Actions

Work Header

Live While I Breathe

Work Text:

*******

Intent on reaching Eden’s in enough time to enjoy a round or two before last call, Andrew was made late because of some stupid errand for Nicky. As the latest ‘where the hell are you’ message from Kevin flashed across the small display screen of his motorcycle, he rolled his eyes in reaction and so caught the blaze of an orange and red streak across the night sky above before it vanished behind a billboard promising a perfect life through dubious consumer choices.

A very familiar orange and red streak.

For a moment his gloved fingers tightened on the hand grips of his bike as he contemplated racing after the suicidal idiot determined to end up plastered against the side of a building that night, before a message from Aaron flickered across the display screen (even ruder than Kevin’s had been). Andrew clicked his tongue and left the ongoing mystery of one idiot called Neil Josten for another time (if he didn’t end up a building pancake) before continuing on his way.

Eden’s Twilight was packed for a Thursday night, yet he didn’t have a problem finding a spot for his bike or skipping the line (the perks of being a former employee and a valued customer). Vin and Mike gave him respectful nods as he entered the popular club, and when people caught sight of the small orange and white Foxes emblem on his black leather jacket they knew enough to get out of his way (if they didn’t recognize him in the first place).

His fellow ‘monsters’ were at their usual table; Nicky, Aaron and Kevin, appearing well on their way to wasted for the night. Nicky, dressed in skin-tight blue jeans that had to be half spandex and a rainbow crop-top that shimmered through the colors, perked up at his arrival and held out his right hand, wrist covered with multiple leather bracelets. “Did you get it?”

“It’s what took me so long,” Andrew said as he dropped several packets of the latest ‘designer’ version of cracker dust in his cousin’s palm. “Erik better give you a ride home tonight.”

Nicky flopped his left hand about before he divided the packets among the four of them. “Yeah, yeah, he got stuck working late but he’s been texting to make sure I’m all right. Now let’s have some fun! To us kicking Hornet ass on Saturday!” he proclaimed as he dumped his packet of dust in the shot in front of him.

Kevin frowned even as he did the same. “Don’t jinx us, we need to be prepared and-“

“Shut up and drink,” Aaron told the killjoy before he tossed back his own doctored shot. “I’ve had enough of this shit, he’s your problem now.” That was directed toward Andrew as Aaron slipped from the stool and headed toward the dance floor, his black t-shirt still clinging to his back from previous excursions out there and fingers busy tapping away on his wrist comm as he probably sent a message to Katelyn.

“Oh, wait up!” Nicky downed another shot then went after Andrew’s twin, which left him a scowling Kevin who also did another shot; at least there were several untouched ones off to the side, which meant that Andrew didn’t have to have ‘words’ with any of them before going to the bar.

“They need to take things more seriously,” Kevin complained as he slumped a little more over the table, thick black brows drawn over his bright green eyes and scarred left hand curled into a protective fist. “We might be doing well this season, but all that can come to an end in an instant.” He rubbed at the back of his left hand as his expression grew contemplative. “No one wants that.” The scowl returned as he glanced up at Andrew. “Except maybe you.”

Andrew gave a blank look in return as he had two shots in a row then spoke. “Your protégé’s out there tonight practicing rather than killing brain cells with alcohol – that is, until he rams his hoverboard into an immovable surface.”

Kevin’s demeanor did another 180 as he sat up and smiled. “He’s practicing? Dammit, why didn’t he say something? I should-“ He blinked when Andrew grabbed hold of the front of his black shirt to keep him from standing up (and most likely falling down considering the alcohol and dust). “What?”

“Then there’ll be two red stains on some building if you go out there. Stay put and bother him in the morning, when you sober up.” Most likely, Neil hadn’t said anything because Kevin could be an unbearable prick (well, more of an unbearable prick) during off-hours practice.

“But I… fine.” Kevin took to pouting over being denied his precious Exy, which made Andrew huff and hurry through more of the alcohol, which finally hit his fucked-up system and caused a pleasant buzz that would fade enough by last call to allow him to drive himself and Kevin home.

Who would’ve known that he’d have court-mandated drugs forced upon him for a couple of years due to ‘excessive violence’ to thank for such a high tolerance? Yeah, life was so ‘giving’ like that in regards to him. For a moment he considered going up to the bar and asking Roland for another round (for possibly more than that) before he reminded himself why that it wouldn’t be a good idea (for more than one reason).

Instead, he sat there while Kevin rambled on about their game on Saturday, about the Hornets’ strengths and weaknesses, until he grew bored enough with it all and slammed his fist onto the table. When Kevin nearly fell off the stool in reaction, Andrew gave him a mirthless grin, a simple pull of the lips which held no meaning to him. “You finally going to tell me what’s going on between you and Josten?”

It looked as if it took a couple of seconds for the question to breach Kevin’s alcohol-fuddled brain before he shook his head. “No, I… I keep telling you, he’s not a threat.” There was a slight slur to the striker’s voice but his eyes were clear enough to indicate that he was once again telling the truth (at least as much as he saw it). “His past… it’s a mess and it’s not good, but he’s not a threat, and he’s what’s keeping us in first place,” Kevin argued. “Just accept him, okay?”

Andrew held his friend’s gaze for several seconds before he clicked his tongue then lit a hand-rolled cigarette which made Kevin scowl in disapproval at the old-fashioned thing. “You’d accept a starving lion in Exy gear if you thought it would help the team win,” he argued as he blew out a plume of smoke.

“Maybe, but Neil won’t betray us, and those things were outlawed for a reason.” When Andrew made a point of inhaling on the cigarette, Kevin sighed. “Anyway, Neil’s not a… a wolf in disguise or anything like that. He might not want his past known to everyone, but he confessed things to Coach and me, and that’s good enough. Let it go.”

The mysterious redhead had ‘confessed’ to a bleeding heart and an Exy-obsessed addict Andrew was sworn to protect… but he had to admit that Wymack was also concerned about Kevin and the rest of his Foxes so he shouldn’t allow too much of a threat on the team.

Then again, he allowed Andrew to join so…

“I don’t need you to make my job any more difficult,” Andrew tried again. “Which is why I need to know if Josten’s a problem.”

Kevin now appeared more exasperated than inebriated. “I keep- Andrew, he’s not a Mori- he’s not one of their pawns,” he said as his alcohol-muddled brain caught up to his tongue. “He’s not here to make me go back to the Ravens, just to play Exy. He has to play Exy, so leave him alone, okay?”

That wasn’t the first time that Kevin had said that – the whole ‘Josten has to play Exy’ thing, and he was rather certain about the young man not being tied to the Moriyamas. No, that he wasn’t working for the Moriyamas; Kevin had an interesting way of phrasing things when it came to Neil, and Andrew a growing suspicion that the two knew each other before the redhead had shown up in Palmetto to join its underground Exy team. It would explain why Kevin had been so certain about the unknown striker’s talent and him not being a threat.

For the moment, however, Andrew would back off since Kevin was holding firm; he’d take another stab (figuratively for the moment) at Neil and see if the redhead was any more forthcoming with answers. While Neil might be a suicidal idiot and an Exy addict, he was at least a better conversationalist and more enjoyable to watch from across the table.

That’s all the younger man was, Andrew told himself as he picked up the last shot – a too-attractive puzzle waiting to be solved. Once Andrew cracked open Neil’s secrets and assured himself that the striker wasn’t a threat (or got rid of him if he was), then he could put Neil out of mind and find something else to occupy his time.

It was as simple as that.

*******

Neil adjusted the protective guard on his left elbow while Wymack went over the Hornets’ stats once more before the game for the night, his attention only half-focused on the man’s deep voice as it filled the impromptu locker room; the game was set up in Palmetto’s lower East End that night, in some abandoned metal fabrication factory. He was always surprised by the amount of effort put into half an hour of game time… until he remembered how much money would be made on the illegal gambling, on the wagers placed on the two teams, on who would score the most points (teams and players), on if anyone would be injured or not and various other variables… with the local police earning a cut as well as the two Exy teams (hence how the game managed to survive) – and the Moriyamas, of course.

He swallowed a bitter laugh as he thought about the powerful family behind both the underground sport and a good chunk of the criminal network which spread across the US (and Japan), a family he’d been unhappy to discover he owed an allegiance to because of his ‘dear’ father. At least when the Moriyamas had caught up to him several months ago, Ichirou had only allowed Nathan Wesninski to ‘play’ with him a little to prove a point before extracting a promise from Neil to turn over most of the money he made from Exy to the family and then let him go, realizing that Neil was of more use to him as a mostly free agent instead of handed over to his father to be carved up piece by piece or broken little by little by Riko and Tetsuji.

All Neil cared about was that he was away from the monster in human flesh that was his father, that he could play Exy for a living, that he was more or less done with running. He would have preferred to be farther away from Baltimore than Palmetto, but Ichirou had sent him here to keep an eye on another wayward Moriyama resource, to ensure that Kevin Day didn’t forget to repay what was owed to the main branch (and keep his mouth shut) as well as discourage Riko from causing too much trouble.

Neil hadn’t seen Kevin in years, not since right before his mother had run off with him, but it was… it surprised him how comforting it was to have someone who knew the truth (or some of it, at least) about him, who knew him back when he’d been Nathaniel Wesninski. To have someone vouch for him, once Kevin and Wymack were assured that he wasn’t there to make Kevin go back to Charleston and the Ravens but just to remind Kevin of owed debts and keep a watchful eye out for Ichirou.

Which was good, because Kevin, after the whole mess with Riko and leaving the Ravens, had made a deal with Andrew Minyard for protection from the psychotic bastard, and Andrew clearly didn’t trust Neil. That would break his heart if he wasn’t used to always being the new guy in town after all the years on the run with his mother, if he didn’t realize that Andrew was the type to distrust basically everyone.

So it was almost amusing to find excuses to avoid being alone with Andrew, to refuse his invitations to the one club that the goalie and his family went to all the time. He didn’t need Kevin to warn him that Andrew would try something to get the ‘truth’ out of him, even though Kevin repeatedly told the man that Neil could be trusted.

Neil was a bit envious that Kevin had a friend (or whatever) who looked after him so carefully, considering that the only one who’d done that for Neil was his mother. She’d dragged him from Baltimore to avoid his father handing him over to Tetsuji Moriyama, had run with him all over Europe and North America to avoid his father’s men, and died to keep him safe.

She’d taught him how to lie and steal and to survive on his own, so some goalie with a juvie record, a bad attitude and broad shoulders wasn’t going to intimidate him.

Kevin came over while Neil stretched out his hamstrings, his expression determined as he flexed the fingers of his gloved left hand with his right. “You went over the notes I sent you, right? Mind Jackson because-“

“Because he tries to knock strikers off their boards.” Neil nodded once as he straightened up. “And Wilson’s weak on defending rebound shots from the left.”

Kevin grunted in approval. “Good. Be careful out there and we should do all right.” His gaze drifted over to Seth, who was arguing with Wymack about being one of the reserve backliners. “Don’t do anything stupid, especially since you probably were out practicing all night.”

“I got some rest,” Neil argued, but he gave another nod, a slight one that time. “I’ll be fine.”

Kevin made a sound of disbelief as he lightly cuffed the back of Neil’s head, but there was a hint of a smile on his face while he told Neil he better be then walked off; out of the corner of Neil’s eye, he noticed Andrew staring at the two of them and gazed back before the goalie pointedly looked away.

Seth let out a long string of curses over being regulated to sub backliner and glared at Neil as the Foxes grabbed their helmets and hoverboards in anticipation of starting the game, but Neil was used to it by then; he’d gained a spot with the Foxes because of Seth’s in-game injury, after all, when the then-striker had been knocked off his hoverboard and hurt enough to keep him out for the rest of the season.

If it were any other team than the Foxes, Seth’s career would be over, but Abby Winfield and Aaron Minyard, the team’s nurse and doctor in training (as well as sometime sub backliner) had patched him together enough that he could return as a backliner. Seth’s injuries left him unable to handle the speed and coordination required of a striker, but he could still manage a hoverboard and block well.

That allowed the Foxes a bare minimum of players, which could be difficult if the team wasn’t one of the tightest that Neil had ever played with when out on the court (off of it was another matter entirely). Dan Wilds was a capable dealer and the team’s fearless captain, Allison Reynolds was unafraid to take on any player no matter their size, Renee Walker a good goalie who missed nothing while out on court (or off, which made Neil rather nervous), and Matt Boyd one of the better backliners in their division. Seth and Nicky… well, they tried and they weren’t terrible, but Neil was grateful for Matt whenever he was out there, and that Kevin and Andrew were two of the best players he’d ever had the luck to have on his team – even if Kevin could be an arrogant know-it-all at times and Andrew a suspicious bastard.

Once Andrew stood on the goal platform for his half of the game, it was rare for any shots to get past him, for him to move more than his arms as his racquet shot out to block the bright yellow ball. An Exy goalie had to be made of stern stuff since more than a few were knocked off their high post in an attempt for players to score, but Andrew was nigh immovable.

Renee allowed three points to the Hornets while Neil flew around the court, the wind rushing against his face and that incredible feeling of free-falling in his stomach as he flipped around on his hoverboard, a good third of the time spiraling around upside down as he avoided the Hornets (avoided Jackson’s attempt to knock him off his ‘board) while he chased after the bright ball or caught the throws from Matt, Nicky or Kevin. He assisted Kevin with four goals and scored two of his own, a huge grin on his face each time the Hornets’ goal lit up.

When it was Andrew’s turn in the goal? Neil had to force himself to not pay too much attention to that side of the court unless he was over there to chase after the ball, to not stare at the way Andrew could be so still one moment and then move in a blur to catch the ball and send it flying away. A flash of dark gold was the only hint Neil would have to flip up the front of his ‘board and prepare himself for the impact of the ball thrown his way, and he laughed as he caught it before he dropped several feet in a spiral then spun around to race toward the opposing goal before Jackson could target him again.

Sometimes he felt as if he was only truly alive when flying through the air like that, during those thirty intense minutes. Sometimes he felt such a powerful ache when the final buzzer rang out to end the game, when he had to return to the ground; despite the windburn and bruises from the ball’s impact and the body slams and the strain from balancing on a hoverboard and….

Sometimes he wished that the game could go on forever.

Matt caught him for a quick bear hug once he was on the ground, followed by Nicky, and Kevin tousled his hair even while the striker complained that they should have won by more than a seven-point spread. Neil rolled his eyes as he knocked his right elbow into Kevin’s ribs (and Nicky called him a killjoy), while the rest of the Foxes (save a blank-faced Andrew) cheered in celebration of their win.

He felt better when the camera drones recording the game for the viewers (more importantly, the people betting on the outcome) flew off, as well as the disgruntled Hornets disappearing into the building set up for their locker room since it was clear they weren’t happy about their loss.  The pleased Foxes returned to their own makeshift locker room for Abby and Aaron to tend to any minor injuries sustained from the game while Wymack and Dan did a quick review, then they washed off so they could go home (or party, from the sounds of the plans shouted about). Neil had to wait until everyone was done in the showers set up for the men before he could wash, unwilling to reveal all of his scars to his teammates, and only took a couple of minutes to scrub clean once he was alone.

Since he’d turned down the offer to go out and drink yet again, unwilling to risk getting drunk while around a bunch of strangers and not a fan of crowds in general, he used his wrist com to check how much money he’d made from the game that night; Wymack was good about having the credits in their accounts by the next morning, which meant that Ichirou would have his very generous cut by that afternoon. It was a good thing that Neil wasn’t one for indulgences, that he was fine with a simple apartment and his hoverboard, and still had money left over for an ‘emergency fund’.

Content that the Foxes had done well with their win and the bets placed during the game, Neil grabbed his personal ‘board and headed home at last, eager to feel the rush of wind against his skin and through his hair before he called it a night.

As much as he loved ‘boarding during a game, the thrill of racing through the air while chasing after the ball and dealing with people who tried to knock you off your hoverboard… there was something to seeing the city spread before and beneath you, the lights scattered about like stars just out of reach, the unexpected fear from a bird flying right in front of you, the blast of steam to be avoided or flipping up or below a span of wires.

He’d spent eight years on the run with his mother and then two on his own, ten long years of constant fear and dread, yet when he had his ‘board beneath him and the sky around him… it was pure exhilaration and complete freedom.

His mother had never understood that, had never understood why he loved Exy so much, why he’d risked her anger so many times to borrow or steal hoverboards and practice whenever he could, to join in with the local teams to keep his skills sharp and earn some money. He might be nothing, might be a new person every few weeks, but that nothing was bearable when it was him and the horizon bleeding on to infinity.

neil cyberpunk

He’d just dodged a startled pigeon when he caught a shadow that shouldn’t be there, when a sixth sense developed from needing to avoid an unpredictable, abusive father who’d sent murderers after him and his mother made him shove his left foot down and send the ‘board flipping him over twice, just in time to avoid another ‘board slicing forward where his head had been. He caught a glimpse of its rider and recognized Jackson from the Hornets, right before the chase was on.

Neil knew the city from all of his late night practices, knew his ‘board well and didn’t think it was false pride to say that he was one of the best strikers in the division (if not the league), but Jackson had a more powerful hoverboard and was able to catch up when Neil put space between them with his tricks and evasions. Desperate to keep some distance between them until they reached the old factory section where he could put his better maneuverability to use among the tightly packed buildings, Neil barely avoided being beheaded again when something came sailing through the air with enough force to knock Jackson off-balance; he didn’t stick around to see if the asshole managed to stay on his ‘board but took off, both to put more distance between them and avoid witnessing anything that might get him in trouble.

As he charged forward, he noticed a black and orange blur on the ground, noticed how it followed him. Curious about the bike, he flew ahead a couple blocks before he finally landed so he could find out why its rider had intervened to help him out with Jackson, and had just pushed back his protective glasses when the bike pulled to a stop a few feet away.

Surprise made his breath catch when he realized that Andrew Minyard was on the sleek bike, dressed in his usual all-black attire save for an orange and black jacket with a black Foxes’ scarf bearing the team’s pawprint logo in white tied around his left bicep. The goalie pushed up his protective eye-gear as well while he sat up, appearing to scorn helmets as much as Neil did when not playing, and shook out one of those hand-rolled cigarettes he favored despite the fact that they were illegal.

“Just how suicidal are you?” Andrew asked after he blew out a plume of smoke. “For the sake of curiosity.”

The ‘thank you’ on the tip of Neil’s tongue died as he glared at the asshole. “What? All I was doing was going home and that bastard tried to kill me, how is it my fault?”

“I don’t know, maybe because there’s these ‘go ahead and throttle me’ vibes coming off you?” Andrew offered as he eyed Neil up and down. “That and you spent the whole game taunting the guy?”

“It’s Exy,” Neil gritted out. “He tries to knock me off my ‘board, I throw in his face how much he sucks at playing because he’s an inbred Neanderthal with the IQ of a stump of wood.”

Andrew gave him a look as if to say ‘that, exactly’, for some reason.

“Anyway,” Neil continued, “why were you following me? More of your ‘why are you here’, bullshit?”

“I was taking care of something for Coach when I saw you leave, followed by Jackson and decided to make sure nothing funny was happening considering how upset he was over losing tonight and your wonderful bon mots during the game.” Andrew flicked ash in Neil’s direction. “Though yes, I still don’t trust you.”

Neil gritted his teeth as he fought not to call the man a bastard and jump on his ‘board, not after Andrew had saved his neck earlier. “Look, I don’t know what I need to do to convince you that I’m not here to hurt Kevin or mess with the Foxes, any of you. I swear to you that the absolute last thing I want to do is mess up this team and their chances to win, in fact, and that means keeping Kevin here.” Not only that way did Ichirou get the most money out of the both of them, but Neil got to play with the best striker in Exy, to learn from him. When all Andrew did was sit there and continue smoking, he sighed. “Come on, if you doubt me so much, why save me? Which… uhm, thanks for that,” he added as he rubbed his right hand along the back of his neck.

Andrew was quiet until about half of the cigarette was gone. “Because Kevin says the same thing, that you can be trusted and you’re not here to mess things up.” When Neil smiled at that, Andrew’s hazel eyes narrowed even while the rest of his expression remained blank. “All right, here’s how you prove to me that what I just did wasn’t a mistake. We’re going to play a little game, one where you tell me a truth whenever I ask you a question.”

Neil was instantly on guard at that ‘suggestion’. “Why? What makes you think I haven’t done so already?”

That question drew a deep scoff from Andrew. “I think you’re very clever in your answers to everyone, and I’m tired of your little stories which don’t tell much, as well as you flitting off on your toy there after practices and games. So yes, it’s truth time, and you’re going to be a bit more sociable as well.” When Neil didn’t say anything, Andrew flicked aside the remains of his cigarette and leaned forward with his arms folded on the front of his bike. “I think it’s the least you could do for someone who just saved your life.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun, and rather much for you stalking me and throwing shit in the air,” Neil pointed out.

After a couple of seconds, Andrew nodded once. “You tell me a truth and I’ll tell you a truth, how about that? Each of us can pass on the question, but it means that we won’t get an answer until we give one of our own.”

Neil nibbled on his bottom lip as he considered the offer… but in the end, he did owe Andrew for his help with Jackson, and it seemed the best way for them to break the impasse between them, to gain Andrew’s trust. “All right.”

There appeared to be a gleam of satisfaction in Andrew’s eyes at the answer, but otherwise little reaction from the man. “Wonderful.” He eyed Neil up and down again in a clinical manner which made Neil feel self-conscious of his formfitting black, orange and grey hoverboard outfit, of the scars the short sleeves left bare on his arms and the ones on his right cheek (‘mementos’ from his father) before he clicked his tongue. “Nicky will be by to pick you up tomorrow at 8pm.”

“Wonderful,” Neil drawled in return. “Suddenly I’m no longer overjoyed at being spared from having my head chopped off by a hoverboard.”

“We’re going with ‘suicidal as fuck’,” Andrew stated as he flipped down his protective glasses and started up the bike with a load roar.

Neil gave the blond the finger as he sped away, then activated his hoverboard so he could continue on his way home (highly aware of anyone following him that time).

It couldn’t be too bad, whatever Andrew had planned the next night, could it?

*******

“You’re not going to do anything drastic, are you? Like try to drug him? Andrew? Andrew.” Kevin leaned in closer across the table, his thick brows drawn together in blatant disapproval. “I can’t even begin to tell you why that’s so wrong. No drugging! Not Neil!” Off to the side, Aaron paused in texting Katelyn to watch the ‘conversation’.

Andrew had toyed with the idea a little, just as a way to ensure that Neil was indeed honoring their bargain, but there was no way he was going to admit that now. “Relax, drama queen,” he said as he poked Kevin with a finger in the ‘2’ tattoo on his left cheek to make him back off. “I’m not going to, as long as he shows up tonight and plays nice.”

“Which is a surprise, all in all, him coming here to ‘play’,” Aaron remarked as he sent off a few more words then folded his arms on top of the table. “Some serious bets were lost and Allison’s ticked off since she had good money down on Josten going out with anyone but us first.” He arched an eyebrow as if waiting for an explanation then clicked his tongue in annoyance. “You better not do anything that gets us thrown out of here.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Andrew chided as he stood up to fetch a round of drinks from the bar.

“I’ve listened to you bitch about the new guy for the last few months, as well as watched you eye him up like he’s a piece of meat, of course I’m suspicious as hell,” Aaron shot back.

“And I’m suspicious of Josten.”

Aaron sneered at his argument. “Right, keep telling yourself that’s it. Better get the really strong stuff tonight so I can put up with this shit,” he said as he waved Andrew off.

Andrew gave his twin the middle finger before he left, while Kevin muttered about how there better not be any shit. Once again wondering why he couldn’t have gone through life with the belief that he was an only child, Andrew stalked his way up to the bar where Roland worked and waited for the bartender to be free to place an order of drinks.

“Wow, sounds like it’s going to be a good night,” Roland teased as he began pouring the drinks; per usual, he was dressed in a skin-tight black tank top and leather pants which showed off his impressive physique, the flashing lights of the club gleaming off of his dark skin and white smile. He arched his left eyebrow at Andrew and gave a slight nod toward the one back storeroom, a silent question about them hooking up later, and appeared mournful for all of three seconds when Andrew shook his head (as if he wouldn’t line up another guy quickly enough); Andrew couldn’t allow himself to be distracted that evening, not when he finally had a shot to get a few answers from one Neil Josten.

One incredibly irate, attractive Neil Josten.

Nicky had done an admirable job for once, both in bringing Neil to Eden’s and ensuring that the rookie striker had changed into the form-fitting, black club clothes Andrew had given him, along with the instructions that Neil was to wear them that evening instead of either the usual loose-fitting rags or hoverboard gear he normally did. It even looked as if Nicky had managed to apply some gel to Neil’s unruly mess of auburn curls, which created some sort of artful order to the way they fell onto his forehead and into his brilliant, pale blue eyes.

Andrew barely avoided dropping the full tray of drinks onto the table in his surprise (something Aaron caught, the bastard), and recovered by giving a glowering Neil a slow appraisal before nodding once. “At least you won’t embarrass us too much.”

“You’re an asshole,” Neil snapped as he tugged slightly at the clingy, long-sleeved black t-shirt he wore with the fake mesh panels slashing from his left shoulder across his chest to his right hip; Andrew had noticed that Neil didn’t care for revealing clothes so made sure he was covered properly despite their tight fit, and caught how the redhead didn’t pull the fabric too far from his body. “You’ve used up all of your ‘I saved your life’ credit with this crap, you got it?”

“Wait, what?” Kevin paused in tossing back a shot to gawk at Andrew. “What happened?”

“Let’s just say that a certain little suicidal fox needed saved from someone who wanted to make sure that smart mouth of his couldn’t yap away anymore and I kept it from happening,” Andrew explained as he picked up a shot of whiskey and slid it toward Neil. “Now drink up, we’re all friends here.”

Neil’s pale eyes narrowed at that. “I’m not a fan of drinking.”

“But we’re toasting to our new friendship,” Andrew said as everyone else grabbed a shot.

Kevin gave Neil a slight nudge. “It’s okay, I promise.”

Neil’s glare continued for a couple of seconds before he glanced at Kevin (and the earnest expression on the bastard’s face) then wavered. “One shot, I honestly don’t like drinking.” He made a show of picking it up and sniffing it, even giving it a quick lick (the sight of Neil’s pink tongue flicking out past his full bottom lip did nothing to Andrew, nothing) while Aaron huffed as if impressed and Nicky waggled his eyebrows until he caught Andrew’s narrowed eyes then schooled his expression. “To us being best buddies,” Neil said in a sarcastic manner as he held up the shot.

“We’ll grow on you!” Nicky shouted before they all drank, then grinned as he grabbed another shot. “Honest, we’re a lot of fun.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” Neil set the empty shot aside and propped up his chin on his right hand, his fingers tapping against the healed scars on his right cheek for a moment, while the rest of them had a few more shots. “Quite the partiers, I see.”

“We like to have fun.” Nicky started to leer then remembered about Andrew in time. “Uhm, you wanna dance?”

“No.” Neil nodded to Andrew. “Gonna stay here and chat with my new buddy.”

“Your loss.” Nicky had one more shot before he and Aaron left for the dance floor; Aaron gave Andrew a pointed look before he walked away, which made Andrew want to throw a shot glass at his twin’s head.

“So, I don’t think you invited me here to watch you drink,” Neil said, his chin still propped up on his hand and the overhead lights altering his auburn hair purple and orange in alternating flashes. Andrew noticed more than one person, both male and female, give him an appraising look as they walked past the table, but Neil didn’t seem to pick up on their attention.

“No.” Andrew paused to fetch his cigarette case from the pocket in his leather jacket while he fixed a watching Kevin with a look. “Why don’t you go see if one of your friends want to play?” He’d spotted Alexa and Michael while he’d fetched the drinks, and trusted either of them as well as Eden’s staff to watch out for his friend while he had some fun.

Kevin hesitated for a moment, clearly wanting to ensure that Neil was ‘safe’, before the redhead nodded. “It’s all right, you can go,” he assured Kevin. “Go and… uhm, are there games here? This doesn’t look like a sports bar.” Neil glanced around in obvious confusion, especially at a group of people scantily dressed in leather.

Andrew always knew that he led a cursed life, but that right there? It just rubbed the fact in.

A slight blush spread across Kevin’s face while he ducked his head. “Uhm… yeah, right, going now,” he said before he fled the table.

Neil’s confusion grew, his thin brows drawing together as he gazed at Andrew. “Okay, what am I missing here?”

“Is that your question?” Andrew asked as he picked up a shot of whiskey but didn’t drink it just then.

“Sure, why not? We’ll start out small,” Neil said with a slight shrug.

“This place is a fetish bar,” Andrew explained and felt a perverse urge to smile as Neil’s eyes grew big. “Kevin’s off to find one of his fuck-buddies, maybe two of them even, and rub one out.”

“Oh.” Neil didn’t seem offended by the crude statement. “So no hover games or stuff like that?”

“If you ask nicely, someone will be happy to rig you up in a harness, but that’s about it,” Andrew told him, and bit the inside of his bottom lip when Neil seemed to consider it so he didn’t add on ‘or give you a blowjob’.

“I… no, it’s not a thing to help with balance, is it?” Neil appeared disappointed when Andrew gave him a deadpan look in return. “No, then.”

Oh yes, the forces that be hated Andrew, and Andrew certainly hated them in return, along with an oblivious redhead.

“My turn.” He paused to have the shot while Neil straightened up. “It’s clear you’re not into this lifestyle.” Neil gave a curt nod. “What’s your type then? Girls? Boys? Something other than a hoverboard?”

“Funny.” Neil began to stack up the empty glasses while he nibbled on his full bottom lip. “As far as I can tell? Nothing, really. I kissed a couple of girls when I was younger but I didn’t feel much other than curiosity, so it looks like I don’t swing.” He glanced up to meet Andrew’s eyes. “There, a truth for a truth.”

He hadn’t held anything back and the answer appeared honest, from what Andrew could tell – there hadn’t been any discomfort, any attempt at dissemination. It matched what he knew of Neil so far, the obliviousness to people hitting on him, the way he didn’t stare at Reynolds’ attempt to show off her body or the displays in front of him at the club.

If it was a disappointing answer? Well, Andrew was used to it by that point in his life.

“Not bad. Now on to round two.”

Neil rolled his eyes but didn’t argue, and Andrew braced himself for something personal in return, perhaps a question on why he came to Eden’s.

“Why don’t you trust me?” Neil asked instead. “Why do all this?” He motioned to the clothes he wore then the club.

“Hmm.” Andrew tapped the empty glass in his hand against the table before he answered. “Because Kevin’s not the friendliest of people, yet he vouches for you. Half the team barely tolerates him, yet the two of you get along,” even if they were fellow Exy junkies. “We had a semi-decent striker who gets injured, and then you show up out of nowhere to replace him, someone with a hell of a lot more skill even if no one knows your name. Color me suspicious, especially considering the fact that there’s a certain team up north that would love to see us fail and Kevin return to his old spot.”

Neil was quiet as if he considered his words before he spoke for once. “I’ll admit, it looks suspicious and there’s a lot I can’t tell you.” He did the lip nibble thing then let out a sigh. “Kevin and I knew each other when we were kids – not really well, but enough for him to know that I could play Exy, and then my mom took me away from my father, who’s an abusive asshole.” He hesitated again before making a curt motion at his face. “An abusive asshole who works for a certain family we both know.”

Andrew stilled at that and felt his fingers inch toward his armbands. “And do you? Are you one of Tetsuji’s people?” If so, Eden’s staff was going to be upset with him making a mess in the club.

“No, which is why Kevin knows he can trust me,” Neil spat out quickly, as if aware of the thin ice he was on. “Look, I have no choice in this, thanks to my prick of a father I have to play and I have to win, which is why I’m with the Foxes. But believe me when I say that the house I answer to doesn’t bother with stupid games, not when they want things to run smoothly and profitably.” He held Andrew’s gaze as he spoke those words with conviction. “They want the same from Kevin, too, so I’m here to ensure that he gets to do what he does best, which is play Exy and make money.”

That… that made sense, dammit, especially since Neil’s words implied that he reported to the main house and Ichirou Moriyama, whom by all accounts was the stable Moriyama (and a force to reckon with, considering how ruthlessly yet competently he was running the organization). It also explained why Kevin had been so close-lipped about Neil, as if worried about setting off Andrew if he found out that the redhead reported to the Moriyamas – though it left out exactly who Neil’s father was (and if ‘Neil’ was indeed his real name). “So what, you give them a chunk of your winnings, too, and let them know if anyone messes with Kevin?”

“Basically.” Neil ran his right hand through his hair and grimaced, probably because of whatever styling product Nicky had put in it. “Someone doesn’t have faith in his younger brother leaving Kevin alone.”

Hmm, someone didn’t want to mention the Moriyamas by name, especially Ichirou, did they?

Andrew considered everything Neil had just told him, certain that a couple of important details had been left out (just exactly how was he tied to the Moriyamas? Who was his father? Who was his mother? Why had his father sliced him up like that, other than the prick being a sadistic fuck?), but… but it all rang true. “You’ll keep me appraised of anything you learn from the main house in regards to Kevin.”

“You could try asking, you know,” Neil grumbled as he searched through the couple of remaining shots for something. When all Andrew did was stare in return, he sighed. “Get me a damn bottle of water and it’s a deal.”

Andrew gave his new ‘friend’ a two-fingered salute in agreement before he stacked the empty glasses on the tray so he could return them to the bar and grab a new round (along with water for Neil); when he left the table, he swore he heard muttering about how it would have been easier to get one’s head knocked off.

Oh yes, it certainly would be a hell of lot easier on both of them if a certain attractive idiot had lost his head the other night, but Andrew was well-used to life fucking with him.

Now he had to deal with one Neil Josten.

*******

“Not bad tonight, you maggots,” Wymack called out as everyone headed to the showers, tired and sweaty from the evening’s practice. “Seth, ice your arm, you moron. Kevin, don’t drink too much tonight! All of you better be in halfway decent shape for tomorrow!”

There was various grumblings to their coach’s orders; Seth sent the man a rude finger (with his left hand since his right arm was obviously still sore from practice) while Kevin appeared flustered for some reason – Neil largely ignored them as he grabbed his shower kit from his locker and headed for the last stall in the makeshift showers Wymack had rigged in the building they used for a locker room in the abandoned factory that was their practice ground.

‘His’ stall was tucked in the corner and away from the lights, with a door that blocked almost from floor to ceiling, which meant that Neil had enough privacy to strip down, wash off and change into clean clothes without anyone noticing his scars. He’d garnered a few odd looks for choosing the neglected stall at first (from everyone but Kevin), but now his teammates ignored him… except for Andrew, who gave him a pointed look whenever he stepped out fully dressed.

“Somewhere to be?” Andrew asked, his tone bored as always but a gleam of interest in his hazel eyes as he pulled on a black, long-sleeved t-shirt.

For some reason, Neil shrugged and answered the question. “Not really, just hungry.” He’d run some errands earlier and hadn’t had time to eat much before leaving for practice.

Andrew clicked his tongue as he grabbed his black and orange leather jacket. “Good, so am I. That mean’s your treat.”

“Wait, what?” Neil frowned as he grabbed his glasses and hoverboard, the expression deepening when Andrew ignored him. “You mean dinner? Aren’t you going drinking with your family and Kevin?” Yet Andrew headed for the exit while Aaron and Nicky continued to get dressed (Nicky even waving at them with a cheerful grin while Aaron paused to check his wrist comm), and Kevin stalked into Wymack’s office with a determined expression on his face. “Andrew!”

“Try to keep up, rabbit,” Andrew drawled as he tugged his own protective eye-gear out of his jacket’s pockets while walking toward his bike, which made Neil curse beneath his breath.

“You’re an asshole,” Neil called out as he hopped onto his hoverboard. “And you’re on.”

Andrew gave him the finger as he started up the bike then pealed out of the parking lot.

A smile tugging at his lips, Neil kicked his hoverboard into the air and gave chase, easily keeping track of the bike with its bright orange lights as it wove its way through the city’s late evening traffic. For someone who made snarky comments about him ending up smacking into a building all of the time, Andrew certainly drove like a maniac on the ground, weaving in and out of the traffic as if he hadn’t a care for anyone else on the road with him (he probably didn’t). Neil had quite the workout maneuvering about on his ‘board, dodging various powerlines and birds and other hoverboards as he raced to keep up.

Still, it was almost as much fun as playing Exy, so he was a bit disappointed when Andrew came to a stop in the parking lot of some hole in the wall place on the outskirts of the lower West End. Neil dropped to the ground just as Andrew propped up the bike’s kickstand and removed his eye-gear.

“Uhm… it’s gonna fuck up my game if I get food poisoning,” Neil commented as he squinted at the front door of the place.

“He thinks he’s amusing,” Andrew said in that bored tone of his before he lit an illegal cigarette. “I brought you here for your credits, not your comedy routine.”

“I’m good at multitasking,” Neil assured him as he grabbed his ‘board and followed the goalie into the shack, grateful that the grime didn’t extend to its interior. There were several tables and a handful of booths inside – Andrew grabbed the last empty one of the latter while a young woman called out that she’d be by in a minute to take their order. Neil did a quick survey of the place, of the people busy eating and the exits (one in the back and another leading to a kitchen) as he followed Andrew to the booth.

“So, what am I paying for?” he asked as he tapped his fingers against the top of the red table; it was some sort of resin surface, smooth and colorful and lacking a holographic projection or interactive screen.

“Food,” Andrew said, his entire being conveying the concept of ‘idiot’ with that word to the point that Neil rolled his eyes.

“I figured that, what type of food?” He gazed at Andrew who sat there flicking ash in an actual ashtray of all things and sighed when the question was met with silence, then jumped when the young woman showed up with two laminated menus and said she’d be back when they were ready to order after Andrew told her that they’d have a black coffee and a chocolate milkshake to drink.

Somewhat used to the way that Andrew took charge of things by then, Neil smiled as he picked up the menu (an actual physical menu), bemused despite himself. “Uhm.. breakfast? They serve breakfast stuff?” Everything on the menu was pancakes and waffles and French toast, from the looks of it. Oh, there were eggs, all the way at the bottom. He perked up when he saw the fruit crepes.

“You have something against breakfast?” Andrew asked as he leaned back in the booth, his eyes intent on Neil.

“Not really, I’m used to eating whatever’s available,” Neil confessed; they’d exchanged more truths in the past few weeks and, once he’d been certain that he could trust Andrew, he’d told the story about how he was supposed to be given to the Moriyamas except for his mother taking him and running away. How she’d kept him from them for almost ten years until she’d been killed by his father.

“Good, then pick something.” Andrew motioned toward the menu before he stubbed out the remains of his cigarette right before their server returned to take their order once she dropped off their drinks.

Somehow, Neil wasn’t surprised when Andrew picked what had to be one of the sweetest things on the menu, some chocolate s’mores French toast with extra whipped cream, and had the apple crepes for himself. He shook his head when Andrew started to inhale the mammoth milkshake that had been dropped in front of him.

“Do you not function if your blood sugar level drops below 50% or something?” Neil asked. “I mean, between the candy and the alcohol and the ice cream, I’m just wondering.” Any time he saw Andrew ingest something, it always had a high sugar content.

“You going to be such a smart ass when we take on the Ospreys this Friday?” Andrew asked as he flicked a bit of whipped cream at Neil.

“Probably.” Neil grimaced as he wiped the spots from his left arm. “It’s always more fun when they aim for my head the entire game. You know how it is.”

“Yes, and how you ruin everyone’s fun by being a fast little shit.”

Neil rolled his eyes again. “I meant about being a target, but whatever.” Andrew might claim that the intent of throwing any blocked balls to him during a game was to knock him off his board, but Neil knew better. Mostly because if Andrew was serious about that threat, he’d see it through.

He’d spent at least one night a week with the young man since that first time at Eden’s, sometimes more, being dragged out to lunches and dinners and nights drinking (well, him sitting at a table and watching Andrew drink). In the last few weeks, he’d gotten to know Kevin better, to become somewhat friends with Nicky and… well, on occasional speaking terms with Aaron.

Andrew didn’t talk too much himself, outside of their ‘exchanged truths’, but Neil didn’t mind that. His mother hadn’t talked too much other than to drill their latest identities or cover stories into his head, or to practice a new language or accent. He was used to silence and didn’t mind it, especially since he remembered his mother smoking hand-rolled cigarettes a time or two after being given them by various contacts over the years (she always complained about vapes).

“No Kevin tonight?” he asked after a few sips of coffee.

A slight frown came over Andrew’s face as he ran his fingers through his close-cropped blond hair. “He’s an adult, he can manage himself for a few hours.”

“You’re just tired of listening to him go on about the Ospreys’ offense, are you?” Neil grinned when hazel eyes narrowed. “Come on, don’t you want to go over how Kronenberg always-“ He laughed when more whipped cream was flicked in his direction. “Okay, I get it, no Exy.”

“That’ll be a first,” Andrew grumbled, yet there was a light to his almost golden eyes which made Neil think that he was more amused than irritated.

“Where does that leave us then?” Neil asked after a sip of his hot coffee. “Ohh, there’s the new hoverboards coming out in another-“ He laughed again when his right ankle was kicked (it looked like Andrew had decided not to waste any more whipped cream on him). “All right, not that, either. How about Allison’s promise to throw a big party if we-“

That time he was interrupted by a pulse from his wrist comm; he hated the device, which he’d only taken to wearing in the past few months upon the ‘insistence’ of others – basically Ichirou Moriyama and Coach Wymack. One wanted to make sure he could be tracked down at all times, the other kept up to date on team news.

For years, the only communication device he had was an old cellphone, rigged to be untraceable, so he could stay in touch with his mother. He was still adjusting to the ‘new’ (to him) tech, still unsettled by people being able to reach him so easily, and so barely gave out his contact info or used the device.

Despite that, someone had managed to track him down, going by the new message he’d just received; Neil read it while he sipped his coffee to wash away the taste of bile in his mouth then fixed a fake smile on his face. “Sorry, what was I saying? Right, Allison throwing us a party if we win. I mean, I don’t really care but the others seem excited.” He gazed at Andrew, who merely sat there staring back at him with an empty milkshake glass in front of him. “Hmm?”

“What was the message?” Andrew asked as he pushed the glass aside and folded his arms on top of the table.

“Eh? Oh, just inbox spam,” Neil partially lied as he made a dismissive motion with his right hand. “I bet Seth, the jealous asshole, signed me up for a bunch of shit. I have to ask Renee to help me out with some filters or something.”

“Right. That’s-“ Andrew fell quiet while their server returned with their food and Neil made a show of starting on his crepes in hopes that the topic was forgotten in favor of dinner, and should have realized he wouldn’t be that lucky.

“By my count, you’ve gotten at least six ‘spam’ messages in the last three days,” Andrew said after several bites of his French toast monstrosity – the sugary stench was enough to make Neil’s stomach flip a time or two. “Each time you get a message, your shoulders tense and your expression goes blank, even more than usual, so something’s going on.”

Neil had another bite of crepes and apples before he answered. “So? It’s not your business.”

Andrew clicked his tongue as if annoyed and shook his head. “Except it is because you and Kevin have a connection other than your disgusting addiction to Exy, remember? Which means I’m going to take a turn and ask you a question now.” He gazed directly at Neil from across the table, his expression determined. “What was that message?”

Neil sighed as he pushed his dinner aside (it had tasted good) and pulled up the messages he’d filed away ‘just in case’ so he could show them to his… well, to Andrew. “It’s probably just someone trying to rattle me,” he argued, even though he knew it wasn’t the strongest line of logic. “You know, try to throw me off my game.”

Andrew’s eyes were the only thing moving as he read the various messages, until he got to the bottom and reached out to scroll down some more. “Right, because the rest of the team receives such inventive and descriptive threats like that.” Now he appeared thoughtful as he leaned back against the red vinyl booth and lit a cigarette. “Do you know if Kevin’s gotten any?”

“No.” Neil frowned as he thought back over the last few days. “I haven’t asked him because I don’t want to bring it up if he hasn’t and risk upsetting him.” Kevin was focused on them winning the next few games and clinching the division championship – the highest ranking in Exy since the teams couldn’t travel too far without attracting unwanted attention.

At least not yet; rumor was that the pressure was growing from the fans and the bettors (the more important of the two) to have the regional top teams compete for an overall championship, which meant it would happen in another year or two, once someone (the Moriyamas) could figure out the logistics. Which might be why Neil (and possibly Kevin) were getting the threats.

The current top regional teams were the Ravens, the Foxes, the Trojans and the Chargers. The Ravens in the Northeast district were considered the number one team… but that had been before Kevin had left last year. If a championship game was to take place, talk was that the Ravens would face tough competition from the Foxes and Trojans, with odds favoring the latter two teams.

Andrew seemed to think along the same lines as he flicked ash into the small tray on the table. “I’m willing to bet that he has, or he will soon enough, and I find it such an odd coincidence that you receive these after someone tried to help make you one with the ground not too long ago.” He fixed Neil with an intent look as he set the cigarette aside and picked up his fork. “I mean, normally I can understand such an action as you’re easy to hate-“

“Thank you,” Neil murmured.

“-but for once I think there’s more to it than that,” Andrew continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “No, I think someone’s feeling the pressure, is realizing that he’s not so special anymore, and is being even more of an idiot than you.”

Thank you,” Neil repeated with more emphasis.

Andrew waved a forkful of carb gooeyness in Neil’s face for the sarcasm. “Next time you talk to your minders, tell them about the messages.” When Neil started to shake his head, Andrew’s eyes narrowed at once. “No, do it, they need to know that the brat is acting up.”

“Are you sure it’s him?” Neil asked as he picked up his mug of coffee only to realize it was empty.

“Yes, and eat your dinner,” Andrew ordered as he waved at their server then pointed at Neil’s mug. “You’re not going to pass out at practice.”

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do,” Neil complained even as he pulled the plate back toward him.

That statement earned him a scoff of disbelief, which he chose to ignore as he finished eating his dinner. Andrew sent out a message or two (probably something to Kevin) while getting his sugar fix, then Neil paid so they could leave.

“I’m following you home,” Andrew informed him once they were out in the parking lot.

Neil gazed at him while he made sense of the words. “Why?” he asked a few seconds later.

“Because you’re being threatened,” Andrew said, the meaning of ‘you’re an idiot’ very clear even if it was left unspoken.

“Okay, first? I can look after myself,” Neil insisted through gritted teeth. “Second? You watch over Kevin, not me.”

Andrew waved aside his argument as he climbed onto his bike. “Which is why I had to keep you from losing your head that one time, and by watching over you I also watch over Kevin, considering who’s involved in this. Now shut up, do your stupid bird imitation and stay within my sight.” He started up the bike while giving Neil a pointed look.

Why the hell was Neil putting up with this shit? With an annoying, bossy, know-it-all asshole?

Because… because Andrew had helped him out that time, he supposed. Because Andrew had proven himself true to his word (to the ‘game’ between them), to watching over Kevin’s back and looking out for his family. Because the slight jabs and initial distrust aside, Andrew respected Neil’s boundaries and past.

Because Neil enjoyed the odd friendship that had grown between the two of them. Because he trusted Andrew, of all things.

Sighing as he started his hoverboard, Neil wondered why it was that he liked an antisocial asshole with a thing for stabbing people and decided that it didn’t say anything about him. Nope, not at all.

******

Andrew adjusted his shoulder pads while he watched Neil and Kevin huddle together to go over some stupid Exy-related shit before their game with the Belmonte Terrapins; despite the ongoing ‘anonymous’ threats that had been sent to them the past couple of weeks, they appeared confident about the evening’s game.

“Don’t worry, they’re focused,” Renee said, her voice pitched low as she tugged on her arm guards. “They won’t let anything distract them from winning tonight.” A slight smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “They’re too determined.”

“You mean they’re stubborn assholes.”

“Takes one to know one?” she asked with a too-innocent expression, and smiled again when he gave her the finger; she was the only one he’d confided in about the whole ‘Riko’s being even more of a bastard than usual’ situation since he knew he could trust her with both the information and to help out of the prick tried to do more than send threats.

Renee Walker might be a good Christian girl, might be all ‘peace, love and turn the other cheek’ for the most part… but she was still Natalie Shields deep down inside and wouldn’t allow anyone to harm the family she’d found with the Foxes. She took the team’s safety seriously and deferred the Monsters to Andrew since they were his responsibility, but they were both in agreement that Riko Moriyama’s stung pride and need for validation made him a threat that had to be put down once and for all.

“Let’s hope their determination doesn’t keep them from noticing a hoverboard to the head,” Andrew said before he stood up.

“That’s why we’re here,” Renee reminded him as she stood as well, and wisely backed away before she was pushed over the bench.

Annoying, but true; she and Andrew would make sure that no one interfered with the evening’s game, what was basically the semi-final for the region. The Foxes were favored to beat the Terrapins then go on to face Breckenridge next week, with a lot of attention (and bets) focused on the last two games of the season.

So much attention and money, in fact, that there was more and more talk about a true championship round taking place next year, with all the regions coming together until a final winner was crowned.

If Riko was going to make a move against either Neil or Kevin (or both), it was going to happen soon, which was why Andrew had involved Renee in everything, was why he made sure Kevin spent as much time with Wymack as possible (surprisingly, not a difficult thing to do) so the annoying bastard wasn’t alone too often.

That left him dragging Neil Josten off his damn hoverboard so they could go grab something to eat or hang out together (the idiot had almost no knowledge of movies) at Andrew’s apartment or just do something that didn’t involve the junkie being fifty feet off the ground and making himself a perfect target (unless Neil and Kevin ganged up on Andrew and made him sit around while they got some extra practices in, the stupid Exy addicts).

He told himself that he was honoring his promise to Kevin, that he was doing what was necessary to keep the two young men safe. Two annoying, Exy-obsessed idiots who didn’t know any better than to make deals with the mob just so they could keep playing some stupid sport.

One of them with the clearest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen, a gorgeous face even with scars proving how he hadn’t let a brutal life wear him down, no sense of self-preservation as he let a ridiculous tongue get him into trouble again and again, and a body that Andrew-

Dammit.

Andrew wanted to say that he blamed this detestable attraction on the drugs, but they were long gone from his system. He couldn’t blame it on alcohol because he was sober most of the time he was in Neil Josten’s vicinity. Going off with Roland for a quick suck and tug didn’t lessen the attraction he felt for the redhead, either, and he didn’t feel anything remotely like it when he contemplated other men.

No, there was something about Neil Josten, was a mix of his looks and wry smile and ridiculous attitude, the way he wasn’t afraid of Andrew despite having heard all the stories of why he should be, how they could spend an hour arguing about something or a night barely speaking and both feel natural, how he never pushed past the boundaries Andrew set.

Andrew hated him.

Neil finished arguing with Kevin over something and looked up, his gaze meeting Andrew’s as a faint smile curved his lips. When all Andrew did was stare back without any obvious emotion, Neil shrugged once and grabbed his helmet so he could prepare for when Wymack yelled at the team to get their asses out on the court.

There was a brief speech from Wymack about how they were so close to proving how they were the best and not to fuck things up, to go out on court and give it their all, and then everyone but Andrew, Reynolds and Gordon took to the court to play. Andrew stood between Wymack and his brother while the first half started, eyes intent on the figures darting around above him as they pursued a stupid ball.

The Terrapins were one of the better teams, hence why they’d reached the end of the season and were pitted against the Foxes, and they weren’t known for dirty tactics like Breckenridge, who the Foxes would play once they won the game tonight. But they were determined to win if possible, so no one was surprised when Belmonte took to targeting Kevin and Neil in an attempt to eliminating the Foxes’ two strongest players, in wiping out the team’s strikers and so disqualify them from playing.

And if one of those strikers was a former Raven and Riko’s closest rival? If the other was an up and coming striker and owed allegiance to Riko’s brother? Well, just coincidence, Andrew was sure – pure coincidence.

The Terrapins might be doing their best to knock Kevin and Neil off their ‘boards, but first they had to catch Neil, slippery little fuck that he was, while Kevin had Exy bred into him. There was also the fact that Matt Boyd wasn’t going to just idly float about up there and let the opposition mess with his teammates, knocking a Terrapin backliner off-balance enough that the asshole barely kept on his ‘board, while Renee managed to actually unseat someone with a return volley from the goal.

“What the hell are they doing?” Wymack muttered as he glared at yet another Terrapin backliner checked by Boyd while Neil scored a point that time. “I’ve never seen them play dirty like this.”

“The bets are out of control for the game,” Reynolds said from her spot next to Aaron; she was scrolling through something on her wrist comm. “People are betting against us winning as well as Kevin and Neil making it out of the game alive.”

“You’re kidding me.” Aaron glanced over to look at the screen before he let out a low whistle. “What the hell? If we win, we’ll make more from tonight than we did from most of the season!”

That’s if they won, and two Foxes survived as well; Andrew shared a look with Wymack before the man went stalking over toward the Terrapin side of the court to ask their coach what the hell was going on with his team, for all the good it would do.

Andrew doubted that Belmonte’s coach was in on it (too easy to trace, to prove that things had been rigged to jack up the betting), but that certain players had been paid off to take out Kevin and Neil. He doubted they’d be successful that night, not with him and Renee on guard, with Boyd and the rest of the Foxes willing to defend their teammates (even Gordon), but the next game?

Breckenridge was better than Belmonte, was more skilled at getting away with shit like this and had more players to absorb the red cards which were whittling away at the Terrapins.

When it came his turn to take to the small platform suspended fifty feet in the air that served as the Foxes’ goal, he stood with his feet braced and attention focused on the ‘court’ in front of him, the stretch of air that a bunch of suicidal and homicidal (some both) idiots flitted about with abandon on their stupid hoverboards. Kevin and Neil did a good job of snatching the ball away from the Terrapins and scoring points while Boyd and Gordon ran interference, Reynolds helping out from time to time as she obviously grew tired of putting up with Belmonte’s bullshit, but the ball still made its way toward Andrew’s goal a couple of times.

He wasn’t surprised when Belmonte dared to follow the ball right up to his goal with the clear intent of knocking him off it, not when he was known as Kevin’s ‘guard’, when the betting pool was huge on whoever sent him tumbling to the ground. What did surprise him? That Neil actually got out of the Terrapins’ way twice.

Andrew would rethink the whole ‘not a Moriyama stooge’ thing if he didn’t notice the evil glint in those pale blue eyes directed at the latest bastard Terrapin right before he flashed Andrew a smile.

Right before Andrew blocked some idiots and sent them hurtling toward the ground then flung the ball with devastating accuracy at their teammates to help remind them of why they didn’t fuck with the Foxes (or him, for that matter).

The Terrapins, the Jackals and a certain jealous Raven.

The Foxes won by nine points and the Terrapins would need a few new players for next season, but all Andrew cared about was that his family and his two Exy addicts were all right; Neil and Kevin were a bit battered, but still in one piece.

Neil waited for him to climb down from the platform while the rest of the Foxes took to celebrating their win in the usual obnoxious manner (well, except for Kevin who was bitching off Wymack’s ear about the team’s ‘sloppy play’), a lopsided smile on his face as he removed the damp bandana holding back his unruly curls. “That was incredible how you shut down the goal and handled those assholes.”

Andrew told himself he didn’t feel anything from that bit of praise. Nothing. “Right,” he scoffed as he removed his own helmet and tossed it at the idiot. “Which is why you let them try to take me down.”

Neil continued to smile as he shrugged and held Andrew’s helmet cradled to his chest with his right arm, his hoverboard in his left hand. “I knew you could deal with them, no one’s touched you yet.” Something dark flashed in his eyes yet again. “They deserved getting their asses kicked after what they did to the team.”

Never mind that Neil had been one of the main targets, hmm?

“And now you owe me a couple drinks,” Andrew drawled as he lifted his racquet and gave Neil a light tap on his right shoulder. “You’re coming along to Eden’s tomorrow.”

“What? But I was gonna….” Neil’s voice faded away when he noticed the flat look on Andrew’s face. “Fine,” he gave in with ill grace. “I don’t have anything to wear, though.”

“I’ll take care of it.” By the time they returned back to Palmetto, it would be too late for the Foxes to do anything but crash for the night, but the next day would be a different story – one where Andrew preferred to keep Neil and Kevin nearby considering the uptick in threats.

Not that he’d complain about a chance to see Neil dressed in something decent for once and spend the night exchanging truths and verbal jabs with each other.

Nothing was going to happen with the young man who was some sort of twisted pipedream, was so much of what Andrew’s perverse mind desired in a lover… of course Neil was forever out of reach. Of course it meant that Andrew would spend the night next to him, tormented by what he’d never have.

For someone so smart, he was such a fool, he thought to himself as he followed a smiling Neil Josten into the makeshift locker room.

******

/You’ll run again if you know what’s good for you, Wesninski/

Neil sighed as he read the latest message sent ‘anonymously’ before he entered the locker room, which was a joke – how many people knew his real name, knew about how he’d spent about half his life? How many of those people wanted him to go on the run again, considering the amount of money he was currently earning for Ichirou Moriyama and the threats his ‘dear’ father had uttered in regards to him disappearing again? Neil shuddered as he rubbed at the scars on his cheek, as he remembered the pain when the bastard had dug the knife into his cheek while promising to cut his tendons if he ran away for a second time.

No, there were very few people who knew the truth, and only one person whom he could think of who’d want him to break his oath to Ichirou Moriyama; Riko Moriyama. In theory, the idiot should be pleased with anything that made the main house richer and more powerful… but Riko was a jealous and unstable little shit, was someone who’d been discarded by his father and brother yet thought he could somehow manage to make himself important enough to be taken back into the fold.

The man had no grasp of reality at all.

Judging from the tightness in Kevin’s jaw, Neil would say that his friend and teammate had received a similar message (or more) that day. “More well wishes?” he asked in French as they headed over to the section set up for the team to change into their gear before the final game with Breckenridge.

Kevin let out a harsh scoff as he clenched his left hand into a fist. “It’s so… so insulting,” he gritted out, anger bright in his green eyes. “They’re probably intended as threats, but I’m too furious at everything to be scared.”

Neil had seen a couple of the texts sent to Kevin and had to agree; the tone of the messages were so condescending, were so over the top with ‘give up now before you embarrass yourself’ and the like, that Kevin wouldn’t care about any risk to his life when his ability to play Exy was being put down in such a way.

Was being put down by the person who’d tried to cripple him and hold him back for years.

Yeah, well, we’ll show him tonight, right?” Neil gave Kevin a cocky grin that slowly was met with an equal one in return, before Kevin took to scowling.

“Just remember that you’ll probably have the Gorilla on you for most of the game so keep moving, and Leonard likes to-“

“To throw to the left, I know,” Neil said while rolling his eyes. “We’ve gone over this a thousand times.”

“And apparently that’s what it takes to get it through your thick head,” Kevin sneered, which caught the attention of Matt and Seth.

“Aw, are you giving Neil a hard time? Come on, the two of you have been practicing almost non-stop the last couple of nights,” Matt complained as he reached over to tousle Neil’s hair. “Give him a break.”

“No,” Kevin stated in a final manner. “He needs to-“

“Enough. It’s bad enough I have to play the damn game soon enough, I don’t want to hear about it,” Andrew’s deep voice called out as he showed up, dressed in his black, orange and white biker leathers and a bored expression on his face. His gaze rested on Neil for a moment before it flickered around the makeshift locker room, clearly checking for Aaron and Nicky, the latter of whom was grabbing his gear so he could change while Aaron read something on his wrist comm (as usual).

“Dammit, could you take a game seriously for once in your life?” Kevin smacked his right hand into the front of his locker before he yanked it open. “We’re gonna have to give it our all tonight, and that includes you, too.”

Andrew merely blinked his eyes twice before he walked away, as if he hadn’t heard anything, which made Seth guffaw and Matt grin as Kevin’s face grew flushed. Meanwhile, Neil bit into his bottom lip to keep from smiling then grabbed his uniform so he could go change out somewhere private.

Once ready for the game, he ignored the friendly banter in the locker room (and Kevin’s attempt to go over the Jackals’ roster one more time) to sneak outside, where he wasn’t surprised to find Andrew leaning against the wall of the old warehouse smoking a cigarette. “You get a kick out of annoying Kevin like that?”

Andrew grunted as if that was a stupid question. “Keeps him from focusing on stupid shit.”

“Hmm, I suppose.” Like threatening texts. “Ravens won last night, and the Trojans play tomorrow. Lot of talk about a grand championship game next year.”

“You mean even more talk about it,” Andrew said after he blew out a couple of smoke rings. “Especially when the Ravens only won by four points.”

“Yeah.” That was the least point spread ever for a major Ravens game; there was a lot of ‘chatter’ in the forums over that fact, and that there’d been a lot of money lost in placed bets because people had expected the Ravens to defeat the Panthers by a wider margin.

Neil had to wonder if the main house had lost a lot of money.

Somehow, he couldn’t seem to care too much about the criminal organization which had fucked up his life so much or the spoiled brat who seemed to think it was fine to threaten and abuse people, not when all he wanted was to be left alone to play a sport he loved.

He could feel the thrum of anticipation for the evening’s game, at the thought of playing with Kevin and Matt and the rest of the Foxes, of gazing out across the sky to see Andrew look back and nod before flinging the ball at him with force. Neil smiled a little as he breathed in deep the scent of burning tobacco and relaxed for the first time that day.

Somehow, being with Andrew always brought out a sense of peace in him.

They were quiet for a couple of minutes while Andrew smoked, then the other man grunted once as he flicked the cigarette butt aside. “Don’t do anything stupid tonight and don’t take off by yourself after the game,” he told Neil.

“But-“

“No,” Andrew ordered, his hazel eyes hooded and voice deeper than usual. “The prick hasn’t been sending threats for the last few weeks without a reason, so listen to me.”

“What can he do once we win?”

“I don’t want to find out the hard way.” Andrew reached out to fist his right hand in the front of Neil’s orange and white jersey then yanked him forward until he could feel the goalie’s breath against his face. “Don’t be an idiot.”

“Someone’s paranoid,” Neil tried to joke even as his throat went dry and he felt an odd sort of excitement fill his body that had nothing to do with Exy.

“It’s called ‘intelligence’, not that I expect you to know anything about it,” Andrew said with a slight sneer of his full upper lip. “Now shut up before I bash your head in with my own racquet and save Riko the trouble.”

“Promises, promises,” Neil sang out, and laughed when Andrew shoved a cigarette smoke-scented hand in his face.

They returned to the locker room just in time to suffer through one of Wymack’s speeches (really, Neil much preferred Andrew’s ‘do this or I’ll smack you’ style and his mother’s… well, his mother basically had said the same as well – and meant it) and then it was time to grab their hoverboards and go out on court. Neil grinned at Andrew before the stone-faced goalie climbed up to his platform, huge racquet slung over his shoulder, then activated his own ‘board so he could take his position in the sky.

The Jackals were doing the same thing in the area marked with the two goals and huge light posts so the camera drones had enough brightness to catch all of the action about to take place in the next half an hour (minus the brief break). Neil glanced over to his left and nodded at Kevin, who gave a brief nod back as he clenched his hands around the handle of his racquet, eager for the game to start.

It had been decided earlier that Dan had first dibs on the ball, and she made her throw count by lobbing it toward Matt, who caught it and held off the Jackals’ offense long enough until Kevin was in position down near their goal to get it. While that went on, Neil ran interference, along with Seth, and wasn’t surprised when Kevin had guessed right about ‘the Gorilla’ being assigned to him.

Somehow, he wasn’t surprised about Andrew being right about the whole threat thing, either, which was proven true by the way that the Gorilla (all two hundred and eighty pounds of him) and the rest of the Jackals appeared determined to knock Neil off his hoverboard during the game. The last game with the Terrapins had been bad enough (Neil had felt sore for several days afterward), but he’d nearly lost his balance on his ‘board four times within the first five minutes of that night’s game, or almost been clotheslined with a racquet twice. At least he’d already assisted Kevin with two goals and watched while Andrew nailed a Breckenridge dealer in the back.

Neil was used to brutality after growing up the son of the Butcher, after all those years on the run from his father’s people, after playing Exy. The current game, however? It took every trick he’d learned to keep on his hoverboard, gleaned in backstreet games played across Europe for cash and drugs (which his mother had sold after punishing him for how he’d earned them) and frantic getaways, from long days (and nights) of practices with the Foxes and Kevin and every spare chance he had by himself.

Matt, Seth and Nicky did their best to block the bastards, but there were only two of them out on the court at a time, and their attention was diverted between Neil, Kevin and either Dan or Allison, whichever dealer was playing. While Neil appreciated the help, he was used to fending for himself after the last couple of years – that and he knew Andrew was watching his back.

Aware of that fact, he took an opportunity to score another goal for the Foxes toward the end of the first half despite the fact that the Gorilla was bearing down hard on him; he snagged the ball from Foster and dropped down several feet while leaving a whooping Seth to deal with the furious striker, then wheeled about with a mostly clear shot to the Jackals’ goal thanks to Allison blocking Patterson.

As soon as Neil fired off the ball, he knew that Hawking, aka the Gorilla, would make a move while he was hopefully distracted, so he positioned himself near one of the nearby light posts. It was right after the platform lit up to signal that Foxes had scored another point that the Gorilla dove at Neil – who dropped his ‘board straight down.

The flutter of weightlessness was joined with the smugness of seeing the asshole smash face-first into the post, which made Neil grin as he kicked his left heel against the ‘board and dashed off before Hawking fell on top of him; there were shouts from other Jackals as one of their own went crashing down, flashing lights as the medics on hand tried to catch the injured player and drones zipping around to capture the drama, but all Neil and the rest of the Foxes (and some Jackals) cared about was the game.

Kevin managed to score another point before the half-time buzzer.

Andrew caught up to Neil in the makeshift locker room and gave the back of his sweaty neck a tight squeeze. “Don’t make my job any harder than it has to be,” he said with a rare hint of heat. “What the hell was that?”

“Uhm, me getting rid of a nuisance and apparently, a forty percent uptick in ratings, according to Nicky.” Neil grimaced at the thought of even more people watching the second half of the game in hopes of witnessing bodily harm, but that was Exy fans.

Andrew’s hazel eyes narrowed in obvious disgust. “Renee’s stuck dealing with you, the two of you deserve each other.” Yet his hand lingered on Neil’s nape for a couple of seconds… and Neil felt a pang of something when it was finally removed before the goalie stalked away.

The second half was much like the first (except lacking the feel of Andrew’s intent gaze upon him), though Neil ended up a bit more battered as the Jackals did their best to prevent the Foxes from winning. They were one of the best teams in the Southeastern division, had numerous talented players they could keep rotating out on court only to lose to red cards and injuries… but the Foxes were determined to win that night, to not let a bunch of bullies defeat them with intimidation and dirty tricks and brute force. No, Kevin was a force to reckon with, was laser-like precision with his throws, while Matt was a grinning battering ram who kept the worst of the Jackals at bay. Seth put any hurt pride aside for once and worked with the rest of the team (even Kevin), and Nicky was unusually focused as he concentrated on blocking people the Foxes’ goal.

Renee let slip some of the inner darkness which always put Neil on edge, her movement fluid and lightning quick as she caught the balls thrown at the platform by the Jackals then flung back at them (at their heads and legs more times than not) with surprising strength. Neil noticed Dan giving her friend an odd look now and then, but on the whole, the Foxes’ captain seemed to approve because Renee kept the score down and Breckenridge wary of approaching too close to the goal.

Kevin scored the final point of the game, the score thirteen to nine, while Allison nearly knocked Breckenridge’s captain from his ‘board when the bastard tried to hit Kevin in the back with his racquet. There were loud shouts of denial from Breckenridge while most of the Foxes yelled in excitement over their win; lights on the ends of the drones’ ‘wings’ flashed various colors as the small machines whizzed around the court to film the teams’ reactions.

Neil grinned as he spun around the air a little then dropped to the ground, happy and sore and exhausted and for some reason wanting to see Andrew’s reaction. He found his friend standing near the front of their locker room between a beaming Wymack and even a slightly smiling Aaron.

“Why aren’t you up there doing some victory laps with the rest of the morons?” Wymack asked as Neil hopped off his hoverboard and Abby rushed forward.

“Uhm… too crowed up there,” Neil said as he pulled off his helmet with a slight wince, then sighed when Abby, her motions slow as if to not startle him, tilted up his chin to check his eyes and the bruise on the left side of his face; he’d mostly forgotten about Ackers slamming into him earlier. “Ow.”

“You need to ice that for a bit,” Abby chided him before she ran her hands down his neck, shoulders and arms. “How’s the rest of you? No lying.”

“I’m… a little sore but nothing broken.” He gave Andrew, who’d snorted when Neil began to speak, a dirty look over the nurse’s shoulder. “I swear it.”

“It was a rough as hell game, but you guys did good.” Wymack nodded at Kevin, who’d joined them on the ground. “I’m proud of you, all of you.”

For some reason, Kevin grew flustered at those words and stuttered out his ‘thanks’, then something about how he’d played hard as Abby gave up on Neil and went to fuss over the older striker. Relieved to be left alone, Neil grabbed his ‘board and went to stand closer to Andrew.

“So, we won,” he said in a hushed voice as the rest of the Foxes gradually joined them. “Should be a nice payout.” Even for him and Kevin, minus their cuts to the main house. “Gonna get a new bike or something? Buy a few rounds of drinks?”

Andrew was quiet for a couple of seconds, his gaze intent, before he shrugged once. “Would you drink for once if I did?”

“Ah….” Neil considered it then shrugged as well. “Maybe one or two?” He didn’t care for alcohol, not after all the times he’d been forced to drink by his mother to dull the pain of wounds, to make it bearable before she stitched closed cuts or tended to buried bullets, but maybe it wouldn’t be bad to have something that was supposed to make him relax with someone he trusted.

Huh, someone he trusted.

 Andrew nodded once and then Matt barreled into Neil to give him a hug (and nearly got an elbow driven into his solar plexus), and so Neil found himself having to suffer through various hugs and hair tousles and the like while the team celebrated their win before he could escape to shower and change.

The ‘monsters’ (Andrew’s family and Kevin) were ready for Eden’s soon enough, Andrew was headed there on his bike while Wymack dropped off Kevin, Aaron and Nicky on his way home. Neil grabbed his hoverboard and ignored the cold look Andrew gave him for his outfit (reinforced black lycra made for hoverboarding, with orange and white details and even a fox print on the shoulders – he hadn’t thought he’d go clubbing that night). “You’re wearing black, too.”

“Not everything I own is tied to this stupid team,” Andrew drawled – and then contradicted himself by pulling on an orange leather jacket over his black, form-fitting t-shirt. An orange leather jacket with black detail and scarf bearing a similar white fox paw print on it; the slight narrowness of his hazel eyes dared Neil to comment, who merely smirked back as he slid on his protective eye gear before he jumped onto his ‘board.

Despite being sore and exhausted from the game, it felt so good to race through the dark sky, to see the city before him and hear the rumble of Andrew’s bike below. Neil did a few unnecessary rolls on the ‘board just to feel the wind rush around him and the sudden vertigo of motion, and laughed when he straightened up to see Andrew hold up a hand with what he imagined one finger extended.

He was in a good mood because of the win and the prospect of a night out with his friends (with Andrew), but it didn’t mean he was relaxed to the point of carelessness. No, when he saw the image appear in the darkened windows of the building to the left of him and heard the sudden rev of Andrew’s bike, Neil went into another set of spirals while he dropped about ten feet.

Someone swung a racquet where he’d just been a couple of seconds ago, someone dressed all in black with a black and red helmet covering their face – with a black and red racquet in their hands. Hmm, that wasn’t suspicious at all, was it?

Neil shot upward through the air, which surprised his attacker, then raced forward, mindful of the racquet in the prick’s hands. He wove through the night sky, constantly switching altitude and spiraling around, always out of the other ‘boarder’s reach, intent on leading him somewhere public.

At least, that was the plan, until a swipe of the racquet nearly made Neil slip from his ‘board. He swore and dropped lower so he could look for somewhere suitable to bring the aerial fight to an end – when Andrew seemed to decide that things had gone on long enough. Just as asshole closed in on Neil again, something small and bright yellow flew through the air and nailed him in the head, followed by a loud ‘crack’, before he tumbled to the ground.

Oh, what a shame, falling twenty feet or so had to hurt.

The real shame of it was, the asshole didn’t land on his head.

Neil landed on the ground a few feet away and wasn’t surprised that Andrew beat him to the asshole, nor to discover that said asshole was one Riko Moriyama, once the visor of the now cracked helmet was flipped back. Andrew, who was squatted next to the groaning Raven striker, clicked his tongue twice while he tapped the unsheathed knife held in his right hand against the knee of what looked to be Riko’s badly broken left leg. “Bit far from Charleston, no?”

“Fu-fuck you!” Riko gritted out as he cradled his right arm (also broken, from the looks of it) against his chest. “You’re dead, both of you,” he stuttered out, his face pale and sweaty from what most likely was pain-induced shock.

Neil shook his head as he powered on his wrist comm. “Let me see if I can figure this out,” he mused aloud while he began to type a message to Masato, his main house contact who checked in on him from time to time (about Kevin, the cuts from his games, various endorsements and… well, whatever the main house wanted from him, basically). “You came here in hopes of seeing Kevin crash and burn tonight after you paid off Breckenridge to take us out during the game, only that didn’t work out too well, did it? Then you decided to handle the two of us personally, and… well, there’s a reason why your daddy threw trash like you away, right?”

Riko’s bloody lips pulled back from his teeth as he attempted to sit up. “Shut up, you useless ba-ah!” He crumpled back onto the ground after Andrew kicked him in his broken leg.

“This is boring, I want to drink,” Andrew said in that flat manner of his. “You let his minders know where he is?”

“Yeah, they’ll be here soon to pick up the trash.” Neil had to speak up to be heard over Riko’s mumbled curses. “They’re not happy.” No, Masato’s response had been along the lines of ‘thank you, forget all about this’ which didn’t bode well for Riko.

Not that Neil gave a damn about the other striker, not after what he’d done to Kevin, not after the last few weeks.

Andrew merely grunted at that as he stood up and lit a cigarette, then motioned for Neil to follow him back to his bike. “You’re riding with me.”

“Eh? But it should be fine now.” Neil held up his ‘board for a moment, only to blink when Andrew snatched it away.

“You want to chance that he’s alone?” Andrew blew out a thin stream of smoke as he attached the board on the side of his bike. “What did I say about making me work so much?”

“You worry too much,” Neil told his friend, who seemed to ignore him in favor of climbing on his bike. “Why do you worry so much?”

“Because you don’t worry enough,” Andrew said in an aggrieved manner as he folded his arms over his broad chest. “Now shut up and get on, I want that drink.”

“But it’s loud in the club.” Feeling brave, Neil slid on in front of Andrew instead of behind him. “It’s easier to talk to you like this.” When Andrew went stiff and pulled back, Neil’s good mood evaporated at the thought of him upsetting his friend. “Oh, shit, sorry, I was just-“

“You’re such an idiot,” Andrew gritted out as he reached out, his hands hovering above Neil’s hips. “Do you have any idea?”

“Any idea what?” Neil asked, his heart thundering in his chest for some reason as he sat so close to Andrew with their knees brushing, as he breathed in the scent of tobacco and found himself fixated on the small band-aid covering a slight cut on Andrew’s left cheek (when had that happened during the game?) and-

“Yes or no?”

“Eh?” It took a second for the question to register to Neil’s addled senses, for him to realize that Andrew had asked him something.

For him to realize that he was supposed to answer the question.

“Yes,” Neil replied; he wasn’t quite sure what he was agreeing to, but he trusted Andrew so….

Then he was pulled forward by strong fingers gripping his hips until he was all but on Andrew’s lap as dry lips brushed his own and oohhh…. Surprise gave way to delight as his hands fluttered in the air around Andrew’s shoulders, uncertain about if he could touch in return as his own lips parted, as his heart thundered in his chest just like it did whenever he raced through an endless sky, when the buzzer sounded at the start of a game, only this time it was from Andrew’s fingers tightening in his hair and Andrew’s tongue sliding into his mouth and Andrew’s warm, solid body pressing against his own and… ooohhh.

“Oohhh,” Neil breathed out when Andrew pulled away a few seconds later.

“See, idiot,” Andrew said, though that time with a little less heat.

“Yeah, agreed.” Neil brushed the fingers of his right hand against his lips while Andrew huffed and lit another cigarette – which he stole away a moment later. That earned him an arched eyebrow.

“Thought you didn’t smoke.”

“I don’t, not really.” Neil only inhaled enough to keep the stick going then held it near his face to breath in the scent of burnt tobacco. “But my mum used to smoke them and I like how they smell.”

“Hmm.” Andrew lit another cigarette and made a point to hold it away from Neil after he inhaled. “Thought you didn’t swing, either.”

Neil rolled his eyes at the question. “I don’t.” When Andrew’s almost golden eyes grew flat at the answer, he offered up a shy smile. “But… but there’s you. Is it swinging if it’s only one person?” He didn’t know what it was about Andrew, but… it was Andrew. This feeling inside of him, this excitement and tingling and sense of warmth? Just for Andrew.

The coldness slowly thawed as Andrew inhaled once more on the cigarette then rested his hand on Neil’s hip and pulled him closer by the nape of his neck; after a slight nod, Neil draped his arm over Andrew’s shoulder. “Should know by now not to expect anything normal with you, Josten.”

andrew bike

 “Like you’re one to talk.” Neil smiled as he leaned in closer. “So, ah, yes?”

Andrew huffed again. “Yes.” That time Neil thought he handled the kiss a little better since he expected it, though he wouldn’t mind more practice in the future. A lot, lot more practice.

All too soon, Andrew broke it off once more. “Drinks,” he said as he tugged Neil around to the back of the bike.

Right, the others would be waiting for them (not to mention someone would be showing up soon to take care of Riko). “You owe me an answer or two,” Neil reminded his friend as he slowly wrapped his arms around Andrew’s waist. When his friend gave a slight shrug, Neil smiled and rested his weight against Andrew’s broad back.

The prospect of a crowded club and a couple of drinks suddenly seemed a lot more bearable, especially if there might be more kissing at the end of the night, Neil thought as Andrew kicked the bike up through its gears.

*******