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After awhile I thought I'd never find you

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He never came back.

The space carved out for him ripped open like a jagged, rotting wound. Never healed, never filled. A festering gash contaminating the air around it with something black and toxic, so thick you could choke on it. So contagious it could seep into your skin and infect every muscle, every bone, every organ, every pore.

It could steal your very breath and turn your vision black.

It could crawl into your veins and grip your heart so tight it turned to a charcoaled dust.

But the cruellest thing of all, was that this dark and rotten thing; that consumed and destroyed every piece of you; that ate away at your very soul like a burning, chemical acid; that left every day unbearable and every night a slow agony; this giant, gaping black hole still left you alive.

It stole everything from you but your existence.

‘til you became nothing more than an empty shell filled with an endless numb, merely a pointless body taking up unnecessary space. A walking corpse; not alive, but somehow still breathing.

Yes, this was surely the cruellest torture of all.

**

“Andrew, it’s so lovely to see you today. How are you?” Bee asks cheerily as she hands him a mug of strong, sweet cocoa.

Andrew watches as she gets herself comfortable on the faded forest green couch, the white mug with the bright orange paw print gripped in her fingers and half covered by her palm.

She studies him over the lip. Waiting. Bee always waits patiently.

Words claw to the forefront of his mind -I’m fine- but it’s a sick masochistic thing that he refuses to indulge himself in.

It’s like poking a wound -that sharp pain released- and stabbing at it enough times that maybe he'll become desensitized to it.

But he also refuses to admit there’s even a wound to begin with.

“I have been worse”

Bee gives a small, sad smile and nods, taking a drink of her cocoa. There are two bangles around her wrist; simple, thin, gold bands that clink and jangle as she moves.

They sound like bells.

Andrew has come to like it.

“And Kevin? How are things going with him? You mentioned last week that things between you had been a bit strained”

What he’d actually said was that Kevin was being insufferable and Andrew had a mind to rid himself of this problem permanently.

“He has learned his lesson” Andrew spoke after a moment, his gaze getting caught on the animal figurines placed in perfect alignment on the shelf in the corner.

There is 17 of them.

Each a different animal, clear, with the stark colours captured by the talent of an expert glassmith. Every one of them is unique, the blowers own style and signature sealed into the very fibre of it, and collected from different states around the country.

Andrew has purchased 5 of them.

There is one missing now. One very specific one. One that Andrew’s gaze was often snagged on and took all his focus.

Not anymore though.

Never again.

That specific one now resided in a thousand shattered pieces in a rubbish pile somewhere, ground to dust and sharp shards and razor edges.

Much like the man himself.

Andrew yanks himself out of these thoughts before he gets lost in them. That is a dark and dangerous road and he refuses to be pulled down it. Not again.

Last week had been a one off, Kevin poking a lesion he should have known not to poke. Mentioning a name he should have known not to mention. Bringing up something he should have known not to bring up.

The orange fox.

He had no right to be surprised when Andrew pressed his blade between his ribs.

Andrew shouldn’t have broken Bees figurine, though.

Bee is too clever, too observant. She has put all the puzzle pieces together and made the correct picture.

Bee is also very smart.

She gives Andrew another sad smile when his gaze finally lands back on her. He can see that it’s strained. Her brow pulled down, creased with a worry Andrew only ever tolerates from her.

Bee knows to never mention the picture she’s seen.

**

He can feel eyes.

A heavy stare.

Andrew is accustomed to people staring, their gazes raking over him and then the wide berth they create around him whenever they could, afraid his ‘psychotic tendencies’ and ‘senseless acts of violence’ might suddenly strike as he walked through Palmetto’s campus.

Some stare in curiosity. The third-ranked Exy goalkeeper in the south. Apathetic. Uncaring. Refusing to show up for interviews, and known for having no tolerance for people. Attached to the famous Kevin Day like an anchor.

These days, it is sometimes hard to figure out exactly who is the anchor and who is the one hopelessly adrift.

Some stare in pity and disbelief. Gossip-mongers. They have heard the stories of the weekend before Thanksgiving in Columbia two years ago. The press had printed the report. Name suppression had been passed through by his lawyer, but not before his identity had already gotten out. Aaron’s trial last year reignited the rumours. No one mentions a word in his proximity, however. They all seem to have more desire to live than that.

There is another stare that Andrew is familiar with, but this one came far less frequently than it used to. He is older now. Stronger. Bigger. Dangerous. Violent. A threat in his own right. The stare of a predator looking at easy prey is now met with the stare of another predator looking at meat to carve on his blades. Anyone who doesn’t take that warning won’t survive the encounter.

Like a sixth sense, Andrew has long ago learned to be aware of his surroundings and the weight of peoples stares. It is a survival instinct, honed from years of experience and lessons learned again, and again, and again.

Andrew always trusts his instincts.

But this stare is different. It makes the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and his shoulders tense. It isn’t fear -it has been a long time since he’s felt such a thing of another person- but a strong awareness.

Andrew lets his gaze wander slowly, looking for the culprit. People pass him on their way to their own classes, but none of them are the person responsible. None of the people standing around him or scattered throughout the campus in easy sight are the cause of this sudden alertness.

Clusters of people gather under the trees, escaping to the shade from the glare of the sun. Students talk and laugh in groups in between classes, or walk with determined strides towards their next one.
No-one is paying Andrew that level of attention.

Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe he really is going crazy. Maybe the years of abuse and substances and chaotic thoughts and memories have finally made him crack. Maybe the cigarettes are at last doing their job and producing a tumour to cut his monotonous life short.

Or maybe there really is a stare and it’s something Andrew should pay attention to.

He’d learnt long ago to always trust his instincts, after all.

**

After the news of the shooting in Baltimore; after Kevin’s confession and the questioning from the FBI; after all Neil’s lies unravelled into a tangled web and left them with nothing but a ghost of a man who had never existed;

Everything changed.

After that hour, that day, that week, that month, that season, that year; everything was different.

Andrew searched and he searched and he searched. Hours upon hours spent in the library he detested, looking over articles and posts for any hint, any sign, any possible clue to where he could be. Where he had been.

“I want to come back for you”

Andrew never found him.

And he never came back.

All the Foxes watched Andrew. He felt their stares.

His reaction, his determination, his burning rage, and his violent attempt to strangle the life out of Kevin had sealed the suspicions of most of them.

They were all dealing with their own sense of loss, but their eyes all turned to Andrew. Watching, waiting. Like they expected Andrew to fall to pieces at any moment and might need their support. Their delusioned perception rankled.

“If it means losing you, then no”

As if Andrew could ever possibly need anyone.

No-one dared voice their disquiet. They had seen the swirling pit of darkness that existed inside Andrew and the true destruction it wrought when touched. They knew better.

“I want to see you lose control”

Bee was the only one who braved coming near him after that, but she knew never to voice her opinion on the matter. She tried in vain to pull him from the slippery dark pit he’d fallen into. But Andrew just retreated into himself.

“We both know that you take shit care of yourself”

A year passed, then another. Everyone moved on, moved forwards, moved past.

But Andrew is immovable. Living out day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second.

Breath after breath.

Each day is just a drone on Andrews’s life. The clock ticking down. He is alive, but not really living.

The stares turn away and everyone leaves him alone.

His promises keep him tethered, but barely. The one promise he broke –he reluctantly released- still haunts him. But he refuses to think about that. Refuses to acknowledge that it even exists

“Thank you”

Kevin is a desperate man on a mission who tries to push and drive and steer Andrew in the direction that he wants.

Andrew complies, but only because he has to. He has a promise to keep. A purpose. He will follow Kevin and protect him. But Kevin can’t make him care.

He will never care for anything again

“0”

Andrew knew better. He knew better. And now he’s paid the consequences.

Want. Need. Crave. Hope.

They are all dangerous and self-destructive things. Those concepts are dreams without substance. Fairytales that only existed in books for juveniles and children. Andrew couldn’t have these things, Andrew didn’t deserve these things, Andrew didn’t even want these things, and he wouldn’t be so foolish as to allow himself to fall into that trap again.

Those cracks, those soft points in his armour that he had managed to dig his way into... They’ve all been sealed. Stitched back together and fortified with two-inch-thick steel. Andrew is an impenetrable wall of jagged stone. The castle that never falls. The tower of ice that even the molten flames of the sun have no hope of melting.

“You were amazing”

Never again.

**

The soft creak of the old and damaged metal door alerts Andrew to an unwanted presence.

He’s no longer on this roof alone.

His skin prickles with awareness, his pulse beginning to beat faster as adrenaline shoots through his veins like a drug.

It’s the middle of the night and the cool air is a balm against his now blood flushed skin.

He waits, tense and coiled like a spring, as the perpetrator moves closer. The slow scuff of their shoes is a harsh sound against the concrete of the roof. All week, this presence has hidden and stayed out of Andrew’s detection. He knew it was there, but he could never find it. But now it made itself known, each sound obnoxiously loud and each step carefully measured.

It’s the last mistake this person will ever make.

Andrew doesn’t look over, he doesn’t need to, but he pounces when the dark figure gets close enough.

He hits a firm body, knocking it to the ground and pinning it down, his chosen blade already pressing against its throat in a practiced move that barely takes any conscious thought.

The body lets out a harsh grunt of breath as the air is knocked from its lungs, but otherwise doesn’t fight as Andrew holds them face down into the concrete, arm pinned at a dangerous angle behind their back.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you” Andrew speaks lowly, voice calm and hollow.

A moment passes. Then another, as the culprit tries to gather their voice.

Then...

“You’ll have to find a new place to bury my body. The construction sight is covered in a building now. It could be inconvenient”

Andrew freezes.

Every single limb and every single bone and every single nerve turns to solid ice at the sound of that voice.

Andrew’s breath rushes out of him in a ragged burst and it suddenly feels like someone has tried to punch a hole through his lungs with an Exy racket. He’s so brittle and solid another hit could make him shatter.

But his heart is thumping wildly as that adrenaline -previously just a low thrum- turns up full throttle at the very implication of the sound of that voice.

That voice has haunted his dreams and turned them to nightmares that plagued him and tormented him for the last two years.

That voice had once stripped him down and exposed his cracks and dug its way in like a vicious poison, slowly weakening his carefully constructed defences.

That voice belongs to the one person who almost broke him. Who had infected him with thoughts like wants and hopes and caught him up in a tangled web of lies and truths that left Andrew desperate and bleeding as he scrambled to unravel their razor sharp pieces.

That voice can’t be real.

That voice had never been real.

“Andrew” it speaks again, tugging Andrew out of his thoughts.

“It would be worth it” Andrew’s voice is cold, hollow.

Andrew’s heart is pounding so fast he’s convinced it’s about to break out of his chest. The adrenaline is pumping so hard through his veins he can feel his hands start to tremor from the lack of use. At least, that is what he later tells himself.

Who knew ice could even pump and stone could even beat?

A second later, the ice cracks, and the sculpture of Andrew finally moves.

Andrew releases the grip on the arm twisted back, keeping his left holding the small but deadly blade. He yanks hard at the black hood covering the offenders head, ripping it back roughly and taking a handful of hairs out in the process.

This impossibility, he barely makes a noise.

Even in the almost darkness, Andrew can recognise the auburn colour of that hair, exactly as he remembers it, as he's seen it, felt it, in so many memories. The feeling of the strands is still burned into his skin like a horrible red stain. No matter how hard he tries, he just can’t scrub it away.

The knife drops to the concrete of its own accord, the loud clatter of metal meeting rock like a gunshot in the dead silence. Andrew hadn’t even felt it leave his numb fingers.

And then Andrew is moving.

Off.

Away.

Crouching warily on the ground as if waiting for an attack. For this impossible dream –nightmare- to turn into a savage beast and tear him to ribbons with a strike of its claws.

Andrew is already unravelling.

And the figure who can’t be real, can’t be alive, can’t even exist, picks itself up slowly from the ground. Each move purposeful and calculated as he pulls himself up into a sitting position, carefully out of reach and posture relaxed as he rests his black hoodie covered arms over his bent knees.

And stares.

It’s the weight of that stare that Andrew now recognizes.

With the urge to burn the feeling from his skin.

Those cool blue eyes, bright even in the darkness, stare at Andrew with that calm and level gaze. Heavy, but not a suffocating weight. Not probing or judging or calculating or predatory. Wanting nothing, asking nothing, needing nothing. Just there. As it had been 2 years ago.

That same heavy stare.

I see you.

“Andrew” he speaks again, barely more than a whisper, and released like a breath that’s been held in too long. The fast exhale of relief.

“You are supposed to be dead,” Andrew intones, his body starting to unbind as the adrenaline dies down into an uneasy and finely balanced calm.

“Turns out I’m not as easy to kill as people think I am,” his tone is even, but his eyes are roaming over Andrews face and poised limbs as if Andrew is the one who’s come back from the dead. As if Andrew is the dream.

“I could easily kill you right now. I am still waiting for a reason why I shouldn’t” visibility is low, barely a glow from the campus security lights below, and half of his face and body is shrouded in the darkness of shadows. But Andrew doesn’t miss them -the unmistakable lines of scars and mottled skin on his fingers and hands, and the messy burnt flesh on the side of his face where the number four had resided the last time Andrew had seen that cheek.

The side of his mouth twitches, trying to lift, but he presses his lips together to stop it in a gesture so familiar Andrew wants to carve it from his face.

“What about the truth?”

Andrew’s own mouth presses together in a thin line as that fragile calm starts to twist to something dark and feral.

“Do you even know what that is?”

His mouth pulls down, a heavy acceptance pulling at his features as he looks at Andrew. His eyes are speaking -too many things. But Andrew can’t look away no matter how badly he needs to.

“I’m learning”

He finally drops his icy gaze, freeing Andrew from their trap, and looks down at his ruined fingers, watching the way the move in and out of each other.

“Will you take it?”

Andrew says nothing. He has no words. He is still trying to decipher if this is even real or some kind of cruel trick of his mind.

Andrew does move though, out of his crouch. He rests first one leg, then the other, onto the cold concrete of the roof, crossing his legs over and reaching into his pocket for his packet of cigarettes he suddenly has the urge to smoke every single one of.

His gaze lifts, watching Andrew’s movements with a calm resignation that speaks volumes. No matter what Andrew does or says, he will accept it. If Andrew tells him to leave, he will. If Andrew wants the truth, he will give it. If Andrew holds a blade to his throat or tries to strangle the life out him, he won’t fight back.

This isn’t just trust, it’s that perfect understanding. And it still captures Andrew like a moth to a dangerous flame.

He takes Andrews stance as permission and starts to speak.

He tells a story, beginning with a boy of 10 called Nathaniel Abram Wesninski, terrified of his father, who was meant to be sold to the Moriyama’s.

It flows on to the night he and his mother fled, through years on the run, and fights and training and a desperation to survive.

The sky above them starts to turn, the darkness reaching its peak as the air gets to its coldest point before the dawn.

Neither of them move.

It continues on to California, where his mother eventually fell to a fatal wound, a burnt out car and charred bones buried, to a lonely and desperate boy with no where to go, no real name, no reason to live, but so desperate not to die.

He passes through the Foxes, the life he could never truly have but so desperately wanted to keep, to the final game he played with them.

The day he talked Andrew into taking back his promise.

The day he disappeared.

The day Andrew felt his fragile control start to shatter.

“I wanted to tell you. But I couldn’t. They were already there in the locker room and if I’d said anything they would have hurt you all. I couldn’t-“ his voice cracks “-I couldn’t let anything happen to any of you”

“I thought I told you to stop playing the martyr”

“You told me no-one wanted it. Not to stop doing it”

Andrew answers that with nothing but a baleful stare.

The story continues. Being cuffed in a car. Cuts and burns. Knives and dashboard lighters. He tells it all with the cool calm of a voice unattached but Andrew can hear the raw edge to it.

The death of his father -the Butcher of Baltimore, as Andrew later discovered and researched- has his resolve cracking. His face twists to a cruel, cold thing, a feral smile, as he tells how the bullets shot through Nathan’s body. There was three of them. He can still see it when he closes his eyes.

To his uncle taking him away, back to England, away from everyone and the only home he’s ever known. The only family he’s ever had. Because Icharou now had a price on his head and his father’s people were hunting him down.

“We left a trail. That was my one stipulation. A trail had to be set to lead every one of my father’s or the Moriyama’s people away from you and the rest of the Foxes. I wasn’t going anywhere until my uncle gave me his word”

“Why are you here?” Andrew finally asks when he’s heard enough.

“My uncle is currently in negotiations with Icharou. I’ve been sent back to speak to the FBI and clean up my father’s mess to prevent a gang war from America to Britain.”

“And what exactly do you plan to do?”

Neil’s smile comes back. The cold, calculating thing of a predator, “I plan to come back to life”

They leave it at that and sit in silence, watching the sun start to rise in the sky. Andrew lights the last two cigarettes in the pack and hands one to over in a move so familiar yet foreign it takes the breath right out of him.

It is accepted with a small nod and they both migrate to their old spot perched on the edge.
People wake, early rising athletes, as the sun starts to mark the morning. He shifts, and Andrew knows that this is it. The night is well and truly over and he has to leave.

Again.

He shifts and moves and all Andrew can feel is this ache. This dull ache like a throb, a wound so deep and so raw that it tears him back open in a violent gash. He is so used to living with it, so used to pretending it doesn’t exist, that the constant throb is just a background. A part of life.

But it’s been ripped open once again, claws dug in by the man with the cool blue eyes and a mouth full of lies, who looks at Andrew like he invaded the whole world. And he feels himself cracking all over again.

He feels... he feels... He feels...

“Neil” Andrew says it. He can’t even stop the name from falling from his lips. Like a prayer, a plea, a lie, and a hopeless dream.

Neil. Neil. Neil. Neil. Neil. Neil.

It’s taking over every thought and drowning him like a crushing wave.

And Andrew never learnt how to swim.

Neil freezes beside him, jaw slack, and gaze piercing Andrews skin like he can see right through it. Neil heard it. There was no way that he didn’t hear it because Neil could always read him far too well and see right through him.

Slowly Neil moves -but closer, not away- into the careful space he’s left around Andrew, making sure not to touch, to still leave that precious few inches of air between them.

“Andrew” Neil waits until Andrew finally drags his gaze off the horizon to look at him.

“If you don’t want-“ Neil sucks in a harsh breath, all jagged edges and cutting glass, before continuing, “If you tell me to never come back... I won’t. I wasn’t even sure you would speak to me, but I owed you answers. I needed to tell you the truth”

Andrew turns away, his gaze shuttering. His defences kicking in and his instincts screaming dangerous, poison, stay away. He should tell Neil to leave and never come back. He knows that Neil will honour that.

But, unlike with every other point in his life, when it comes to Neil, listening to his instincts is the hardest thing to do.

“Do whatever you want” Andrew finally answers, voice cool and calm. It wasn’t a go but it wasn’t a stay and it was the only thing Andrew can even give right now.

Neil takes it.

Neil stands beside him, his body bending and twisting in a stretch, joints cramped from the sitting position they’ve been in for most of the entire night.

Neil turns, pausing at Andrew’s side.

Andrew refuses to look at him.

A moment passes. Two.

Then...

“Not everything was a lie, Andrew”

**

Coach calls them back before practice, sending the underclassmen on to the court for warmups.

Matt and Kevin are in their final year. Aaron, Nicky and himself only have one more after this one. Coach sweeps them all with a tired look, looking very old and worn and every one of his 52 years.

Abby comes in and stands off to the side looking withdrawn.

“Can we hurry up and get this over with? We can’t afford to be missing any practice right now” Kevin’s impatience rolls around him like a hive of angry bees. You can almost hear the buzzing drone.

“What’s this about Coach?” Matt asks, looking concerned.

The last time they were all gathered like this, they’d been told the news that Neil Josten was gone. That Neil Josten had never existed. That Neil Josten might not even be alive anymore. The memory seems to hit them all at once and the mood shifts from curious, to wary and uncertain.

“Sit down and shut up. We’re waiting on a few more bodies before I tell you anything,” Coach says, looking at the door.

“Is this where you finally tell us you and Abby are getting married?” Nicky jokes, trying to lighten the sombre mood, “or that she’s pregnant?”

The joke falls flat and Coach only answers with an unimpressed stare and Abby sends him a disapproving look.

The sound of scuffing shoes is heard before the door to the lounge opens. In walks Bee, her smile not quite meeting her eyes as she takes them all in, then rests that perceptive gaze on Andrew.

Behind her comes the unmistakable white and pastel hair of Renee, her frame exiting the doorway behind Bee, her purple skirt flowing around her and silver cross glinting in the florescent lights.

Andrew can see right through Coach’s unnecessary planning and is unimpressed by the implication

“Renee!” Matt jumps up in delight, embracing her warmly before Nicky takes his place.

They greet her and speak fondly, but Andrew tones them out and waits.

“Ok. Shut it, all of you,” Coach’s voice is gruff and stern but it lacks his usual edge, “there’s no easy way to say this and you all know that I’m one for just ripping off the Band-Aid so...”

Andrew already knows what is about to be said, Neil had already informed him of his plans on the Fox tower rooftop 3 days ago.

Coach's gaze finds Andrew, his stare firm and braced for a violence Andrew doesn’t feel, “they found Neil”

For a moment, no one speaks.

And then everyone does.

“Oh my God” Nicky’s hand comes over his mouth.

“Shut up” Aaron stares in disbelief.

“What? Is he... Is he...” Matt loses his words.

Kevin stares hard at the floor, his body turns to a solid stone as his hand clenches his thigh in a white-knuckled grip.

“He’s alive” Coach speaks, but his strong stare is still locked on Andrew.

“Holy shit”

“Bullshit”

“He can’t be! Are you serious?”

Andrew feels their stares. Abby, Coach, Renee and Bee are all watching him, mixed looks of concern and apprehension.

Andrew says nothing.

“Are you sure it’s true?” Renee finally speaks, turning towards Coach, “are you sure it isn’t just some cruel prank?”

Coach finally takes his focus away to look at her, undoubtedly satisfied that Andrew isn’t going to cause trouble, “I spoke to him myself. He made a surprise visit to my apartment a few days ago”

What he actually means is that Andrew is no longer the only one breaking into his apartment. You’d think Coach would learn his lesson and invest in better security by now.

“I can’t believe this” Nicky shakes his head in disbelief.

“Why are you only just telling us this now?”

“Is he ok? Where has he been?” Matt flicks a quick look towards Andrew, rubbing his hand over his forehead and up through his ridiculously gelled dark hair.

“Look, I don’t have all the facts just yet and there’s a lot he couldn’t tell me. But what he could tell me was that he’s recently been talking to the FBI to expose his father’s crime syndicate and the case was about to make national, possibly international news. I wanted you all to hear it from me, before the press starts hounding us for information”

“What does this mean, though? If he goes to the FBI, does that put him on the direct firing line of the Moriyama’s?” Renee looks to Kevin for confirmation, “His father worked for them, didn’t he?”

Kevin looks like he’s seen a ghost. His skin has turned a sickly pale and he holds a hand over his mouth like he’s going to be sick.

He finally drags his gaze from the floor and speaks for the first time since the news, “I don’t know what this means. But if he’s doing this without Icharou's say so...” Kevin drags his gaze to Andrew, barely meeting his eyes, “they’ll end him for sure this time”

The silence in the room is a dead weight over its occupants while that sinks in.

“They have witness protection though, don’t they?” Nicky breaks the silence, “if he’s talking to the FBI then surely they’d keep him safe”

“It won’t matter,” Kevin speaks with a deadened voice to the floor, “Icharou has people everywhere. They will find him and execute him”

“Let’s not speculate or jump to the worst-case scenarios just yet, because we don’t know the facts. All I can tell you is what Neil told me. He told me it was handled so that is all I can pass it on”

“Of course he did. He’s fine” Aaron spoke scathingly, his glare turned to the floor.

“Aaron, seriously?” Nicky scolds, irritation an edge in his voice.

Aaron ignores him and turns his cool glare towards Andrew, “and what do you think? Neil has suddenly come back from the dead. You have nothing to add?”

Others may think Aaron cold and heartless, but Andrew knows better. Aaron is his twin, his blood, every minute detail of his expressions and mannerisms a skewed reflection of his own. Aaron may pretend he doesn’t care and shrug others off as dead weight, but it is a survival instinct born out of necessity, much like Andrews own.

But as with Seth’s death, Aaron felt the hit of Neil's disappearance. He is still human, after all. Same as the rest of them.

After Neil vanished, Aaron attitude towards Andrew started to change. Then the trial last year and suddenly Aaron developed this strange and abhorrent protective streak that Andrew still felt at times like a rash.

Aaron was not impressed to discover that he and Neil had been closer than he’d ever suspected. Andrew wasn’t exactly thrilled with the discovery either.

They were all waiting. For words, for reaction. Something.

Andrew meets Aaron’s accusatory glare with barely a glance, opting not to even dignify that with a response. He has nothing to say to Aaron.

Andrew gives them nothing.

“Can we see him?” Nicky asks, breaking into the tense atmosphere, “you said he was here, right? You saw him? Is he going to come see us?”

“That would be completely stupid. The Moriyama’s are supposed to be looking for him, and you want him to come here? And what, endanger us all? We already have one of their pets, let’s not bring the whole fucking gang down on our heads” Aaron shoots back, mirth dripping from every word.

Kevin glares at Aaron with a dark look.

“He does have a point though, Nicky. As much as we might want to see him, if the situation is as we suspect, coming here is a risk he really shouldn’t take” Renee speaks gently, her expression softened. Ever the voice of calm reason and peaceful resolution.

The room quiets as the remainder of the original Foxes all fall into their thoughts.

“I can’t believe he’s alive” Matt’s voice holds a tone of quiet disbelief as he stares down at his hands, “after all this time... It seems so impossible”

Andrew can’t even help but agree with that sentiment

When the discussion starts to wan, Kevin is the first to move, heading towards the Court and barking at the others that it’s time for practice. His voice is harsh, edged, more cutting than usual.

Neil had been his distraction, his protégée, and the closest thing to a friend the Exy-obsessed ex-champion had had in any of the Foxes.

Kevin is going to ride them all like a man out for blood.

Andrew has no interest in being a part of that particular spectacle.

Coach is watching him, his face drawn in a stern, contemplative look, like Andrew is a puzzle he’s trying to solve.

The others leave, heading to the Court, following the thunder cloud that is Kevin Day. Nicky pauses at the door and opens his mouth as if to say something to Andrew, then obviously decides he’d rather keep his lungs intact and trails after with heavy, scuffing feet.

Bee has taken note of Andrews closed-off posture and leaves him. She won’t bring it up, won’t ask about it, unless Andrew does. It’s why Andrew likes her, after all.

Bee is very smart.

Abby speaks softly with Renee, small smiles and gestures, before she leaves to continue whatever work she was in the middle of.

Renee pauses at the door, a small smile gracing her mouth as she looks at Andrew with a fondness, “may we meet for dinner? My treat”

Andrew stares a moment, his face a bored mask, before he waves his hand in a gesture. Her smile widens slightly as she nods, taking his acceptance, and leaves the room.

It’s Andrew and Coach left now.

Coach still stares.

His mouth pulls down to a frown and his expression turns to accusation.

Finally, Coach gets sick of the stare down and speaks, “how long have you known?”

Andrew debates keeping silent but decides to give ground after a moment, “a while”

“You didn’t think to give me a heads up? I would be better prepared to handle this shit-storm if I’d had a fair warning” his tone is angry, but that is nothing knew. It’s also resigned. Coach knows Andrew well enough by now to know he doesn’t give out information that is not a necessity.

Andrew wonders how he should feel about the familiarity between them.

He decides it’s irrelevant.

“Neil told you when he thought the news necessary. I saw no need to hasten it” Andrew replies after a moment.

“You’ve seen him” it isn’t a question so Andrew doesn’t answer it.

Coach sighs and rubs a hand over his face, blocking it from view before he drops it back to his side. He squares his shoulders and looks at Andrew with that tired stare that asks for cooperation.

Andrew will decide whether or not to give it.

“Do you think he has this under control? Is this going to be a problem for us?”

“Neil Josten has always been a problem. I see no reason why this situation will not be equally disastrous,”

“Do you know his plans?”

Andrew answers with nothing but blank stare.

“My job is to be their Coach, your Coach. I need to keep everyone safe. I don’t ask for much, Andrew. But I’m asking for your help with this,” Coach sends Andrew a level look, eye to eye, ally to ally.

Andrew meets his look, his own expression blank as he considers.

Finally, he decides to speak, “Neil is stupid and reckless,” Andrew pauses a moment before continuing, his tone cool, “but he seems to be acting with permission from the two groups who would cause the most problems. Possible collateral damage should minimal and limited to the man himself. He seemed certain none of this would fall back on the Foxes. I’m inclined to agree”

Coach watches him a moment longer, gauging Andrew for a reaction or emotion that isn’t there.

Andrew stares back, expression blank.

Finally, Coach gives him a nod, “all right then. Time for practice. Get out”

Andrew changes out and doesn’t even acknowledge Kevin’s furious voice at his back.

His cigarette is already lit before the final door to the Court is even shut.

**

Renee peruses the menu as they sit opposite each other in a booth of the near-empty bar/restaurant.

It’s a pointless exercise. This place was a frequent of Renee and the others when they were still enrolled at Palmetto. It is purely a ‘normalised’ habit of wild animal starting to be domesticated, a way to break the contact and put your companion at ease.

It’s almost interesting to observe, Renee replacing her dark layers with social niceties and norms. It is what she wants, after all.

Andrew has no such foolish desires, and will quickly remind her that she dines with feral beast if he deems it necessary. However, he does predict that such action will not be required.

“You are at Palmetto” it’s not a question.

“Yes. Coach told me he had some news and I asked if I was able to make it down,” her face softens to a smile.

Andrew stares, waiting for the rest that she omitted, unimpressed by her attempt to avoid the topic.

Because, of course, there is no need for it to be avoided.

She gives into his silent demand, “He was concerned Neil’s sudden appearance wouldn’t be received well and he asked that I be here as a precaution,”

Her head tilts, observing him, “you don’t seem surprised”

“Rarely am I surprised by anything these days,”

She looks at him with her knowing expression, her serene smile gone and replaced with the cold and calculating weapon Andrew knew her to be. He won’t say it and she won’t cross that line without reason.

“May I ask you something? A favour”

Andrew stares blankly but he doesn’t say no.

“Would you pass along my number to Neil? I would very much like to have contact with him if he is ever safe to do so”

“You to assume I have any contact with him at all”

Renee gives him an indulgent little smile that tells him she will let that one slide, “only if you happen to speak to him, of course”

Andrew takes a moment before he waves his hand in a dismissive gesture that she takes as agreement, before the waiter comes to collect their order.

 

**

The tell-tale sound of the door creeping open breaks through the silence of the night.

The slow scuff of sneakered feet a familiar sound, as is the measured steps leading right to where Andrew sits on the edge of the roof, burning cigarette in hand.

Over a month of meeting like this. Some nights Neil showed up, some nights he didn’t. It didn’t matter.

If Andrew keeps telling himself this enough then maybe it will become true.

“Hey” Neil’s voice comes softly as he leans on the ledge beside Andrew, heavy ice blue stare roaming over his face.

Andrew says nothing, but passes over his half smoked cigarette.

Neil reaches out, their fingers brushing lightly as he accepts the lit stick -the feeling of rough scars against Andrews skin- before the barest contact is lost.

Neil puts the cigarette between his scarred fingers, cupping his hand around it and watching the smoke curl into the windless night. His face is drawn, open, almost thoughtful, and it softens him in a way that to the ignorant eye he’d almost look innocent.

Andrew knows better, of course.

Naive maybe, but Neil Josten had never been innocent.

Andrew pulls another cigarette out of the pack and lights it, the flash of fire capturing Neil’s attention and making him look up into Andrew’s face

He has that look. That insufferable look that had haunted Andrew’s memories and dreams for far too long, and just the sight of it feels like poison in Andrews veins.

He turns away, unable to stand it.

Neil moves beside him, digging into his pockets in Andrew’s peripheral, but Andrew refuses to look at him. The sound of leather, and then Neil is holding a card.

Andrew can’t resist looking at that flash of white, curiosity getting the better of him.

Neil doesn’t answer his unspoken question, just keeps staring down at it like he can’t believe it real, with that same vulnerable look he wore every time he collected a new key.

“I couldn’t make it up here over the weekend. I had some stuff to sort with my uncle and the Feds were being unnecessarily difficult” Neil reads the card once more before looking up, “it should be all sorted now. And I’m finally allowed a phone”

“I’m surprised you want one, with your deeply rooted issues with communication technology” Andrew speaks, his voice low and bored.

Neil’s lips twitch, “yeah, well. I’ve had some time to work on that. Too much time”

Andrew takes a drag of his cigarette at the reminder and looks out across the lit up carpark below them.

“Can I have your number? That way I can let you know if I won’t make it”

Andrew shoots him a cool look, “Do not make the mistake of assuming that I care”

Neil’s face remains passive, his cool gaze calm and steady, but Andrew can feel that blue piercing through his layers, digging into his skin. Exposing him.

He hates it.

“Can I have it anyway?”

Andrew takes another drag, the smoke coiling through his lungs and pushing up out his throat, “what do I get in return?”

Neil studies him a moment, head tilted slightly, “don’t ask me questions you already know the answer to”

Andrew looks at him, unimpressed, and motions to the card Neil still holds in his hand. Neil looks down at it once more, studying it, before handing it over.

It’s a license. Neil’s photo on the front in the standard expression. Cool blue eyes gazing out, set of his mouth a warning to stay away. The mottled burn scar marring his left cheek stands out in the harsh lighting, but the faded scars on his right cheek unnoticeable in the small photo.

Beside it is a name, date of birth, and all the other details that a standard licence held. If it’s a fake, it’s a very good one. But with the way Neil was handling it, Andrew deduced that it was probably real. Neil always had a sentimentality for permanent things.

“It’s a terrible photo” Andrew finally speaks, handing the card back.

Neil takes it, his ruined fingers slipping over the words like he can press them into his skin. Like the world has opened up to him and all he has to do is grasp it.

“I’m real” Neil speaks in a voice so soft Andrew wonders if he even meant to say it out loud. He says it again, like a revelation, an impossible dream. Then has gaze lifts to Andrew and even with his lips in a line, he is smiling, “it’s been over 10 years but I’m actually a person. I finally exist”

Andrew watches him, taking in every feature of his shadowed face, “Can a man made of lies ever really exist?”

“I don’t know,” Neil never looks away, his brows creasing, “I hope so”

They stare at each other a moment longer, each captured in the words they leave unsaid, before Andrew has to turn away again.

“There’s no more secrets. I have nothing left to hide” Neil’s gaze is heavy and solid on the side of his face. He feels it like a burn. “You can ask me anything, Andrew. Anything. And I’ll answer”

Every instinct he has is telling him to walk away. To leave. To tell Neil to go and never come back. He knows better.

He knows better.

But everything about Neil unravels him at the seams. The understanding, the stare, that unwavering trust. That complete acceptance of everything Andrew is, every jagged part of him. Every deep, smouldering violence, every cold word, every line and every truth.

Neil looks at Andrew like there isn’t a single part of him that Neil would ever turn away from. Like he could never look at Andrew and see anything other than safe.

Anything other than home.

And it breaks through Andrew’s carefully constructed fortresses every time.

Neil is a force stronger than the sun and Andrew is fucking melting

“Yes or no?”

Neil stares, eyes flickering from uncertainty, to disbelief, to a desperate hope. Like Andrew just handed him the world in a single question. Neil looks like he’d been waiting a thousand years for a breath and Andrew just gave him air.

His voice is a whoosh, an exhale, a sigh on the wings of the subtle wind,

“It’s always yes”

**

"Venus" by SLEEPING AT LAST

The night sky once ruled my imagination.
Now I turn the dials with careful calculation.
After a while, I thought I’d never find you.
I convinced myself that I would never find you,
When suddenly I saw you.

At first I thought you were a constellation.
I made a map of your stars, then I had a revelation:
You’re as beautiful as endless,
You’re the universe I’m helpless in.
An astronomer at my best
When I throw away the measurements.