" It's good to have everyone back together again."
Dan's words still rung in the back of his head as Neil rested his head down, the pillow a cool contrast to the warm night. Warm with more than just that summer heat, too; the company of his team, reunited after their divergence over the break, left a hot tightness in his chest that didn't feel bad at all. Once, it might have – may have stung, seared, torn him apart – but not anymore.
As Neil closed his eyes, he sighed a breath that released the last of the tension in him that he hadn't even known was there. Sliding slowly into the abandon of sleep, he couldn't help but dwell on just how lucky he'd been that year. The team… they were something special. And they were his.
Not for the first time, he wondered just how their collective lot would have changed if he'd met even one of them a little earlier. Irrelevant, of course, but… interesting. It was the last tangible thought to cross Neil's mind before he slid into sleep.
There was little that could wake Kevin on a good day, and even less following a night of heavy drinking. A bursting bladder was one of those things, and it was with a sour thoughts and leaden limbs that he clawed his way from sleep and into a semblance of consciousness. Grumbling to himself, he all but fell from his bunk and staggered in a rolling stumble in the general direction of the bathroom.
A full five minutes later – sleep addled the process into a mess of fumbling hands and absentmindedness – and Kevin staggered with only a little more coordination back towards his bed. The sun was shedding its abrasive early light through the poor excuse for curtains, and Neil, being the aggressively enthusiastic morning runner that he was, was already sitting up in bed. Kevin barely registered a flicker of surprise that he was still in bed at all before he collapsed back onto his mattress, face-first into the pillow and limbs flopping limply. Sleep had barely been abandoned and was easy enough to recollect.
He closed his eyes.
Then he frowned.
With his temples already beginning to throb with an oncoming hangover, Kevin slowly rolled his head on the pillow. His eyes were blurry as he squinted across the room to the opposite bunk beds, blinking hazily through the grogginess of sleep and headache. Neil was shuffling on his bed, a leg slung out from the covers to hang above the floor, and –
Kevin lurched upright. His head swum, complained with a pang, but he barely registered it, blinking rapidly to clear the lingering blur from his eyes. "What the -?" he blurted out, tongue thick and twisting the words.
Neil froze, half out of bed, and snapped his gaze towards Kevin. Neil who was – no. No, not Neil. Not Neil because Neil was… he was…
"What the fuck?"
The kid with big eyes as blue as Neil's and hair just the same colour, curls skewed by sleep and long bangs flopping across his forehead, flinched before freezing again. He was small – so small in a bed that wasn't all that big to begin with - and the shirt he wore swum on him like a cropped muumuu. At Kevin's words his eyes widened until they seemed to fill his entire face.
He stared at Kevin, a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Kevin stared back. The kid didn't move, and Kevin thought he himself might have forgotten how to as well. There was something there, some impossible explanation in the forefront of Kevin's mind for the presence of a pint-sized kid where Neil should be, but like a broken circuit it wouldn't connect. Impossible. Utterly impossible. And yet, he looked like…
"Andrew," Kevin said, his voice still thick and hoarse but rising sharply. "Andrew, you – Hey, Andrew, get up."
Then Kevin lurched from his bed to his feet this time, and it was one move too far.
The kid in Neil's bed flew into motion. In a flurry of sheets, stick-thin limbs spinning, he leapt from the bed and scrambled across the room. Almost faster than Kevin could see, the kid burst through the door and disappeared. Kevin, scrambling to gather his senses that abruptly swung into hyperalert, snatched his pillow from his bed and lobbed it at Andrew's bed.
"Andrew," he barked, lurching across the room with only a little bit of his wayward stumble remaining. "Get up, dammit. It's Neil."
The bunkbed jerked almost the second the pillow landed, and Andrew was only a fraction slower in sitting up. As Kevin spared him a glance from the doorway, Andrew met his eyes with the clarity of immediate alertness that he'd always been capable of instantly acquiring.
Andrew frowned, scrubbed a hand through the tufts of his hair, and slung an arm to dangle over the side of his bed. "What?" he asked flatly, a demand rather than a question of curiosity.
"Something's happened to Neil," Kevin said, and he knew he didn't need to explain further. He didn't quite understand what was between Andrew and Neil – no one did – but a handful of words would never fail to throw either one of them into action. Sure enough, as he turned back to the hallway, already making after the runaway kid, it was to the sight of Andrew swinging a sharp glance to the bed beneath his own before he all but leapt over the side of his own to the floor. He was on Kevin's heels before Kevin had made it into the living room.
The living room which was empty.
Not a chair was out of place. The television was silent. The bean bag in the centre of the room was lumpy and slouching in just the same way it had been when reprieved of Nicky's drunken sprawl the previous night. Neil's travel bag, dumped on his desk just as Andrew's was when they'd returned to the Tower the previous afternoon, was as untouched as the rest of it.
Kevin, struggling to make sense of the situation for more than just his pounding head, swept his gaze around the room from the mouth of the hallway. He barely noticed Andrew shouldering past him to make for the kitchen, pausing only long enough to glance in, however, before spinning and heading for the door. It took him snapping the top lock open before Kevin's stuttering short-circuit reconnected enough for him to hasten towards him.
"Wait," he said, striding across the room with as much haste as he could manage. "He hasn't left. It's still locked."
Andrew stared up at him with his flat stare, hardened further because something was wrong and something always drove Andrew towards the edge of aggression. He was as likely to knock the wind out of Kevin as reply, but blessedly only demanded with a sharp, "Your point?"
"He's too short," Kevin said, turning in place and glancing around the room, and rubbing unconsciously at his head. "He couldn't – he wouldn't be able to reach it."
Turning from the door, Kevin took a brief circuit of the room. He couldn't believe it, still didn't quite understand, couldn't comprehend, but that something forced him into action. Off the court, Kevin wasn't much for initiative, or so he'd been told. But this? This necessitated thoughtless immediacy, because Neil was –
Neil was –
How the fuck is he a fucking kid?
That thought was all that circulated in Kevin's head as he flicked a crumped blanket from the floor to glance beneath. As he peered under each of the desks and looked into the kitchen again just in case. Nothing, nothing, and nothing. He didn't even realise Andrew was staring at him from the doorway until he was brought up by Andrew's hand darted towards him to grab his arm, jerking him to a halt before he could charge back down hallway towards the bathroom.
"What did you take last night?" Andrew asked, spinning Kevin around to face him.
Take? Andrew thought he was high? At another time, Kevin might have shaken himself loose, hissed in affront, but not now. Now, he only shook his head, managed to tug free, and strode towards the bathroom. Not now. He couldn't manage Andrew now when he could barely wrap his mind around the disorientation of his rude awakening.
Andrew's sharp "Kevin" followed him as Kevin shouldered through the door, nearly tripped over a towel discarded on the floor, and glanced around the room. Nothing, nothing, and nothing again, not behind the door, beside the overflowing hamper, behind the –
Behind the shower curtain.
Wrenched aside, Kevin nearly fell over with the speed of his backwards flinch. Even deliberately looking for him, the sight of the kid was a slap in the face because yes. Yes, it fucking was. In the fluorescent bathroom light, there was no mistaking that the kid – a skinny, tiny little auburn-haired kid – was a dead ringer of Neil.
A dead ringer minus fifteen odd years.
"What the fuck?" Kevin swore for what could have been the tenth time since he'd woken. Standing at the side of the shower, hand bunched in the curtain, it was all he could do to stare.
Dumbfounded. That seemed about right.
The kid stared up at him with eyes blown so wide the white was visible the whole way around. With his arms were locked tightly around his shins, shoulders drawn to his ears, and back against the wall, he was nothing if not the personification of a cornered rabbit. A cornered rabbit in a shirt three times too big for him and staring up at Kevin with…
Fear? Definitely fear, but not panic. Kevin saw, registered, but couldn't quite comprehend the terror that wasn't panicked, the wariness that quivered as tension through the kid's body. Not helplessness; that fear bespoke nothing short of the recognition of a familiar horror.
Kevin couldn't move. Didn't move. It was only when an arm swiped into his side that he staggered from his stock-stillness. The kid before him flinched, snapped his gaze to where Andrew appeared at Kevin's side, and somehow managed to tense even further.
They stared. All of them. And Kevin had no idea what the fuck to do next.
Blessedly, it seemed that Andrew did. At least a little bit.
"Go and get someone," he said, voice so low the words were almost indecipherable. "Someone useful."
Glancing towards him, Kevin saw nothing but blank-faced regard, but Andrew's body thrummed with just as much tension as the kid's. He blinked, then grunted as Andrew, without looking from the kid, swept his arm into his flank once more. "Kevin. Go. Now."
In a scramble, tearing from the room with long-legged purpose to do something, something that could be properly done, he threw towards the nearest source of help. Not that Andrew had asked for it specifically. Not that Kevin knew what any such help could do. Regardless, he was fumbling for his phone as soon as he all but crashed into his nightstand, swiping through his contacts for Wymack's number with haphazard fingers.
Wymack picked up on the fourth ring. "Is there a reason you're calling at the arse-crack of dawn?"
"It's Neil," Kevin blurted out. "You have to – Coach, he's –"
"What is it?" The grumble instantly disappeared from his voice. "What happened? What's wrong?"
"He's – Coach, he's –"
"Kevin, spit it out."
"He's a kid." Ludicrous in thought, it sounded even more insane spoken out loud. "Coach, Neil turned into a kid."
A loud silence met his words with Wymack's slow inhalation the only interruption. Then, "Have you been drinking this morning? Already?"
Kevin steadied himself on his nightstand. His headache was positively pounding in his temples, and his legs felt like they were barely holding him up. There was something buzzing between his ears that had nothing to do with Wymack's words and a whole lot more the short-circuiting currently afflicting him. Pressing his hand over his eyes – he was so completely not fucking prepared for this shit – Kevin released a shaking breath.
"I swear to god, Coach, I'm not sure I've ever wished that I was piss-drunk more in my life. We need your goddamn help."
It wasn't much of an explanation but it was apparently enough. "Give me ten," Wymack said, and the line went dead. No, it might not be much – not an explanation nor a fucking pinch to wake Kevin up from what he was increasingly hoping was dream – but it was something.
" No shit, for real? So, like, a psychological regression?"
Aaron pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, Mike, not like a fucking regression. I mean he's literally turned into a kid."
" So… he thinks he's a kid?"
"No, he – What did I just fucking say?"
" What happened? Was he in an accident? Did he hit his head?"
"No, he –"
"' Cause you should get him to the hospital if he has, man. If he thinks he's – what, how old? That's some serious shit."
Aaron glared across the room at nothing as Mike continued with rising concern. Traumatic accidents, head injuries, a concussion gone from bad to worse – it was all about as far from useful as Aaron could think. Finally, his frustration – and the quiet inquiry from Katelyn at his side – had him forcing his way into Mike's tirade.
"Mike, do you or don't you know anything about a grown adult suddenly winding up in the body of a five-year-old?"
A stuttered stop met his words, then a pause. "What?" Mike asked. "Like a body-switch?"
"Yes. No. Maybe. Aren't you a med student?"
" You mean like some supernatural mumbo-jumbo?"
"It's not –"
"Have you been watching too much sci-fi, man? I thought you didn't even like sci-fi. Whenever I've asked, you –"
Aaron hung up.
Squeezing the bridge of his nose again, he glanced towards Katelyn at his side. She was still in her pyjamas – they all were – and was watching him with the wide-eyed attentiveness of those listening to only half a conversation and filling in the blanks. Her face twisted sympathetically as Aaron stuffed the phone into his pocket.
"Nothing?" she asked.
Aaron didn't really need to reply, but he shook his head anyway. It seemed appropriate, a heavy shake of utter bemusement, given the situation they'd found themselves in that morning.
Wymack woke them all up. Or maybe it was Dan, Aaron wasn't sure. All he knew was that Matt had shaken him awake, all but dragging him from his bed and Katelyn's sleepy company, and hauled him into the room down the hall.
The whole team was there. And Wymack. And Abby, too, because apparently the Foxes couldn't do anything low-key. Which, when Aaron considered, was probably appropriate given how goddamn fucked up the situation was.
Kevin was hunched in the corner of the room. Dan and Matt, Allison and Renee, were all scattered throughout the space. Wymack paced along the wall with Nicky positively twitching a foot away from him, while Andrew had positioned himself against the wall across from the bathroom right behind where Abby was leaning through the bathroom door. And within that bathroom, when Aaron had been able to look for himself –
"This is insane," he'd said as soon as he'd first caught a glimpse of the kid. He stared at Kevin and seriously pondered the death of his liver if he was already drunk again after their previous night. He jerked a thumb at the bathroom behind him, the bathroom with the kid and an overly-gentle Abby attempting to coax said kid from the corner of the shower cubicle. "That's a five-year-old kid."
"It's Neil," Kevin said.
Aaron swung towards him instead. "No, it's not, because that's impossible. That's a kid –"
"He looks just like him," Matt said, his voice a little awed.
Aaron swung towards him instead. "So what? That doesn't mean –"
"He said his name's Nathaniel," Nicky said, stupefaction slackening his face.
"He really does look exactly like him."
"He's Neil. He's Neil?"
"He was in Neil's bed and Neil isn't –"
"How? How the hell does that happen?"
"I can't believe it, but he's really…"
Disbelief yet rapidly – and foolishly – rising acceptance of the impossible pervaded the room. Words were flung with Kevin's repeated "it's Neil" a constant accompaniment, and Aaron could only shake his head at the ridiculousness of it all. Until he looked at the kid again, that was. The kid and Andrew, because Andrew wouldn't put up with such bullshit, except –
Andrew didn't move from his place in the hallway. Arms folded, utterly unmoving, he didn't look away from the bathroom for even a second. Aaron didn't think he even blinked.
Aaron called Mike, the third of possible sources he'd tried, because it was impossible yet somehow had happened anyway, and if it had happened then there would be a precedent. A medical precedent. There would be… right? Except Mike hadn't known, and neither had Susanne before him, nor Taj before her, and he was a legitimate doctor rather than a student. When Aaron lowered his phone the third time, he didn't bother to try a fourth.
"This is impossible," he muttered, barely noticing the nods of agreement around him. "Things like this don't happen."
"Except it did," Renee said quietly.
"What do we do?" Matt asked. "Do we… take him to a hospital?"
"And they'll do what, exactly?" Allison said, shooting him a severe frown that was less of a reprimand and gave more of a harried impression than anything else. "What're they going to do? Study him like a lab-rat?"
"This is impossible," Aaron found himself muttering again, and Katelyn's hand squeezing his own for once didn't immediately make the situation any easier to bear. Confusion buzzed in the air like a current of electricity, and it was infectious, would have been infectious even without the nonsensical situation. People didn't just turn into kid versions of themselves, and yet, apparently when it came to Neil-goddamn-Josten, he was an exception in every situation.
Words were flung about the room, mostly between the upperclassman. Aaron didn't listen. He stared at the bathroom, at Abby and her quiet attempts at coaxing, at Andrew, motionless and staring. Kevin was still stuck on repeat, and he found himself not much different.
Until Abby somehow worked her magic.
She backed away from the bathroom like a handler drawing a frightened animal from its cage. Exactly like a handler, in fact, for a moment later a small hand curled around the door frame and a equally small face with big eyes followed. Aaron couldn't look away; he didn't like Neil, not at all, but even his dislike paled in the face of this. It was definitely him. Neil Josten, as a kid. Even without the maturity, without the scars painting his cheeks, it was impossible not to see what was more than merely resemblance.
The room fell silent. The upperclassmen seemed to hold their breath. Finally, Abby's quiet, words could be heard. Her hand extended towards the kid – towards Neil – and she wore a smile that did a remarkable job of hiding just how messed up the situation was. "That's it," she said. "See, nothing to worry about. These people – they're all friends. This is Andrew, and Andrew's brother Aaron, and Katelyn standing right next to him. That's Dan, and that's…"
She circled the room with her finger, barely glancing away from Neil, and Neil watched her gestures with solemn eyes darting between them all. Far too solemn for a kid his age; it was uncanny, and Katelyn's hand tightening in Aaron's was more than indication that he wasn't alone in his thoughts.
"…all very friendly, so you've got nothing to worry about," Abby was saying, and Aaron almost snorted reflexively. "No one will hurt you, Nathaniel."
"Nathaniel?" Aaron asked before he could help himself. Gazes drew towards him, but he ignored them. "That's what you're calling him?"
Before anyone could answer, Neil spoke. "It's my name," he said, his words quiet but insistent, as though spoken by rote and coloured only slightly by the wariness mirrored in his expression. It was jarring to hear the words, high and thin in his child's voice, when the tone sounded so much like Neil's. His fingers squeezed the door frame until his knuckles turned white. "Nathaniel. Not Neil."
"Yeah, that's right," Abby began, but Neil's gaze was trained on Aaron and he wasn't done.
"Not Neil. I don't like you all calling me weird names. You're supposed to call people by their proper names, because otherwise you're stupid and rude."
Another bout of silence met his words. This time, however, Aaron couldn't suppress his snort. "Oh, the irony," he said, shaking his head.
"Yeah, you tell him, little man," Matt said, the slight waver in his smile the only suggestion of his uneasiness.
Neil shot him a glance – wary, scared, but somehow defiant as well – and sunk against the doorframe slightly. He frowned at each of the Foxes in turn and likely would have continued frowning motionlessly if Abby hadn't recalled his attention.
"Would you like that breakfast I promised you?" she asked, her voice bright and somehow devoid of the ominous undertones Aaron suspected they all felt. "I'm sure there's something yummy we can rustle up." She spared Andrew a glance. "What do you boys have?"
Andrew didn't reply, and Aaron wasn't surprised. He looked like a stone statue, face a blank mask and arms folded across his chest as he stared down at Neil. He didn't appear to even hear Abby's words, which she likely deduced from her quiet sigh as she straightened. Hand still extended towards Neil in an offering that he too ignored, she beckoned towards the kitchen. "Come on, let's go and have a look."
It was impossible not to stare as Neil – Nathaniel, whatever he was called – slunk along the wall in Abby's wake. He moved as though every step was considered, as though walking on glass, and unerringly kept the wall to his back even as he rounded the corner. It was disconcerting, and from the shared glances between the Foxes, Aaron didn't think he was the only one thinking that, either.
When Neil and Abby disappeared into the kitchen, Wymack ejected into the living room in exchange, the Foxes seemed to draw in upon themselves in a reflexive huddle. Aaron found himself no less afflicted by that reflex, edging towards their cluster.
"Oh my god, that really is baby Neil," Nicky said, somehow managing to shout in a whisper.
"He's kind of adorable," Matt said.
"And looks like he's shitting himself," Allison added.
Renee shook her head. "No. No, he's not. That's… he's scared, but not terrified. It's…" She glanced towards Andrew, frowning at where he stood alongside the doorway into the kitchen. He'd been drawn several paces behind Abby and the kid as though magnetised and still hadn't looked away. It was oddly captivating to watch; Aaron thought it must have been the first time he'd seen his brother properly disconcerted.
"What do we do?" Matt asked. "Are we -? I mean, should we -?"
"I'm pretty sure there's no set protocol for what to do when your friend turns into a mini version of themselves," Dan said. "I suppose we wait it out?"
"Wait it out? Isn't that kind of…?"
"Well, what else are we supposed to do but hope it reverses itself? This isn't exactly a normal affliction!"
They bounced between themselves, Katelyn dipping her toes into the conversation with more level-headedness than most of the Foxes. Aaron listened as they spoke – "We're seriously going to be looking after a baby Neil?" was met by "Holy shit, we're kind of all his collective parents," which became "You shouldn't be trusted with any small child, let alone a kid-Neil" – and, impossibly, collective enthusiasm seemed to swell to replace the stupor. By the time the smell of cooking toast filled the suite, Aaron was fairly sure most of them were even excited by the unlikely turn of events. The fucking weirdos.
Abby was smiling with a proper smile this time as she led the way from the kitchen. "We'll set you up at the table," she was saying, half turned towards the kid trailing behind her. "If you ask one of the Foxes here, I'm sure someone would be nice enough to get you a drink of juice."
"I'll get it," Nicky volunteered immediately, starting forwards with a bounce in his step and his own beaming smile. He faltered only briefly as the kid flinched, edging backwards to the nearest wall and peering up at him with his solemn eyes. Nicky was dropping into a crouch before the kid an instant later, however. "What would you like? If I know Andrew, he'll always keep at least a couple of different flavours in the fridge. Orange, pineapple – what do you want?"
The kid stared at him, a small frown settling on his brow as his hands twisted into the oversized shirt he wore like a dress. He flicked Abby a glance, the room and the rest of them one too, and a decidedly warier one towards Wymack in the corner, before refocusing on Nicky.
"I'm not supposed to have juice," he said. "Mom says it rots your teeth."
Nicky shrugged. "Well, this could be a special occasion, right? We won't tell anyone."
"Doesn't matter. Mom always knows."
Nicky shrugged again, but his shoulders had visibly tightened. "I promise I'll keep a secret. And I'll make sure everyone else does, too. 'Kay?"
Neil's frown didn't lift, but his lips pursed contemplatively. He gave a jerking nod, and Aaron didn't need to look at his face to know Nicky was grinning again, likely more in relief than enthusiasm. He rose to standing, striding into the kitchen, and Aaron didn't miss that Neil watched with a shrewdly attentive gaze every step he took.
It was weird. Very weird. A kid his age, for he really couldn't have been more than four or five, shouldn't act like that. Aaron didn't have many fond memories of his childhood home, of growing up with his mom, but even he knew that such behaviour wasn't normal behaviour. Not only Neil's solemnity but the knowing cast to his stare, to his wariness, bespoke an understanding of just what lay in the shadows under his bed rather than simple childish imagination.
Weird, and frankly depressing, though Aaron supposed it wasn't all that unexpected. The Butcher of Baltimore wasn't likely to be one to provide a comfortable, loving home.
It took Abby's verbal nudge, her hand extended again but once more ignored by Neil, before he continued in following her to the table. He took the seat directed to him, but it was with many a glance over his shoulder to the Foxes, as though he wasn't convinced they'd keep their distance if he didn't keep an eye on them. Dan adopted a brave smile and Matt waved a little awkwardly, but neither seemed particularly convincing. Neil definitely didn't appear convinced.
"Tropical," Nicky said, appearing from the kitchen with a glass of juice. "Everyone likes tropical, right, Nei – Nathaniel?"
Neil hitched a shoulder that succeeded in slipping said shoulder into the head opening of his shirt. He shuffled away from Abby's before she could pull it up for him, tugging it back into place himself with a quick glance her way. "I dunno. I guess." A pause. "What's your name again?"
Nicky looked like he'd been gifted an early Christmas. He grinned, setting the glass down as he invited himself into the only spare seat at the small table. "I'm Nicky. Nice to properly meet you."
"You talk so much, even though we're not friends. It's… a bit weird."
Matt laughed. Dan snickered. Renee and Allison exchanged amused glances. Aaron snorted again and shared his own glance with Katelyn. Irony was coming in droves that morning.
Nicky exclaimed in exaggerated offense, as loud and vibrant as he always was. Neil didn't shrink away from him this time, however, nor even when Nicky dropped his elbows onto the table and leant towards him, already diving into a whirlwind of chatter. Instead, he picked at the sliced toast with hesitant fingers, eyeing Nicky consideringly when he wasn't casting glances around the rest of the room.
Matt was the next to make his way to the table. Dan followed on his heels, with Renee and Allison alongside her. In short order, all of the Foxes – Katelyn pulling Aaron along as she approached - were spreading around the dining area. Aaron couldn't even bring himself to pretend to be anything but morbidly fascinated with the kid sitting across from him, pecking through his makeshift breakfast like a finicky bird.
"Hope you don't have peanut allergies, Neil," Nicky said, shooting Abby an apologetic smile when she grumbled her reproval for his name.
"No," Neil said slowly, swiping a finger through the peanut butter lathering the toast. "I've never had peanut butter before."
"Never had peanut butter either?" Nicky's eyebrows rose, and he exchanged an incredulous glance with Matt. "You haven't lived."
Neil shrugged, sliding into his seat a little more comfortably. "Jelly is better."
"Too right it is," Dan said, shooting Neil a grin when he glanced towards her. She raised a fist for a bump, which was almost comically delayed in eliciting a returning like-minded if far more awkward gesture.
"You guys are the weird ones," Nicky said. "At least make it PBJ."
"PBJ is best eaten with a spoon from the jar," Allison pointed out.
"You eat it straight from the jar?" Neil asked, shooting her a glance that was more incredulous than wary. The wariness even seemed to fade a little. "With a spoon and everything?"
Allison smiled wolfishly. "Sometimes, I even just use my finger."
Neil blinked. "Don't you get into trouble?"
"From your mom."
"My mom could certainly try, but her kind of 'trouble' isn't exactly intimidating."
"Lucky," Neil said emphatically. "My mom's really scary when she's angry. It's really bad when she throws stuff."
Aaron couldn't help but flinch, shifting uncomfortably in the abrupt silence. Neil, tearing a bite from his toast, for once seemed oblivious to them all. "But she's not as bad as Dad. Mom throws things so Dad doesn't get angry, which is even worse."
"Is that what she says?" Renee asked quietly. "About your Dad?"
Neil glanced up and seemed to realise that he had the faintly horrified attention of the entire room. His eyes darted between them each in turn before resting on Renee. "No," he said tersely. "She doesn't… really say that."
"It's alright, Nathaniel," Abby said, leaning towards him from where she stood at the back of his chair. "You don't have to –"
"No, she doesn't," Neil said, shaking his head vigorously and frowning down at his toast. "I made it up."
"I like to make up stories like that," he continued stubbornly. "All the time. My teacher says I'm good at making up stories." He took a deliberate bite of his toast and turned towards Nicky. "Do you know some good stories? Do you go to school too? Or are you too old?"
It was such a rapid leap, such a sharp change in direction, that Aaron was left staring in renewed stupefaction just like the rest of the room. Unwittingly, he found himself glancing towards where Andrew stood half a room away, the only one of them not hovering around Neil, though he watched him intently nonetheless. As if feeling his gaze, Andrew flicked him a brief glance before resuming his study.
It was telling, though. Aaron didn't know his brother, could so rarely read him it was closer to never being able to than at all, but he caught the brief upwelling of anger swirling in his eyes and understood. Understood, too, that where Neil came from might not be so different to his home. He'd often wondered from Neil's explanation earlier that year, often considered, but…
Deflecting with flimsy lies.
Slipping up, then hastily patching the hole that formed back into suitable smoothness.
It was all a little too familiar, and Aaron couldn't help but regard Neil in something of a new light. He'd known, certainly, and had mentally compared their experiences and errors more times than he could count, but this… It was different to see evidence of such a thing happening in a kid who spoke with more awareness than he should, who lied as though it had been taught to him. Different, and hitting just a little too close to home.
Nicky hadn't responded, apparently rendered uncharacteristically speechless, so Aaron couldn't help himself. He didn't like Neil, but when it was a kid so reminiscent of his old self? It was reflexive to rise to the occasion.
"Your teacher?" he asked, drawing Neil's direct attention for the first time. "Do you go to school, then? Aren't you kind of little for that?"
Neil's guarded expression switched into one of affront. "I am not," he said, slapping his toast onto his plate and folding his arms with a huff. "I'm six already. And I'm not little."
"You're six?" Dan asked, a little strangled. "Seriously? Even though you're -?"
"I'm not little! Why does everyone always, always say that?"
"Shit, even as a kid he was tiny," Matt said, breaking into stuttered laughter.
"Yeah, kid, you kind of are," Allison said.
"No, I'm –"
"You're six already?" Renee asked, leaping in with her usual mediation attempts. "That is pretty big. So you do go to school, just like Aaron asked?"
Neil was haughty, his cheeks slightly flushed, and Aaron almost laughed, if more from relief than anything else. This was a kid. This was how a kid should be. Not as guarded and solemn as before, but blustering and affronted, insistent and persistent. Retreating from the table a little, Aaron retrieved his thumb from where he'd stuck it into the throes of the conversation and tightened his hold of Katelyn's hand.
It wasn't Katelyn that he shared a glance with, though. Rather, it was almost impossible to not look towards where Andrew stood, still and silent across the room. From that second shared glance, Aaron gleaned more from his brother than he'd perhaps ever seen in his life: if the rest of the Foxes were disconcerted, Andrew was about as close to stunned as he'd ever been.
It wasn't a good thing, necessarily, but it was certainly a sight to experience. Turning back to where Neil had risen onto his knees, talking with increasing animation, Aaron considered that he was likely to have at least a few more of those experiences in the foreseeable future.
Hi everyone! So, this is my first fic for this blessed series (I can't believe it's taken so long to dip my toes into the fanfic part of the fandom), but the sort of cliche trope idea struck and kind of stuck. I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you have a second to leave a comment! They literally give me life :D
Chapter 2: Day 2, Part 1
"Come on, Allison, move your arse."
Dan glanced across the room to where Matt was shifting from foot to foot next to the door. He was practically buzzing with energy, the enthusiasm and something close to excitement tugging on his face only enhancing the impression. Smirking, she shook her head and returned to filling her thermos.
She couldn't blame him. Not really. After the previous day and the forced ejection from Abby's house so that 'certain people can get some sleep', it was difficult not to feel the jittery need to return to what had abruptly become the most interesting thing that had happened to them in months. Maybe even ever given it was such a distinct flavour of interesting.
It was more than a little crazy, a little unbelievable, and Dan almost couldn't fathom that less than a handful of days ago the biggest thing on her mind was returning to campus, to her friends, and preparing for the new season and the incoming freshman. Practice, games, and school; they would consume her world as much as they would the rest of her team. A few more days reprieve would be spent in good company, lazing around their rooms and revelling in the last minutes of the holiday, before diving headfirst into the midst of it with the influx of their new freshmen.
Waking up the previous morning to find Neil in the body of a kid a third his age threw a spanner in the works. Just a little bit.
Pouring swirling coffee into her cup, Dan shook her head to herself. That was definitely crazy, and more than a little unbelievable, despite spending the entire previous day with Neil "my name's Nathaniel" to reinforce the new reality. Dan didn't quite know what to think. Should she be worried, like Abby was? Utterly baffled, like Aaron? Amused to the point of hysteria like Allison, doting as Nicky and Matt seemed to have become, or quietly concerned like Renee? Like Andrew, too, for though he hadn't spoken a word to anyone the previous day, hadn't shifted his blank expression in even a twitch, Dan got that impression. She got it more profoundly than she'd ever detected anything from him before.
A week out of school, the new season revamping, and Neil was a kid. Dan found herself mostly torn between every single one of the responses of her friends. For once – or at least for once in the past few months – exy was secondary to more pressing matters. Dan could wholly commiserate with Matt's sense of urgency in leaving Fox Tower; to get to Abby's to see little-Neil and reaffirm that yesterday hadn't been a dream, or better yet, find him returned to normal. Dan definitely felt that urgency, too.
Renee and Allison appeared almost as eager if the way Renee idled alongside Matt and Allison appeared moments later was any indication. She'd managed to dress and make herself up in an impossible half an hour that morning. Dan was suitably impressed.
"Finally," Matt said, turning for the door as soon as Allison appeared. "We'll take my truck."
"Or I could just take my car," Allison said, following him out. "I'll beat you there."
"You could try."
"I could succeed, you mean."
Dan smiled, snapping the lid onto her thermos. She fell into step alongside Renee as they left their room, waiting as Renee locked it before picking up their pace to keep up with Matt and Allison's rapidly retreating steps. Matt's eagerness had only intensified in the span of their seconds of leaving, and Allison was striding remarkably quickly for someone in such tall shoes. They were exchanging words – or taunts – with a distinctly posturing air, an attempt at distraction that Dan was all too familiar with herself after their brief, hurried morning.
Everyone wanted to be at Abby's. They wouldn't have left in the first place if they'd had a say in the matter.
"Are you alright?"
Dan glanced at Renee as they made their way down the stairs. Renee was regarding her with a slight tilt of her head, her perceptive gaze as softly curious as ever. Dan shrugged, taking a sip of her coffee. "Still a little weirded out. Just like everyone else, I guess."
Renee nodded. "Sure, we all feel that way. But I know you get especially worried about things like this."
Dan didn't need to nod this time. Renee knew her too well. Dan would never admit to just what extent she felt responsible for her team. It didn't matter that Coach was in charge, or Abby could patch them all back together, or Betsy could mend the pieces that Abby couldn't reach. The Foxes were Dan's; she was in charge, and just when that responsibility had overflowed from the boundaries of the court into everything else, she wasn't sure. Maybe she was just getting clucky in her old age.
"Who isn't worried?" she murmured, eyeing Matt and Allison. For all their enthusiasm, Matt was still jittery and had hardly slept the night before, and Allison's promptness that morning was telling. "We're all a little bit useless to help out with anything."
"Which isn't exactly unusual when it comes to Neil," Renee said with a small smile.
Dan scrunched her nose. "True. This isn't quite a repeat of earlier this year, though."
"Yeah. I'd rather this than potential murder and gang wars."
They fell into silence for a moment until Dan led Renee from Fox Tower; Matt and Allison had already drawn alongside their cars for the speed of their departure. "Still," Renee continued, closing the door behind herself, "it would be nice to help out a little more. I don't know how long this will last –"
"It'd better fucking reverse itself," Dan muttered.
"- but I admittedly feel a completely useless after yesterday." Renee smiled at Dan's words but didn't otherwise comment upon what they were all thinking. "I don't know anything about looking after kids."
Dan grunted in agreement. None of them did, for that matter. Not kids as young as Neil had become, and definitely not kids like Neil himself. Dan knew as little about dealing with them as Renee, but she would wager that little-Neil wasn't like most kids.
"Come on, you two," Allison called as she turned towards them, hands planted on her hips. "Some time today would be nice."
"Yeah," Matt agreed. He'd returned to rocking between his feet. "We need to rescue Neil from Andrew." He shook his head. "I still can't believe, of all people, Abby let him stay."
Renee breezed past Matt's truck to Allison's car, Allison falling into step alongside her as she did. "Oh, I don't think it's so hard to believe. I think that Neil would be the last person Andrew would put at risk."
Dan could agree with that – definitely, even understanding Andrew as little as she did – but she couldn't help asking, "But to trust him with a kid?"
Renee paused as Allison unlocked her car, smiling over her shoulder. "I wouldn't call it a soft spot, but Andrew's always considered children an exception. If anything, I don't think Neil could be in safer hands." Then she turned from them, climbed into Allison's car, and they were away almost before she'd pulled the door closed.
Dan shared a glance with Matt, a like-minded raised eyebrow, then shrugged. "Well, she does know him best, I guess."
"It's still weird to think," Matt said.
"Yeah, but it's true – he was kind of good with him yesterday, right?"
Matt frowned but didn't reply as they climbed into his truck. He was still chewing over his words as he kicked the roaring engine to life. "That's a bit weird too, right?" he said, killing the radio as they pulled from the parking. "Not just how Andrew was acting, but Neil, too. Right?"
Dan nodded, chewing absently on the rim of her thermos. Weird was about the simplest word to use for their entire situation, but for what was between Andrew and Neil? Even without the whole kid thing it was strange, but that extra element was just a whole new world of bizarre.
Andrew didn't leave Neil's side. He didn't speak to anyone, didn't do much of anything but watch, but he didn't leave the room Neil was in but for brief moments at a time that were so short Dan could practically blink and miss them. In the apartment, the car, at Abby's – he was like a guard dog, albeit of a different kind to what he'd been with Kevin.
When Nicky made the error of ruffling Neil's hair for the first time, Andrew almost sprained his wrist. When Aaron took to asking prying questions about Neil's mom, Andrew pinned him with an unblinking stare so heavy that the room seemed to darken and Aaron surely wouldn't have been able to continue even if he'd wanted to. When Wymack, seemingly unconsciously, pulled a smoke from his pocket, even before Abby could say anything to a scolding effect, a spoon had been flung out of nowhere and practically struck the cigarette from Wymack's fingers. Wymack had scowled, muttered something about "being old enough to use goddamn words, Minyard", but he'd gotten the message.
In a way it might have even been sweet, except that the behaviour came from Andrew. That fact made it almost horrifyingly disconcerting. Just as much as the fact that Neil seemed entirely okay with all of it.
He hadn't been at first. For a good chunk of the previous morning, when he still practically quivered with tension that screamed flight-risk, Neil had regarded all of them with wide-eyed wariness. Whether because Andrew was watching him or because he could somehow sense the sheer danger that was Andrew Minyard, he spared more glances to where Andrew stood across the room than to anyone else.
Then had been the car trip, a brief twenty minutes of them both out of sight, and something had changed. A moment when something had clicked, and – though Dan would never say it out loud – Neil seemed to have picked up the leash that Andrew had affixed to himself. Whether unwittingly or deliberately, Dan didn't know, but of all of his options Neil seemed to have become the most 'okay' with Andrew.
That was weird, too. It would have been almost as weird as the whole age thing if Neil hadn't made the exact decision months before.
"I guess it's not entirely unexpected," Dan murmured into her thermos, gazing out the windscreen but not seeing the road. "This is Neil and Andrew we're talking about, after all."
"Right." Matt sighed. A moment of silence passed between them before he regained his enthusiasm. "Still, it'd be cool if Andrew let him out of his clutches for a few minutes. I've never had a baby brother before."
Dan couldn't help but laugh. "You don't have a baby brother now."
"Actually, I kind of do. And he's adorable."
"Yeah, I got the impression you felt that way."
"Even if he is twitchy –"
"- he's adorable. You've got to admit. If I have babies, I want them to be just like him. He's so cute, and little, and…"
Dan laughed again, shaking her head. "Don't let Neil hear you say that. Or Nathaniel, I should say. Apparently he had a height complex as a kid."
"I wonder when that went away?" Matt pondered aloud. He pursed his lips, frowning at the road ahead. "Sucks that we have to call him Nathaniel, though."
Dan pulled a face. "I know. Talk about bringing back bad memories."
"Reckon we could convince him to use a nickname?"
"Convince Neil?" Dan raised an eyebrow. "You mean the stubbornest person in human history?"
Matt grinned. "True. But he's a baby, so I have the advantage."
"You only think you do. He'd steamroll you with a smile."
Matt's grin softened into the doting expression he'd worn for most of the previous afternoon. "Yeah." He sighed, and he didn't seem begrudging in the slightest.
They pulled into Abby's house, bumping up the curb behind Allison's Porsche, and piled onto the sidewalk to join Allison and Renee. There was no sign of Andrew's Maserati, but Dan didn't think that meant anything in particular; Nicky and Aaron still weren't allowed to drive it, and Andrew almost certainly hadn't left the house yet to retrieve it himself.
Matt, naturally, led the way at an almost-run, and he'd pressed the doorbell half a dozen times before Allison elbowed him gently to stop. Abby, expecting them, opened it in short order.
"Alright, calm down," she said, stepping aside to allow them all to pass her. "You'd think it was an emergency or something. My poor doorbell this morning."
"Nicky?" Renee guessed, and Abby nodded.
"Damn, they beat us." Allison clicked her tongue. With a huff, she strode past Abby, leading the way inside. "Nicky, did you sleep on the doorstep or something? I could have sworn we dropped you back to campus last night."
Dan followed in Allison's wake, slower than Matt's enthusiastic step but nonetheless hastily. Nicky's retort was lost beneath Matt's exclamation as soon as he stepped into the living room. "Hey, Nathaniel! How's it going, buddy? Did you sleep good?"
Neil – or Nathaniel, though Dan still couldn't bring herself to consider him as such – gave off a far different impression than he had the previous morning. Seated cross-legged in the middle of the floor, gaming controller in hand, he glanced over his shoulder at their entrance. Still wide-eyed, though likely more because his eyes were beautifully big in his little face, the tension of the previous day was practically gone.
That in itself was strange, Dan thought, studying him as he offered a small wisp of a smile for Matt. The whole situation must have been terrifying for a kid of six. No parents, no one he knew, no memory of any of them – which in itself was terribly saddening but Dan shunted the thought to the side as a secondary concern. Any other child would have been in tears, or demanding to know where their parents were, or clinging to the nearest adult who showed a lick of concern or kindness.
Neil wasn't any of that. He didn't cry, just as he never had as an adult, and didn't even look on the verge of it. He'd only once asked for his parents, for his mom, but it had been more of a tentative query than a desperate plea. And as for clinginess?
Neil had never been one for hugs, had tolerated them at best before he became a little more practiced at receiving them, but surely kids were different. They were, weren't they? Dan really didn't know anything about kids, but she was fairly sure of some things, and those things were the polar opposite of Neil.
It shouldn't surprise her, not when she really thought about it, she supposed it did. Dan had never considered the childhood years of her Foxes with any kind of scrutiny beyond acknowledging that they were, by and large, all kind of shit. It struck a chord, though, to see evidence of that shit in the flesh. No one should have to withstand whatever it was that made a kid so resilient, so self-reliant and wary. It shouldn't have happened to Neil.
Which was why it was surprising to see him in a state of relative ease, seated on the floor alongside Nicky and before Abby's television. The gaming controller was resting in his lap, all but forgotten as he turned towards their entrance. Or briefly towards them; he spared a long glance for Andrew, stretched along one of the couches, before reaffixing his attention to Matt. Permission? Assurance? Dan wasn't sure.
"Hello," Neil said. "Matt?"
Matt beamed as though all his Christmases had come at once with the simple act of Neil remembering his name. "Sure am. Glad to see you remembered me."
"You're disrupting our game," Nicky complained, throwing a missile of one of the couch-pillows he'd built into a nest at Matt.
"That's very gracious of you, to allow your TV to be monopolised," Dan said to Abby. "Did Nicky bring it over?"
Abby nodded. "Nicky, Aaron, and Katelyn arrived in Katelyn's car this morning."
"Ah. That explains it."
"Where's Aaron and Katelyn now?" Renee asked.
"They went off to get some breakfast together. Just the two of them." Abby shrugged. "Aaron looked like he needed a break. It's all been a bit overwhelming for him, I think."
Dan nodded. She didn't have to ask; Aaron seemed to have been struck particularly strongly yesterday. "Do you mind if I grab a bite myself?" Dan asked. "Matt practically dragged us all out this morning to get here early."
Abby smiled. "Why am I not surprised?"
Both of them glanced back towards the room, to where Matt had taken up a seat at on Neil's other side and was drawing Neil into conversation despite Nicky's protestations. For a moment, Dan couldn't help but watch; Matt dwarfed Neil even more than he usually did, but if anyone could give off the impression of a big, friendly giant it was Matt. Off the court, at least.
"Your boyfriend's whipped," Allison muttered in Dan's ear before striding into the living room and assuming one of the couches for herself. Renee followed after her.
After helping herself to the kitchen, Dan planted herself in the picnic-like arrangement that had been set up on the floor, folding herself into what was already a cluttered living room. "Where's Kevin?" she asked, taking a bite of her toastie.
Nicky, apparently forsaking his own controller when Matt successfully distracted Neil, turned towards her. "With Coach. He's still rattled."
"Hey, we can't all bounce back from shock so easily. He's the one who noticed first."
Dan shrugged. "So? Kevin needs to learn to get over things. He'll miss out on life if he doesn't take things in stride." She held out one of her toasties towards Matt.
Matt accepted it with barely a glance and word of thanks. "Still, doesn't mean you're not pretty good at it," he said, continuing whatever he'd been saying to Neil as he took a bite. "You've never played on a Playstation before?"
Neil shook his head. "Not allowed to," he said.
"Are you allowed to do anything fun at home?" Nicky asked with a sigh, flopping back onto his bed of pillows.
Neil pursed his lips and seemed to consider. With the little squiggle of a frown on his forehead, his cheeks rounded by childishness, and the utterly minute size of him, Dan could entirely understand where Matt was coming from when he gushed. Neil had always been a good-looking kid, even with his scars, but shrunken in age and stature he was practically cherubic.
Which made his following words sting even more.
"I'm not allowed to make a mess," he said, "so Mom says I'm only allowed to play at school."
From the corner of her eye, Dan saw Andrew twitch, and he wasn't the only one. Renee's face noticeably smoothed, her eyes shuttering briefly, while Nicky propped himself up on his elbows and Allison leant forwards in her seat. "Well, that's fucking depressing, isn't it?" she said.
Neil shrugged, plucking at the hem of his shirt. It was the right size, now; Wymack had taken a trip to the store the previous day when it became apparent that he made Neil more than a little uncomfortable. It was likely a good part of the reason he'd removed himself with Kevin in tow that day, too.
"I dunno," Neil said. "Not really. I don't really like playing with toys anyway."
Or so you tell yourself, Dan thought. She'd been there once, too – convincing herself that killing herself at work to support her family was actually what she wanted rather than what had been forced upon her. "Do you play any games at school, then?" she asked.
Neil shrugged again, glancing towards her. "Sometimes, I guess. I like playing soccer –"
"Soccer?" Nicky shook off his melancholy instantly, exchanging a widening grin with Matt. "No shit, really?"
Neil glanced over his shoulder. "I guess. It's fun, sometimes."
"Any other sports?"
"Don't say it," Allison said, flapping a hand at Nicky. "This is incredible. If he's not obsessed yet… fuck me, that's weird."
Neil glanced between them, his gaze narrowed and shrewd. Far too old, in Dan's opinion, but at least it wasn't with wisened wariness this time. He was just… smart? Street savvy? Maybe a bit of both. Apparently, it had been a lifelong trait of his.
"What're you all talking about?" Neil asked. "Tell me."
"It's a secret," Matt said.
Neil's pout and frown embraced his cherubic impression once more. Dan could practically see Matt melting. "Secrets suck. And it's rude not to tell me, 'specially seeing as you guys all know what you're talking about. That's unfair."
"Why is it rude to keep secrets?" Renee asked.
"Because," was all Neil said, which was about the most child-like thing Dan had heard from him.
"Okay, you lot, don't be such asses," she said, stepping in despite herself and her friends' amusement. "It's nothing huge, Neil. We were just wondering if you'd ever heard of exy."
Neil snapped his gaze towards her, and for a moment his face became utterly blank. Dan wondered if she'd misspoken, if somehow, impossibly, there really had once been a Neil that hadn't been obsessed with exy. Then he frowned, and it was less cherubic and closer to flinty anger.
"My name's not Neil," he said. "Why do you keep calling me that?"
"Oh." Dan mentally kicked herself. "No reason, it's just…"
"Well, Nathaniel's a bit of a mouthful, isn't it?" Matt said, swooping into her awkwardness.
Neil switched his heated gaze towards him. Why it was such an issue, Dan didn't know, and she couldn't help but agree with Aaron in considering it more than a little ironic. How many names had Neil taken in his life? He'd mentioned it once; the number was ridiculous.
"So what?" Neil said, folding his skinny arms across his chest. "I don't like nicknames."
"You don't?" Nicky asked cautiously. "How come?"
"Because," Neil said, just as emphatically as before, though this time he continued with, "I just don't."
Dan would have been happy to leave it at that, but Nicky picked at the subject like he was itching a scab. Scooting across the floor closer to Neil, he cocked his head. "Has someone given you a nickname before or something? One you didn't like?"
Dan thought it might have been a bit of a leap, but Neil nodded immediately. "Yeah. Lola always calls me names. I hate it when she calls me Junior, and I especially hate it when she calls Little Nathan. I hate, hate it. That my dad's name, not mine."
Silence immediately smothered the room. Nicky jerked straight, Matt winced, and Allison cursed under her breath. Renee's sigh was filled with heavy regret, and even Andrew slowly sat up on his couch, the waves of tension rippling from him felt from across the room. Only Abby's fussing in the kitchen provided a muted disruption.
Dan felt her blood chill. Lola. They all knew that name far too well. And Nathan? To be called after his father… Nathaniel was one thing, and bad enough, but to wear the label of his brutal father's name directly, one given to him by one of his chief murderous subordinates…
Dan could sort of understand why Neil might not like nicknames. She found herself nodding. "Right. I guess that's understandable. I wouldn't want to be named after my mom or dad, either."
Neil's glance, still frowning, flickered with a hint of gratitude. "I hate it," he said again. "Even though I don't even like my stupid name in the first place."
"You don't?" Nicky asked tentatively.
Neil shook his head. Dropping his gaze to his lap, he fiddled with his bare toes, fingers threading between them. Dan unwittingly followed the line of his gaze and almost winced when she saw the pale stretch of a scar curling around his ankle. An old scar, aged yet apparent enough that anyone who looked closely would be able to make it out. What kind of a kid had a scar that old when he was only six?
Neil did. And Dan had known that. But she was struck in her earlier realisation in that moment; somehow, it made it all the more horrible to consider the past of her Foxes when it was on display for her rather than in the form of a depressing recitation.
"'Course," Neil muttered to Nicky's words. "Nathaniel has 'Nathan' in it. It sucks."
"Then," Dan began, caught herself, then ploughed on as Neil glanced up at her. "Then wouldn't having a nickname like Neil sort of be perfect?" She exchanged another glance with Matt before turning back to Neil. "It would, right? It's like your name but without the Nathan part. Right?"
Neil blinked. His frown cleared and he seemed to consider Dan's words as though he'd never contemplated such a possibility before.
"Well, sort of," Nicky said with a forced smile. "Neil is spelt a little different."
"Huh?" Neil said, glancing up at him.
"Shut the fuck up, Hemmick," Allison said. "You're making life unnecessarily difficult."
"Oi," Nicky said. "Just because you can't fucking spell Neil –"
"I'm not illiterate, asshole."
"Really? Could've fooled me –"
"What," Abby said, appearing in the doorway into the room, "is going on here?"
Heads turned, and Nicky echoed Neil's previous "huh?" almost to the pitch. Abby frowned at them, wiping damp hands on her jeans. "There's a small child in the room. Watch your language, would you?"
"I'm not small," Neil said, almost before Abby finished speaking, and Dan couldn't help but laugh.
"Hate to break it to you, Neil, but you kind of are," Matt said, grinning down at him.
Neil opened his mouth, caught himself, then frowned. "I'm not, actually. You're just stupid and tall."
"Hey! I'm not stupid."
"Stupidly tall, I think you meant," Allison offered, and Neil nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "That."
"Neil is literally as tall as one of your legs," Dan pointed out. "I'd say you're tall."
"Or he's just short," Matt said.
"I'm not that short." Neil pointed at Andrew. "He's hardly any bigger than me anyway."
Nicky burst into profuse laughter, Allison and Renee snickering openly and behind their hands respectively. "Oh, so true. Although, this is an opportunity for you, Andrew; this will be the one time you're actually taller than your boyf –"
He was cut off with an "oof" as Andrew, faster than Dan could see, flipped a shoe off his foot and lobbed it at him. Andrew didn't say a word, didn't appear otherwise fazed, but for once Dan was more than a little grateful for the unexpected violence.
"Nicky, don't say shit like that," she said. "It's kind of messed up."
"We agreed to leave things like that unspoken of," Abby added, overlooking Dan's cuss for the greater evil as she gave the pointed reminder of their admittedly awkward discussion about keeping 'certain things under wraps' the previous day.
"What?" Neil glanced between them all. "What're you talking about?"
"Grown up stuff," Matt said.
Neil pulled a face. "Like, gross stuff?"
Matt burst into his own laughter. "Sort of, I guess."
Dan couldn't help but smile as Matt laughed again, as Allison commented about "things not being so gross when you're actually an adult" and Renee's quiet chuckles. She settled back upon eating her toastie, and watched as the chilled mood rapidly retreated, as the dark shadow of words unspoken brightened just a little, and hastened it along with a mental shove.
Because it was settling. Somehow, if just a little. Matt drew Neil back into sports talk, caving into discussing exy as Dan knew he would. Nicky ruffled Neil's hair and Andrew didn't seem to object as he had the previous day. Abby shook her head and left them to their own devices with a final warning about using bad language, and Dan watched Neil with satisfaction.
She doubted she was the only one who'd noticed he hadn't protested to the use of 'Neil' anymore. It was a victory that didn't feel like it had any losers. For however long Neil's physical regression lasted – because it couldn't be permanent; fuck, it couldn't be – Dan would be happy if she could make even a flicker of his childhood just a little better. In some ways, if felt like she fixed a little of her own, too.
Propping a shoulder against the door frame, David regarded the room. He couldn't help but shake his head. His team, his goddamn team, were crammed into the small space of Abby's living room like train commuters at peak hour. It didn't matter that Aaron wasn't present, or that Kevin stood at his side. The room wasn't big enough to fit them all comfortably.
Which didn't mean that any of them looked likely to leave. Given the centre point of the room, David would wager he'd have a hard time kicking any of them out that evening. And that centre point…
Neil had always been the damndest kid. It was only fitting, really, that an impossibility of supernatural proportions would happen to him. It had been a few months since the season was up; it was as though Neil was chaffing at the bit to cause a disruption. David thought he almost should have expected it. Not that it was Neil's fault, but…
As he watched, an outburst of laughter rose from the Foxes, hyena-like cackles and head shaking, Nicky clapping his hands in pseudo applause while Neil cast a glance around at them all. He wasn't laughing, but he didn't appear nearly as flighty as he'd been the evening before, or even that morning upon Nicky and Aaron's arrival. David supposed he had that to be thankful for. As a kid, Neil was apparently marginally more trusting.
"What?" the kid asked, glancing up at Matt, at Dan, then towards Andrew who was the only other person who wasn't doubled over with laughter. "What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," Nicky managed to get out. "Nothing, it's just –"
"We wouldn't have expected it from you," Renee said between chuckles.
"Why?" the kid asked.
David had missed the question, had barely been listening but to know they were discussing exy – because of course they were – but he could join the dots himself. It really was comical, to consider a world where Neil wasn't ferociously committed to the sport.
"No reason," Matt said, ruffling a hand through Neil's curls. It said something that, while Neil tensed slightly, he didn't pull away. "Just unexpected from you."
"It just is," Allison said.
"Huh? That's not a proper answer."
Allison stuck her tongue out at him. "It is so."
"No, it isn't."
"It is if I say so."
"You're not allowed to just make up rules."
"Yes, I can. I'm older than you, so I say I can."
"But that's not fair!"
"No, kid, it's not. Life Lessons: One-Oh-One."
"Then – so then, you didn't go to school?"
The laughter paused at the kid's question, and Allison arched an eyebrow. "What makes you think that?"
The kid shrugged. "'Cause your teacher wouldn't let you. Is that why Nicky said you can't spell?"
A pause rose at Neil's words before it was broken once more by another outburst of laughter.
"He got you, Allison!" Nicky laughed, head tossing backward. "Oh, that's so perfect."
"Below the belt, Neil," Matt said, ruffling the kid's hair again. David thought Neil might have tensed a little less than even moments before.
He watched as they dove back into questions, into exy explanations of the most rudimentary kind that David couldn't blame Neil for eyeing Matt as though he were something of a fool. He watched as his Foxes rebounded from their surprise – if it could be considered something so minimal as a surprise – and grasped the situation by the reins, taking control once more.
From the corner of his eye, David watched Kevin inch into the room, dropping onto the other end of Andrew's couch and almost immediately sliding into the explanations. Of course he would; Kevin could never resist, even if he was still shaken.
As Dan explained over Matt's attempts. As Nicky picked apart their words and attempted to draw Neil into another discussion. As Renee said something to Allison, and Allison, as if in response, rose to her feet to take a seat on the floor alongside the other Foxes.
He watched, too, as Neil, peppering Kevin with questions – which was telling, that he could pick Kevin's nature so easily – climbed to his feet and took a position on the couch in between Kevin and Andrew. As Neil leant just a little against Andrew's arm, and Andrew –
Andrew didn't pull away. Not even slightly. If anything, David thought he might have leant against him in return. Had David not know about the anomaly that was Neil and Andrew's… whatever it was, he would have been more than a little disconcerted. It was disconcerting even without the kid thing.
"They're not as worried as I thought they'd be."
David glanced at Abby where she'd appeared at his side, leaning towards him slightly to murmur in his ear. He grunted. "I'd say they're still worried. They're clingy."
Abby smiled. "Can you blame them?"
"Not in the least. This is fucked up."
Abby hummed. "I've called Betsy. She's ringing around. We'll sort something out, David."
"I know," David said, even if he really didn't this time. "We always do."
Abby only hummed again, falling into the same, silent watchfulness David couldn't quite draw himself from. David kept his distance, kept his composure, but really? The truth of the matter?
Just one year. One year David would have liked nothing unthinkable to happen. Just for once, he longed for his Foxes to manage to play their season without any major hiccups – no deaths, no hospitalisation, no lawsuits. No strikers turning into fucking six-year-olds. But then, David supposed it wouldn't be the Foxes if at least something wasn't happening.
Except the six-year-old thing. That was definitely an exception.
Don't leave me to wrangle this team together without you, kid, David thought, eyeing the back of Neil's head. Even with Dan, we both know they need you.
Hi everyone! Thank you so, so much for all of the absolutely lovely comments. I've been completely blown away, seriously, and I love each and every one of you <3
Hope you enjoyed the chapter, and I'll see you next time!
"It's a racket."
Neil looked up at Matt from the stunted racket in his hands, an expression that clearly said 'I know, idiot' written across his face. It was followed barely a beat later in words slow and a little exasperated: "I know."
At least he left the 'idiot' part off.
Matt couldn't help but laugh. Being called an idiot was far less offensive coming from a kid who barely reached his hip in height, and even less when that kid was Neil. Not just Neil but baby-Neil, which was about all Matt could think of him as. Nicky had coined the term the previous morning, if only in private to avoid Neil's blatant hatred of nicknames, and it had stuck.
He wasn't a baby by any stretch, but it was impossible not to think the nickname was accurate given Neil was… that.
A day and a half wasn't enough for that particular change to have settled as a reality. In a lot of ways, Matt was still pretty convinced he was dreaming. It was impossible, right? Everyone said it was - or that it should be. Except baby-Neil was very real, and he didn't look to be changing back to the slightly bigger version of himself any time soon.
Matt was torn on that front. On the one hand, six-year-old Neil was about the cutest thing on two legs, and Matt was perfectly entitled to think as much despite having a girlfriend because Dan readily agreed. Tiny, baby faced, his eyes so big and bright when not clouded by the wariness that routinely afflicted them, Matt had to withhold the urge to scoop him up and squeeze him like a stuffed toy on frequent occasion. He knew he wasn't the only one, either; Nicky openly admitted to his own urge, and even Allison had to catch herself from petting his head as though he was a puppy.
Never having a younger brother before, or a younger cousin, or a younger anyone quite so small, Matt was enamoured. He knew it - everyone knew it - and he didn't care a lick that they did. It was nearly impossible to leave the kid alone because… because… baby-Neil.
At the same time, however, Matt was gutted. It hadn't quite struck him until he'd seen Neil for the first time again that morning that it was his friend in that tiny body, and that meant that his friend was sort of missing as a result. It might not be even two days since he'd disappeared - or transformed, or 'regressed' as Aaron called it, or whatever else - but that particular part of reality stung with increasing severity. It almost hurt.
Matt couldn't quite bring himself to leave Abby's house. Not that day, and hopefully not any time soon. What if he missed something? What if something happened? What if Neil changed back and he wasn't there to help explain or, worse, what if he never changed at all?
Baby-Neil might be adorable as fuck, but Matt kind of wanted his friend back. He missed him more than should have been possible for only a day, but he knew he wasn't the only one. In an attempt to stave off his discontent, Matt had turned to one of the few things that never failed to distract him.
The racket was too big in Neil's little hands, even as a minor's size. Matt had to cover his mouth with a hand to hide his grin and exchanged a glance with Dan over Neil's head. Too cute, was shared with unspoken words, despite that Matt had to duck a step backwards as Neil abruptly flipped the racket up and nearly impaled him.
"Whoa, there," Matt laughed, dancing from the line of fire as Kevin darted a hand in to grab the wayward racket. "You could take someone's eye out with that."
"Oh." Neil pursed his lips, regret flooding his face. That regret quickly morphed into wariness bordering upon fear. "I'm sorry. I – I didn't mean to. I really didn't. I won't do it again, I promise, I -"
"Neil," Andrew called from where he lazed on the back steps of Abby's house. "Stop."
Neil's mouth hung open, but with a glance at Andrew he slowly closed it once more. More pursed lips, a furrow wrinkling his forehead as he met Andrew's gaze across the yard, until he nodded.
There was that, too. Neil was a bit of a weird kid - or at least he would have seemed weird if Matt didn't know his story. That he did know just made Neil's 'weirdness' tragic instead. But what was even weirder was whatever was going on between him and Andrew.
Andrew was actually good with kids. Or at least one kid in particular. And, studying him as he had for the past day or so, Matt couldn't quite pinpoint what it was that made him 'good' except for the fact that Neil seemed comfortable in his company where he wasn't quite with anyone else. Not even Abby.
It was odd, but then again it had been and likely would always be odd, regardless of how old Neil was.
"So, you think you've got it all?" Matt asked Neil, smiling down at him encouragingly as, beneath the weight Andrew's words, Neil's uneasiness retreated. "Would you like Kevin to go over the rules again?"
"We hardly went over the rules the first time," Kevin grumbled, releasing his hold on the racket in Neil's hands with obvious reluctance. "We barely scratched the surface of -"
"And the surface is all that's going to be scratched," Dan said, overriding him and flicking aside Kevin's ensuing glare with barely a raised eyebrow. "We'll get down to the nitty-gritty when Neil's played a few games or two."
Neil glanced up at her. He glanced at Kevin, then at Matt, then at Andrew again. Slowly, a smile drew across his lips and, hands tightening on the racket, Matt saw it. That. Neil might not know of or understand exy just yet, but even as a kid he had the same light in him. The same excitement, the same thrill that could only be triggered by the competitiveness of a sport. Matt saw it and couldn't help but reach out and scrub a fond hand through Neil's hair. He was rewarded with the fact that Neil let him this time as a day before he hadn't.
It was just half the team, with Allison and Renee 'helping' Abby with lunch and Nicky likely doing even less than their distracted attempts. Time out had been called for with the general rowdiness that arose between Allison and Nicky until Abby had all but kicked Matt and the rest of his teammates into her minute backyard. Just the four of them - or the four of them and Andrew, though Andrew had taken up residence on the back porch, legs dangling over the edge and elbows propped on his knees with the kind of lazy disregard and disinterest that Matt recognised from years as his teammate. Except for his stare. His eyes were hooded, seemed bored, but he barely blinked away from Neil unless someone caught him watching.
As he noticed Matt did. With a shift of his gaze, Andrew stared Matt down until Matt couldn't help but look away. It was with a faint smile of his own, however; it wasn't often that Matt caught Andrew unnerved, and he had no other word for his unerringly attentive bodyguard duties of the last couple of days. It had been strange enough when it was for Kevin the past few years.
Dan divvied them into minute teams, that Neil immediately refuted with a gesture towards Kevin and a remarkably pragmatic "but isn't he the best? Why can't I be on his team?" It was maybe for different reasons than the practical ones that Matt reasoned, but Dan didn't refute it nonetheless.
Facing off against Kevin and Neil in Abby's patchy backyard, their makeshift goals just as patchy, would have been laughable even without the slightly resigned look on Kevin's face and the jittery bouncing in place that Neil seemed incapable of suppressing. Matt shared a smirk with Dan, hefted his own racket, and nodded.
There was little about the game that ensued that resembled exy. Not only was the court - if it could be called a court - far too small and their teams just as handicapped, but Neil didn't properly know the rules. And Matt didn't play more than to 'defend' him. And Dan ran more than she intercepted the ball. And their 'passes' would have been better suited to the lesser intensity of a lacrosse court than an exy game. Kevin was about the only one who seemed to be attempting to stick to the rules at all, but even he seemed to accept the impossibility of actually playing within a handful of minutes.
"I'm open, Dan, I'm open!" Matt said at one moment, running backwards with deliberate slowness and placing himself in Neil's direct path.
"Dan, that's an illegal move," Kevin said at another, though the words seemed more instinctive and resigned than reprimanding.
"She shoots, and - ah, another miss!" Dan cried for what must have been the fourth time in as many minutes when she lobbed the ball towards the goal and deliberately - because Dan could only ever miss so badly if she tried to - struck the corner to have it rebound.
Neil, picking up his pace and scooping the ball up with far more dexterity than he'd been capable of at the beginning of the game, spun on his heel and took off towards the opposite end of the yard. Dan yelped before deteriorating into laughter as he ducked around her, so light on his feet he barely seemed to touch the ground at all, and Matt couldn't help but join her when Neil raced towards him, far exceeding his ten steps, and proceeded to weave around him, too. It wasn't only because of Matt's leniency that he didn't intercept him; he could have, had he tried, but despite his diminutive size and age, Neil was crazily fast. Apparently, it had been a lifelong skill.
When Neil shot at the goal, it was such a near miss that Matt had to squint to be certain it went in, but he was cheering an instant later when Neil turned with a satisfied smile. His cheeks flushed, his chest heaving a little, he swung the racket around himself as though it were a baseball bat and trotted back towards Matt.
"You were too slow," he said.
"Damn right I was," Matt replied, slinging his own racket across his shoulders. He wasn't out of breath himself, and even in the heat of summer it wasn't quite enough for him to work up a sweat, but he felt the familiar hum of joy and satisfaction buzzing under his skin as he played even the massacred version of exy that they attempted.
"You've got the knack for this, Neil," Dan said, jogging to Matt's side. "You're super fast."
Slowing to a stop before them, Neil beamed. It was remarkable how he flourished before the outlet of a sport, even one he wasn't familiar with. It seemed to put him at ease like nothing else. And that smile… Matt would have no hesitation in admitting that he'd be nothing more than putty in Neil's hands before his smile.
"I like running," he said, which was the understatement of the century.
"I'll say," Matt said. "I'll bet you could outrun anyone."
"Yeah. Even you."
Matt bit back on another outburst of laughter. Honestly, the confidence of some kids. "Bet you're good at sport at school. You said soccer, right?"
"Yeah." Neil swung the racket around himself once more, albeit with a little less abandon than he had prior to their game. He might be the kind of kid to all but require constant movement - or so it seemed - but he was clearly restraining the urge a little after his not-scolding when he'd nearly knocking Matt's head from his shoulders. "I'm faster even than Kenny, and he's really fast."
"How fast is fast?" Dan asked.
"Really fast. He's eight already, too."
"Yeah, and he's the fastest kid in his whole grade, except he's not really that fast, even though he's bigger than me, and everyone says he's really cool 'cause they think he's fast, even though he can't play soccer or anything even a little bit, but when I told Rochie and Miles at school they said that it didn't matter if he couldn't kick a ball straight even though it does because…"
Neil's chatter ensued with sporadic tangents reminiscent of the careless swinging of his racket. Easy. Relaxed, even as Matt would expect of a kid. It was painfully nice to see. Matt propped his racket on the ground, folding his arms over the top, and only half listened. He knew he was smiling and couldn't have stopped even if he'd wanted to. He was almost certain that the slight sappiness he caught on Dan's face from the corner of his eye was at least doubly apparent on his own.
Kevin, retrieving the forgotten ball with a practiced scoop, drifted towards them as Neil continued his unending sentence. From the slightly deadened expression on his face, Matt supposed he'd finally accepted that, when it came to exy, he was going to have to sideline his obsession for a time. He wasn't looking quite so harried as he had the entirety of the previous day, though, so there was that.
"... think she could be really, really good if she got better at it, but she says she doesn't like to play anymore because she'd be the only girl on the team," Neil was saying, and Matt cooed at positively adorable way he scrunched his nose as if to emphasise his own words. "I don't get it. What's wrong if she's the only girl?"
It took Matt a moment to register that Neil was actually asking a question, and Dan had dived into replying before he could himself. "There's no problem at all with a girl being on the team. Your friend should be allowed to play if she wants to, and she shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable simply because she's the only one."
Neil blinked up at her, his racket-twirling finally slowing as he lowered it alongside himself. His smile died into a blank expression before being replaced by a slight frown. "Rochie isn't my friend," he said.
Dan cocked her head. "Oh? Sorry, I thought she might have been -"
"She really isn't."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest -"
"I don't have any friends at school."
Dan's smile disappeared in an instant, and Matt felt his own vanish just as fast. At his side, he felt Kevin tense slightly but didn't care to wonder why. He could only stare down at Neil, at the abrupt dampening in his mood that wiped clean the excitement from their game that still flushed his cheeks a soft pink. A twinge speared through his chest at Neil's words, ringing in the silence that followed, and not because they were flooded with regret. That would have been expected for a kid. For any kid who claimed they didn't have 'any friends'.
Not Neil. He spoke as though in defiance. As though in reassurance. As though he were insisting upon the truth of his claim, denying the potential for opposition, in words that sounded as though he'd spoken them before. With the rapid dampening of his own mood, Matt realised that Neil seemed to have a fair few of those kind of words and statements - the kind that had been practiced as though drilled into him from an early age.
"Oh," was all Dan seemed able to say, and Matt agreed. Oh.
Neil dropped his gaze to the ground, jabbing the racket idly in the dirt as he shifted from foot to foot. He glanced sidelong, up at Kevin who regarded him with a tightness around his eyes, and then up at Matt. "What?" he asked, almost challengingly.
Matt opened his mouth to reply but couldn't find the words. Neil's question hung between them, growing heavier by the moment, until Kevin cleared his throat and reached for Neil's racket.
"You shouldn't do that," he said. "It'll damage the head."
Neil's frown shifted, adopting a hint of petulance. "So? You said before that it's a really old racket anyway."
"It doesn't matter -"
"And Abby said that she was probably going to get rid of it anyway."
"Even if she was, that doesn't mean -"
"It's got even more dirty bits on it that your one, and your one looks really, really old."
"It's disrespectful -"
Andrew's snort interrupted Kevin's increasingly agitated reprimands. Matt glanced towards him along with the rest of them and felt a small smile resurface at the utterly bored expression Andrew pinned Kevin with. Reclined on his side now, he looked utterly done with the situation, and with Kevin's spluttering in particular.
"Really, Kevin?" Andrew said, his voice just as bored as his face. "You're going to get your nose out of joint about a kid's racket that looks like it's hardly holding itself together?"
Kevin's hackles visibly rose. "It's the principle of the thing. If you don't instil appropriate boundaries at a young age, then you develop poor habits."
"Matt was doing it, too," Neil pointed out, glancing towards Matt. "You didn't tell him off."
Kevin swung a frown towards Matt. "Matt should know better."
Matt called forth a grin that was only half forced. It was better to just… to just overlook some things. To overlook the little nuggets that Neil dropped as though they were commonplace. Matt knew that most of the Foxes had a rough childhood; he considered that he'd gotten off the lightest out of most of them. On the flip side, Neil seemed to have had some of the worst, and Matt knew that. Still, hearing it aloud and seeing it in motion…
Shrugging, both physically and with a mental disregard for the sombre thought, Matt took a step to Neil's side and scrubbed a hand through his hair again. "Matt should know better," he said, "but Kevin should also get the stick out of his arse. Right, Neil?"
Neil blinked up at him, eyebrows rising. Then his smile returned and it was as though Matt had been given a Christmas gift early. "Yeah." Neil turned towards Kevin. "Get the stick out of your arse, Kevin."
Andrew snorted again, but Matt hardly heard it for the irrepressible laughter that burst from his own lips. Dan cackled, Kevin glared, and Abby would likely cuff him over the head for swearing if she heard, but Matt didn't care. Watching a six-year-old telling Kevin off was worth whatever scolding it provoked.
At that moment, Renee appeared at the back door. "Lunch is ready, everyone," she called. "If you don't come in quickly, Nicky says he's going to eat all the dessert."
"There's dessert?" Neil said, perking up as he spun towards her. "For afters?"
Renee smiled, nodded, and beckoned them inside before turning back within. Matt glanced down at Neil, tugging on his curls once more. "You done for now? We can come back out later if you'd like, yeah?"
Neil nodded, already properly distracted by the prospect of food, but recalled himself enough to spare a final moment for the racket in his hand. "I think I like exy."
"Of course you do," Dan said. "You'll be an awesome player someday if you keep it up."
"I know it for a fact, actually."
Neil eyed her as though expecting her to retract her words, but when she didn't, he tucked his chin and shuffled between his feet in an unexpectedly moment of bashfulness. "Thank you, Dan," he said quietly.
Matt might have just melted just a little bit more than he already had. It was all he could do to share a doting glance with Dan - one of how many? - before reaching for Neil's racket. "Here, I'll take that," he said. "Want to race back inside? What do you think, reckon you could beat me?"
Neil glanced up at him. For a split second, his eyes darted towards the back porch where Andrew was climbing to his feet, to the back door, then returned to Matt. Just for a moment as flicker of mischievousness flitted across his face -
Then he was off, sprinting for the door, and damn, the kid really could run.
Falling into helpless laughter once more, Matt spared only a moment to shake his head, to share a grin with Dan, before racing after him. Baby-Neil might not quite be the friend that Matt knew and loved, but he was damn good company nonetheless.
Abby passed the bowl of popcorn into grasping hands. "You can stay," she said, "but only if the last one of you awake turn the tellie off before you fall to sleep."
The last word had barely passed her lips before the living room erupted with whoops and odes of gratitude. Nicky pledged his own words of thanks that even he couldn't quite make out as he accepted the overflowing bowl, and Abby shook her head before she left the room.
"See that, Neil?" Nicky said, dropping back onto the cushion-mattress he'd built for himself. "That's how you get what you want. It's all about persistence."
"You're teaching him back lessons," Dan said, though she didn't seem particularly concerned. Nicky couldn't blame her; Neil had probably known such a lesson from birth.
"You all get to sleep over?" Neil asked, glancing around the room.
"You bet, kid," Allison said, flopping down across Renee's lap and almost kicking Dan and Matt off the other end of the couch. "You get the pleasure of our company just a little longer."
"Oh." Neil blinked. He glanced at Nicky, at the bowl Nicky held, then at Andrew as if in question. Nicky had noticed he often looked to Andrew for answers. He shouldn't be surprised at this point, but it still struck him every so often. "Is it like a party."
"It'd be a pretty dead-beat party if it was one," Aaron said. He'd returned with Katelyn in tow in time for dinner and, though subdued, seemed to have settled a little. Still unnerved, Nicky thought, given that he was nowhere near as cold-shouldered to Neil as he was when Neil was – well, bigger. But he was better. Recovered as much as the rest of them were.
Hold it together, Nicky reminded himself as, to the sound of the Foxes' exchange, offered the bowl of popcorn out to Neil with a smile. It's not like you haven't faced worse. So much worse. This is just another weird situation like any other.
Nicky had been telling himself that for the past few days. Telling himself almost exactly that on constant repeat. He wasn't sure if he believed it just yet. Murder and the mafia, criminal exchanges and secret runaways – they were one thing, and one exceptional, horrifying thing, but they weren't quite within the realm of the supernatural. Not like this was.
Which didn't mean that Nicky had to treat it any differently. He wouldn't let it be anything more than exceptional. Like always, he would smile, shrug, and shoulder his way through long enough for his mind to catch up with reality. Hopefully, reality would properly reinstate itself before logic caught up in turn and began to babble hysterically about the impossibility of a grown adult turning into a child.
"Whatever you'd like," Renee was saying, smiling at Neil as Neil clambered up into the couch between Andrew and Kevin. "What would you like to do, Neil?"
"I get to choose?" Neil asked, eyes widening a little.
"Sure," Dan said. "Like Renee said. Whatever you'd like."
"I," Neil glanced at Andrew again, though it was less in query and more simply in confusion. "I dunno. I don't even know what you're supposed to do at a party."
"Neil," Nicky said, sighing heavily before taking a morose nibble on a handful of popcorn, "please tell me you've had a party before."
"That's kind of a stupid assumption to make," Aaron said.
"I know, Aaron. Jesus, let me just pretend, okay?"
"I've never had a party before," Neil said, completely overriding Nicky's attempt.
Nicky sighed again, and there was a similar response from the senior Foxes. He really hadn't expected otherwise. He and the rest of them knew Neil well enough – and knew from their own personal experiences – that 'childhood' and 'party' weren't necessarily linked.
"Alright, then." Matt hauled himself to his feet, extracting his keys from his pocket. "We'll keep it simple. I doubt Abby's got much of an inventory of movies, so –"
"Oh, I'll come," Dan said, rising alongside him. "Any requests, anyone?"
A scattering of such requests – alongside a few that were immediately disregarded – chased Matt and Dan from the room. Kevin's muttered "we could just watch a few games of exy," was similarly disregarded with many an eyeroll and Neil's curious, "Why do you want to watch more exy? We played for ages before."
"Ha," Nicky crowed, scoffing. "I love this version of Neil."
"Give him time," Allison said lazily. "He'll become a fanatic in short order."
"What's a fanatic?" Neil asked.
"It's an ignorant fool with an unhealthy obsession with trivial sports," Andrew said.
"Oh. So then, kind of like Kevin?"
Nicky lost himself to laughter, and he wasn't the only one. Even Aaron cracked a smile.
Matt and Dan returned with enough movies to last them a week alongside a veritable grocery store of junk food that Nicky immediately scrambled for. He'd never turn his nose up at free food, and despite Kevin's usual insistence upon appropriate dietary requirements, even he seemed to make an exception that evening. In short order, bags were popped open, chips were crunched, and the majority of the M&Ms were filched by Andrew's deft hands before Nicky even noticed him reach for them.
Not that he cared. Chewing through a wad of gummy lollies, he spread out the selection of Matt's movie pickings in an array on the floor. "Right, Neil," he said, beckoning him down onto the floor alongside him. "Come on. I need your help choosing. What movies do you like?"
"I don't really like movies," Neil said, though he crawled to Nicky's side nonetheless.
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Nicky scrubbed his head affectionately, his hand lingering for a moment before he forcibly lowered it. "But still. You can help pick. Whichever cover looks the best, okay? You can – oh, man, is that Bambi? Matt, how could you grab that one? It's traumatising."
"Hey, look, I just chucked anything that looked vaguely like a kids movie into the bag, okay?"
"That was probably my fault," Dan said. "I've never seen it, to be honest."
"You know what happens, though, surely."
"I'm not sitting through Mary Poppins," Allison said, leaning over the edge of the couch to glance at the range of movies. She pulled a face. "Musicals give me indigestion."
"I thought you liked Dream Girls when we went and saw it?" Renee said.
"You liked it. Not me."
"Rocky Horror is an exception," Nicky pointed out.
"I don't consider that in the same category of musicals, so yes, clearly."
Nicky grinned. He and Allison didn't agree on much, but some things were pure objective truth. Turning back to Neil, he tipped his head to peer at the trio of movies lined vaguely before him. Frowning, he quickly plucked one away from him, holding it up with a wave. "Matt, what the fuck? Felidae?"
Matt paused in whatever he'd been saying to Allison to glance towards him. "What? Okay, I swear I've never seen that movie before in my life. I don't even know how I have it. I think it was a school text or something."
"It's got a cartoon cat on it," Dan said. "I assumed it was –"
"It's a crime fiction detective movie about a murder-solving cat that's practically an allegory to nationalist eugenics," Nicky said, noticing and rolling his eyes at the raised eyebrows his words elicited. "That, and it's probably in German. Maybe not?"
"Yeah, maybe not," Dan said with a smirk.
Shaking his head, Nicky discarded the DVD and scooted closer to Neil's side. "Sorry, Neil," he said. "Choose another one. What've you got?"
Neil didn't reply but to shrug as he took a sweeping glance of the wealth of movies before him. "I don't really care," he said.
Nicky didn't believe him. Not for a moment when he took a glance at the remaining two movies that were placed not quite close enough to appear a selection to the passing eye but distinctly nonetheless. He found himself smiling slowly and cast a glance at Andrew, who only stared him down flatly. Did Andrew know…?
"Hey, Neil," Nicky said casually, "do you… maybe like cats?"
"Hm?" Neil glanced up at him, a flicker of wariness surfacing before it disappeared. "No."
"Really?" Nicky's smile widened as he glanced back down at the movies. "Maybe I guessed wrong, then." Snatching up one of the selections, he walked on his knees to Abby's television. "Sorry, Allison, but I hope you don't object to Disney songs."
"Tell me it's not a fucking –"
"Aristocats only has a couple of songs in it, right?"
It might not have been Nicky's first pick, but he doubted his own picks would have made the selection Abby would have considered suitable for Neil's child eyes. Besides, even if Neil hadn't expressly said as much…
Dan turned the television on. Matt got the lights. The ambiance smothered the room, broken only by the crunching of jaws and the intermittent comment from various derisive viewers. Nicky sprawled back on his nest of cushions pread across the floor and didn't notice for the first few minutes that Neil hadn't moved back to the couch alongside Andrew. A sidelong glance found him tucked in upon himself, arms hooked around his knees, gazing up at the television from barely an arm's reach away from Nicky's nest.
Nicky smiled. He couldn't help himself. He smiled because this was still Neil, but he was so much more open, revealed so much more, than his friend ever did. It was saddening to think that he'd changed, been forced to change, and hide so much of himself from the child he'd been, but somehow also delightful.
We miss you like hell, Neil, Nicky thought, holding out the bowl of popcorn to Neil and chuckling as Neil didn't shift his gaze from the screen to notice. But it's weirdly nice to see this side of you, too.
The Aristocats became Cats & Dogs despite the cringing distress of most of the room's occupants. "You're the one that brought it over in the first place," Nicky argued to Matt, to which Matt grimaced an apology with a muttered, "It's a kids movie, right?" By the time Nicky slid Oliver & Company into the player, though, even those complaints had died. The sombre opening chords of the first song, and Nicky slumped sleepily back onto his cushions with an idle glance around the room.
Neil, it seemed, was the only one still properly awake and watching.
Allison still had her head in Renee's lap, her eyes mostly closed. Renee was weaving her fingers through Allison's hair with one hand as she propped her chin with her other, gazing sleepily at the television. Matt looked like he'd fallen fully to sleep, leaning heavily against Dan who had taken to flicking absently through her phone.
Kevin had slid so far down in his seat that his head was nearly at knee level, his eyes staring at but likely no longer seeing the movie. As Nicky glanced their way, Aaron yawned, nudged Katelyn awake, and they slipped from the room with barely a whisper of noise. As for Andrew, he'd tucked one leg under himself, an arm hanging over the side of the couch as he picked through the bag of M&Ms in his lap. Nicky didn't know how he was still eating, but he didn't comment; Andrew had always had a sweet tooth that he would kill anyone for identifying aloud.
Nicky's gaze drifted back to Neil, his chin resting upon his knees and eyes fixed on the television screen. Nicky realised he was smiling again, and he buried himself down into his cushions a little further to hide it from sight. He hadn't much of an interest in the movie himself, but if Neil liked it? Actually liked it? It was worth putting up with even the worst kids movies for him.
As such, he didn't notice when Neil disappeared from his side. Not until the movie drew to an upbeat close and the credits rolled. Groaning, rubbing a blurry eye, Nicky glanced around the room once more and scoffed when he realised that most of the Foxes seemed to have fallen completely to sleep. Dan hadn't even managed to put her phone away before she'd fallen back against Matt as he in turn all but crushed her in his own slumber.
A movement from Andrew's direction drew Nicky's attention towards him, but the sleepy question that rose onto his lips died as he caught sight of him. An unexpected lump rose in his throat and his instinctive swallow did nothing to shift it.
Andrew had climbed almost silently to his feet. He moved with faint awkwardness which had nothing to do with his own sleepiness but rather Neil's unconscious curl against him. Neil was tucked upon himself, knees to chest once more and his head bowed. Like a baby fox pressed to his mother's side, he all but snuggled into Andrew's side, and Andrew –
Andrew let him.
Nicky watched as Andrew manoeuvred Neil off him slightly. He could only keep watching as Andrew stood, reached for Neil, and lifted him seemingly effortlessly into his arms, adjusting Neil's own around his neck as though he'd done it a thousand times before. The lump in Nicky's throat seemed to grow even larger as he watched Neil unconsciously tighten his hold, watched Andrew shift him just so before glancing towards Nicky with a challenge in his flat gaze.
It was Nicky who spoke, though. "You're pretty good with kids." He cleared his throat, shaking it of its hoarseness. "Or is it just because it's Neil?"
Andrew blinked slowly. He glanced down at Neil, then back at Nicky, the gesture shifting his chin to rest atop of Neil's head. Without a word of reply, he turned from the couch and left the room. Nicky listened to his faint footsteps as he descended the hall and climbed the stairs. The silence that followed rung with his own words.
Shaking his head, Nicky turned back to the television. He wordlessly attended to Abby's orders, switching it off and stowing away Matt's DVDs before crawling back to his bed of pillows. When Nicky rested his head, he found himself smiling for what must have been the hundredth time that day.
It would have been nice, perhaps, had the rest of the Foxes had the chance to see such a side of Andrew. Potentially beneficial to both sides of the field, too, especially given that most of them still considered Andrew unhinged. But for himself, Nicky was a little delighted that he had been the only one to bear witness, and he knew, as he fell to sleep, that he would keep the memory to himself.
To all of the lovely readers and commenters - thank you so, so much. I honestly can't express my gratitude enough for all of the wonderful support I've received. I literally live and breathe your comments especially, so yeah. Thank you!
Hope you liked the chapter, and I'll see you next time <3
Chapter 4: Day 3
WARNING: I know it's been throughout the story quite a bit so far, but this chapter contains pretty heavy depictions of and implied child abuse. Please be careful if you find this kind of content triggering.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Flipping her sunglasses up onto her head, Allison blew a bubble of her gum as she reached for the doorbell. The chime had barely sounded before Abby's door was wrenched open.
"Fuck," Nicky blurted out as soon as he saw her. "Fuck, fuckety-fuck."
Allison blinked. She raised an eyebrow and blew another bubble. "Hemmick? What's wrong with you?"
Nicky didn't listen, and Allison wasn't all that surprised. He looked a mess, his hair askew and made worse by his hand raking through it, his eyes blow wide and face cast into lines of tension. His lips were pressed together so tightly they were blanched white. Whatever had happened in the two hours that Allison had returned to Fox Tower had apparently thrown him off the rails.
"You haven't seen him?" Nicky asked, nearly yanking his hair out as he raked his fingers through the mess again.
"Seen who?" Allison asked, though she was fairly sure she had an idea.
Nicky didn't answer. Uttering a strangled sound, he spun on his heel and trotted back into the house. "It's just Allison," he called. "I don't – I have no idea what the fuck –"
Closing the door behind her, Allison followed him into the house. A flicker of something – concern? Was it really concern? – sparked in her chest as she stalked down the hallway, heels clicking on Abby's floorboards. Two hours. Two goddamn hours she'd been away, taking the suggestion that Abby had offered as none of the rest of the Foxes had, and shit had hit the fan. Two hours of reprieve to gather herself from the latest dip out of reality with a good bout of hair-washing and fresh clothes, and she should have been feeling a million bucks at least. Two days of having one of her friends shrunken small enough to practically fit into her handbag could really do a number on a girl, to say nothing of sleeping in jeans and a bra the previous night.
And now said friend was… what -?
"What happened?" Allison asked, stepping into the kitchen stuffed to overflowing with Foxes. Heads turned and voices momentarily quietened, except for Abby who, phone to ear and muttering in rapid-fire conversation, hastened past her from the room. Allison barely noticed her leave. There were more than a few faces that flickered with guilt, and Allison didn't blame them. They should feel guilty if Neil was – if he'd actually -
"Did you lose him?" she asked, though it was more of a demand than a question this time. Allison was only a little surprised that something like that suspected concern made its way into her voice.
Another beat of quiet, glances exchanges and more flashes of guilt surfacing, before Dan straightened slightly from where she was leaning heavily against the dining table, her hands propping her upright. "We were left in charge of him," she began before faltering.
Renee, clearly having returned from Fox Tower in Andrew's car more promptly than Allison had, patted her shoulder before glancing at Allison. "Andrew went to see Bee as soon as I dropped the car off."
"Was practically dragged to see Bee, you mean," Matt said. He shrugged at Allison's glance. "He didn't want to go, but Bee wouldn't hear it. Said it would be good for him to have a break for a while."
"Which was a royally bad idea," Nicky said, hysteria pitching his voice into little more than a squeak.
"Yeah, we know that now," Aaron said, rolling his eyes, but even that was a tense gesture. His own concern practically seeped from him like sweat.
"We were keeping an eye on him," Dan said. "We were, I swear. I don't know how he – how he even…" She trailed off, glancing around the table at the Foxes. "How the fuck did this even happen?"
"We're terrible parents," Matt said, scrubbing his face with both hands.
"It's not your fault," Katelyn said, sparing a smile for Nicky as he shot her a desperate, almost pleading glance. "Honestly, we were all watching him, so if he managed to slip away somehow then I think he would have managed it just as well with anyone else."
Murmurs of disagreement, more guilt, and curses circled the room, and Allison couldn't help but agree with the dissent. Katelyn was like that, always looking for the silver lining, and Allison had postulated that it was part of the reason she'd managed to stick with Aaron throughout the shit of the past year. But even so, Katelyn was wrong.
How had they lost him? Allison knew as little about kids as the rest of them, and even less in most cases given that she actively avoided them at every opportunity. She would be the first to admit that she would make a frankly terrible 'parent', as Matt had claimed himself to be numerous times over the past few days, and not only because she appreciated her freedom more than she did any remaining maternal instincts that had survived into adulthood. Kids were little snots; they spoke too much, asked too many questions, were generally dirtier than they should be, and had the instincts and inhibitions of a drunken football jock. And that was just the older ones.
But Neil was an exception. He was different, even without consideration for who he was to Allison – a teammate turned reluctant friend who she now enfolded into her coterie as readily as she did the other Foxes. More readily than some, particularly when it came to the monsters. Baby Neil was different because he had an odd edge to him that seemed to override a decent chunk of childish tendencies, because he dropped bombshells about his home life that his older self would shudder to know he admitted to, and because he was actually kind of a cool kid. Allison had never play-fought with a six-year-old before, but she'd admit to enjoying it when it came to Neil.
That Neil had apparently disappeared? And that it had been in the brief window that she'd been away? It kicked up a gut-churning bout of worry that Allison hadn't anticipated, alongside an equally powerful bout of resentment.
Jesus Christ, you lot, she thought, frowning at her friends even as they bowed their heads in their persisting guilt. You had one fucking job.
"Well?" she asked, folding her arms across her chest. "Where have you looked?"
"Everywhere," Nicky all but wailed, dropping his head onto the table with a heavy thunk.
"Abby's calling around," Renee said. "We were outside scouring the street until a couple of minutes ago."
"I'm gonna go again," Matt said with the ring of words that had been spoken before.
Dan sighed. "Go where, Matt? Where else would we look?"
"I'll take my truck –"
"And what, just wipe the streets again?"
"It's better than sitting around and doing nothing!"
"I'll come," Kevin said, speaking for the first time and straightening from the wall he'd been leaning against. His shoulders were rigid with tightness. "Andrew will kill me if he comes back and Neil's not here."
"Just you?" Aaron asked, rolling his eyes again. This time, the gesture hardly seemed exasperated at all, more likely posturing than sincere derision. He shook his head. "I just don't get it. I wouldn't have picked it of him."
"Of Neil?" Matt asked, eyebrows snapping up. "You wouldn't have picked it of him doing a runner?"
"Neil was probably running before he could even walk," Dan said. Nicky hummed an agreeing whimper into the table.
"Yeah, I know he was when he was older," Aaron said, frowning in thought more than annoyance. "But as a kid? How he acts and everything, and what he said, I don't think…" He shared a glance with Katelyn and she reached her hand for his, giving it a gentle squeeze. "When you're on that tight of a leash, you wouldn't do a runner."
He spoke from experience. Again. Allison regarded him for a moment, pursing her lips. Neil's conversion into a Mini Me had hit him oddly hard; even more oddly considering the relationship between him and Neil that already existed. Allison didn't have to look far to see it scratched the surface of his own childhood like picking at an unhealed scab.
Which she could relate to. Even more so when she was cast back into reflection on her own childhood. Aaron was the type of person to wear the leash his mother had put on him, leaving it loose and hanging even when it wasn't looped over someone's hand to yank him in any given direction. He wore it as though it were a part of him, accepting his fate.
Allison had worn her own leash, but it had never been hanging flaccid. She'd struggled and strained at it every opportunity she'd had. 'Rebelliousness' had been a label engraved on her like a tattoo for as long as she could remember, and she hadn't denied it. But that wasn't quite right, was it? Where her parents muttered 'rebellion', she'd thought of freedom. When her nanny scolded her for foolishness, she'd thought of escape. Poor behaviour, acting out, resisting orders – it fit the mould of a rebellious child, then a rebellious teen, and Allison had let the term drape across her shoulders because it was useful. It had given her as many liberties as it had restrictions.
But that didn't mean it fit.
As a child, Allison sought freedom and escape when other kids chased after candy and games of tag. What had become active attempts at escape certainly hadn't begun that way. Allison could even remember the first time she'd run away from home – or 'run away', because it had only appeared that way. Allison hadn't meant to flee; she'd simply seen an open door and longed so ardently to know what was on the other side of it that she couldn't help but look.
"Shit," Dan cursed, breaking into Allison's thoughts. "Shit, so… so if he didn't do a runner, then -?"
"Shit," Matt echoed. "Do you think he's okay?"
"Could someone have nicked him?" Nicky asked, head lifting from the table and eyes blown even wider than before. "Could the Moriyamas -?"
"No." Kevin shook his head, though he looked less convinced than he sounded. "No, they wouldn't. Not with the deal Neil made."
"Would the deal still be in effect?"
"Fucking hell, would it?"
"Would they recognise him? As a kid, he's –"
"Oh, come on. It's impossible not to recognise him."
"Oh my god, does that mean -?"
Allison exhaled sharply, frowning at the lot of them throwing worries amongst themselves. No one but Renee seemed to notice her frustration, and she only glanced at Allison briefly. Not that Allison really cared. She was growing increasingly pissed off, and her friends, usually so level headed but thrown into a clucking frenzy when the duties of babysitting arose, were making her even more so. Tapping a foot on the floor in rapid clicks, Allison considered for a moment before turning on her heel and stalking back out of the room.
"I'm going to go out and look for him," she flung over her shoulder. "Call me if he turns up."
"Allison!" Dan called after her. "What -? Wait!"
"I'll come with you," Renee said, the sound of her footsteps following Allison from the kitchen.
Allison glanced over her shoulder again as she yanked the front door open. She shook her head. "You give me that call, okay? If Andrew comes back – I expect someone's rung him?"
Renee nodded. "Yeah. He should be here any minute."
"Then you'll need to be here too to make sure he doesn't murder anyone."
That Renee didn't reply but to give a tight smile and a nod spoke more than a flagging attempt at denial would have. Personally, Allison didn't want to be around when Andrew arrived. She expected blood to be spilled, and she'd rather it wasn't her own.
Gunning her car to life, Allison left Abby's driveway with little more than a slight screech of wheels. She was flying down the road in seconds, nought to fifty in a heartbeat, and damn the cops if she got pulled over. She had a kid to find. After all, tolerable kids were hard to come by these days. She knew too well given she'd never been one of them.
Scanning the roadside, Allison passed down street after street, barely slowing to dodge pedestrians or kids of the less tolerable kind playing some ball game in the middle of the road. She didn't slow to swerve around them, and the squawks of indignation flung after her were lost to the wind of her passage.
One street. The next. Then another before she ground to jerking a stop as she caught sight of one particularly kid by himself. A moment later and she threw her car back into motion when she identified it definitely wasn't her kid. Allison was a full ten minutes into her search before she jerked to another stop and stayed that way.
If it hadn't been on a corner, hadn't been in a moment when she'd slowed to less than fifty miles, she would have missed him. As it was, that she'd seen him at all was something of a miracle. On his knees, tucked into someone's front garden, he was apparently oblivious to the world and definitely not doing the runner that Matt had feared. Not abducted either, which was even better.
Allison released the pent breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. Closing her eyes briefly, she flipped her sunnies onto her head again and climbed out of her car. Picking her way through rose bushes and trimmed hedges in heels wasn't ideal, but it wouldn't be a first. Simply the first time Allison had attempted when she wasn't drunk, which made it infinitely easier.
Neil didn't notice when she came up behind him, which his older self would have been horrified at. He didn't notice when she paused at his side, peering down and frowning at whatever had caught his attention. It was only when Allison scoffed, shaking her head, that he flinched and swung his gaze up to her.
"Seriously?" she asked, raising an eyebrow at his solemn, wide-eyed expression. "Are you fucking with me?" When Neil didn't answer, she gestured to the cluster of fur tucked into the bushes lining the house. "You really have a thing for them, huh?"
Cats. A fucking bunch of cats. Not just one either; Allison knew as little about cats as she did kids, but she was pretty sure it was a mother with a bunch of closed-eyed, wriggling, and utterly helpless kittens. Newborns, even; one still had a damp streak of fur on its forehead.
Neil didn't answer Allison's words. He only lowered his gaze back to the cats, giving a tight shrug of his shoulders. He didn't reach for the cats, didn't lean towards the be nearer to the kittens, but simply watched. It was far too much restraint for a little kid, but not too much for Neil.
Squatting down alongside him, Allison folded her arms across her knees. "What're you doing, kid?"
Neil side-eyed her. "Nothing," he muttered, shifting in his own squat.
"Really? Because I was pretty sure you were at Abby's when I left a couple of hours ago."
Neil flinched again, shrugging with even tighter shoulders. "I was just…"
"Just fucking around."
"Outside. Alone. Without anyone to keep an eye on you to make sure you don't get into any shit."
Neil's expression grew even more solemn, though a flicker of something, something that Allison's parents would have called rebelliousness, flared before he quickly tucked it away. "I'm sorry," he murmured, even more quietly. "It was an accident."
Allison snorted. "You accidentally wandered out of Abby's house?"
"And would up half a dozen blocks away?"
"Trespassing in someone's front garden and spying on cats?"
Neil flickered a glance up at the house, face working for a moment before he shuttered his expression again. "I wasn't trespassing," he said, stubbornness hinted at beneath his words this time. "I was just looking. The cat had – she has kittens and everything, and I thought maybe…"
Allison poked his shoulder, rocking him gently on his haunches. "It's still trespassing. You could get in trouble for that."
Neil's shrug was so tight it was barely a shrug this time. Allison didn't believe the nonchalance of it at all, though she suspected that the flash of fear across his face was entirely sincere. While Allison would have been scolded, grounded, and had her freedom restricted even further, Neil would have…
Allison almost didn't want to think of it. What a mass-murdering crime lord and his terrified but equally fierce wife had in mind for punishment didn't bare consideration. Allison didn't want to know, even as something in her chest squeezed and her hand dropped to rest lightly on Neil's shoulder, squeezing gently.
"I won't tell anyone," she said, shooting Neil a conspiratorial smile. Reaching her free hand for the cats, ignoring the mother's blown pupils and momentarily bared teeth, she flipped the tag on its collar and squinted at it. "We'll just make out as if you got lost or something."
"Really?" Neil asked.
Allison glanced at him, smile widening at the incredulity slackening his face. "Sure."
"Will everyone believe you?"
Definitely not, Allison thought, but she kept it to herself as she extracted her phone from her pocket, punching in the number on the tag. "Kid, I'm pretty sure they'll be so relieved to have you back that they won't even care what excuses we make. Now come on, let's get a move on."
"But," Neil glanced between the bundle of cats and Allison as she rose, pressing her phone to her ear, "the – but the cat. She – what if she -?"
Allison held her finger to her lips to silence Neil before replying. "Hey. I've found your cat here. She's got babies."
A beat of silence met her words before the woman on the other end answered. "What?"
"Your cat. Tweetie, or whatever her name is. She's had her kittens."
" Tweetie's got -? Oh my gosh, she's had her -?!"
"I've found her on Wembley street," Allison said, glancing around herself for the road signs. "On the corner of Westbrook. Big fucking house with too many rose bushes out the front."
"You mean she's -? Gosh, thank you so much, you –"
"Come pick her up. She's got, like, five of them and I'm not carrying them. They're all dirty from being under the bushes or whatever, and I'm not getting that shit in my car."
Allison hung up a moment later, turning back to Neil where he blinked up at her owlishly. "What?" she asked.
Neil blinked rapidly for a moment longer before frowning, switching his gaze back to the cats. "Don't you like them?"
Allison smirked. "No. They're hairy and they stink."
"They don't stink –"
"Do you like them?"
Neil twitched, shuffling on his haunches again. "No," he said, and he mustn't have properly developed his lying skills by six, because Allison had never heard a more blatant lie in her life.
She chuckled. "Yeah, right. I think we'll properly have to consider what Nicky said this morning about getting a cat-mascot for the team. I've seriously never seen you so hyped about anything but exy before."
Neil glanced up at her again, though it seemed to take an active effort to drag his gaze from the cats. A mess of confusion drew forth a frown, then raised eyebrows and open mouth, then smoothed into something touched with excitement. "Really? You're going to get a cat?"
Just how he'd made the jump between "you don't like cats" and "you're getting one", Allison wasn't quite sure, but she disregarded it as a relatively rare moment of childishness. Waving it aside, nudged him with a toe before nodding back to her car. "We'll talk about it later. Before that, we've got to get back to Abby's. Everyone's really freaking out, and if Andrew's there, he's probably super pissed off that you're missing."
"Andrew will be angry?" Neil said, jumping to his feet and trotting alongside Allison as she strode back to her car.
She shot him a glance. Only a very small part of her had expected any real fear from him when it came to considering Andrew's wrath, but she certainly hadn't anticipated worry for Andrew. Not even a sliver of it appeared to be for himself as Neil practically scampered for the car to clamber into the passenger seat.
So weird. Always weird. But then, Allison didn't even bother with trying to understand the Andrew-Neil situation anymore. She didn't know why Matt still bothered to try. Folding herself back into her car, she gunned it to life and tore down the street as fast as she'd pulled into it. Despite her speed, the relief she felt at having a pixie-sized kid alongside her was almost astounding.
"Not at you, Neil," Allison answered him. "I'm starting to suspect that Andrew never really gets angry at you." Whatever hold Neil had on Andrew, Allison didn't really want to know, but it helped. Particularly if it meant the littlest of their Foxes would be sheltered like he was made of glass.
Allison ignored the fact that, when it came to protecting Neil, she wagered she'd find herself standing front and centre alongside Andrew in making sure he was kept out of harm's way. While part of her reason might come from the fact that he was a kid now, it certainly wasn't the only part.
The door closed behind Allison, shutting out the curious eyes of Renee's friends as they glanced over their shoulders. Turning back down the hallway, Renee met Abby halfway as she retreated from the kitchen herself.
Renee raised an eyebrow and Abby shrugged. "He's fine now, I think," she said, her voice lowered, and Renee didn't know if she spoke of Neil or Andrew at that moment.
Andrew had been furious when he'd practically crashed his Maserati through Abby's front door. Seething waves of black anger had radiated from him like he was a raging sun, and Renee couldn't blame the rest of the Foxes for ducking for cover. It was likely only Allison's return with Neil in tow that had saved them all from more than verbal blows. Andrew didn't shout – Renee couldn't even remember the last time he'd raised his voice louder than a growl – but she wouldn't have been surprised. Not in the least.
It had been some time since she'd seen him that angry. She'd hoped to never see it again.
But Neil returned, Allison following after him with lazy strides as though she hadn't called Renee with relieved confirmation of her findings barely minutes before. Neil ducked through the Foxes that immediately flocked towards him and planted himself at Andrew's side.
"I'm sorry, Andrew."
Andrew's cheek had twitched as he'd wheeled towards him, the only break in his expression. "You're –"
"I didn't mean to go so far away."
"I just got distracted, and then I didn't realise it was a really, really long time that I was away, but I was watching a cat and she had little baby kittens, and –"
"So much for lying," Allison muttered at Renee's side, folding her arms with a roll of her eyes.
Neil's voice was strained as he continued with rapid-fire apologies, his face just as tight, and there was real worry seeping from him just as Andrew's anger did. Renee watched, glanced briefly at the frozen Foxes, and met Aaron's eyes for a split second. His earlier predictions apparently hadn't been quite accurate, but he seemed to observe Neil's babble with keen understanding.
Renee didn't like it. She didn't like it at all – not what was making itself apparent about Neil that had only hitherto been speculation, and not what memories those revelations were digging up from the rest of the Foxes. She hadn't missed Nicky's sympathetic clinginess, his murmurs of "reminds me of baby-Aaron sometimes", or Allison's mutters about shit parents. Not Matt's wrinkled brow or Dan's raised hackles, coaxed to attention whenever one of her Foxes' secrets revealed.
That the situation was triggering wasn't anyone's fault, and most definitely not Neil's, but Renee didn't like it. The darkly angry part of herself that she had whittled down into barely a fingernail-sized sliver within her trembled to life with each reaction she noticed, and she didn't like that, either.
She also didn't like that Abby's face was crumpled into a mask of confused concern when Renee paused alongside her in the relative silence of the hallway. Abby had been wearing such a face far too often in the past few days, just as Wymack did whenever he slunk around the outskirts of the scene. Laughter and amusement, careless entertainment in the form of eating junk and binging movies, was all well and good, but it was a superficial farce masking the concern that festered beneath. The concern that Renee knew infected everyone.
"I hope you don't mind me staying," Renee murmured to Abby.
Abby shook her head. "No, it's fine. I think the others just needed to get out of the house for a while. If you're here…"
Renee gave a small smile. "I'll keep an eye on things, if you'd like."
Abby's return smile was grateful yet no less worried. She stepped past Renee with a gentle pat on her shoulder, slipping through the front door after the rest of the Foxes in what would likely be a much-needed consolation for them being kicked out. Renee instead poked her head around the doorway into the kitchen.
Andrew was sitting at the table, arms crossed before him and head a tilted slightly to listen to whatever Neil was muttering at his side. Neil's voice was low, but it didn't sound urgent anymore. There was no longer the ring of worry bordering on hysteria, the fear that he'd done something wrong and that Andrew would be upset because of it. Renee didn't think that Neil thought Andrew would punish him; she'd seen too much of the both of them over the past few days to think that even as a child Neil could believe such a thing. But the worry was real nonetheless.
It was with relief that Renee noticed, too, that Andrew's simmering fury had cooled a little. Tension still tightened his shoulders and his expression bore that deliberate blankness that she knew more often than not concealed fierce emotion, but he was calm. For now. Leaning against the door frame, she watched them both for a few moments without being noticed.
"… never even got to touch one before," Neil was saying matter-of-factly, fingers tapping on the glass of water he cradled in his hands. "They have germs."
"Germs," Andrew echoed rather than questioned.
Neil nodded curtly. "So Mom says. It's dangerous."
"Not dangerous exactly."
"But they could make you sick."
"Yes, and breathing the air could make you sick. Touching a cat isn't going to kill you. Don't be so cautious all the time."
"Breathing can kill you?"
"Potentially. Not as much as not breathing, though."
"Oh. That's really tricky, then."
"Exactly. So don't inhale bad shit."
"But…" Neil frowned slightly. "You have those little cigarettes, right? Like the big Coach. I saw the box in the bin. Wasn't that yours?"
"Isn't breathing smoke and stuff bad for you?"
"Then shouldn't you not do it?"
"Yes. But I'm a hypocrite, so I can do what I want."
"Then you can't really tell me when I'm not allowed to too, huh?"
Andrew snorted, shaking his head, and seemed to catch a glance of Renee for the first time. "You're too wily for your age. Stop it."
Neil cocked his head. "What does wily mean?"
"So then, you think I'm clever?"
Andrew flicked Neil in the side of the head, but Neil only grinned. "Drink your water, Neil."
"'Kay," Neil said, smirking over the rim as he raised his glass to his mouth. Andrew rolled his eyes, rose to his feet, and crossed the room to Renee's side. She immediately turned and led him back down the hallway a ways, just far enough to hide their voices but close enough to still hear Neil. She knew the perfect distance just as instinctively as Andrew did.
"How are you feeling?" she asked quietly.
"What do you want me to say?"
Renee smiled slightly. "Anything, I guess. I'd rather know what you're thinking."
"Why? So you can predict what I'm likely to do?"
Renee took her turn to shrug. "It might help to know who you blame most for what happened so I can know how to stand in front of if they need it."
Andrew folded his arms across his chest. "That's playing favourites, Renee."
"Not really. Call it supporting the underdog."
Renee laughed. It died quickly into sobriety, however, before Andrew's flat expression. "I mean it, Andrew. How are you? I know it upset you."
"I'm not upset."
Andrew scoffed, shooting a hooded glance towards the front door. "They're all fucking idiots."
"They're not. They just don't know how to look after children."
"They're incompetent. It was less than an hour."
"Yes," Renee said slowly, "but this is Neil we're talking about. As Dan said, if anyone would be capable of slipping away when he wanted to it would be Neil."
"He's six years old, Renee." Andrew's tone sharpened, rising slightly. "Six. And there's eight of them."
"Nine, including me," Renee corrected.
"I'm not blaming you."
"Maybe you should. I'm as responsible as anyone else."
"You," Andrew raised a finger in her face, "don't get to deflect. They fucked up, and they should learn not to do it again."
"I think everyone's feeling guilty enough already without having a physical lesson taught to them, too," Renee said gently.
"And so they fucking should!"
Andrew snap wasn't loud, but it was loud enough. A split-second later there was the sound of a clatter, a smash, and Renee and Andrew both whipped their attention towards the kitchen. Renee had barely blinked before Andrew practically teleported back to the kitchen doorway. He paused on the threshold for the briefest second before diving inside. Renee hastened after him.
"I'm sorry!" Neil blurted, his words striking Renee before she even had a clear picture of the scene. "I didn't mean to!"
"It just slipped –"
"- and I couldn't catch it, and it broke everywhere and the – the water –"
"Don't touch –"
"I'll clean it up. I will, Andrew. I'll do it, so please don't be upset -"
"You won't do fucking shit."
Renee cringed as she dove into the kitchen on Andrew's tail. It wasn't a pretty sight; Andrew had been fast but Neil was faster, dropping to his knees in the damp mess of the floor and frantically scooping up the shards of fractured glass with his bare hands. There was blood, smears of it along the edges of the glass pieces Neil clutched, and his hands themselves…
"Oh, Neil, don't do that," Renee said, dropping on her knees beside them even as Andrew abruptly rose. In short order, Andrew snatched Neil's hands away from the bloody mess, pinned his wrists in one hand, and scooped him from the ground with his other. As Renee ducked beneath the sink for a dustpan as Andrew planted Neil on the table, gentle but unyielding in his hold of Neil's hands.
"I'm sorry," Neil said, and a glance up at the both of them saw his eyes wide and pleading. "I didn't mean to."
"I know you didn't," Andrew said, studying the cuts on Neil's hands.
"I didn't mean to make a mess or – or to be noisy –"
"I don't care about the noise or the mess."
"I won't do it again -"
"You think I care?"
"I – I'll clean it up." Neil nodded fervently, his hands struggling to curl into bloody fists despite Andrew carefully pinning them open. "I will. Promise."
"No, you won't." Andrew glanced briefly towards Renee where she'd collected the worst of the mess. "Med kit?"
Renee nodded curtly. She didn't say a word as she hastened from the room.
If there was one benefit to hiding Neil in Abby's house it was that she had more than enough medical equipment on hand. In short order, wordlessly accepting the retrieved kit from Renee, Andrew was wiping clean the patchwork of cuts and smudges of blood from Neil's hands before covering them in more bandages than Renee thought was properly necessary.
Not that she objected. Not that she would even point it out. Quickly finishing with the mess on the floor, she watched as Andrew worked with precise motions, not gentle exactly but not callous either. She couldn't help but grit her teeth as she watched Neil too, continuing to murmur fractured apologies and eye his sliced hands with barely any real concern. That he didn't flinch at all was even worse.
Renee knew he'd had a life on the run, and she didn't need to see what scars lay beneath his clothes to know that the damage inflicted upon Neil was physical as much as it was mental. But she hadn't known that the damage had started even younger than that. She'd hoped it hadn't.
"Does it hurt?" she couldn't help but ask quietly as Andrew affixed the last bandage. "Abby has some Tylenol in here if you'd like it, Neil."
Neil shook his head, chin tucked and regarding his hands with his bottom lip caught between his teeth. "No, thank you," he mumbled. "Thank you anyway."
"Thank you for cleaning up all of the glass, too. I'm sorry I messed up."
Renee exchanged a hard glance with Andrew. "That's okay. It wasn't much to clean."
"It was just an accident," Andrew said, his words clipped. "Don't freak out over little things."
Neil shrugged tightly. "Yeah, but –"
"No. There's no buts."
"No, Neil. No. Shit happens. Move on."
Neil nodded obligingly, but he didn't lift his chin. Renee didn't need to know anything about kids to know he wasn't convinced. Rather than continue to argue, however, he only rocked forward slightly until his forehead butted against Andrew's shoulder. Andrew didn't move to comfort him further, but he didn't move away either. Rather, the tension in him seemed to renew to the point that Renee could detect the faintest of trembles in his shoulders.
She took it as her cue to leave.
Abby was entering through the front door as Renee passed back into the hallway. There must have been something telling on her face, because Abby's frown reappeared. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Renee only shook her head, pursing her lips as she passed Abby for the door. "I just really hope whatever happened to Neil fixes itself soon," she said. If not for the rest of the Foxes, who might appreciate the chance to muck around with Neil at a third of his proper age but definitely missed him nonetheless, then for Andrew. Neil might be cherished regardless of what packaging he came in, but even so. Even so.
Andrew would never admit it, but Renee knew. He likely needed Neil back the way he should be more than anyone. More than he'd ever admit.
Thank you, lovely people, for the beautiful comments last chapter! I hope you enjoyed this one too; it hit a lot of sore spots, but I hope you liked it nonetheless!
Smoke rose from the end of his cigarette, but Andrew didn't take another drag. He hadn't for… however long. He wasn't sure. He wasn't really paying attention to the time – or rather, he was deliberately ignoring the time.
Night. It was some time at night. Abby's house was asleep behind him, the lights flicked off and the walls creaking as the weight of them settled on their foundations. Andrew disregarded it. Seated on the front porch, he stared across the minimal front lawn, across the length of the road absent of moving cars and illuminated by street lamps, and he barely saw any of it.
The Foxes had retreated to Fox Tower that evening. Abby wanted them out of her hair, even if she didn't say it in so many words. Neil's unexpected disappearance – which Andrew still seethed at for the stupidity of the fucking idiots – and the following mishap in the kitchen hadn't lightened her outlook any.
It was probably a good thing. Definitely, in Andrew's opinion, but probably good for the rest of them, too. Nerves were tightly strung, and it showed more pronouncedly that afternoon than it had since the morning Neil had woken up half the size he should have been.
Nicky was clingy. More clingy than he usually.
Similarly, Allison was her usual raging bitch, but she seemed quicker to snap than was typical for her.
Matt didn't seem to know what to do with himself, and Dan inclined to do too much, though she appeared to keep her head more than other of the rest of them combined, bar Renee.
Kevin was a bumbling idiot, which was no surprise, and resorted to his righteous sportsmanship in his struggle, while Aaron seemed to feel the need to cling to his girlfriend's hand like a child clutching a stuffed toy ever second of the day.
Andrew had wanted them out of his hair from the moment shit went down. They were loud, too enthusiastic in attempting to make the most of the moment, and were always, always there. Andrew wouldn't – couldn't – leave Neil's side, and wherever Neil was the rest of them found the need to be, too. It was fucking annoying.
Andrew wouldn't admit that his own nerves were taut. They had been for days, but if he didn't admit it… if he didn't voice it aloud…
Why not one more fucking impossibility? he'd told himself numerous times in the past seventy-two hours, because really, why not? It wasn't like life itself wasn't attempting to make a mockery of normalcy, and that mockery more often than not seemed to channel itself thought Neil.
Neil was a problem. He always had been, for Andrew and for everyone else in his vicinity. A fucking persistent problem, and Andrew would be damned but he'd make sure he stuck around long enough to ensure that problem didn't become even more of an issue. He'd made a promise on the first day that Neil had turned into a child, a promise that, whether he properly understood it or not, Neil had embraced entirely. He placed confidence in Andrew far more readily than his older self ever had, and Andrew wouldn't let it be in vain.
Not ever. Not with Neil.
Raising his cigarette to his lips, Andrew paused as he realised it had burnt itself down to the butt. He huffed, frowned at the stick, then made an aborted attempt to reach for another. What was the point, after all? It wasn't doing him any good smothering his thoughts in an effort to seek sleep. Andrew had barely slept more than intermittent dozes for days. He couldn't, not when he might miss –
Half-turning his head, Andrew glanced over his shoulder. It was difficult to see through the darkness, but his eyes were adjusted enough that he could make out Neil's face peering around the edge of the front door. The little shit; Andrew hadn't even heard him open it.
"What?" he asked. "Can't sleep?"
Neil shook his head.
"I don't know."
"You slept fine last night."
"Yeah, well…" Neil edged around the door, slunk towards Andrew and, when Andrew didn't scold him for doing so, dropped onto his haunches alongside him. He hooked oversized nightshirt that he used for bed fell over his knees until all that were left sticking out were his toes. "You were there last night."
"That's very clingy of you," Andrew said, turning back out to the road.
"I know." Though a sidelong glance saw his gaze was similarly gazing outward to the road, Neil's frown was clearly self-directed. "Mom sometimes sleeps in bed with me when it's a bad night."
Andrew swallowed. He took a moment to press his lips together, to chew over his words, and fingered his box of cigarettes. "A bad night how?"
"When my dad is loud downstairs and there's noises I'm not s'pposed to hear."
Andrew's fingers squeezed the box. "You can't help hearing things, you know. It's not your fault."
"Yeah, but still." Neil fiddled with the hem of his shirt. "I don't like it, so Mom lets me stay with her till they stop and I can go to sleep."
"There's no noises in Abby's house," Andrew pointed out.
"I know," Neil said. Though he didn't provide further explanation, Andrew didn't think he needed to. It didn't take a genius, or someone who had a history of just what those 'noises' could promise, to know that sometimes sleep was simply elusive. It certainly had been for Andrew the first night Neil had been… shrunken.
Woken in the middle of the night to find a second body in his bed had been instinctively horrifying. For a split second, Andrew was back, away, somewhere different, and in the fractional moments of sleep-glazed stupidity, he'd almost lashed out.
Another split second later and reality had settled. Andrew had glanced down at Neil, curled in upon himself and into Andrew's side, and his hammering heart had twinged for an entirely different reason. It wasn't the loss of Neil this time, a loss that Andrew didn't recognise or accept because Neil wasn't fucking gone, nor that he felt emotionally 'touched' as Nicky had claimed himself countless times that day. It was something else entirely.
A little kid. A little kid in his bed. It was so fucked up, turned his mind in such a repulsive direction, that Andrew had nearly flung himself from the room entirely. Too many thoughts, too many experiences, too much emphasis on the wrongness of such a thing, had afflicted him that for another second Andrew couldn't move.
Sharing the bed with a grown man.
It was wrong –
Except that it was different.
As the hammering pain of his heartbeat eased, as he stared down at where Neil had somehow fallen to sleep with unnatural speed, Andrew knew it was different. He knew – struggled to know – that this was different. And it was. It became so. Over the course of the night, what had been repulsed fear and immediate self-loathing – I won't become like them – faded into an overpowering relief when mental scouring of anything, any kind of urge or physical response, drew a blank.
Nothing. Blessedly nothing.
I won't – I won't become like them.
Why Neil felt more comfortable sharing a bed wasn't the concern. That Andrew could manage it – and had – without disaster that he couldn't accept as even a possibility? That was what he clung to. What he inspected from every angle before, just the night before, he'd obliged Neil's sleepy insistence that it was "more comfortable, so can I stay here?"
That night, it wasn't for fear and revulsion that Andrew had abandoned his bed. The hollow feeling in his gut was for a different reason entirely.
A sidelong glance, and Andrew couldn't help but have his attention help by Neil. With the exception of the absence of his scars, he was still the same; the dark auburn of his hair, the pale blueness of his eyes that was visible despite the darkness, even the shape of his face despite the additional roundness of immaturity. How he held his expression, the faintest pursing of his lips as though he were considering something, that he could stare for so long without blinking – it was all Neil, despite his childishness. Far from easing the hollowness in Andrew's gut, it seemed to enhance in.
Stop it, Andrew wanted to say. Stop whatever this is right now. Put it back the way it was.
Very little in life went in the right direction, and absolutely nothing was perfect. Andrew desperately wanted back what had been the closest thing to 'good' he'd ever experienced. It was simply a shame that wanting had never done shit in fixing any problem ever.
"Are you smoking?"
Andrew blinked out of his thoughts at Neil's question, meeting the curious gaze Neil turned upon him. "Not at the moment, clearly," he said.
"That's bad for you, you know," Neil said with a hint of a smile.
"I asked Abby what that meant. Isn't that sort of a bad thing to be?"
"Definitely. For everyone but me."
Andrew watched as Neil's brain ticked his words over, a furrow appearing on his forehead. "Isn't that… sort of hypocrite?"
"Hypocritical," Andrew corrected. "And yes, that's exactly what it is."
"Oh," Neil drew out the sound, "I get it now."
Neil nodded. "It's like how I don't like it when someone goes into my room but it's okay when I go into Mom's room when I can't sleep 'cause of the noises, right?"
Andrew forcibly shoved aside the majority of Neil's words to nod. "Right. That's it exactly."
"Cool." Neil's mouth formed the word hypocrite without noise, as though practicing it. "You're really smart, Andrew."
Andrew grunted. His fingers twitched again with the urge to reach for another cigarette, but he refrained. "I'm duly flattered that you think so. Never wanted anything but your good opinion in my life."
Neil laughed, and Andrew felt he almost had to thank someone that at least his understanding of sarcasm was an early development. The sound was bright and carefree, and Andrew wanted to stopper his ears against it. He'd never heard his Neil laugh like that before.
"You're so weird," Neil said.
"But smart, so it's acceptable."
"Yeah. Wait, really?"
"No. Only for me."
Neil laughed again before rocking sideways and leaning against Andrew. The warmth of him seemed to radiate up Andrew's arm, and he couldn't have pushed him away if he'd wanted to. For a time, they didn't speak, and Andrew let the silence lie. He'd never felt it necessary to talk and fill the silence, and Neil apparently hadn't either.
When he did finally speak, what could have been only minutes or a whole hour later, it was a with a murmur spoken through a yawn. "Aren't you tired, Andrew?"
"So you're not going to bed yet?"
"No. But you should."
Neil hummed. He shifted in place, but far from rising only seemed to settle more comfortably against Andrew's side. "No," he mumbled. "I'd rather stay here with you. It's really hard to sleep by myself sometimes."
The hollow feeling in Andrew's gut protested once more, and he closed his eyes in acknowledging that, maybe, it wasn't quite so hollow after all. "Go to sleep, Neil."
"You're not going to leave again?"
"No. I'm not going anywhere."
When Abby rose the next morning from an expectedly fitful sleep, she didn't anticipate silence. After the previous day, and the day before that, it was entirely unprecedented. If nothing else, Neil was typical of a child in that he seemed to feel the incessant need to rise with the sun. Andrew had mostly handled it with a degree of compliance Abby hadn't thought possible of him, but the clatter of the kitchen in the morning was a challenge to sleep through.
But that morning? Nothing.
Abby frowned as, passing down the hallway, a glance into the spare room found the bed empty. She scratched her head as she stood in the doorway of the kitchen, and frowned again as, peering out the back window, her yard proved to be similarly empty. It was only when, flicking the curtains aside to catch a glimpse of the driveway and front porch, she stopped searching.
With a smile, Abby, released a breath she felt like she'd been holding for days. Shaking her head, scrubbing her eyes against the faint burning that abruptly afflicted them, she made her way back to the kitchen to put the kettle on. It felt like the first normal thing she'd done in days.
Something twinged in his shoulder. His neck hurt. The side of his face ached as though he'd been using a rock for a pillow the previous night, and when he lifted his head, prying his eyes open, his skin stung as though rubbed raw.
When Neil's eyes focused, it was to see Andrew's face barely inches from his own.
Andrew was sleeping. His brow was slightly furrowed, his bottom lip protruding just a little, and he looked nothing if not as uncomfortable as Neil felt lying on the floor, shoulder skewed and head tilted at an angle. One arm was tucked under his head, the other flung over Neil's waist, and he was breathing with the soundness of proper sleep.
Sleep that Neil was hesitant to interrupt, even if they appeared to be lying – where?
Peering around himself, Neil frowned at his somewhat disconcerting surroundings. That he was outside, for one thing, which was strange enough in itself. But that upon closer inspection he and Andrew appeared to be… on Abby's porch? Yes, definitely Abby's porch. Neil glanced at the driveway, at the Maserati stationed like a sleeping bull just off the curb, at the house itself in a state of hushed dormancy. His ears pricked at the sounds of a kettle, which meant that someone – Abby, most likely, or perhaps Wymack if he'd stayed over the night – was already up for the day, despite that it appeared to be barely dawn. Which begged the question:
Why were Neil and Andrew at Abby's? Neil couldn't remember spending the night, but then, stretching his memory, he could only make out a hazy scattering of images of the previous night at all. That was concerning in itself.
Why were he and Andrew sleeping outdoors of all things? Why was Neil wearing little more than a shirt that barely reached his thighs? What could have possibly possessed him to think that was a good idea? Had he been… drunk?
But no, that didn't make sense. Regardless of however comfortable he was becoming – had become – with the Foxes, with Andrew's monitoring assistance, drunkenness was still unchartered territory. Unfortunately, it still left Neil at a loss as to just how he'd ended up in such a state, in such a place, in the first place.
Propping himself up on an elbow, he rubbed absently at his neck and glanced around himself once more. In the midst of summer as it was, it wasn't cold, but the absence of a pillow and blanket suggested the sleeping quarters hadn't been intentionally chosen. Which begged the answer to further questions, but –
A hand shot towards him, hooking onto the collar of his shirt, and Neil glanced back down to Andrew's intent stare. Abruptly awake, aware without a hint of lingering drowsiness, Andrew didn't speak, didn't say a word as his hand tightened incrementally on Neil's collar. Neil could only meet his gaze and raise a questioning eyebrow.
Andrew still didn't say a word, but then, he often spoke with more than his voice. Tugging Neil towards him was question enough, if not quite an explanation, and Neil followed his askance with a reply of his own. If there was a little more force, a little more urgency, to Andrew's kiss than usual, well.
Neil could ask later. Maybe later, if sense didn't make itself apparent. Hopefully – fuck, but he hoped that hopefully whatever had happened wasn't anything too serious. It couldn't be anything that bad - right?
Last chapter! Thank you so much to those of you who have stuck around to the end, especially to those who kept up with the story throughout its postings. I hope you enjoyed it :D
Please leave a comment if you get two seconds. I'd love to hear your thoughts and have appreciated every single one I've received more than I can possibly say. Thank you so, so much, to the beautiful people who have commented!