practiced in something that comes to him naturally as well. As of late, the two have been testing his abilities to create forcefields that weren’t just in the shape of discuses, but other forms as well. It takes more focus, Neil discovers, something he can’t exactly put much energy into during the heat of battle, but as they practice, he’s able to come closer to being able to do so. The end goal is for Neil to create armor-like shielding when it matters most. That, above all, will be the most challenging.
“Try a bowl shape,” she tells him, dodging his blows. She reels back for another kick, and Neil thrusts his hands out, doing his best to picture a large, curved disc.
Renee’s leg makes contact with the discs and stops short as she tumbles to the ground. They both stop for a moment to stare at the shape Neil has created. The divet is shallow, but he’s managed to do as Renee asked, the curved shape flickering before disappearing altogether.
“Good,” she tells him. “Now let’s do that again, but faster.”
Neil takes a moment to catch his breath, before his eyes meet hers. They’re calm, but there’s a certain fire, a smoldering pride behind her eyes that he can just barely pick up on.
The Wesninski manor is almost impenetrable from the inside out. Between the infrastructure and the dozens of armed guards surrounding it, Nathan’s riches are given the utmost protection, effectively making the place Neil’s personal prison. Fortunately for him, after a year of living there, Neil is able to calculate the perfect window of time in which he would be guaranteed no disturbance by his father, and able to escape the watchful eye of the guards. The one pitfall is, it’s the night where his father insists most he never leave, and Neil isn’t eager to find out the consequences of getting caught.
So, it’s when he hears the laughing voices of several guards on break from another room that Neil slips out a first story window. Cloak covering his body, he escapes into the night, heading anywhere but the manor. He should be terrified, but the yearning he feels for some time off overrides that.
The town square is always hectic on Saturday nights like these. Sales for food and clothing go through the roof as stands line the streets and lanterns glow warm and bright. There’s music and dancing and lots of people, none of which Neil particularly cares for. He makes a beeline for the pond just behind the road. This is where just a few men and women, young and old, gather every few weeks to play Exy. Exy is a sport considered a few steps down from gladiatorial combat. Less violence, less rage, and more strategy. There’s an end goal. There’s a score. There’s no isolation with a team, however small, at his side.
Relievingly, despite his status, no one recognizes him as the Wesninski Fox, and if they do, they make no mention of it. For the time being, his identity is safe. The only person there who really knows who he is is of course, Kevin Day.
For as much as they’re rivals in the arena, Kevin and Neil have become regular teammates in their Exy games, a powerful and unified force that guarantees their team many wins. There’s a silent understanding from each end. Neil has a begrudging respect for Kevin for escaping the Ravens and making an identity for himself. Kevin understands how Neil defies his father simply by existing, and by allowing others to exist in his inner circles. Both men are considered property of an organization they wish to have no part of, and both find great comfort in a violent sport played Saturday nights in the dirt and mud by a pond.
By the time Neil elbows his way through the crowd and slips through the alleyway between booths, reaching the pond, he finds that the usual mix of players is absent from their playing grounds, save two familiar figures.
Kevin turns to him, unimpressed. “Neil. Last to arrive, as always.”
“Where is everyone?” Neil wonders. “Did they—” he stops talking as he gains sight of the other person, staggeringly shorter than Kevin, tired eyes, but a solid frame.
“Andrew?” Neil says.
“Good to know you remember my name,” Andrew replies in place of a greeting. Neil gives Kevin a questioning look.
“We couldn’t get enough players tonight. I brought Andrew, because for once he actually agreed to man the goal. Of course tonight would be the night he comes.”
“You can play Exy?” Neil asks Andrew, a certain excitement reserved just for the sport running through him suddenly.
“Only when he’s in a very specific mood, and I force him to,” Kevin scoffs. Andrew shrugs, Neil’s question answered for him. Kevin continues. “But if people decide that this isn’t important and waste my time, I’m going home.”
“Good riddance,” Andrew calls after Kevin, as the now grouchy man stalks off into the night, leaving the two alone.
“Looks like you were dragged out here for nothing,” Neil tells Andrew, who yawns.
“Wouldn’t be any different if there were actually a game. Half of Kevin’s bribe involved sweet rolls, and he couldn’t even provide that.”
That sounds like Kevin , Neil thinks, as he realizes something. He looks at Andrew, not quite sure whether or not he wants to entertain the healer. But then again, he does like Exy. “I know where to get sweet rolls.”
“Follow me,” Neil says, ignoring Andrew’s snark and making his way back towards the busy street. Neil sneaks around the booths, being careful to avoid the large crowds, as they were no help with his anxiety from being out and about in the first place. He looks back every now and then, surprised each time to find Andrew still following him.
Finally, they find a booth near the outskirts of the festival, where a young but bright-eyed girl sits, surrounded by breads of all shapes and sizes.
“One bag of sweet rolls, please,” he tells the girl, taking a bag in exchange for the small pile of coins Neil keeps in his pocket. He smiles at Andrew triumphantly, who remains silent, and gestures for him to keep following. Neil leads him away from the crowd to a ledge that overlooks the pond nearby. It’s quieter out here as the two sit, their legs dangling below them.
“Happy?” Neil asks, reaching into the bag and handing Andrew a sweet roll.
“We’ll see,” Andrew remarks, taking it and biting into the roll with what Neil would call satisfaction.
“You never mentioned playing Exy,” Neil takes out one of his own, and starts eating, savoring the sweet bread dissolving in his mouth.
“Sorry I didn’t think it was relevant while you were bleeding out in the med tent,” Andrew says.
“Stop avoiding the topic. Just how long have you played?”
“Ugh. Five years, I think. Does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” Neil says. “You should play with us. When everyone shows up, that
is.” Maybe then Neil will get to know this guy a little better.
“Pretty sure you and I both have bigger things to worry about than a game of stickball. Aren’t you and Kevin up against the Ravens next weekend? Focus on that.”
“Yeah, but that’s all I’ll be thinking about until it actually happens, cut me some slack.”
“Sure, just like Riko is going to.”
“Riko’s an egotistical maniac with delusions of grandeur. I’ll have no problem bringing him down a few pegs.”
Andrew raises his eyebrows. “Disturbing confidence coming from someone who’s deciding the outcome of a mob war.”
Neil bristles, his good mood spoiling just a bit by the abrasiveness of Andrew’s observation. Truthfully, the idea of seeing Riko in the ring is an uncomfortable twist in his stomach he’d been pushing down while trying to recover from his injuries. Whoever wins their battle is set to go on and fight for the championship. The stakes couldn’t be higher, not with Palmetto’s territory split two ways— half under the control of the Wesninski clan, and half under the Moriyamas. The laws of Palmetto are suggestions, a first draft that both mobs edit to their own liking. A win in the arena means more influence, more say over the land.
“Don’t mistake what I have. I only have the illusion of control.”
“It’s only an illusion if you make it one,” Andrew shoots back, not breaking eye contact. Neil stares at him for a moment longer before decisively tearing off another piece of sweet bread, despite his now-lost appetite. “You’ll have to plan well for this one. Kevin will be down for the count immediately. With their relationship, Riko is free to do absolute collateral damage.”
Neil blinks, surprised. “You know about their relationship?”
Andrew nods. “I was training to work with Wymack when Kevin first left the Ravens. He insisted I didn’t heal his hand, the arrogant bastard. Kevin owes me at least thirty favors, so I’ve kept him around.”
"You could just call him your friend,” Neil scoffs.
“That would imply that Kevin has any charisma whatsoever.”
“True enough,” Neil almost laughs. “Kevin isn’t ready to face Riko, but I don’t think anyone ever is. We’re gonna do our best to focus mostly on Jean.”
“In terms of brute force, he carries that partnership. Don’t let his lightning hit you. I don’t want to deal with that kind of inconvenience when the match is done.”
“So you do have a power,” Neil decisively changes the topic. “What is it, just health regeneration?”
“Depends on what I feel like.”
He grunts. “Inter bodily manipulation. The extent of it depends on how much energy I put in.”
“So if Riko for some reason wins, and chooses to leave me just barely alive…”
“Healing your ass would require one hell of a nap afterwards.”
“Right then,” Neil gives him a smile. “I’ll do my best not to lose.”
“Yippee,” Andrew deadpans.
“How did you get here anyways? Working at the med tent,” Neil finds himself curious.
“Wymack asked me to work there.”
“And before that? Where were you?”
Andrew stands suddenly, snatching a handful of sweet buns. “You ask a lot of questions.”
Neil shrugs. “I like to be in the know.”
Andrew scoffs and stalks off, his dark cloak blending into the dark forest as he leaves Neil alone, sitting on the ledge with the taste of bread on his tongue. He makes a note to find out more about Andrew, but figures he’ll have to offer up some of himself in return. For the short time he’s known him, Neil finds himself fascinated the medic. A man like himself, blunt and unforgiving, doesn’t look the type to be saving lives, or to be volunteering to hang around Neil. But in his line of work, there were always opportunities to run into the medic again. Maybe next time Neil will grill him more about his Exy experience...
The two weeks fly by as Neil trains himself until he’s ragged, and then spends hours more sleeping, desperate to both keep his body in shape and heal the injuries doled out to him from the beginning of the tournament.
Kevin is by his side for a good part of it, and the two spend their days training and passing the evenings discussing strategies against their greatest adversaries.
“That’s not going to work. Riko knows that a lot of contact means I get charged up, so chances are, he’ll do anything to steer clear from me,” Kevin argues with Neil as they sit outside the Wesninski manor in a garden that feels disturbingly peaceful considering its owner.
“Can you take kinetic energy from my shields? They’ll be taking the brunt force of really any physical blows,” Neil suggests.
“I can only absorb and redistribute kinetic energy that’s made contact with me. So if your shields block out all the force applied to it, there’s really no use.”
Neil thinks for a while. “There’s gotta be some way to use your power.”
“I guarantee, if you think of one, so has Riko.”
He glares at Kevin. “So would you rather just sit the battle out, then? Use your head, dumbass.”
That shuts Kevin up as he rests his chin in his hand and thinks, the tranquility of the garden having no effect on the two worn gladiators.
Days later, they stand in a little room, strapping on what little armor they’re allowed, and Kevin looks at Neil, bare fear in his eyes.
“You’re sure this will work,” Kevin says. Neil straps on his chest plate.
“Nope. But winning this might be the only way you can actually put a dent in Riko’s ego, and hopefully his skull too. Ready?”
Neil does his best to stare Kevin down. “Kevin. You don’t belong to Riko anymore. He can’t hurt you if you don’t let him. Don’t blow this because of what happened when you were a Raven. We’re gonna win.”
Kevin sighs, but follows Neil out to the ring.
Structurally speaking, it’s no different than any other battle. Neil and Kevin are escorted to the center of the ring, with Jean and Riko are approaching from the other side.
They meet in the middle, where the rules of a two-on-two match are explained by referees for clarification, but Neil tunes them out easily as he looks Riko and Jean up and down with confidence he knows Kevin is still trying to scrape together.
He looks at Jean and sees a scared boy, one who was dragged into the gladiatorial lifestyle without any say, all because of the great power he was born with. Physically, he is the more difficult opponent, but Neil can see the walls around his heart crumbling the longer the Moriyamas torment him.
He looks at Riko, a snake’s smile on his face, and sees nothing.
“Take a look at the sky,” Jean tells him, and Neil tenses up as reality becomes apparent to him, and he sees that the referees have stepped back. “You won’t be seeing it again.”
The crowd’s roar is almost deafening, but before Neil or Kevin can move, Jean’s body seizes up, and the light that shines down on them from the sun is slowly obscured by shadow.
The clouds are low enough so that a good majority of the crowd shouldn’t be able to see them, and Neil understands Jean and Riko’s tactics instantly. There’s to be no distractions. Despite hogging the spotlight for as much time as he can, Riko enjoys the quiet, and being one of the only sources of sensation for his opponents.
Neil’s eyes narrow as he braces himself, eyes flickering to Kevin next to him, who is no doubt doing the same. He hears Andrew’s voice say in his head: Kevin will be down for the count immediately. With their relationship, Riko is free to do absolute collateral damage.
Neil gulps. With Kevin’s power so dependent on physical attacks, he really is placed at a complete disadvantage.
“Let’s end this quickly,” Riko says, and before Neil can blink, there’s an absolute downpour. As their plan intended, the sound from the crowd is muffled by rain, and Neil’s view of the crowd is obstructed as well. He sees the now soaked figure of Riko, poised in such a relaxed manner, one could swear he was simply sitting down for dinner instead of fighting for his life. Jean, meanwhile, stands behind Riko, visibly tense as he keeps the storm raging.
Neil looks at Kevin. “Let’s not even give him a chance to pull his bullshit.”
Kevin nods, and Neil takes that as their signal to go, flinging his arms out. The dark storm is illuminated by half a dozen force fields, lined up like stacked plates between Kevin and Riko. Neil and Riko both move immediately, sprinting across the ring, kicking up water in their wake. With every side step that Riko pulls, Neil throws another disc, careful to keep Kevin out of Riko’s line of vision. One look and Riko will dig up every ghost of Kevin’s past. Above them, the thunder rumbles.
Neil makes another force field and shapes it in his mind like he’d practiced. He runs forward and grabs it, quietly proud of his makeshift shield. Riko’s eyes flash towards him, but Neil makes quick work to close the distance between them, slamming into Riko with full force. Riko lands on his back but rolls to his feet quickly, already visibly disheveled. Neil wastes no time and runs in again, armed just with his body. He takes a couple of swings at Riko, who dodges effortlessly and throws some punches of his own.
“Is being a distraction the only thing you’re good at, Nathaniel?” Riko taunts through gritted teeth as his knuckles collide with Neil’s face. As his cheek throbs from a bruise that has yet to form, Neil uses the ground like a springboard, putting as much weight into his feet as possible.
“Not quite,” he says, pushing himself off the ground and throwing his full body weight into the unsuspecting form of Riko Moriyama.
The collision is enough that Neil knows he’s fucked up his shoulder nicely as bones collide, but it’s all worth it when that second weight hits, the body that Riko’s needs to hit for Kevin and Neil’s strategy to work.
The three bodies roll to the ground and Neil braces himself for what’s coming. As they all stumble to their feet, Kevin gives Riko no time to brace himself as he rams his shoulder into him, the force from their fall packed into the collision. There’s an unfortunate crack on Riko’s end as the man stumbles back, and Neil dives in to score a few hits of his own. Just as he makes his way for Riko, however, the ground trembles as a deafening roar of thunder rolls over the three of them, and Neil looks over at Jean, who’s focusing all his power into the storm that swirls around them. Lightning crackles recklessly, causing both Kevin and Neil to jump, heads turning this way and that to make sure that none of the bolts come too close.
Neil snaps back into focus as he realizes what Jean has done. “Kevin!”
But it’s too late, as he looks over and sees Kevin on his knees, eyes wide and unfocused, a sucker along with Neil to Jean’s distraction. Riko stands over him with an impassive expression,. The rain beats down on them both.
“N-no. I didn’t mean to—” Kevin sputters. Neil doesn’t hesitate to generate a shield and thrust it at Riko, butting him in the head. As he reels back, he and Kevin both blink for a moment, before Riko turns on Neil, blood running out of his nostrils.
There’s a brief flash in Riko’s eyes, and a crazed, triumphant expression as a chill runs down Neil’s spine. He had spent weeks knowing it was coming, but nothing about Riko’s power put Neil at an advantage, and quite frankly, he doesn’t know how many corpses he’ll see before he breaks.
Neil dares to stop staring at him and around for whatever ghosts he’s summoned, and his shoulders tense when he spots none. What kind of trick is this supposed to be?
But as he looks back at Riko, the confusion is reflected in his enemy’s eyes, and Neil overrides the need for answers as he takes advantage of his confused state and lunges.
Riko parries Neil’s punches, the lightning and fury reflecting in his eyes as he wrestles for control.
“You,” he snarls. “You’ve been a thorn in my side ever since Daddy found you half dead a year ago. Where is that Boyd kid? The pretty girl you threw onto the ground and cracked her skull open? They should be here! Have you been cheating, Nathaniel?”
The lightning flashes around them with reckless abandon, and the chances that one of them is struck goes up.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Neil shouts over the rain, running in to try and fight, but Riko dodges effortlessly. Behind Riko, Neil sees Kevin shakily struggling to his feet, saying something Neil can’t make out over the rain to ghosts he cannot see. At the very least, he’s on his feet.
“Ichirou was wrong about you, you’re not a formidable opponent, you’re just a coward,” Riko spits. “I’m done holding back because of him.”
Neil opens his mouth to speak, but before he can, Riko sidesteps, and Neil’s heart stops in his chest at the sight of his mother, covered in rain, manic, and infuriated.
“What are you doing here, Nathaniel?!” she wails, and Neil turns away. She’s just a ghost, he knows she is, but in the moment, reacting to the rain, she looks so real, and Neil can barely stand it. But as he turns a different direction, she appears in front of him again, eyes wide with fright.
“How can you be so stupid?! I let you out of my sight for two seconds and he finds you!”
“Mom, I—” he starts, before something heavy and brutal slams into the side of his head. The ground acts as a harsh landing pad as a searing pain runs through his temple. Neil puts his arm up to block the blows raining down on him. He knows he’s developing a nosebleed, and will probably look pretty bruised when this is done. When he tries to look up his vision is double, and both Riko and his mother are landing hit after hit on his soaked and tired body.
“I’ve let you live too long,” Riko says, at the same time his mother wails, “I worked so hard to keep you alive!”
Something inside Neil opens up, and Riko’s fist slams down hard onto a glowing discus, the latter swearing loudly as Neil storms to his feet, pushing him back. All that stands between him and Riko is the ghost of his mother.
“Don’t do this,” she glowers. “Run while you can, Nathaniel, stop being a puppet for the man who was my worst regret.”
Something in the back of Neil’s mind tightens at the suggestion that he had been a byproduct of that regret, but he shoves it down and takes a deep breath.
When he’s calm, when he’s focused, through the wind and rain and thunder he can see right through her ghost, and into the eyes of Riko Moriyama. He smells desperate, taken aback, perhaps, and Neil has to use that as his downfall.
Neil ducks his head and throws himself forward, one foot in front of the other, at his opponent. He feels himself pass through her, and it’s like a warm breath of air. Neil brings his head up to meet Riko’s eyes as he runs forth, rid of the hallucination Riko had forced on him.
There was nothing left to convince Neil that that had been his mother. She had never felt that warm to him.
Riko is there to meet him as Neil makes another attempt to fight Riko, furious and mouth agape, hand-to-hand. Neil doesn’t give him the time to get in another word, producing discus after tiny, holographic discus left and right to further distract Riko.
Finally, Riko slams his body into Neil, knocking them both off balance. Riko is a flurry of reckless and desperate blows. Blunt punches and hits are mixed in with swipes to the face, and nails scratch at Neil’s already scarred skin.
“What the fuck did you do, Josten?” he demands. “You can’t just drown me out!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Neil sees Kevin brawling with Jean, who’s now struggling to keep control of the storm. Neil drops down and kicks his leg out, sweeping Riko’s feet out from under him. Neil doesn’t hesitate to lunge forward and grab Riko by his throat, towering over his kneeling adversary. Slowly, over their heads, a glowing barrier forms a perfect shield from the rain, encircling them both, so that the only thing Riko can hear is Neil.
“My mother is dead,” Neil says. “There’s no cure for that.”
As he says that, the ground beneath them shakes for just a moment, and in the corner of Neil’s eye, he sees a figure drop to the ground. The rain that pounds against Neil’s barrier lightens, and in Riko’s hateful face, he sees light from outside the storm.
“Yield,” Neil says.
“That’s not an option I was given,” Riko spits. Quick as lightning, he reaches into his vest, and Neil doesn’t have time to react when a glint of metal flashes, and his side stings with pain. Neil shoves himself off Riko and swears, clutching his bleeding side as Riko exposes two knives and crazed eyes.
The knives fly just as the sound of hundreds of spectators reaches Neil’s ears, and his hand flies up reflexively.
A moment later, a breath later, Neil realizes that sound still reaches his ears. The sound of hundreds shouting, and two metal knives clanging on the ground. He cracks open his eyes and sees nothing but orange light, wrapped around his arms, legs, face, chest, his entire body. Riko kneels before him, and as Neil stands speechless, faceless men come running out to investigate the clear sight of Riko’s trick. There’s yelling and confusion, but Neil only looks wordlessly to Kevin, who gives him a short nod. Riko has been exposed for cheating, for bringing unauthorized weapons to the field. Neil blocked. Neil is alive.
“The Raven King and Moreau have been disqualified on accounts of cheating!” the announcer’s voice booms. “Queen and The Wesninski Fox take the victory!”
Jean and Riko are taken off the field. Riko is furious, ashamed, guilty of a last-ditch plan to kill Neil and bring home the win for the Moriyamas. Neil gulps as he watches Jean, carefully expressionless, uncontrollably empty. Jean did not cheat. Jean will still suffer the consequences.
There’s cheering, and someone lifts Neil’s arm. Kevin, hollow-eyed, but satisfied, gives him a curt nod, and the ghost of a smile. The championship battle is his for the taking, and Neil returns the smile.
“You were better on the offensive this time,” Kevin tells him as they walk out of the ring, the closest thing to praise Neil is going to get from him.
“You didn’t puke when you looked at Riko. Good job.” That was the closest thing to praise Neil is going to give back, turning to make his way towards his father’s men.
“Aren’t you going to the med tent? Some of those could use looking at,” Kevin calls after him, and there’s a moment where Andrew’s face, calm with focus, flashes in Neil’s mind.
“Jean and Riko will be in there. I don’t really feel like starting a mob war today, so I’ll clean my own wounds.”
“Fair enough. See you around, Josten.”
Neil isn’t offered any congratulations by his father’s men, who wait for him by the sidelines, and go to escort him down the large corridors. Neil greets the men with about as much spite as he can offer, and they lead him to the same room he was given to put his armor on. But as one of the men goes to follow Neil in, the phantom feeling of sturdy hands wrapping bandages around his chest comes back, and Neil swallows heavily. He’s been spoiled.
“I can take care of myself,” Neil tells the man as he hovers in the doorway. When he waits outside the doorway with the other clan member, a spike of irritation goes through Neil, and he opens the curtain to face them.
“That means I can make my way back to the manor just fine, understand?” he says.
“Boss says we’re your escorts for the night. Says the Moriyamas won’t like that you won. We’re doing this for your protection,” one of them replies.
“I can clearly hold my own. It’s kind of my job,” Neil argues. “I’ll stand here all day and night if I have to. Leave.”
There’s a moment of hesitation, a glance exchanged between two men whose faces Neil has seen over and over again for a year now but never really bothered to commit to memory. He’s sure that they know just as well as he does that the brief journey from the coliseum to the manor will be a short and populated one. All eyes will be and have been on him. If he disappeared, it would be noticable.
Reluctantly, they leave, and Neil treats himself to a moment of quiet, sitting on the sole cot in the mostly barren room and hanging his head.
His whole body is sore. He can feel himself bleeding in more places than one, but thanks his lucky stars there’s probably nothing serious. There should’ve been, all things considered.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting there, really, until the sound of the curtain being yanked open calls him back to awareness, and his surprise is heightened when he sees Andrew in the doorway.
“How’d you find me?” Neil asks.
“Odd of you to try and hide your own injuries after Riko almost killed you,” Andrew says, providing no answer.
Neil lets Andrew pull the armor off of him, sitting almost limp as the other man examines him with a stare that feels like nothing. Sweet, tranquil nothing.
Andrew doesn’t heal him, not this time, but hands Neil a cloth to clean his wounds with, bandages to dress the cut on his side.
“Will he live?” Neil asks, wrapping the bandaging around his chest.
“Knowing the Moriyamas, not likely,” Andrew answers. “If they took Riko’s cheating as badly as I think they did, Jean and Riko will be dead by sundown”
“But until then?”
“He’ll be fine.”
Neil thinks for a moment. “I still killed him, in an indirect way.”
“You’re right. Maybe you should have thought about that before becoming a gladiator.”
“What about you? You’re healing him even though you know he’ll be dead later,” Neil challenges. “He’d probably be better off dying of battle injuries than at the hands of the Moriyamas.”
Andrew glares at Neil. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Whatever you say,” Neil tries for a smile. He gets the feeling it comes off more as a grimace, but he’ll take anything to scrub away the memory of his mother’s face. He talks to Andrew about the final battle some more, his opponent, Seth Gordon, and anything else that seems remotely of importance, though he doesn’t know why Andrew would care.
“My father killed my mother,” Neil tells Andrew as he cleans the blood off his temple. Andrew looks up curiously. “You told me that I ask a lot of questions. So I figured I’d offer up answers of my own.”
“Your father kills a lot of people. It’s not exactly a secret.”
“I can give you a secret, if you want.”
“Stop turning this into a game.”
“I’m not. My full name is Nathaniel Abram Wesninski. I go by Neil because it’s the last identity I faked. It was the most real one.”
Andrew doesn’t answer him, but his fingers hover over Neil’s leg, and for a moment, he feels the incision on his leg that had been cut weeks ago begin to reappear. But before Neil can protest, the cooling sensation of Andrew’s power takes over again, and the pain evaporates. Neil winces, but feels more curious than irritated.
“You can reverse the healing.”
“Only when I find it necessary. There are those who think it’s smart to take advantage of my power.”
Neil turns the information over in his mind as Andrew packs away his supplies, and wonders why Andrew has so quickly gained a shrapnel of his trust. Andrew has nothing to gain by sabotaging Neil. That’s the truth. Neil is part of Andrew’s job, and in a twist of accidents and coincidences, Neil ended up in his personal life as well. The consistency with which they run into each other is typical for Neil’s line of work. The companionship is not.
Neil walks from the coliseum towards the manor with the first sense of normalcy he’s gotten in years hanging in his chest. Under his father’s watch, he was supposed to be a dead man. He was an object in Nathan’s grasp, a tool by which the older man succeeded. All things considered, Neil should’ve abandoned hope completely and rolled over to accept his impending death. He should not have friends. He should not let his legs dangle over a ledge and eat sweet rolls. He should not be.
He wonders how long it will actually last, and laughs to himself. While the thought leaves a sour taste in his mouth, Neil lets himself enjoy his walk home. For just a few minutes, he can be Neil, a future champion, an Exy player, a gladiator. And that’s enough.
Neil is by his own house when it happens. He takes a moment in the chaos of the festivities to escape, go for a walk, perhaps go and find Renee and bring her some wine. He has plenty to spare as the celebration of Neil’s win goes on. Ironic that it happened so close to a place where he’s guaranteed absolutely protection, but for him, every breath he takes is a risk.
So, really, it shouldn’t be so startling when he’s suddenly paralyzed, frozen right in his tracks where he had every intention to keep walking. His body panics, of course, but it isn’t nearly as damning as the resignation, the regret deep in his gut that tells him that really, he should’ve seen this coming, as pairs of hands grab for his limp body, gagging him and dragging him out of sight.
Short, frightened breaths escape his mouth, warming the cloth he’s gagged with as his frozen body is thrown into a wagon. He hears voices he can’t quite make out, and is promptly jostled by the horse’s movements. Then, a calloused hand grabs him and pulls him up, the hood of the man’s cloak not quite long enough to hide an ugly smile. Neil has no doubt now that his kidnappers are Ravens.
“It’s becoming hard not to find every breath you take to be insulting, Nathaniel Wesninski,” one of them says. Neil can feel the waiver to his death being signed. As they take him further into the woods, far, far away from the manor, for a moment he thinks, that perhaps this is a relief. Freedom was never something he could dare hope for, and seeing his father crumble was simply a pipe dream. Even if it is at the hands of the Ravens, his death will take away enough of Nathan’s power, that Neil can almost welcome it.
When they throw him onto the dirt, a limp and motionless body with a screaming soul, he finally stops resisting. He feels every bone that breaks with each kick, every bruise that starts to form as knuckles come down on his face and body like hail. He is stripped of his clothing, down to his breeches, and beaten more.
He trembles and shakes, his throat burning. He’d cough up blood if his muscles would allow him. Instead, he chokes it down and tries to focus on breathing, staying conscious.
Neil waits as the beatings let up, knowing that it isn’t the end, it’s never the end with the Ravens. Finally, the hooded figure with the nasty smile crouches down next to Neil, who is fighting just to stay awake.
“Feel free to not go quietly,” he says, pressing three fingers to Neil’s cheek. A searing pain beyond any burn Neil has experienced erupts on his face. The gag muffles Neil’s screams.
They leave him alone as his skin eats away at itself, body writhing, but too fatigued and near death to even try to move, even as the one Raven’s paralyzing power wears off.
Neil fights to stay conscious, but it is ultimately a losing battle.
His eyes open.
Not very much, but just enough to recognize that his surroundings have changed. Something is making noise. Someone is making noise. It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing left of him but the pain.
Tears are running down his cheeks the second time his eyes open, and he lets out a noise he barely recognizes. His body is being jostled. His face, still searing, is being pressed against a man’s shirt.
“Jesus christ, Neil,” the man’s voice is shaky, and Neil sobs harder when he recognizes it to be Wymack’s. He doesn’t know whether to be relieved that he may be saved, or horrified as this man is going to watch him die. Wymack should go back, Wymack should leave him in the dirt and turn away. There was no beautiful way for Neil to die. Not now, not ever.
He blacks out twice before his body is still as Wymack pushes his way through a door, into a sheltered place, no doubt his own home.
“Abby!” he barks. “Abby, get up!”
Neil is laid on a table, curling in on himself, when he senses her enter the room in a rush. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but he doesn’t miss the way Abby’s voice catches when she undoubtedly lays her eyes on Neil.
Then, Abby is gone, and Wymack hovers over Neil, and then two fingers with some sort of ointment press to his face where the wound is festering, burning, spreading.
“This should slow it down for the time being,” Wymack says, continuing to apply it near each harrowing blister. Neil keeps the cloth in his mouth, because he knows if he spits it out, the whole village will hear him screaming. No doubt several bones are broken, his head is damaged, and several things are hurt that can’t be seen. But his skin... oh his skin. It boils and burns and the pain is unlike anything the Butcher’s son has ever known.
What feels like hours later, Neil hears two more voices enter the house, and Wymack gets up with a start.
“Andrew—” Wymack starts, and Neil hears brief shuffling before there’s a hand on his neck, and if he cracks his eye open, he can see him, shaking off sleep but very awake.
“The salve’s not gonna do it,” Andrew says to Wymack. “You’re helping me with this.”
“What’s the rest of him like?”
“Shattered, and it’ll be beyond repair if we’re not fast.”
The two men move in on him, hands hovering over his body. Neil can feel Wymack’s efforts into reversing the skin eating hex and counts himself lucky that his ointment had stopped it from burning too far. Neil spits out the cloth, resisting the urge to scream.
“Please,” Neil sputters between tears and snot and blood. “Just let me go. Please.”
“I’ll tell you when to stop,” Andrew promptly ignores him, looking to Wymack for a moment. “That should do it. Let me take control.”
Wymack steps back, and part of Neil wants them both to let him go. Just let him go. But another part begs him to come back. He’s hyperventilating when suddenly his entire body temperature gets just a bit cooler, and Andrew stands over him. Magic energy runs over his skin and through his veins. Abby’s hands tangle in Neil’s hair, rub his neck, as she whispers things to him, little reassurances he doesn’t believe They’ll never put him back together. Even if they do, he’ll be useless to his father. He’ll die. They’ll probably die too. There was no use. Stop it, Andrew, stop it.
“Shut up and let me work,” Andrew says, as Neil realizes he started talking out loud. Through foggy eyes he can see Andrew, awake and the most tense Neil has ever seen him, but more focused than ever. Andrew’s eyes meet his for just a moment. They’re his lifeline.
Neil screams as his bones crack into place. He sweats his body weight in water and clutches desperately to Abby’s hand for what feels like years. He knows he doesn’t deserve it. He fights against Andrew more and more. Begs and insists that he’s a lost cause. He’s in so much pain, but his brain can’t help but reach out for the sensation of healing, for Andrew’s energy being lended to him. It’s so intimate and so different from what he’s experienced in the past few hours, that it almost leaves him in shock.
Neil’s breathing slows. It takes a long time, but he goes from toeing the door of death to his regular every day anxiety attack as the coolness runs through his body. He can feel Andrew counteract the hex and piece Neil back together, like he’s done so many times already.
“Andrew. That’s enough. Don’t kill yourself, Abby can take care of the rest,” he hears Wymack say.
Finally, like a drug being drained from his body, Andrew’s energy disappears, and the man wobbles on his feet, causing Abby to stand and attend to him as well, but Andrew shakes her off.
“I’m fine,” Andrew snaps. Neil almost grins at the irony of Andrew saying that.
Neil’s body feels hollow and shell-like with the absence of mind-numbing pain. Some bones are still broken, and some wounds are still bleeding, but the internal and life threatening damage is neutralized, and Neil lays very still.
Without the pain in the way, his eyes finally focus on a very exhausted Andrew. He looks a breath away from collapsing, but his stare is just as intense as it was before.
“You look like death,” Andrew says as Abby takes over, and this time Neil does crack a smile. There are dry tears on his face, mixed with crusty blood. He reeks of sweat, and he’s undoubtedly pale from blood loss.
“Thanks,” he croaks. “I just saw him and had to have his look.”
Andrew scowls, reaches out with a gnarled hand, intent on yanking on Neil’s hair or something of that nature, before stopping himself, and slowly putting his arm down.
“You are testing my fucking patience, Josten.”
“I know,” Neil’s voice cracks. His face aches and burns as he smiles wider. It hurts, but it’s all he has to offer Andrew in return. “Thank you, Andrew.”
“Thank me when you kill Nathan Wesninski.”
Abby’s gentle hands work at Neil’s injuries, and for the first time, Neil is sleepy, despite the ache in his body. Andrew near collapses in a chair next to a very tired looking Wymack, and the room breathes a collective sigh of relief.
Neil is going to live. Just barely. He’s going to live. He wants to live.
“This will leave some nasty scarring, Neil,” Abby says, thumb running over his cheeks.
“It’s nothing I’m not used to,” Neil murmurs, letting his eyes flutter closed. After a few minutes all his wounds are bandaged, and his broken bones are treated Abby says something to Wymack, and Andrew pipes in.
“He’ll stay here in the spare bed.”
“Minimum movement is going to benefit him most. He’s got one nasty concussion.”
Neil opens his eyes, irritated when people talk as though he’s not there. He finds Andrew’s eyes set on him.
“You’re staying in the spare bed.”
“I heard. It’s almost like I’m right here.”
Andrew sniffs. “I can’t believe you still have it in you to run your mouth.”
“Alright, Neil, we’re gonna sit you up, okay?” Abby interjects. She helps Neil slowly sit up, legs dangling off the table, and Wymack stands, weary, and approaches. With Abby and Wymack’s help, they slowly shuffle to a room just down the hall, where an empty bed and barren dresser sit, ready for Neil.
He can’t think about his father right now, or any of the Moriyama’s for that matter. Will he get hell later for surviving? Absolutely. But the bed looks too comfortable to pass up. Even though he won’t be sleeping, his body will still rest, and that’s what matters in the end.
“We’ll be in the room next door,” Wymack says as Neil is laid on the bed. “Throw something at the wall if you need something. Don’t you dare get out of that bed, understand?”
“Not unless I have to.”
“Not ever, you little shit. Goodnight.”
They close the door behind them and Neil is left alone. When he hears the door down the hall click closed, he wiggles himself a little more upright against the headboard. His eyes trace around the room, looking at the furniture illuminated by the moonlight coming in through the window. There will be hell to pay when the Moriyamas know he’s alive. There’s no way he can risk them not being aware, not even now. Silently vowing to give Wymack some peace of mind, he takes mental note of the vase that sits on the table at his bedside. That shattering against the wall would be enough to wake him, if Wymack even planned to sleep at all.
His eyelids feel heavy, and his concentration is frustratingly low as he glances about the room. He needs to be vigilant. He has no choice. But exhaustion is a companion he knows way too intimately, and the stress his body just went through will no doubt damage his ability to be on the lookout.
His vision goes blurry and unfocused for just a moment when the doorknob clicks, and Neil inhales sharply, his unbroken arm shooting out and grabbing the neck of the base.
“Take it easy, you freak,” a familiar voice says, and a rush of relief runs through Neil as Andrew appears in the doorway, body worn down by the gravity of his own condition.
“I thought you’d have gone home by now,” Neil tells him. Andrew shuts the door behind him.
“I did. Then I figured you’d reverse everything I did by staying awake all night like Riko Moriyama is hiding in the dresser or something.”
“I’m not taking any chances.”
“You shouldn’t. Which is why you’re gonna calm the hell down and sleep,” Andrew tells him, stalking across the room and promptly planting himself in a chair next to the bed.
“You can’t tell me to get rest after what you just finished doing. You almost passed out after that. I’m not letting you keep watch.”
“Stop acting like you have a choice in this.”
Neil and Andrew glare at each other for what seems like an eternity, and Neil struggles to keep his gaze. Sleep is tempting.
“Save the stubborn act for when you’re in the ring. Give your back to me,” Andrew says. Neil dares to find comfort in his words for just a breath. He lets the feeling that he’ll be safe under Andrew’s eye settle in, and slowly, but reluctantly, he wriggles back into a lying position, angled slightly towards Andrew. The blond sinks into the chair, establishing that he doesn’t intend to leave.
Neil finally lets go of the last shred of reluctance and lets his eyes shut. His sleep is deep and dreamless.
The morning light finds Neil’s eyes heavy and his body impossible to move. He can’t bet that the bed cost Wymack a whole lot, but at the moment, he might as well be sleeping on a cloud. Sleepy eyes trace upwards, following the path of his outstretched arm, when he feels a warmth at his fingertips.
Andrew is at his bedside like he was when Neil closed his eyes, fast asleep in the chair. The one thing that’s changed is at the end of Neil’s outstretched arm, slender fingers belonging to Andrew are tangled in his own. It was a silent reassurance, a constant reminder that Andrew hadn’t moved from the chair all night. It was an act of solidarity, that if anything were to disturb them in the night, Andrew’s movement would wake Neil immediately. Yet it was nothing. It was just his fingers, perhaps an accident, perhaps nothing at all. But Neil was nothing if not clawing for scraps his whole life, and he clings to Andrew’s hand just a little tighter.
Sleep finds him again, and when he wakes a second time, Andrew is gone from the chair, and Neil can hear Abby and Wymack talking. The smell of food drifts in from outside his room. For once, he decides to obey Wymack’s wishes and stays in bed. In a matter of minutes, knuckles rap on the outside of Neil’s door, and Wymack enters, plate of food in hand.
“This is unnecessary,” Neil says as a greeting, feeling his ears get red from embarrassment. They could’ve just brought him to the kitchen. Instead, Wymack walks over and hands him the plate as Abby walks in the room with two more.
“Don’t be ungrateful,” Wymack says as the two older adults sit, Wymack in Andrew’s chair, and Abby on the foot of the bed. “And eat up. You need it.”
Neil only hesitates a moment before wolfing down the food. It’s amazing, but with his hunger, bricks would be delicious if they put some on a plate.
“Where’s Andrew?” he asks through a mouthful of food, making Wymack scoff and Abby smile strangely.
“Other duty calls. For now, we’re gonna talk about why I found you writhing in the dirt almost dead.”
Neil swallows heavily. “The Moriyamas didn’t take my victory kindly.”
“No shit. I want names. Faces. Anything.”
“I don’t… I don’t remember everything. Their names don’t matter. You won’t find them, nor will you be able to do anything about it. All I can tell you was that they were Riko’s men. Reacher. Reacher was one of their names.”
Wymack sighs, not at all pleased with the results, but there’s really nothing Neil can do. Even if he could recall completely what had happened, he’d hesitate to let them in on all the information. Wymack was a powerful healer, but alone, he was nothing against the Ravens.
“I take it they weren’t planning on you being found,” Abby says, grimacing. Neil nods.
“Andrew and I could barely reverse the effects together. They weren’t even planning to leave a trace,” Wymack adds. The three sit in silence for a moment, the peaceful morning suddenly becoming poisoned with the knowledge that Neil was not finished being in danger. Then again, he thinks, it wouldn’t be his life if he weren’t constantly anxious about it being cut short.
“So what now?” Abby asks. Neil looks down, bracing himself for what they have to hear next.
“I’m going back in the ring.”
Neil looks at them, blazing fire in his gut, bravery and fear welling in his body, fighting for control. “They have to know I’m alive. If I let them think I’m dead, they’ll think they’ve won, and Riko will get to move up in the ranks and abuse his power and fame more than he already does. I want them to know that they can’t kill me.”
“Faking your own death means the advantage of surprise. It means you’re no longer on your father’s watch.”
“My father wouldn’t believe they killed me unless they personally delivered my body to his doorstep,” Neil says. “Besides, for as much as I want him gone, my father gives me power, resources, and most importantly, protection. If he knows the Moriyamas have threatened his best asset, he’ll double the number of guards. Even under his watch, I’ll be the safest I can be. All I need to do is win the championship. Once my father gets that prize, that title to his name, I’m as good as dead to him unless I plan on doing it again next year. While he’s celebrating his own genius, I’m leaving here for good.”
Wymack and Abby are quiet. The doctor purses her lips and asks him, “Where will you go? What after that?”
“I change my appearance. Change my name. I go anywhere but here.”
“Wow, what a plan,” Wymack deadpans. Neil glares back.
“I’ve done it before, Wymack. Just because it’s my father doesn’t mean he knows my every whereabout.”
“But he has people everywhere. You think he doesn’t know what you’re doing just because you can’t see him? I didn’t expect you to be that reckless.”
Neil glowers. “I know my father. I know exactly where he has eyes. And I’m not afraid to pluck a few out.”
Wymack shuts up, finally, grumbling as he takes plates back to the kitchen, and Abby stays at Neil’s feet, refusing to look up from the floor.
“We could send you away now,” she says. “Let us fight this battle, Neil. You aren’t alone, resisting the Moriyamas.”
“I’m the poster child for a man who’s second in power to them. If you were in my place, if you had this much power, would you do nothing with it? My father can’t fight, and I am his only blood heir. If I win this, and then disappear, I destroy his name and the Moriyamas all in one.”
“And what if they find you?”
“I won’t let them take me alive,” Neil says. Abby bites her lip, expression troubled as it always is when she has to deal with Neil. She reaches over the bed, brushing some of the red curls out of Neil’s face with an expression that only functions to make him uncomfortable.
“We’ll get you healed up and send you back, if that’s what you wish.”
Neil nods. “Thank you.”
“Welcome back, Junior,” a familiar voice greets him as Neil walks through the parlor of the manor. Limping, bruised, and beaten, but still alive.
“What the hell happened to you?” he can hear the smile in her voice, but he refuses to look at her.
“Got into a scuffle. I won.”
He can sense her looking him up and down.
“That’s no shape to be in when you’re killing that Seth boy. He’ll overpower you in seconds.”
He dares to look at her, keeping his gaze steeled over, as cool as he can muster. “Then maybe I’ll spend the time leading up to that healing. I’ll be sure to avoid any more confrontations. Thank you for your concern, though, Lola,” he tries not to spit, hoping that his articulation is enough to ward her off. Lola may enjoy using Neil as her personal play-thing, but she’s not stupid enough to deny that Neil’s well-being is critical to securing them a victory; in turn securing Nathan’s position of power, and her job.
It does the trick, and she leaves him alone. Neil stalks back to his room, ignoring the stares he gets from the guards. Avoiding his father and hiding the visible wounds is key. Signs of weakness could be punished in more ways than just Lola’s claws.
“Hmmm. That’s no good,” Renee tells him, inspecting the bruises along Neil’s arms, the scars that have already begun to form. “We’ll have to go easy today.”
“We can’t,” Neil tells her. “I don’t have any time left, and losing isn’t an option.”
Renee looks up, peering deep into Neil’s eyes like she did in their last session. He knows she can feel the fear being pushed down and almost completely hidden away. He stares back and can see that same fire, and understands that of all the people on the planet, he can place his trust in her.
“Then I suggest you don’t hold back. Your physical shape in hand to hand combat is satisfactory. I want you to put everything into those force fields.”
He nods. “I will.”
They take their place in the ring and begin.
When Renee agreed to not go easy, she meant it. Almost instantaneously, she’s closed the distance between the two of them, elbow driving into his collar bone. Neil ignores the pain as he’s knocked off balance, sweeping his leg back to catch himself, but he’s not given a moment’s break as Renee throws a punch, and he stumbles to get out of her way.
Neil finds himself cornered by Renee in seconds, keeping track of her offensive blows, but stuck between recovering his balance and dodging. He’s not just on the defensive, but fighting to stay standing. He has to get back on offense fast.
If there’s one advantage he’s gained on Renee, it’s her predictability from countless sparring sessions. Renee understands the power of overwhelming her opponent from many quick blows, and then taking advantage of that mental overload. So as he sees Renee plant one foot on the ground, Neil plants both feet.
Her kick is powerful, he can tell, but he summons a shield between his body and her leg, and pushes his body towards her kick to counteract it.
His trick works, and Renee tumbles to the ground, recovering quickly.
Neil doesn’t hesitate to put some distance between them as his shield disintegrates, and Renee doesn’t hesitate to keep the battle going, as he sees her hands reach behind her back.
He actually gasps when he sees two kunai attached to one of her hands, both a steely rainbow hue that’s bizarrely fitting for Renee. The surprise of bringing knives into their sparring is an additional trait that’s fitting for her.
Two rainbow flashes come flying for Neil, and he wills a large shield spanning his height. At the last second, he curves the shape at just the right angle and—
The kunai hit the shield, and slide along the angle so that they clatter to the ground out of Renee’s reach.
For just a moment, the two make eye contact, and there’s an almost daunting joy radiating off of Renee, as if to say finally, a real challenge.
She flies at him faster than a ray of light, and he meets her with equal force.
Every blow she lands is somewhere vulnerable. A bruise from the other night, the stitches that are still healing, every available place Renee can hit, she does, and the times where Neil can’t block in time are a searing pain. When he can block, he is usually met with pain anyways, as there isn’t an untouched place on his body at the moment.
At the same time, he doesn’t let her repeat herself. Renee relies too much on her patterns, and by breaking up her routine of sparring, he finds there’s space to play her at her own game. Flooding her brain with quick successions of strikes, Neil summons plate after plate of glowing force fields, butting her with them a couple times as he tries to find where she can fall off balance.
For everything they’re practicing, and for the tensions that lie underneath as Renee threatens him with real knives that can really kill him, Neil finds something else in their sparring. There’s the excitement for every match he’s faced with. But as he blocks Renee’s blows one by one, fully knowing that at the end of the day, they’ll walk away with their lives, he finds something that typically he can only find in Exy: enjoyment.
Neil’s world suddenly goes upside down as he registers the feeling of Renee’s leg pushing at Neil’s feet. He damns the whole world and himself as he didn’t even recognize the possibility of a sweeping kick, and tumbles the ground with sore muscles.
The ground meets his back with an unforgiving thud, and for just a moment, Neil expects Renee to reach for his hand.
Instead, Renee dives for him, the glint of a knife shining, gripped in one hand. Neil’s entire body tenses as the knife comes down. He puts up his arm to block his face, and for a moment, she’s frozen above him, knife brandished. His arm alone provides no actual protection. So Neil tenses, and puts all his efforts into that arm alone.
The knife eventually does come down, and when it does, it falls from Renee’s hand and clatters to the ground. Wrapped around Neil’s forearm, like a piece of glowing armor, is a force field of his own creation, shaped perfectly to deflect her move.
They sit there, Renee poised over Neil’s body for just a moment, before relaxing.
“I think,” Renee says with a pause, a small smile on her lips. “That should do it for today.”
She helps him to his feet, still smiling.
“So? What do you think?” she says. Neil opens his mouth to answer, before following her line of vision, not quite looking at Neil, but over him.
Neil turns around slowly to see that they have a lone audience member sitting in the seats that surround the ring, looking his usual bored self.
“Hilarious, watching the two of you trying to kill each other,” Andrew deadpans, standing up and hopping in the ring.
Neil forgets to force down a smile. “And yet here you are.”
“I think he’ll be ready for Seth, don’t you, Andrew?”
“He’ll heal just fine. I made sure of that.”
Neil frowns. “That doesn’t answer the question.”
Andrew’s disinterested eyes slide over to Neil, and back to Renee. “Seth isn’t interested in Neil’s record of merciful wins.”
Renee chews her lip thoughtfully at that, and Neil bristles with discomfort, involved in a conversation he can’t help but feel isn’t supposed to involve him.
“That’s true. It’s death or victory for him.”
“What does that mean?” Neil asks.
“It means he’ll die by his own hand before he lets you make him walk away alive,” Renee says. “Seth is… proud. Therefore, he’ll be more aggressive.”
"I'm not gonna kill him. I don't care how proud he is," Neil tells them.
"Doesn't your father?" asks Andrew.
"He hasn't stopped me from keeping people alive yet, not as long as I get the victory. If Seth tries to take his life mid battle, I won't stop him. All I need to do is get him down."
Andrew and Renee stare back at him for a moment, then Andrew shrugs with a sort of half smile that says that Neil can do as he pleases.
"Thank you, Renee, for training with me," Neil says before he can forget. Renee only smiles back at him and gives Andrew a significant look.
"I’ll meet you outside. See you around, Neil."
Neil waves goodbye to Renee while the medic steps towards him. They wait in silence until the door shuts behind her.
"I won’t be the one to tell Renee that Seth was just found dead, but I will tell you,” he says. Neil’s pleasant demeanor evaporates as his mouth drops open, and the room suddenly feels much cooler.
“He was just murdered. The scene was quite gruesome, actually.”
“Gods,” Neil breathes, suddenly wishing he had a chair. “ Gods, Andrew. Do you think the Moriyamas- If they wanted to kill both Seth and I, that would put Riko at the top. Of course.”
“You’d better tell the world you’re still alive, then,” Andrew says, poking the cheek that had been ravaged by a hex just days before. Neil winces, but doesn’t pull away.
“The real question is, do I get the championship by default, or will there be another battle?”
“Let’s hope for the former. I’m tired of looking after your pitiful ass,” he sighs. “I’m going to take a nap. Don’t go getting tortured again while I’m not looking.”
Andrew walks out of the ring the same way Renee had gone. Neil lets him go without any more being said.
Neil gets wind of the news around the manor. Romero is talking to some guards, and the words Seth Gordon and dead days before the match reach Neil’s ears, and a shudder runs through him. He sneaks into the colosseum and it’s all he hears, in the whispers of the halls, in the chatter of the square.
What will become of the championship? Does this count as a forfeit? How did he die?
Neil makes haste back to the manor, perhaps to question Romero, and he looks over his shoulder every step of the way for black cloaks. Not seeing Ravens around the square only arouses more suspicion in him, and arriving safe through the manor gates makes him anxious.
If there’s any place Romero would be, it’d be the dining room, so Neil goes there. He wrings his hands absentmindedly, almost unaware of the unusual silence that stretches through every room he goes to, until finally, he senses that he’s not alone just as he barrels through the dining room entry.
The door closes behind Neil, and he can feel his father’s presence behind him like heat waves radiating off the sun. The click of the door shutting has rendered Neil cornered, and though he knows by now that it isn’t necessarily a death sentence, it still puts his body on high alert.
He turns, slowly, and finds his father leaning against the wall, arms crossed, the picture of nonchalance. Instantly, Neil senses that something has gone horribly wrong.
“Seth Gordon is dead,” Nathan tells him. Neil nods numbly, not knowing which emotion to show, so he chooses none at all. Neil knows that Seth is dead. Nathan knows that he knows. He continues. “I take it you think the Moriyamas are responsible.”
Neil’s mouth is dry. He chooses his words carefully. “That is what I’d thought, yes.”
Nathan smiles. “Of course, if you had seen the handiwork that went into his death, you’d think otherwise. Wouldn’t you, Nathaniel?”
His spine is frozen. “Yes. I think I would.”
Without warning, four sharp knives float about Nathan’s person and fly at Neil at impossible speeds. There’s no resisting as they slice, deep enough to cut through his clothes as his arms and chest are torn at, but not enough to need stitches. Neil bites the inside of his cheek, trying not to give Nathan the satisfaction of a cry as blood seeps from the wounds forming on his body. The knives let up and clatter to the floor, and the room is silent with the exception of Neil’s heavy breathing. He watches the blood drip off his skin and onto the stone floor. His father speaks.
“It was quite intricate, really. That was just a taste of what he got. Shame he went so fast. But how unfortunate for you, to have no one to fight, no real show of the championship you so deserve. Wouldn’t you agree, Nathaniel?”
“It would be… anticlimactic.”
“I agree. It would be disappointing to both of us for you to be without any opponent.”
Nathan Wesninsky is slowly circling Neil now, and he casts his eyes to the ground to avoid looking his father in the face. The idea that he murdered Seth in place of the Moriyamas is strange, but nothing his father does is done without some sort of meaning. His tone does nothing to reassure Neil, who is chilled to the bone and frozen in his spot. He was still his father’s puppet, and Nathan was prepared to move the strings any which way he pleased.
“But I know of someone. That girl you know. You know, the one who you spar with every week. What was her name again?”
Neil tries to hide the way his breathing picks up, how he wants to scream, to curl up and have a panic attack. No no no no no no no no no no.
Nathan approaches ever closer. “Nathaniel. I asked you a question. Help me spark my memory.”
He rasps, “Renee.”
His father snaps, causing Neil to jumps. “Yes! That’s right, her name is Renee. I think she’ll make a most formidable opponent for you. Perfect for you to take that title, show the real strength of the Wesninskis when you strike her down.”
Nathan pauses for just a moment, and Neil closes his eyes, focusing on making his trembling less obvious. Nathan comes closer, the friendly tone gone from his demeanor as a calloused hand is placed around Neil’s throat, applying no real force, but a source of terror all the same.
“I think it’s time for your rebellious streak to end. I will not look like a fool in front of those bastards” he tells Neil. “You are nothing but a tool, don’t ever forget that. I want every member of the Moriyama clan, along with everyone you meet, to know that you can and will take their life if I desire it. You will win this championship, and every battle that follows, until I can personally watch Ichirou pack his belongings and leave Palmetto. If you decide to continue this rebellious streak of yours, I will dole out the proper punishment. Do you understand?”
Neil tries to take a breath, but finds there’s no air. His whole body burns. “Yes.”
“Good. Regrettably enough, I am your father, and as such, I know that communication is important. So allow me to be clear: You never escape my eye. I see you sneak off Saturday evenings and play Exy with that lot of peasants I never said you could be around. This includes Kevin Day. It seems you two are quite close.”
“Oh, but, I can’t forget you do enjoy your time doing your battles, too. Why, who wouldn’t when they have David Wymack and Abigail Winfield looking after them? You seem like you’re in very good hands, Nathaniel.”
Neil struggles to keep it together as Nathan’s voice becomes more playful, like a cat toying with a mouse. He was a fool for thinking he was ever out of his father’s eye. He endangered himself and others just by existing. Just by coexisting. He prays that Nathan stops where he is, but hope is a fickle thing that Neil can never have.
“Now, who am I forgetting? Ah, yes. That medic you’ve taken a liking to. Andrew Joseph Minyard, who lives in a little cottage not too far from here. He’s quite the handsome one, isn’t he, Nathaniel?”
Neil shuts his eyes and prays for anything.
“Nathaniel? I asked you a question.”
“What do you want from me that will guarantee their safety?” he rasps. Nathan leans in close, and Neil thinks he can see the reflection of Seth, begging for mercy, in those eyes.
“You’ll secure the victory and kill the girl, or I will make sure there is nothing left for you outside this manor.”
Neil doesn’t realize that Nathan’s grip has tightened until he tries to take in a deeper breath, and gasps at the feeling of fingers wrapped securely around it, toying with his lifeline. Nathan’s eyes bore into Neil, and he remains agonizingly silent for one, two, three moments, before his hand releases Neil, who falls to the ground, gasping for air.
The door opens and shuts, and Neil is left with nothing but a shambled body and a choice.
Neil is sleeping in his bedroom when he hears the rustling outside his door In an instant, he's grabbed the dagger at his bedside and rolled down to the floor, where at least he has his bed for cover. Something frozen sits in his gut, a fear he had known a thousand times just in the past couple of weeks. It wasn't his father's men, surely it wasn't his father's men. There was no reason to kill Neil, not when the victory was so close.
So surely, the Moriyamas were living out their revenge fantasy on Nathan, one they'd been deprived of just a few weeks before.
Neil takes aim as a shadow appears outside his window, but before he can throw the dagger at the glass, he hesitates for just a moment as the moonlight outside catches on tufts of pale, blond hair.
Fear had never mixed so well with dread in Neil's mind. Of course it was Andrew. Of course he was with the Moriyamas. His luck would have it no other way.
Neil scrambles to his feet as the window panes swing open, and hooded Andrew Minyard steps through with grace. His mouth is dry as chalk and the dagger is heavy in his hands. Neil tells himself to throw it, to eliminate the threat of Andrew before the other can act. But disbelief and guilt and something Neil can't quite name keep his arms frozen to his sides as he finds himself backed up against a door through which he will find no help.
"Andrew," he croaks.
"Put the knife down, Neil, you're not dead yet," Andrew replies. There's something sweet to his tone, and Neil wants to laugh and cry all at once as the dagger drops to the floor with a clang.
"Andrew," he says again, and relief is a drug he'd been waiting all of three seconds and three lifetimes for. The moment calls for guilt, someone Neil had put trust in and shown trust to was not about to kill him, not when Neil's frail life laid in his arms so many times.
"Stop looking at me like that. I wasn't about to go knocking on your father's door," Andrew closes the window and removes his hood, stalking across the room so casually, one could swear he'd walked through it a thousand times.
"You're committing suicide just by being here," Neil tells him. "You're already dead. My father has ears everywhere. Andrew, he knows about—"
"I know he knows everything, that's not a surprise," Andrew cuts him off. "And I'm not dead, nor is your father the only one with ears."
It's silent for a moment, and Neil tries not to dwell on that last part. "Andrew, why are you here?"
"I'm here to send a message for Renee, since you're scheduled to kill her tomorrow."
Neil shudders at that, biting down an irritated reply. "I'm not going to."
"Stop pretending you have a choice in this, Neil. You don't get to play god. Not this time."
"I can't let my father win. Not like this. I- I can figure something out, I can bribe him with the reward. Just— you have to run, Andrew. Take Wymack and Abby and everyone and run. Once my father gets the prize, he'll have no more use for me, and then—"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"You have to!" Neil insists, desperation leaking into his voice as he loses the ability, the will to mask himself any longer.
Andrew reaches out and grabs the back of Neil's hair, yanking him in close. Neil doesn't flinch, not at the notion, and not as hazel eyes burn into his.
"Neil, I am not going to die. And neither are you."
"You don't know my father."
"I know you ."
Neil shuts his eyes, feeling a headache begin to form with all the information and stress whirling in his head like a deadly hurricane.
“You’re not giving me any substantial reason to believe you. And I didn’t think you were one to take Renee’s death so lightly.”
Neil cracks his eyes open, and for once, Andrew pauses to think before answering.
“Have I ever given you any reason not to trust me?” Andrew asks.
“No,” Neil answers without hesitation.
“Then trust me again. There’s more happening here than you think. Renee hates it when people hold back. Give her a fight, and somehow, everything won’t go up in shit.”
Andrew’s stare is so intense, for a moment, he’s tempted to look away. But it’s there that Neil realizes that Andrew must be withholding some information from him. It’s there that his risks with his father’s men had never been calculated carefully enough, and he nods as Andrew releases the hold on his hair. It’s there that Andrew is with him, and then gone, leaving Neil to wonder, just wonder, if between the lives of one friend and many friends, if he can have both.
Neil sits in a room by himself, drinking water from a pouch. He can hear the roar of the crowd outside, he can hear their thoughts, their bewilderment, their wonder at the Wesninski Fox set to take the championship against some nobody, and tries to shut it out.
In his year of gladiatorial battle, he’s never quite been able to do that. Nor has he been able to shake the feeling that he may have to kill someone, and it doesn’t sit especially well knowing that his friend will be on the other side of the ring. He tries to get himself in a mental position where he can harden himself, convince himself that she’s the enemy, and it will all turn out in the end, but despite Andrew’s comforting words, he has no possible way to exercise the idea of sparing Renee’s life along with the others without forfeiting the match altogether, and in turn, forfeiting his life.
Perhaps that was the most discomforting thing of all. He didn’t have the luxury he had before. Before, it seemed so easy: let his father take the victory, the money, the fame, and the control, and just run. It seemed so easy. If his father’s men come after him, he’ll have a choice between dying on his own terms, or at the hand of someone who lived only to take away. There was nothing Neil would leave behind, and the idea of having rest at last was a disturbing comfort.
Now, he understands. It was there in Wymack’s eyes as Neil told him about his matches. It was in Andrew’s voice as Neil pleaded for him to let his life slip through his fingers. It was in the sweat beading on his forehead as Renee worked him, pushed him mercilessly and lovingly at the same time. He tasted freedom in short intervals, and it was enough for him to understand that there was much more to his own life than fear, than his father.
It had never occured to Neil that he could be something besides a runaway, a son of a murderer, or an insignificant sliver in his family tapestry. Understanding that he was a beating heart was perhaps the worst and best thing that had happened to him.
Neil watches his fist clench and unclench. He knows that the time is drawing closer, and gives up on trying to steel himself.
You know she hates it when people hold back.
There’s something bigger than him happening here. He knows it. He has to play along. Just one more time, he thinks. I’ll play along.
He enters the arena alone. The moment he steps through the entryway, clad in armor, his ears are filled with noise, and his eyes with light.
The sun beats down on the ring, today as sweltering as the last few weeks have been. Neil steps out, trying to calm his racing heart. The ring is set up as it is for any other battle. Considering this battle is the championship, it’s almost a surprise that there’s no pomp and circumstance, besides the laurels strung on some of the walls. Three figures stand near the ring, large and muscular, ready to perform as Neil is. The first is the announcer. The other two are present to declare the winner and loser.
Off to the outer edge of the ring, standing against a wall with supplies next to them, Neil recognizes Wymack, Abby, and of course, Andrew.
Even from a distance, Neil can see the nerves manifesting between Abby and Wymack. They were likely recently made aware of Neil’s predicament, and stand all too tense for whatever results.
Andrew leans against the wall with his arms crossed, glancing at the ring with an uninterested stare. As though this were any ordinary match. As though he weren’t about to watch one of his friends die. Bored eyes slide up to meet his, and the intensity of his gaze is enough to send a shiver down Neil’s spine. Everything said to him the night before repeats in his head, and he thinks it over and over again, like a prayer.
“Reigning undefeated, the Wesninski Fox!” the announcer’s voice booms, waves of sound ringing out for every spectator to hear. Neil approaches his side of the ring carefully, watching as a young woman with colorful hair does the same. Their eyes meet, and for one startling moment, Renee looks at him, wide-eyed, taken aback as though she can't bring herself to breathe, before her face turns carefully neutral again. Neil looks at the ground, ashamed that his own fear was overpowering enough that he could see himself reflected in her eyes. This was a fight he had no desire to win.
"Okay, you're both familiar with the rules, but we'll review them once more," one of the men says to them, standing in the very center of the ring. "Walker possesses knives for a fair fight. Otherwise, any outside weapons are forbidden. The first to go down following death or unconsciousness is the loser, and after they are pronounced so, the fight is over, and no further contact may take place until both opponents leave the ring. The winner is the champion of the tournament. Am I clear?"
"Yes," they both say simultaneously. With a grim nod, the man leaves Renee and Neil alone in the ring.
"Fighters, at the ready!" the announcer shrieks. Like a machine clicking into place, Neil automatically shifts his weight into a fighting stance, both fists raised to guard his face. He tries to clear his mind and drown out the crowd, to think like it were any other sparring match between the two. But, it's hard. There's so much noise. There's so much resting on this match. Is he ready to—
Neil gasps as the voice startles him out of his worries, and already, a rainbow blur flies at him with impossible grace, and he's blocking Renee's punches.
Things are different this time. They're different from the last sparring matches.
On one hand, Neil can hardly bring himself to focus. His thoughts from before echo in his head like the announcer's voice, vibrating in his brain and shaking him mentally. He dodges most of Renee's blows just in time, but already, he can feel a fat bruise forming on his cheek from where the meat of her palm slammed into him when he wasn't quite fast enough.
On the other hand, Neil is quicker with his power. Disc after disc is summoned as Neil struggles to get some space between them, to give himself some sort of advantage. It's not completely for naught, and he can see Renee's frozen smirk widen as a feeling of pride surges through his bones.
Finally, the atmosphere shifts. As he gets in a few swipes of his own, the audience suddenly feels very far away. He can almost see the dust in the sparring ring rise around him as he centers himself and makes another attempt to get back on the offense. It's the noise he needs to cancel out, and finally, his heightened fear calms.
Then, of course, Renee pulls out her knives.
They come unsheathed, glinting in the sun the same shades as Renee's hair. Neil forces a confident smile that he knows she doesn't quite believe, and hurls another disc her way. Then, Neil is back on the defense again, glowing orange armor around his body as several kunai come flying towards him. They bounce off his armor easily, and like an instructor testing her student, Renee gives Neil a significant look. She was just warming up.
Quick as lightning, Renee dives for the knives near Neil's feet, but Neil is quicker, sweeping them up with one toe and casting them across the ring. He has no time to celebrate his own cleverness, however, as his feet are swept out from underneath him, and he goes tumbling to the ground.
He could laugh. It seems as though there was always one trick he forgot.
Neil guards his face with his shields as Renee lands on top of him, knife clutched in a bloodless, white hand. Now that they're up close, Neil can see a familiar look in Renee's eyes, and misery flows through him freely and with reckless abandon. Sweat drips off her forehead and around her wide eyes, and in them Neil can see the same desperate despair he's held inside for over a year now. It's the look of someone enslaved by Nathan Wesninski, and one that was far too common.
As he pushes against her, trying to keep the knife from piercing his throat, Neil searches for some answer in Renee's face. They struggle for what seems like hours, until a different sensation flows through Neil's body, and the world stops.
Suddenly, he's sitting next to Kevin, offering him a jug of water in celebration of his bleak, but well earned victory. Neil knows it's after the battle with Riko, but he doesn't remember ever approaching Kevin with a jug of water.
Then, he's in the med bay next to Wymack, going from bed to bed and offering help to the injured.
Then, he's back in the sparring ring at the Wesninski manor, looking into his own eyes. He almost doesn't recognize himself in that moment, both lost and found at the same time. The misery is there, as it's always been, but Neil can see the way his body moves, the way he gets lost in the few vices he has, and he understands then, what it means when Renee told him that she's an empath. Of course she could feel everything Neil felt, intimately so. But now, Neil was seeing through her eyes, feeling what she felt, and he understands that it's exactly the same.
Neil steels himself to come back to reality, but his vision changes again. He's in the sparring ring, but it isn't himself in front of him.
No, it's Andrew.
Andrew, fighting like his life depends on it, a cold smile plastered on his face as he parries to the left of Renee. Everything about him is so bright— the piercing eyes, the pale blond hair, the streak of red blood that runs down his cheek. Neil feels a spike of affection, and it feels natural, looking at Andrew.
Warmth is a sticky and befuddling thing to feel, but Neil can't get rid of it the longer he watches the vision.
Something draws all these visions together, a feeling that’s alien to Neil, but recognizable in the very least. He wouldn’t have anticipated Renee having more than one conversation with Kevin, but there was something in that vision. A fire in his gut, a bloom of anger and love and camaraderie all tied into one.
The vision disappears as quickly as it came as the breath rushes out of Neil's chest, and he sees Renee's knee digging into his stomach.
Back to reality, his defenses are weakening, and he's set to die if he doesn't move fast.
One understanding glance is exchanged between the two of them. She’s trying to tell him something, but he has no time to ask. Neil pools all his strength into throwing Renee off of him.
She tumbles to the ground quickly, and Neil lets his thoughts and feelings leave him as he forms a thick shield, and throws himself down at her, if only to land one strike on the head with the blunt force of his shield.
Neil isn’t given the chance as his world is suddenly filled with sound, a deafening boom that vibrates through the whole arena, Renee and Neil are thrown apart, and all he can hear is an aching ringing from his ears. All he can see is dust. Neil is already reaching for her as he tries to stabilize himself through the vibrations and the dust that’s flying everywhere, but she beats him to the punch and snatches his wrist.
People are screaming. Neil tears his eyes away from Renee and looks up, into the stands, where there’s a giant crater in the seats, chunks of stone thrown everywhere as the coliseum is partially charred with black right where the Wesninskis usually sit. There’s been an explosion. There wasn’t supposed to be an explosion. Someone squeezes his wrist.
Bright eyes burn into his, and everything falls into place.
The two scramble to their feet and sprint towards an exit. The world is shaking as Neil hears the screams of the crowd, and several people call out to him. He puts his head down and follows Renee, trying to keep himself from falling off balance.
“Where are you taking me?” he manages to ask as they dodge through crowds of panicked people, down, down, down the hallways where he had prepared for battle so many times. She doesn’t answer him, but he keeps pace with her anyways, trusting that wherever they’re going, it won’t involve them fighting to the death.
“Almost there,” she says, and before Neil can ask what that means, two large hands grab him and slam him into a wall.
“Hey there, Butcher’s son,” a familiar voice hisses into his ear as his bruised face is pushed further into the stone wall. “Ah- don’t move, girly, or your friend here is going to have a lot more than a cheek scar by the time I’m done with him.” Neil gulps as he recognizes the voice of the man from that night, fingers pressed against his skin that promised deafening pain. “Now, you’re going to tell me what just—”
Neil gasps when he hears a sickening crunch come from the man, and suddenly his hold is released, and then man is screaming, screaming, screaming. He whips his head around to watch the man crumple to the ground, legs pointed in directions they most certainly should not be. As the Moriyama agent falls, Neil sees behind him the small frame of Andrew Minyard, arms outstretched and eyes glowing bright, before they dim into an impassive expression that’s holding back something much more dangerous.
“Neil doesn’t have words.
Andrew looks at Neil to say something, before visibly swaying. Neil and Renee are at his side in an instant as he falls to his knees, exhaustion overtaking him.
“Andrew, we need to go,” Renee tells him.
“Go where?” Neil demands. “What’s going on?”
“Where the fuck is our pick up, then?” Andrew asks. Neil opens his mouth to ask what the hell that was supposed to mean, when yet again, he hears loud rumbling. Neil goes to run away, but Andrew catches his arm.
Just as Neil’s day couldn’t get any stranger, the stone wall crumbles away, revealing a tall man at the mouth of a now gaping hole in the coliseum wall.
“Took you long enough,” Andrew complains to the figure. Neil coughs on the dust as it clears away, and almost chokes when he’s met with a beaming face and dark curls he’s seen somewhere before, paired with the power of earthen manipulation.
“Long time no see, Neil!” the overly-cheerful voice of Nicky Hemmick greets him, joined by the towering figure of David Wymack at his side.
Neil is suitably speechless, recalling the exact moment he had defeated Nicky in battle months ago, but is given no time to reconcile as Renee grabs him roughly by the arm and hauls both him and Andrew to their feet.
“Nicky, Coach, you help with Neil. Andrew overexerted himself on a man who attacked us.”
“Roger that,” Nicky salutes Renee and turns to Neil with an unsettlingly optimistic smile. “You ready to leave this shithole once and for all?”
Neil Josten is as lost as he was a year ago. He’s frightened, paranoid, and bloodied. But if it’s one thing Neil’s life has taught him, it’s to find comfort in never looking back.
“Get me out of here,” he says to Nicky. Clambering over scattered bricks, Neil lets Wymack help him into the hole.
“Brace yourselves, it’s about to get dark in here,” Nicky tells them.
“Let’s move quick, people. I don’t want the Moriyamas hot on our tails,” Wymack demands. Shuffling on sore muscles and aching injuries from battles, the four of them make their way down the tunnel a very much alive Nicky Hemmick created as he closes the entrance, and they are shut in the dark.
“Can I ask what the hell is going on, now?” Neil says as he keeps moving in the dark, putting far too much trust in Nicky’s directions. There’s a pause, a moment where all of them can feel Wymack thinking, and the others hold back information from Neil. He doesn’t know if he can trust them after this, but that’s a matter for later.
“If I tell you now, you’ll collapse into a puddle and we’ll be stuck in this dusty hellhole for far longer than we should,” Wymack answers him. There’s another a pause, a more awkward one this time, before he adds, more softly this time, “I promise I’ll tell you everything when we get to the court.”
Neil wants to ask about the court, but is too bothered by what he said before. Truthfully, Neil can understand what’s going on, at least vaguely. That explosion was no accident, for one. Second, he knew that whatever news he was about to get, it had anything and everything to do with his father.
The noise is non stop as they move throughout the tunnel and Nicky closes the path behind them, keeping each person moving at a steady pace. There’s nothing more to be said as Neil forces himself to trust that Wymack isn’t about to sell him to the Moriyamas, or worse. He wonders if, whatever is going on, whether or not Andrew had ever tried to tell him before. He’s caught between an appreciation for Andrew trying to soothe his nerves before his fight with Renee and the ugly feeling that comes with the knowledge that Andrew has been hiding something from him for so long. Andrew has secrets, this is a fact that Neil can accept, but ones that pertain to him in particular he finds to be concerning.
“Here we are,” Nicky says as the stone in front of them shifts away and light finally pours through the exit like a beacon. Neil hesitates and lets the rest of them walk ahead of him, not meeting Andrew’s eyes as the latter gives him an expectant look.
He finds himself in a room with only a few signs of life- chairs at tables and a few paintings hung on the wall. The five of them stand there in a pregnant silence before Wymack spares a glance at Neil, before turning to the rest of them.
“Everyone out. We’ll introduce Neil to the rest later. Andrew, that means you.”
“Don’t need to ask me twice,” Andrew waves as he follows Nicky out the door, his words lacking their usual bite, probably from exhaustion. As the door to the strange room clicks shut, Wymack turns to Neil with a grave look in his eye.
“Are you going to tell me what you mean by ‘the rest’?” Neil asks.
“You’ll find out in a little bit. That’s not what’s important right now. We need to talk about how we got you here. I think you’ll want to hear about it from us first.”
Neil shuts his eyes for a moment, trying to collect himself as Wymack is clearly steeling himself into giving unfortunate news. He knows almost better than anyone that there’s no love for Nathan in Neil’s heart. Only primal fear and desperate, but loose dependence.
“How can you be sure?” Neil rasps, opening his eyes to see Wymack’s surprised face.
“Sure about what?”
“That my father is really dead.” The words are like leather in his mouth, a wild and nauseous sensation, too dreaded to believe it’s true, but too giddy to immediately write it off as a falsehood.
“He may have been a mastermind, but that didn’t make him invincible. I don’t know, Neil. Is your father’s skin thick enough to survive an explosion of that caliber?”
Neil stumbles and falls to his knees, a ragged breath escaping his mouth as Wymack moves to meet him. Strong arms are wrapped around his shoulders as Neil struggles to find air, to find the right feeling. Trust is a weighty word, but it’s the closest thing he’s got as he leans into Wymack, attempting to scrap for strength.
“For God’s sake, Neil, breathe,” Wymack tells him, and Neil tries, again and again, trying to slow racing heart.
My father is dead.
My father was killed.
My father is dead.
“You’re sure ?” he chokes.
Raspy breaths turn into shaky, wobbly giggles, until Neil can hear the sound of someone’s laugh, high pitched and desperate, and realizes the sound belongs to him.
He won’t believe it. He can’t. Yet the blunt honesty in Wymack’s words that Neil had come to recognize was undeniable, and it made it incredibly difficult to deny him.
“Do I get to meet ‘the others’ now?”
“You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to do anything.”
“Please. I just want to know what you want with me.”
Wymack releases Neil’s shoulders from his grip and steps back, a weighted pause between them as Neil tastes bile from his words.
“I don’t want anything from you Neil. The only thing I want is to go a day without a mob war on my doorstep. The only thing I want is to stop having to see you lying in front of me half dead because of the circumstances of your parentage. But I won’t make you do anything. Not now, not ever.” He stands, taking a deep breath. “You don’t have to go through that door. But if you do, just let me know.”
“Okay,” Neil says, lamenting quietly as Wymack leaves him in the room, but another pair of footsteps walks through the same door shortly after him.
“You still don’t believe him,” Andrew says flatly. Neil doesn’t answer, so he continues. “Show me what he did. When he told you you’d be fighting Renee.”
Neil’s breath shudders, and shaking fingers reach up to unclip the armor from his chest. The heavy weight falls off his shoulders like the watchful eye of his father. It hits the ground with a heavy thud.
Andrew walks over and unbuttons the thin cotton shirt Neil had on under the armor, pushing it off Neil’s arms to reveal the marks Nathan had left just nights before.
Before Neil can do anything, Andrew’s hand is on his chest, and a glow that starts in Andrew’s eyes travels to his hands, until Neil’s scarred and battered chest glows too. The coolness of the magic courses through every vein in his body, and a tear rolls down his face as the tension fades. The bruises disappear, the cuts close and heal completely, and Neil knows there will be no scarring. By the time Andrew finishes, looking a little more sleepy than before, any evidence of the last time Nathan Wesninski laid hands on his son had vanished.
“He won’t live to see those scar over, because he’s dead.” Andrew says. “You may have not watched the explosion, but I did. There was nothing there when the explosion happened, and there was no trace of that nothing when the smoke cleared. He’s dead.”
Neil looks down at the hand that’s still pressed to his chest, and up into the gaze of its owner.
Andrew continues. “Renee, Wymack, Kevin, and I are part of a group working to drive out the mob. We killed your father with simple explosives in order to shake the Wesninski clan. We don’t plan to let them reorganize. After the Wesninskis are removed from the equation, we’ve stopped a mob war. We can stop there or find a way to drive out the Moriyamas. That is what I’ve been hiding from you. Do you understand?”
With the shock of his father’s death still hanging over his head, Neil can’t find a reaction, except: “You won’t be able to stop the Moriyamas.”
“Probably not, but that’s Wymack’s fantasy. Are you gonna spend the rest of your life in this room or are you coming to the other ingrates I have to be around?”
Neil smiles, despite himself.
“Let’s go,” he says, and Andrew pulls his hand away. He helps Neil to his feet, who hastily buttons his shirt and looks at the door.
“Who’s behind that door?” Neil asks.
“The ghosts Riko couldn’t show you.”
Andrew leads Neil through the door, and his hand is already on the back of Neil’s neck when the room greets them.
Nicky Hemmick and Renee are there, but that’s not all. Several sets of eyes stare back at him, eyes that have haunted Neil’s dreams many times in the past year. His eyes first land on Kevin, stony and monotonous, but his presence next to Wymack is no surprise. The other people are, however.
Matthew Boyd, the first opponent Neil had killed. It was an accident, and Neil hadn’t left his room for days. But here he was, sitting in a chair with a smile Neil could only describe as sheepish.
Next he sees Allison Reynolds, with her ability to blend in with her surroundings which proved to be her downfall when she hit her head on the unforgiving ground while fighting Neil. Yet she waves at him, seeming aware of the weight of her very existence.
Danielle Wilds stands tall in the corner of the room, carefully holding back a smile, and the sight of her makes Neil’s head spin. She had beaten him in combat, and made quick work of it at that. It was the night after the battle that Neil had held back a scream as he watched his father’s men hunt her down, promising that she would never embarrass the Wesninski family ever again.
Finally, a man who looks intimately like Andrew, but the slightest differences in demeanor and appearance give him away, and Neil tries to place where he’s seen this man before.
Regardless, he has no idea what’s going on, and uses Andrew’s touch to steel himself.
“How?” he asks, simply. Wymack stands next to Dan, lips pulled tight.
“It was a simple matter of recognizing who had the strength of a fighter and the spirit of a rebel,” Wymack tells him. He hesitates a moment. “Andrew, Aaron, Abby, and I either falsely pronounced these guys dead, or kept them from actually dying, because we knew it wasn’t their time to die. Not when Palmetto is run by two goddamn mobs.
“We uh… We call ourselves the Palmetto Foxes. After you, Neil,” Dan says, and Neil is chilled to the bone in the way she calls him Neil, how different it sounds from the way she said “Nathaniel” a year ago. His once enemies stood before him as group of people now proposing to be his allies.
“I am the head of the Wesninski clan,” he turns to Wymack and says, dread washing over him like rain. “I’m the organized crime you’re fighting against.”
“You may be the head, but that means you control the body,” Matt says.
“It’s not that easy,” Neil snaps.
Wymack interjects. “No. But not impossible. The Wesninski clan is currently in a panic, so removing them will have to be quick. After that, it’s—”
“The Moriyamas,” Neil says. “You can’t tell me a handful of fighters are about to take down the Moriyamas.”
“Defeat them, no. But chasing them out is entirely possible.”
“By showing them that it would be more profitable to them to leave,” the man called Aaron says. He glares daggers at Neil, who is already taking a dislike to him, but his words imply a reluctant sort of camaraderie that speaks volumes.
“Everyone here has had something taken from them by the Moriyamas. Everyone here is affected,” Wymack says. “You most of all. By using the land that is now rightfully yours, we can convince them that gladiatorial combat is no longer their best investment.”
“Not with Riko botching that win in the name of personal interest,” Neil confirms.
“Not with Jean’s loyalty faltering,” Kevin adds.
“So,” Wymack says. “It’s your choice. If you want to run, now’s your chance. Anyone who’s been in your shoes wouldn’t blame you, not with your father’s men still running loose. But you could stay with us, have a home, and die on your feet against the Moriyamas. Pick your poison.”
Neil looks around the room, at the people whose deaths he had lamented for so long, all breathing and living and existing under a name inspired by him. He realizes that all this time, in the guilt he had been absolutely drowning in, he had never really represented the Wesninski name. Only defied it, again and again by pooling all of his efforts into mercy. It was why people never turned away when seeing him on the street. It was why previous opponents he had fought looked back at him with such determined and fiery gazes, egging him into starting a revolution. It was why Andrew stood at his side, why he had healed him time and time again, instead of recoiling in disgust at the sound of the Wesninski name.
“I just want to be free,” Neil says.
“Then stay,” Dan answers.
Neil stops and thinks for a moment, before he meets Wymack’s eyes. “I need to be at the manor as soon as possible to claim my position as the head of the clan to make sure Lola doesn’t get there first, assuming she’s alive. Can you get me there?”
Wymack smiles, and Neil feels his loyalties click into place.
“Yeah, we can do that.”