Actions

Work Header

The Degenerate Court

Chapter Text

“Bullshit, no one recruits from Millport, no one knows where it is.”

Andrew could barely hear the words, even if he was standing right next to Sir David Wymack he was sure he’d still catch about as much of the conversation as he was now.

His mind was slipping through his fingers, turning to gel thanks to the pills and making thoughts drift in and out of focus erratically. It was endlessly frustrating and it made Andrew want to laugh. He felt his mouth pull into a smile and disgust curl in his gut but he couldn’t put his finger on why.

Nobody, from Millport, Arizona. Nobody no body bo nody nody slow naughty show slotty blow.

By the time Andrew’s focus spun back around to being clear the conversation on the stadium floor had gone panicked. Voices raised with clear, barely contained fear that Andrew could almost feel choking him. It made him laugh again, and he probably would have smashed a hand against his face for doing it without his consent, but he couldn’t scrape together the energy to care.

“You can’t be here,” Panic said.

Yet here I stand,” Wannabe-Salvation said, “need a pen?”

“No.”

And then the rest of the conversation became a trail of fog, like steam off the hot cocoa in Bee’s room, like warm breath evaporating into the–

“–Kevin.” Panic said, and Andrew’s attention snapped into place, the racquet he’d been spinning in his boredom going still. Kevin Kevin Kevin, spineless Kevin, Kevin bo-bevin Kevin McDevon Kevin–

“And Kevin’s signing you so–” footsteps, running up the bleachers towards them and the only thing in Andrew’s brain that connected was Kevin standing behind him. He remembered slamming his racquet into Panic’s gut, he remembered everything, like a snapshot of the moments in his head. The way Panic’s hair flopped forward as he curled in on himself and around Andrew’s racquet, and for a moment the world slowed a little as Andrew analyzed the picture in his head to try and decide whether or not Panic was a threat to–haha Panic about.

Hahahahahahahaha.

Shrimp, Panic was a shrimp.

He had hair that looked dry and frayed from one too many chemical baths, his skin was tanned–he could probably thank Arizona for that–and he was wearing baggy clothes that looked like they’d been stripped from some homeless vagrant who’d been minding their own business and sleeping off the pills and liquor they kept pretending they were hiding from their family when in actuality it was the reason they got kicked out and–

Hahahahaha

We’re focusing.

Panic looked like Millport: rundown, tired, but scrappy and with nothing to live for but the dirt on the bottoms of his shoes.

Panic looked like danger, but the kind Andrew could handle, so by the time he was back into the real world, Panic was snarling at him from the ground, arms wrapped around his middle and boring brown eyes boring into Andrew.

Andrew grinned.

“God damnit Minyard, this is why we can’t have nice things,” Wymack growled. Always growling, always Mr. Intimidation. He should cut the act, Andrew knows real intimidation, he is real intimidation. Wymack was good intentions wrapped in a falsely hard shell and grouchy old man stink. Wymack wasn’t intimidating–he was annoying.

“Oh coach,” Andrew said, lips still yanked into a bruising smile that felt as sharp and ragged as the inside of his head, “if he was nice, he would be any use to us, would he?”

“He’s no use to us if you break him,” Wymack said, his jaw was tightened and his fists curled slightly at his sides.

No use no use no use. No use for those fists Mr. Mack. You’ve gone soft in your age I’m afraid.

“Would you rather I let him go? Put a bandaid on him and he’ll be as good as new,” Andrew said, that exhausting grin still forced on his mouth.

You’ve had plenty forced on your mouth don’t you think.

Oh, oh dear.

Distract yourself trainwreck, things are about to get bad.

Luckily Panic was earning his name, Andrew could hear him forgetting how to use his lungs, and he looked down into wide, terror filled brown eyes. Then the terror left a little, instead replaced with something like anger as he looked over Andrew. Recognition flutter through his eyes and Andrew had to suppress another laugh.

Oh great Kevin, you’ve either got yourself a fanboy, another exy junkie, or someone I knew from Juvie. All those options would be so much fun in a locked room.

But Andrew didn’t recognize Panic, and he was sure he would have. Panic didn’t look like much but he was still well built, obviously a running with the long, lean limbs and generally short stature. Andrew noticed there was something off about his eyes but he couldn’t focus enough to decide what it was, so he gave up and instead raised two fingers to his forehead in a salute to go with the grin he was suddenly actually feeling.

“Better luck next time.”

“Fuck you,” Panic said, spitting fire and full of brimstone. Andrew’s smile widened. “Who’s racquet did you steal?”

Disappointment tasted like vinegar in Andrew’s mouth. Great, another junkie then.

“Borrow,” Andrew corrected, tossing the racquet at Panic who was still on the floor, “Here you go.” Panic caught the racquet and clutched it like it was a lung.

Andrew was suddenly bored.

The other coach was saying something, helping up Panic, Panic was still glaring at him, Wymack was apologizing. Andrew wasn’t sure why he bothered at this point. Everyone knew he was a monster, why apologize for a dragon burning down towns if you know that’s just what they do?

Why apologize for cancer if you know it just kills?

“I’m fine Coach, I’m leaving, let me go.”

Let me go let me go lemme go lemme go lemme go lemme go.

“We’re not done here.”

Anger curled around Andrew suddenly like coils of rope, tangling his limbs and cutting off his air. He stuffed it down, tying it in suffocating knots and tried to drag his muddled brain back into focus.

“Coach Wymack,” the other coach tried, but Wymack didn’t let him finish, he held up a hand and looked over to the man with a pleading expression.

“Give us a second?”

Mmmmmm, don’t let him leave, get him alone, get him–get him get him get him.

No, Wymack’s smart enough not to pull anything, not with Andrew still on the team, not with Andrew not with Andrew not with Andrew.

“–I won’t sign with you,” Panic was saying.

“You didn’t listen to my whole offer,” Wymack said, as insistent as always.

Insistent insistent, I insist, no–I really do, Andrew I insist.

“If I paid to fly three people out here to see you, the least you can do is give me five minutes. Don’t you think?”

Oh, and then Panic was back at it again and for a second Andrew thought he might just pass out right there. He paled so fast that Andrew almost laughed, and it looked like his world had been flipped upside down.

“You didn’t bring him,” he whispered, eyes darting and then freezing on Wymack like if he didn’t see Kevin he couldn’t be here. It sharpened Andrew’s mind into focus, and he gripped tighter to hold onto it. Trying to take in the conversation, trying to grab at smoke and steam as it dissipated tried to–

“Is that a problem?”

“I’m not good enough to play on the same court as a champion,” Panic said. It was true, a fact, not a lie, but it still tasted bitter in Andrew’s mouth. Any praise for Kevin’s already over inflated ego made Andrew’s mouth taste bad.

“True, but irrelevant,” oh and speak of the devil, always one for dramatics.

Andrew watched Panic turn around like a robot, (beep boop exy) and then watched his face drain with fear and flashes of something Andrew couldn’t recognize.

The image of it was already in Andrew’s mind and he paused on it, searching the expression to try and read what the hell was going through Panic’s mind as he stared at the great Kevin Day.

Recognition? Dread? Panic? Panic was panicking again.

There was something else Andrew couldn’t decipher, but before he could look anymore the picture was replaced with one of Kevin, hunched over his bleeding hand, and then one of a house and a bed and blood, then just blood, then–

“–saw your files,” Wymack was saying, and Andrew realized he’d skipped through an entire conversation. His face grinned but

“I won’t play with Kevin,” Panic said, Andrew vaguely wondered how much easier everything would be if he could memorize sounds and voices as well as silent snapshots.

“You will,” Kevin said.

Get him get him get him get him get him.

Andrew gave up trying to focus, he let his mind slip completely through his fingers and drag his consciousness off to wherever it was going. Focusing this much, fighting the drugs this much, was already giving him a headache and Panic and Spineless and Salvation-Wannabe weren’t enough to make him use the energy to push through.

He drifted back into the conversation long enough to get the idea that Panic’s parents probably weren’t in the picture, and to catch Wymack’s pitying look.

Mr. Intimidation.

And then him and Kevin were excused, and Andrew left, content to sit in the car and not be bothered by annoying, circular conversations.

You will join I won’t join you will join I won’t join you will I won’t you will I won’t you did I don’t you can I can’t.

“This wasn’t a mistake, there’s something about him–he’ll be worth it,” Kevin said from the backseat of the car. Andrew crossed his arms and leaned back in the front seat.

“Mmmm, sure hope so, we didn’t have to fly out to recruit anyone else personally, it would be a shame if Mr. Josten said no, wouldn’t it,” Andrew said, letting the tiniest bite of anger into his words. It was all Andrew could feel anyways, everything was foggy but there was just a snippet of anger in there.

He hadn’t wanted to fly out to Arizona, hadn’t wanted to fly at all, Andrew didn’t want anything. But this was pointless, they were chasing a ghost, a rabbit, all this effort for one fox. Andrew didn’t see the point in it, but he didn’t have the energy to talk anymore, so he ignored whatever Kevin said next and stared out the window until Wymack sat down heavily in the driver's seat.

“Which one of you is picking him up on the twelfth?”

Chapter Text

Andrew was glad he’d already vomited his eyeballs out by the time he spotted the foxes new striker–Nobody, from Millport Arizona.

His stomach was roiling and he could feel whatever remaining morsels from his light breakfast climbing back up his throat to try and resurrect themselves. His head was pounding, and his eyes kept unfocusing, and his skin was freezing cold and tacky with sweat, but his mind was clear. Thinking was less like trying to jump on a flying train and more like sitting on the train and watching the world sail by.

Neil Josten kept his head down as he went through the crowd, cutting like wax paper through everyone. Invisible and unnoticed, not even jostling someone enough to give them a chance to look at him.

It was the kind of thing you learned from experience, a skill sharpened by time and unrelenting consequences. Andrew had been right about Josten, he was trouble.

Andrew watched him from the entrance of the airport, his left arm hung loosely at his side and his fingers itched for a cigarette, his right resting with his thumb through his belt loop and he leaned against the divider separating the two massive automatic doors.

Josten’s eyes suddenly snapped up and met Andrew’s, from this far away Andrew couldn’t see his eyes but he remembered thinking there was something off about them. He pursed his lips and scanned Andrew, like he was trying to decide something, paused in the middle of the busy airport. Then he started moving again, until he was standing in front of Andrew one eyebrow arched over his eyes.

Contacts. Andrew realized, he was wearing contacts. Andrew kept his face blank but filed the detail away and vaguely wished for a cigarette to burn away the nausea choking him and causing his fingers to twitch.

“Neil,” Andrew said, testing the name in his mouth and looking over Josten like it would suddenly match up. All Andrew saw though was a face that screamed ‘don’t notice me I bite.’

“Baggage claim,” Andrew pointed towards the spinning carousel of bags. Neil didn’t take his eyes off Andrew, but he tapped the half worn out duffle slung over his shoulder.

“Just this,” he said, so Andrew turned on his heels and left the airport, he pulled a cigarette out and lit it before he even got to the roundabout drop off zone and wished the taxi that slammed on it’s brakes inches away from him hadn’t been so quick with their reflexes.

His skin felt clammy and his stomach was rolling, like he was riding a roller coaster, but no one else could see the drops or hear the screaming. He took a drag off the cigarette as his GS came into view and unlocked it.

“Bag in the trunk,” he said without looking back as he slid into the driver's seat. Josten listened, and Andrew listened to the sound of him slamming the trunk shut and then climbing into the passenger's seat. Andrew turned the key and let himself relax as the car purred to life around him.

Andrew put the car in reverse and backed out, he noticed Josten gripping his seatbelt like it was the strap of the duffle, and filed the observation away for later.

“Neil Josten,” Andrew started, rolling the syllables over his tongue again. It still sounded off, something about the contacts, dyed hair, and belongings all stuffed in one bag set alarms off in Andrew’s head. “Here for the summer, hm?”

“Yes,” Josten said. Andrew hummed at that and cranked the air conditioner all the way up, he was suddenly too hot to not have some kind of air but cracking the windows would be too loud.

“That makes five of us, but word is you’re staying with Coach,” Andrew said.

Josten stayed silent, then, “Kevin stays on campus?”

Andrew resisted the urge to roll his eyes, “where the court is, Kevin is, I don’t think he can exist without it,” he said, feeling bored again.

“I didn’t think it was the court Kevin was staying for,” Neil said quietly.

Hmmm, perceptive.

He pulled up to the booth and handed the woman working cash to pay for his parking. As soon as the bar lifted he pressed the gas into the floor. Talking ripped up Andrew’s insides and made him more sick, but he ignored it. Josten pressed himself back in the seat and grabbed for the panic bar, shooting Andrew a pointed side glance that Andrew ignored.

“I hear you didn’t hit it off with Kevin last month,” Andrew said, eyes flicking over to him and off the road as he cut through a red light, going too fast to even see what the speed limits were supposed to be.

Neil tightened his seatbelt, and shrugged. “No one warned me that he was going to be there,” he said.

No one warned him anyone was going to be there, if Andrew remembers correctly. But he didn’t say anything.

“Maybe you’ll forgive me for not reacting correctly,” he added, looking out the window instead of at Andrew. If he’d been on the drugs, that probably would have made Andrew grin. Instead he didn’t feel anything but mild annoyance as someone honked at him for cutting them off.

“Maybe I won’t, I don’t believe in forgiveness, and it wasn’t me you offended. That's the second time a recruit has told him to fuck off. If it was possible to dent that arrogance of his, his pride would have shreds through it. Instead he's losing faith in the intelligence of high school athletes.”

“I’m sure Andrew has his reasons for refusing, same as me,” Neil said, unfazed.

“You said you weren't good enough, but here you are anyway. You think a summer of practices will make that much a difference?” Andrew asked, Neil shrugged again, still looking out the window and not at Andrew.

“No,” he said, “it’s just hard to say no.”

No, it’s not. Andrew kept his mouth shut.

“Coach always knows what to say, hm? It makes it harder on the rest of us, though. Not even Millport should have taken a chance on you.”

Neil shrugged. “Millport’s too small to care about experience. I had nothing to lose by trying out and they had nothing to gain by refusing me. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, I guess.”

“Do you believe in fate?” Andrew asked mockingly.

“No, do you?”

“Luck, then,” Andrew ignored the returning question.

“Only the bad sort,” Neil said, Andrew would have scoffed if he didn’t think it would make him lose all the contents of his stomach.

A macabre rabbit, he’ll fit right in.

“We’re flattered by your high opinion of us, of course,” Andrew said dryly, jerking the wheel to change lanes. He could hear cars slamming on breaks and blaring horns all around him but he ignored it. Neil clenched his jaw and gripped the door tighter.

“This is too nice of a car to wreck, isn’t it?” Neil remarked through his teeth.

Andrew cut across four lanes of traffic for the exit ramp, “don’t be so afraid to die,” he said, then Kevin popped up in his head, ramp. “If you are, you have no place on our court.”

“We’re talking about a sport, not a death match.”

“Same difference,” Andrew said. “You're playing for a Class I team with Kevin on your line. People are always willing to bleed for him. You've seen the news, I assume.”

“I’ve seen it,” Neil said. Andrew flicked his fingers at him to drive home the point.

They stayed silent for the rest of the ride, which Andrew was thankful for, since he was almost certain speaking just one more word would push him over the edge. He could feel his hands starting to shake and he gripped the wheel tighter.

By the time he pulled up to the curb in front of Wymack’s apartment Andrew felt like peeling his skin off. It was too hot, too cold, too clammy, the seat beneath him was too soft and too hard and his head was pounding like someone was driving nails into it.

He knew Wymack would have alcohol in the apartment, but he forced himself to stand on the curb by kevin with Aaron and Nicky to watch as Neil got his precious duffle out of the trunk. Andrew shrugged off his jacket and handed it to Aaron, who put it on and Andrew pinned a grin to his own face and pretended to slide back into drugged oblivion. It made Andrew more angry, which made his head hurt, so he stopped thinking and focused instead on Nicky rushing over excited to greet the new fox.

“Hey!” Nicky said with a huge, actually genuine smile. “Welcome to South Carolina, how’d the flight go?”

“It was fine,” Neil said curtly, shaking Nicky’s outstretched hand but returning his smile with a suspicious look he probably thought he was keeping neutral. Nicky didn’t seem to notice, and he laughed good naturedly.

“I’m Nicky, Andrew and Aaron’s cousin and backliner extraordinaire,” Nicky said, Neil blinked and glanced between the twins and Nicky. Probably taking in the differing skin tones and hair.

“By blood?” Neil asked bluntly, Nicky laughed.

“Don't look it, right? Take after my mom. Dad ‘rescued’ her from Mexico during some la-di-dah ministry trip.” He made a show of rolling his eyes, then jerked a thumb at the others. “You already met them, right? Aaron, Andrew, Kevin? Coach was supposed to be here to let you in, but he had to head up to the stadium real quick. The ERC called him, probably with more BS about how we haven’t publicized our sub yet. In the meantime you’re stuck with us, but we’ve got Coach’s keys. Suitcases in the trunk?”

“It’s just this,” Neil said. Nicky arched an eyebrow at him and looked back at everyone else. “He packs light. I wish I could travel like that, but hell if I ain’t materialistic.”

“Materialistic is just a start,” Aaron said.

Nicky grinned and caught Neil’s shoulders, guiding him past the rest toward the front door. “This is where Coach lives,” he said unnecessarily. “He makes all the money, so he gets to live in a place like this while we poor people couch surf.”

“You have a nice car for someone who thinks he’s poor,” Neil remarked.

“That's why we’re poor,” Nicky said dryly, casting a slightly disproving glance back to Andrew, who ignored him.

“Aaron’s mother bought it for us with her life insurance money,” Andrew explained, “It's no surprise she had to die to be worth anything.”

“Easy,” Nicky said, looking at Andrew when he said it. “Easy, easy.”

Andrew lifted his hands in a careless shrug. “Why bother? It's a cruel world, right Neil? You wouldn't be here if it wasn’t.”

“It's not the world that's cruel,” Neil said. “It's the people in it.”

“Oh, so true.” Andrew said, the fake grin forced on his face.

They rode the elevator up to the seventh floor in silence, Andrew watching Neil be a jumpy mess the entire way, staring at the numbers going up instead of the mirrored walls. He watched as Aaron fumbled with the pockets of the jacket, trying to figure out which pocket Andrew had put the keys in and pretend like he’d be the one to do it.

Neil eyed him suspiciously for a second, but before anyone could say anything Aaron figured it out and got the door open.

“Here you go Neil, home sweet home–if you can call anything involving Coach sweet,” Nicky said gesturing to the apartment. Neil froze in the doorway, and Andrew followed his eyes as they darted to each window, door, and room. He was cataloguing the room.

Definitely a rabbit.

Nicky shared a concerned look with Aaron, and Andrew ignored them both and pushed past Neil. He caught his eyes for a moment, and click, there was another snapshot, contact concealed eyes coated in fight or flight, tipping on the flight side of the scale. Andrew forced himself to laugh, and then moved past Neil into the apartment, looking around for Wymack’s whiskey. He heard Neil unlock and follow him in, and ignored him as he searched around the apartment silently, clutching his duffle.

“What was that about?” Nicky asked in German.

“Maybe he was savoring the moment,” Aaron said in the same language, Nicky shook his head and Andrew started rifling through cabinets.

“No,” Nicky said. “That was pure fight or flight. What the hell did you say to him, Andrew?” Andrew ignored him. Then Nicky’s concern flickered back to an easy smile as Neil turned around again. “How about a tour?” He said, switching back to English.

“Sure,” he said. Nicky lead Neil around, and Andrew tuned out his chattering. Aaron–never one to stay in the same room as Andrew for too long–disappeared after them and left Kevin and Andrew alone to dig for whiskey.

“You should take them,” Kevin said suddenly, and Andrew could feel his beady little eyes drilling into him. Andrew waved him off. “You look like shit, Coach is gonna know,” Kevin added. Andrew sighed.

“Does it look like I care about you or Coach’s choppy morals Kevin?” he asked rhetorically, and then grabbed a bottle off the counter from where it was hiding behind towers of old takeout boxes. He poked his head into the room Nicky was showing Neil before Kevin could say anything else.

“Success,” he said, holding the bottle up, Nicky grinned.

“Ready, Neil?” Nicky asked. “We should probably beat it before Coach shows up.”

“Why?” Neil pointed at the liquor. “Is this a robbery in progress?”

“Maybe it is. Will you tell Coach on us?” Andrew asked, letting some of the amusement he felt at the notion bleed into his voice. “So much for being a team player. I guess you really are a Fox.”

“No,” Neil said, “but I would ask him why you're not medicated.”

The room went quiet and Andrew felt a flicker of intrigue tug at his gut. Then he was relieved to be able to wipe the fake grin off his face and stare at Neil with the bored, emotionlessness he was actually feeling.

“Am I crazy? Or did that just happen?” Nicky asked in German, he looked shocked.

“Don’t look at me,” Aaron said in German.

“I’d prefer an answer in English,” Neil said dryly. Andrew raised a brow.

“That sounds like an accusation, but I didn’t lie to you,” Andrew said unapologetically. Neil held his gaze defiantly. Hm, rabbit does have teeth.

“Omission is the easiest way to lie,” Neil said, “You could have corrected me.”

“Could have, didn’t, it’s not my fault you assumed and didn’t ask. Figure it out for yourself.”

“I did,” Neil said, he kept his face blank but raised his fingers to his temple in a mocking salute, “better luck next time,” he said, throwing Andrew’s words back into his face.

“Oh,” Andrew said as that spark of interest caught tinder. “Oh, you might actually turn out to be interesting. For a little while, at least. I don't think the amusement will last. It never does.”

“Don't mess with me.”

“Or what?”

The door opened before Neil could say anything, but Andrew’s interest was piqued. He threw up his drugged smile in time for Coach’s voice to carry through the apartment as the door opened, Kevin slid over to his side and Andrew passed the alcohol over to stay hidden.

“Hi Coach,” Andrew called faux cheerfully. It choked him, and he resisted the urge to gag. Neil was giving him a narrowed eyed look but Andrew didn’t have the energy to pay attention to him anymore. He needed to get out of the cramped apartment and drink until he couldn’t feel his fingers twitching and then smoke until he could blame his ragged breathing on nicotine.

“Do you have any idea how much I hate coming home and finding you in my apartment?” Wymack’s gruff voice called.

“I didn’t break anything this time,” he said, Wymack rolled his eyes and scanned the group standing in his living room.

“I’ll believe that after I’ve checked everything I own,” he said, slamming the door behind him. His eyes lingered for a moment on Neil, who tensed under his gaze. “I see you made it all right. I was pretty sure Nicky's driving was going to get you killed.” Now Nicky went stiff, he never had been a good liar.

And for a moment Andrew expected Neil to sell them out, for all their fun to be over and for Coach to pretend like Andrew would listen to the lecture he was about to get. But then– “I’ve survived worse.”

“There is no surviving worse driving than that idiot’s,” Wymack said. “There's just open casket or closed.”

“Hey, hey,” Nicky said, though he was smiling at the teasing, and probably relief that Neil hadn’t sold them out. “That's not fair.”

“Life isn't fair, tweedle-dumb. Get over it. What are you still doing here?”

“Leaving,” Andrew said. “Goodbye. Is Neil coming too?”

“Going where?” Wymack asked, looking suspicious.

“Jeez, Coach, what kind of people do you think we are?” Nicky asked.

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

“We’re taking him to the court,” Aaron said. “We can give him a lift to Abby's after. You didn't need him, did you?”

“Just to give him this,” Wymack tossed Neil a keyring, he listed off what all the keys were while Neil stared at the keys in his palm like Wymack had handed him a puppy.

“Thank you,” he whispered reverently, and Andrew rolled his eyes. It made his headache worse.

“Blatant favoritism, Coach,” Andrew said.

“If you ever went to the court of your own volition, maybe I'd give you a set too,” Wymack said. “Since I don't see that happening anytime this lifetime or next, you can shut up and share with Kevin.”

“Oh, joy, joy,” Andrew said. “My excited face begins now. Can we go?”

“Get out,” Wymack said, and Andrew left. Kevin and Aaron followed. When Nicky reached the office doorway, Wymack put a hand in his path to stop him. “Don't you dare traumatize him his first day here.” Nicky looked from Wymack to Neil.

“Neil's not traumatized, right?”

“Not yet,” Neil said.

Andrew paused in the elevator, and Aaron and Kevin filed in with him, Kevin holding his foot in the door so it didn’t leave without Nicky and Neil. After a couple minutes Nicky joined them, still smiling and rolling his eyes.

“The hell’s taking so long?” Aaron asked, his arms crossed while he leaned against the opposite wall of the elevator from Andrew.

“He wanted somewhere to lock up his bag,” Nicky said, joining them in the elevator. He shook his head at the floor. “Shit that kid is tragic isn’t he?” he muttered.

“Which one of us isn’t,” Andrew deadpanned, no one said anything and after a couple more minutes Neil exited the apartment and paused in front of the elevator. His eyes took in how they were all arranged in the small space, lingering for a moment on Andrew, before he stepped inside and Kevin removed his foot. As soon as the doors closed Andrew’s smile dropped, his vision was almost completely blurry now and he was starting to feel the beginnings hands grabbing at him when nothing was there.

Neil had been staring Andrew down the whole time, he looked tense, like he was expecting Andrew to pull a knife on him. By this point that option wasn’t looking that undesirable, but Andrew also didn’t want to have to deal with Wymack and Kevin screaming about having to find another striker sub.

So instead, he reached for the keys Neil was still holding. As expected the gremlin jerked back, just as protective now of his new possession as his duffle. Andrew reached for them again, this time causing Neil to step back and lose his balance, leaning against the elevator doors.

He seemed to realize that had been Andrew’s intention because he scowled at Andrew.

“How nice to meet you, Neil,” Andrew drawled. “It will be a while before we see each other again.” he said, meaning sober. Andrew didn’t think he was going to have another opportunity to risk sobriety, especially if this new fox could read him so well.

“Somehow I don't think I'm that lucky.”

“Like this," Andrew clarified, gesturing between their faces. “It will have to wait until June. Abby threatened to revoke our stadium rights for the summer if we break you sooner than that. Can't have that, can we? Kevin would cry. No worries. We'll wait until everyone's here and Abby has too many other Foxes to worry about. Then we'll throw you a welcome party you won't forget.”

“You need to rethink your persuasion techniques. They suck.” Now that was almost funny, if Andrew’s inside didn’t feel like they were rotting.

“I don’t need to be persuasive,” Andrew said, putting a hand to Neil's chest as the elevator slowed to a stop. The contact was searing, and it made Andrew’s skin crawl–he definitely wouldn’t be sleeping tonight–but he wanted to get his point across. “You'll just learn to do what I say.” The elevator doors opened and Andrew shoved Neil out. He bumped his shoulder into Neil’s as he past, and didn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Andrew ignored Neil’s goo-goo eyes at the court and the starstruck way he looked at everything like he was touring his first sweetheart house. It was boring, he’d been through this with Kevin–granted with more grumbled disapproval–but he didn’t even have the energy to get past the Foyer. He sat down and snatched the pills and whiskey from Kevin, who was still looking at him like a parent who’d caught his son snorting coke off a stripper: all pinched discomfort and annoyance.

Andrew swallowed the chalky pills with a generous swig of the alcohol and then sighed as he waited for the alcohol or the pills to kick in first. He thought back to what he’d eaten that day–nothing (oops)–and realized the alcohol would probably knock him out before the pills kicked in.

Andrew didn’t hate waking up high, he didn’t have the energy to hate really anything, but it wasn’t something he would choose to do if he had the choice.

Nicky and Neil both mentioned something about gear and practicing and Andrew almost spit out his own tongue at the idea of touching a racquet or being anywhere near the bright orange gear. The orange tiles dotted around the Foyer were bad enough, so instead he pulled Kevin aside, growling a quick warning not to leave the others until Andrew got back, and then he slipped off into the entrance, where at least the couches would be more comfortable than these stupid benches.

An unknown amount of time later and Andrew woke up with a dry mouth and a mind that felt like cotton candy.

Cotton like candy candy like cotton.

Uh oh, we’re high aren’t we.

Andrew’s face split into a grin without his permission and he tried to wipe it off but it just sprang back into place. The struggle of it all just made him want to laugh more. At least his head wasn’t pounding anymore.

No that’s just exy balls bouncing on the walls. Balls on walls walls on balls.

Andrew shoved himself up and ignored the dizziness it caused, instead making his way back to the Foyer, where Kevin was waiting for him. His eyes were pinned to the court, glued to the new striker sub, stuck on Panic.

Ha, Spineless stuck on Panic.

He looked up as Andrew approached and sat down heavily on the bench. Kevin was squeezing a ball in his left hand, probably one of those little hand exercises that were supposed to help it get back to normal or whatever.

Andrew was pretty sure he’d recommended jacking off to get it back up.

Oh no, he was confusing dicks and hands again.

“How are you feeling?” Kevin asked, Andrew knew what he was really asking.

“No Kevin, I won’t be supporting your addictions tonight,” Andrew said, he grinned at Kevin, who’d finally peeled his eyes away from Panic to look back at Andrew. “You know I mean stickball right? I mean, you have so many unhealthy fixations, I would understand if you were confused,” Andrew said, waving the whiskey bottle around his head and grinning wider as he took a long swig out of it. Kevin scowled at him and threw the ball he’d been squeezing. Andrew caught it, screwing the lid back on the bottle and then held out the ball like it was a skull.

“Alas, poor Kevin’s left hand! I knew him, Kevin, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy–”

“Stop it,” Kevin snapped, and Andrew laughed, laying back on the bench and tossing the ball up above his head to catch it and repeat. And repeat, and repeat and repeat and–

“Where be your gibes now? Your gambols?” Andrew continued to quote, voice mockingly sincere until he burst out laughing again. Kevin was scowling at him.

And then the court doors opened and Nicky, Aaron, and Neil all stepped out and Kevin turned his scowl on people who probably reacted a bit more to Kevin’s expectations than Andrew did. Andrew kept humming Hamlet to himself though, unable to stop himself now that he’d started, but it was bleeding from Hamlet to Oedipus to Romeo and Juliette and now Andrew wasn’t so sure where he was.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou tyrant to be or not to be the child of pride?

Andrew took another drink of the whiskey to try and drown the Middle English swimming through his ears.

“Andrew, don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Nicky asked carefully, “Abby’ll beat me senseless if she finds out you’ve been drinking.”

“Doesn’t sound like my problem,” Andrew said, taking another drink around his smile. He heard Nicky sigh, but he seemed to realize it was a moot point and left, Aaron followed, leaving Neil pinned in place with Kevin’s eyes.

Hmmmm, pinned.

Andrew eyed Neil again, little shrimpy Panic looked even smaller in his gear, but it did make his legs look fantastic.

Andrew blocked his own view with the whiskey bottle to cut off the laugh clawing at his throat.

“I told you I wasn’t ready,” Neil said, like Kevin had said something. Andrew wondered for a moment if he had and Andrew had just tuned him out. It was entirely possible, Kevin’s voice was like a cheese grater against Andrew’s ears.

Lac-toast.

“You also said you would play with me, but here you are,” Kevin said. Apparently Andrew could still hear him.

Shame.

Shame shame shame, shame, shame shame, shame.

Lots of shame humm? I thought we agreed not to feel that anymore?

“If you’ll play with me, you’ll play for me,” Kevin said, voice commanding and drill sergeant-y as always. “You’re never going to get there on your own, so give your game to me.”

And Neil knocked Andrew’s persuasion tactics.

Knock knock, who’s there? Kevin’s hand, Kevin’s hand who? Racquet.

Kevin’s hand moved and Andrew forced himself to focus back in, half expecting to have to watch a catfight, but instead Kevin just covered Neil’s eyes with his hand, and said something Andrew didn’t bother to listen too.

Exy addicts.

They both apparently had a moment, but Andrew couldn’t pay attention to any of it, the words slipping in and out of his ears like water.

Dribble dribble dribble drop–game–take it–Neil understands–

Then Andrew realized he was being addressed and he grinned.

“Congratulations are in order, I suppose! Since I have none to give, I will tell the others to respond appropriately.” Andrew pushed himself to his feet and swallowed more whiskey on the way up. “Neil! Hello. We meet again.”

Neil, Panic, Shrimp, kinda hot, Josten scowled at him.

“We met earlier,” Neil said. “If this is another trick, just let it go.”

Andrew grinned at him around the mouth of his bottle. “Don’t be so suspicious. You saw me take my medicine. If I hadn’t, I’d be keeled over somewhere by now puking from the withdrawal. As it is, I might puke from all the fanaticism going around.”

“He’s high,” Kevin told Neil. Obviously. “He tells me when he’s sober, so I always know. How did you figure it out?”

“They’re twins, but they’re not the same.” Neil lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “One of them hates your obsession with Exy while the other couldn’t care less.”

Kevin looked to Andrew, but Andrew only had eyes for Neil. Andrew took a second to process those words before he started laughing.

“He’s a comedian, too? An athlete and a comic and a student. How multitalented. What a grand addition to the Fox line. I can't wait to find out what else he can do. Perhaps we should throw a talent show and find out? But later. Kevin, we’re going. I need food.”

Kevin handed Neil his racquet back and the three went to the locker room. Aaron and Nicky were already in the showers when they arrived. Andrew heard water running and watched as Neil sat on a bench in the changing room.

“We’re not taking you by Abby's like that,” Kevin said to Neil. “Wash up.”

“I won't shower with the team,” Neil said, and Andrew’s interest was piqued again, like a poke in the side. “I’ll wait, and if you don't want to wait on me, just go on ahead. I'll find my way there from here.”

So quick to avoid eh rabbit? Must be hiding something nasty.

Or you want some alone time.

Hmm, which is more interesting?

“Nicky going to be a problem for you?” Andrew asked. Neil gave him a look like he could somehow read Andrew’s thoughts and he didn’t like them. Andrew grinned wider, if Neil could read his thoughts he hoped he felt as dizzy as Andrew did.

“It’s not about Nicky. It’s about my privacy.” Neil said, eyes still on Andrew for some, unknowable reason. Kevin snapped his fingers at Neil, which stole Neil’s attention.

“Get over it. You can’t be shy if you’re going to be a star.” Andrew leaned toward Kevin and put a hand to his mouth, but he didn't bother to lower his voice.

“He has to hide his ouches, Kevin. I broke into Coach’s cabinet and read his files. Bruises, you think, or scars? I think scars, too. Can’t be bruises if his parents aren't around to beat him, right?”

Lie. Lie lie lie AJ, Andrew, Andy, A, don’t you know lying’s only right if it’s protecting me?

Andrew’s mouth suddenly tasted vile and he hated the smile that refused to leave his face even more.

“What did you just say?” Neil asked, he’d gone pale and Andrew knew he’d hit a nerve. It was almost worth the vomit licking at the back of his tongue and the hands–

“I don’t care," Kevin said to Andrew, ignoring Neil. Andrew, in turn, ignored Kevin and gestured at Neil.

“Showers aren’t communal here. Coach put in stalls when he built the stadium. The board wouldn’t pay for it—they didn’t see the point—so it came out of Coach’s own pocket. See for yourself if you don’t believe me.” Andrew offered, smile growing and growing like a balloon filled with hot air. Ha, this must be what the inside of Kevin’s head feels like. “You don’t believe me, do you? I know you don’t. That’s probably for the best.” Neil didn’t seem to hear him though, his face had bloomed red with anger and his fists were clenched at his sides.

“You had no right to read my file!”

Andrew laughed. “Relax, relax, relax.” relax relax relax relax relapse– “I made that up. We were locked in Coach Arizona's office to watch your game on the local TV station, and he said our secret meet-and-greet would be easy since you always shower alone last. Told Coach he still couldn’t find your parents. Coach asked if they'd be a problem, and Arizona said he didn't know because he hadn't met them a single time. Said they spent a lot of time commuting to their jobs in Phoenix and no time at all checking in on you. But I’m right, aren't I?” Neil opened his mouth, then closed it. Andrew watched as the fists at his sides got tighter.

For a moment he thought Neil was going to do something interesting, like swing at him, but he just stood up and went to the showers. Andrew sighed his disappointment and followed over to where Neil was peeking around the tiled walls like he was afraid a ghost would jump out of nowhere.

Or maybe not a ghost but a dick. Hmm, it’d be a shame if he was another homophobe. Andrew’s eyes traveled down Neil’s body for a moment before he leaned into his ear.

“Weird right?” He asked, grinning. Neil startled just like the rabbit he played and his elbow lashed out. Andrew caught it, too familiar with the move thanks to Renee, and held on while Neil snarled at him. Andrew dropped the limb as soon as he’d grabbed it.

Ow ow ow, careful it’s skin Trainwreck.

AJ.

Andrew laughed and stepped back from Neil. “Coach never explained it. Maybe he thought we’d need to grieve our disastrous losses in private. Only the best for his rising stars, right?”

“I didn’t think Wymack recruited rising stars,” Neil said, pushing past Andrew for his locker.

“No,” Andrew agreed. “The Foxes will never amount to anything. Try telling Dan that, though, and she’ll box your ears.” He scooped up his whiskey and started for the door, suddenly done with the conversation and Panic. “Kevin, car.”

They drove to Abby’s house, Andrew sitting behind Panic–who clearly wasn’t pleased with the seating arrangements. It made Andrew grin the whole way there.

Abby’s house was small, homey, if Andrew knew what the hell that word actually meant. Tiny, small, cramped, but somehow they managed to stuff all the Monsters in like sausages. Abby immediately started rattling off orders for everyone to do, and Andrew let her, content for the moment to hang back and get the last sips of his whiskey before the took it away and tried to force him to socialize.

Socialize, social eyes, SoCal Rise.

“–Andrew Joseph Minyard that better not be what I think it is,” Abby scolded, grabbing for the bottle and swinging Andrew’s attention back into the room. It made everything spin a little, but he still managed to dodge her and duck into one of the other rooms. He was pretty sure he was laughing, but at this point everything was spinning so fast he couldn’t even find the mouth of the bottle.

He leaned against a wall and searched for it, finishing the whiskey off with a slight wince before setting the bottle amidst Abby’s cutesy photos of all the Foxes. It was kind of like a shrine.

Can you have a shrine to your children? You’d need to be obsessed.

Hmmm, obsession and children never mix.

Well, they shouldn’t, but they do, don’t they Trainwreck?

“–You’d be Neil, then. I'm Abby. I’m nurse for the team and temporary landlord to this lot. They’re not harassing you too much, are they?” Abby was saying.

“No worries,” Andrew called from the other room. “He’ll actually take work to break, I think. Give me until August, maybe.”

Rabbit’s been through the wringer, it’s gonna take more than big bad Trainwreck to snap his sanity.

Like a cracker.

Saltines.

Andrew’s stomach rolled at the idea of food and he grinned. That probably doesn’t bode well for dinner, now does it?

“If you dare give us a repeat of last year—”

“Then Bee will be here to pick the pieces up,” Andrew interrupted, coming to stand in the doorway at Neil’s side. He turned his head to grin at Neil, who was watching him suspiciously. Suspicious susssssspicious, that’s all Panic seemed to be. Suspicious, panicked, and pissy.

A timer went off somewhere–band name.

“She did so well with Matt, didn’t she? Neil won't even be a blink on her radar. You did invite her over, didn’t you?” Andrew had a funny feeling watching Panic interact with a trained shrink who specialized in broken people would be hilarious.

“I invited her, but she declined. She thought it would make things awkward.”

Oh Bee, ever the caring type.

Andrew thought about smashing her glass figures with an exy racquet, then he cackled.

Just like Riko with Kevin’s hand.

Ooooo bet that was satisfying.

That bastard.

“Things aren't anything but awkward when Andrew and Nicky are around,” Coach said.

“Bee’s a shrink. Used to work in the juvie system, but now she's here. She deals with the really serious cases on campus: suicide watch, budding psychopaths, that sort of thing. That makes her our designated handler. You’ll meet her in August.”

“Do I have to?” Neil asked, Andrew’s grin widened at the dreading tone.

“It's mandatory once a semester for athletes,” Abby confirmed. “The first time is a casual meet-and-greet so you get to know her and find out where her office is. The second session is in spring. Of course, you’re free to visit her any time you like, and she’ll talk to you more about scheduling while you’re there. Counseling services are included in your tuition, so you might as well make use of it.”

“Betsy’s amazing,” Nicky said. “You'll love her.” Something in–no all of Neil’s expression said he doubted that. Andrew laughed.

“Let’s eat, shall we?” Abby asked, motioning for Andrew and Neil to enter the room.

Dinner went well.

Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say when you get to eat with your family?

Well, Andrew didn’t really eat. By the time he sat down the world was still spinning around and around and around and around around around around and–

Andrew wasn’t hungry, and he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to find his mouth with all the gyrations.

Andrew pushed his food around like he could convince himself to be hungry, but after a while he just gave up. Hunger would be easy to deal with later.

Andrew dropped his fork down and leaned back in his chair, looking around the table. Aaron was unsocial as usual, only indulging Nicky as long as it took for Nicky to get distracted. Nicky was chatting off everyone’s ears, Wymack and Kevin were arguing over something that had to do with Exy–Andrew quickly tuned them out, he was nauseous enough already–and Abby was watching them all with a heart warmingly lovey dovey, oo-y goo-y, goo-goo eyed expression.

Then Panic.

He was sitting at the end of the table, as far from Wymack and Andrew as he could get, and watching everyone over his lasagna.

La-zag-nah

Rabbit rabbit have you ever had a family meal?

Neil was sitting up straight, almost rigid, no elbows on the table and his fork clasped in one hand with the other carefully in his lap with his napkin. Manners manners. It made everyone else–aside from Kevin (snob)–look like heathens.

So then, probably only hardcore family meals. Andrew recognized the habits, he’d purposely done the opposite of them at many houses by the time he was old enough to realize none of the families were keeping him no matter what he did.

No matter what.

No matter.

Doesn’t matter.

He felt forks slapping against his forehead and stabbing into his hands and shook his head out quickly.

Sit up straighter Doe.

Andrew rolled a kink out of his neck and smiled, standing up quickly to scrape his full plate when he saw the rest of the Monsters take their last bites. His eyes lingered momentarily on Neil, and he noticed Neil doing the same thing. The analyzing look on his face made Andrew’s fingers twitch.

Cigarette.

S

Cigarettes.

Suddenly Andrew’s thoughts were coming in like syrup, moving slow. It was achingly annoying and almost

Worst

Worse

Than the

Train

Wreck

Andrew gave up thinking and went out to the car.

Chapter Text

Don’t move.

Don’t move don’t move don’t move.

Listen.

Where are you.

A snore from Kevin punctured the silence and tore through the room. As annoying as it was, it also helped to ground Andrew, who woke up disoriented and blank, only feeling the wall against his back and the breaths of people around him.

Nicky.

Kevin.

Aaron.

He stayed still for another moment, listening to try and figure out what had woken him up.

A door slammed from down the hall and someone cursed. It all went quiet after that, but Andrew pulled himself out of bed. He wasn’t going to be able to sleep now. He felt sticky and tight, like all his tissues and muscles were wound up. This was normal now though, it was how Andrew always woke up after taking the drugs.

The doctors had given him pills to help ease him into sleep, but he’d flushed them down the toilet. Drug induced sleep left him too vulnerable, he’d rather suffer the lack of sleep than deal with the consequences of not being aware.

Andrew brewed himself coffee in the kitchen, adding a spill of the Bailey’s he kept hidden under the sink and then dumped sugar in. He swallowed the pills with it, and then glanced out the window. The bite of the Bailey’s was almost completely hidden with the sugar, but Andrew could still feel it in his nose. It was a welcome sensation, grounding, and probably the last grounding thing Andrew was going to feel all day once the drugs kicked in. Then he’d be tossed back into the washing machine beating of his brain.

A streak of something caught his eye though, and he leaned closer to the window.

Someone was running through campus–eyes up, head swiveling. Andrew glanced at the clock–4:58–it was only just starting to get light outside and no one else was on campus. Not even Kevin was awake, though Andrew knew his alarm would go off at 5:30, just like it did every morning.

Andrew left his coffee on the counter and went down to investigate. By the time he reached the ground floor whoever it was had passed by and was leaving campus, following perimeter road away. Andrew strolled behind him, hands in his pockets and eyes locked on the back of the man’s head.

He wasn’t willing to run–not this early in the morning–and instead cut through an alley between buildings to catch the man on the next turn. When he got back on the road though the man was bent over, hands on his knees and breathing heavy, catching his breath.

Andrew leaned against the building and crossed his arms, making no effort to either draw attention or keep it away. He didn’t care if the guy noticed him, he just needed to know whether or not he was a threat.

The man straightened, putting his hands on his sides and stretching out his legs and Andrew realized he recognized him. He felt a grin tugging at his lips and clenched his jaw.

What’s Josten doing up so early?

What are we doing up so early?

Tic toc tic toc Trainwreck, your sober time’s up.

Before Andrew could do anything Neil was running again, right past him without even noticing. Too caught up in his own head probably.

Hmm, metaphorical running, physical runner. Runner runner where are you running?

Or what are you running from?

By the time Andrew managed to wrangle his focus again Neil was gone, so Andrew gave up and went back to the dorm. He closed the door just as Kevin’s alarm went off and he could hear Nicky and Aaron groaning and growling for him to shut it off.

Andrew picked his coffee back up–now cold–and ignored everyone all morning until practice. Too busy thinking about nothing and everything and brown eyes bouncing around like exy balls up and down and up and down and up and down.

Kevin shoved him out onto the court after they’d changed and grabbed their gear, Andrew was grinning and had his eyes on Neil, already dressed and ready to go, nice and early.

“Kev you’ve got competition? I thought you were the only princess that got to be early to the ball,” Andrew said, and Kevin scowled at him, pointing with his racquet to the goal. Andrew gave him an overexaggerated sigh.

“I’m not really feeling it today Kev, y’know? A little sick–and I don’t mean just in the head,” Andrew said, gesturing to his head with a grin that felt like it was splitting his skull open.

“You’re practicing today,” Kevin said, and Andrew laughed.

“That’s not very convincing Kev, it kind of makes me want to smash your hand,” Andrew said pitching his voice higher, it made Kevin flinch back, holding his left protectively against his chest. Andrew laughed. “No, no no, I’d do the other one, it’d be more funny don’t you think? Since you’ve been working so hard to use it,” Andrew said, laughing all the way into the goal.

His head felt empty and full all at the same time. Everything was too fast and too slow and his skin was too tight today. The racquet in his hands felt off, but the balls just kept coming and at least his head wasn’t pounding.

Practice passed in a blur, Andrew unable to focus on anything except the last second before the balls hit the wall behind him, and even then it only held his focus long enough to move his head to the side and avoid being hit. He didn’t raise his racquet once. Kevin was being more testy than usual, probably thanks to Andrew’s comment, and Panic chased balls and plays like it was the only thing he’d never run from.

How poetic.

And stupid.

At least now there’s something to look at besides Kevin’s scowling and blood relatives.

After a while Kevin called a water break and sent everyone off the court. Andrew stayed behind, hitting away all the balls Kevin was shooting at him and aiming for Kevin’s head. Kevin was smart enough not to mention it, until one clipped his ear and then his face got all red and he stormed up to the goal.

“What the fuck is your problem today?” Kevin snapped, waving his racquet around like a hooligan.

Hoola-hoopin’ hooligan.

“I’m bored, and you’re not helping.” For a moment Kevin’s expression teetered between disbelief and rage. Andrew almost expected him to swing his racquet right through Andrew’s grin.

Wish you would.

“I can’t–I can’t believe you,” Kevin growled, fists curling at his sides and shoulders tensing. Andrew grinned wider, and wider and wider and wider and wider and wider and–

“What’s not to believe Kevin? I’m not the tooth fairy, I’m here, in the slowly rotting flesh,” Andrew said, proving his point by poking Kevin’s forehead. Kevin snarled at him and then stomped off back to halfcourt.

“Where the hell are the others?” He growled, Andrew shrugged, and then walked off court, not wanting to spend another second with Kevin than was necessary. He looked on the clock on his way and sighed.

Exy exy exy exy exy exy exy exy exy aye.

He kicked open the doors to the locker room and grinned at the way everyone in the room jumped. He widened his eyes at them, and looked around.

“Kevin wants to know what’s taking you so long. Did you get lost?”

“Nicky’s scheming to rape Neil,” Aaron said. The smile widened on Andrew’s face even though every part of his shriveled. And curled. And rotted and shrank and– “There are a couple flaws in his plan he needs to work out first, but he’ll get there sooner or later.”

Oh oh oh, fun fun fun, fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun–

“You’re such an asshole,” Nicky said as he started for the door.

“Wow, Nicky,” Andrew said, forcing his jaw to work in some way that wasn’t a fucking grin. “You start early.”

“Can you really blame me?”

Andrew was across the room before his brain could catch up to his hands wrapped around Nicky’s jersey and slammed into the lockers. Nicky’s head bounced against the lockers, he was smart enough to shut up though.

Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce brown hair–brown eyes? Bounce brownie bounce?

Aaron barely reacted, Neil’s eyebrows shot up, but Andrew wasn’t paying attention to either of them, his eyes were on his cousin. Nicky had almost a foot on him, but Andrew was able to hold him still easily.

Huh, maybe all this exy is good for something.

He thought, cheerfully, grinning just as happily.

Happy happy happy. So so happy.

“Hey, Nicky,” Andrew said in stage-whispered German. “Don’t touch him, you understand?”

“You know I’d never hurt him. If he says yes—”

“I said no.”

“Jesus, you’re greedy,” Nicky said. “You already have Kevin. Why does it—” Nicky lost his balls once Andrew had one of his knives out and pressed none too gently right between Nicky’s ribs. Nicky paled, and Andrew’s smile widened.

“Shh, Nicky, shh,” Andrew said, like he was soothing a troubled child. “Why the long face? It's going to be okay.” He stared down his cousin for a long moment, wanting to make sure Nicky got the point. Andrew’s thoughts were back to swirling around him though and for a moment he almost wanted to add just a little more pressure and then probably get locked back up again and never have to deal with stickball again.

“Hey,” Neil said suddenly, he had a hand out like he was going to do something. “That's enough.” Andrew almost laughed.

“Quiet,” Nicky said in English, barely louder than a breath of air. “Quiet–it’s fine.”

“Hey,” Neil said again, ignoring him.

Hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey–

“Are we playing or what?” he said. “Kevin’s waiting.”

Andrew looked at Neil as if that hadn’t occurred to him. “Oh, you’re right. Let’s go or we’ll never hear the end of it.” He dropped Nicky and left.

Hmmm, Panic does have a head after all.

Use Kevin to distract the big scary crazy?

Eh, let him think it worked, threatening Nicky was getting boring anyways.

They all hit the court again, everyone playing along like nothing had happened. Even little Panic, though he spared Andrew extra suspicious glances as he stood motionless in the goal while Kevin rained shots around him.

Andrew was almost shocked he could look anymore suspicious.

Practice took a fun turn though, since Kevin seemed content to take his anger out on the newest recruit, and Andrew was enjoying watching anger rise and pool just under the skin.

Wonder how deep I’d have to cut before it’ll spill out?

But Neil, unfortunately, kept his temper in check the entire practice, only seething quietly, silently. So loud declarations or violence like the rest of the teams hotheads.

Hmmm, he’s stewing. Wonder where he puts all that anger.

Probably why he has to run so much.

Run from your anger rabbit run, you can’t outrun human traits.

Mmm you’re one to talk.

“Get out, both of you, right now,” Kevin snapped, and Andrew dragged his attention back to the court. Nicky and Aaron scrambled off, disappearing into the showers, Andrew let his eyes follow them blankly, until Kevin stuck out his hand and the image of Andrew smashing it against the ground with his racquet popped like a bubble in his mind. “Ball,” Kevin said, and Andrew threw one to keep his racquet still.

Kevin caught the ball without looking away from Neil, and then shoved it into Neil’s chest so hard Neil had to take a step back. His anger licked back up, bubbling right below the surface. It was almost too much not to poke at.

“You stay here and fire on Andrew until he’s tired. Maybe you’ll score once.”

“Uh oh,” Andrew said with a laugh. “This won’t end well.” He knew what Kevin was doing, trying to put newbie in his place. It was annoying that he was making Andrew do his dirty work. Though, that’s all Andrew seems to do for anyone.

Or at least all they call it.

Huh, Monster?

Andrew’s grin widened.

Better Monster than AJ, A, Andy, Andrew.

It’s easier to have a dangerous reputation with boundaries like Andrew’s. Then he didn’t have to exhaust himself by re-explaining them to everyone every day. Then he didn’t have to worry about missteps, forgiveness, lies.

Fear makes people terrible liars, and hell if Andrew wasn’t feared.

Neil stomped over to where the bucket of balls had been left and then slammed it down on the court in front of Andrew. He picked up a ball, eyed it for a moment, and then his brown eyes flicked up to Andrew’s grin.

Andrew blocked his first shot.

And his second, and third and fourth and fifth and sixth and eighteenth and hundredth and hundred and forty second.

He blocked every ball that Neil shot his way, feeling Panic’s anger rise and rise and rise and battle with his exhaustion.

Andrew only felt a numbness expanding from his chest outward, and his head begins to heavy as the drugs slowly wore off.

It was his fault for taking them so early. He didn’t let it show though, and he didn’t have to, since Neil’s spirits began flagging before the headache got to be too much. His face was set in a scowl, determination and sweat rolling off of him and it just made Andrew laugh as he lobbed ball after ball after ball after ball after ball–

Eventually Andrew watched his shoulders sag, and after the next shot the racquet clattered to the floor, the ball rolling out of it and stopping at Andrew’s feet uselessly. Andrew laughed and kicked the ball right back at Neil who’s eyes widened and he threw his hands up to block his face.

There was a satisfying thwack as the ball hit Neil’s forearms and he stumbled backwards, but then he dropped his arms and glared at Andrew, who just laughed. Neil’s eyes burned, like he was about to rip Andrew to shreds with just his teeth.

“Let’s go,” Andrew said. “Tick tock. I won’t wait forever for you.” To Andrew’s amusement, Neil rose to the bait and picked up his racquet. “Uh oh, looks like Neil’s in trouble,” he said, grin covering his face and blocking his eyes and nose and face and face and face.

He braced himself on the racquet, because suddenly his head was pounding, and his grin wasn’t going away and he couldn’t feel anything in his chest so he just kept his eyes on Josten as he tried for a shot but just ended up dropping the racquet again.

“Can you or can’t you?” Andrew asked tauntingly. He wanted to poke Neil until he snapped. He wanted Josten to crack and rip him to shreds just like his eyes promised.

No one likes a tease Neil.

But instead of shouting, or screaming, or threatening, Neil just crouched on the floor in defeat, “I’m done,” he said bitterly. Andrew laughed, and walked forward until he was standing with a foot on Neil’s racquet. Neil tugged at it uselessly, and then glared up at Andrew.

“Get off my racquet.” He said, viciously quiet.

“Make me?” Andrew said, spreading his arms in invitation. “Or try, anyway.”

“Don't tempt me.”

“Such fierce words from such a little creature,” Andrew said. “You’re not very bright. Typical of a jock.”

“Hypocrite,” Neil said. Andrew gave him a thumbs-up and pushed past Neil. Neil tried to catch himself before he tipped over, but his hand wouldn’t hold his weight. He fell flat on his back and didn’t even try to get up.

Andrew left him there, laying on the court surronded by exy balls and went to the lockers. Kevin was sitting there, waiting for him, and Andrew ignored him. He stripped and showered quickly, glad at least for the warm water pounding on the back of his neck. It helped with the headache a little but Andrew knew that was only going to get worse.

By the time he stepped out the chills had started, and he dried and dressed quicker than he’d showered, stuffing his arms in a thick coat he’d had in his locker from who knows when. Kevin had stayed silent the whole time but now his eyes were tracking Andrew.

“Do you think he was worth it?” Kevin asked.

“Ask someone who cares Kevin,” Andrew said, sitting down to lace up his boots and hide the sudden lightheadedness creeping in around the edges of Andrew’s mind.

“I think he is–I know he is,” Kevin said reverently, now though he was speaking more to the floor than to Andrew. “He has to be,” he said, already standing and following Andrew out to the car.

Two weeks passed in the same boring cycles. With Andrew’s highs and then sick lows and Neil’s just barely surfacing anger. It was starting to bother Andrew. Why let your temper rise so much only to clamp down on it at the last second?

It was like Neil Josten was made of reenforced steel tissue paper. A fort knox of paper maché and barbed wire. Impenetrable and completely fragile at the same time.

Andrew was annoyed with how interested in seeing Josten’s boiling point he’d become. But no matter how much he poked and prodded, no matter how much Kevin griped and yelled, no matter how many times he failed, the rabbit just got back up and kept running. It was almost hilarious how well Neil fit into everything, how he was exactly perfect for the Foxes.

Completely fucked up and unable to admit defeat.

Maybe that’s why Andrew’s a Monster and not a Fox.

Kevin started up night practices by himself once he realized Andrew wasn’t willing to play anymore than he had to, which left Andrew to lay on the bleachers and listen to Kevin slam ball after ball after ball after ball into the walls.

He’d sobered up, thankfully, and had a nice pad of bourbon keeping his aching mind company by the time he heard the doors to the gym creak open. He sat up and looked over to where a tiny figure snuck his way into the building and stood close enough to the plexiglass that his breath was probably fogging it up.

Josten.

He walked around until he was standing below Andrew in the bleachers, and he kept his back turned. Andrew’s eyes followed him, watched his every movement as Josten kept his on Kevin, now too focused on beating his left hand back into submission to notice anything else.

“Won’t you play with him?” Neil asked, Andrew buried his surprise and rechecked his previous assumptions about Neil.

“No,” he said after a moment.

“I think he’d benefit more if you did.”

“And?”

Neil turned around slowly. His eyes dragging themselves up to where Andrew was sitting in the first stairwell about ten steps up. He was leaning forward, arms folded across his knees, staring Neil down. Face completely blank and composed thanks to the lack of drugs singing through his system.

Neil’s eyes flickered over him quickly, hooking only on the twin black armbands running from Andrew’s wrists to his elbows. The scars under them itched at Josten’s attention, but Andrew ignored it and instead pulled out one of the many blades resting between the fabric and Andrew’s skin. He flipped the blade over his fingers once and then tucked it back away. Neil’s eyes followed the movement intensely, and once the knife was away his eyes went back to Andrew’s face.

Still brown, still wrong. Andrew wondered vaguely what color his eyes actually were, what they’d look like without the lie covering them up.

“Is that your slow attempt at suicide or do you actually have sheathes built into those?” Neil asked.

Andrew stayed still and emotionless, meeting Neil’s eyes blankly. “Yes.”

“That's not the one you tried to cut Nicky with. How many knives do you carry?”

Sharp Neil, very sharp.

“Enough,” Andrew said.

“What happens when a referee catches you with a weapon on the court?” Neil asked. “I think that's a little more serious than a red card. You’d probably get arrested, and they might even suspend our entire team until they think they can trust us again. Then what?”

Exhaustion creeped over Andrew. Neil was sounding like Kevin, trying to get him to care about the stupid game. Trying to get him to care about something that didn’t matter. Why care about whether or not a ball hits the wall correctly? It’ll just do it again, and again. Why does it matter, it’s a game, a construct, a bland excuse for time killer.

“I’d grieve forever,” Andrew deadpanned.

“Why do you hate this game so much?” Andrew sighed and almost had the energy to roll his eyes.

“I don't care enough about Exy to hate it. It’s just slightly less boring than living is, so I put up with it for now.”

“I don't understand.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“Isn’t it fun?”

“Someone else asked me that same thing two years ago. Should I tell you what I told him? I said no. Something as pointless as this game is can never be fun,” Andrew said flatly

“Pointless," Neil echoed, like it was a forgein concept, his brow furrowing and everything. “But you have real talent.”

“Flattery is uninteresting and gets you nowhere.”

"I’m just stating facts. You’re selling yourself short. You could be something if only you’d try.”

Andrew’s smile was small and cold. “You be something. Kevin says you’ll be a champion. Four years and you’ll go pro. Five years and you’ll be Court. He promised Coach. He promised the school board. He argued until they signed off on you.”

“He–what?” Neil stuttered, his brows knitting in confusion.

“Then Kevin finally got the okay to sign you and you hit the ground running,” Andrew said. “Curious that a man with so much potential, who has so much fun, who could ‘be something’ wouldn’t want any of it. Why is that?”

Neil stayed silent, watching Andrew carefully and Andrew knew he’d struck something. He’d finally caught the end of a battleship and now all he had to do was navigate the waters and figure out which way it was facing.

“You’re lying,” Neil said at last, he said it like he needed that to be the truth. “Kevin hates me.”

“Or you hate him,” Andrew said. “I can’t decide. Your loose ends aren’t adding up.”

“I’m not a math problem.” Neil said quickly.

“But I’ll still solve you.” Andrew said leisurely.

Neil didn’t say anything to that, his eyes just narrowing. Behind Neil on the court Kevin was packing up the balls and then walking towards the door. Andrew stood and made his way down the bleachers, Neil didn’t move.

“You are a conundrum,” Andrew said.

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you,” Andrew said as he slipped past Neil without a look back. “I need a new toy to play with.”

“I’m not a toy.”

“I guess we’ll see.”

Chapter Text

“Think you could give us a hand?” Nicky called, his voice sounded strained from where he was trying to lift a couch with Aaron’s somewhat begrudging help.

Andrew grinned at him from where he was sitting on a beanbag in front of the TV.

“Oh but you all have it handled so well, I’d just get in the way,” he said, looking back to the TV. It was playing something, but Andrew couldn’t focus enough to tell what it was. For all he knew it was just an endless commercial break.

With his luck it probably was.

They were moving back into the athlete’s dorms, the ‘Fox Tower.’ And all the rest of the merry Foxes were expected to be back by the end of the day.

Ooh, all the gang’s back together.

Matt’ll have Panic suffocating under his wing within an hour.

The only highlight of that was that Renee would be returning. Which meant they could pick back up on their sparring, which Andrew was starting to itch for almost as badly as his cigarettes.

Between Kevin’s constant griping, Josten’s endlessly frustrating restraint, and Aaron and Nicky’s existance, Andrew needed something to throw his fists at.

The rooms were all the same, a kitchenette was off to one side right inside the door and the front room was a spacious living room. Three bare desks lined the walls, waiting to be covered in schoolwork and books. A short hall dead-ended at the bathroom and branched off into the bedroom. Two beds were bunked against one wall and a third bed was raised chest-height against the other to fit shelving and dressers under it. There was only one closet, but hanging dividers hung off the empty pole.

An empty room, just waiting to be filled to the brim with potential.

If Potential is sweaty college athletes pumping themselves full of drugs, sex, and enough stress to kill wild animals.

Mmm, Potential.

By the time Nicky, Aaron, and Kevin all finished moving their furniture back into the dorm Andrew had claimed the desk under the window and was breathing in cigarettes like they were oxygen, watching nothing but the cherries glowing and then graying and then dying. Burning the knuckles of his fingers when he forgot or just didn’t care enough to flick them out the open window beside him.

There was a slight commotion from outside and Andrew listened as Matt excitedly showed Neil around his new dorm. Wymack had said Neil wasn’t allowed in the dorms until Matt arrived. Always so protective of the new ones.

It was probably better, if Neil had been here it would have been too tempting for Andrew to just keep adding pressure until he popped all over the stained carpets and scratched eggshell wallpaper.

“Sounds like Matt’s back,” Nicky said, paying more attention to whatever video game Aaron was currently beating him at. Aaron grunting in affirmation and blew Nicky’s character’s head off. Nicky cried out in over-exaggerated indignation and threw his controller at Aaron, who batted it away and they started bickering.

Andrew tuned them out and turned to Kevin, who was glowering at him.

“Speak up Day, contrary to popular belief I’m not a mind reader,” Andrew drawled, today was one of the days where he could feel the drugs looping through his blood stream and pumping into his brain. Over and over and over and over with his pulse.

Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump–

“You shouldn’t be smoking,” Kevin said, “Bad lungs make you a bad player.” Andrew laughed and took another drag just to fuck with Kevin.

“You’re right, maybe instead I’ll start sitting on the edges of roofs, keep knives on my skin–you know, I’ve got to flirt with death somehow Kevin,” Andrew said, his grin spreading and spreading and spreading– “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.”

Movement from the parking lot below snagged Andrew’s attention and he looked down. His stomach bottomed out and it made him laugh, fear numbing his fingertips and he almost forgot what he’d been looking at.

Then he realized he was watching Matt’s behemoth of a truck pull away, probably off to pick up the lovely Fox ladies. It took Andrew’s foggy brain much too long to connect that without Matt, Panic was alone.

Probably getting lonely all on his lonesome like that.

He flicked his cigarette away and shifted to stand up, but then another flicker caught his eye and when he looked back down he realized he was too late. Panic’s head darted around before he took off running out of the parking lot.

Something looked off about him though, and then Andrew realized hunchback was missing his hunch. The ever present duffle bag was missing and Andrew’s grin grew.

And then Andrew’s smile grew three sizes that day.

He stood up and ignored Nicky’s questions, leaving the room and going two doors down to Matt, Seth and now Neil’s room. The lock was annoyingly easy to pick, part of the reason Andrew never slept well in the dorms and the only reason he missed Abby’s house.

The room was identical to Andrew’s own, except with different furniture–courtesy of Matt since all the Junkie carried was his precious duffle.

Speaking of duffle, where are you hiding baggie bag?

Andrew scoured the apartment, searching kitchen cabinets and even checking the oven before he pushed the door to the bedroom open slowly, almost expecting Josten to jump out at him for coming too close to the bag.

The room was more barren than the living room, with all the beds still stripped and dressers empty. The only things in the room were Matt’s bags, scattered around next to the dressers and on one of the beds.

Here baggie baggie.

Andrew checked under the beds to no success before going to the dressers. He opened each drawer and for a moment wondered if maybe Neil had just left the bag in Matt’s truck, before he finally tugged on the last one and it stuck.

Andrew grinned and pried the drawer open, spotting the duffle tucked inside.

Jackpot.

He unzipped it and found layers of boring clothes, all massive and clearly well worn. He tossed them off to the side without much thought and then spotted a binder.

It was plain, just one of the plastic red colored one’s you could find at Target, but it was stuffed full. Andrew opened it and his eyebrows shot up.

It looked like a shrine. Newspaper clippings and photographs and magazine articles all about Kevin and Riko Moriyama filled the pages. It made Andrew sigh.

Boring, he’s just a stalker?

But then he realized each of the pages of the binder has little pockets, and inside the pockets were a goldmine.

Literally.

Hundred dollar bills, bonds, certificates and coded papers filled the binder. It was like finding presents under the tree on Easter and Andrew grinned.

He commited the entire binder to memory before carefully tucking it back away and putting everything else in the duffle back exactly how he’d found it.

This would be so much more fun if he could surprise Neil by slowly hinting at his knowledge.

As he passed by the girl’s dorm he noticed the door cracked open and heard voices drifting out. They must have arrived while Andrew was poking around. He made a note to steal Renee later.

He was still grinning by the time he got back into his own dorm and he lit a cigarette before the door was even closed, climbing back up onto the desk by the window just as he watched Neil return from wherever he’d gone, bags of unknown things over his arms.

Andrew watched him enter the building, and then listened for him coming up the stairs before he heard the sound of keys jangling and then the door opening and closing.

Andrew grinned and leaned back against the window, picturing each and every page in the binder. Right now though it all just looked like blurs of text and black and white covered in shiny plastic sleeves. His head ached and the cigarette burned his fingers as it got too close to the bottom, so he used the tip of it to light a new one and stuck that between his lips.

Suddenly though, the door slammed open, revealing Panic, looking pissed to all hell and Andrew’s grin widened exponentially.

His face was red with anger and he shot daggers with his eyes at Andrew.

“Try again, Neil. You’re in the wrong room!” Andrew said around a laugh as he flicked his dead cigarette out the window.

Aaron paused the game with a stab of his finger and looked at Nicky. “We locked that,” he said in German, not quite a question. “Last I checked,” Nicky answered. He switched to English to offer Neil a friendly, “Hey, sounds like Matt’s back. You meet Dan and Renee yet?”

Neil’s face contorted with more anger, and then he turned his murderous eyes on Kevin. Neil snapped something in a language Andrew didn’t understand. It sounded like French though, which was confirmed by Kevin’s reaction.

Oh interesting, very, very interesting Panic. I thought you were dead in the head.

They growled at each other for a while until Neil said something that made Kevin’s face go white and then suddenly the door slammed shut behind Neil as Kevin roared after him.

The door flew open and Andrew head the slam of a body hitting the wall. He laughed, stubbing his cigarette out and wandering out after the two of them. Aaron and Nicky were staring dumbfounded at the door, but at Andrew’s movement they both jumped up and rushed out after them.

Kevin had his hand around Neil’s throat, pinning him against the wall. It was pretty unfair, since Kevin had almost a foot on Neil, but Neil was still glaring and fighting feebly against Kevin, who looked seconds from snapping Neil’s neck.

Andrew grinned.

How fun would that be?

“What the fuck did you call me?” Kevin snapped, and Neil, the absolute dumbass, opened his mouth like he was going to repeat himself, but Kevin squeezed harder so all that came out was a puff of air like a defective squeaky toy. Andrew laughed, but suddenly Matt was out, and he threw a punch at Kevin, knocking him off Neil and then locking him in a headlock that Kevin spat and fought against, throwing barely effective elbows.

“Get off him, Day,” Matt snarled.

“Whoa, whoa, calm down,” Nicky said over Andrew’s shoulder. “Come on, Matt.” Placating as always.

Kevin did let go of Neil, but only so he could scramble out of Matt’s arms and then throw a punch Matt easily deflected. It sent Kevin sprawling, and Matt took a step like he was going to land another hit, so Andrew decided his fun was over and stepped between them. Still grinning, and just hoping Matt was stupid enough to throw a punch at him.

With a hint of disappointment Andrew watched Matt step down, putting up his hands in surrender. The girls chose that moment to step in. Dan moved up alongside Matt, expression tight with anger. She swept a dark look between Andrew's group and Neil and said, “What do you think you’re doing? It's our first day back. Why are we fighting already?”

“Technically we never left,” Andrew said, “and Neil’s been here a couple weeks, so it’s your first day back, not ours.” He leaned to one side, looking past her to her roommate.

“Hello, Renee. About time!” Dan didn't give Renee a chance to answer, but Renee gave Andrew a pursed lipped look.

“Explanation now, Andrew.”

“You're looking at me like it’s my fault.” Andrew wagged a finger at her. “Look again, why don’t you? Neil’s at our room, which meant he brought the fight to us. Dan, your bias is cruel and unprofessional.”

She swept Neil with a quick head-to-toe, brown eyes narrowed. “What’s the problem?”

“There isn’t one,” Neil said. When Dan jerked a hand between him and Kevin, Neil shrugged. “Just a difference of opinions. Nothing that matters.”

“We’re getting along splendidly,” Andrew said, grin spreading and spreading and spreading. The room was getting boring though, too crowded and too much scolding over nothing. “Neil even agreed to ride to the stadium with us.”

“Oh did he?” Dan asked, obviously skeptical. They all looked at Neil. Andrew watched his eyes flick to Andrew, as though deciding for a split second. Andrew smiled at him, and Neil’s posture relaxed and his eyes went back to Dan.

“Yes,” Neil said. “I figured Matt’s truck would be full, so I took them up on their offer.”

Liar liar pants on fire, careful, you’ll catch the whole building with that walking bonfire.

Dan looked ready to argue, but Matt quieted her with a touch on her arm. Dan sent Andrew a suspicious glare, then shook her head. “I don’t know who started this, but the fighting stops now.”

“Always the optimist,” Andrew said, and gave Neil his two-fingered salute. “See you soon. Don’t run off, okay?” “Wouldn’t dream of it,” Neil said, his teeth slightly gritted and eyes telling Andrew he wasn’t happy.

It just made Andrew laugh.

Who was?

Chapter Text

“So Kevin, what, pray tell, was our funny little friend getting you so riled up with?” Andrew asked after the door had closed. Kevin snarled at the reminder of it.

“He was pissed that someone went through his stuff, he thought it was you–told me to put a leash on you or ‘he would,’” Kevin said with mocking air quotes, and Andrew’s eyebrows rose up up up up and up. His grin going out out and out.

Hmm, must’ve missed something Trainwreck. Panic’s more paranoid than you assumed–that’s new.

“And? I assume you weren’t just fighting valiantly for my honor,” Andrew prodded, Kevin rolled his eyes. Andrew noticed Nicky and Aaron leaning in to listen, despite having gone back to their game.

“And nothing, he started a fight.”

“Snappy snappy Day, he must have really hit a nerve, what? Did he jab at your handicap?” Andrew mocked, then he made his voice go up and his face twist in a pout, “Did the wittle wabbit huwt youw feewings?” Kevin scowled at him and his hand clenched like he was going to throw a punch. Andrew snapped one of his armbands against his skin as a reminder. “Ah ah ah Day, I’ll carve your fingers off before you can say ‘baguette,’” he said with a grin. Kevin’s face paled but he didn’t step back.

“You wouldn’t, we have a deal–”

“Our deal protects you from Riko, not me Day, not me,” Andrew said, Kevin gulped, his fists unclenching.

“Hey, why don’t we relax? Save the fighting for the court where Wymack and Dan can referee,” Nicky said, Andrew smiled.

“You’re so right Nicky, if I get blood on the court then they’ll have to cancel practice,” Andrew said, cackling as he went into the bedroom, wanting to be away from people, away from his own stupid head, circling and circling and striking and biting at air.

He was surrounded by volcanoes with cling wrap stuck on the top. Lava bubbling up and seconds from exploding and the anticipation was killing him. Making his skin crawl and his fingers itch for–

Boom boom boom.

He’d seen Kevin explode but Neil was–

Boom BOOM BOOM.

–Was a–

BOOM BOOM BOOM.

–A Wild C–

BOOM BOOM AJ.

Andrew slammed the door shut without meaning to, his hands shaking and his mind was filled with the rumblings of ash and explosions. The room was dark and he scrambled for a light, flicking it on and darting his eyes around for shadowy figures perched in the corners, just waiting for fragile moments like this to strike out.

No one there though, just the–

BA BOOM BOOM BOOM.

Andrew clenched his jaw against the growl of frustration that was just going to come out as a laugh. He couldn’t even manage one thought without something distracting him. A metaphor coming to life metaphorically in his mind and blocking out everything else.

By the time it was time, time time time–

By the time it was time to time.

To leave, by the time it was time to leave, to get in the car to, leave to go to practice to–

Andrew stuffed Aaron into the back of the car, Kevin slid into the front passenger’s seat with nothing more than a warry side glance at Andrew, who stood outside, leaning against the car. Partially because he thought it would be funny to watch Panic squirm trapped between Andrew and Aaron, but also because the idea of being in such a small space with so much skin and breathing around him was making his stomach roll and roll and roll and roll–

Nicky and Neil appeared. Nicky beaming and laughing like Neil had said something funny as he went around the car and got into the driver’s seat. Neil paused though, standing just out of arms reach–

Don’t think I didn’t notice that rabbit, close but not quite–

–and gave Andrew a suspicious, suspicious, suspicious once over.

“You waited for us,” Andrew said with feigned surprise. “A liar who practices occasional honesty. Clever–keeps people guessing. Very effective, I would know–I do it myself, you see. Come on, then. After you.”

Just like lab rats. How do you make sure a rat always comes back? How do you make sure it keeps pressing it’s special little button? Make the dispenser unpredictable.

Neil climbed into the backseat. Andrew followed him in, sandwiching Neil between him and his brother. Nicky already had the engine going. As soon as Andrew yanked his door shut Nicky peeled out of there like he wanted to take the asphalt with him. Neil automatically reached for his seatbelt, Andrew grabbed his wrist though, more out of instinctual reaction than planned intimidation, but he smiled like he’d meant to do it.

Andrew sprawled against Neil’s side, forcing himself to ignore the rolling rolling rolling gut in his abdomen and keep his grip tight around Neil’s wrist. “After everything we've done for you, you have to start a fight with us. For shame, Neil.” It looked like it was worth it though, since every part of Panic was tensed for a fight.

“You started this fight a month ago,” Neil said. “If you want it to stop, leave me alone.”

“I like fighting. It’s just troublesome when Coach and Abby and the other busybodies start crying foul. Show some consideration.”

“You show some consideration and stay out of my things.”

“How do you know it was us, anyway? Maybe it was Matt. Innocent until proven guilty fails on an Exy court.”

“I haven't heard you deny it yet.”

“You wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

“I don’t believe anything you say.”

“Believe this, Neil: you can’t put a leash on me. Don’t think you can, okay? And don’t be stupid enough to tell other people you will. It’s not safe. You’ll make me want to break you.”

“You?” Neil said. “You can’t.” Andrew’s smile curved wider.

“Ohhh, that sounds like a challenge. Mother may I?”

“Your mother’s dead. I don’t think she cares what you do.”

“I know for sure she never did,” Andrew said, smiling at the way Aaron’s jaw looked close to shattering from how tight he was clenching it. “Well, she had to take offense to the dying part, but I thought that was rather fun. But you’re right.” He slapped the heel of his palm against his temple as if something obvious had just occurred to him. “I do as I please.”

Neil gave him a scowl and Andrew just smiled wider and continued, “Consider this your official invite, you suicidal wretch. I’m bringing you to Columbia with us this Friday.” He let go of Neil and held up five fingers, smiling at Neil through them. “You have five days to meet the others. Five days of practices and all of Coach’s ridiculous bonding nonsense. Then it’s our turn on Friday. You can get to know us off the court.”

“We’ll take you out to dinner,” Nicky said over his shoulder. “We used to live in Columbia, so we know all the best spots. Even better, we’ve got a free place to crash so we don’t have to worry about driving back drunk or exhausted. It’ll be a blast.”

“I don’t drink or dance,” Neil said.

“That’s all right,” Andrew said. “Kevin doesn’t dance anymore and I never do. You can drink soda and talk to us while the others make fools of themselves. We can’t get through this year with this little misunderstanding between us, so we'll take a night off and fix it.”

Misunder-stand-ing.

Mist-under-anding.

It’s all a big misunderstanding Andrew, don’t you see? You’ve just never had an older brother so you–

“If I go, promise me you'll never touch anything of mine ever again.”

–Don’t understand–

“So possessive,” Andrew said.

–brotherly affections.

“Of course I am,” Neil said. “Everything I own fits in one bag.” Andrew considered that, then answered with a mad grin, stuffing down the urge to set his skin on fire and then peel it off little sheet by little sheet.

“Okay. One night with us, and no more break-ins. Friday night will be fun.”

Neil’s face said he doubted that, but Andrew ignored it in favor of stepping out of the car, which had become suffocating, no matter how interesting Neil Josten was.

As soon as the upperclassmen parked and got out, Andrew pointed at Neil.

“Look, one piece.”

“Are you bleeding anywhere?” Matt asked, eying the cousins skeptically.

“Nowhere vital,” Neil said, which made Andrew laugh. Renee–oh Saint Renee–intervened before her friends could react.

“Why don’t we wait inside for Seth and Allison? We’ve got a while and it’s a little warm out here.”

“Maybe they’ll get in a crash and won’t make it,” Nicky said hopefully.

“Really, Nicky,” Saint Renee said, disapproval turning her mouth down like a true Christian. “That’s a little inappropriate, don’t you think?” She said it gently, with the hint of a smile on her face, but beside Andrew Panic went stiff. It made Andrew smile.

Maybe you are smarter than you look little rabbit.

Dan and Matt were also shooting Nicky less subtle looks, and Nicky shied away in shame, tail tucked between his legs as he shrugged.

“Let’s go,” Dan said, and led the way into the locker room.

Wymack and Abby were perched on the entertainment center in the lounge when they arrived. Dan’s annoyance faded under a sickening amount of warmth at seeing the pair. Andrew’s group went straight to one of the couches while Matt waited for the girls on the other. Neil picked a chair off to the side, all by his lonesome.

After Renee’s friendly greetings, she retired to Matt’s couch. They left a space between them for Dan, who stayed with Wymack a while longer, chatting animatedly about the exy exy exy exy. Andrew could feel Kevin twitching to jump into the conversation, but he held himself back for some reason.

After a couple minutes of mindless, brainless, thoughtless exy chatter the doors slammed open and Seth Gordon graced everyone with his wonderful presence.

He didn’t say a word, just walked under a storm cloud and threw himself down next to Matt. Allison followed soon after, balancing expertly in her heels and looking like she was thinking about how to buy the seats beneath everyone’s asses and replace all their outfits.

“Nice to see you two, too,” Wymack said dryly. Allison skipped him to nod at Abby.

“You survived the summer.”

“By the grace of God,” Abby said. “It doesn’t get easier, that’s for sure.”

Allison swept the room with a look, lip curling a little in scorn as she spotted Andrew’s group. Andrew didn’t even bother with a grin at her. Then her gaze settled on Neil and she studied him a moment, expression calculating.

“I’m going to sit with you,” she said. She crossed the room to perch on the arm of his chair. There wasn't really room for her there; she had to lean against him to keep her balance. She wound an arm around his shoulders to keep from sliding off and crossed her legs at the knee. The move slid her short hem further up, showing off a healthy stretch of toned, tanned thighs.

Neil kept his eyes on something across the room, evidently indifferent.

That made Andrew snort, because either Neil was holy enough to make Saint Renee proud, or he was gay enough to disappoint her whole church.

“I can move if you want to sit here,” Neil said, the picture of a polite gentleman. There it was again, that high money manner poking its high class head out from beneath the hobo-reject clothes.

“No, this is fine.” Allison smiled, but it had a smug edge to it, probably because Seth was glaring at them like he could kill them with willpower alone. Allison looked back at Wymack and flicked her fingers in an impatient gesture. “This will be quick, won’t it? It was a long flight and I’m exhausted.”

“You're the ones slowing this down,” Wymack said, and stabbed a finger at Neil. “First order of business: Neil Josten, our new striker sub. Got anything to say?” When Neil shook his head, Wymack jerked a thumb between Allison and Seth. “You already met everyone else. Here’s the last of them: Seth Gordon, starting striker, and Allison Reynolds, our defensive dealer. Questions, comments, concerns? Anyone?”

Seth pointed at Neil and said angrily, “I’m fucking concerned—"

Wymack had heard this argument before, and he spoke over Seth like he didn’t hear him. “All right, then. Moving on. Abby?” Abby got down from her perch and passed out stapled packs of paper. Andrew let his drop to the floor and ignored Abby and Saint Renee’s twin disproving looks.

“Same boring forms as always. Sign your name on the appropriate lines and give these back to me first thing tomorrow. You can't practice until I have these on file. Summer practices start at 8:30. Enjoy sleeping in while you can, because we're moving to 6:00 when the semester starts. We're meeting at the gym. I repeat, we're meeting at the gym. If you’re late because you came here instead of there I will put my shoe through your face. You’ve only been gone for a month. I know you all know how this works.”

“Yes, Coach,” the team chorused. “Physicals get done before you leave today. Andrew, you’re first. Seth, you're going second. The rest of you draw straws or something. It’s up to you. Don’t even think of leaving before you’ve seen Abby." He gave Andrew’s lot the evil eye. Andrew and Nicky affected innocent looks.

Abby went to stand behind Kevin. Wymack hesitated before reaching for the papers stacked facedown at his side.

“Last order of business from me today is our schedule.”

“Already?” Matt asked. “It’s only June.”

“We don’t have dates yet, but the ERC’s made some changes that will make this spring look like a cakewalk. They’re notifying the coaches in our district one by one to try and control the fallout. It has potential to get ugly.”

“How could it be worse than the shit we dealt with last year?” Seth asked. Matt counted off on his fingers.

“The break-ins, threatening phone calls, rabid press, vandalism…”

“Personal favorite was when someone told the police we were running a meth lab out of the dorm," Dan said sourly. “Police raids are awesome.”

“The death threats were creative, though,” Nicky said. “Maybe this time they’ll follow through and actually kill one of us. Let’s vote–I nominate Seth.”

“Fuck you, faggot,” Seth said.

“I don’t like that word,” Andrew said. “Don't use it.”

“I would say 'fuck you, freak', but then you wouldn’t know which one of you I was talking to.”

“Don't talk to us at all,” Aaron said. “You never have anything useful to say.”

“Enough,” Wymack said. “We don't have time for petty bullshit this year. We’ve got a new school in our district.”

Andrew was getting bored, exy talk, schedule talk, boring talk. He wondered how much he’d have to prod Seth before he could get him and Neil to fight. That might be funny, watching the Shrimp fight a Chad.

Andrew looked back over at Neil and hummed to himself.

He’s quick, he might almost have a chance, plus Seth’s a shit fighter.

Then Andrew realized Neil was making quick eye contact with Kevin–who’d suddenly gone board straight and milk white, so Andrew looked over to Kevin just as he zoned back into the conversation.

“...Edgar Allen’s come south.” Andrew’s smile burst on his lips and deflated into a thin line.

Shock silenced the team, but not for long.

“No way,” Dan said sharply. “That isn’t funny, Coach.” Seth apparently thought otherwise because he started laughing. Aaron, Nicky, and Matt drowned each other out as they demanded explanations. Allison made a shrill noise of disbelief that echoed in Andrew’s empty skull. Renee, like Neil, watched Andrew and Kevin and said nothing.

Wymack was explaining the logic, the press benefits and the reasoning behind it but all Andrew saw was a big fat RIKO stamped all over everything and smelling like rotting tuna.

Andrew’s grin returned without him wanting it to, and he laughed. Kevin knew about this, and so did Neil apparently.

How long have you two been in kahoots?

“Hey, Kevin,” Andrew said. “Hear that? Someone really misses you.”

“The ERC shouldn’t have approved it,” Kevin said, so quietly Andrew barely heard him.

“You said he would come for you.”

“I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“Liar,” Andrew said, and Kevin flinched. Andrew twisted to sit sideways on the couch so he could see Kevin better. It put his back against Nicky's side. Nicky leaned away from his deranged cousin, but Andrew ignored it in favor of focusing on Kevin’s ashen looking face.

“You did know about this,” Andrew said. “How long? One day, two days, three four five?”

“Coach told me when it was approved in May.”

“May. May, Day. Mayday. A little curious, Kevin Day. When were you going to tell me?”

“I told him not to,” Wymack said.

“You picked Coach over me?” Andrew asked, and laughed. “Ohhhh my. Favoritism, deception, betrayal, how familiar. After all I've done for you.”

“Andrew, knock it off,” Abby warned him, Andrew pretended she was stuck in a pit of writhing snakes.

“Help me,” Kevin said, almost a whisper.

Andrew clucked his tongue and cocked his head to one side. “Help you? Help a man who lies to my face for a month? How?”

“I want to stay,” Kevin said. “I’ll ask you again: don’t let him take me away.”

“You’re the one who would tell him yes,” Andrew said. “Maybe you forgot.”

“Please.”

Please, please please please please PLEASE PLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE PLEASE.

Please stop.

"You know how much I hate that word."

Kevin stared down at his hands where they were clenched in his lap, eyes on the scar that ran across the back of his hand. Andrew heaved an exaggerated sigh and held his hand out, blocking Kevin's view of his scar.

How inconsiderate Kevin, trigger me and make me censor your panic attack? Spoiled. Spoiled spoiled.

I hope you feel your skin itching to be torn off too.

"Look at me," Andrew said instead of all the words racing through his head. Kevin turned a haunted look on him. “It’ll be fine,” Andrew said, smile empty. “I promised, didn’t I? Don’t you believe me?” It took a while, but at last Kevin visibly relaxed. The dead edge melted out of his eyes as he absorbed every ounce of strength Andrew could give him.

Pa-thetic.

The world was a blur around him as Wymack droned on and then Neil immediately stood to leave. Even that barely caught Andrew’s attention though, he felt like he was holding onto it by a string made of thread and it was a million miles off in the sky.

Saint Renee tried to stop Neil, but she came back a few minutes later, empty handed. She kept shooting Andrew worried glances, she and Wymack were probably the only ones in the room who knew just how on the verge of completely dissolving Andrew really was.

He hated it, so he gave her his biggest, widest smile and told Seth Neil could outrun any of them.

He didn’t mention it was because none of them were running for their lives.

“–Andrew, Andrew? Andrew,” Andrew snapped back into focus, his eyes flicking upwards to where Abby was watching him, brows furrowed in concern. He was somehow sitting on the exam table in Abby’s office, must be physical time.

“I’m not using Abby, nothing but the court mandated good shit,” he said dryly, smile pulling up the exhausted corners of his mouth. She frowned at him, and then sighed.

“Are you going to take your shirt off?” she asked, Andrew’s smile widened.

“Definitely not.” He stood up.

“Not even if I lock the door?”

“Bye Abby, this was fun, same time next year?” Andrew said, leaving the cramped room and ignoring everyone else around him. They were still talking about Neil, and Andrew beelined for the door. He had a cigarette between his lips before he even hit fresh air and the smoke cottoning his lungs was like tar wrapped candy.

pleasepleasepleaseplease–PLEASE.

The cigarette slipped from between his fingers and he stomped it out on the pavement, lighting another and biting down on it so it–

PLEASE.

Shhh, shhh AJ shhhhh. It feels good it’s fine.

“–rew. Andrew, hey, I’m talking to you,” Andrew was slammed back into reality, out of the tiny bedroom and the too tight grip and the–

PLEASE.

“Hey, you alright?” Wymack asked, Andrew’s jaw clenched involuntarily and the cigarette snapped in half. The burning cherry dropping to the ground again and Andrew watching it with bored eyes and a too-wide smile that made his stomach curdle and his chest fill with laughter.

“No coach, I’m peachy,” Andrew managed, spitting out the useless cigarette filter and stomping on them both, crushing the tobacco with his boot.

“Christ kid, c’mon,” Wymack muttered, and Andrew followed after him numbly, folding himself into Wymacks car and leaning against the door with his feet up on the seat. They drove in silence back to Wymack’s apartment, with Wymack staring at the road and Andrew staring at the toes of his boots, echoes of worse times slicing through his brain and locking him in a limbo.

Caught between a rock and a hard place aren’t we Trainwreck?

Andrew’s phone started ringing and after about the tenth time Wymack snapped at him to answer it or silence it as they entered the apartment and Andrew sat on the couch while Wymack went to the kitchen to make coffee.

Nicky’s caller ID flashed at Andrew, and he ignored it. Going back to staring at empty space until Wymack set a steaming cup of coffee in front of him and sat with a grunt in the chair across from him.

“It’s got all the sugar and cream crap you like, so don’t even complain,” Wymack muttered, sipping his own, plain black monstrosity. Andrew hummed and sipped.

Bitter bitter bitter. Old bitter man, old bitter coffee, young tortured soul.

“Should I be calling Betsy?” Wymack asked after they’d passed a couple of minutes in silence. Andrew gulped down the rest of the drink and then laid back down on the couch. He couldn’t tell if the twitchiness and cold sweats that were starting were from a burgeoning panic attack or the drugs wearing off. Probably both.

Lovely.

“Best not bother the lovely Bee, I’m sure she’s got other broken and down-and-out souls to tape back together,” Andrew said, too exhausted to be glad he wasn’t smiling. His chest felt numb, his head full of cotton.

Wymack gave him a searching look, and then nodded, standing back up.

“Well, I’m going to my office, stay as long as you need and stay out of my alcohol, you go that kid?”

Andrew just nodded to the ceiling.

Chapter Text

Falling

Falling

Falling

Falling

Falling

Falling

Crash.

Andrew’s stomach swooped like the floor had dropped from beneath him and he scrambled to grab the car door. It was solid, smooth plastic and soft leather beneath his fingers as he reminded he was sitting still, on solid ground, and his stomach settled for just bubbling in his gut instead of his feet.

He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, head pounding and blood rushing so fast he could feel it throbbing in his fingertips just underneath his nails. He pressed down on them, forcing the blood and the feeling to rush away from them and let out a shaky sigh, relishing the bite of pain the calm brought.

The shaking of a pill bottle made his head want to snap up but he forced it to stay still and instead just slowly pulled his eyes up to where Kevin was leaning over the back of the passenger’s seat, jiggling the orange bottle Andrew had given him with a disapproving look on his face.

“You shouldn’t be sober,” Kevin said, Andrew didn’t grace him with a response. Partially because he didn’t have the energy and partially because he was sure if he said more than four words he was going to throw up.

“Remember Kevin? He doesn’t care what you think?” Aaron said, bitterness biting at Andrew. Neither of the brothers bothered to look at each other, Andrew focused on the seat in front of him and Aaron glaring out the window with his chin propped up in his hand. “He doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he’s too good for that,” Aaron muttered mockingly, Andrew sighed, but didn’t say anything.

“Quit bickering, we’re going out tonight and I’m not letting you ruin my chance at some good old fashioned anything but T, LC with your sour moods,” Nicky said, pulling up to a stop at the dorms. He was practically vibrating with excitement and had been chatting all their ears off about how great Neil was going to look in the clothes Nicky had picked out.

Andrew’s mind was clear and swirling at the same time, like a whirlpool of glass.

As soon as Nicky stopped the car Aaron and Andrew were out and Aaron beelined for the stairs while Andrew braced himself on the bar around the elevator. Nicky and Kevin followed him in and Nicky pressed the button to their floor, eyeing Andrew worriedly.

“Andrew–”

“Shut up Nicky,” Andrew snapped, Nicky shut his mouth, but the look didn’t go away. Andrew just clenched his teeth until they felt like snapping in his gums as the elevator swooped to a stop and his stomach bottomed out. He forced himself to walk casually out of the elevator instead of stumble out like he wanted to, and he blinked and then was sitting in the windowsill of his dorm, hands shaking holding a smoldering cigarette.

Nicky was snapping in his face and holding a glass of water.

“Andrew if you’re not feeling–”

“I said shut up Nicky,” Andrew interrupted, and he dropped the apparently smoked cigarette into the water glass. It steamed and Nicky just sighed and sagged a bit.

“Fine–fine whatever, be pouty, see if I care,” he grumbled, walking away to dump the water out.

At nine o’clock Andrew gathered Aaron, Kevin, and Nicky and dragged them all over to Neil’s room. The door was locked, so he picked it, and then scanned the empty rooms.

For a moment he thought the rabbit had run, vanished into the wind, but then the bathroom door opened and Neil walked out, ignoring the Monsters and disappearing into the bedroom with a bundle of clothes in his arms.

Andrew motioned for the others to hold back and then made his way to the room, where he hitched himself against the doorframe. He crossed his arms as he watched Neil stuff his old clothing into the bottom drawer of his dresser like a squirrel desperately burying nuts for the starving months to come.

Neil straightened, and turned to face Andrew after kicking the dresser closed. Andrew scanned him, and noticed his hands twitching at his sides like he wanted to cover himself up or swing a punch at Andrew.

He was wearing the outfit Nicky had given him, black boots, black tight shirt, black tight jeans, it looked annoyingly good but that wasn’t what caught Andrew’s attention.

No, that would be the ice blue eyes glaring right back at Andrew, sizing him up, analyzing ever detail, lingering slightly on his face and no doubt recognizing the lack of drugged euphoria pulling at Andrew’s lips.

After a while of them staring each other down Neil walked forward like he expected Andrew to move. Andrew didn’t, and Neil stopped short not a foot away, giving Andrew a full view of the honest eyes of a liar.

Andrew reached out and grabbed the back of Neil’s neck, forcing him closer and turning his head for a full look at the eyes, which stayed pinned to Andrew’s cheek.

“Another bit of unexpected honesty,” Andrew said. “Any particular reason?”

“Nicky asked nicely. You might try it sometime.”

“We already talked about this. I don’t ask.” Andrew gave Neil another slow once-over and let go. “We’re going.”

Nicky perked up as the two stepped into the living room, but his happy expression faltered when he got a look at Neil. “Oh, man. Neil, you clean up good. Can I say that, or is that against the rules? Just—damn. Aaron, don't let me get too drunk tonight.”

Andrew stopped by Nicky long enough to pull a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He lit one, never mind that the dormitory rooms came equipped with smoke detectors, and put his lighter in Nicky’s face.

“Don’t make me kill you,” Andrew said. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with Nicky’s unfortunate sense of humor. Nicky held up his hands in self-defense.

“I know.”

“Do you?”

“Promise,” Nicky said weakly. Andrew put his lighter away and left the room. Kevin and Aaron followed.

As soon as they got in the car, Nicky driving, Kevin in front, Aaron and Andrew each on one side of Neil, Andrew let himself drift off against the car window, almost grateful for the reprieve from the nausea of coming off his high.

He was jarred awake by a hand on his should–

Someones touching you

Who’s touching me

Someones touching me

Touching me touching metouchingmetouchingmetouchingtouchingtouching–

He threw his elbow before he could think and it sunk into someone, they gasped and folded over and then Andrew blinked the car back into existence. Neil was folded over and glaring, wheezing for breath while Aaron snapped and gave Andrew an impatient look.

Andrew wasn’t sure what he’d said but he used Neil’s back and the front seat to leverage himself up enough to see the road. It took him a moment to get his bearings and then he realized what Aaron must have been asking. Exit.

“Not yet. It’s the exit that has Waffle House.”

“This is South Carolina,” Nicky said. “Every exit leads to Waffle House. Still breathing, Neil?”

“Yes,” Neil said hoarsely. “I think.” Andrew dropped back into his seat and let go of Neil. He sat up, checking his abdomen like he expected blood and shooting an apathetic Andrew glares.

Then Andrew realized he wasn’t looking for blood, he was making sure the shirt was still covering him.

Interesting rabbit, what are you hiding?

Suddenly Andrew’s stomach rolled and dragged his lungs with it. He choked for a moment and looked at his trembling hands in the dark.

“Nicky,” he said, bile building.

Nicky glanced back. He couldn’t see tremors in the darkness, but he saw where Andrew was looking. Nicky swept across lanes toward their exit. “We’re almost there.”

“Pull over.”

“We’re on an exit ramp.”

“Now.” Nicky didn't argue again. He pulled off onto the almost nonexistent shoulder, braking hard. Horns blared as a car whipped past them. Andrew shoved his door opened, leaned out of the car as far as he could, and dry-heaved into the weeds alongside the road.

It felt like his body was trying to rip out his rib cage and bury it in the ground. He wished it would so the feeling would stop.

“Where are your crackers?” Nicky asked when Andrew was left gasping for breath.

“He took them earlier,” Kevin said.

“All of them?” Nicky asked, horrified. “Jesus, Andrew.”

“Shut up,” Andrew said, and spat a couple times–still shaky and weak, and wiped his sour tasting mouth with the back of his hand. His throat burned, but he ignored it. He’d drown his tongue in whiskey when they got to Eden’s, then he wouldn’t feel a thing. He reached blindly for Kevin's headrest, found it on the third try, and pulled himself back inside the car. “Just get us there.”

Nicky floored it, and the next time Andrew blinked they were pulling to a jerky stop in front of Sweeties. The whole group got out of the car, Andrew leading them and making brief eye contact with a server behind the bar counter, who jerked her head towards a booth and grabbed a couple of menus. Andrew made his way to the booth and pointed for the others to sit before making his way for the salad bar.

He grabbed a few handfuls of the regular, dry and way too salty crackers–which helped his empty stomach settle a bit–and then sat down next to Kevin in the booth.

Aaron was trapped in the far side of the booth, then Kevin and then Andrew, with Nicky and Neil taking up the booth across from them. Andrew ignored the pitying looks Kevin and Nicky were sending him, and focused instead on emptying cracker packets and scanning his group.

They were all dressed ready for Edens, matching dark outfits and Nicky and Aaron had both taken the time to gel their hair. Nicky had gone simple, showing off as much skin as possible in a breezy black tank-top, the collar of which had been purposefully stretched out almost to the point of making it unwearable. He had skin tight jeans on that were so full of homemade holes and simple boots that had just a bit of heel on them.

Kevin was wearing a grey t-shirt under a black jacket that was almost too nice to be seen in Edens, and Aaron was wearing a black shirt, black jeans, and a scowl.

Neil still looked uncomfortable in his outfit–in his skin. He fidgeted and then fidgeted trying to hide his fidgeting.

His blue eyes were distracting, and they caught Andrew’s attention every time they flicked around for exits or waitresses passing by. He looked ready to jump up and run at the drop of a hat. It was exhausting to watch.

Eventually the waiter came over and Nicky ordered for all of them, ice cream special, while Andrew stuffed the now empty cracker packets into the man’s apron. He noticed Blue-eyes flashing him a look.

Too bright too bright. The world bottomed out under Andrew again and he couldn’t suppress the shudder that wracked through him. He dropped his head into his hands to hide the trembling and dragged a long breathe through his shot feeling lungs.

It felt dangerous, like his lungs were made of wet paper and the slightest jerky breathe would rip them to shreds.

Again, Andrew found himself wishing they would just get it over with.

Kevin pulled a bottle of pills out of his pocket and set them on the table, halfway between himself and Andrew. “Just take it.”

Andrew went perfectly still as he stared at the bottle. “Fuck you.”

“You’re going through withdrawal.” Blue-eyes said stupidly, so Andrew ignored him.

“Put that away before I shove it down your throat.” Andrew snapped, fingers twitching too much and hands jerking around to just take them. Just take them and ease out of this sick feeling. The hysteria was preferable to this. Kevin frowned but did as he was told. Blue-eyes didn’t say anything else but Andrew could feel his gaze on him. Scrutinizing, just a bit curious.

Andrew couldn’t tell if that or the withdrawal was causing his skin to crawl.

When the waiter finally returned, passing out ice cream and dropping a pile of napkins in the middle of the table, Andrew had to force himself to not lunge across the table for the crackers hidden inside.

He scattered the napkins with shaking hands and fumbled for a few packets.

“We’re in public,” Aaron said. Andrew ignored him in favor of ripping open two bags and upending them into his mouth.

Nicky nudged Blue-eyes. “Try the ice cream. You’ll love it.”

Andrew reached to stuff the rest of the packets into his jacket pockets, but moving made his stomach bubble and roll like a rotten stew simmering wildly over too much heat.

He pressed a hand against his mouth and swallowed hard against the crackers trying to resurrect themselves in his throat. Then he ate ice cream to soothe the burning, sour taste of his mouth.

The crackers kicked in once he’d finished the icecream and he scraped the bottom of his bowl clean until he was sure his hands had stopped shaking. The headache eased and new energy rushed through his veins. It pumped him up and made his motions feel jerky and too quick, but at least the nausea was ignorable.

They paid, and then left, Nicky driving like he’d already taken crackers. He slowed to a jarring stop in front of the curb and everyone except Nicky got out, Aaron getting a parking pass from the muscle holding up the entrance to Eden’s. Blue-eyes watched Aaron give Nicky the pass and then followed Andrew, Kevin, and Aaron into the club, bypassing the line.

The doors opened and Andrew was hit all at once with Eden’s.

It was loud, bass booming so loud you couldn’t even hear the annoyingly repetitive lyrics the breathy female singer was crooning. It rattled his bones and jarred his teeth and he relaxed instantly. Eden’s was dark, with purple strobe lights and LEDs lining the bar on the far wall and the staircase leading to the indoor balcony on the second floor. People were wearing leather, chains, buckles, corsets, or just about nothing and sweat and pleather glistened in the flashing dark purple lights.

Eden’s was loud, it was sweaty, it was disgusting, and it was familiar. Andrew watched the tension bleed out of Kevin and Aaron’s forms exactly how it was bleeding from Andrew and took a breathe that finally felt alright.

Blue-eyes scanned the club, and then his eyes raked over their group, Andrew ignored him and lead them all through the first floor until they found a table empty of people. It had glasses on it and Andrew made quick work of clearing them and dumping them on someone else's table. Theirs was still sticky, and the barstools were just a bit too high and it felt almost like home.

Aaron wandered off to find more stools and Andrew waited until he got back to the table, giving he and Kevin a meaningful look to not move before dragging Blue-eyes away towards the bar. Blue-eyes stumbled for a moment, but recovered quickly.

Andrew caught Roland’s eyes, he grinned and hurriedly finished with the customer he was helping. Andrew let his eyes wander over Rolands frame. He was wearing nothing other than a leather vest and Eden’s signature tight black jeans. Tanned skin and short dark hair catching the purple strobe lights and bright white teeth glowing from behind the bar.

Andrew pondered the idea of pulling Roland into the back room for a moment before the delt with Blue-eyes, and then sighed as he pushed the thought aside.

He didn’t need to give Blue-eyes any chance to run off quite yet.

When Roland finally made his way over he raised a brow and kept his gaze on Blue-eyes as he talked, “Back so soon, Andrew? Who’s your newest victim?” He flicked his eyes from Blue-eyes to the back room with a small smirk. Andrew gave gave him an unimpressed look so Roland quirked a brow.

“A nobody,” Andrew said, he had no intention of using the room for anyone tonight. “It’s the usual for us.” That made Roland’s quirked brow raise and his smile widen almost imperceptibly.

“And for you?” he asked, eyes flicking between Blue-eyes and Andrew. Andrew knew that he was asking Andrew if Blue-eyes was getting his own, special drink. Andrew didn’t correct him.

“I don’t drink,” Blue-eyes said.

“Soda, then,” Roland said with another small smile Andrew’s way, then he pushed away to put their order together. When he returned he had a tray of drinks, which he passed to Andrew, and then slid a glass of soda across the bar to Blue-eyes, who took it, and then followed Andrew back to the table.

“Cheers,” Nicky yelled, and they drank as one. Blue-eyes sipped his soda, with Nicky prodding him to keep drinking it and by the time they were done with the tray he was done with the soda. He followed Andrew without provocation this time, and Roland refilled the soda and the drinks before Blue-eyes could argue.

Andrew could tell the stuff Roland had put in his drinks was starting to catch up with him. Andrew had made sure it was only Ketamine Blue-eyes was drinking, and so far it had been small doses that he obviously hadn’t noticed. It wasn’t harmless, but Andrew knew Roland wasn’t stupid enough to dose Blue-eyes to death.

When the got back to the table Andrew dug the cracker packets from Sweeties out and passed them around. Every took one but Blue-eyes, who gave them all disproving looks.

“Cracker dust,” Nicky said as he ripped his packet open. “Heard of it? Tastes like sugar and salt and gives you a little rush. Sure you don’t want in?”

“Drugs are stupid.”

“Ouch,” Andrew said with a cold smile. “That’s judgmental.”

“I’m not going to apologize for thinking you’re being idiotic.” Oh, it’s definitely kicking in.

“Is your spine the spine of the righteous?” Andrew wondered, his smile widening just a bit as he watched all of Blue-eye’s edges start to peel away. His usually so carefully placed filter was melting away and Andrew was interested to see what he was hiding beneath.

“Are you trying your best to step on my toes because you're feeling the tragic weight of the holier than thou?”

“Righteousness is for people who don’t know any better.” Very fun Blue-eyes, you’re fun when you’re not boring.

“Easy, easy,” Nicky said, distributing shots around the table. This time Roland had put Blue-eye’s soda in a shot glass, and he’d upped the amount of Special K. Things were about to get fun.

Nicky set it down in front of Neil. “Dust isn’t bad. It just makes the night more interesting. You think Kevin would risk his future over a night out at the club?”

“What future?” Blue-eyes asked, Andrew almost smiled. Kevin shot Blue-eyes a black look, but Nicky intervened before he could say anything.

“Drink with us if you won’t dust with us,” Nicky said, holding his open packet in one hand and his shot in the other. “Down the hatch on three.”

Nicky counted them down and Blue-eyes seemed resigned to the ‘fake’ shot. On three he downed it, but as soon as the liquid hit his tongue his eyes went wide and he went to spit it out, no doubt catching on to the bitter taste of the drugs it had been laced with.

Blue-eyes lunged to his feet and Andrew grabbed him by his hair and slammed him back into his seat. A cruel twist pulled Blue-eye’s head back at a dangerous angle, and Andrew slammed his hand flat against the tabletop. Blue-eyes lifted his other hand to pry Andrew’s fingers off, but Nicky caught his wrist.

“Just noticed, did you?” Andrew asked. “You’re an idiot.”

“Y-you—” Blue-eyes sputtered. Eyes wide and nostrils flaring with equal parts panic and rage.

“Did you think you were safe because you were up there ordering your own drinks? Roland knows what it means when I bring outsiders here.” Blue-eyes wrenched his hand out from under Andrew’s, but Andrew gave his head a warning yank. He hissed in pain and went still. Andrew slid out of his chair and leaned against him, letting Blue-eyes take his weight while he checked his eyes. “Almost there,” he said. “Give it a minute and then it’ll really hit. Until then, why don’t you go have a little fun? The night is still young.”

He let go of Blue-eyes, who lunged forward like he was going to strangle Andrew, but Aaron yanked his stool out from under him and sent him sprawling on the ground. He reached down to grab him but Blue-eyes swiped shakily, it took both Aaron and Nicky to get him up and drag him down to the dance floor. Andrew watched them leave for a moment, and then turned his back on the floor and grabbed another cracker packet.

“This seems unnecessary,” Kevin said, his face was pale and it made the 2 on his cheek stand out more.

“You knew what was happening, you didn’t stop it, it’s a bit late for a conscious Kevin,” Andrew said, it made Kevin flinch.

“Well I–”

“You what? You want me to let him run around and keep his secrets? You might as well call off the deal if that’s the case,” Andrew snapped, and Kevin’s jaw clenched and his eyes brimmed with panic.

“No–no that’s not what I want,” he said quickly.

“His secrets might be harmless, but they also might be studded with raven feathers and I’m not willing to take that chance, so shut up and drown you liver.” Kevin did.

Andrew downed another shot and then pushed away from the table, he made his way to the dance floor and spotted Nicky and Aaron on opposite sides with Blue-eyes stumbling his way out of the crowd. He shoved through until he found him, and then pushed Blue-eyes out of the dancing mob and against the wall, pinning his shoulder in place.

Blue-eyes glared at him through hooded eye-lids, and Andrew could see his pupils blown wide.

“Such ingratitude,” Andrew said. “Those drinks were expensive.”

“I hate you,” he hissed back.

“Take a number and get in line with the rest of this team. I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

“Don’t sleep. I’ll kill you.” That made Andrew smile, Blue-eyes sounded so sure, so serious, it made Andrew wonder how he’d do it.

“Will you?” Andrew asked. “Will you do it yourself, or will you pay someone else to handle the mess? You certainly have enough money to outsource it to a proper hit man. One wonders what a no-one like you is doing with such a fortune.”

“I found it on the sidewalk.”

“Really,” Andrew drawled. “Is that why you won’t spend it, or do you just like looking like a homeless person? The team is split, you know. Most of them think you’re trailer trash like Dan. Renee knows better. So do I. I think you’re something a little more like us.” Andrew leaned toward him and enunciated every syllable. “Runaway.”

Andrew didn’t miss the flinch at that.

“Mind your own business.”

“Tonight is Mind Neil’s Business Night,” Andrew said. “Didn’t you notice? Give me something real or I won’t let you stay here.”

“This isn’t your team. It isn’t your say.”

“Don’t tempt me to prove you wrong. How about I call the police and ask them to run a real check on you? You think they’ll find anything interesting?”

“That’s a hollow threat,” Neil said. “The police would never do favors for someone like you.” Again that made Andrew smile, he was slowly unraveling Neil Josten and he couldn’t stop finding goodies hidden in the blood-stained yarn.

“I know a cop who would,” Andrew said, it was still a hollow threat, he didn’t want to deal with Higgins unless he had to, but he’d found something that was rubbing Neil the wrong way and hell if he wasn’t going to latch on and ride it out. “If I called him tonight and told him you’re a serious problem child, he’d make it a priority. How cold is your trail?”

“Shut up,” Neil said. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”

“Because I don’t trust the way you look at Kevin,” Andrew said. “Edgar Allen is in our district and you are on my team. You, a know-nothing from Arizona who somehow managed to catch Kevin’s eye. You, a lie from head to foot, with a bag full of money and a hard-on for everything Kevin and Riko. Do you understand?” Andrew said, cocking his head slightly to make sure his point was getting across.

“I’m not a mole. Are you kidding me?” Neil said, he sounded sincere, but Andrew knew he’d probably lie about the shoes on his feet if he thought it would save his skin.

“Prove it,” Andrew said. “You take a minute to think it over. Think how badly you want to try my patience right now. I’ll be back.”

Andrew pushed away from the wall and slipped into the crowd. He caught Nicky’s eye and jerked a finger back at Neil, who was still leaning against the wall and Nicky nodded. Something in his eyes almost made Andrew want to catch Aaron instead, but he shoved the feeling down as paranoia and went back to the table.

Kevin looked on his way to blackout, but he gave the spot to Andrew’s right an expectant, hopeful look.

“He’s thinking his options over,” Andrew said, and Kevin guzzled another shot like it was oxygen. When he slammed it down he opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but then his eyes focused on something on the dancefloor.

“I dunno Andrew,” he said, and Andrew scowled at him but turned around in time to see one of the security hovering on the edges of the dancefloor stuff something in his pockets and then deck the rabbit, who dropped like a sack of potatoes.

Oh Neil, you’re not helping your case.

Chapter Text

“Get up.” Andrew said, kicking the sleeping form of Kevin, who’d passed out on the couch in the living room. Kevin groaned, so Andrew shoved him off the couch and then kept walking to the upstairs bedrooms where Aaron was sleeping–ignoring the growling remarks from Kevin.

Andrew knocked on his brothers door once, before he started to push the door open, but Aaron opened it, awake and scowling.

“What?” he snapped, Andrew didn’t even have the energy to glare.

“Kevin and I are getting food, don’t let anyone run off,” he said, mostly meaning Neil, but a hungover Nicky lost in Columbia wouldn’t be any better for Andrew’s headache.

He hadn’t bothered to take his pills this morning, and his head was trying to rip itself apart in a vicious protest. Luckily he hadn’t had too much to drink the night before, so the nausea was manageable.

Aaron’s scowl deepened, “whatever,” he hissed, slamming the door. Andrew just turned and went back downstairs to find Kevin asleep again, just now on the floor.

“Kevin, up, now,” he said, and Kevin groaned again but pushed himself up. He stumbled like some kind of zombie after Andrew and collapsed into the backseat of the car so he could lay down and start snoring again.

Andrew punched the dial on the radio and it blasted to life, bass rattling the car and Kevin screamed, covering his ears and moaning about his head exploding. Andrew ignored him, lighting a cigarette and rolling down the window for the brush of cool air against his feverish skin.

He drove until he spotted a fast food sign, and then pulled over, gesturing for Kevin to do the ordering. Lucky for Kevin, he was smart enough to bite back his usual bitching about carbs and unhealthy meals.

Andrew wasn’t in the mood to hear his harping, he wasn’t in a mood to hear anything actually, except an explanation from a certain blue-eyed mystery.

Last night hadn’t answered any of Andrew’s questions, it had just brought up more. Now Andrew just knew he was hiding something, and whatever it was, itt was big enough that the little rabbit didn’t want to risk spilling enough he paid for someone to shut him up.

He’d been vehement about not being associated with the Ravens, or Riko, but Andrew had a feeling that wasn’t the whole truth.

“–Andrew, hey, pull forward,” Kevin grumbled, leaning forward from the back seat. Andrew blinked out of his thoughts and pulled the car to the next window, far enough that Kevin could lean through his back window and deal with the peppy service person.

He needed to come up with a better way to get answers out of Josten. Blackmail would probably be the best option, but in order to blackmail him he’d need information and then he was back to square one. Besides, the rabbit would probably just dart if he though Andrew had anything on him.

He pulled forward to the pickup window before Kevin could prompt him again, and when the guy handed the food over he threw it in the back and then slammed the gas into the floor. His head kicked up as he peeled out of the mostly empty parking lot and into the main road again, hands gripped and knuckles white on the steering wheel.

Kevin screeched his disapproval and pointedly buckled his seatbelt but quieted himself with the apple slices he’d ordered.

Andrew felt annoyance creep into his chest. He needed to figure Josten out, and Josten was making that very difficult. Vaguely he wondered if he should involve Renee, he’d picked up on Josten’s aversion to her and Andrew knew from personal experience she’d prove him right. But then he’d also have to deal with her annoying preaching and passive aggression.

So no, Renee was out. Blackmail was out.

Fuck, what else is there?

He ran out of time though, since he jolted back into reality as the car jerked to a stop in front of the house. Andrew got out, leaving Kevin to juggle the bags of food and slammed through the front door. Nicky and Aaron looked over at him from where they were in the kitchen, Nicky making coffee and Aaron glaring at him over a cup of it.

“Where is he,” Andrew asked, having to keep the anger out of his voice so he stayed emotionless. He didn’t need Josten think he had anything on him, the rabbit needed to keep thinking Andrew was in control and not slipping out of it.

“Showering,” Nicky said, pointing upstairs. Andrew made his way up and then started pounding on the door. When there was no response he narrowed his eyes on the door.

“If you don’t answer I’m coming in,” he warned. Still nothing aside from the sound of running water in the shower. So Andrew took a step back and kicked the door in. The frame didn’t stand much of a chance–which wasn’t a comforting sight–but inside was worse.

Empty.

Andrew yanked the curtain back to find an empty shower and turned around to see the open window. For a moment he could imagine Josten squeezing out it, that thought was almost impressive, but then Nicky made the mistake of poking his head into the bathroom.

“Oh my god–” Andrew shoved past him right as his phone started to ring, Andrew pulled it out, Boyd’s number flashed at him so he just stuck his phone back into his pocket, pulling a cigarette out instead.

“We’re leaving, now,” Andrew said, leaving Nicky to stammer and search the bathroom like he’d find the rabbit tucked away under the sink.

“He stuffed the club clothes in the toilet!” Nicky yelled down as Andrew entered the kitchen, it caused Aaron and Kevin to furrow their brows and look to him in question. “How did he even fit out??” Nicky yelled again.

“Where’s Neil?” Kevin asked, standing up like he was going to search upstairs with Nicky.

“Squeezed out the window, like toothpaste,” Andrew said, stubbing his cigarette out in the sink once his lungs were full. He turned back to find Kevin pale and Aaron looking indifferent, despite agreeing to make sure everyone stayed in the house.

What did you expect?

“What’s that mean?” Kevin demanded, Andrew gave him a flat look.

“What do you think Kevin?” he drawled. Kevin’s jaw tightened.

“He can’t run, we’ve got games coming up.”

“Why don’t you tell him that? Oh wait–” Andrew said, Kevin scowled at him and then raced upstairs, like Andrew was lying. Andrew sighed and met his brothers eyes. He didn’t even bother wasting breath on explaining his annoyance. Aaron looked away, anger and guilt brewing in his eyes as he pretended he didn’t know what was bugging Andrew.

“Fuck off,” he hissed, taking his coffee and sulking back to his room.

Shit,” Nicky appeared in the kitchen, holding his phone, “Andrew Matt’s calling me, do you think he picked him up?” Andrew made a coffee, Nicky realized he wasn’t getting an answer and picked up the call.

“Matt hey–fuck, what? No relax we didn’t–no! No we just–I swear Andrew just wanted to–Matt?” Nicky looked at his phone guiltily, and then back up to Andrew. “He hung up–fuck–he said Neil called him,” that made Andrew raise a brow. “Matt’s pissed,” Nicky continued, sounding worried.

Andrew waved his hand to dismiss it. It took them far too long to get back in the car and drive back to Palmetto. Andrew was torn between keeping his eyes our a hitchhiking rabbit and preparing to console Kevin when Neil ran and never came back.

“Why did you have to do that? We could have just–” Kevin started, they were in the elevator, Nicky fidgeting, Kevin glaring, and Aaron fuming because Andrew made him take the elevator with them. He didn’t want to risk Boyd or anyone mistaking Aaron for Andrew and doing something that would make Andrew’s day more difficult that it already was. Andrew cut Kevin off by slamming his shoulder against the wall and digging a finger into his chest.

“You haven’t argued with my methods this whole year, now that it conflicts with your precious exy you think you’ve grown the balls to stand up? Fine then Kevin, here’s a new deal, stop whining or I stop our deal,” Andrew snapped, his headache was pounding in his temples now and he wanted to sit on the roof and pretend he never had to use his voice again. Kevin paled.

“No that’s–I don’t want that, ple–”

“Don’t you dare,” Andrew said, tightening his grip on Kevin’s shoulder until he hissed. “Deal Kevin?” he asked, and when Kevin nodded Andrew dropped his hand right as the elevator dinged, announcing their arrival at the floor. The doors slid open and immediately Matt Boyd was out of his room, storming down the hall. Andrew didn’t have the energy to deal with him so before Boyd could do anything Andrew slipped one of the knives out of his sleeve and pressed it against Boyd’s abdomen.

Andrew you–Fuck!” Boyd swore, jumping back as he felt the blade against his ribs, but Andrew just moved forward, keeping the pressure until Boyd hit a wall and froze.

Andrew leaned up to his face and lowered his voice, “I don’t have the energy, to deal with your big brother act today Boyd, if I were you, I’d avoid speaking to me at all.”

“You fucking psycho–”

Andrew pressed harder, and Boyd shut up, “You should get that hearing impairment looked at Boyd, left unchecked it could cause a lot of problems, don’t you think?” Andrew threw up a grin, pretending his drugs were flowing through him like they should be.

“Yeah, sure, fucking sure,” Boyd hissed, glaring down at Andrew, who put his blade away right as the door to the girl’s room opened and Renee stepped into the hallway.

“Andrew, did you have fun this weekend?” she asked, pleasant as always. Renee’s eyes flicked around the scene in the hallway, before landing back on Andrew.

“Mmm, so much. Renee it’s an especially fun day today, you should keep all your little ducklings tucked under your wing and out of view of the scary monster with knives at his disposal,” he said, Renee nodded seriously.

“Matt,” she said, tone just as intense. Matt grumbled something about Andrew’s lot needing to look for Neil, but was smart enough to follow Renee’s summon and he disappeared into the dorm. “Later?” Renee asked, alluding to their recent affliction for beating each other into the mats of Palmetto’s gym after hours. Andrew let his smile slip since it was just them and the rest of his lot in the hall.

“Depends on if we’re missing another fox by the end of the day,” he said, brushing past her and going into his room, where he promptly pulled out a cigarette and sat in the window of the bedroom with the door locked.

Around 5 in the afternoon he got another call, this one from Wymack. Andrew sighed, but stubbed his twelth cigarette out next to the others–which were forming a demented looking smiley face–and picked up the phone.

“You have five seconds to get your psycho ass to my apartment! You even think about telling me no and I swear to god I’ll throw Kevin's contract down a garbage disposal,” the man hissed as soon as the phone was up to Andrew’s ear. He hung up before Andrew could say anything, not that he was going to, and Andrew sighed again. He jumped out of the window and only paused in the living room to pointedly single Nicky out to make sure Kevin stayed put instead of Aaron, who was sitting on the couch with them both.

Aaron scowled, “He climbed out a window Andrew how was I supposed to–” Andrew didn’t hear the rest of his brother’s excuse, since he slammed the door behind him.

The drive was short, which was good because the speed he was going was making his stomach roll, but he couldn’t get his foot to lessen up on the gas. Wymack was waiting outside his apartment, arms crossed and fury written across his face as he watch Andrew leisurely stroll from his car to the door.

“Yeah, take all the time you need, why not you fucking cretin,” he growled, shoving the door open so Andrew could go in first. Everything in Andrew wanted to turn the other way and run. Letting an angry, older man who was bigger than him at his back made Andrew’s skin crawl and his mind flick through a pinwheel of images and perfect reasons why that was a bad idea. But Andrew gritted his teeth, reminded himself that it was Wymack, and forced himself to stay completely blank as he walked in.

In his momentary lapse he’d lost the first part of Wymack’s rant, but he zoned back in enough to catch the gist.

“–hitchhiked all the way back from Columbia!? All the way Andrew! I know you know exactly what could have happened to him on that fucking trip and you’re a son of a bitch for giving him any reason to think of it as a viable option you hear me?!” Wymack ranted, voice raised. Andrew just gave him a blank look.

“I didn’t make him crawl out a window,” he said unapologetically. Wymack blinked at him and then sucked in a deep breathe as he ran his hand down his face.

“He climbed out a–fuck what did I do to deserve this–” he muttered under his breath. That was when Andrew caught the rabbit, standing in the hall behind Wymack. His hair was damp, and his annoying brown eyes were back, along with the oversized clothes that appeared to actually be Wymack’s.

“Have a nice stroll?” Andrew asked, interrupting Wymack’s tirade.

Neil returned his cold stare with a heated, “Fuck you.” Wymack snapped his fingers in front of Andrew’s face, trying to get Andrew to look at him instead of Neil.

“I don’t know what the beef is between you two, but it ends here and now. Abby and I made it clear we wouldn't tolerate a repeat of last year, Andrew.”

“This isn't a repeat,” letting just the tip of the annoyance he was feeling creep into his words. It wasn’t a repeat because Neil wasn’t hooked on drugs like Matt had been. Matt had been an easy threat, one with an easy solution, Neil Josten was a mystery problem with no apparent solution aside from rolling his body into a rug and tossing him into the ocean in pieces. “We barely gave him anything. You think he’d have made it back here on his own otherwise?”

“Don't ‘barely’ me. What the fuck were you thinking?”

“What were you thinking, bringing him here?”

“Coach,” Neil said suddenly, cutting off Andrew and Wymack’s conversation, and drawing both their eyes back to him, “I need to talk to Andrew for a minute, can we use your office?”

“No,” Wymack said. “I don’t trust you two not to kill each other, so you’re staying right here until this is resolved.” Andrew was about to argue, not about the killing each other part–because he was honestly starting to think about it–but then Neil Josten turned to him and started speaking German.

“What the hell is your problem? How can you threaten Nicky for coming onto me but condone drugging me out of my mind against my will? Why can’t you just leave me alone?” It wiped all annoyance out of Andrew’s system and replaced it with pesky interest and a new prick of danger. His accent was much better than Andrew or Aaron’s, even Nicky’s, sounding closer to Erik’s and it took a minute longer than Andrew liked for him to process Neil’s snapping words.

“That’s unexpected. Did no one tell you I hate surprises?”

“What makes you think I care?”

“How many languages do you speak, runaway?”

Neil ignored that. “Tell me why you did that.”

“I already did,” Andrew said. “I’m still waiting for your answer.”

“I answered you. I told you I’m not a mole. You’re insane if you think I am.”

“Then correct me.”

“Give me a reason.”

“Besides the obvious?” Andrew said. “If I can’t get an answer from you, I’ll get it wherever I can. How about I start with your parents?”

“Good luck,” Neil said, feeling cold all over. “They’re dead.”

Well that certainly made things more difficult.

And more interesting. “Did you kill them?”

Neil looked taken aback by the casualness of Andrew’s tone, but then he narrowed his eyes, “Did you kill yours?”

Andrew gave a dismissive flick of his fingers. “I don’t have parents.”

Neil looked like he was assessing Andrew’s answer, and eventually he spoke, “I didn’t kill my parents,” he started, swallowing hard and clenching his shaking hands. Andrew thought for a moment it was from anger, but then he realized it was fear. “Riko’s family did.”

Jackpot. Andrew raised a brow in interest and gestures for Neil to continue. He took a breath before he went on, looking like he had to physically drag each word out of his mouth.

Hmmm, maybe I am just confronting another addict. This time it’s just truth instead of the hangover from Speedballs.

“My father was a gopher for a group who did business with the Moriyamas. In the grand scheme of things he wasn’t worth much, but he knew a lot of names and he knew how to move product. He did some business out of Edgar Allen, which is how I met Kevin and Riko. I didn’t know who they were back then. I was just excited to meet kids my age. I thought we were going to be friends.

“Then my father started getting cocky, started getting stupid, and tried skimming from payments. He took Moriyama money that was meant for his boss. They found out, of course. The Moriyamas executed him and my mother before his boss could get to him. I took what he’d stolen and ran. I’ve been running ever since.”

A grin slipped it’s way across Neil’s face. The grin of someone who’d seen violence and pain and come out the other side of it a little too broken to be inspirational. Andrew watched him impassively as he tried to scrape the smile off his face, and when it didn’t Andrew own lips twitched in half sympathy.

“I’m lucky Kevin doesn’t recognize me,” Neil said. “I don’t know if he even remembers meeting me, but I remember him. Seeing him helps me remember my parents. He’s all I have left of my real life. But if Kevin or Riko recognizes me and word makes it back to my father’s boss, I know what will happen to me.” Nothing painless was the obvious end of that sentence, lost with Neil’s fleeting nerve.

Andrew scanned Neil, waiting for a tick or something to disprove what he was saying. Waiting for the liar to slip up and reveal himself. When he didn’t, Andrew moved until he was standing right in front of Neil, ignoring the way Wymack tensed like he was expecting a fight.

“Then why did you come here?” Andrew asked.

“Because I’m tired,” Neil said, sounding defeated. “I have nowhere else to go, and I’m too jealous of Kevin to stay away from him. He knows what it’s like to hate every day of his life, to wake up afraid every day, but he’s got you at his back telling him everything’s going to be okay. He has everything, even when he’s lost everything, and I’m—" Neil swallowed, like he didn’t want to admit it, "—nothing. I’ll always have and be nothing."

Andrew reached up and forcibly uncurled Neil’s fingers from his mouth. He pushed Neil’s hand out of the way and stared Neil down with nothing between them. He was transfixed with how honesty looked on Neil, raw and just inches away from shattered. He looked like he’d been hanging off the ledge for so long, but instead of talking himself into enjoying the fall, he’d just forced himself to find comfort in the danger.

“Let me stay,” Neil said quietly. “I’m not ready to give this up yet.”

Andrew forced his expression to clear and turn to stony indifference as he let go of Neil. “Keep it if you can. You and I both know it won’t last long.” Talking in part about Neil’s lie, and in part about feeling any sense of comfort in holding onto something so tightly for so long.

“I’ll be gone by our match against Edgar Allen,” Neil said. “I don’t look now how I looked then, but I can’t risk Riko’s family recognizing me.”

“Such an unexpected will to survive from someone who has nothing to live for. Next time we have a little heart-to-heart like this, maybe I’ll ask you to justify that.”

“Let’s not talk like this ever again.”

“Let’s not,” Andrew agreed. Neil hesitated, then asked, “Are you going to tell Kevin?”

“Don’t ask me stupid questions.” Neil let out a long breath of relief, and for a moment Andrew thought he was just going to collapse in the hallway. He managed to stay standing though and the grateful look he gave Andrew just made him wonder what it would look like on his blue eyes.

“We’re leaving,” Andrew said in English, before he could chase that tail of thought any further.

Neil blinked, “Where are we going?”

“Back to the dorm,” Andrew said. “Your teammates have been annoying us ever since we got back, demanding we return to Columbia and scour the streets in search of you.”

“He can stay here if he wants,” Wymack said carefully, looking between Neil and Andrew. Andrew only saw him out of the corner of his eye though, eyes still locked on Neil’s. “I can call Dan to let her know he’s safe.”

Andrew didn’t move his eyes, “Neil wants to come with me.” Neil didn’t even blink.

“Thanks for the shower,” Neil said to Wymack. “I’ll wash your clothes and bring them back on Monday.”
Wymack glanced between them, obviously wondering if they’d really settled things that easily, and said, “No rush.”

“Going now,” Andrew said, and led Neil out.

Chapter Text

Classes, exy, Betsy.

Betsy b e t s y Bee.

Trainwreck’s too screwy to focus this session, but Bee’s got that crease between her eyebrows that means she knows something’s up.

Well, Betsy, if you’re so smart then why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?

Diagnosis how about? Tell me what’s wrong, point out the boo-boo, just don’t kiss it better, that’ll make it worse. Too fucked up in the head for affection and love to be soothing anymore, now it’s all just a slap in the face.

Whack whack whack.

Oh look, there’s blue-eyes–brown-eyes–Mr. Lies, Count Panic, staring again little rabbit.

What’s so fascinating about the monster huh? Not too scared at the thought of being gobbled up? Not afraid of big pointy teeth but oh boy watch out for those mirrors.

What’s haunting you rabbit?

Sure go ahead Kevin drag the flight risk to night practices, it’s not your head the lights in the stadium make feel like it’s being cracked open with a chisel.

At least here it’s too bright for shadows, for creepers and phantom hands reaching out from the fucked up corners of my mind.

Oh wait, it’s not corners, who are you kidding Trainwreck? Your whole mind’s fucked.

And your body.

Hahahahahahhahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahaha–

Chapter Text

“How much do I have to pay you to tell me all the details of you and Neil’s meeting?”

“Nothing Andrew, you know I don’t talk about clients with anyone.”

“Shame, you’re enabling me Bee, making me result to more drastic methods to find information on the little newbie.”

“I’m not enabling anything Andrew, how would you feel if I sold out your private information?”

“I’d probably laugh, and then slit your throat, all I can do lately is laugh.”

“I’m working on that Andrew, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry means nothing to me.”

“I’m working on it, I promise.”

Chapter Text

“GOOOOOOOOOO FOXES!!!” the screeching of peppy cheerleaders or especially devoted feeling students followed Andrew and the rest of the Foxes around through their classes. They were easy to pick out, having to wear their jerseys on game-days. All the foxes had their home jerseys on, which meant more white than orange, opposite of Andrew’s.

Andrew didn’t feel like wearing orange, not when he was already so surrounded by the garish color bleeding into his head and flashing behind his eyelids at every chance. But he also didn’t have the energy to fight with Coach when he inevitably shredded his jersey out of boredom. And, without a jersey he couldn’t play, and if he couldn’t play he’d have to stay on the drugs.

That would be a real shame, since he’d spent all this time adjusting to skipping a dose.

It had been weeks since Andrew had been sober, just a constant loop of high high high and fall fall fall. He wasn’t willing to miss this chance, even if it meant he’d have to be playing stickball.

Andrew was sober by the time the Foxes loaded onto the bus and were shipped to the stadium, wading through traffic and hawk-like press and already drunken fans. Andrew was relieved he wasn’t high, because if he had been all the bright flashing color and screaming loud crowds would have had him laughing to no end.

He ignored it all, walking past the guards checking for illegal substances at the door without pausing. Someone spoke up to stop him, but he just ignored them and kept moving, going into the changing room and forcing himself to stay standing and not crumple down onto the benches like his body ached for him to do.

His fingers twitched for a cigarette and his eyes burned to be shut, but he ignored both, just clutching his gear tighter. He changed out in the shower stalls, feeling too much like the little rabbit but unwilling to change in front of the team without his armbands. Self inflicted scars make people pity you, and Andrew didn’t want pity, he wanted peace of mind and for ibuprofen to be enough to stop his pounding headache.

The only reason he felt secure enough to even think about leaving his blades tucked away in the dorms, was because he didn’t plan on letting go of his heavy racquet all night.

The rest of the Foxes filed in after he’d changed shirts and left the shower stall. The long sleeved, tight underlayer more than enough coverage. Andrew got out just in time to see Kevin drag Neil out onto the court. Out to show him off like Kevin’s new baby fledgeling, his new little mini-Day, the Court bound nobody from Millport Arizona.

Wow, he’s gonna be a hit with the media, I’m sure brown-eyes’ll love that.

When they came back Neil looked sharpened by determination. If Andrew had the energy he probably would have laughed. The only thing to get the little rabbit’s will up was a sport. That was disappointing, it would have been far more entertaining if he was an obsessive murderer, or a slut. Or a slut murderer.

“Are you done wasting my oxygen yet?” Wymack asked. “Let’s get moving. We’re on home court for warm-up. We’re doing simple relay shots first, Andrew and Renee twice through each. Andrew, keep them on our side. You hit a single practice shot onto the Jackals’ side of the court when they’re warming up and I won't start you until second half.”

Andrew only vaguely heard Wymack’s preamble, he was too busy staring at a tile on the wall and staring into the frozen picture in his head of Neil’s real eyes, the blues that looked vicious and deadly.

That look had been nothing like this one. This, with the dull brown was all determination and barely contained excitement. That one had been raw and pure ready-to-die-in-a-fight grit. Don’t Notice Me, I Bite to I Dare You, I Bite.

Andrew decided he prefered the blue, not that it was a stunning revelation–or something he should let his mind wander around.

The crowd cheered for them deafeningly as the Foxes left the changing rooms and lapped the court. The other’s bathed in it, soaking up the attention and beaming or gritting their teeth in fierce excitement.

Andrew was bored, and he didn’t have the energy to decipher Neil’s expression through his helmet, especially since it was probably just the boring brown-eyed, I’ve-got-a-Kevin-Day-level-Hard-on-for-exy gleam.

Boring.

Just like the game.

Andrew mostly just watched and tried not to yawn as the Foxes clashed with the Jackals. It was a relatively bloodless fight, at least compared to other–more entertaining–matches Andrew had seen. With mostly Kevin running around them and Matt blocking everyone. Nicky looked like he’d lost his head as he scrambled to keep up with Kevin and shove past his mark. Aaron was keeping up commendable with Matt, but Matt was obviously more enthusiastic, throwing himself around and bashing without hesitation against the Jackal strikers.

They still managed to get bowled over though, leaving Andrew to bat the stray balls away.

Everything turned into streaks of orange and the sounds of court shoes scuffing the ground while feet pounded down the court. All of the cacophony punctuated with the clack of sticks and the curses of frustrated and sweaty players.

Andrew yawned.

And then, from across the court he heard the tell tale smash of a body against the court wall. He lifted his eyes to make sure it wasn’t Kevin getting smashed, but recognized it at Seth.

The man struggled to get up, Wymack appearing over his shoulder from behind the wall in seconds but it didn’t help Seth get his legs back. The stubborn ass didn’t give in though, which meant Kevin had two backliners racing after him. Andrew braced himself mostly to jump in when Kevin got himself pummeled, and also to protect the goal.

Luckily for the Foxes though, Seth picked up his IQ off the floor and signaled he needed to be subbed. He was half-carried half-dragged off court where Allison grabbed him and lowered him to the bench. Andrew looked to where Wymack was clapping Neil on the shoulder, causing Neil to jump almost comically, before lunging for the door and jogging out on the court.

Andrew could tell from his jumpy pace he was forcing himself to slow down on his way out.

Fucking junkie.

Dan passed him, grinning through her helmet and clacking sticks with Neil as she said something no doubt rousing and inspiring. Once she left the backliners crowding Neil spoke up, and the only thing Andrew paid attention to was the brief mention of ‘cripple.’

He smashed his racquet against the wall of the court, making sure to remind them not to try anything lest they be suddenly craving an early death.

Surprisingly, Neil shot Andrew a smug look over his shoulder, and for a moment Andrew could almost imagine his blue’s making the face instead.

He shook his head out and gritted his teeth, he could already feel himself flagging, his limbs getting heavier and his eyes harder to keep open, he needed something to distract him.

“Hey Pinocchio,” he called, pointedly not looking for Neil to turn back and look at him with his brown eyes. “Time to run. This one’s for you,” he said, bouncing the ball off the floor and smacking it with his racquet as hard as he could. The ball sailed down the court and Neil was gone.

He moved like a flash, racing after the ball and weaving through players. He got to the other end of the court before anyone else could react, and jumped to catch the ball as it bounced off the back wall. Kevin’s mark jolted into action and went to stop him, but he bounced out of her reach, hitting the ground running.

Finally the other team reacted, and players converged on Neil like a swarm of bees to an attacker. Kevin’s mark stepped in front of Neil again, and for a moment Andrew thought he was going to be an idiot and try to run through her, but instead he landed right in front of her, twisting at the last second and passing to Dan.

The ball bounced around, going to Kevin, then back to Dan, back to Kevin, to Dan, then Gorilla bowled Kevin over and the ball was back over in Andrew’s territory.

He just kept batting the ball away, almost relieved for something to do aside from stand and watch Neil run. Speaking of Neil, Andrew caught another glimpse of him down the court, watching stormily at the barrage Andrew was dealing with. It almost made him smile, until the same girl–Leverett–that had blocked Neil before got in his face. He pushed her back with one finger, keeping his temper behind a locked door that Andrew needed the key to.

He didn’t realize he’d been ready to leave the goal to break up that fight until the girl stormed off and another ball flew at Andrew.

When the Foxes finally got the ball back Aaron stumbled, calling out to Neil and firing the ball off towards him. Neil was after it in half a second, but Leverett was there waiting for him, she swung her racquet at Neil’s, trying to throw off the catch, but Neil twisted out of her way again. The twist looked painful, but Neil managed to keep it up, snagging the ball and yanking it close to him before she could whack it out of his grasp.

He took a split second to gather his bearings, and then let her steal the ball, before bulldozing through her and knocking her on her ass. He stole the ball back, sprinting his ten steps before passing to Kevin, who just got his racquet knocked out of his hands by Gorilla.

Shit. Andrew had been paying so much attention to Neil he hadn’t noticed Kevin. He was flinching, jolting around anytime someone so much as aimed their racquet in the direction of his. Andrew scowled, watching him drop the racquet again and scream for Matt to help get Gorilla off him.

Just as Andrew was about to call a timeout and send Kevin out himself, Matt dropped his mark to run over and punch Gorilla hard under his armor. Gorilla folded over, wheezing from the blow, but recovered himself quickly and started charging for Matt, who smartly started backing away fast.

Andrew was between them before he could think, and he stood completely still as Gorilla charged up at him, gesturing for him to move. Andrew didn’t, calling up one of his signature smiles and waited for Gorilla to strike first so he had a reasonable excuse to bash his head in with his racquet.

But all Gorilla did was breathe heavier and glare more, and Andrew was losing his patience, he was about to throw probable cause to the wind.

Then the referee’s whistle shrieked, Matt got a yellow card and left the court, Gorilla limped off as well and Andrew–slightly disappointed at the missed opportunity–turned and pointed to Kevin with a scowl, jerking his thumb towards the goal. Kevin hung his head slightly but met Andrew there, and Andrew stripped off his glove to check his wrist.

“If you’re going to drop the racquet every time someone breathes on you, get off,” Andrew snapped, twisting Kevin’s wrist around to gauge the injury. Kevin winced, and his shoulders sagged but he didn’t nod. Andrew squeezed his wrist until Kevin yelped. “You want to actually break it?” He asked sharply, his patience run through, Kevin seemed to realize this and shook his head sadly. Andrew nodded once and shoved his glove against Kevin’s chest, giving Kevin a last threatening stare to make sure he actually got off the court before he looked back out on the court.

Nicky and Seth stepped onto the court, replacing the two and the Foxes and Jackal’s lined up for a foul shot. Gorilla’s replacement missed, and Andrew sent the ball sailing down the court, watching as Neil streaked after it.

He was almost surprised when the goal lit up red, and even more annoyed when he found himself ready to crack Leverett’s head open when she wound up to swing at Neil. Lucky for her, she wisened up and put her racquet back down.

Neil managed another point before the end of the game, but Andrew only heard about it after, since he popped his pills at halftime and passed out on the bench with Renee close but carefully not touching.

Go Foxes.

Chapter Text

“What did you think of Neil?” Kevin asked, it was the third time he’d asked since Andrew had started wrapping his wrists and then strapping on the braces. The idiot had managed to overwork both of them, he hoped they’d be sore for a while so Kevin could realize how stupid he was being.

What’s the point of wrecking your wrists if you sobbed so hard the first time?

This is–it’s not the same Andrew.

Pray tell Kevin, this time it’s self harm instead of assault? I should tell Besty on you.

It’s not that! You–you of all people should know it’s not that…

No Kevin, that would insinuate I care about this meaningless stick-fest.

“I think he’s shifty, and if he’s dangerous, he’s not worth our time,” Andrew said finally, giving the braces a final glance to make sure he’d secured them correctly before standing up. Nicky had made coffee, since there was no way any Andrew or Kevin were getting sleep, if Kevin conked out they’d have to carry him to the bus tomorrow, and Andrew wasn’t willing to Weekend-at-Burnie’s the Ferdinand interview.

“But if he’s not?” Kevin prodded, annoyingly catching Andrew’s careful words. Andrew didn’t respond for a while, pouring himself a cup of coffee and dumping the rest of the admittedly pretty gross french vanilla creamer into the mug. He’d gotten it solely because Kevin had complained about it more than Andrew’s smoking.

“He’s fast,” Andrew admitted sparingly, adding a generous shot of the Johnny Walker he’d gotten from the game to his coffee before he turned to face Kevin again. He was still sitting on the couch, watching Andrew expectantly, maybe even hopefully, like he thought Andrew was going to snap and sing the little rabbits praises in some grand show that would absolve Kevin of all his doubts. Unfortunately for Kevin, Andrew didn’t have the energy to fix his horribly oxymoronic insecurity complex.

“I saw you watching him, you think he’s good,” Kevin said, his brow furrowed and his lips pursed. The pinched expression made the tattoo on his cheek rise a little. “Admit it, you wouldn’t have acknowledged him otherwise.”

“Unlike you Kevin, I can put aside my raging superiority complex for an hour.”

“That’s bullshit, you’re just avoiding answering because I’m right.”

“If you know it’s bullshit, then why do you need to hear me say it?” Andrew shot back, his patience wearing thin. It was late–or early, he realized, glancing to the clock, and he’d skipped dosing during the night with the excuse of not wanting to fuck up his sleep schedule. It meant every part of him ached from dry heaving hours earlier because he’d been too sick to eat. He was exhausted, but unwilling to cave in to it.

“Because–you–I just… you think he’s worth it right?” Kevin said, his voice hard with frustration and wavering ever so slightly from his insecurity. It was almost unrecognizable though, and if Kevin had managed to keep his glare on the floor instead of looking up to Andrew again, it might have fooled him. “It’s a good decision to keep him on.” To have brought him on in the first place. “He has potential, it just needs to be channeled correctly.”

“I think without him we wouldn’t qualify,” Andrew said, pushing off the counter and plopping down in the beanbags with his back to Kevin. He turned the TV on and sipped his coffee, flicking through the channels to something he could shut his brain off to. Kevin was silent behind him, and after a moment Andrew sighed. “He’s fast, and he’s an obsessed junkie just like you, either stop worrying or stop bothering me with it.”

******

Nicky and Aaron’s alarms came eight coffees and a half a pack of cigarettes later. He could hear the upperclassmen groaning through the walls as they pulled themselves out of bed after celebrating the game a bit too late.

Andrew heard the telltale pounding and yelling of coach rousing the team. He could imagine Josten’s flinch at the noise. He’d been thinking about it, and flicking through Josten’s symptoms instead of sleeping over the past couple weeks.

Aversion to generally everyone–particularly older men.

A buried posh attitude.

All the money and codes in the stalker binder.

Jumpy around loud noises.

He was scraping together a theory about the man, it was rough, and filled out by Josten’s story–which Andrew decided he should only half believe.

Neil–or whatever his real name was–probably grew up in a house with lots of money, enough that his father had the luxury of being explosive. But, Andrew also recognized Neil’s awareness of danger in quiet. That was all the danger Andrew had known, it was in the slight creak of floorboards and locks clicking shut. In whispers and WD40 to make sure squeaky beds stopped making noise.

Jumpiness around loud noises and cranky old men came from figuring out how to survive, and the attention to small details came from knowing how.

There was a lot that didn’t add up about Neil Josten, but Andrew realized suddenly that the main thing was him running. Specifically running alone.

Andrew almost could have believed that tiny blue-eyes had scraped by on the skin of his teeth and pure will, but he also knew abusive households. Thinking of Tilda, even Riko.

Even Cass.

He gritted his teeth. You don’t get yourself out of that kind of situation, someone else does. Abusers raise you to be completely dependent on them, and at the age Neil was implying he left, there was no way he could have even seen it as an option. Which meant Neil must’ve been lying about getting out on his own.

Either there was someone safer he ran to–which seemed unlikely–or someone took him.

Older sibling? Lying about the mother being dead?

Andrew blinked out of his thoughts as he left the dorm–his lot trailing after. He cast a cursory glance down the hall, spotting Wymack at Matt and Seth’s door, Neil was standing in it, watching their group with an analyzing, if tired looking, gaze.

The brown eyes were almost jarring to Andrew, who’d been envisioning only the blue’s all night.

Wymack pointed at Kevin. “How the hell did they wake you up?”

“They didn’t let me sleep.” Kevin sent Andrew a sour look, but Andrew ignored him.

“Smart,” Wymack said, and waved them toward the stairs. “Let’s go.”

Andrew led his group downstairs to the bus, they followed him to the back, where he forced himself to lower himself into the seat, forced himself to control how long he stayed awake before he fell asleep.

*******

It felt like he’d only blinked before something hit him and he jolted awake, arms flailing as he scrambled to get a wall at his back. When he opened his eyes and managed to gather himself enough to see his surroundings Wymack was staring at him.

“Give it back,” he said, Andrew gave him a flat look before looking down and spotting the overstuffed leather square sitting on the bus floor. He picked it up and handed it back, ignoring the raised eyebrow Wymack gave him. A question, he was too tired to decide if it was about Andrew being sober or not getting enough sleep. It was probably both anyways.

Wymack sighed minutely at him, but stuffed the wallet into his pocket once more and went up a row to Kevin. He planted his shoe against whatever part of Kevin was closest and started pushing him.

“Up,” he said over and over, getting louder each time until he was almost shouting. “Get your ass up and moving!” Kevin's hand darted into view as he tried to shove Wymack away. Wymack grabbed his elbow and hauled Kevin out of his chair into the aisle. Before Kevin could fall over Wymack pushed him back, dropping him heavily onto his cushion.

Kevin slumped against the back of his chair immediately, looking for all intents and purposes like he’d nod right back off. Wymack smacked the back of his head to wake him up.

“I hate you,” Kevin said with feeling. “Breaking news: I don’t care. This was your brilliant idea.”

Andrew almost gave Wymack’s back a look that said he was lucky Andrew was too tired to stab him for that. But he didn’t have the energy to lie.

Instead Andrew leaned to one side to rest against his window and looked out at the parking lot. They’d stopped outside some fast food place that looked to dingy to be a well known morning show host’s studio. “Are we here?”

“Close enough,” Wymack said. “You know what to do.” Andrew didn’t answer, but Wymack didn’t push it. Unlike everyone else it seemed, Wymack was smart enough to know when he was reaching the end of his luck. Instead of poking Andrew into taking his pills he turned back to Kevin, who was already drifting off again.

Wymack gave his shoulder a rough shake. Kevin slept through it, so finally Wymack dragged him out of his chair and sent him on laps up and down the length of the bus. Kevin was walking, but his eyes were barely open.

“Morning, sunshine,” Matt said with exaggerated cheer.

“Fuck you,” Kevin said. Dan yawned into her hand.

“Glad to see you’re still a morning person.”

“Fuck you too.” Kevin turned at the driver’s seat and headed to the back of the bus. He tried to sit down again, but Wymack turned him around with a hand on his shoulder. Kevin got the hint and kept making laps. Walking kept him awake but just barely.

After a while of watching him Andrew resigned himself to the fact that he couldn’t stay sober forever, and called out. “Kevin,” Andrew said, moving for the first time since he’d slumped against the window. Kevin was only halfway through his lap, but he pivoted at the sound of his name and went back. Wymack moved out of the way so Kevin could get to Andrew’s seat. Andrew watched as he dug the orange pill bottle out of his pocket and handed it up. Then Kevin and Wymack watched as Andrew tipped a pill into his hand and swallowed it dry.

Andrew knew, logically, that it would take at least fifteen minutes for the pills to kick in, but his cheeks were already aching from the uncontrollable smiles he was about to have to endure.

Abby and Renee were back a minute later with bags of food and trays of drinks. The Foxes munched on sausage biscuits and doughnuts. The coffee helped wake them up, as did the reminder they were about to meet one of the highest-rated talk show hosts in the nation. Dan, Matt, and Renee buzzed with excitement as the bus got on the road again.

Andrew just let their chatter roll over him and zoned out, relishing the last moments of tethered thinking before everything started floating away and got difficult again.

Andrew was high by the time they got to the two-storey building that housed Kathy Ferdinand’s daily show. Wymack parked by the security gate and got out to talk to the guard.

They got through and parked, then waited until Kathy herself appeared to greet them. She immediately bypassed the other foxes for the little prince himself.

“Kevin,” Kathy said, reaching for him. “It’s been so long. I’m so glad you could make it today.”

“It’s good to see you again,” Kevin said, and smiled as he took her hand. Andrew was torn between dry heaving and laughing at Kevin’s fake pleasantness. Behind Kathy's back, Dan feigned swooning into Matt’s arms.

Even Neil seemed annoyed by Kevin’s personable facade.

How hypocritical, the liar hates liars?

Thinking about Neil though made the world spin a little. Too many theories and possibilities and dangers and blue eyes swirled just below the surface of Neil. It made Andrew antsy, it seemed so easy to just pop him and watch as he bled answers, but Neil had proved to have tougher skin than it seemed.

Kathy turned her smile on the rest of the team. The morning sunshine glinted off perfect teeth only money could buy. “You were amazing last night. Kevin, you have the magic touch. This team has been doing so much better since you transferred.”

“They were already on their way up,” Kevin said. This seemed to shock Neil, who’s brow furrowed. Andrew’s lips curled up at that, his mind providing that snapshot of when he told Neil Kevin thinks he’s good. Shock and disbelief. Insecurity.

Boring.

“They deserve their Class I status. This year will prove it,” Kevin continued.

On and on and on and on, he likes us he likes us not, all I see are petals getting stomped into oils.

Ashes would be more poetic, orange, rising from tragedy.

What’s that bird called? Fawks?

Oh how perfect.

“Brilliant,” Kathy said, distracted. She’d just spotted Neil. The look in her eyes was hungry.

Mmm, I can relate. Andrew’s thoughts provided unhelpful images of Neil’s legs and slim figure. Of blue eyes.

He scattered them. Boring. He tried to tell himself.

I thought you didn’t lie? Who’s Pinocchio now, real boy?

“Neil Josten, good morning. I suppose you’ve already heard the good news? As of eleven o’clock last night, your name is the third-highest search string for NCAA Exy strikers. That puts you right after Riko and Kevin. How does it feel?”

Andrew barely contained a laugh at the way Neil’s face paled. It looked like he’d swallowed a fox. “I didn’t need to know that.”

“Did you talk to him?” Kathy asked Kevin. “I didn’t think we needed to talk about it,” Kevin said. This time Andrew did snort.

Cryptic as always hm Kev? Insensitive as always also. Never careful of other people triggers, only your own.

“About what?” Neil asked.

“I want you on my show this morning,” Kathy said. Now it looked like Neil was going to throw up the swallowed fox all over Kathy’s perfect red heels. “Everyone wants to know who you are,” Kathy said, spreading her hands in a grand gesture.

“You’re a mystery addition to the Fox line, a rookie out of a tiny town in Arizona. Coach Hernandez says you picked Exy up in a year by reading a guidebook and showing up to practice. Kevin says you’re going to sign with the US Court after graduation. Such ambitions and dreams from such a humble beginning, don’t you think? It’s time for your debut.”

Andrew suddenly wanted to rip out Kathy’s perfect teeth.

“No,” Neil said. It was her turn to stare at him. Neil shook his head, and Andrew could see his eyes darting around for an escape. “No. I’m not interested.” Her smile twitched a little. She reached out as if to pat his shoulder, but Neil backed out of her reach. Abby gestured at him, silently warning him to watch his manners. Andrew decided if Abby did it again she’d loose a finger. Neil ignored her, which was good for Abby.

“Don’t be shy,” Kathy said, all the oil missing from her hair leaking into her voice. “If you can play in front of sixty-five thousand fans in a game ESPN2 picked up and broadcast live, you can sit on my stage for ten minutes. This is the easy part. I’m just going to ask a couple questions about why you started playing and where you hope to go from here, that sort of thing. It’s all written down so you can think on your responses before you step onto the stage. Your fans deserve answers from you.” It looked like the broadcast had been news to Neil, because now he leaned back like he was readying himself to book it.

Andrew wondered vaguely if it would be worth it to run after him, or cut his losses and let his disappear.

What would you do with your time without something new to poke at. Kevin’s getting boring.

“I don’t have fans, and they don’t want my answers,” Neil said.

“Be smart, Neil.” She spoke with the air of one who’d seen far more of the world than a simple teenager had. Andrew was getting more and more convinced by the image of her bloodied mouth. “You can't spend this season running from the press when you’re playing with Kevin Day.”

“I said no.” Impatience finally worked its way into her expression.

Andrew twitched.

Nonononononononononononono.

“You’re not looking at the big picture. This year can make the world for you. If you want to get anywhere, you need our help. Everything has fallen so perfectly into place for you. Don’t let it collapse so early in the game or you’ll regret it the rest of your life. Kevin, you understand, don’t you?”

“He’ll do it," Kevin said, Andrew grinned even though he wanted to slit Kevin’s throat.

Neil snapped something in venomous sounding French. Wymack’s eyes narrowed on him as he said it, and the upperclassmen looked floored. Neil seemed to realize his mistake a second too late and he ground his teeth.

He doubled down though, saying something else in the same language. Kevin's smile never faltered, but his French response was cold. They traded words, Kevin getting more and more vicious sounding and Neil’s expression getting more and more pissed.

Then Kevin said something that actually made Neil stumble back in fear and disbelief, his fake eyes wide. Kevin snapped a few more things and Neil fumbled for his words until he dropped his gaze and slumped his shoulders.

Kevin nodded to Kathy and switched back to English. “It’s settled.”

Kathy's smile returned immediately. “Brilliant.”

They all followed Kathy into the building, and Andrew watched vaguely as Kevin made to grab Neil’s shoulder, only for Neil to bat his hand away. The submission had turned to feral anger, Andrew could see his eyes were bright with it as he snarled at Kevin for trying to grab him again.

Matt stepped in though, and he and Kevin glowered at each other while Abby desperately tried to get them to behave.

Poor, poor Abby. Did you forget what team this is?

With Kevin shoved back a couple steps, it set Andrew and Neil next to each other. Neil glanced over at him, and they locked eyes. Andrew cocked his head and grinned.

“You’re so stupid,” he said, tone sounding cheery, and Neil turned his chin so it was jutted forward and followed Kathy instead of arguing, it made Andrew laugh.

Kevin and Neil were sequestered away to a changing room, and Andrew tried to follow them, but security stopped him. He grinned, going for his knives, but then Renee was next to him, a hand hovering–not touching–over his forearms and a smile on her face.

“Seats are this way Andrew,” she said pleasantly, giving another smile to the security before herding Andrew away. “Kevin will be fine Andrew, Neil won’t try anything.”

“So optimistic Renee, you of all people should know just how desperate cornered animals get,” Andrew said, letting her lead him to where the other Foxes were already seated in the front row.

“If he does anything to Kevin, I will deal with him Andrew,” Renee said, and despite her Renee smile Andrew heard Natalie speaking.

“I don’t like delegating my work,” Andrew said with a laugh. Renee just smiled at that.

“You’re not as intimidating as you think Andrew, he avoids me more than you, and you are supposed to be on probation. It would be smarter of you to let me deal with him.”

“You drive a hard bargain.”

“Yes or no Andrew?”

“Deal, if he does anything to Kevin I don’t like, you steal the Junkie’s fingers, or toes I don’t really care,” Andrew said with a high, hysterical laugh. Renee gritted her teeth but nodded, and Andrew sat down so that he was between her and Aaron, who ignored him. Renee fixed her eyes on the stage and touched her cross silently.

Ten minutes later Kathy finally graced the stage, looking vibrant and cheery. It made Andrew want to throw up.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good morning! I know it’s a little early for most of us to be awake on a Saturday morning, but we’ve got a fantastic show in store for you today. Our musical guests are the four extremely talented men from the up-and-coming Hobgoblin’s Thunder.” She paused for the resulting cheers. “But let’s start the morning with last night and the start of the NCAA Exy season!” This drew even louder cheers. Kathy beamed as she slowly paced the front of her stage.

Andrew tuned out of her introductions, eyes pinned to the side of the stage where Neil and Kevin were expected to appear from.

“...Foxes, Kevin Day!” the audience lost their shit, and then Kevin appeared, looking unharmed and charming as he waved to the crowd and kissed Kathy’s cheeks in greeting. The crowd went wild and Kevin looked completely at home in his fancy suit with his fan-favorite smile on and that inked 2 etched on his cheek.

When Neil didn’t follow him out immediately Andrew laughed at the thought of him saying something that finally snapped Kevin and left Neil choked out in the dressing room. Abby and Renee shushed him quietly as Kathy started the interview with Kevin.

It was all sticky, syrupy sweet. The kind that stuck to your teeth and never left. The kind that choked.

Andrew’s eyes bounced around the stage, going from Kevin to Kathy to desk to couch to–

Chair.

He blinked at that, trying to remember why his brain had fixed on the chair. A snapshot appeared for him, two actually, one of Kathy’s stage with two people occupying a couch and no chair, and one with four people, squished onto the couch and one in the chair.

He struggled to connect it, and clenched his fists as his face twisted in a smile at his frustration, butt anytime he managed to pin down a thought it just blew away like smoke.

“Let’s see the man who replaced Riko Moriyama at Kevin’s side–Introducing Neil Josten, the newest Palmetto Fox!” The crowd erupted once more and Andrew gave up trying to figure out what his mind was half spelling out for him about the third chair. Instead he looked to see Neil slink onto the stage.

He had none of Kevin’s public charm, and none of his fake confident grace. He was fighting himself not to slouch in the expensive looking suit and his eyes darted around the stage and over the crowd. He seemed to settle a bit when he spotted the Foxes, who flashed him thumbs up, but he still looked ready to jump up and bolt.

Andrew’s eyes traveled over the man’s body, the suit was fitted, not as tight as the clothes at Eden’s had been but tighter than what he usually passed for clothing. From this far away Andrew almost couldn’t tell his eyes were brown.

Not that it matters.

Liar liar pants on fire.

Ha, if we’re both lying then who’s wearing pants?

Andrew ached for a cigarette. As he watched Kevin and Neil sit down, accepting water from Kathy as Kevin elbowed Neil into smiling. Neil ignored him, which made Andrew grin wider and wider and wider–

“Isn’t this an interesting picture?” Kathy asked the audience. “Kevin is paired again.”

Pear

Andrew blinked and realized he’d missed half the conversation, only snapping back into reality when the Foxes started snickering and scoffing at Kathy’s– “If it bothers you, I’ll take your spot–I don’t mind cozying up to Kevin.”

He zoned out again, not willing to fight his brain to focus on the interview and slipped into a spinning oblivion.

Suddenly music blared through the studio, and Andrew jolted back into his seat, eyes immediately going to where Kevin’s face had lost all color. The music was beat heavy, obviously trying to be intimidating, and familiar. It took Andrew a second too long to recognize the Raven’s fight song.

Third chair third person you fucking idiot.

Before he could move though Renee lunged over the top of him, sprawling out so he couldn’t move. He grinned and reached to shove her off but Aaron and Wymack grabbed his wrists, pinning then to the seat.

And then Riko Moriyama appeared on stage, every inch of fake charm that Kevin was, but five times as arrogant.

Andrew bit his tongue so hard it bled to stop himself from throwing his head back and cackling.

King! King! King! King! King!

Chapter Text

Raven’s feathers and blood.

Andrew swore he could taste it. Or maybe that was just the iron on Renee’s hand from clutching her cross. She’d dived across him, clasping a hand over his mouth to keep him from screaming until they stopped the show or biting off the hands keeping him pinned to the seat.

He struggled against them all, but they just added hands and didn’t let him move. Didn’t let him storm the stage and rip out Riko’s spine.

Oh-ho-ho-ho, guess you’ll all have to be gutted with Riko.

He started laughed even though his insides were boiling and his blood was ice. Thawing freezing thawing freezing thawing freezing.

He was shaking, not from cold but from how much he was straining against his teammates as Riko pulled Kevin up and into a hug, making haughty eye contact with a completely useless Andrew.

Fox blood raven blood blood blood bloody blood

Kathy ran her mouth, Riko leaked arrogance and it mixed with Kevin’s fear in puddles on the floor. Andrew’s ears were ringing so badly he couldn’t hear anything aside from his pounding blood, looping through his veins and to his brain and through his veins and to his brain and veins and brain and veins and brain and opened veins and splattered brains and skulls and scalp and foxes and ravens and foxes and ravens.

Andrew forced himself to breath, forced himself to bite his tongue until he stopped laughing, stopped smiling stopped floating stopped stopped stop stop stop stop–

“–look at him now. Isn’t it amazing how far he’s come this year?” Kathy said, gesturing to the pale, shaking Kevin.

“I’m not sure it is,” Riko said, oily, “but I’m saying that as his brother,” owner, “as his best friend,” abuser, “You saw him last night, Kathy. I’m worried his wishful thinking and obsession will lead him to injure himself again. Can he recover a second time, emotionally or mentally?” Riko looked downright upset, his mouth pulled in a frown and his eyes wide with concern. But he never looked at Kevin, always watching Kathy and the cameras.

And Andrew.

“I thought friends were supposed to cheer each other on,” suddenly everyone was reminded Neil was also onstage. And that he was an idiot. “Believing in him now is the least you could do after completely abandoning him last winter.”

Andrew threw back his head as best he could and laughed. No amount of tongue biting could keep him from letting out the hysterical laughter bubbling up from inside his chest.

This fucking idiot.

Idioooooooooooot

Moron.

Idiot.

FUCKING IDIOT.

A martyr, of course he’s a martyr of course of course of course.

Problems aren’t easy, not for you Andrew, not for you.

They’re ticking time bombs and you really should have seen that one coming.

Why are you so concerned? What’s the long face for?

Oh right, you can’t make a long face!

Hahahaha, you fucked up, hypocrite.

Idiot idiot idiot.

Bee’s right, your self harm tendencies never left, look who you surround yourself with.

Idiots.

“Ah, forgive my bad manners,” Kathy said sheepishly to Idiot. “I didn’t forget you over there, I just got distracted. Let’s get the pair of you introduced, though I’m not sure either one of you needs an introduction by now. Riko, Neil. Neil, Riko. Kevin’s past and present, or should I say past and future?”

It was a perfect line, it belonged on the front page of a newspaper, and it was the farthest thing from true.

Kevin’s ghosts of Christmas past.

Riko finally seemed to notice Neil, and he scanned him. Andrew’s fists clenched at the look, and the way Neil tensed so obviously. The others were still holding onto Andrew though, and so all he could do was plot their deaths and watch.

“To address that accusation of yours: mine and Kevin’s relationship is unique, and I do not expect you to understand it. Do not impress on us your petty ideas of friendship,” Riko said from alllllllllllllllll the way up on his high horse.

“Was unique,” Neil said, Andrew cackled again. He was so fucked.

Who? Him or you, Trainwreck?

Was. I’m pretty sure your relationship died when he couldn’t keep up with your team anymore.”

“Kevin chose to leave Edgar Allen,” Riko said. “We mourned his absence but were glad to hear he found a coaching position.”

“But you’re not happy that he's playing again,” Neil prodded. Andrew realized this must be karma, must be every bad thing he’d ever done catching up to him finally and biting him in the ass.

“Isn’t that why you transferred to our district? You don’t think Kevin should be on the court again, so you’ll cut him off at the pass. You’ll destroy his chance of making a comeback and make him watch as your team succeeds yet again. You’re rubbing his face in everything he’s lost, and from where I’m sitting, it looks like you’re enjoying it.”

“I will ask you only once to tone down that animosity.”

“I can’t,” Neil said, a flash of his smile showing. “I have a bit of an attitude problem.”

Riko’s smile was all ice. “A bit?”

Kathy intervened before things could get nasty nasty nasty. “Neil does bring up a valid point I’d like to discuss. This district change is an unprecedented move. For it to be Edgar Allen makes it more surprising. Neither your coach nor the Exy Rules and Regulations Committee has given a satisfactory reason, but I don't think Neil’s far off in thinking you transferred because of Kevin.”

“Kevin plays only a small role in our decision,” Riko lied, “and not for the reasons this child claims. It was not a decision made lightly on our part and we’ve taken an unfair bit of criticism for it. The north says we are transferring to keep our ranking secure, as if they ever had a chance of unseating us, and the south cries unfair at having to contend with us. We are the nation’s best team, after all, and the southeastern district is… Well, it’s subpar, to be polite. To be honest, its teams are dreadful. We hope our transfer changes that. We’re here to inspire the south.”

“You want to do for the south what Kevin is doing for the Foxes,” Kathy concluded.

Andrew was shaking with laughter and strain from fighting against his teammates, and Renee’s hand tightened on his mouth.

“Yes, but it will be much easier if Kevin plays along,” Riko said.

“How so?”

“Kevin cannot and will not play for us again. He knows this; this is why he did not return to us this spring. Our affection for him doesn’t forgive his new… inadequacies, on the court, and he respects the Ravens too much to drag us down. That doesn’t mean Evermore isn’t his home. His work with the Foxes this spring proved we can find a place for him on our staff. We’d like him to return to us as one of our coaches.” Andrew watched Kevin take that like a physical blow.

“Sounds like a difficult choice, Kevin,” Kathy said. “I have to admit both ideas fascinate me. As much as I love watching the Foxes improve, it breaks my heart to see you away from Edgar Allen.”

Hahahahhahahahahahahahahahahaha–

“You wouldn’t honestly have him go back, would you?” Neil asked. “I can’t believe it.”

Andrew was torn between killing Neil and fucking him if he managed to survive this interview.

“This has nothing to do with you,” Riko snapped.

“Stop being so selfish,” Neil said,

Kathy, the Foxes, the audience, and Andrew’s drugged mind gasped at him. Andrew could see Kevin pinching Neil, but Neil shrugged him off. “If Kevin’s dream has always been to be the best on the court, what right do you have to take it away from him? Why would you ask him to settle for less? The Foxes are giving him a chance to play whereas you’d relegate him to the sidelines. He has no reason to transfer back.”

“Palmetto State is a waste of his talents.”

“Not as much as Edgar Allen was,” Neil said. Someone in the audience laughed, entertained by Kathy’s mouthy guest. Andrew was pretty sure it was him, but Renee’s hand was still covering his mouth. “Your team’s ranked first? Congratulations and big deal. Maintaining a top position is far easier than starting over from the gutters. Kevin is doing that right now. He’s facing entirely new schools and learning to play with his less dominant hand. When he masters it–and he will–he’ll be better than you could ever have made him.

“Do you know why?” Neil asked, but he didn’t let Riko answer. “It’s not just his natural talent. It’s because he’s with us. There are only ten Foxes this year–that’s one sub for every position. Think about it–last night we played Breckenridge. They have twenty-seven people on their roster. They can burn through players as fast as they want because they have a pile of replacements. We don’t have that luxury. We have to hold our ground on our own.”

The Foxes were cheering, whooping and laughing.

“You didn’t hold your ground," Riko snapped, barely keeping his calm facade together. “You lost. Your school is the laughingstock of the NCAA. You’re a team with no concept of teamwork.”

“Lucky for you,” Neil said. “If we were a unified front you wouldn't have a chance against us.”

“You cannot last and your unfounded arrogance is offensive to everyone who actually earned a spot in Class I. Everyone knows the only reason Palmetto qualified for this division is because of your coach.”

“Funny, I’m pretty sure that's how Edgar Allen qualified.” Matt looked like he was about to start crying, Nicky was gaping and even Wymack looked torn between amusement and murder.

“We’ve earned our prestige a thousand times over. You’ve earned nothing but pity and scorn, neither of which should be tolerated in a sport. Someone as inexperienced as you are has no right to have an opinion on the matter.”

“All the same, I’ll give you one more,” Neil said. “I don’t think you’re telling Kevin to sit out because of his health. I think you know this season is going to be a disaster for your reputation. You and Kevin have always played in each other’s shadows. You’ve always been a pair. Now you have to face each other on the court as rivals for the first time, and people are finally going to know which one of you is better. They’re going to know how premature this was.” Neil gestured at his face, meaning Riko and Kevin’s tattoos. “I think you’re scared.”

If looks could kill, Neil would be dead on the spot. “I am not scared of Kevin. I know him.”

“You’re going to eat those words,” Neil said. “You’re going to choke on them.”

“That sounds like a challenge,” Kathy cut in with a desperate look between them. “You’ve got seven weeks until your match and I, for one, am already counting down the seconds. There's so much to look forward to this year, but one question can’t wait: orange or black, Kevin? What color is your future?” It was another perfect headliner, and Kevin looked so ashen Andrew was almost sure he was about to throw everything away, the other Foxes seemed to agree, because they all held their breath.

“I already said it,” Kevin said to the floor. “I would like to stay at Palmetto as long as they’re willing to have me.” The Foxes cheered at that. The rest of the audience was quick to join in. The tension between the strikers had seeped into the crowd, and it broke now in an uncontrollable wave. Kathy didn’t even try to calm it but pointed at the cameras, chaos sells. Excitement sells. Drama sells. And fuck if that wasn’t dramatic.

Kathy ended the segment, and the lights cut off, throwing the stage into darkness.

Andrew kneed Renee in her stomach, and it seemed to catch her by surprise because she let go of him for a split second. It was enough for Andrew to wrench himself from Boyd’s grip, toss Renee off of him, and pull back for a punch at Wymack, who just let him go and put his hands up.

The man scowled at Andrew. “You want to teach me a lesson or get the boys?” he snapped. Andrew grinned, but put his fist down, turning on his heels and shoving past Boyd so hard he stumbled and fell into Dan.

Andrew looked onto the stage in time to see Neil step between Riko and Kevin, and then herd Kevin off stage. Andrew grinned at that, and cut through the labyrinth like halls until he could find the off stage hall they’d disappeared down.

Security stopped him again though, and he decided he didn’t have time to fight through all of them, so he turned around again and just made his way back to the audience. Wymack tried to catch his eye, but he ignored him, lifting himself onto the stage and shoving past the aids that tittered and tried weakly to stop him.

He turned the corner in time to see Riko whirl around on Neil–who was against the wall– Riko was winding up for a punch that Kevin stopped, only to be rewarded with an elbow to the nose that sent him reeling.

Neil stumbled backwards as Riko started after him again, murder in his eyes, but Andrew neatly stepped in front of Neil, spreading his arms and grinning as Riko pulled back immediately, scowling at Andrew.

“Riko,” Andrew said, "It’s been a while.”

“We were just talking about you,” Riko said.

“With your fists, it seems,” Andrew said, grinning so wide it hurt. His fists ached to bury themselves in Riko’s face. To break his nose and teeth and tear out his hair. “Don't touch my things, Riko. I don’t share.”

ThingS? Oh no Trainwreck, you’ve done it now.

He shoved his thoughts aside, reaching behind himself without looking away from Riko and shoving Neil’s shoulder to get the dumbass moving. Luckily Neil seemed to have recovered some brain cells, because he hurriedly skirted around Andrew and Riko, grabbing Kevin and dragging him away with only a quick glance over his shoulder.

Riko scowled after them, and Andrew used the distraction to throw a punch. As satisfying as it would be to land one right in the middle of Riko’s face, he didn’t need any more attention called to Kevin and Neil than already was, so he slammed his fist into Riko’s left bicep, a punch he knew from experience hurt like a bitch.

Like a Riko. He thought, laughing as Riko stumbled back, clutching his arm and snarling.

“You can’t keep this up forever Minyard, you’re just a dog, and my family specializes in putting dogs in their place,” he snapped viciously. Andrew’s grin felt like it was going to split his face in half.

“You mean the family that’s outcast you?” he said, and he started walking past Riko. Who seemed frozen in anger. Andrew slammed into his shoulder he passed. “Better luck next time Riko, maybe you’ll shame Kevin enough to come crawling back to you if you didn’t have to worry about mouthy little rabbits,” he called behind him, turning and making a mock surprised face, “oh and dogs,” he added, grinning at Riko’s enraged quivering, Andrew turned back around and kept walking. From the crash it sounded like Riko had punched a wall out of anger, but Andrew had already turned a corner, spotting the rest of the team huddled together by the front door. Kevin was latched onto Abby like his life depended on it, and Wymack looked like he was trying to reprimand a wholly unapologetic Neil.

“When I said Abby and I would look out for you, I didn’t mean you should pick a fight with Riko on national television,” Wymack said. “Should I have spelled that out beforehand?”

“Probably,” Neil said.

“It’s fine, Coach,” Andrew said, catching up with them and ghosting his fingers across Neil’s back in a way he hadn’t really meant to.

Liar.

He didn’t slow on his way to Kevin’s side though, patting Abby’s shoulder in a silent demand to back off. “Kevin, we’re going. Right now, okay?” Kevin let go of Abby, and Andrew pushed him out the door into the parking lot. He didn’t want to risk Riko being so pissed he did something really stupid, like kill Kevin in broad daylight.

The bus was locked and Kevin slumped against it, sliding all the way down until he was curled into an anxious ball on the asphalt. Aaron and Nicky tried to get into the bus, and then shifted nervously beside it. Keeping their eyes on anything that wasn’t Andrew.

“I’m going to die,” Kevin whispered, Andrew laughed.

“Lucky you, Neil’s probably getting his toenails ripped out, all slow like,” he said, drawing out the words in a sing-song tone, Nicky’s face twisted, and Kevin moaned.

“Why couldn’t he have just shut up?

“Ah, the eternal question, maybe we should sit here and contemplate it until your balls roll back home and you can finally regrow your spine. It must be so difficult walking around without one, you must give me the number of your back brace dealer,” Kevin just moaned at that again. Andrew kicked him and he shoved Andrew’s foot away, so Andrew crouched down and grabbed Kevin’s collar, pulling his face out from where he’d buried it in his knees. Kevin paled.

“Listen to me carefully Day. Your lack of faith in me is getting tiresome. Don’t you know that’s why god left? No one wants to stick around when people only believe in you when it’s convenient,” Kevin whimpered.

“Andrew–” Nicky tried, and Andrew put up a hand to silence him.

“I didn’t–” Kevin stammered.

“You’re not listening, either believe me when I say he won’t take you without me cutting off all his fingers, or just go back home with him right now and save us the trouble of dealing with your sorry ass. You could probably still catch him if you run,” Andrew said, and Kevin shook his head and looked like he was going to throw up.

“No–no, no I–I do, I believe in you, I know you aren’t lying I just–” his tone dropped to a pleading whisper, “I don’t want to go back, Andrew,” he said, Andrew smiled.

“Then don’t,” he said. Kevin gulped, and then nodded. Some color went back to his face. “Now get up, save the wallowing for the busride,” Andrew added, straightening. Kevin nodded, standing shakily, he was still staring at the pavement, but at least now he looked less likely to throw up his stomach.

The others finally caught up to their group Wymack gave Andrew a wary look but said nothing as he unlocked the bus and everyone loaded on.

Andrew shoved Kevin into a seat towards the back, Andrew taking the one in the very back, and everyone sat in tense silence for most of the ride.

Andrew found himself in the lull between sober and high. It was time to take another dose, but he was in the sweet spot between crash and high. His thoughts were coming in sticky, covered in drugs but clearer than before and Andrew soaked in it.

Until his eyes kept flicking back to Neil and he couldn’t keep blaming it on the drugs.

When Abby came back to make him take the pills, Andrew took them without complaint, slipping back into the haze of laughter and hollow amusement. He spent the busride staring out the window, chasing away blue eyes and ravens.

*****

Hours later and Andrew was sitting in the window, this time in the bedroom of the dorm. The living room was too open, too spacious and vulnerable. Kevin had been sitting on his own bunk, silently watching something on his laptop as Andrew held an unlit cigarette between his lips.

Everytime he tried to focus enough to light it, a new thought crashed into him and his hands went limp in his lap.

Blue eyes and sharp tongues and promises and ravens and brown eyes and lies.

Ha, that rhymes.

Your cigarette isn’t lit.

“Did you make a deal with Neil?” Kevin said suddenly, stirring up the silence. Andrew slowly slid his eyes over. Kevin watched him expectantly and so Andrew ignored him. Eventually Kevin snarled something and went back to his laptop.

You just don’t want to say ‘not yet.’

Are you going to smoke or just tease?

Everyone’s such a tease.

No not everyone, just a certain blue-eyed rabbit.

Fuck we need to get laid.

Light your cigarette.

I can help with that Andy.

Andrew’s fist was through the window before he could think. The glass shattered and the pain caught up with him a second after he heard it. Blood started oozing before he even pulled his fist out of the destroyed window. Kevin was screaming but Andrew couldn’t hear him.

Everything was underwater and floating. He couldn’t grab onto anything but that voice had been right in his ear. Warm breath curling around his ear and the rumble of the man against his back.

Andrew clenched his fist.

“Get out,” he said, cutting of Kevin, and apparently Nicky, who’d appeared suddenly. They both blinked at him, Nicky–unsurprisingly–was the first to find his voice.

“Andrew you’re hurt–”

“Get out and get me Neil,” he snapped, the smile gone from his face as he scrambled to regain his control over himself. Kevin left, reluctantly, and Nicky gave Andrew a final pitying look before he turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Andrew shifted, glass clinked around him and dug into his legs. His fist was aching, leaking blood and he clenched his fist so that the aching turned to dull throbbing. He unclenched his fist and the pain lessened, clenched and it got worse, unclench, clench, unclench, clench.

His breathing evened out and the wall at his back went back to being an inanimate object. Without the glass the breeze from the open window ruffled his hair and cooled his clammy feeling skin. Andrew closed his eyes and breathed until he heard the door open and the rabbit himself appeared.

Andrew didn’t look at him, instead staring at his bleeding hand, dangling limply between his knees. Neil closed the door behind him, quiet as always.

Well, not always apparently, sometimes he’s interesting. Sometimes he’s fun.

“You could have destroyed your hand with a stunt like that,” Neil said. Andrew laughed.

“Oh my, where would I be then?” letting himself get swept up into the mindless banter as he collected his words, thought over his proposal and went over the pros and cons again. He’d taken so long to think that he was back in the sweet spot between crash and another dose. So he used it to his advantage.

“Off the team,” Neil said. “Where would Kevin be then?” Andrew didn’t answer, didn’t need to. He listened as Neil crossed the room to stand in front of him, like he wasn’t afraid of Andrew at all. Andrew thought back to Renee’s comment about Neil avoiding her more than him. Andrew didn’t look up, but he smiled wide enough to show Neil his teeth.

“Oh, Neil, as unpredictable as he is unreal,” Andrew said. Because there was no way this paradox was anything aside from bad karma walking. “The last time we spoke you were afraid Riko would notice you. Either you lied to me or you changed your mind. I do hope it’s the latter, because I hate being lied to.”

“I didn’t change my mind,” Neil said, “but I didn’t have a choice.”

“There is always a choice.”

Always always always always. There’s always a choice, people just never seem to make the right ones.

“I had to say something.”

Oh Neil, confusing needs and wants. You have to eat food to survive. You have to drink water. You want people, you wanted to say something.

“And what a thing to say! You took a swing at Riko on live TV. He’s not going to take that sitting down, you know. How’s that target on your back feel?”

“Familiar,” Neil said immediately, without any hesitation. Andrew sat up and slumped back against the screen, it felt flimsy at his back and his stomach swooped at the reminder of how high up he was. Neil glanced down at Andrew’s hand as it slid into Andrew’s lap.

“Give him a couple days and he’ll know everything about you,” Andrew said. When Neil looked him in the eye again, Andrew smiled. “Money greases the wheels of the world easier than blood does, and Riko has access to both. He’ll look for a way to get back at you, and it won’t take him long to see how cold your trail is. How long do you think it'll take someone with his connections to figure out the truth?” Neil looked sick.

“Shut up.”

“What will you do when he finds out? Run?”

“You know I will.”

“I know,” Andrew agreed. Squinting his eyes and twirling his hands around his head, “I can see it. You’ve got that look in your eye that says you know where every exit to this dormitory is.” Neil turned to bolt, but Andrew was faster. He rocked forward and grabbed Neil’s collar, dragging him to a halt before he could leave. He left sticky blood on the back of Neil's neck from his bloody fingers. Neil reached back and tried to pry him off, but Andrew refused to let go.

“Hey, Neil. Neil, listen. Running won't save you this time.”

“Let go of me.”

“Don't you understand? Running was only an option when no one was looking. You knew that back in June. It’s why you wanted to leave before October. You could have left before Riko knew you existed. You should have left before you insulted him in front of all of his adoring fans. Now you can’t go. Riko wants to know who defied him, and he’ll get his answers. You can’t outrun your past anymore.”

“I have to try,” Neil said.

Andrew hummed a little in mock disapproval. “Have to nothing. There you go again, thinking there’s only one choice. I thought you didn’t want to leave.”

“I don’t want to,” Neil said.

“What would it take to make you stay?” Neil turned back, disbelief strewn across his face. “What?” Andrew laughed quietly at his shock and leaned forward. “Name it and it’s yours. It doesn’t matter what it is so long as you stand your ground here with us.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. You have everything you need to survive. You’re just too afraid to see it.”

“I don’t understand.” Andrew sighed because of how blind Neil was.

“Riko will find out the truth, but he can’t tell his brother. For starters, Riko and Ichirou aren’t allowed to associate with each other, seeing how they belong to separate branches. More importantly, Coach Moriyama won’t let him. This year is about Kevin and Riko, see? He won't want news about you getting out and distracting people from their showdown. They’re free to make your life a living hell and they’ll try to use the truth against you, but they can't sell you out yet.

“Use that time to narrow the angles they can get at you. Kevin wants to make you a star, so let him. Take what he is giving you and make it your shield. It's hard to kill a man when everyone’s eyes are on him. Make them love you, make them hate you, I don’t care. Just make them look at you. You have one year to figure it out,” Andrew said, putting a finger in Neil's face. “For one year, I'll stand between you and the Moriyamas if you stand at Kevin’s side. Next year your life is your problem again, understand?”

“Why?” Neil asked, brown eyes wide. “Why would you help me?”

“Ask me later,” Andrew said.

Ask me when I can actually control my tongue. When touching you stops making my skin burn.

He tapped bloody fingers to his mouth and grinned at Neil around them. “It’s better if this isn’t in the way, don’t you think?” He said instead, clamping down on his tongue, “You’ll get your answers in Columbia. Oh, but no one told you yet, did they? You’re coming out with us tonight.”

“Never again.”

“Shh, Neil, shh,” Andrew said. “If you want to stay, you’ll come with us at nine. If you’re stupid enough to run, pack up and leave before then. That’s three hours, almost, for you to make up your mind. Aren’t I generous?”

“That’s not enough time.”

“I doubt you’re a stranger to snap judgments when it comes to saving your skin. You gave your game to Kevin. Give your back to me.” Andrew dug his medicine out of his pocket and shook a pill onto the dresser. He snapped the lid on, tossed the bottle to the corner of the room, and plucked the pill up with his bloody fingers. He held it up where he could see it, turning it this way and that as he got up the stamina to take it and lose control of himself for another couple of hours, and finally pushed it between his lips. He dropped his hand to his lap as he swallowed and bared his teeth at Neil in a fierce grin.

“Tick tock, says the clock. Get out of my room.” Neil bolted, slamming the door behind him, and Andrew leaned his head back against the screen and waited for his mind to sift back through his fingers.

Chapter Text

Two hours later and there was a soft knock on the door that Andrew knew could only belong to hands that had given him countless purple and yellow bruises. He didn’t say anything, but Renee opened the door, cautiously peeking her head in, Andrew nodded his ok and she closed the door behind her.

“I’m not naive enough to think Riko will spend too much time planning his revenge, but do you have a better timing theory?” she asked, and he was glad she jumped to the point and skipped the pitiful ‘Andrew your hand!’

“Kevin thinks tonight, he’s been moaning about it to Nicky,” Andrew said, eyes on the ceiling with his head still leaned back against the screen.

“Do you think it’s wise to test the strength of the screen so confidently?” Renee asked quietly. Andrew laughed.

“You should keep all your little ducklings inside Renee, or don’t blame me when they drop like flies,” he said instead of answering. She didn’t react to his comment aside from a thoughtful hum. Andrew could see her fidgeting with her cross.

Though, he wasn’t sure anything Renee did could be considered a fidget. Everything about her was calculated and sure. Every move planned out and every motion with a purpose.

Well, every move except her faith.

He laughed at that, and she wisely didn’t ask.

“What about Neil?” she asked suddenly, and Andrew let his head fall forward so he could look at her. She eyed him carefully, like she could look right through him if she wanted, but averted her gaze out of politeness.

“What about him?” Andrew asked with a grin.

“Is he yours or mine?”

“He’s coming to Columbia with us, or he’s never coming back,” Andrew said, tipping his head back again.

“Matt saw him go out on a run a few hours ago, he left all his things behind though,” Renee pondered.

“Mmm, poor Kevin, his little protegé’s flown the coop.”

“I hope for his sake he comes back,” Renee said quietly, before slipping out the door, “and yours,” she added.

Andrew felt like punching another window.

********

Three hours later and Andrew refused to wait up for Neil. Refused to give him any leeway because if he leaves now, if Neil doesn’t show, then he wouldn’t be breaking his promise by forgetting about Neil. His conscious–if there even still is one–would be clear and he could wash his hands of the blue eyed mystery in pretty, freckled packaging.

But Neil did show up. Right on time–just in the nick of time. He was standing outside the door when Andrew told the others it was time to go. They scrambled for shoes and last minute adjustments to clothing, and Andrew ignored them, opening the door to find Neil Josten.

“Oh, he made it,” Andrew said, hollowly. “That’s interesting.”

Andrew couldn’t tell if he’s real or just Andrew’s secretly hopeful subconscious, so he reached out and pressed his fingers against the rabbit’s throat to find a pulse.

Ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum ba-you’re-fucked-dum ba-dum

The real Neil went to bat his hand away, and Andrew caught his wrist on instinct, his hazy mind still catching up with him, and he grinned, leaning into Neil’s space to whisper, “Remember this feeling. This is the moment you stop being the rabbit.”

Ba-ba-bum ba-ba-bum ba-ba-bum

Neil didn’t manage an answer, but Andrew decided he didn’t want one–need one, doesn’t need one–and slid past Neil, dragging him out of the way of the door as Nicky, Aaron and Kevin all filed out. Andrew let go of Neil and stuffed his traitorous hands into his pockets. He caught Neil giving him a look, but for some reason, it didn’t look like disgust.

I guess hallucinations feel real too.

A commotion down the hall drew Neil’s attention, and Andrew flicked his eyes to see it too. But it was just a bunch of the Upperclassmen’s friends. Seth opened the door for them with Allison latched onto his back as she dug through his pockets looking for his pill bottle. When all she came up with was junk, she smiled and kissed his temple. Seth just shot her an annoyed look. Muttering something under his breath, ‘I’m not an idiot’ it sounded like a lie.

Then Matt and Dan appeared in the doorway, as soon as Matt caught sight of Neil he visibly relaxed.

“Neil, you made it,” he said, smiling. Neil furrowed his brow in confusion, but didn’t say anything. “Seth and Allison are going bar-hopping downtown, so the rest of us are prepping a movie marathon. Any requests or recommendations?”

Andrew smiled at that.

Poor little saint Renee. This’ll never leave her conscious, if I believed in a god I’d pray for your sake.

If you believed in god things would be a lot different Trainwreck.

No, they’d just be filled with more unanswered requests.

“You’re leaving campus?” Nicky asked Allison. “Are you serious?”

Allison scowled at him and wound her arms tighter around Seth. “It’s none of your business.” Matt shot a wary glance at Allison, but kept talking to Neil.

“Renee should be back with drinks any second. She said she’d get something nonalcoholic for the two of you.”

“Oh, what a waste,” Andrew drawled. “I’m buying Neil's drinks tonight.”

It took them a couple seconds to catch on but when they did, Dan lurched out of the doorway with a hard, “You’re joking.”

Andrew laughed at her outrage. “You wish I was.”

“The last time he went out with you he hitchhiked his way back,” Dan said. Seth’s friends looked from her to Andrew with blatant interest, but Dan didn’t seem to notice the attention. She stabbed a finger at Andrew and said, “He is not going out with you again. He’ll probably wind up dead this time.”

“Jesus, Dan,” Nicky said, sounding almost sincerely aghast. “When you say things like that it makes me think you don’t trust us.”

“No one trusts you,” Matt said. “What are you playing at?”

“It’s not really any of your business," Aaron said, shockingly.

“I said he’s not going,” Dan said, then she looked to Neil, eyes softening almost comically. “Neil, don't let him push you around.” Neil blinked at her, as though surprised she cared at all and Andrew grinned, nudging Neil with his elbow and switching to German.

“Hey, Neil. Isn’t that amazing? Isn't that touching? Look how they weep over you. Ah, such misplaced concern. Tell them you can take care of yourself.”

Neil shifted for a split second, and Andrew waited. Neil had two options–pretend he didn’t speak German and get gutted in the hallway, or cough up honesty like blood and stay standing.

“They’re not stupid enough to think it’s only a drink.” He said, in German, and he gave Andrew a look that meant he knew exactly what Andrew had meant by the silent test. Andrew’s grin widened, and despite the look Neil held his eyes without so much as a flinch.

“Oh shit,” Nicky said, switching languages in a heartbeat. “Since when do you speak German? Andrew, you knew about this? Why didn’t you tell us!?” Nicky demanded, gesturing to nothing frantically with wide eyes.

“Boring,” Andrew said, looking away from Neil and finding a wall he could imagine swallowing him. “Figure things out for yourself once in a while.” He felt Neil’s curious eyes linger on him for a moment, before he looked back to Nicky and Aaron.

Nicky waggled a hand at Aaron. “Quick. Have we said anything totally incriminating these past few months?”

“Aside from your endless inappropriate comments about what you’d like to do to him, I don’t think so. Looks like you’ve managed to completely embarrass yourself in both languages.” Aaron looked at Neil. “When were you going to tell us?”

“I wasn’t,” Neil said, completely unrepentant. “After everything I’ve put up with from you this year I figured I didn’t owe you any favors.”

And they think you’re a soft wittle baby in need of protection.

Aaron shrugged and let it slide. Nicky rubbed at his face and muttered under his breath. Down the hall the upperclassmen stared at them in disbelief.

Matt was the first to get his tongue back, but the best he came up with was, “I thought you spoke French–that was French this morning, right? At Kathy’s?”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Neil said in English, ending the conversation suspiciously fast. Andrew just laughed but Andrew played along.

“We’re going,” Andrew said, and went down the hall with Kevin on his heels.

“Neil, this isn’t a good idea,” Dan said.

“I know,” Neil said, and turned after Kevin.

Everything else was a blur, with Andrew riding the end of his high and then the up of the Crackers and Neil in tight black clothes he changed into at Sweetie’s and blue, blue eyes.

Andrew couldn’t tell if he was imagining it, or if Neil was being honest, but he didn’t point it out so he could stay in the fantasy.

Eden’s was busy as usual when they pulled up, and Andrew went inside and beelined for the bar, Neil on his heels as the others found seats. Roland grinned as he spotted Andrew, and his eyebrows shot up when he caught sight of Neil.

“He said no,” Andrew said, pointedly not sliding his eyes over to Neil. "Keep them clean.” Neil seemed suspicious but relaxed when Roland passed him a sealed can of soda and an empty glass. He still checked the glass for residue as soon as Roland went to mix the others’ drinks.

“Paranoid,” Andrew said, just to be an asshole.

“If you’re such a control freak you shouldn’t be drinking either,” Neil shot back evenly, deeming the cup safe and cracking open his soda.

“I know what my limits are,” Andrew said. “I’m not going to test them.”

If we have to deal with those eyes all night, that’s going to be a lie and you know it Trainwreck.

“And dust?”

“Too much crazy in this system for dust to make a difference, I guess. We got into dust for Aaron’s sake. He needed something safe to get on when he was coming off everything his mother gave him.” Andrew gestured between his and Neil’s faces. “Do you remember this game? We’re doing the honesty thing again, at least until I grow bored of it. In a moment you’re going to be perfectly honest with me and tell me what I have to do to keep you here.”

“Here’s some honesty,” Neil said, eyebrow cocked as he finally raised his eyes from the soda to Andrew, “I don’t like you, and I don’t trust you.”

“It’s mutual,” Andrew said, “that doesn’t change anything.”

“Nicky says you’re only keeping me here because of Kevin,” Neil said. “What happens if Kevin gets bored of me?”

“Keep his interest,” Andrew said, and it wasn’t a suggestion. Neil gazed at him in silence, probably wondering how stupid and desperate he must be to put his trust in someone like Andrew.

“Can you protect me from my past?” he asked finally.

“Your father’s boss," Andrew guessed. Neil’s eyes dropped, an obvious tell that he was lying as he fidgeted with the soda and then swallowed. Forcing himself to stop. Andrew wondered why he was suddenly being so easy to read. Before his lies had been lockboxes, covered in leaves and buried in the forest where no one even realized they existed.

Now they were neon signs and blood on snow.

“Yes. Word got around that the Moriyamas didn’t trust his people anymore, and his business never really recovered. He’s been after me ever since. He was arrested on some small charges a while back but he won’t be in jail forever. You said the Moriyamas can’t touch me this year because of Kevin, but he won’t stop. If he finds me, he’ll kill me.”

“What a mess.” Andrew unsympathetically. “Easy enough to take care of, though,” he looked away from Neil to where Roland was finishing up the drinks and wondered what exactly it was Neil was lying about.

He could have been trying to scare Andrew out of the deal by lying about how big a threat he was facing, or by just flat out lying. Maybe he was testing Andrew’s boundaries, trying to see how far he could press before Andrew dropped him. It was a dangerous game, but Neil was playing it like he played exy, like he lived–reckless and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Roland appeared, and he laughed as he glanced between Andrew and Neil before handing the drink tray over. Andrew pushed off of the counter and only realized then that Neil had been almost entirely leaning on him.

His stomach swooped, like he was standing on a ledge, and he wondered where his awareness had gone.

He found the table and dropped off the drinks. Forcing himself to stay put until the tray was empty before using it as an excuse to ditch the table. He passed the bar though, only catching Roland’s eye and jerking his head towards the back room. Roland grinned and nodded, it took him ten minutes to get away and when he got in he was still smiling.

“Are you inviting me back here for the usual or are you breaking things off?” he asked, smiling smugly, Andrew scowled.

“Do not speak.”

*********

Kevin was too drunk to walk by the time they left, and Andrew had to drag him out of the club and stuff him into the car. Neil offered to drive, but Andrew ignored him. The ride back to the Columbia house was silent, and the only disturbance was Aaron’s phone ringing just as they pulled into the parking stop in front of the house.

Aaron flipped the phone open and read the ID blearily. He scrunched up his face before answering it.

“Coach?” he said, and answered. “Do you know what time it is? What? Wait–what? You’re lying. No–no I don’t believe you,” Aaron jerked the phone away from his ear and shoved it at Andrew. Andrew took time to light a cigarette before taking it. He cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder as he put his pack of cigarettes away. “What do you want?” he asked.

“It’s Seth, they found him at Bacchus–they’re calling it an overdose.” Wymack said, his voice sounded tight, strained like he was trying to keep up the calm and put together facade.

“Overdosed like how?” Andrew asked apathetically. Seth had overdosed in the past, but he’d just gotten stuffed in a hospital until they spit him back out and threatened him with rehab. But Andrew had a feeling he knew this time there wasn’t going to be that kind of chance for Seth Gordon.

Oh poor Saint Renee.

“Again?” Nicky said incredulously. “That stupid bastard.”

“Like dead Andrew, he drowned in his own vomit, they found him on the floor in the–” Wymack’s voice cracked and Andrew could hear him grinding his teeth and cursing. Seth was an asshole but he was also Wymack’s oldest Fox.

“Never again,” Andrew said over his shoulder to the car. “He’s dead.” There was a second of absolute silence before Nicky moved. He grabbed Andrew's shoulder and gave him a violent shake.

“No. What?” Andrew shrugged him off and focused back in on Wymack, who’d collected himself.

“Everyone’s here, are you coming back?”

“No, not a good idea. I’ll call you when we’re back in town,” Andrew promised, he could hear Wymack running a hand down his face.

“Do what you think is best–and Andrew, keep them safe,” Wymack cut himself off before he could whisper a desperate please. Andrew stayed on the line for a few seconds to let Wymack know he’d heard him, and then snapped the phone shut, hands gripping the wheel so tightly his fingers where going cold.

Nicky slumped forward in his chair and groaned low in his throat. “Shit–shit. No way.”

“Who overdosed?” Neil asked.

“Seth.” Andrew said, tapping the phone against his thigh. “Someone found him face-down in the bathroom at Bacchus where he drowned in his own puke. It’s exactly how I warned him he was going to clock out, not that he ever listened to me.” Andrew said, because being bitter was easier than confronting the squirming feeling in his gut. He didn’t care about Seth’s death, he’d just been another person, another brawler, another sob story inducted into the forgettables hall of fame. But Andrew knew how much he’d meant to Wymack, and despite that Wymack hadn’t forgotten about Andrew’s word.

He respected your boundaries, whoop-de-do, wanna give him a gold star?

“Seth overdosed?”

“Keep up with the conversation,” Andrew said, blinking out of his thoughts and discarding them.

“I thought he was on something, but I never saw him using,” Neil wondered aloud, he sounded as apathetic as Andrew was feeling, and Andrew was almost surprised.

“He cleared most of it out of his system years ago,” Andrew said. “Only thing he's on these days is antidepressants. Curious.”

“I might be sick,” Nicky said miserably.

“Are we going back?” Neil asked.

“When they’re all drunk and cracker high and I’m off my meds? I’ll be back in jail before you can say ‘threat to society.’ We’ll wait until morning.” Andrew pulled himself out of the car without saying anything else. He made his way to the porch and then paused to fiddle a key off his keychain.

He’d gotten Renee to make it for herself, but she’d given it back after the Upperclassmen declared they’d never go back to Columbia after Matt. Neil appeared as he finished taking the key off, and Andrew clenched his fist around the key until the teeth bit into his skin. He pointed his cigarette at Neil, who watched him in his usual, analytical way.

It was a stark contrast to where Nicky was having a panic attack by the car behind Neil.

“That’s interesting,” Andrew admitted. “That apathy doesn’t bode well for your sanity.”

“I don’t understand suicide,” Neil said. “Staying alive has always been so important I can’t imagine actively trying to die.” Andrew watched him, gauging for the lie. When he didn’t see one, and Neil didn’t back down from their eye contact, he took a long drag off the cigarette.

“He wasn’t," Andrew said, Neil’s brows furrowed but he unlocked the door and didn’t bother with the lights when he went in. Neil followed him into the dark hallway and left the door open behind him for the others. “He wanted a way out for a little while, a few hours where he didn’t have to think or feel. Problem was he picked an out that’s easy to die on. That’s his fault.” Andrew said, going for the kitchen to stub his cigarette out in the ashtray on the counter.

“Is that why you drink?” Neil asked. “You don’t want to feel?”

Andrew whirled around on him, so fast Neil nearly bumped into him, and his hand was out and around Neil’s throat, digging into the hollow. Instead of batting him away, Neil just plucked the cigarette out of Andrew’s mouth and let his hand drop down my his thigh, looking completely unfazed by Andrew’s sudden outburst. Andrew blinked, and then gathered himself.

“I don’t feel for anyone or anything,” Andrew said, barely keeping the bite out of his voice. “Don’t forget that.”

“So Kevin’s just a hobby for you?”

Testing testing testing, pressing on all those little walls and boundaries. Who do you think you are Neil?

“Seth didn’t kill himself. He couldn’t have.”

“What do you mean?”

“Seth only takes his pills when he and Allison are on the outs,” Andrew said, spelling it out for him. “When they’re together she’s enough to hold him up. She went with him tonight, so she would have made sure he left his pills at home. She knows he likes chasing them with drinks.”

Something clicked for Neil. “She checked him. I saw her.”

“So did I,” Andrew said.

“If he didn’t have his pills on him, how did he overdose?” Neil said, almost getting it.

“Not by choice,” Andrew said. “My theory says Riko won this round.”

Neil stared at him. “You don’t really think Riko did this.”

“I think the timing’s too convenient for it to be an accident,” Andrew said. “Riko broke Kevin’s hand for being better. He crossed districts because Kevin picked up a racquet and got back on the court. What do you think he’s willing to do to you for calling him useless on national TV?

“You said our greatest strength is in our small size. How strong do you feel now that you’ve been bumped to our starting line? You think you and Kevin are ready to carry us to championships?”

“And you called me paranoid,” Neil said quietly.

“They were supposed to stay on campus tonight,” Andrew said. “Renee stopped by after you left and asked how soon we could expect Riko to respond. Kevin said we would hear back tonight. Pity you didn’t see the busybodies panic when they realized you weren’t at the dorm anymore. I told them you’d be back at nine, so they built their plans around you.”

Neil blinked at him, “I don’t believe you,” he lied.

“I can’t prove it, but I know I’m right.”

“If you are, then what?” Neil asked. “I’m willing to gamble with my life. I won’t gamble with theirs. They don’t deserve that.”

“You don’t have to,” Andrew said. “I do, and I say the odds are good. The Foxes are famous for having terrible seasons, but even bad luck only goes so far. One death is a believable tragedy. Two brings us below the bare minimum number of requisite players to compete. Coach Moriyama wants Kevin and Riko to face-off on court, so Riko can’t risk disqualifying us.”

Neil said nothing. Andrew hooked his fingers in the collar of Neil's shirt and tugged just enough for Neil to feel it. “I know what I’m doing. I knew what I was agreeing to when I took Kevin’s side. I knew what it could cost us and how far I’d have to go. Understand? You aren’t going anywhere. You’re staying here.” Andrew didn’t let go until Neil nodded, and then he reached for Neil’s hand. He took his cigarette back, put it between his lips, and pressed the key into Neil’s empty hand. Neil raised it to look at it, his eyes widened minutely, and Andrew watched his grip tighten on the tiny object.

Andrew kept his eyes on the key, “Get some sleep,” he said. “We’re going home tomorrow. We’ll figure this out then.”

And then he left to go make sure Nicky hadn’t coughed up a liver, and that his family made it back inside safely. Because he’d made promises to all of them, and now Wymack.

Andrew wasn’t going to let any of them die, not unless someone killed him first. He wasn’t arrogant enough to assume he was invincible, but he was confident he wasn’t going down easily.

He glanced back to the house as he left it, catching sight of Neil still standing in the hallway, key in hand and a shell shocked expression. His brain took a snapshot of it, and when he turned back around he caught another of Aaron holding Nicky’s back as he threw up in the grass, Kevin watching over them blankly, his hand numbly tracing his tattoo.

For a moment, he almost pitied the next person to try and mess with his family.

Almost.