“Into the bus!” Wymack yells at them over the mob.
Turning back too late, Andrew only narrowly avoids someone’s elbow that would have hit the top of his head. This way, it hits his temple instead and slips down his face toward his eye. His vision blurs for a moment, and he retaliates by ramming the heel of his hand into his attacker’s nose. Andrew thinks he can feel something crack, and the guy stumbles back, blood running down his face. Absently using his shirt to wipe off the blood, he scans the crowd again. Neil is nowhere to be seen; since he left the stadium early and is probably on the bus already.
Because the path is clear, Andrew reaches back and gives Kevin a shove.
“Move,” he says. Kevin nods curtly, before picking up the pace. Only when he’s in the vehicle does Andrew turn back.
By now, security has arrived and there are only a few people left. None of his teammates are, at any rate.
“Andrew!” Coach yells, “get your ass into the bus already.”
When Andrew doesn’t immediately move, Wymack jogs over to him. He knows better than to touch him, but he puts a hand in front of his face, blocking his view. Andrew gives him a bored look.
“If you don’t get into that bus right now, I’ll have both Kevin’s and Neil’s contract put through the fucking shredder before you can say ‘above-your-paygrade’.”
It’s a transparent threat at best and downright ridiculous at worst, but Andrew doesn’t see Neil among the gradually decreasing amount of people, so he lets it go.
Following Coach’s gesture, he slips past the security guards that are now clearing their way and gets into the bus.
It seems more crowded inside than it actually is, because everyone is standing between the seats, blocking his view. Only Matt is sitting – Andrew notices some blood near his temple; a wound he hadn’t seen before. His shirt is ripped. He seeks out Kevin, the only one who isn’t participated in the heated discussion the others are having. Instead, he stares blankly at nothing.
His face is ashen.
The others fall silent when they notice Andrew’s presence. They turn to look at him; Dan opens her mouth and closes it again, and in the end, it’s Renee who tells him, cradling one arm near her chest: “Neil isn’t here.”
Something stirs in the pit of his stomach. Something heavy and unpleasant, and Andrew pushes it down.
Ignores it so he can focus on what’s important.
He nods once and takes a step back, intending to go back outside.
Wymack blocks his way.
“Let me through.”
Abby, seated in the driver’s seat, who hadn’t spoken until then, says “Andrew, you’re hurt. I have to take Matt to the hospital. Won’t you come, too? David said he had two security guards with him; he probably took shelter somewh-“
“I will only say this once more: Let me out, or you will not like the consequences.”
Wymack holds up a hand to silence her as he considers Andrew. Finally, he steps outside to let him pass.
“Don’t get crushed to death out there.”
Andrew doesn’t bother with a reply, nor does he care enough to see the others leave. The sound of rustling and loud footsteps makes him look back over his shoulder though. Kevin followed him like Andrew knew he would, but aside from him, Nicky, and Allison have also come outside.
Renee is standing in the door. “I would come with you if I could,” she says. Andrew waves her off.
Nicky nods. “But we’re coming. And we’re not leaving without Neil,” he tells Andrew.
He doesn’t reply, only waits for Kevin to join his side before setting off.
By now, most people have disappeared. Andrew scans their surroundings and isn’t surprised to find no sign of Neil. Intending on circling the stadium, Andrew cuts to the left, only to stop when Kevin calls out to him:
“Andrew,” he says, and points to the side. On the ground is an orange racquet.
Kevin is already walking towards it, but Andrew is quicker. He picks it up, turns it this way and that as if it’ll give him any clue as to the whereabouts of its owner. When he finds nothing, he chucks it at Kevin, who cradles it like he can’t believe anyone would leave it lying on the floor.
It holds no meaning to Andrew, because Neil is nowhere in sight.
Glancing once over his shoulder to see if Kevin will follow, he starts walking again. His pace was already quick, but there’s an odd sense of urgency that he can’t explain, so he speeds up a little. The sound of Nicky calling out for Neil has faded to a distant noise by the time they make it to the other side of the building; Andrew is listening intently for a sound – any sound another person might make, and the constant rustling of Neil’s racquet brushing against Kevin’s clothes is enough of a distraction that he almost tells him to take it back to the bus.
But that’s when something catches his eye.
He almost misses it – would have written it off as inconsequential if he hadn’t committed it to memory not more than a few months ago, when he arranged the contents back exactly the way they had been.
There, a few feet away lies Neil’s duffel.
The same duffel Neil carries everywhere, guarded fiercely and never unprotected.
“Of course I am. Everything I own fits in one bag.”)
Instead of picking it up, Andrew kneels down and inspects the contents. Neil’s phone is there, which is no surprise – he probably wouldn’t hesitate too long about leaving it behind if he had to. His wallet – with his ID and photo – is there as well, which isn’t a good sign in itself, but it’s not what gives Andrew pause.
He moves some spare clothes aside when he hears a jangling sound, and a second later something metallic touches his hand.
(“It is just a key.”
“You’re a foster child. You know it isn’t.”)
Neil’s keys, that he always carries in the pocket of his jeans; the keys he values like they are worth his life – so much that he hasn’t even removed the key to Andrew’s old car – and Andrew is holding them in his hands.
(“You gave me a key and called it home.”)
His fingers tighten around the bundle, and he can feel the metal digging into his palms.
He remembers that conversation on the rooftop. He remembers the way Neil looked, cracking and close to the edge, remembers the conversation on the bus; how Neil looked at Andrew like Andrew was his answer, how he talked for hours about his life when he’d barely told anyone anything before. He remembers what kissing him felt like, holding him down that night in their living room and on the rooftop, and the feeling of Neil’s hands in his hair; remembers ‘thank you’ and ‘you were amazing’ –
He remembers. He remembers. He remembers.
The feeling of dread from before returns, dark and ugly; it clenches his insides and lies heavy in his chest.
Out of the corner of his eye, sees Kevin reach for the bag. His hand stop short just before he touches it but doesn’t fall away; the way he parts his lips to say something before thinking better of it tells Andrew he has come to the same conclusion as him.
He flips Neil’s phone open – that idiot hasn’t even used a PIN to protect it, when he so carefully guards everything else – and scrolls through the call history. It’s not a long list; his own name is at the bottom, then there’s a call from Nicky one from Dan. There’s an outgoing call from Neil’s phone to Andrew’s – that day they went to Atlanta – and one to a number that isn’t saved but that Andrew recognises as Bee’s.
And then there’s a call from an unknown number, no more than an hour ago.
He wants to call it. He wants to call it and demand where Neil is, wants to find out whoever the number belongs to and bash their head into a wall, break every bone in their body until Neil is back with them.
Instead, he looks through the messages. Most of them are from Nicky, but they’re not the interesting ones. There’s a message from an unknown number – it’s not the same that called earlier – and it simply reads “0”.
It doesn’t take long for Andrew to figure out this must be the final message of a countdown.
He flips the phone shut and, resisting the urge to hurl the phone against the wall, clutches it tightly instead. The material creaks in his grip.
Something happened to Neil; that much is clear.
And that idiot had known.
(“You were amazing.”)
“Go back to the others,” he tells Kevin.
“I said go.” Andrew’s voice doesn’t leave room for argument. Kevin’s lips press down in a firm line but he does as he’s asked.
Andrew stuffs the phone in the pocket of his jeans and shoulders Neil’s bag. He looks around for something else, anything, but when he finds nothing, he leaves.
He laps around the stadium once more before going back inside, opening the door with such force that it slams into the wall.
It would be an understatement to call him angry. Andrew is absolutely livid. He tears through the stadium as if he was trying to demolish the building, and ignores whoever calls out to him.
The only thought in his head is that Neil had known that something would happen today. He’d known and he hadn’t said a word.
There’s a truth buried deep within Andrew; lurking at the back of his mind, in the shadow of his thoughts. It sits there quietly, countering the memories and the apathy and Andrew pretends it’s not there – that it hasn’t been there for the past few months and that it doesn’t matter to him.
He denies it and refuses it; holds on to his practised indifference because it’s easy and it’s all he’s supposed to have.
The problem is this: it doesn’t go away. It’s a little bit like breathing. It’s there and mostly unnoticed, but once you’re aware of it, you can’t forget about it. Every breath becomes a conscious decision; holding it in only works until it doesn’t.
(“You were amazing.”)
You can’t die from depriving yourself of oxygen.
You can’t – you can’t –
When he leaves, Andrew slams the door shut so forcefully, the glass rattles behind him.
The bus is back in its original parking space when Andrew makes it back to the others. It’s been over an hour.
He wants to – wants to throw the phone against the concrete, wants to burn down the whole stadium, wants to whoever is responsible and break them.
“Andrew,” Wymack says, as soon as he is within earshot. “I’m taking you to the hotel.” His voice, like Andrew’s earlier, leaves no room to argue.
The others are there. Kevin is leaning on Neil’s racquet; Nicky is sitting on the ground, crossed-legged. Next to him is Allison with her arms crossed before her chest.They all look to him when he arrives.
“There is nothing here,” Andrew replies. He knows. He can keep looking and will end up with no more than a phone and a bundle of keys. There is no point in staying. Whoever took Neil knew what they were doing.
Wymack nods. He looks grim.
Abby is at the hospital with the others. Wymack handed them the keys and went to wait for them. Andrew is in a room with Kevin when Nicky knocks on the door – Renee and Allison right behind him. He lets them in, but doesn’t particularly care about their presence.
Opening the window, he takes out a cigarette.
He lights it, takes a drag.
Stubs it out and flicks it away, before lighting another.
This one he doesn’t take a drag of – just holds it and watches the smoke rise. It’s something Neil did, he thinks, and is so annoyed by the thought that he throws this cigarette out as well.
An hour passes, then two.
Andrew has already called the nearby hospitals twice, asking if a Neil Josten has been admitted – gave them his description in case he would have been unconscious. Nothing.
They’ve almost reached the three hour mark when there’s another knock on the door. Nicky answers it, and he lets out a loud sigh. Andrew glances over to see the others standing in the door.
The room is crowded with all of them inside, and Andrew doesn’t see Wymack and Abby at first.
Coach pushes through to the middle of the room.
“Listen,” he says. “We’re staying here for the night. It’s late; there is no point in looking for Neil in the darkness.”
“But-“ Nicky starts.
“No ‘buts,’ Hemmick. I want him found, too, but we’re not going to, like this. We’ll have to do something. Now, I haven’t done it yet because there’s a lot I don’t know, but there is the option of calling the police if we don’t hear from him.”
“You can’t.” Surprisingly, it’s Kevin who says it. He doesn’t give an explanation, but the stare he levels Wymack with speaks volumes. Neil hadn’t wanted the officials contacted when they found out about his birthday, and he wouldn’t want them to, now.
In the end, Wymack only inclines his head.
“We will think of something tomorrow. But for now, we’re all tired and need rest.”
He leaves first, and Abby follows. The other Foxes remain in the room.
“What are our options here?” Matt asks.
“We can’t count on the police to do anything,” Allison tells him. “I’m not entirely sure they’d find anything if asked to look for a Neil Josten.”
Kevin pointedly looks away, and it’s Nicky who asks “What do you mean?”
Allison stares at him as if she was trying to find a sign that he wasn’t serious. Not finding anything, she sighs. “Nicky. Neil faked his birthday. We know close to nothing about where he comes from, or who he was Millport, and even less about the time before that. There’s very obviously someone whose attention he doesn’t want to attract; you really think he would draw the line at giving himself a fake name?”
There room is silent for a second, then another.
Then, there’s chaos.
“So that means someone’s looking for him?”
“’Neil’ isn’t his real name?”
“But then what can we do?”
Andrew notices his brother leaning against the wall next to the door, not saying anything. He takes Neil’s phone out of his pocket and flips it open.
Clicks on the messages.
He scrolls down a bit; Neil still hasn’t deleted a single text even from months ago. Andrew pauses on a message with his name on it, before clicking it.
It’s the text Neil sent him on New Year’s. Andrew hadn’t seen it until he got out of rehab.
He returns to the messages and chooses the one with the countdown again.
“Riko?” Kevin finally asks. He’d gotten up to stand next to Andrew, not participating in the discussion.
Did Riko do it – would Riko have done this?
Andrew had considered it, but it doesn’t make sense. For Riko to do anything, here in Binghamton would, at this point, be too suspicious. Neil never made a secret of their mutual animosity, and, even if the press doesn’t know the extent of it, even they would have to turn eyes to Edgar Allen if word made it out that Neil is missing.
Andrew shakes his head, and Kevin looks like those news did nothing to reassure him.
When things do quiet down, it’s well past 2am. Wymack orders them to bed.
Neither Kevin nor he talk when they’re alone. Kevin is sitting on the bed with Neil’s racquet in his hand, attempting to straighten the head, fixing the strings. It’s a lot cleaner than it was when they found it, too.
His face looks different; older with worry lines and mouth pressed in a tight line. Andrew doesn’t comment on it. He turns the light off soon after, and stares at the ceiling.
Sleep barely comes to him that night, and he doesn’t feel rested in the morning.
The next day is frenetic.
Everyone is running from one room to another; restless and jittery. Nicky is the only one who attempts to speak to Andrew; everyone else has given up after realising he’s not going to talk to any of them. Kevin doesn't leave the room. He tends to Neil's racquet; still trying to get it back into its best shape. Every now and then, he looks at his watch, mouth pressed in a think line, and frowns.
Andrew himself is tense.
The feeling in his gut has not left him; if anything, it’s worse. His mind keeps going back to Neil, to what he said before he left, to his lips drawn in a thin line and fear written in every movement the second he came out of that locker room.
He’d known something was wrong. Why hadn’t Neil said anything?
The bundle keys in Andrew’s jeans feel heavy, and the phone on the small table next to his bed is tauntingly silent. He wants to crush it.
He hasn’t smoked since his attempt last night – the packet is still lying on the windowsill. He glares at it; wills it to disappear from his sight. It doesn’t, and when he walks over, he brings his fist down on his so hard the wood below it creaks. Nicky looks over at the sound, but has enough sense of self-preservation not to comment on it. Uncaringly, Andrew throws the squashed package into the trashcan.
The hours pass slowly. Abby brought them food a while ago, but no one has touched any of it. She stayed long enough to tend to Matt’s injuries and checked Renee’s bandages, but left soon after. Wymack checked in with the Foxes earlier, but Andrew hasn’t seen him since.
It’s just after noon that he hears the knocking – someone is banging against the doors next to his room. Andrew can hear the doors being opened and the voices of the other Foxes fill the hallway, and then there’s a knock on their door.
Nicky opens it, and then the room is crowded again.
“Listen up,” Wymack says. He speaks loudly, to get their attention. “Listen. I just got off the phone with the FBI.” He turns to Andrew when he says it. “Neil is – he’s alive.”
Noise fills the room – voices talking heatedly and undisguised exclamations of joy, but Andrew doesn’t really hear them. He’s focussed on Coach – on the tight lines of his forehead, the hard look in his eyes.
Neil is alive, yes.
But Andrew has his own testimony carved in both his arms – has it written in blood that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you.
“Shut up till I’m finished talking,” Wymack says, not taking his eyes off Andrew. “He’s alive, yes. He’s in Baltimore. They’ve taken him to the hospital.”
“Why – why would he be in Baltimore?” Matt asks.
Andrew hadn’t looked at anyone until then, but he turns at the low, anguished noise Kevin makes. He looks pale; his eyes widened. He shakes his head slowly. “No,” he says. “No, no, no, no, no,” it sounded like a prayer or sorts, a desperate plea to be wrong.
He backs away and Andrew follows, but then Kevin’s eyes snap to him and he turns. “Fuck,” he says. And then again, more forcefully, “Fuck!”
“What?” Dan asks. Their conversation had stopped at Kevin’s exclamation. Everyone’s eyes are on them.
There is space between them – about sixty inches, maybe fifty-nine, Andrew estimates, without making the conscious decision to.
Kevin knows something. Kevin realised something, something Andrew does not yet know; something that perhaps could lead them to Neil. The feeling in his gut and the heaviness in his chest haven’t left him; they’ve grown stronger and even more uncomfortable in the last hours and now they’re rearing their ugly heads.
“Talk, Kevin,” he says. Kevin stares at him with wide eyes. He looks spooked; like he’s balancing on the balls of his feet, ready to run. Andrew wonders if it will disappear when he gets his answers, this suffocating sensation, the anger and the madness that are curling and twisting within him, that are taking him apart with unforgiving precision. Sixty inches. Two steps, maybe a third, and he could be back to how things used to be. “Talk, Kevin, or I will make you,” Andrew promises.
Kevin doesn’t talk. He looks at Andrew and then around the room and for all the world like he’d rather be anywhere than there – and Andrew takes those steps.
The dark is creeping into his mind; he’s angry – no, he’s furious. Because why the fuck would Neil not tell him; why would he make Andrew go back on his promise?
Who took him, and why isn’t Kevin talking?
That promise was all the warning Kevin gets before Andrew is on him; hands on his throat and demanding, pressing, choking.
He registers the others calling his name, and there are hands on his arms, and Andrew is fighting, fighting, fighting, because he will not let go of Kevin until he has his answers.
“Andrew!” This is Dan.
“Fuck off,” he snarls at him and presses harder.
Matt and Wymack are on either side of him, grabbing his arms and trying to get him to let go. He tenses.
“Andrew, please.” Renee is suddenly in front of them, both her hands on his, pushing her thumbs beneath his palms and trying pry his hands off, even though she’s injured. “This will get us nowhere. He can’t talk like this.” She doesn’t use all of her strength, Andrew knows because he’s seen it. She just uses enough to ease the pressure on Kevin’s throat. It’s an unexpectedly gentle action, not because of her injured arm but because she intents it that way, and it’s what gets through to Andrew.
He loosens his grip enough for Renee to take his hands off Kevin, who immediately steps back and collapses on the bed, gasping.
“Talk,” Andrew commands.
And Kevin does – it takes a moment and his voice is rough and scratchy, but he tells them.
About the Moriyamas. About the Butcher of Baltimore – Nathan.
Who is, apparently, not dead at all. ‘Mostly the truth,’ Andrew thinks, had been greatly exaggerated on Neil’s part.
But, most importantly, Kevin tells them about Neil.
Nathaniel Abram Wesninski, who had been meant to take Jean’s place; who was taken by his mother and has spent his life on the run. Andrew drags a hand over his face.
It’s quiet after that, but not for too long. Foxes don’t have the capability to stay quiet for very long.
Andrew watches them as they process this information.
It’s Matt who speaks first, “So his own father has been after Neil this whole time? That’s fucking horrible.”
“We need to find him,” Dan agrees.
“His own father would kill him?” Nicky asks. “God. God, Andrew,” he says, looking at him. “What do we do?”
Andrew doesn’t reply, crossing his arms over his chest. That’s when Aaron speaks up for the first time, “Someone should get Coach.”
Nicky nods. “I’ll do it.” He’s still nodding when he gets up and leaves the room.
Before long, they’re all talking again, throwing ideas out; discussing the best course of action. Nicky comes back with Wymack before long – he seems to have already filled him in on the most important parts.
Coach looks older, in that moment.
Andrew watches them. Watches how they take the information in stride; how it changes nothing for them.
It doesn’t matter that ‘Neil’ is a fake, or that he lied to them – he is a Fox. This will always be enough for them.
He expects to pity them for their idiocy, perhaps; expects to think less of them now that he did before, just like when he saw them rally behind Neil after the blood incident.
He feels nothing.
The blood is rushing in his ears. Something clenches his chest; he’s furious, and he thinks that it’s a shame Neil is still alive because he will kill him himself when he finds him.
And then he will find the people responsible, find the butcher and whoever took Neil in the first place, and he will make them regret laying a hand on one of the people Andrew considers his.
He will tear them limb from limb, carve into their skin exactly what they did wrong.
He will end them.
They’re in the bus not long after that and on their way to Baltimore. Kevin had looked at Andrew, touched the bruises on his throat and sat down a few seats to the front, with the upperclassmen. Andrew doesn’t care.
It’s a four-hour drive, and time doesn’t move fast enough.
Most of it is spent looking either out of the window or the message on Neil’s phone. Why, he thinks, before he can stop himself, didn’t Neil run?
There had been no dreams last night; not of Neil or anything. Now, however, he has two-hundred and sixty miles ahead of him and nothing to distract himself with. Now the thoughts sneak between the usual control he has on his thoughts.
He remembers Neil telling him he knew this would come, that he would leave before they could find him; before the year was over. He remembers the dead look on his face.
Neil could have run. He should have run; he’d said so himself. Andrew doesn’t know how long ago that countdown started, but Neil had had a warning, had had a starting shot, and Neil – fastest player on the court, who always has one foot out the door – hadn’t run.
Andrew doesn’t understand.
He’s pieced most of Neil’s story together, he thinks, from what both Neil and Kevin told him.
(“I’ve always wondered why he liked knives.”)
He hadn’t been talking about Riko at all.
Things that didn’t make sense before now do, things he hadn’t seen before seem obvious now. This one thing, however, doesn’t.
Hadn’t he said he was focussed on surviving? Why, then, would he not say anything and instead choose to walk away from them with a smile?
Andrew clenches his fists at his sides.
The hotel room they’re billeted in is, at least, larger than the rooms they stayed had in Binghamton. Two FBI agents are placed there to supervise them – why, Andrew doesn’t know. He’d deemed them unnecessary and incompetent not two minutes after they introduced themselves.
“When do we get to see Neil?” Matt asks.
“Who?” one of the feds asks, but it’s the other one that replies, “Nathaniel Wesninski needs medical attention, and then we’re going to have to interrogate him. You won’t see him until that’s done.”
“What!” Nicky exclaims. It’s not really a question.
“You’re here because we have a few questions for you,” the second agent continues, as if no one had spoken. “Seen as you won’t see your teammate for a while, why don’t we talk about that?”
It’s Dan who stands up. She levels them with a cold stare and says, “You don’t honestly believe we’ll just accept that?”
Allison takes a step closer to her. It’s a small one, but more than enough to get the point across. “We won’t cooperate. Not until we’ve at least seen Neil. There is nothing you can do about it unless there’s a lawyer present, which,” she pauses for effect, “there isn’t.”
Most of the others stand to take their place next to the two of them. It’s a show of support, if nothing else.
Andrew has had enough of this already. Neil isn’t here; he doesn’t care about the conversation, about answering questions or spilling Neil’s secrets. Least of all to them.
When he stands, it’s not to join the others’ naive show of solidarity. Instead, he heads for the door.
“Hey,” the first agent calls out, “where do you think you’re going?”
“Out,” he replies, evenly.
“Look,” the guy – Kurt – says, pushing away from the wall to stand in front of Andrew. It’s a bad idea. “For now, you all should consider yourself detained. No one leaves here.”
“You need to get out of my way,” Andrew tells him.
“Andrew,” Coach warns, from a few steps behind him.
“You need to watch your tone,” Kurt replies. He takes a step closer to Andrew, and it’s the last straw to Andrew’s already crumbling control. He dodges the hand reaching out to him by stepping to the left; raises his own in a fist and is about to bash his nose in when he’s suddenly yanked back by the collar of his shirt.
“For fuck’s sake, Andrew!” Coach says, irritated, “behave for once, will you?”
Andrew twists out of his grip. He considers fighting them for a split second, but ultimately decides to calm down. Breaking one fed’s teeth isn’t going to bring Neil to them any sooner – in fact, they might use it as a reason not to let them see Neil at all.
“That’s it,” Kurt says, “I’ve had it with your attitude.” He takes out a pair of handcuffs and attaches them to Andrew’s and Wymack’s wrists. “Keep him in check,” he says to Coach, “or we will remove him.”
Half an hour passes. The other Foxes resolutely keep quiet. Another thirty minutes and they still haven’t said a word. Wymack sighs.
“What do we do about the bus?” he asks.
At Kurt’s raised eyebrow, Wymack elaborates, “look. This is a difficult situation, and we want to avoid the attention. Now you do realise we’re in the middle of our season, right? People are looking at us. I mean, if you want the press to start asking questions, then be my guest.”
Kurt pretends to consider it for a moment, but again, the second agent answers before Kurt can, “You need to move it. I actually just got a call about that and was going to tell you anyway. As far away from this hotel as possible. Walk back, or take a bus if you have to.”
Kurt snorts. “Don’t take too long,” he calls after them, when Wymack drags Andrew outside.
They’re quiet as they make their way to the parking lot.
There are feds everywhere. Andrew wonders if they actually believe they’re fooling anyone, pretending to be guests. They completely obvious.
Wymack glares at the handcuffs. “Stupid fuck,” he mutters. And then, “Why did you have to try to hit a fed, of all people?”
“I don’t care he’s a fed. If he keeps it up, I will kill him.”
“Christ.” Wymack drags a hand through his hair.
They’re on the way back when Andrew notices a car head into the hotel’s parking lot. It wouldn’t be that odd, or demand Andrew’s attention if the place wasn’t crawling with feds, but it is, and so it does.
They’re crossing the street when they see people get out of the car and head up the metal stairs to the second floor. Andrew’s eyes land on one of them – this one’s smaller than the others, wearing a hood over his head – and for one moment, he forgets how to breathe.
At first his mind is racing a thousand thoughts per second, and then there’s nothing but the silent realisation that this person – who walks loosely to appear small and unthreatening; shoulders hunched and with his weight balanced just barely forward, like he could start running at any point – this person is Neil.
He’s already speeding up, dragging Wymack behind him; Wymack who might not have noticed or thought anything of it, except that he can probably tell what’s going on by the way Andrew is heading for the hotel like he’s drawn to it, like it’s the only place he would ever go.
And Andrew – Andrew needs to stop thinking, needs to hold on to the anger he felt not two hours ago, because he hates Neil, hates him so much, and he should want to kill him for being that much of a fool. He needs to stop thinking or he will linger on how his heart beats traitorously faster with each step he gets closer to the hotel; how he is already jogging instead of just walking, and he absolutely cannot think about why it is that he is so, so angry at Neil in the first place.
Kurt is now standing outside of the room, and holds out a hand when he sees them coming. “Take it slowly, you hear me?” he says. “We said one person at a time, and there are already seven in line before you.”
Andrew doesn’t stop, and he doesn’t slow down. And when he hears his voice – Neil’s voice – he grabs Kurt, who still hasn’t had the good sense to move out of the way, and rams him into the wall. “I told you before to get the fuck out of my way,” he says, but he’s already shoving past him into the room.
And then Neil is suddenly right there, right in front of him, and it feels a little bit like crashing into the ground after a long fall, and a lot like being punched in the gut.
Everything grounds to a halt for a split second, every thought in his head chanting Neil’s name – Andrew tries to drown them out, bury them wherever they came from, but it doesn’t work, and he’s suddenly hit with the realisation that Neil completely screwed his life over while Andrew didn’t even realise it.
His plan was simple – to live on until he stopped. Find something to get rid of the boredom, fulfil his promises and be done.
Seeing Neil right there, he realises that it will never end. His plan is no longer an option, because this thing, this feeling in his chest will never go away; it’s part of him now and he will never rid himself of it.
He will never simply be done.
He notices movement from the other agent – this one he hasn’t seen before – and realises too late that he’s reaching for his gun. Andrew is going to dodge, but Neil is already moving; throwing himself forward like he isn’t thinking about it and grabbing the fed’s arm with both of his hands.
They’re bandaged. Both his hands are bandaged; Andrew can see they reach into his sleeves and further up his arm, and realises that no, Neil really isn’t thinking about it.
The agent drops his hand when Neil suddenly hunches over in pain and cradles his hand to his chest, and Andrew pushes past him with no regard for what he might do. Without thinking, he places a hand at Neil’s neck; a familiar movement. Neil tries to get up, but Andrew puts his other hand on Neil’s shoulder and pushes him down on the floor, before kneeling in front of him.
He feels Wymack move at his back, mainly because they’re still chained together, but he shifts his attention back to Neil.
There are bruises all over his face from what he can see, and the bandages on his cheek remind him of the ones he had when Andrew saw him that first time after New Year’s.
He grabs his chin to turn his head, giving him a better view.
“They could have blinded you,” Neil says, after a long moment. The entire room is quiet. “All that time fighting and you never learned how to duck?”
It’s so beyond obnoxious that Andrew doesn’t bother replying. Instead, he pushes Neil’s hood back and down, before reaching for the bandage on his right cheek and tearing it off.
Dropping it to the side, he regards the slashes on Neil’s cheek for a moment. They’re going to scar, he knows. He reaches for the next one.
It’s harder to take off – too late does Andrew feel the bits of skin coming off with it when he lifts it completely, and he freezes.
Neil’s other cheek, his left one, where Riko’s mark had been not two days ago, was covered in burns, skin angry red and raised.
Andrew drops the bandage, slowly, never taking his eyes off Neil.
He hears Wymack say something, but he can’t make out the words over the roaring in his ears, but he does see Matt start to get up, and it’s what distracts him from the murder in his thoughts for long enough to concentrate on Neil again.
He guides his head from the left and to the right, inspecting the wounds – it is obvious they wanted it to hurt. The wounds are deep and the burns bad; whoever did this enjoyed watching Neil suffer.
His mind screaming at him to find Neil’s father right this instance and bury a knife in his skull. He wants to find him and make him hurt, because this is Neil – this is Neil. Someone hurt him this badly, and Andrew wants to rip them into fucking pieces.
And then Neil says “I’m sorry,” and Andrew raises his fist; he’s going to punch Neil and make him hurt as well, because he can’t honestly think a simple ‘I’m sorry’ even begins to cover it?
Neil lied to him. Neil lied, and Andrew believed – had wanted to believe. Neil made him take back his promise, and looked at him like he was the answer when he didn’t even ask the question.
Neil told him ‘you were amazing’ like that was enough, and thanked him and smiled at him before going off to die, and ‘sorry’ simply didn’t cut it.
Andrew is furious. He’s livid. Neil is apologising like that’s going to change anything; he’s apologising like any of this is his fault and he isn’t the one with bruises and scars and burn marks sitting in front of him.
Everything of this is Neil’s fault, and none of this is his fault, and Andrew wants to – to shut him up and stop him from talking because he cannot take Neil’s apologies in that moment.
He drops his hand; it hangs in the air, suspended by the cuff that’s still attached to Coach’s wrist.
“Say that again and I will kill you,” he tells Neil.
It’s the truth, at least for that moment.
“This is the last time I’m going to say it to you,” Kurt voice comes from behind him, “if you can’t stow that attitude and behave-“
He lets the threat hang loosely in the air, and Andrew thinks he cannot possibly be that stupid. One more comment like that, and Andrew will make him regret it. Neil reacts first, though.
“You’ll what, asshole?” He asks, glaring over Andrew’s shoulder.
The other agent speaks up, “the same goes for you, Nathaniel. That’s your second strike. A third, and this is over. Remember, you are only here because we are allowing it.”
And that’s the final straw, really. This is the point where Andrew decides he isn’t willing to put up with this man’s stupidity any longer, because he does not get to threaten them. He does not get to call Neil by the name he could barely get out of his mouth, the name he told Andrew quietly at that airport as if just saying it out loud would bring him one step closer to his past, and then say that he’s going to take Neil away from them – from him – again.
Andrew shifts, fully intending to get both of them to shut up by any means necessary, but Neil’s arms come up around him before he can stand up. Neil doesn’t touch him, just lets his bandaged hands hang in the air on either side of Andrew’s face, and that gesture is so, so trusting, so idiotic, that it makes him pause.
He could knock the arms out of the way – he knows Neil realises that. He knows it would hurt, considering the pain he seemed to be in after grabbing the fed’s arm earlier. Andrew doesn’t know what to do with the fact that Neil still does it; still looks at Andrew with this open expression of his, still trusts Andrew not to hurt him when it’s so obvious how much he’s been hurt in the past twenty-four hours. He tells himself it means nothing, the statement echoing in his thoughts, insistent and urgent, but weaker and harder to abide.
Neil stops him, and he cannot bring himself to do anything about it.
He gets settled again, and Neil shoots him a grateful look before turning towards the agent again; stare turning icy.
“Don’t lie to a liar,” he says. “We both know I’m here because you have nothing without me.” He tells them they need him, to take the handcuffs off, and stop wasting his time. It’s, well, not reassuring, exactly, but at least interesting to see that at least that part of Neil hadn’t changed.
Andrew doesn’t turn around, and he doesn’t take his eyes off Neil, but he feels Coach shift and then Kurt is in his peripheral vision, taking the cuffs off before retreating. Andrew flexes his fingers a little, and drops his hand in his lap.
“So the attitude problem wasn’t an act, at least,” Andrew voices his earlier observation.
“I was going to tell you.”
“Stop lying to me.” The words come out harsher than he’d meant, but he can’t bring himself to care.
“I’m not lying,” Neil tells him. “I would have told you last night, but they were in our locker room.”
Last night. It feels longer than that.
“They who?” the fed asks from somewhere near the door.
Neil ignores them and switches to German. “Those weren’t security guards that came for us. They were there for me, and they would have hurt all of you to get me out of there. I thought by keeping my mouth shut, I could keep all of you safe.” He lightly taps one of his fingers against Andrew’s face, where he’d been hit by that elbow. It’s a soft touch, barely there and then gone again. “I didn’t know they’d staged a riot.”
The dark anger in Andrew’s gut sparks up again, and he clenches his hand in a fist. He’d been right; they were already there when Neil had come out of the locker room. They’d been so close, right under his nose, and he hadn’t been able to see.
He hadn’t been able to stop them.
And Neil – Neil had just let them. He’d let them take him, because he felt the need to play hero.
“What did I tell you about playing the martyr card?” Andrew asks.
“You said no one wanted it. You didn’t tell me to stop.”
Neil and his stupid smart mouth and twisted words and halftruths. Andrew would kill him for it one day. For now, he pushes the thought down and says, “it was implied.”
“I’m stupid, remember? I need things spelled out for me.”
“Am I at ninety-four yet?”
“You are at one hundred,” Andrew tells him. He means every word. “What happened to your face?”
Neil doesn’t answer at first. He’s pale, and looks like he has to fight to get the words out. “A dashboard lighter.”
Nicky curses. Andrew sees his brother shift and get up from the bed he’d been sitting on, but he doesn’t really look until Neil turns his head. It’s an instinctive reaction, Andrew knows, but it gives the other Foxes a good view of the massacre left on Neil’s face.
They react like he’d expected them to: horribly.
Kevin recoils and touches his own tattoo, and on any other day, Andrew might have commented on the self-centredness of that move. Most of the other Foxes react the opposite way, intending on coming towards them.
In the end, they don’t, and it’s what saves their limbs in that moment.
Abby doesn’t have that kind of common sense – she comes closer, and Andrew snaps his eyes up to her when she reaches the bed. He gets a hold of Neil’s face and turns him back so he’s facing Andrew again, before glaring at her, eyes narrowed and angry, and says “Get away from us.”
She argues, because of course she does. Andrew doesn’t listen. “If you make me repeat myself, you will not live to regret it.”
The threat in his words is neither concealed nor faint, and it isn’t a joke. His control is strained, no, crumbling, and if Abby argues, if she comes any closer, Andrew isn’t going to be held responsible for following through with his promise. He keeps staring at her, willing her to see just how serious he is, willing her to back the fuck off, and he doesn’t notice the tug in his hair at first. Neil tugs again, a gesture that’s a little bit unsure but gentle, and so completely at odds with the rage in Andrew that he eventually turns his attention back to Neil.
Neil says a few reassuring words to Abby without looking at her – Andrew doesn’t think it’s convincing, but it gets Abby to back off, and Andrew relaxes a little bit without meaning to.
One of Neil’s hands is still buried in his hair. Andrew feels like he should shake it off, feels like he should want to – it’s warm even through the bandages, warm and gentle and familiar, and it feels like it’s undoing something inside him, soothing the knots of what he still doesn’t want to call fear.
“Did they tell you who I am?” Neil asks.
“They didn’t have to. I choked the answers out of Kevin on the way here.” Andrew ignores stunned look on Neil’s face. “Guess you weren’t an orphan after all. Where is your father now?”
“My uncle executed him.” It’s an interesting choice of words, Andrew notes absently, to call it an execution. He doesn’t regret his death as much as the missed chance of killing him himself.
Neil raises his other hand and presses two fingers to Andrew’s chest. The movement is hesitant. Andrew allows it.
“I spent my whole life wishing he would die, but I thought he never would. I thought he was invincible. I can’t believe it was that easy.”
“Was it easy?” Andrew asks. “Kevin told us who he worked for.”
He doesn’t say Moriyama. He feels the feds staring at them even without looking to check. He doesn’t want another interruption, and these are Neil’s secrets to share.
Neil tells him about the attempted ceasefire between his uncle and the Moriyamas, and Andrew realises he’s right in assuming that Neil doesn’t want to involve them when he says, “tell me no one’s told the FBI about them.”
“No one’s said a word to them since they said we couldn’t see you.”
“But why? I’ve done nothing but lie to them. I willingly put them all in danger so I could play a little longer. They got hurt last night because of me. Why would they protect me now?” His voice is strained when he says it.
“You are a Fox,” he tells him. Neil is one of them. That’s enough.
Neil looks down then, and Andrew can see the way his jaw trembles. When he speaks again, his voice is low. “Andrew,” he says, “they want to take me away from here. They want to enrol me in the Witness Protection Program so my father’s people can’t find me. I don’t want –“ he breaks off, and takes a moment to find his voice again. “If you tell me to leave, I’ll go.”
The words feel a lot like having the rug pulled under his feet, and Andrew thinks ‘no.’
He sees the Neil in front of him, small and damaged but not broken, remembers conversations on rooftops and in airports, remembers the bus ride where Neil spent hours sharing details of his life that Andrew knows he never told anyone else, and the bus ride without Neil, where he stared out of the window feeling cold all over.
(“You aren’t going anywhere.”)
Andrew reaches forward without thinking – a motion so familiar because he’d done the same thing before, in what feels like a different lifetime – and hooks his fingers in the collar of Neil’s sweatshirt. He tugs – not enough to pull him forward, but enough for Neil to feel it.
“You aren’t going anywhere,” Andrew tells him. It’s a promise; one that he is never going to take back.
He says it in English, because he saw the Foxes standing their ground against the FBI, saw them rally behind a person they had just found out had been lying to them all the time. Because he saw the Foxes care about Neil when they logically should have not have, and he will invite them to the party so the feds get to see just who they are dealing with. “You’re staying with us. If they try to take you away, they will lose.”
The reaction is as instantaneous as it is predictable:
“Take you away? To where?”
“Are we talking about ‘away for questioning’ or ‘away for good’”?
“You can’t have him! He belongs with us!”
Neil’s face is unbelieving, and there’s something there, in the trembling of his lips, that looks a lot like hope, and it grows the more he hears the others argue for his sake.
“’Neil’ isn’t a real person,” the fed says. “It’s just a cover that let Nathaniel evade authorities. It’s past time to let him go.”
“Neil or Nathaniel or whoever,” Nicky says, voice loud and firm, “he’s ours, and we’re not letting him go. You want us to vote on it or something? Bet you it’ll be unanimous.”
The man turns to Wymack, who, in turn, looks at Neil.
“Neil,” he says. The use of that name is deliberate, Andrew can tell. “Talk to me. What do you want?”
Neil lifts his head to look at Coach, but he doesn’t speak for a moment. Then, in a quiet, clipped voice he says, “I want – I know I shouldn’t stay, but I can’t – I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want to lose any of you. I don’t want to be Nathaniel anymore. I want to be Neil for as long as I can.”
“Good. I’d have a hell of a time fitting ‘Wesninski’ on a jersey.”
Neil looks down again. Andrew can hear Coach and the fed argue. There is nothing they can do without Neil’s consent, and Andrew will break every bone in their body if they try. He tugs at Neil’s hood and says, in German, “Get rid of them before I kill them.”
He’s absolutely serious, and he knows Neil can tell.
“They’re waiting for answers,” Neil replies. “They were never able to charge my father while he was alive. They’re hoping I know enough o start decimating his circle in his absence. I’m going to give them the truth, or as much of it as I can without telling them my father was acting on someone else’s orders. Do you want to be there for it? It’s the story i should have given you months ago.”
“I have to go,” Andrew tells him. “I don’t trust them to give you back.”
He gets up and waits for Neil to do the same.
The team looks at them, makes Neil promise to come back. Andrew can see how quickly Neil is losing hold of his centre, but it’s Allison who breaks the tension a little by telling them they just closed three bets – probably on either Neil’s sexuality or their relationship.
Foxes really will bet on anything.
He notices Aaron’s piercing stare, but he doesn’t say anything, and neither does Neil.
“Ready?” Neil asks him.
“Waiting on you.”
They both sit in the backseats of the SUV as they drive away from the hotel and towards to station. Neil looks at him and asks, in quiet German, “Can I really be Neil again?”
“I told Neil to stay,” Andrew says, and refuses the urge to brush against Neil’s hand that is resting in the space between them. “Leave Nathaniel buried in Baltimore with his father.”
Neil’s eyes go widen a little bit, just for a split second, before he turns away and stares out of the window. “Neil Abram Josten,” he whispers.
The space between their hands is two inches wide, maybe three, and it seems too big. His thoughts click together like racquets on the court, like through a haze of cigarette smoke at dusk blown out on rooftops – small pieces of a life that he tries not to hold onto, never wanted to hold onto, but that have somehow wormed their way into his heart and are refusing to leave.
(“The only one I’m interested in is you.”)
He wants to not think about it, but he knows that he’s way past the point of going back now, and there’s a single thought that echoes through his head as he moves his hand two inches closer to Neil’s.
There’s a truth buried deep within Andrew; lurking at the back of his mind, in the shadow of his thoughts. It sits there quietly, countering the memories and the apathy and Andrew pretends it’s not there.
There’s a truth buried deep within Andrew and that truth is this:
This has never been nothing.