In retrospect, Neil suspected it was the combination of things that did it. Separately, he could handle a lot. Had handled a lot. But this was just. Too much.
It had been an away game, and they’d been doing pretty well. But the other team was getting desperate. Making risky plays, and getting aggressive. They were all getting battered, and it was becoming more a fight than a game. There had already been two fistfights; one when someone threw Dan to the ground and called her a whore, leading to Matt jumping them, and the other when someone had heard one of Kevin’s comments and punched him.
Neil was heaving with exhaustion, trying to keep an eye on everything on the court at once and accumulating bruises left and right. They were close to the end; he just had to make it another ten minutes. Which was why he reacted just a half a second too slowly when a huge Backliner came out of nowhere and slammed him against the wall. It would definitely be a penalty, possibly a red card. But the Backliner, who Neil saw was the same one who’d been causing problems for a while, didn’t seem to care.
He stepped back a little, and Neil thought they were done. He didn’t move, blinking rapidly to try and clear the stars from his eyes. But then there was a hand around his neck, pinning him against the plexiglass in a chokehold. Neil scrabbled, but the man was easily twice his size and he wasn’t playing fair.
“Fuck you, Nathaniel,” the man hissed, tightening his hold, and Neil looked up to see clear blue eyes behind his faceguard and he was just gone.
Steps, thudding heavily down the stairs. Nathaniel hid in the corner, but he knew it would be of no use. He’d broken a dish today; he’d only been trying to help, but he was so little and his hands had been slick with soap and it had just slipped—
“Nathaniel,” his father’s voice was a low growl; a predator stalking his prey. He almost never raised his voice. He didn’t need to. “Are you hiding from me?”
Nathaniel scrabbled to his feet immediately. “No, sir.”
His father appeared in front of him, not holding any knives. That didn’t matter though. Nathan didn’t need knives to do what he wanted.
“I heard about today. Did you cut yourself?”
Neil swallowed, knowing that it would be worse for him if he didn’t answer. “Yes.”
Nathan made a little ‘tsk’ sound, which sounded distinctly more like a snake preparing to strike. “That was foolish. We must have use of our hands, Boy. Must be more careful.”
Nathaniel nodded frantically, unable to respond.
Nathan’s hand closed around his throat, lifting him from the ground. Nathaniel’s hands reached up of their own accord; he hadn’t yet learned how to keep them to himself.
As soon as they touched his father’s hands, Nathan let go of his throat, only to backhand him to the ground.
“What have I told you about touching me, child?”
—The pressure was gone from his throat as the body of the Backliner was violently thrown away from him. He immediately slid to the ground, knees drawn up to his chest. He couldn’t breathe.
“—eil? Neil. Answer me.”
Neil heard the voice, couldn’t place it. The world had gone dark and spots were clouding his vision.
Then there was a hand on the back of his neck, pushing gently but firmly until his head was between his knees.
And oh, he knew that touch. That touch was safety and protection and home.
He took one heaving breath and then another, and breathing became a little easier.
“Andrew,” he gasped out.
The hand just moved a little, sliding up and back down. There was no pressure now, for which Neil was grateful.
Now that he was breathing a little easier, he managed to lift his head, blinking against the lights. Andrew was kneeling in front of him, and the rest of the team was standing protectively around them in a tight circle.
Matt and Kevin were facing Neil and Andrew, but everyone else was facing the crowd. Wymack was off to the side, and it looked like he was screaming at the coach of the other team. The Backliner was nowhere in sight.
Neil reached with shaky hands to try and undo the straps of his helmet; failed once, twice, and then Andrew swiftly unclipped it for him and lifted it off his head.
“You’re done for the rest of the game,” Kevin said flatly. “And I don’t want to hear any argument. We’ve basically won anyway. And now everyone’s pissed.”
Neil didn’t need any convincing; he nodded mutely, and let Andrew pull him to his feet. They made their way over to the sidelines; the rest of the team eyeing Neil with concern but otherwise leaving him alone.
Andrew didn’t leave his side until he was off the court and heading to the locker room.
“Take a shower. How’s your throat?”
Neil shrugged, beyond words at this point, but Andrew didn’t need Neil to answer. He nodded, and headed back out onto the court.
Wymack finally made it back to their side of the court. “You alright, Neil? That was a dirty fuckin move.”
“Fine, coach,” Neil rasped, wincing at the sound of his own voice.
Wymack rolled his eyes. “Yeah, ok. Go shower off and then get back here so you can see everyone kick ass for you.”
Neil nodded, and headed back to the showers, still feeling unsteady on his feet.
The showers didn’t have stalls, and even though Neil knew no one would be bothering him, he was still uncomfortable in the large open space. He showered off as quickly as he dared, and then dressed and went back out to watch the game. He was still reeling, but felt like he really couldn’t process right now. He just couldn’t.
The Foxes were fighting dirtier now. Still nothing compared to the other team, but they were playing for revenge. The Backliner had been red-flagged, and it seemed to have taken the last fight out of the rest of his team. After all, even for rough play, this had been taking things a step too far.
They won quickly, and the post-game handshake was an extremely uncomfortable event. The other team had the grace to look a little guilty, but the Foxes ignored them with stony faces.
Then everyone was filtering off the court to go shower. They gave Neil tired smiles as they headed off, until it was just Andrew standing in front of.
“I’ll get your bag,” Neil said, his voice still a little hoarse. “You go shower.”
Andrew said nothing, but his jaw visibly tensed before he nodded and headed off.
Neil followed them into the locker room, grabbing Andrew’s bag before successfully dodging Nicky’s questions and going to stand out to wait for the others, arms crossed on his chest. He tried to ignore the rising feeling of anxiety crawling up his throat.
He’d known that his story was public now (at least parts of it), but it was the first time another team had used his own name against him. It bothered him that they’d gotten to him this way, and that he could still hear his mother screaming at him that he hadn’t done enough; that he’d given up on running after only a year without her.
The others appeared soon enough, and made their way as a group out to the bus. It was once the cool night air hit Neil’s bruising skin that everything seemed to hit him.
He took a staggering breath, reality swimming a little around him and phantom hands pressing against his skin, and the urge to run was thrumming through his veins, stronger than he’d felt in months.
He turned wild eyes to the dimly lit street, already searching for signs of a threat and easiest routes away.
Run, his mother’s voice seemed to say, and he could smell cigarettes and gasoline.
He didn’t even fully realize that his feet were moving until a strong hand reached out to stop him.
It hovered in front of his chest, not touching but a barrier nonetheless.
Neil blinked, turning his sharp gaze to Andrew. The blond was standing beside him, no expression on his face except an intense focus that for once was doing nothing to calm Neil.
“Andrew,” Neil breathed, trying so hard to ground himself in Andrew but it wasn’t working.
“What do you need?” Andrew asked.
Neil didn’t need to think about it. “I—need to run. I’m sorry—“
Andrew shook his head; turned to Nicky. “Take our stuff. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Andrew are you serious? Neil probably needs medical attention—Andrew!”
Andrew had unceremoniously handed off everything but their phones and wallets to Nicky, before looking at Coach.
Wymack looked to both of them silently, before nodding. “You text me. One of you, preferably Neil but I honestly don’t care. Text me if you need anything and if I don’t see you tomorrow I’m coming after you and you’ll both be running marathons all spring.”
They nodded, and then Andrew was staring back at Neil. Neil gaped at him a little, before nodding. “Alright. Let’s go.”
Without another guilty look to his teammates, he took off running into the dark; the footsteps of Andrew a surprising but reassuring presence at his back.
Two hours later Neil was finally done running. They found a gas station and Neil was shoved to a seated position on the curb while Andrew got them waters.
Neil had run the panic away and all he was left with was exhaustion and a guilt, an uncomfortable feeling in his chest that still surprised him when he felt it. He was unused to his actions affecting other people.
Neil was actually impressed with how Andrew had kept up with him. He’d had to slow down a little, but Andrew hadn’t said a word.
Now Andrew sat beside him and wordlessly handed him a water, while he chugged his own and then started peeling back the wrapper of a chocolate bar.
“My mother would have smacked you for that purchase,” Neil said emotionlessly; the anxiety drained out of him and drawing out truths like poison.
Andrew cocked his head at Neil, before stuffing the rest of the bar in his mouth.
“If I wake up and I’m in a ditch I’m blaming you,” Andrew said, which was practically a declaration of love after everything Neil had just put him through.
Neil shot him a tired smile. “I mean, if you were in a ditch I don’t think you would be waking up to blame me in the first place.”
Andrew squinted at him. “Do you feel better? Do you feel better now that you’ve said that?”
They sat silently for a little while, the crickets chirping in the trees around them almost peaceful.
“So if you were with your mom,” Andrew only hesitated a little on the word ‘mom,’ “what would be the next step.”
Neil rubbed his face a little, analyzing their surroundings and their steps to get here. “Well, first I’d toss our phones, not that I’d have them in the first place. If I was with mom we’d get our hands on a car. But if I was alone, I’d hitchhike to a couple places, double back a couple times to throw them off our trail. Then, like at Millport I’d try to find an empty house, preferably in a new development. Get some cash from one of our secret deposits. Change my appearance again.”
He took a breath, and trailed off. There was more (of course there was more, there were infinite possibilities), but he couldn’t talk about it any more, and anyway Andrew had probably only asked to distract Neil.
“I feel like I’ve failed. Not just by running tonight. But it’s like—she wanted me to run so badly. She told me to never go near Exy again. I’ve failed her.”
Neil couldn’t look at Andrew. He stared out into the blackness, trying to think about how they would get home.
“Look at me, Neil.”
Neil’s attention was pulled instantly; his eyes snapped to Andrew’s and the intensity he saw there took his breath away.
“Your mother is dead. Your father is dead. They can’t touch you anymore. You can’t fail them. They aren’t here.”
“Aren’t they?” Neil said softly, a touch of bitterness to his voice. He brushed his fingers along the bruises darkening on his neck.
“Stop that.” Andrew snapped, reaching out to lay his fingers on top of Neil’s. The gentleness of his touch was at odds with his voice.
He curled his fingers around Neil’s, drawing his hand away from his neck. “They can’t touch you. You made it. You lived. You beat them. And just because you had a bad night doesn’t mean you’re failing your mom or that your dad is still hurting you. They’re just ghosts.”
“Yes or no?” Neil murmured, and at Andrew’s assent he leaned until he was pressed firmly against his side, resting his head on Andrew’s shoulder.
“I saw a sign for a truck stop a mile up,” Neil said quietly, not wanting to ruin the moment. “We can hitchhike from there.”
Andrew flicked his forehead. “Idiot. I texted Wymack as soon as we got here. He’ll be here in ten.”
Neil’s eyes widened in surprise. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him, but of course Andrew was right. There were people he could count on now; people who loved him and would be there when he called. It was a strange feeling.
Neil knew everything wasn’t all better. Neither of them would be fixed over night. But a year ago there was no telling what Neil would have done when he panicked, and now he was here with Andrew, with a ride on the way back to his warm bed and his family. And he counted that as a victory.