The trip to California went just how Neil expected it to, which was to say it went badly.
Jean had assured Kevin that he was perfectly capable of putting himself on a plane to South Carolina without a "fucking babysitter, Kevin,” but Kevin was swept up in another strange surge of compassion for his former teammate. He decided he would fly out and accompany Jean back so that Jean wouldn't be alone. This meant, of course, that Andrew would be going to watch out for Kevin and that Neil would be going to try to make the trip easier for Andrew.
Kevin's anxiety prevented him from sleeping the night before the trip. His restless shuffling around the suite kept Andrew awake and the knowledge that Andrew was too bothered to sleep kept Neil awake as well. Wymack dropped them off at Upstate Regional before sunrise and they were in the air an hour later.
Neil sat between Kevin and Andrew, but there wasn't much he could say to help either man. Andrew's body remained rigid with paralytic fear no matter how many filthy promises Neil muttered with his ever improving Russian vocabulary. Kevin's leg bounced under his tray table and his nails dug into the sides of his jeans. Neil's only attempt at talking to him was met with a withering glare.
The two ex-Ravens hadn't seen each other outside of an Exy court since the few weeks Jean spent recovering at Abby's house. They'd spoken on the phone a few times, but that was the extent of it. Kevin feared they were too damaged, too sharp, to meet without cutting each other and he spoke sometimes as if he feared their meeting would summon Riko's ghost.
Neil couldn't remember why Kevin thought this was a good idea.
When they landed, Neil sat Kevin down on a bench beside the bathrooms with strict instructions to stay put before letting Andrew drag him into the bathroom. It took only a handful of snarled words to get the disheveled businessman in there to leave without fully drying his hands, leaving the two of them alone. Neil said “yes” before he was dragged into a stall and pinned against the door for three minutes. Andrew needed to forget flying and foster homes and Neil needed to forget Jean's gray eyes and his mother's white bones buried somewhere along the coast, so they lost themselves in each other for a short while. The kisses were more teeth than tongue, frantic and unfocused, and there was a distinct desperation in the air they shared. Neil twisted his fingers hard into Andrew's hair and tried to keep quiet while Andrew sucked a fresh bruise just above Neil's collar and his stubble scraped Neil's skin deliciously raw.
Kevin scowled at the patches of bright color on Neil's neck, but the dull threat in Andrew's eyes kept him quiet. Silently, the three headed out to find Jean.
Out on the sidewalk along the arrivals lane, Jean was standing by a maroon SUV, wearing a USC t-shirt and faded jeans. His face was carefully blank, but Neil recognized the distinct look of someone mentally bracing themselves for something horribly unpleasant. Coach Rhemann looked perfectly at ease behind the wheel and gave Neil a friendly wave when they made eye contact. Andrew didn't react to the sight of Jean, but Kevin let out a strangled wheeze that betrayed his panic.
“Jean,” Kevin said when they were standing in front of him.
Jean shifted his weight and swallowed hard. “Kevin.”
Neil's skin crawled with heat and the desire to run. He counted the hours until they would be back at the dorms.
Jean sat in the passenger seat while Kevin sat in the middle row behind Coach Rhemann and Neil sat in the back with Andrew. Neil pulled a candy bar out of his pocket and Andrew ate it slowly as the SUV flew down the interstate. Since their flights were a few hours apart, Coach Rhemann had suggested to Kevin that they all come to the USC campus for a tour and a nice lunch. Celebrity Kevin, who had been trained to be charming and agreeable, responded with a level of enthusiasm that had Nicky and Neil rolling their eyes in the other room.
Neil could see that Regular Kevin, who was a mere fly trapped in a tangled web of psychological scarring, was far too sober to deal with whatever Celebrity Kevin had agreed to. Neil sent a text to Nicky saying as much and Nicky replied, lmao poor kev.
“How are you getting along with the Trojans?” Kevin asked quietly in French.
“Things are getting easier,” Jean answered neutrally.
Andrew was still staring blankly at the back of Kevin's head as he said in German, “We could kill both of them and bury them in the sand with your mother.”
Neil snorted. “That sounds better than a whole weekend of this.”
Kevin shot Neil a nasty look over his shoulder even though he didn't understand what they had said. Neil feigned a look of innocence.
It was a shame that Jeremy Knox had graduated that year because his presence alone would have soothed Kevin's frayed nerves. The brief tour of the USC campus and the Trojans' Exy court was nothing short of awkward. A few of Jean's teammates were out and about and they stopped to stare at the trio of Foxes following Jean around.
They ate lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant, where Kevin and Jean's stilted attempts at conversation fell flat. It was a bit difficult to chat about the weather with someone you'd seen broken and bleeding. Neil picked at his breaded shrimp and tried to forget the feeling of Jean's hands on him, holding him down and stitching him back together and scrubbing auburn dye through his hair.
Andrew ordered a brownie topped with ice cream instead of proper food. While he ate careful bites of the gooey dessert, he ignored Kevin's scowl and stared blankly at Jean, who didn't fidget like Neil expected him to. The Raven-made mask of haughty confidence snapped in place over Jean's previously open expression and the pair of them blinked at each other while Kevin twisted his napkin in his lap.
“What do you think of California, Minyard?” Jean asked with a little tilt of his head after ten minutes of frozen silence.
Andrew deadpanned, “Seems less misérables than Evermore.”
Kevin scrubbed a hand over his face and looked longingly at the list of alcoholic beverages wedged between two napkin holders.
Looking at Jean properly for the first time that day, Neil could see that the number on his cheekbone had been covered by a small fleur-de-lis. With its association to French royalty, the tattoo fit in well with the queen piece on Kevin's cheek. They'd buried their king and escaped their castle, but the memory of their brutal monarchy would always hang around them.
The tension between Kevin and Jean was still there when the four of them boarded their flight to South Carolina, but they relaxed enough to speak quietly. Neil and Andrew sat in the row behind them and Neil leaned forward a little to eavesdrop, ignoring the way Andrew shook his head slowly at him. Jean's well-being wasn't his concern, but he was curious nonetheless.
Kevin asked polite questions about the Trojans, Jeremy, and Jean's day-to-day life and Neil would have assumed they were practicing for Kathy Ferdinand's show if he didn't know better. Surprisingly, Jean's tone softened when he spoke of his new team. He admitted to Kevin that they hadn't gotten along at all when Jean first got to USC, but they were doing better after a year. Jeremy still texted him frequently and Neil couldn't tell if Jean welcomed this or not. In his spare time, Jean read novels that weren't required for class, worked his way through a list of movies Laila had compiled, and taught himself to play a secondhand keyboard with online tutorials to guide him. He still practiced hours longer than his teammates, still pushed himself to meet impossibly high standards, but he was learning to exist off the court. He was slowly rebuilding the pieces of his personality that Riko had broken.
Andrew wasn't distracted at all by Kevin and Jean's conversation. Eventually, Neil sat back to speak lowly to him in Russian about what they could do after landing. He rambled on about the Foxes and what they needed to improve before the season started. Over the Midwest, their plane shuddered through a thick summer storm and Neil let Andrew squeeze bruises into his knee while he told him a story about the day he and his mother got stranded on a Kansas highway thanks to a broken serpentine belt in the ancient car they'd bought in Salina.
When it was finally time to disembark, Neil struggled to keep up with Andrew as he fought his way through the crowded aisle. He ignored the indignant squawks from people that fell victim to Andrew's sharp elbows or hard shoves. Wilting with mental exhaustion, Neil stumbled after his goalkeeper and trusted that the other two men would find their way.
They piled into Wymack's car and headed back to the Tower. Neil felt instantly better once he was back on campus. The world was tucked under a blanket of darkening blue while the sun sank into pillows of pink and brilliant orange in the west. A few athletes there for preseason were milling about the sidewalks along Perimeter Road, looking for something to chase away their boredom since downtown was still mostly deserted.
Jean would be staying in their suite over the weekend, sleeping in Nicky's bed while Nicky crashed on Matt's couch. Kevin had been adamant about keeping Jean close while he was in South Carolina, so Neil gave up on trying to convince him Jean would be more comfortable at Abby's.
In the Tower's elevator, Neil rubbed at the scars left by handcuffs and thought about the last time he'd shared a dorm with Jean. Andrew casually reached over and dug his thumb into Neil's wrist, pulling him out of his thoughts. Neil answered the silent reprimand in Andrew's eyes with a shaky smile.
As the elevator doors opened the freshman named Tommy was just stepping out of his dorm. Neil expected the younger man to be interested in Jean and mentally prepared to deal with a biting remark about the Ravens, but instead Tommy gestured to Neil's neck and laughed.
“Damn, Cap, you were only out in Cali for a few hours,” Tommy said, grinning. “How'd you find a freak so fast?”
Neil and Andrew stared at him as he disappeared behind the elevator doors.
“Christ,” Kevin muttered as he unlocked their suite with his keys. “Fucking embarrassments, all of them.”
Jean glanced at Neil's neck as if he hadn't noticed earlier, but said nothing before slipping inside the dorm after Kevin.
“How long do you think it'll take the freshmen to figure it out?” Neil asked.
“Someone will fill them in,” Andrew grumbled. “They need gossip like air.”
Neil nodded and yawned so widely his eyes watered before following Andrew into the dorm. He pulled out his phone on the way to the kitchenette to text Matt.
Andrew pulled a tub of Neapolitan ice cream out of the freezer and a spoon from the drawer. Kevin and Jean watched him set into the frozen treat with mixed disapproval and horror.
Matt's reply came in less than a minute. U good??
Neil leaned against the wall and typed back, good just tired.
“I can't believe you let him eat that shit,” Kevin hissed in French.
Andrew's eyes snapped up. Locked away in the dorm, it was now painfully clear that he was the only one who didn't speak French and any disadvantage rankled him. Neil could see his already horrible mood getting worse.
In English, Neil said, “Andrew, Kevin has a problem with your diet.”
Kevin fought to hide his look of betrayal. Jean looked increasingly uncomfortable.
Neil was too tired for this.
Matt's next text read, U can crash here if it gets bad. Aaron's out tonight.
Meanwhile, Andrew was slowly but surely eating his way through the strawberry section, a maneuver that never failed to piss Nicky off. Neil could almost hear the argument that would ensue as soon as Nicky returned- “You're supposed to eat the flavors together, you animal! Why do you eat one section at a time? Who does that?”
Neil knocked his head back against the wall and asked, “Dinner?”
Kevin suggested, “We could get subs or something.”
Neil's phone buzzed in his hand with an incoming text from Lizzy.
u seen brian and colby?
Ive been here 2 secs
“Subs sound fine,” Jean said carefully. The tension in the air was stifling.
Lizzy asked, so no??? hows cali btw?
Its still there
take a nap cap u seem a lil grumpy
Neil shook his head and tucked his phone back into his pocket. “Great, so subs? There's a menu in the drawer, I think.”
Jean's lips pressed into a thin line while Kevin dug through drawers looking for the menu. Neil met Andrew's stare and wished they could just go up to the roof for a couple hours. Kevin found the right menu a few moments later. Neil tore his eyes away from Andrew and fiddled with his phone while Kevin and Jean looked over the options.
“Andrew?” Kevin asked after they made their decisions.
Andrew gave the tub of ice cream a little shake to say he wasn't getting anything.
Kevin rolled his eyes. “You can't have ice cream for dinner.”
“Sure I can.”
“Whatever. Neil, what do you want?”
Neil answered, “Uh, the roast beef one. No mayo. Make it a foot-long.”
It was Andrew's usual order. Andrew arched an eyebrow at him, unimpressed.
Suddenly, Neil's phone sang Wymack's ringtone. Fishing it out, Neil flipped it open and answered, “Yeah?”
“One of your duties as team captain is to fish your underlings out of that disgusting pond.”
Neil's forehead scrunched. “Who's in the pond?”
“Not sure. I just got a call from Coach Larson that one of ours is going for a swim.”
“Have fun with that. I am officially out of fucks to give for the day.”
“Yes, Coach.” He ended the call and tried to weigh the pros and cons of leaving the three other men alone in the kitchen together. Jean had kept more quiet than Neil had expected, but there was no guarantee he wouldn't say the wrong thing to Andrew at some point. Briefly, he thought about texting Lizzy, but she was more likely to jump in the pond with whoever was in there.
“Your teammate is in a pond?” Jean asked with a superior look. “Nice to know the new Foxes are carrying on the tradition of being embarrassing.”
Neil bristled, but Kevin huffed out a small laugh and said, “Swimming in the pond is nothing. Eddie caught a fucking raccoon last month and tried to keep it as a pet.”
“One of the Trojans made pot brownies and forgot to tell people,” Jean said, twisting the hem of his t-shirt. “I'm sure we would've realized sooner if we hadn't been so drunk.”
“You got drunk with the Trojans?” Kevin's disbelief was barely restrained.
Jean lifted a shoulder and looked down at his shoes. “It was graduation. Jeremy wanted one last party with the team. I figured it wouldn't hurt to join in once.”
There was no sense to make of what they'd been through, together and apart, but it seemed like Kevin and Jean were trying anyway. All four of them had survived their own private hells and stumbled out the other side, half-blind from a life in the dark and strangled by paranoia. Fresh air and freedom still left Neil reeling some days. He felt on some level they could all understand each other if they squinted, but Neil didn't have words for this. Something murky and unpleasant swelled in his throat.
“Um, I need to go deal with-” he held up his phone in lieu of actual words. Neil spun on his heel and strode to the door. He shoved his feet into his shoes before darting out into the hallway and taking a moment to breathe.
When the door opened again, he whirled around in surprise to see Andrew stepping out, wearing his shoes and shoving his keys into his pocket. He had a challenge in his eyes that was soft around the edges.
Neil looked from Andrew to the closed door, thinking of the men behind it. “I thought you'd want to supervise them.”
“They're fine. Birds of a feather and all that.”
Neil stared at his blank expression for a few heartbeats before it occurred to him that maybe he'd been wrong in thinking that Andrew's primary concern that weekend was Kevin.
When he saw that Neil was still confused, Andrew said, “He taught Kevin French. He watched you bleed.”
For a split second he could feel a hard mattress under his back, the ghost of metal around his wrists, a knife digging under his skin, sheets glued to his skin with his own blood. He could feel Jean's gray eyes watching.
“He did what he had to,” he said lowly.
“Watch me not give a fuck.”
“All right,” Neil sighed. He didn't want to talk about this anymore when the memory was prickling the forefront of his mind. “Let's just go to the pond.”
They rode down the elevator in silence and walked together across campus to the pond. Streetlights were beginning to hum to life along the roads and sidewalks. For the most part, Palmetto State's campus was relatively quiet still. Some of the athletic teams had moved into the dorms, but the rest of the student body was still scattered, enjoying the last dregs of summer.
By the glow of nearby streetlights, Neil could see Colby standing at the edge of the pond next to a pair of empty shoes and a Red Wings cap that Neil recognized as Brian's. In jersey shorts and a plain white t-shirt, Colby should have looked like a normal college student, but there was something about his vacant, deep blue stare that made him seem ancient. His distant eyes and his quiet demeanor unsettled just about everyone on the team. No one could tell if he was thinking of nothing or everything.
The surface of the pond moved, but it was impossible to see anyone through the dark water.
“What's Brian doing?” Neil asked.
“Looking,” Colby answered softly.
Colby also had the tendency to be frustratingly vague, but there was no defiance or arrogance in his tone to suggest this was an attitude problem.
“What's he looking for?”
“Why is it in the water?”
Colby's eyes drifted away from Neil's face. “It was a swimmer.”
“The one who put it there.”
Neil and Andrew traded a look. The men's swimming and diving team usually stayed away from them- most of the student body avoided the Exy team if they could. Neil couldn't think of a reason for them to mess with Colby of all people. From what Neil had seen, Colby made people feel more confused than confrontational.
“I told him he was pretty and asked if I could take a photograph,” Colby supplied, answering the unasked question. “I don't think he liked that very much.”
Brian resurfaced then, holding something above his head triumphantly. “I found it! Oh, hey, Captain!”
“It's ruined,” murmured Colby, too softly for Brian to hear him, “but he wanted to find it.”
Neil had no idea what these two got up to in their spare time and he felt more certain than ever that he didn't want to know.
“Get out of the pond, Brian!” Neil called.
“Aye, aye!” Brian clambered out of the water, dripping wet with the camera tucked protectively against his chest as if it were a wounded creature. He shot Neil a small smile before handing the waterlogged device to its rightful owner and saying, “Maybe we could get it checked out somewhere? We might be able to get your photos off it.”
Colby shrugged. “It is what it is.”
Neil felt that annoying feeling in his chest that pushed him to reach out to the younger Foxes. It always made him feel awkward, but he still tried. “Colby... maybe we could get the guy to replace your camera. I could talk to the swim team's coach about it if you want.”
“No need, Neil, but thanks. I probably said the wrong words anyway.”
“That guy was just a dick, Colby,” Brian grumbled. “It wasn't your fault.”
“I'm bad with words,” Colby explained to Neil as if this was their first meeting.
Neil nodded once and frowned a little. “Okay, well, you two stay out of trouble- or at least don't get caught next time.”
“Yes, Captain,” the younger men replied.
They followed Neil and Andrew back to the Tower, hanging back out of earshot the entire way, and apparently one of them texted Lizzy because she was waiting at the doors to the lobby. She bumped Neil's fist with her own as she breezed past, shouting to her friends, “What the fuck, guys? You go swimming without me?”
Holly and Jack were in the elevator together when it opened on the ground level. The two of them were pressed against opposite walls with an awkward silence hanging between them. Neil ignored them as they passed and they seemed happy to ignore him as well. Once the doors closed and Neil was alone with Andrew away from prying eyes, he asked, “Yes or no?”
Neil leaned over to kiss him, needing the warmth and reassurance of the contact, and Andrew pressed up into him greedily. The day had been long for both of them and it was still far from over. His phone buzzed with two new text messages before they pulled apart to step off onto their floor.
“Hey, guys!” said Brook as she swept down the hall toward the stairwell.
Neil grunted in reply. He just wanted to sit somewhere in silence for a few hours and not think about how incredibly surrounded by their teammates they were. Before he and Andrew reached the door to their suite, he stopped Andrew with a hand curved around his elbow.
Andrew replied, “Food.”
“We could go to that little diner on Main.”
“You get to text Kevin, then.”
Andrew sent the text before they made it back onto the elevator. By the time they were sitting in the Maserati and Neil was starting up the engine, the tension in Andrew's shoulders had melted away and the uneasiness in Neil's chest was almost gone. The weekend still promised to be horribly uncomfortable, but the next few hours were theirs.