The haunting memories of the nest are a dark cloud which follows him wherever he goes, he can still feel Riko’s furious gaze upon him, can still hear the snap of his own bones in Riko’s temper-tantrum. He puts on a brave front, doesn’t show that the voices are driving him crazy, that this dark cloud threatens to overwhelm him, to eat him alive, to rip him to shreds.
He feels like a hand is grabbing onto his mind, squeezing it, twisting it. On good days he wonders if he’ll ever get better again, wonders if he’ll ever stop seeing the black and red when he steps into an Exy court, but today isn’t a good day.
He clutches the bottle of cheap vodka in his fist – heart disease, mouth cancer, stroke, throat cancer, liver disease, brain damage – and tilting his head back, he takes a swig.
The first sip is always the best; the alcohol temporarily – temporarily – washes the nest out of his system, replacing the tendrils of darkness wrapping around his mind with a warm buzz. A fire is ignited in the pit of his stomach as the vodka hits the back of his throat, the flames spread throughout his body and burns out the darkness which flows deep in his veins.
– temporarily –
He gulps down the vodka as though it is his lifeline –and perhaps it is – he is a desperate starved man who is eager to take in as much warmth as he can because he knows that it will soon slip away.
His head feels fuzzy; he tilts his head up to focus his gaze on the lights above him which are suddenly too bright. The lights are bright, artificial lights, the sun has abandoned him again, and he’s stopped believing in the outside. Bones snap, his dominant hand sears, there’s too much blood. The colours of heartbreak spill onto the Exy court. Exy has been tinted the colour red, a gift from Riko: the king will never let him get out alive.
The sweet smell of vodka brings him back to the present; he tightens his grip on the bottle and takes another long desperate gulp. Tears sting at the back of his eyes as he refuses to remove the bottle from his lips: he can still feel his hand searing; he can still smell the blood.
“Kevin?” Coach’s voice, reassuring and familiar. But Kevin can still feel Riko’s hand on his and he can’t put the bottle down.
Kevin shuts his eyes as he hears Coach walking into the room, concentrating solely upon drinking in the mouthfuls of vodka in a hopeless attempt to wash away Riko’s fingerprints from his skin.
“Kevin,” Coach’s voice is louder now, sharper. Kevin keeps his eyes shut, and doesn’t remove the bottle from his lips, he can’t look at Coach until he is free from Riko’s stains – temporarily free from Riko’s stains.
He feels a hand at the back of his neck and another one on the hand which is clutching the bottle, but he doesn’t open his eyes, he doesn’t look at Coach’s face, he’s still dirty.
“Kevin,” Coach’s voice is loud and gruff in his ear. “You can’t do this, we need to pick up your new striker today, remember?”
Yes, Kevin remembers, Neil Josten. The reason why him, Coach and Andrew had flown to Millport last night and are now stuck in some crappy hotel.
At last he lowers the bottom from his lips and blinks back tears as he looks into Coach’s steady eyes.
“I have to do this Coach,” his voice comes out strangled, desperate, pleading. He’s begging someone to tell him that he doesn’t need to do it; he’s begging someone to tell him that he’s clean. “I can’t go back,” he’s whispering, a beggars voice; the starving man’s plea.
He closes his eyes, dimly aware that Coach is walking away, and he doesn’t open them again until he feels something hit the back of his head, causing galaxies to explode behind his eyes. The pain is sharp and instant, he rushes to lift the bottle back to his mouth, he needs to get Riko out of his head.
But the pain comes again at the back of his head with a loud thwack which causes the vodka to slip out of his grasp and he watches the bottle shatter on the ground as thoughts turn to ashes in his mind.
Riko is back, Riko is here, Riko is trying to kill him. He should never have tried to run from the king.
Another thwack and he’s out, embracing the darkness like an old friend.
The strings of consciousness anchor him and he is dimly aware that he is sat in a moving car, but his eyes refuse to open and his limbs refuse to move.
“Riko,” he whispers, voice helpless and rough.
“Nee-naw, guess again number 2,” Andrew’s cheerful voice is loud but reassuring. He’s not back in the nest; he’s not back with Riko.
Kevin flicks open one of his eyes to glance at Andrew, but immediately regrets it when the light causes a searing pain in his head. He keeps his eyes half-open, looking down, he’s aware of the car stopping, there are also voices. He can feel his legs carrying him out of the car, its dark: night time. How long was he out for?
“How did I pass out?” his voice is clearer now, slightly sleepy, but clearer.
In response Andrew throws his head back and laughs, Kevin sneaks a look at him and holds Andrew’s bright-eyed gaze, “Coach hit the back of your head with a racquet, said you were burning up your liver,” Andrew smiles, all teeth, and rocks on the balls of his feet, “don’t worry, number 2, I sorted it out.” He throws his head back and laughs again.
He and Andrew wait in a run-down lounge as Coach and goes off to talk to Neil Josten. He tunes out Andrew’s useless chatter and focuses on Exy, the bright lights, sweat pouring down his face, the sound of a racket hitting the ball. But the sound of racquets clashing against each other sounds too much like bones breaking and everything is tinted red.
“Ooh, look at this one!” Andrew exclaims cheerfully, the manic smile plastered on his face as he holds up a worn out yellow Exy racquet in his hands. “Hmmm, run rabbit, run!”
They both turn their heads to the door at the sound of sneakered feet against the dirty floors, fast footsteps. He’s running.
Andrew moves fast, slamming the Exy racquet into the runner’s gut and Neil Josten crashes backwards too easily. No strength, no endurance.
His vision swims at the sight of the dark-haired dark-eye mess, a fog passes over his mind, familiar and dangerous, but it slips away as fast as it comes.
He feels faraway as he registers Coach’s and Andrew’s voices garbled together, his attention fixed on the striker. He scans his mind for a Neil Josten, and as he looks the fog comes back again, but as he tries to clutch onto it it disappears without a trace.
“Fuck you,” Neil Josten’s voice isn’t familiar, but the fog comes back, but this time only for a split second before it vanishes again. “Whose racquet did you steal?” the question is directed at Andrew; Neil Josten hasn’t realized he’s in the room yet.
“Borrow,” Andrew replies, his smile unnerving as he tosses the racquet back at Neil, “here you go.”
Riko’s voice in his ear, spiked with malice, “Here you go.” Fingers grab his own, twisting his hand, he hears the snap of bones, pain blinds him momentarily and –
The pure terror, so familiar to him, in Neil Josten’s voice brings him back: “you didn’t bring him here.” Fear spikes his voice and Kevin gravitates towards him against his own will, he has heard the same fear in his own voice too many times, but he stops in his tracks as his eyes land on the discarded Exy racquet on the floor and his mind paints itself red. He backs away slowly and instead perches on top of the entertainment centre along the back wall.
“Is that a problem?” Coach asks, eyes fixed on Neil Josten.
“I’m not good enough to play on the same court as a champion.”
“Champion,” Riko sneers, “wait till your fans see this, Number 2.”
“True, but irrelevant,” he hears himself saying, but when Neil Josten turns around to look at him all he sees is the red stain of blood and love. His mind spins, he needs a drink, he needs to scrub himself clean.
“What are you doing here?” is his mind playing tricks on him or does Neil Josten actually sound so terrified. A drink would be good right now.
“Why were you leaving?”
“I asked you first.”
This is taking too long, he needs some alcohol, he can’t stand the colours Riko has painted for him. “Coach has already answered that question. We are waiting for you to sign the contract. Stop wasting our time.”
“No. There are thousands of strikers who’d jump at the chance to play with you. Why don’t you bother them?” Neil’s eyes are guarded and untrusting, but Kevin can only feel his head spinning.
“We saw their files. We chose you.”
“I won’t play with Kevin,” Neil’s voice is determined and sure.
“Nobody will want you after this.” Too much blood.
“You will,” Kevin says, and he doesn’t know if he’s convincing Neil or himself.
He hears Coach’s voice, then his own, but stars are exploding behind his vision and he feels as though he is tumbling into an abyss of blood.
“Go wait in the car,” Coach tells him. he gathers his files and slides off the perch, trying his best not to stumble on his way out of the door.
He can feel Andrew’s presence behind him, he can see the blood and bones in front of him, he can’t walk into that hell, so he lets himself fall backwards into Andrew’s arms.