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The Foxhole Court: Chapter 13


The self-proclaimed King of Exy kissed Kathy’s cheek in greeting. Whatever Riko and Kathy said to each other was lost in the audience’s racket, but Kathy was beaming when she leaned back. Riko took the last few steps to Kevin’s couch alone and stood over him. He was smiling, but neither Kevin nor Neil was stupid enough to think he was happy. The only look in his eyes was murder.

Any animosity Neil felt toward Kevin for forcing him onto this show evaporated. He couldn’t be angry when Riko was here, not when Riko was to Kevin what Neil’s father was to him. Petty anger had nothing on this full-fledged terror.

Only after the crowd quieted down did Riko speak. ‘Kevin. It’s been so long.’

There was a scuffle and crash in the audience. Neil didn’t want to take his eyes off Riko, but it was instinctive to look. Renee was sitting sideways in Andrew’s lap, one foot braced against the ground to keep him from shoving her off. She had a hand over his mouth as they both stared up at the stage. Matt had one of Andrew’s wrists in both hands. Wymack had the other. The looks on the Foxes’ faces ranged from horror to fury.

Riko moved, and Neil forgot about his team in favor of staring Riko down. Riko ignored him completely and held his hand out to Kevin in invitation. Kevin stared at it for a couple seconds, then slipped a hand into Riko’s and let Riko pull him to his feet. The crowd applauded as Riko embraced Kevin, apparently oblivious to how slowly Kevin returned the hug.

Riko let go and held Kevin at arm’s length. ‘I think you’ve shrunk since I last saw you. Don’t they feed you down here? I always heard southern food is heavy.’

‘I run it off on the court, I guess.’
‘What a miracle.’
There was an edge in his voice, but Kathy smiled and gestured between them. ‘It truly is a miracle. Take a good look, everyone. Your golden pair is back, but for the first time ever, they’re rivals. Riko, Kevin, we thank you from the bottoms of our hearts for tolerating our incessant fanaticism.’
She motioned for them to sit. Riko backed away from Kevin to sit on the other couch. Kevin sank back onto his cushion, but he was paying more attention to Riko than where he was going. He ended up with his thigh pressed against Neil’s, hard enough Neil could feel him trembling.
Kathy looked at Riko. ‘From what I’ve just heard from Kevin, it sounds like neither of you have spoken in a while. Is that right?’
‘It is,’ Riko said. ‘You sound surprised.’
‘Well, yes,’ Kathy said. ‘I didn’t think it possible for you two to grow apart.’
‘A year ago it would have been impossible,’ Riko said, ‘but you have to understand how emotionally crushing December was. The injury was Kevin’s to bear, but we all suffered for it. Some of us couldn’t handle the reality of what that accident meant, myself included. Kevin and I grew up at Evermore. We built our lives around that team and our pair work. I couldn’t believe we’d lost it. I couldn’t accept that our dreams had collapsed. Neither could he, so we withdrew from each other.’
‘But for nine months?’
She looked at Kevin, so he answered, but his voice had lost its easy edge for something duller. ‘Perhaps it was inevitable. We made Exy the center of our lives, Kathy. We showed you our best, but we didn’t show you what it cost us. Juggling three teams, university classes, and public pressure was wearing us down, but we refused to admit it. We didn’t want to believe we had limits.’
Kathy nodded. ‘I can’t even imagine that stress and pressure. I suppose it had to put a strain on your friendship.’
‘We are human sometimes,’ Riko said, ‘and therefore we can’t help but have our differences, hmm, Kevin?’
‘No family is perfect,’ Kevin agreed quietly.
Kathy nodded sympathetically. ‘Can I just say it was terrifying when you two disappeared? The last we heard, you two had gone skiing to celebrate the end of the semester, and then no one saw either of you in public for a month. I feared the worst, but I didn’t realize what the worst really was until Coach Wymack made his announcement.’
‘The worst was having everything and losing it,’ Riko said. ‘We signed with Court last year, which meant we had only one dream left to achieve: to play together with Court at the summer Olympics. We knew it was coming, that it was just a matter of time, that a lifetime’s worth of effort and sacrifice was about to pay off. Then Kevin broke his hand.’
‘Everything changed,’ Kevin said, so low no one would hear him if not for the microphone he was wearing. ‘We weren’t ready to acknowledge that. It was easier to just walk away. Unwise,’ he allowed, glancing at Riko, ‘but easier.’
‘Heartbreaking,’ Kathy said sadly. Kevin looked at his water and said nothing. Kathy finally got a clue that the conversation was going the wrong way. She turned on Riko again, giving Kevin time to pull himself back together. ‘But look at him now. Isn’t it amazing how far he’s come this year?’
‘I’m not sure it is,’ Riko said, ‘but I’m saying that as his brother, as his best friend. 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?’
His tone was concerned, but Neil could practically feel his knife twisting deeper in Kevin’s chest. Everything Riko was saying was meant to hurt Kevin, and it was working. It wasn’t Neil’s turn to talk, but he’d heard enough. His temper couldn’t stomach any more of Riko’s cruelty.
‘I thought friends were supposed to cheer each other on,’ he said before Kathy could answer Riko. ‘Believing in him now is the least you could do after completely abandoning him last winter.’
A couple people in the audience booed at that. Matt and Dan whooped to balance it out.
‘Ah, forgive my bad manners,’ Kathy said to Neil. ‘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?’
Riko finally looked at Neil. ‘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.’
‘Was unique,’ Neil said, and emphasized again, ‘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 said. ‘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. ‘I have a bit of an attitude problem.’
Riko’s smile was all ice. ‘A bit?’
Kathy intervened before things could get 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 said, ‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘You wouldn’t honestly have him go back, would you?’ Neil asked. ‘I can’t believe it.’
‘This has nothing to do with you,’ Riko said.
‘Stop being so selfish,’ Neil said, and Kathy gaped at him. Kevin pinched Neil’s arm in warning, 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. ‘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 twentyseven 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.’
‘You didn’t hold your ground,’ Riko said over the Foxes’ applause. ‘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.’
‘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.’
Riko’s smile could have frozen hell. ‘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 quick 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?’
Kevin clenched his hand around Neil’s arm, cutting off circulation all the way to Neil’s fingertips. ‘I already said it,’ Kevin said without looking at Riko. ‘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. Neil barely heard her announce the end of the Exy segment and the cut to commercials. A light at the foot of the stage went dark, indicating they were off the air. Kathy covered the microphone on her shirt collar and looked at her guests.
‘You boys made my day,’ she said with her biggest smile yet. The three got to their feet and Kathy shook their hands. ‘Keep the clothes. There’re refreshments in back and we’ve got seats up front so you can watch the rest of the show.’
‘Thank you,’ Kevin said.
Neil had no intention of hanging out here any longer. He looked out at the crowd. Wymack sliced a hand across his throat and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Neil hoped he was right in translating it as ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ He reached past Kevin to put his water on Kathy’s desk. Kevin didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon, so Neil put his body between Riko’s and Kevin’s and pushed Kevin toward the wings.
Riko followed them off the stage and behaved until they were in the hallway. The aides who’d been waiting in the wings rushed past them to check on Kathy and adjust settings during the commercial break. Neil thought maybe one would linger long enough to distract Riko, but maybe the time crunch was more important than autographs right now.
Neil hated having Riko at his back, but Riko moved just as Neil turned to face him. Riko caught Neil by his shoulders and threw him up against the wall. Neil went rigid as they stared each other down, trapped more by the death in Riko’s eyes than the fingers leaving bruises on his shoulders. Riko had the same stare his father did: he looked at Neil and saw only flesh that knew how to bleed.
‘I do not approve, Kevin,’ Riko said. ‘You should get rid of him as soon as possible.’
‘You saw our game last night,’ Kevin said quietly. ‘He has potential.’
‘Potential.’ Riko slammed Neil against the wall again and whirled on Kevin. Kevin stared back at him, white-faced and tense. ‘You said that goalkeeper had potential and then wrote him off as useless when I offered him to you. You’ll get bored of this one just as quickly. Believe me.’
Kevin pressed his lips into a hard line and looked away. Riko made a disgusted noise low in his throat. He said something in a language Neil didn’t understand. Neil guessed it was Japanese. Whatever it was, it sounded furious. Kevin flinched and offered a weak response. Riko stabbed a finger at him in angry accusation and rattled away, getting louder and more incensed by the second. Neil watched Kevin wilt beneath the weight of his brother’s—no, owner’s—fury and kissed his survival instincts goodbye. He grabbed Riko’s shirt and hauled him back.
‘Leave him alone.’
A black look twisted Riko’s expression into something ugly and unrecognizable. He reached for Neil, but Kevin caught his arm to stop him. Riko slammed his elbow back into Kevin’s face without missing a beat. Neil retreated as fast as he could, but there was only so far he could go before he would end up on stage again. He’d just started tripping over wires when Andrew appeared in front of him.
‘Riko,’ Andrew said, spreading his arms as if he intended to hug Riko hello. ‘It’s been a while.’
Riko jerked back a bit in surprise, started to school his expression into something more civil, and gave up when he realized who had joined them.
‘We were just talking about you,’ Riko said.
‘With your fists, it seems,’ Andrew said. ‘Don’t touch my things, Riko. I don’t share.’
He reached back without looking and pushed at Neil’s shoulder. Neil took the hint and skirted around Andrew and Riko. He half-expected Riko to stop them, but all of Riko’s attention was on Andrew. Neil grabbed Kevin’s arm and hauled him down the hall, looking for the exit. They were almost there when the team caught up with them. Abby jogged the last couple steps to Kevin and crushed him in a fierce embrace. Kevin held onto her for dear life while the team hovered nearby.
Wymack looked at Neil. ‘Are you seriously retarded or something? You would have been safer back at Palmetto after all.’
‘Leave him alone, David,’ Abby said, muffled against Kevin’s shoulder.
‘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 to them. He touched Neil’s back on his way by, fingers light enough to give Neil goose bumps, but didn’t slow on his way to Kevin’s side. He pressed a hand to Abby’s arm in a silent demand for her 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.
‘Coach says stupid, but I say you have balls of steel. I didn’t think you had it in you,’ Matt said, looking Neil over as if wondering what he’d missed this summer. ‘I thought you were the quiet type.’
‘If Neil was quiet, Andrew wouldn’t have brought him to Columbia,’ Renee said.
‘True,’ Matt agreed.
When Neil looked between them, Renee smiled and said, ‘Andrew’s welcome parties are his way of sizing up and eliminating threats. Not everyone gets invited.’
‘You went,’ Neil said, not believing it but knowing somehow he was right.
‘The three of us were,’ Renee said, gesturing at Matt and Dan. ‘No one else was until you.’
‘Let’s go,’ Wymack said. ‘I am going to drop you off at the dorm and spend the rest of the day drinking. Damage control can wait until tomorrow.’
They caught up with Andrew’s group at the bus. Wymack unlocked the door to let them on, and he got them on the road as fast as he could.
Neil spent the ride staring out the window and trying to figure out the consequences of what he’d done. Neil knew harmless conversation with his teammates was better than his dire thoughts, but he wasn’t in the mood. He was too tense to play nice with them. Luckily Renee got the hint after a couple attempts and left him alone.
They were almost halfway back when Andrew had to take his medicine again. Abby went to the back of the bus to make sure he really swallowed it. Neil halfexpected Andrew to fight it after what had happened at Kathy’s show, but Andrew was surprisingly compliant.
They stopped only to get gas and made good time back to campus. Neil was so relieved to see Palmetto State again it was almost painful. Wymack let the bus idle out back of Fox Tower and watched his team climb out. He said nothing until Andrew approached, then put a hand in Andrew’s path.
‘Be smart.’
Andrew flapped a hand at Wymack. ‘I know, I know.’
Neil didn’t know if Wymack actually trusted Andrew, but Wymack nodded and dropped his hand. Andrew took the stairs down and didn’t slow on his way to the dorm. Wymack didn’t leave until they were all inside. They took the stairs to the third floor, and Dan stopped outside Andrew’s room.
‘Hey,’ Dan said as Andrew unlocked his door. ‘Let’s have lunch together as a team. We don’t have to talk about this morning if you don’t want to.’
Andrew pretended to think about it. ‘No.’
He opened the door and stepped out of the way to send Kevin a pointed look. Kevin started into the room.
‘Don’t worry, Kevin,’ Dan said. ‘We’ll figure this out together.’
Kevin glanced back at her, but he didn’t get to answer. Andrew put his hand to Kevin’s back and shoved him into the bedroom. Dan scowled at Andrew as Aaron and Nicky followed Kevin inside. Andrew smiled and slammed the door in her face.
‘Asshole,’ Matt said.
‘They’re upset,’ Renee said. ‘They couldn’t help him today.’
‘They didn’t have to,’ Matt said. ‘Neil did it for them.’
They went to the men’s suite and found Seth and Allison tangled together on the couch. They were watching a movie, dressed but just barely. Neither seemed embarrassed about being walked in on. The upperclassmen didn’t bat an eye, as if this was a normal sight around these parts, but Neil averted his eyes from the pair. The most Allison did to cover up was to put one of the couch pillows on her lap over her pink thong.
‘He’s looking fancy,’ she said, pointing at Neil.
‘Surprise guest on Kathy’s show,’ Dan said. ‘Kathy wanted the exclusive and Kevin wanted the publicity. Did it record all right?’
‘I haven’t checked it yet. We were busy.’
‘You think?’ Matt asked.
Dan elbowed him. ‘Pause that, would you? We have to talk. Something went wrong this morning.’
‘We’re Foxes. Something is always going wrong,’ Seth said, but he fished the remote out from under a cushion and turned the TV off.
Dan got right to the point. ‘Riko was on the show.’
Seth stared at her for a second before bursting into raucous laughter. Allison smothered him with her pillow and said, ‘On the show like how?’
‘Kathy sat him down seven feet from Kevin and asked why they split up.’
Seth pushed the pillow out of the way. ‘I should have gone. Did he freak? I bet he freaked.’
‘Seth, shut up,’ Dan said. ‘It isn’t funny.’
‘He held it together after Neil told Riko off,’ Matt said. ‘Kid’s got a serious mouth on him. He made Riko look like a stupid asshole who sells out friends on a daily basis. You really should borrow the tape from us later and watch it.’
Seth looked dubious. Allison arched an eyebrow at Neil and asked, ‘What’d the monster think?’
‘He was drugged to high heaven,’ Dan said. ‘Abby made sure he dosed up on the way back, but I recommend avoiding him the rest of the weekend.’
‘What else is new?’ Seth said.
Renee let the silence settle between them for a minute. When it seemed the serious part of the conversation was over, she said, ‘Is anyone else interested in lunch? I’m starving.’
They ordered a couple pizzas to be delivered to the room. Allison and Seth dressed while they waited, and then Neil took over the bedroom to change out of Kathy’s clothes. He buried them at the bottom of the dresser beneath his more practical outfits and tugged on worn jeans and an oversized tee. He and his teammates wasted a few hours with food and a movie. Afterward talk turned to the season, but the upperclassmen seemed as happy to talk about the Ravens as Neil was to think about them. Allison tolerated the moping for only a minute before distracting them with talk of the banquet.
‘We should go shopping tomorrow,’ Allison said. ‘I’m going to need time to find the perfect dress. You,’ she pointed between Matt and Seth, ‘are in charge of getting Neil something real to wear. I’ve seen everything he owns. I don’t trust him to choose something appropriate.’
‘I could just not go,’ Neil said.
‘You have to go,’ Dan said. ‘It’s a team event.’
There was a knock at the door. Dan was closest, so she got up to answer it. Nicky was waiting in the hallway, smiling but visibly tense.
‘How bad is it?’ Dan asked.
Nicky winced. ‘Does your armcandy there know how to install a window?’
Matt looked over his shoulder at the bedroom window. ‘I can try, but I’m not going anywhere near him tonight.’
‘Tomorrow’s cool, too,’ Nicky said. ‘Just, you know, preferably before Coach comes around to check on Kevin again. There’s three hundred bucks in it for you if it’s fixed before noon.’
‘You get Andrew out of the room and I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Awesome.’ Nicky looked at Neil. ‘Andrew wants to see you.’
Neil looked at the clock and did the math. If Andrew took his midday dose on time, he should be popping another pill any minute now. Neil wondered if he’d really take it and idly hoped he would. If withdrawal didn’t upset Andrew enough, being able to finally react to this morning’s events without drugs in his veins would make him downright murderous. Neil wouldn’t want to be Kevin tonight.
He got up and followed Nicky down the hall to Andrew’s suite. He hadn’t been in their room since he’d come to yell at them for breaking into his things, and they were pretty good about keeping their door shut, so it was weird to step inside again. He spotted Kevin first, curled up on one of the oversized beanbag chairs facing away from the door. Aaron was washing dishes in the kitchen and didn’t look up as they went by. Nicky pointed down the hall and went to sit with Kevin. Neil went alone into the dark bedroom and closed the door behind him.
The cousins had pushed two of their dressers against the wall under the window. Andrew sat on top of them, leaning forward so he could fold his arms across his knees. Neil smelled blood and looked past Andrew at the window. Andrew had taken the screen off in the main room so he could smoke, but this window still had one. It was probably all that saved his hand when he punched a hole in the glass.
Andrew wasn’t looking at him but at the bloody hand dangling between his knees. He flexed his fingers occasionally as if checking the extent of the damage he’d wrought.
‘You could have destroyed your hand with a stunt like that,’ Neil said.
Andrew laughed. ‘Oh my, where would I be then?’
‘Off the team,’ Neil said. ‘Where would Kevin be then?’
Andrew didn’t answer. Neil crossed the room to stand in front of 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. ‘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.’
‘I had 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.
Andrew sat up and slumped back against the screen. Neil glanced down at Andrew’s hand as it slid into Andrew’s lap, but he couldn’t see the actual cuts past Andrew’s drying, smeared blood.
‘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 was lightheaded with nausea. ‘Shut up.’
‘What will you do when he finds out? Run?’
‘You know I will.’
‘I know,’ Andrew agreed. ‘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 away, 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 messy 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?’
The question was so unexpected Neil had to turn back. ‘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 as if Neil was being difficult on purpose. ‘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. ‘Why would you help me?’
‘Ask me later,’ Andrew said. 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? 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 like he’d never seen it before, 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 left as fast as he could, but he only made it as far as the hallway. As soon as he shut the door behind him, his legs locked, and he grabbed desperately at the wall. A spike of panic wrenched his stomach into his throat. He dug the side of his hand into his mouth so hard he tasted blood.
Was he supposed to honestly think some rabid goalkeeper could protect him?
His thoughts went unbidden to the confrontation in Kathy’s studio. Andrew showed up in time to protect Neil. He should have gone straight for Kevin, since Kevin appeared to be the center of his strange world, but he’d put himself between Riko and Neil instead. Andrew knew exactly who the Moriyamas were and he knew hints of what Neil was involved in, but he thought he could stand between them just the same.
Neil shoved away from the wall and went to the stairwell. He was running before he reached the ground floor, and he slammed the front door open so hard it banged on its hinges. Louder than that crash was his heartbeat thundering in his ears.
What if he could stay? What if a psychotic teenager really was enough? What if Andrew was right that the Foxes’ infamy could protect his identity?
Neil should know better than to believe such dangerous promises, but Andrew’s words haunted him every step of the way.


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