Andrew walked in line to the bus with the rest of the Foxes, mind going a million miles an hour behind his impassive expression.
"Thank you," Neil had said, eyes truer than Andrew had ever seen them. "You were amazing."
Andrew wasn't such a fool for Neil Josten that he couldn't figure out there was something more happening under the surface, something bigger than just an Exy shutout, that he wasn't telling anyone. Something forcing truth out of him.
Neil looked scared.
Apparently, no one else received the memo, because behind him, Matt Boyd kept kicking at Andrew's heels and Andrew could nearly see the nosy smile on Reynold's face. Boyd's voice was drowned out by the cacophony of both jeers and shouts of approval coming from all around them, but he had no doubts that Boyd was fishing for information surrounding his and Neil's "not this" to settle a bet of some sort.
Andrew didn't really care. He was more focused on leaving Binghamton, getting some answers out of Neil, and then kissing him senseless.
Of course, Andrew had no plans to tell Neil of that last item on the list, but he was sure he (and everyone else, apparently) knew anyway.
Maybe not Nicky, though. For all his cousin boasted about having an "incredible gaydar," he tended to be a bit clueless about Andrew.
Andrew's eyes were unfocused, gazing at the bounce of Neil's red curls while his thoughts wandered around nothing at all.
Nothing? his mind mused unhelpfully. Or Neil? Or is that one in the same now?
Shut up, he huffed internally. I hate him.
Lost in his head, it was only until he heard a pained curse from Aaron that he jerked straight and saw the world burning around him.
Andrew's vision went red.
He nearly would have broken out of line and straight into the tidal wave of rioters had he not noticed the police trying to push back the crowd. He had never trusted the pigs, but Andrew supposed he could let them handle the mess until he'd gotten a chance to check on Aaron at the bus.
He had nearly fooled himself with that thought when an ice cooler sailed through the air and missed Danielle's face by an inch. An enraged shout came from Andrew's right, and he could feel the familiar heat of adrenaline in his stomach that always came when he and Renee sparred.
There was going to be a fight.
No sooner than he had that thought, the crowd around him exploded into madness, nearly running the Foxes over. Andrew may have been ready to throw some punches, but he was not at all prepared for the onslaught of unfamiliar bodies piling on him. Moving around him. Touching him.
Andrew couldn't breathe.
He lost sight of Neil's head in the mess, hoping one of the security guards would bring Neil to safety while Andrew tried to ground himself. What had Bee taught him?
What is your name? Andrew Minyard.
How old are you? 20 years old.
What is upsetting you? Hands. Everywhere.
Can you do something about it? Yes. I can move now.
He felt the glancing blow of someone's elbow on his face, nearly hitting his eye. It was sure to bruise later, but for now, the sharp pain mixed with Bee's words were enough to shake Andrew out of his stupor.
He ducked to the left, neatly missing a thrown shoe and was grateful to his limited stature for once. He kept an eye out for a flash of red, the glint of blue eyes, but seeing that Neil was nearly as short as Andrew himself, the effort was futile.
He'll be fine, Andrew thought. Find Nicky, Aaron, and Kevin, and get to the bus.
To his surprise (or maybe not), Andrew found Reynolds trading fierce blows with someone twice her size, Renee at her back. He caught Renee's glance and she gave him a firm nod of reassurance.
He nodded back, already swiveling to find the rest of his group.
After a few minutes, he spotted Nicky and Kevin huddled together, slowly moving to the edge of the crowd. He caught up and grabbed Nicky's wrist, who jerked away and reared his hand back for a punch before realizing it was Andrew.
Despite it all, Andrew felt a thrum of satisfaction. A few years ago, Nicky had let people beat him down over and over again. At least now he was learning to fight back.
"Oh thank god," Nicky cried, catching Kevin's attention, before his eyes widened. He reached out, remembering himself at the last second. "Andrew... your face, what happened?"
Andrew shrugged. He'd been through worse.
Nicky looked like he wanted to say something, but Kevin cursed loudly and began pushing out of the sea of bodies with renowned vigor.
"It's getting more violent and more people are joining," Kevin said, voice strained. "We need to get out and regroup at the bus."
"Aaron?" Andrew asked. Nicky glanced around a few moments before pointing to his right.
"There!" he exclaimed, and motioned to Kevin to go in that direction. Kevin nodded and they made their way over to Aaron, who was ducking under beer bottles and was nearly smacked in the face by a PSU banner.
"Aaron!" Kevin called, and Aaron's shoulders dropped with relief as he swerved a growing fight and made his way over to them.
Andrew scanned his brother quickly and, after seeing no visible injuries, motioned to start back towards the parking lot.
They made their way over to the bus and found Boyd and Danielle standing, the former looking like he'd just lost a fight with a mountain lion.
Danielle was gripping his arm as Abby tended to his wounds, but Andrew heard her say he might need to go to the hospital for the more serious injuries. Boyd looked pained at the thought, but when he glanced up and caught Andrew's eye, he smiled and waved them over.
"Andrew, here," Abby said, noticing his injury. He took an ice pack from her and glanced around.
"Where's Neil?" he asked, choosing to ignore the suggestive look between Boyd and Danielle. Abby shrugged and opened her mouth before her eyes caught on something behind Andrew and she waved.
Andrew turned around to find Renee and Reynolds walking proudly towards them. Reynolds had a mosaic of bruises all over her, and Renee was holding her wrist precariously.
Abby sighed and began treating them as Wymack rounded the front of the bus and finally found his team.
Not the whole team, a ringing voice said in Andrew's head. Neil isn't here yet.
Which was odd, no? He had a security guard in front of him, surely he would have made it here first? Perhaps Wymack had seen him and taken him somewhere. Maybe he was already safe in the bus and Abby hadn’t noticed him.
Andrew pushed past Danielle and boarded the bus, walking the length of it but not finding a loudmouthed striker in its shadows. His stomach became knotted with a curious feeling he slowly identified as dread.
Andrew was at the door of the bus again. He looked at Wymack.
"Where. Is. Neil." he demanded. He saw Wymack's confused expression and before he even said anything, Andrew felt his heart stop.
"I don't know. I thought he was with you."
Reynold's knowing smirk gave way to uncertainty as the rest of the Foxes quieted. There was silence for a moment. Two.
Then Andrew threw his ice pack on the floor and raced back into the heart of the riot.
He ignored the shouts coming from behind him, his mind an endless loop of Neil, Neil, Neil, is he safe, has he been hurt, he was supposed to be nothing, NEIL
After a few minutes of searching and more than a few near punches, the police finally regained some control over the situation and Andrew was able to scour the grounds for any hint of where Neil might be.
He saw the racquet first. The duffle bag was a few meters away from it.
Numbly, Andrew picked up both items, grabbing Neil's phone as it fell from the netted side pocket.
0, it said.
Andrew felt a piercing emptiness when he saw Neil's things without their rightful owner beside them.
He slowly walked back to the Foxes' bus, head pounding but unable to really register the dwindling fight behind him. And when the Foxes finally came in view, he saw the confusion on their faces when they saw no Neil walking with him.
Andrew mentally ran through everything that he knew. Neil was scared. He was running from someone, someone Kevin knew about? A zero on his phone from an unnamed number — a countdown, perhaps. He would never leave his things unattended, so maybe he wanted to tell Andrew he had been taken unwillingly, knowing that Andrew would never leave without him.
There was something he was missing, some vital piece of information that Neil hadn't told him that was causing this mess.
The guilty look on Kevin's face told Andrew everything he needed to know. He knew something.
He dumped Neil's things on the ground by Wymack's feet, mentally assessing himself. His cheek throbbed, each breath he took was sticky with sweat, his heart was pounding.
Neil was gone.
Andrew felt such a blind hot rage at that, the likes of which he hadn't felt in so long, the type where he felt like laughing at how cruel the world could be.
And before he could tell his body to stop, Andrew's hands were around Kevin's throat.
"Shit Andrew! You're hurting— " "Andrew, stop— " "Get off of— "
Andrew couldn't remember what happened after that, not immediately at least. It was a bit disorienting, going from a perfect recollection to being so overrun by anger that his mind went blank. Was this how everyone else felt all the time? He felt like someone just took out a Jenga piece from his mind, like it was close to collapsing.
Distantly, he recalled being yanked off of Kevin as he gasped some explanation about a mob boss, Kengo's right hand man, Nathaniel Wesninski. But none of it mattered. Andrew had broken his promise. He had hurt the person he had vowed to protect, just like so many had done to him.
And he still didn't have Neil.
Neil used to make the emptiness a bit fuller, a bit easier to manage, Andrew thought. It felt so impossible to navigate himself now without Neil by Andrew's side.
There was a hospital. A hotel. There were FBI agents. The news turned on. Off. On. There was another hotel. Handcuffs. Taken away.
Nathaniel Neil. Standing in front of him. Blue eyes, wild hair, bandages unable to hide how irresistible he was, unable to stop the jolt in Andrew's heart.
There was Neil. And everything felt right again.