Andrew Minyard’s soul mark is a paw print, neat and clear on the inside of his left forearm, but for all his life, he’s been drawing keys.
That’s how it works, with soulmates, one of his earlier therapists had explained. You don’t have matching marks, but you know what your soulmate’s mark will look like, because you’ll find yourself scratching it in the margins of your notebooks or on the backs of your hands or wherever it is you doodle things when you’re bored.
“A key,” she says, smiling warmly at him. Her own soul mark is a music note, crisp and clear beneath the right side of her jaw. He’s six years old and the doodle is finally recognizable for what it is. “That’s very nice, Andrew. What does that mean to you?”
They say soul drawings are three things. One: a way to recognize your soulmate. Two: a clue to help you find them. Three: a symbol of what your relationship will mean to each other.
“A key is a hopeful sign, and an interesting juxtaposition with a wild animal’s paw print,” another therapist says to him, years later. Andrew is twelve and he’s never shown this one his soul mark, but it’s in his medical file, like everyone’s is. The doodle of the key, now sharp enough in his mind that even the teeth are the same every time, Andrew let slip by accident.
“A key could mean a lot of things for someone like you,” the man continues. A foster kid, he means. A kid who hasn’t lasted longer than a year in the same household his whole life, he means. “What do you think it might symbolize in your relationship with your soulmate? A place to call home?”
Andrew doesn’t get to have a place to call home. He knows that.
“A door that locks,” Andrew says flatly.
He switches therapists soon after, and he doesn’t make the mistake of doodling the key around one again.
Neil Josten doesn’t have a soul mark.
It doesn’t matter, really. Soulmates, his mother assured him, are dangerous. A waste of time, a fantasy that will get him killed. Better to keep to himself anyway, to stay safe. To stay alone. He has no idea if his parents were soulmates, and he’s not sure he wants to know.
The funny thing about soul marks and drawings is this: they’re easy to lie about. The soul drawing is an instinct, sure; it manifests naturally during childhood because children are easily bored and doodling passes the time. Eventually you find yourself drawing the same shape over and over, and you can be pretty sure that that’s your soul drawing – a match to the mark on the body of your soulmate. It works as a system, as far as Neil can tell.
But it’s easy to fake. After all, once you’re aware of it, it’s far from impossible just to shove the drawing that comes naturally to your fingertips down deep - to draw something, anything else instead.
They run, and Mary tells him to stop drawing paw prints everywhere. People might think it’s a soul drawing, she tells him. Neil doesn’t have a mark, though, which means he doesn’t have a soulmate, so he doesn’t see why he should have a soul drawing. He just likes paw prints, is all. Always has.
His mother tells him to stop anyway. With her voice the first time, then with her hands each time he forgets. Neil is prone to anxious doodling, but he makes himself draw something new in every city. Hearts. Stars. Exy plays. Anything but paw prints. He only makes mistakes a couple of times before the habit is permanent. He only makes the mistake of asking his mother why he doesn’t have a mark once.
Andrew is seventeen years old, soul mark hiding beneath the black of his arm bands, when he meets Kevin Day for the first time, towering in his arrogance, Riko Moriyama slick-smiled by his side. There are matching numbers on their cheeks and the black shape of a bird in flight on the back of Kevin’s left hand. Of course the fucker’s soul mark would be a raven, Jesus Christ. Through the haze of pills, Andrew laughs.
Riko leans his elbow casually up on Kevin’s shoulder as they talk, and Andrew watches the way Kevin goes stiff and still beneath the contact. They offer him a spot on their line. He laughs and laughs, and tells them no.
When Mary Hatford dies, Neil burns the car and runs until he crash lands in an empty house in Millport, Arizona. He draws circles full of random geometric patterns all over the floorboards until it feels natural, instinctual. He traces the scars beneath his shirt and thinks about the delicate line of the knotted rope on the inside of his mother’s wrist, ashes now. He knows she was right, a soul mark would only hurt him in the end. Still, he can’t help but wonder.
When Andrew Minyard meets Kevin Day for the second time, there is a complicated brace wrapped around the battered remains of his left hand, and a paw print on the breast pocket of his polo. David Wymack introduces himself as coach of the Palmetto State Foxes and offers Andrew a spot on his line. Andrew’s eyes don’t move from that paw print – the stupid fucking familiar paw print – for the whole negotiation.
He gets Wymack to promise to sign Nicky and Aaron. The paw print stares back at him. This is a terrible idea, he knows. But then, when has Andrew ever really known what was good for him? He laughs and laughs and laughs, and he signs his name on the dotted line.
Andrew can blame the meds for his laughter, but not for his curiosity about things he probably shouldn’t stick his nose into. So when he figures out Assistant Coach Kevin Day is hosting clandestine practices for one at midnight on the Foxhole Court, he does the only thing that could be expected of him – he offers to drive him. Kevin, probably imaging that Andrew is actually going to practice with him, rather than just smoke in the bleachers and maybe get some proper sleep in for once away from the oppressing closeness of the dorms, agrees.
Andrew follows him to the court for a little over a week before he sees his first honest to god Kevin Day Breakdown, and it is a sight to behold. Kevin is shaking like a leaf from head to foot, in nothing but sweats and a helmet, slamming balls off the walls and the floor in what Andrew has just enough presence to note are actually precise, intricate patterns. The last dregs of Andrew’s evening dose are still leaking out of his system, so he’s right on the edge, a little too bright and a little too shaky, neither quite here nor there. He closes his eyes and imagines the pounding of the balls is a string of Morse code, nonsense letters and syllables ricocheting off the court walls. When the noise stops, Kevin is sitting in the middle of the court, and Andrew can hear the gasping of his breath through the propped-open court door.
Kevin doesn’t look up when Andrew stands over him.
“What the fuck, Day?” Kevin just sighs.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Kevin tells the floor. He’s miles away from the brash, arrogant bastard who domineers their practices. He sounds small and broken, and Andrew feels his lip curl. “I can’t stay here. The team isn’t good enough, I’m not good enough, and when they come for me, I’m going to go back. I won’t be able to stop myself.”
Kevin is staring at the ruins of the back of his left hand, the prominent scarring cutting through the image of a black bird, wings stretched in flight, obscuring it slightly. Andrew had assumed it was a raven, when they’d first met. And maybe it is, but he also knows it’s more than that.
“It’s your soul mark,” Andrew says. He’s sure of it, although it’s not always possible to distinguish soul marks from ordinary tattoos. There are medical ways to test if a soul mark is real, but it’s not really discernable to the eye.
“Yeah,” Kevin admits, still staring at it. Andrew wonders which Ravens player – because really, who else could it be? – had grown up drawing small, flying birds. A sour memory breaks through the last of his fading evening med dose and settles heavily in his stomach.
“Are you a pair?” Andrew asks. He doesn’t have to specify. Kevin finally looks up at him, face cracked open, something fiery and conflicted welling up from underneath.
Andrew considers this for a long beat. “Good,” he says at last. Kevin blinks. “Then you don’t belong to them.”
“What’s yours?” This time it’s Kevin who doesn’t have to explain.
If he weren’t so close to crashing, Andrew would definitely be laughing. As it is, he hauls Kevin bodily to his feet with the last drops of his razor smile and starts toward the court door.
“Not a crown,” he says blithely – he’s seen Kevin’s haphazard sketches on the corners of his playbook sheets. “And none of your fucking business. Come on, we’re going.”
Four months of night practices later, they make a deal, and Kevin joins the Foxes line.
Millport is a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Neil is counting on that to keep him safe. He got his last set of papers when he stumbled through Phoenix – Neil Josten, 18. There had been a set for his mother. The man in the small tax office had given him a tiny, sympathetic smile when he realized Neil was alone.
“Everything should be in order here,” the man had said, shuffling through the last of the papers – social security card, passport, driver’s license, birth certificate. He’d paused over the birth certificate. “Soul mark – none. You sure?”
Neil had sighed a little, shaky and exhausted and itching to get out of there. He definitely looked like he’d been living on the streets, and common courtesy said he shouldn’t spend longer than he had to in what was supposedly a reputable accountant’s office.
Neil settles in the abandoned house in Millport and tries to disappear. He wears faded clothes, keeps his roots covered, and sleeps with his contacts in one hand and his gun in the other. It’s not a comfortable existence, but it’s safe. And as long as he keeps clean and hands in his work on time, none of the teachers will question him.
And then the Exy team puts up flyers. They’re looking for strikers. It’s not the position Neil played in little leagues, but maybe that’s a good thing – he can pass himself off as a beginner. Millport is a back-road desert suburb no one in their right mind has ever heard of. The Exy team isn’t even good, so it’s not like he has to worry about media attention, even on a local level.
Neil knows it’s dangerous. His mother said so. It’s just…she’s gone, and Neil doesn’t have anything else left. He’s a rolodex of identities that’s been shuffling for the entirety of his adolescence, and without her he’s not sure what makes him a real person anymore. He doesn’t have a real name, a real hometown. A real family. Hell, he doesn’t even have a fucking soulmate. Exy, at least, he knows is real. He knows he loves it, would give anything to play again, even if it’s only for a year.
Neil signs on with Millport, learns offense, and sleeps in the locker room when he can. He changes in the shower stalls. The other boys laugh and joke that his soul mark must be something embarrassing, like a cartoon unicorn or a drawing of a dick (it’s been known to happen) if he goes to such lengths to hide it. He leaves them to their assumptions. It’s safer that way.
He plays like it’s the only thing in his life that has meaning, because it is.
Then David Wymack shows up in Millport, Kevin Day and Andrew Minyard in tow, and every notion of safety Neil has been carefully cultivating for the last year shatters into a million pieces.
The meds do fuck-all about Andrew’s fear of heights. Maybe that’s why he’s grown so attached to it, lately. He stares out the window of the plane instead of the hulking Exy player asleep beside him until he’s dizzy with it. He won’t sleep. He watches the dry ground of Arizona rise up to meet them and wonders what the mysterious boy-wonder Neil Josten will be like in person.
A problem. That’s what Neil Josten is going to be, as it turns out. Andrew stops him from running with a racket to the gut and listens to him gasp on the floor with practiced disinterest he wishes were genuine. This kid from the middle of the desert has all the playing finesse of a particularly determined toddler and a bad attitude he doesn’t cover up well. It's a shame about the ten dollar haircut though, really, because he's got fucking amazing cheekbones, okay? Andrew is willing to admit that to himself. Or maybe he can’t really help it.
So Andrew wishes the disinterest were real, he really does. But he watches Neil Josten stare at Kevin Day: at the number on his cheek, at the scarred bird on his hand – at the fox paw on his polo, with a kind of terrified longing Andrew wishes weren’t so familiar – and knows it won’t be that easy.
“Do you believe in fate?” Aaron Minyard (or not, but he won’t know that until later) asks Neil, weaving the car through frighteningly small gaps in traffic. There’s a sneer in his voice, the smell of stale cigarette smoke hanging in the small space of the car.
It’s a weird question, in some ways. Soul marks are an objective reality, their connections to soul drawings only marginally less so. If that isn’t fate, what is? But then, Neil doesn’t have a soul mark, so he isn’t going to get the chance to find out.
“No. Do you?”
Aaron ignores the question. “Luck, then.”
That nearly surprises a snort out of Neil. Luck. “Only the bad sort.”
Hours later, they pull up to the Foxhole court for the first time. The sight of the orange paw print on the side is breathtakingly beautiful and so familiar it makes Neil want to vomit. He curls his fingers around the chain link fence, breathes the smell of aluminum and fresh paint and sticky South Carolina air. There are so many ways this could – probably will – end with him dead. It’s worth the risk. It has to be.
The rest of the summer passes like one long series of lessons in Why This is a Bad Idea, but Neil can’t seem to get himself to run. Not when the Foxhole court is right there. Not when there are keys in his hand and a dorm room with his name come August. He moves forward. He changes in locked stalls. He avoids Andrew and Aaron’s antagonism, fights back at Kevin’s, and dodges Nicky and his weird swings between flirting and attempts at friendship. He gets stronger, faster, his aim surer. The rest of the Foxes arrive and the season begins in earnest, and it’s simultaneously the most terrifying and exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to him.
The biggest difference between high school and college Exy teams, other than the obvious, seems to be the amount of time people spend without clothes on. For all they have their own locker room, the girls, Neil learns quickly, have few qualms about spending their time in the foyer as undressed as can be considered decent. Usually that means sports bras and workout shorts. The boys – okay, Matt, Seth, and Nicky – aren’t much better at keeping their shirts on.
It’s not bothersome, really. It’s still hot this time of year in the south, and Neil has already told Nicky he doesn’t swing, and he meant it. It’s just that the fact that his teammates spend so much time in various states of undress only serves to call attention to the way Neil, well, doesn’t.
“How come we never get to see your abs parading around, Neil?” Allison pouts one day. She and Seth are on the outs, apparently, which means her flirting is more direct than usual.
“Leave the kid alone, you horny demon,” Dan says fondly before Neil has to come up with a response. “Just because you need the whole world to know what you look like naked doesn’t mean we all do.”
“I look good naked,” Allison says, unoffended. “It’s my gift to the world.” Indeed, she’s barely decent now, sprawled half across Dan’s lap in a bra and spandex shorts. Her soul mark – a little sketch of a rainbow – peeks over the edge of them at her hip. At least she leaves Neil alone.
Then he has his medical exam with Abby.
“Neil.” He’s been staring at the door for five minutes straight in total silence. “Neil, why won’t you take your shirt off?”
His head twitches violently of its own accord. He doesn’t want to answer. Abby sighs. “Neil, I’ve seen just about everything there is to see with the Foxes. Nothing you show me is going to scare me off, okay?” When he still doesn’t move, she hesitates in the corner of his vision. Then, “…is it your soul mark? You know there’s no reason to-”
“It’s not a soul mark,” he cuts her off, maybe more viciously than he intended. Fuck it, he’s made enough bad decisions already. What’s one more? He yanks his shirt over his head, pretends not to hear Abby’s restrained gasp at the sight of him. He feels itchy all over, hot at the back of his neck. “I know because I don’t have one. Or hey, maybe one of these is it. I’ve had some of them longer than I can remember. You’re the doc, what do you think?” If he keeps his voice angry enough it won’t shake. He’s still staring resolutely at the door, but it’s gone slightly fuzzy. He’s not blinking back tears. He’s not.
“I think,” Abby says quietly, “that soul mark or no, you don’t deserve what happened to you.” She sounds so horrifically sincere Neil doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to handle her sadness. He’s a virtual stranger, it’s not like she could actually care about him. “Hold out your arms, please?”
At least the threat of tears has receded. Neil sticks out his arms in silence so that Abby can confirm there are no track marks hiding on them. She looks like she’s about to put away her clip board, then pauses.
“May I ask about just one thing?” she says carefully. Neil stiffens. She has him cornered, though she might not even see it that way. If he doesn’t answer, she has the power to not approve him for play. It’s a risk he can’t afford.
“You can ask. I might not answer.”
Abby nods as if that was the response she was expecting. Then she gestures to her own side, mirroring the mess of gnarled flesh on Neil’s ribs, layers of scars over top of each other.
“I can see you have some road rash scarring,” she says, “but I’m more concerned about what’s underneath. Have you ever had surgery for a major injury there?”
The question surprises Neil a little. He would have thought it was obvious that the marks on his body didn’t exactly come from a doctor’s office. “Not that I’m aware of,” he says hesitantly. “Um, why?”
Abby taps at her own side again. “The base layer of skin here, the way it’s stretched? It looks like the kind of scarring I would expect from a surgical procedure. Maybe one where a large section of skin was removed for some reason – a burn or a malignant lesion, perhaps. I only ask because we have a pretty incomplete medical history for you-“ Neil nearly laughs at that, though it’s an ugly thing “-and I want to make sure there isn’t anything I don’t know about that could cause me to jeopardize your health.”
Neil glances down at the patch of flesh she’s indicating, then pulls his shirt back on, crossing his arms over himself. The road rash is from when he was 11, forced to duck and roll from a moving car. But the tight, too-smooth skin underneath?
“It’s been like that for as long as I can remember,” Neil tells her honestly. “Since I was a baby, I guess. I don’t know what it’s from.” Maybe that’s strange, even for a fox. Or maybe it’s not. Neil wouldn’t really know.
“Okay. Thank you, Neil,” Abby says, closing the folder in her hands. “You’re all set.” He hops off the table, gets one hand on the door before she speaks again. “Neil-“
She looks like she’s about to say something kind but useless, like that the foxes are here for him. That she’s here for him, if he needs anything. In the end she seems to think better of it, offering him a small, weary smile. “We’re glad to have you here,” she says.
Neil nods silently and leaves. It’s a little surprising, given everything, but he’s glad to be here, too. Even if it might not be for long, he’s glad.
Neil Josten has not become any less of a problem as the year has worn on. He’s an unsolvable puzzle, a patchwork of half-truths and outright lies, and Andrew doesn’t really trust the bits of honesty that Neil has given him, yet. Doesn’t have a reason to. Even Eden’s, and Wymack’s after that, offers little in the way of satisfactory answers. Neil’s attitude problem is something like hilarious to Andrew’s medicated brain, but it’s going to get him in trouble.
Early on a Saturday morning, grimacing from Kathy Ferdinand’s couch, it does. Oh, it does.
“I can’t imagine actively trying to die,” Neil tells him later, too late, in the pre-dawn darkness of the front porch in Columbia. Funny, considering he seems to have a death wish. But it’s not a death wish, is it? Not exactly. Neil Josten just believes he is going to die, and soon. Maybe mob goons really are out to kill him. Maybe he’s hiding a terminal illness. He’s made some kind of messed-up peace with whatever it is, though, which is still rather fascinating even if it’s the most boring thing about him. Andrew hates it.
“I know what I’m doing,” Andrew tells him. Someone on this team fucking has to. “Understand? You are not going anywhere. You’re staying here.” He presses his spare key into Neil’s hand and walks away, far too sober for any of this, the sensation of the warmth of Neil’s skin clinging to him like smoke.
Neil never saw Seth’s soul mark, but his drawing was an intricate pattern of crisscrossing lines the definitely didn’t match the rainbow on Allison’s hip. He wonders if that means his death hurts less, for Allison. He finds he hopes so.
“Welcome home, Neil,” he whispers to himself in the darkness. It’s a death knell, surely, but in the silence of the empty den, it almost sounds like a prayer.