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Phantom Pains

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The trial for Nathan Wesninski and associates was a long and grueling process. The case, officially dubbed The United States v. Nathan Wesninski, et al,took years to build up evidence and approximately three months in court.

 

Each major player in Nathan’s enterprise was subject to their own day of sentencing: all the evidence of their individual crimes building up their direct involvements in The Butcher’s organized crime syndicate.

 

Neil went to every single one with Wymack and Andrew at his side. Most of them were easy enough, as they didn’t really have anything to do with him directly.

 

However, once his father’s men started speaking about the crimes they were involved in directly with his father, pictures came up. Photos of his childhood home, the basement with blood stained floors, bedrooms used as holding cells, and holes in the walls made by police (he really had no one to blame but himself for that one. During his first questioning after Baltimore, he told the detectives to make sure they checked inside the walls of Nathan’s home for any missing persons) it made the trials a little harder to compartmentalize. 

 

Neil only had to testify twice. The first time was when he acted as a witness for the murders of three men that had taken place in his childhood home at the hands of one the living associates, and under the instruction of Nathan. It was just one of the homicides that he could specifically recall (that the authorities knew about) from his time in the Wesninski house. 

 

The second time Neil testified, it was against Lola.

 

 He felt a twisted sense of pleasure when he saw that her face was just as mutilated as his from the bullet wound she sustained when Stuart’s men bombarded the basement. The feeling was quickly overshadowed when her eyes locked onto his. First the pictures of the blood stained floor, then the carnage in the basement directly after Neil had been discovered, bodies of his father and his people, littering the floor, and then photos that had been taken of Neil and his injuries.

 

The memory Wymack’s hand on his back and Andrew’s body heat from a thigh and shoulder pressed against his side kept Neil grounded during his time on the stand. His voice steady, eyes not straying from the lawyer in front of him. It was as much as he could’ve asked for in a situation like that, in front of that many people.

 

He’d even kept his composure after the verdicts each day, walking out of the court doors and into the press. It was all a great show to put on in public.

 

But back at Fox Tower, Neil was in a haze. As the trials got closer to home, Neil became more and more detached. Talked less, staring in to space more. Even at practice he barely spoke; Kevin and Neil’s co-captain Robin were sharing his captain duties until he found his footing again.

At night, he’d started sleeping farther and farther away from Andrew. He was so close to the edge of the bed by the time Lola’s trial came, that one move in the night would leave him on the ground. 

 

He didn’t feel right. He felt out of his body and amiss. There was too much Nathanial in him; every memory he’d made with the foxes was surpassed by memories of his childhood. He’d overheard Nicky telling one of the newer Foxes that he was reminded of how Neil was when he first got to PSU his freshman year and Neil couldn’t find it in himself to feel guilty.

 

Andrew seemed to recognize that Neil was going through an internal battle and that he needed space. So Andrew didn’t push. The only touches between them for nearly a month consisted of Andrew holding the back of Neil’s neck when Neil forgot how to breathe at night and the body heat shared between their sides as they sat and walked side by side. Once Neil started detaching from reality, Andrew never left his side save for class and when he had to be in-goal.

 

Andrew showed his support with his silence and constant presence next to Neil. Though his face portrayed the same indifference it did any other time, he was worried. Andrew usually knew exactly how to bring Neil back to him, but this time was different. He wouldn’t admit it out loud, but sometimes at practice he would watch Neil as he took periodic pauses to stare into space, and a feeling of haplessness would come over him. What if he couldn’t bring Neil back this time?

 

Andrew could place that look on Neil’s face anywhere, he’d been seeing it in his own reflection for years, and the fact that it was now on his boy’s face was enough to make the pace of his heart match that of when he was sitting on the edge of a roof.

 

__

 

It all came to a boiling point about a week after his testifying against Lola. Neil’s eyes had been constantly burning hot from the memory of bodies, blood, blades against skin, and hot coils on his face, at every blink.

 

Tuesday he had spent the night tossing and turning and had to leave the bed for his own bunk. Wednesday he didn’t sleep at all, instead staring at the wall until Kevin’s alarm went off for morning practice.

 

Thursday, Neil slept. And he dreamed. He dreamed of every bad thing he had ever seen and done. He dreamt of Riko’s spit in his mouth and Jean’s body holding him down while his skin was torn apart and he dreamt of Lola’s breath on his face as she disfigured his body. He dreamt of all the times he saw his father take a cleaver or an axe to someone’s body, except Nathan’s face was replaced by Nathaniel’s, and then Neil’s face replaced that, burn scar and all.

 

Neil woke with a violent shudder and drenched in sweat. A quick look around the room and at Kevin’s sleeping form told him it was early morning. As slowly and quietly as he could he left the bed and made way for the kitchen.

 

Neil needed to busy his hands and mind so he started on a pot of coffee, enough for two since Neil leaving the bed meant Andrew would soon follow. Neil stood with his back against the countertop staring at the wall. His head felt fuzzy as if it was full of white noise. He felt grime on his skin and had to check underneath his fingernails several times for blood.

 

As the coffee’s gurgling came to an end Andrew padded into the kitchen. Neil poured himself a cup and one for Andrew, which he handed over. Even though they drank in silence, Andrew could sense that Neil was not okay. Just as he had been not okay for the past month. The tight set of Neil’s shoulders and the far off look in his eyes told Andrew that today was going to be a bad day.

 

Neil finished his cup and softly placed it in the sink then walked to the bathroom. He could feel Andrew’s eyes on him the whole way as he closed and locked the door behind him.

 

He braced his hands on the bathroom counter as he took steadying breaths. He just needed to get his mind together. Every time he tried to think of his Foxes and his new life at Palmetto, his brain short-circuited and immediately replaced it with the memories and feelings of his life and pain before.

 

Neil made the mistake of catching his reflection in the mirror and felt his heart drop. His diaphragm wouldn’t allow for a full breath and the panic and dread hit him all at once. The only thing he could think to do was to get his facehis father’s face out of his sight, and he was punching the mirror before he could think twice.

 

Glass shattered around him and a quick look at the blood on his knuckles sent his mind spiraling so much deeper into his nightmare that all he could see was darkness, and all he could feel was the phantom pains wracking his body.

 

Everything hurt. It was like a full-body, gut wrenching, throb and the only thing Neil could see was his father’s reflection, and the blood covering his hand.

 

He registered the cold tile and realized he was on his knees; Neil put his head to the ground – he just wants these memories, this war on his skin, to stop. His hands come to his ears, cuffing them, trying to drown out the persistent ringing, the sound of Lola’s breath, and the sound of squelching skin and blood.

 

He hears gunshots – they’re so close – and a name.

 

“Neil.” More shots. “Abram, open the fucking door.”

 

Neil can feel himself sobbing, he’s pulling at his hair: he just wants out of this body, out of this basement, out of the Nest.

 

“Neil, you have to breathe.” The shots have stopped, and nobody has ever told Nathaniel to breathe.

 

“If you don’t say something or open the door in the next thirty seconds, I’m breaking it open.” Neil thinks the gunshots may have been more like hammering – or banging – or even knocking.

 

“Abram, I heard glass. If you hurt yourself make some kind of noise.” There’s the rattle of something small and metal, and he hears that voice again.

 

His sobs turn into rough, choking, inhalations, but he can hear his name. His name. He takes one of his hands away from his ear and puts it in front of him, feeling around to suss out his location, and his hand collides with something that feels like a cabinet.

 

Neil feels the light from the hallway flooding in before he realizes that the door has been picked open and someone has made their way into the room. He hears his name being called; again, it’s his name. Abram, Abram, Abram, Neil.

 

He doesn’t realize his eyes were screwed shut until he’s pealing them open and looking at the dirt covered grout of bathroom tile. He turns his head toward the light, toward the hallway, toward the door, toward --

 

Andrew.” Neil chokes on the name, and it’s just a word, but it’s also a question, an answer, and a plea all wrapped into one.

 

Andrew takes one hand and pulls Neil up, not standing, but sitting with his back to the wall, giving him more air to suck into his lungs. His eyes, now adjusted to the bathroom, take in the four toothbrushes, the near-empty hand soap, and the hand towel that Nicky bought while at some ridiculous Star Wars themed market.

 

He sees the chip in the sink counter that Kevin left when he was chasing Nicky and slipped on one of Andrew’s socks, and he sees the black headband that Neil had bought for Andrew after he complained about sweat getting into his eyes during the runs he joined Neil on when he could be convinced.

 

Neil comes back into his own body and puts his own hand over the one Andrew has on his chest, feeling his heart flitter like a trapped bird. And then he sees the blood.

 

“Abram, are you hurt anywhere else?” Neil shakes his head minutely, “Can I was your hand? There’s glass in it.”

 

“Yeah – yes.” Neil manages to get the words out, and holds his torn hand to Andrew, who wets the ugly Star Wars towel and puts it to Neil’s fist.

 

“Andrew, what – oh Neil,” Nicky stands in the doorway, still rumpled from sleep and a pained expression on his face. “Do you need anything?”

 

Without looking away from Neil’s hand Andrew responds, “Ice. And the first-aid under the sink.” Nicky goes without another word. Once he’s back with the items he gives Neil another heartbroken look.

 

“Are you okay, Neil?” Neil tries to smile, but it might have come off as a grimace.

 

“I’m getting there, Nicky.”

 

“If you need anything-“ Nicky tries again, “We’re all here for you. You know if you need to talk. All of us.” Neil feels a bit more of the fog clearing from his mind as he nods and watches Nicky go.

 

His body is still sore, and there’s a throbbing in his gut. “Andrew, Andrew, I think one of my cuts is open-“ he points to his abdomen with his free hand, “on my side. It opened up again.”

 

Andrew silently looks at Neil and reaches to lift the shirt and look at his side – there’s nothing.

 

“It just your fist, Neil. You punched the mirror.” Andrew is looking into Neil’s eyes again, silent and firm and sure. “Do you remember?”

 

Neil shakes his head no.All he remembers was the pain. Andrew’s finished putting gauze on his hand, closes the first aid, and sits on the ground next to Neil.

 

“I can’t do this, anymore.” Neil closes his eyes briefly. “I’m so tired, Andrew.”

 

Andrew stares straight ahead, but the look in his eyes is something that Neil remembers from years ago, in Wymack’s living room: the look of understanding.

 

Minutes pass, “Bee told me I could bring in a plus one,” Andrew picks an imaginary piece of lint off of his sweatpants, “If I want.”

 

Neil still doesn’t feel comfortable talking to Bee on his own, but after two years he’s come to recognize the importance she has in Andrew’s life. If listening to her speak to Andrew will set a few things out for him, he thinks it might be worth a try. He feels like he’s at one of his lowest points: exhausted, in pain, and floating through his life like a ghost.

 

Neil uses his unwrapped hand to feel along the gauze on his fist, “Maybe.”

Andrew finally turns his head to look at Neil, skull against the wall and one leg bent to his chest, “Okay.”

 

Neil takes in a deep breath, and blows out what fog there is left in his head. Living like a ghost is getting old, but he thinks it’s about time to work things out.