“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” Neil says, for maybe the fifth time. “You’re getting the hang of it, and this is only pre-season.”
Simon doesn’t seem as easily convinced, but he gives Neil a defeated look. “Could you at least tell me if I’m holding my racquet right?”
Neil gives him a tentative look as he wraps his fingers the same way a beginner might, then plants his feet all wrong, but Simon isn’t looking at him. Which is suspicious, really. Both of them know that Simon was on an Exy team in high school, maybe even signed up for junior leagues as a child or used it as a way to pass the time on weekends. Neither is it a secret that he's never switched positions, not like Neil.
Both of them are aware that Simon should know how to properly hold his racquet by now, and both of them are aware that there's nothing but purpose in the set of Simon's shoulders, but, for once, Neil bites his tongue and says nothing. He keeps his distance as he corrects Simon’s form, never stepping closer than arm’s length away.
“I won’t bite, you know,” Simon mumbles, but in the still silence of the court, Neil can hear him as clearly as if he were shouting.
Neil gives him another look that Simon doesn’t return and motions for him to straighten his shoulders. “It’s not right to touch someone when they don’t want it,” says Neil, confident of this, at least.
Simon finally meets Neil’s gaze. “What if I want you to?”
Neil frowns. Simon is standing ready and low, poised to pounce. His fingers are gripped tighter around his racquet. Reflex, Neil thinks, which only confirms everything Neil has been thinking up to this moment. “You don’t need me to.” He directs a pointed look at his hands. “You got it right on your own.”
Simon gives him a startled look, just about the realest expression than anything else has been, deflating at the sight of himself. “Yeah,” says Simon, barking out a dry laugh. “Yeah. Thanks a lot.”
He gives Neil a lingering look on his way off the court.
“That’s not what the script says.”
Neil had been annoyed when his French professor assigned everyone a script they would have to recite in front of the class, but what made it worse was the partner Neil was paired with. Not because she was rude or ignorant or unmotivated – she was none of those things. She was tooth-achingly sweet, the kind of person that knew everyone in the halls and always had time to answer a question – which was probably worse. Neil had become accustomed to Renee out of exposure, more than anything. He grew to genuinely like her eventually (again, more out of exposure than anything), but nice people still put him on edge.
In the week that they worked together, she tried to make small talk after they finished practicing, but she never pushed it when it was clear Neil didn’t feel like talking, which he could appreciate. Neil was comfortable in silences; she recognized that for what it was and respected it. So when, on their last day of working together, she suggests practicing before they present, Neil supposes she’s just jittery.
“Connaissez-vous de bons restaurants dans les alentours?” she had said in French, which threw Neil off. They had read through their lines enough times that they both knew it by memory, but Neil’s mind came up blank at the phrase.
Her cheeks are pink and voice high under Neil’s stare, but she continues, saying, “Peut-être que nous pourrions aller un jour?”
Neil flips through his packet. “What page are you on?”
“Er,” she says, looking pained, “no, I’m – I’m not reading from the script, I.” He looks at her now, trying to read her face, but all she does is sigh, her mouth twisting into an easy smile. “It was a question on my homework a few days ago, but I didn’t know what it meant. I was hoping you would?”
“Do you know any good restaurants nearby,” he translates, then, “maybe we could go some day.”
She averts her eyes to the floor. “Yes, of course.” Quietly, “thank you.”
To Neil, she seems to act normal for the rest of class, but he’s never been very good at recognizing disappointment in someone else’s eyes.
“Oh, shit shit shit shit shit,” the guy with a now empty tray is cursing, almost right against Neil’s cheek. Neil, per contra, didn’t say anything when the man bumped into him, didn’t even make a sound, merely stiffened his spine and clenched his teeth. The sensation of ice cubes against skin makes Neil’s skin crawl.
His own tray is an alcoholic mix down his front, a plastic umbrella caught on Neil’s collar.
The man pulls away at the first possible second stuttering apologies, hands fluttering like moths. When Neil meets his gaze, the guy takes a quick breath, says again, more to himself, “Shit.”
“It’s alright,” Neil sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose raw. “I was going to have to make a double trip regardless.” Which is true. Andrew is still looking for a place to park, and the team is still feverish from tonight’s win, which means that when Andrew finally does find a parking space, the Foxes will be on their third round, probably, and Andrew will want a drink.
“No, wait – uh.” In any other situation, Neil would have guessed that the man was looking at his scars from the intent way he stared if it wasn’t for the fact that his eyes hadn’t left Neil’s for a second. “At least let me buy you a new – um.” He trades from staring at Neil to staring at the vast assortment of empty cups in Neil’s hands.
Neil takes pity on him. “I don’t even know, but don’t worry about it.”
Again, “Wait, I wanted to ask you – are you here with anyone?”
Neil’s first instinct is to say no, but instead he says, “Yes, with some friends,” and letting himself say the word friends is almost stranger than saying yes. It leaves a pleasant aftertaste in his mouth.
The man looks embarrassed. “But are you here with anyone?”
That question is probably even stranger than saying friends and is definitely stranger than saying yes. Neil blinks. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
“Let me buy you a drink,” he blurts. “A cold cocktail is the least I can do.”
“Really,” says Neil, uncomfortable as hell, “it’s no big deal,” and resigns himself back into the crowd before the other man can get out another word.
“Where are the shots?” Nicky asks when Neil shows up at the table empty-handed.
Meanwhile, at the bar, Roland serves the man a tall glass of liquor and a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
Converse are not meant to be used as running shoes, Andrew tells him, often, and one day Neil will be out running when they fall apart, and what will he do then?
He’s no more than a twenty minute jog away from the tower when Neil feels something tug at his sole and, all of a sudden, he’s face first on the pavement. The peeling underside of his shoe had snagged on a storm drain, making a clean break on Neil’s fall down. That is how Neil finds himself stranded in a town he barely knows, unsure of what he’s supposed to do next, with only one shoe to figure it out. Which rankles. In the dark corner of his mind, Neil knows this is on him, but he’ll be damned if he calls Andrew to admit it.
When Neil has just about resigned himself to running back barefoot, a voice behind him says, “Hey, man, are you okay?”
Neil’s muscles clench on instinct, but his head jerks only to find a man wearing a concerned expression.
As a general rule, Neil doesn’t like talking to strangers, but he’s getting better at shoving the thought to the sidelines. Still, Neil keeps himself poised for any signs of danger, eyeing him and taking everything in in snapshots: he’s young, maybe as young as Neil, early twenties at the very most, with a nice, clean face quick to smile. Neil searches for the palpable antagonism people sent to kill him always have and finds none; this man is languid and careless in the way that normal people often are.
All in all, he doesn’t fit Nathan’s or Ichirou’s taste. It’s not much comfort, but it’s enough for Neil to find himself with his leg outstretched to a stranger – Casey, he’d said – while he wrapped Neil’s shoe back together with familiar thin, white tape.
“What are you doing carrying around medical dressing?” asks Neil, which earns him a loud laugh from Casey.
“I’m a premed student." He snaps the end with his teeth, giving his handiwork a speculative look before throwing the roll back in his bag. Neil gets to his feet, experimenting. “But I work at that coffee shop down the street. I see you run by in the mornings; you’re a really good runner, by the way.”
“You’re Neil Josten, right? Striker for Palmetto Exy?” Neil's mouth goes dry just as Casey throws his head back and laughs. “The guy who talked shit about Riko Moriyama on national television?”
After so long with the Foxes, Exy fans knowing about him shouldn’t be such a surprise, especially now that he’s vice-captain, and it’s not like the man says anything he couldn’t read about in a sports magazine or catch from a game, but Neil feels frozen to the spot. “Yes,” he says, finally, after a long moment without saying anything. “Thanks for your help.”
It’s a clear dismissal, easy to pinpoint the desire to leave, but Casey keeps talking. “Sure. And, you know, the next time you come running past, if you come in, I might give you a free drink.”
“That’s not necessary,” he says, because being an Exy player doesn’t mean he should get free things, and the upperclassman would possibly die of laughter if Neil accepted. “But thanks anyway.”
As Neil rushes off, he thinks, absurdly, imagine if he had met Kevin instead.
Dan is almost laughing too hard to continue. “But all I’m saying,” she takes an unsteady breath, goes, “is that however anyone ever manages to get around to Neil must go through a lot of sweat and tears.”
The Foxes are all watching as a girl at the front desk leans insinuatingly into the stretch of space between her and Neil, the curl of her lips painstakingly obvious, but Neil’s uninterested and oblivious stare stays level. Andrew clenches his fist and glares at the book in his lap, hard. He’s always hated the campus library.
“Poor girl,” Matt sighs. “She’s going about it all wrong; she doesn’t stand a chance.”
“What even is the right way to go about it?” Nicky asks. “Is there even a right way to go about it?”
“Why don’t we ask the only one who would know?”
Allison is picking at her nails when Andrew glances up, her face blank with disinterest. It’s no secret that she doesn’t like him, and it’s no secret that it’s a mutual sentiment. She wouldn’t talk to him unless she wanted something, and, sometimes, maybe not even then. Allison’s practiced arrogance is what keeps her inconspicuous, but the fact that she acknowledged his presence at all gives her away. Everyone's eyes train from Neil to Andrew immediately. Even Kevin’s eyes flicker upwards from the book in his lap, if only momentarily. To think that all of them have only a casual interest would be stupid, especially at the anticipatory look on Nicky’s face, who’s never bothered to learn the art of subtlety. They’ve probably placed four separate betting pools and a 12-pack of beer on what Andrew’s next words are.
“Why, of course,” says Andrew, bored tone to match Allison's expression, "like this," and slams his book shut with a sharp crack.
Neil’s eyes fire at the sound, catching immediately on Andrew. The girl is still talking animatedly about something, wide gestures meant to distract and brag, but Neil only has eyes for him. Andrew arches an eyebrow, just a little, barely anything, but it’s enough. Enough for Neil to smile at him over the girl’s shoulder, completely unaware of her at this point. His eyes are impossibly bright.
Beneath his cold, iron exterior, every part of Andrew's body seems to constrict. For a heartbeat – two – he can hardly breathe with the force of it.
Around him, the Foxes exchange hands under the table.