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The Raven King: Chapter 3

Thursday’s practice was more uncomfortable than Wednesday’s was. It would be easy to blame Andrew’s drugged reappearance in their goal Thursday afternoon, but Andrew mostly behaved himself. He didn’t mention Seth a single time and had little to say to the upperclassmen.

The problem was what Dan and Matt had noticed Wednesday night: the team stood to be so much greater without Seth on the line. Andrew, Aaron, and Nicky might have personal issues off the court, but they worked well together on it. Matt had an in with the group thanks to his talent and whatever Andrew put him through last year. Dan led them and kept them moving from her spot as the offensive dealer. Kevin pushed Neil mercilessly on the strikers’ line, but Neil fought tooth and nail to keep up. Renee smoothed over the jagged edges whenever they started to show.

For the first time in Fox history, the team was a unified force. Dan and Matt could see that, but Neil saw the guilt on their faces and heard the catch in their words when they spoke during breaks. They didn’t want to find the silver lining of Seth’s death and they were hesitant to exploit it. Neil wanted to tell them death was no reason to hold back, but he found their humanity interesting. He just hoped they got over it before first serve on Friday night.

Their second match of the season was an away game, for which the team was grateful. Seth’s absence was noticeable enough at practices; the first home game without him would be awkward and distracting. Neil didn’t think Allison was ready for that yet.

Wymack needed them at the court by twelve-thirty on Friday so they could get on the road on time. He signed them out of their late morning classes, but it didn’t save Neil from his Spanish and math lessons. After calculus he dropped his bag off at the dorm and met his teammates. Dan did a headcount in the hall to make sure they were all present, and then they split up between two cars for the short drive to the stadium.

Since Saturday’s trip to Columbia, Neil had been riding to the stadium with the cousins. There was more room in Matt’s truck than there was in Andrew’s backseat, but Andrew had given Neil an explicit order Saturday night: stay in Kevin’s line of sight and keep Kevin interested in his potential. Neil could have argued that there was nothing to gain from sitting behind Kevin in a car, except now Dan and Matt trusted him to somehow bring the team together. They were right when they said Andrew was the key. Neil had to stay on his good side until he figured out the right leverage, so he swallowed his discomfort and did as he was told.

He had a new reason to be uncomfortable when they pulled into the stadium parking lot. Abby had been out all week taking care of Allison, but her car was here now. That meant Allison was waiting for them in the locker room.

On Saturday morning Neil insulted Riko on national television. Kevin warned them Riko would retaliate the same day. The Foxes should have stayed together out of sight, but Allison and Seth went bar-hopping downtown with friends. Neil saw Seth right before they all split up. He remembered telling the upperclassmen goodbye before following Andrew south to Columbia. Four hours later Seth was dead.

It could be tragic coincidence and convenient timing. It could be Riko’s handiwork. The latter was absurd, but the former was impossible. Allison knew Seth’s bad habits. She knew Seth liked mixing drinks with his prescription pills. Neil saw Allison dig through Seth’s pockets in search of the bottle. She’d come up empty and kissed Seth’s irritation away. Somehow he overdosed anyway, and Andrew was convinced Riko was behind it.

Neil hadn’t been directly responsible for someone’s death in years, though he knew how many people died in his mother’s quest to keep them safe. Neil never wanted to be his father, but he didn’t want to turn into his mother, either. They were different kinds of heartless and Neil, for all his problems connecting with other people, didn’t want to be a monster. The way this season was starting, though, maybe it was inevitable he’d turn into his parents.

Neil needed more time to figure out which theory he sided with, but it didn’t matter what he thought. If Allison connected the dots and blamed Seth’s death on Neil there’d be no dealing with her this year. Neil had to patch things up with her somehow, but he didn’t know where to start. He’d never been good at winning people over. Someone like Allison wasn’t likely to be his first success.

Allison Reynolds was a bewildering choice for Palmetto State. She looked like a picture-perfect princess, but she could brawl with the best of them on the court. She refused to bend to others’ expectations of her and could be honest to the point of cruelty. She could have inherited her parents’ billion-dollar empire, but she didn’t want the restrictions that life came with. She wanted the right to be her own person. She wanted to prove herself on the court. And for some reason she wanted Seth despite his many issues and rude affection.

Neil hoped she could learn to live with two out of three.

Andrew must have felt Neil tense up; they were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the backseat of Andrew’s car. He followed Neil’s stare to Abby’s car as Nicky pulled into a parking space a short ways down.

‘She made it,’ Andrew said. ‘This should be interesting.’

Nicky twisted the key out of the ignition. ‘For you, perhaps.’

‘Yes, for me.’ Andrew laughed and got out of the car.

Aaron was slower to move, so Neil followed Andrew out onto the asphalt. He hesitated with one hand on the door and stared at the Foxes’ bus where it was parked a couple spaces down. Andrew watched him with a mocking smile on his lips. Neil was stalling and they both knew it.

Annoyed, Neil pushed the car door closed and started for the fence. He put Abby’s digits into the security keypad and listened for the buzz before trying the knob. Andrew was on his heels as he went down the hall, with Kevin no doubt right behind him, so Neil didn’t let himself slow. He braced himself for Allison’s possible reaction and stepped into the locker room.

Neil had seen Allison at her best, dressed to the nines with flawless makeup and curls. He’d seen her fresh off the court, red-faced and sweaty and human. He’d never seen her like this.

Allison’s platinum-blond hair was perfectly styled and everything she wore was trendy and expensive. At first glance it was like nothing had changed, but more than a split-second look showed the fight had gone out of her. She sat with her fingers laced together and hands locked between her knees, her shoulders slumped and expression dead. Her eyes were hooded and she stared at the floor, seemingly oblivious to the arrival of her five teammates.

Andrew went straight for his spot on the couch like he didn’t even notice she was there, but Aaron and Kevin froze at the sight of her. Neil thought he should apologize or ask if she was okay, but his voice was dead inside him. Surprisingly, it was Nicky who found the strength to cross the room toward her. He crouched in front of her, moving slow like he thought she’d run off if he startled her, and gazed up into her face.

‘Hey,’ Nicky said, soft and nice like the two of them hadn’t spent all summer cutting each other down on the court. ‘Is there anything we can do?’

She didn’t answer, but she heard him. Her lips went white as she pressed them harder together. Nicky stayed where he was, trying to either offer silent support or wait her out. It was an age before Allison moved again, but she didn’t look at Nicky. Her smoky gray gaze lifted unerringly to Neil’s face.

Neil stood silent and still just inside the locker room door and waited for her judgment. It never came. The seconds dragged by, endless and awful, and Allison’s expression didn’t change. She didn’t look angry like he thought she should or sad like he was sure she would. She was just—there. She was breathing, but she was lifeless, a marionette whose strings had been cut.

Neil was saved by the arrival of the rest of the team. He had to move to avoid getting hit by the door. Dan and Renee went straight to Allison’s chair and took up perches on the arms to either side of her. Dan wound her arm around Allison’s shoulders, somehow looking more fierce than comforting, and murmured something at Allison’s ear. Allison turned her head toward Dan’s, soaking up whatever reassurances Dan had for her, and Neil finally remembered how to move. Nicky got up when it was obvious the girls could handle Allison. The rest of the team slowly settled around the rest of the room.

They were all on time, but Wymack and Abby were conspicuously absent. Neil wondered if Wymack was late on purpose. His absence took away the pressure and reality of why they were here. He was giving the Foxes a few minutes to adjust to Allison’s return and grief. It gave them a chance to see her before Wymack forced their attention back to Exy.

It also showed them what they were up against tonight. Allison was back, but she looked like she was holding herself together by threads. Neil didn’t know if she’d get it together long enough to play. If she couldn’t, they were going to get wrecked. Belmonte University was one of the strongest schools in their district. They weren’t as high-ranked as Breckenridge was, but they’d be almost as difficult to face now that the Foxes were down Seth. If they lost Allison too the game was over before it even started.

Wymack’s office door opened at last. He came into the lounge and motioned to Allison. ‘Go on ahead of us, Allison. Nicky will load your things.’

Nicky made a face at Wymack but was too smart to protest where Allison could hear. Allison slipped free of Dan’s embrace and walked out without another look back. Nicky waited until the door closed behind her before speaking up.

‘Seriously, whose idea was it to bring her along?’ Nicky asked. ‘She shouldn’t be here.’

‘We gave her the choice to sit it out,’ Wymack said. ‘She wanted to come.’

‘I wouldn’t have asked her,’ Nicky said, flicking a worried look at the door. ‘I would have just left her behind and apologized later. She isn’t ready.’

Andrew laughed. ‘So little faith, Nicky. Don’t worry. She’ll play.’

It was a show of support from the least expected corner. Andrew smiled in the face of his teammates’ shock and suspicion. He didn’t bother to explain where his confidence came from but lifted his hands and gestured at the strikers to either side of him.

‘Really, you should be more worried about these two lunatics.’

‘That’s what I want to talk about,’ Wymack said, moving to stand in front of the TV. ‘Dan and I spent this week figuring out the best way to deal with the striker line. You know I can’t get us a sub yet. Kevin’s played full halves before, but not since last fall. I don’t think you’ve ever tried,’ Wymack said, and nodded when Neil shook his head. ‘Neither one of you can play an entire game in the state you’re in now. We’ll have to work you up to that one week at a time.

‘In the meantime, we’re mixing things up to stay afloat.’ Wymack glanced at Dan and Renee, who hadn’t yet gotten off Allison’s chair to join Matt on the couch. ‘Our solution isn’t pretty, but it’s the best we can come up with on such short notice, so pay attention.’

His clipboard was sitting on the entertainment center. He picked it up, flipped a couple pages, and began reading. ‘The starting line-up for tonight’s first half goes as follows: Andrew, Matt, Nicky, Allison, Kevin, Neil. First half subs: Aaron for Nicky, Dan for Kevin, Renee for Allison.’

‘Wait.’ Nicky shot Renee a startled look. ‘What?’

Wymack held up one hand to cut Nicky off. ‘Second half line-up: Aaron, Nicky, Allison, Kevin, Dan. Matt’s on for Nicky, Neil’s on for Dan, and Renee’s on for Allison again.’ He let go of the papers and looked up. ‘Tell me you got that, because I’m not repeating it.’

‘Is that a joke, Coach?’ Nicky asked. ‘Renee’s a goalkeeper.’

‘Dan’s the only one who can fill in for the striker line,’ Renee said, ‘and Allison is going to be touch and go for a while. Coach and I talked about it on Tuesday, so I’ve had some time to modify our extra gear. I know I haven’t played defense since middle school, but I’ll give it my best shot.’

‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s not you I’m worried about,’ Nicky said. ‘If you’re going to play dealer who do we have in goal second half?’

Wymack looked at Andrew. Andrew looked over his shoulder as if checking for a third goalkeeper. There wasn’t one, so he quirked an eyebrow at Wymack and dragged his thumb across his smiling mouth.

‘Coach knows my medicine doesn’t work that way.’

‘I know,’ Wymack said.

‘What are you telling me to do?’

‘I’m not telling you anything,’ Wymack said. ‘We had a deal and I’m not about to renege on that. I’m offering a trade, same terms and conditions as last year. Abby picked the bottle up yesterday and put it in the first aid kit. It’s yours as soon as you walk off the court. All you have to do is play. How you play is up to you.’

‘They won’t be ready in a week. How long do you think you can keep this up?’

‘As long as you can,’ Wymack said. ‘So can you hold the line or can’t you?’

Andrew laughed. ‘I guess we’ll find out.’

Wymack nodded. ‘Anyone else have questions?’

Nicky was persistent. ‘Coach, this line-up is insane.’

‘Yup. Good luck.’ Wymack clapped his hands at them to drown out any other arguments. ‘Let’s move. Get your gear and get out of my locker room. Dan, Renee, if you can sort Allison’s things out Nicky will take them out to the bus. Matt, you’re helping me with the stick rack. I’m starting the bus in ten minutes. If you’re not on it you’re not coming with us. Go, go, go.’

They split up to the changing rooms to find their gear. Their travel duffels were waiting for them on the benches by their lockers. Neil picked his up and turned it over in his hands, admiring the bright orange embroidery. His name and number were on one side and a fox paw was on the other. It smelled new.

He’d just put the last number in his locker’s combination when metal banged further down. Neil jerked his attention back to his teammates. Andrew was opening and closing his locker for no apparent reason. He only did it twice before Kevin caught the door to stop him. Andrew didn’t fight but shoveled gear out of his locker onto the floor.

‘What is going on?’ Kevin asked. ‘You can’t last a full game without your medicine.’

Neil was glad someone asked, because he had his own serious doubts about this plan. Withdrawal started soon after Andrew missed a dose and came in three stages: a psychological and physical crash, violent illness, and insane cravings. Neil had gotten glimpses of the first two stages. He didn’t know how long it took for the third to kick in, but Matt once said Neil would be lucky to never see it.

Withdrawal shouldn’t be a problem, since Andrew was required to stay on his medicine for three years as part of his parole agreement, except Wymack let Andrew come off his drugs on game nights. The court was too hectic and Andrew’s gear too thick for anyone to notice when the manic smile left his face. If Andrew could stomach the crash for first half, he could take his pills during the halftime break and recover on the sidelines the rest of the game.

Andrew seemed to have it down to an art form. Neil hadn’t even noticed a difference last week. But that was for one half, and now Andrew was expected to play a full game. The obvious answer was that Andrew would have to play with his drugs tonight whether he wanted to or not, but things were never that easy with Andrew.

‘No, probably not.’ Andrew sounded far too cheerful for someone who was going to spend half of his night in serious discomfort. He crouched and began sorting out the mess he’d made of his armor and uniform. ‘We’ll figure something out.’

‘He’s done it once before,’ Matt said.

‘Yeah, last October.’ Nicky didn’t look up from where he was stuffing things into his duffel, but he was grinning as he told his story. ‘We found out the ERC was going to cut us from the Class I ranks if we didn’t stop losing. Coach asked Andrew for a miracle, and Andrew gave us one. He made Coach come up with a number between one and five, and that’s how many points he let the other team get before he shut them out. It was probably the most badass thing I’ve ever seen.’

If his words were supposed to make Kevin feel better about Andrew’s chances tonight, they achieved the exact opposite. Kevin’s face was a thundercloud.

‘So you’ll try,’ Kevin said through gritted teeth, ‘because Coach asked you to.’

Andrew folded his arms across his knees, tilted his head back, and smiled up at Kevin. ‘Careful, Kevin. Your jealous streak is showing.’

‘For eight months you’ve told me no. In eight seconds you told him yes. Why?’

‘Oh, that’s easy.’ Andrew stuffed the last of his gear into his bag and zipped it shut. He slung the bag over his shoulders and got to his feet, standing up so close to Kevin he almost knocked Kevin back a step. ‘It’s just more fun to tell you no. That’s what you wanted, right? You wanted me to have fun. I am. Aren’t you?’

For someone so small, Andrew made a lot of noise when shoved into the lockers. Andrew was laughing as he crashed into the orange metal. Neil didn’t know what amused Andrew more: Kevin’s violence or the splash of blood that now stained the front of Kevin’s shirt. Neil hadn’t even seen Andrew take a knife out, but it was in his hand in the air between them. Kevin retreated from Andrew with a sharp curse.

‘Jesus, Andrew!’ Matt said. ‘Kevin, are you all right?’

‘I’m fine.’ Kevin put a hand to his chest as if checking the truth of his words.

Neil was at the far end of the lockers from them, so he couldn’t see very well, but the relative lack of blood made him think the cut was shallow. It was long, but it wasn’t serious. It was going to sting when Kevin put heavy armor overtop it tonight, though.

Andrew stepped away from the lockers and got in Kevin’s space again. He put the edge of the blade against Kevin’s chest over his heart and peered up into Kevin’s face. Kevin looked more angry than intimidated as he stared back. Matt started toward them, maybe thinking he had to break up round two of their fight. Kevin didn’t look away from Andrew when he motioned at Matt to back off. Matt didn’t stop until he was within lunging distance. There he waited, still and tense, for one of them to make the wrong move.

After he’d gone still, Andrew spoke again. ‘Kevin, Kevin. So predictable. So pathetic. How about a tip? A reward for all your hard work, or something. Ready? You’ll start having more success when you ask for things you can actually have.’

‘I can have this,’ Kevin said, voice thick with frustration. ‘You’re just being stupid.’

‘I guess we’ll see, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!’

Andrew stepped around him and wiped his knife off on his arm. Whatever else Andrew wore, there was one accessory he never took off: a pair of black armbands that stretched from his elbows to his wrists. They were mostly a joke, a way for strangers to tell the twins apart, but Andrew had another purpose for them. Neil found out in June Andrew was hiding sheaths under the thin cotton. As soon as Andrew knew his blade was clean the knife disappeared from sight. Andrew was out the door a couple seconds later.

‘Are you serious?’ Nicky sounded exasperated as he picked his bag up. ‘I thought you gave up this fight months ago. You’re never going to win.’

Kevin stormed over to his locker without answering and began packing his bag. Nicky shook his head and started for the door. Aaron hadn’t slowed long enough to watch the short fight, so he was right behind Nicky. Neil watched Kevin for another outburst, but Kevin was venting the rest of his anger silently. He shoved his gear into his bag like he wanted to break it.

The only thing that mattered to Kevin was Exy. He’d been raised on this sport and the only thing he wanted was to outperform every other striker he faced on the court. He pushed his teammates mercilessly and demanded twice as much of himself. Kevin couldn’t stand incompetence and he wouldn’t tolerate anything less than his teammate’s best efforts.

What Kevin hated most of all was Andrew’s bone-deep apathy. Andrew had some of the best ‘keeper statistics in the southeast and that was without putting forth a real effort. Kevin had spent the better part of a year trying to get through to Andrew. He wanted Exy to mean something; he wanted Andrew’s best performance like a dying man wanted one last breath of air. Andrew knew it, and he refused to play along.

Neil understood Kevin’s anger. He’d been equally baffled this summer when he first saw Andrew play. It was impossible—should be impossible—for someone so talented to care so little. Unfortunately Andrew’s drugs wrecked his attention span and kept him buzzing too high to honestly care about the game’s outcome. Playing through withdrawal might actually be the better option, except Neil had tried talking to a semi-sober Andrew about Exy this summer. Andrew said Exy was too boring to be worth his while.

It was one thing if Andrew’s psychological issues and medicine made him incapable of trying, but he’d just sold his game to Wymack without a real argument. Neil didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t know how to feel about it.

Matt waited until Kevin stalked out a minute later before looking at Neil. ‘Well, tonight is going to be awesome.’

‘I think you meant to say ‘awful’,’ Neil said, zipping his bag shut.

Matt gave Neil a grim smile and closed his locker. He passed Neil on the way to the door and clapped a hand on Neil’s shoulder. ‘Just try not to think about it until we get there. You won’t do yourself any favors if you spend the ride stressing out about things you can’t change.’

Neil nodded and said, ‘Matt, I’ll help Coach with the racquets. I want to ask him something.’

‘You sure?’ Matt asked. ‘Then here, I’ll get your duffel out to the bus. It’s awkward dealing with both.’

Neil handed the heavy bag over and got the door. Matt turned left and headed for the exit, and Neil went right to the foyer. Wymack had the gear closet open and had already rolled out the trolley the racquets hung on. The protective lids were open so Wymack could check heads. Neil knew the sticks were in good shape, since maintenance was one of the last things the Foxes did before leaving practices everyday, but Wymack was testing string tensions down the line.

Wymack glanced up at Neil’s approach but didn’t ask why Neil was here in Matt’s stead. Neil said nothing at first but reached out and hooked his fingers through the head of his racquet. He was bringing both of his racquets tonight just in case. The racquets were sturdily built to put power behind their throws and withstand all the stick-checking on the court, but even the strongest racquet would break with enough abuse. Neil didn’t want to be seven hours from home and have nothing to play with.

‘Watch your fingers,’ Wymack said.

Neil moved so Wymack could snap the lids shut. Plastic latches clicked in rapid succession. Wymack rattled the rack a little to make sure none of them popped open then gestured for Neil to take the front handle. Neil did as he was told but didn’t move yet. He stalled, mentally digging for the best way to word his question. He thought Wymack would hurry him along since they had a schedule to keep, but Wymack waited him out.

‘I didn’t think Andrew had a price tag,’ Neil said. ‘He doesn’t seem the kind of person who can be bought.’

‘He’s not,’ Wymack said. ‘If I asked him to do it for free, he would. The only reason he’s getting something out of this is because I know what it’ll cost him to play for us tonight.’

‘But why?’ Neil asked. ‘Why are you so special?’

Wymack arched an eyebrow at him. ‘I’m not.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Maybe you’ve noticed how much I let this team get away with,’ Wymack said. ‘I know what sort of people I’ve recruited, and I know some of them need a little help to keep an even keel. So long as no one gets hurt, no one gets caught, and no one is stupid enough to bring it onto my court, I don’t care what you guys get up to in your free time. It’s not my business because I don’t want it to be my business.’

Wymack meant the cracker dust party drugs and alcohol Andrew gave his group in Columbia. Neil wasn’t sure what surprised him more: that Wymack knew what his defense line was into or that he let it happen. Wymack’s inaction wasn’t approval, but a man in his position shouldn’t condone such things even implicitly. Someone else might think Wymack was being irresponsible. Maybe he was, but Neil knew it wasn’t that simple.

Some said Wymack recruited troubled athletes as a publicity stunt. Others thought he was a misguided idealist. Digging up talented wrecks and giving them the chance to turn their lives around was nice in theory and a disaster in reality. Truth was Wymack picked them because he understood firsthand how much they needed another chance. He looked the other way because he knew how badly some of them needed their escapes to survive.

‘Does Andrew know you know?’ Neil asked.

‘Of course he does.’

That was interesting. Andrew knew Wymack could keep a tighter leash on him and was choosing not to do so, so when Wymack needed him to pull through he would. Neil thought about it and asked, ‘Is it respect or prudence?’

‘We’ll go with the latter,’ Wymack said. ‘Andrew likes me about as much as you do.’

There was nothing in his tone to make it an accusation, but Neil still winced. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Be sorry while you walk. We’re running late.’

They rolled the stick rack down the hall to the exit. Neil detoured in the lounge long enough to grab his backpack and Wymack turned off the lights as they went. They waited outside the gate long enough to make sure the lock caught. Getting the rack into the bus was awkward, as they had to load it sideways. Luckily the case around it kept the racquets from dragging against the metal floor of the undercarriage. Wymack slammed the storage doors with a mighty shove, followed Neil onto the bus, and did a headcount from the front.

Everyone else was already on board. Abby had the front row, with Dan and Matt doubled up behind her. Allison and Renee were sitting together in the third row, choosing comfort and companionship over the room to spread out. Because the upperclassmen were doubled up, it left four empty rows between them and Andrew’s group.

Unlike their teammates, Andrew’s group sat one to a row. Andrew had the very last row, with Kevin right in front of him. Nicky had been in front of Kevin last time, but now Nicky and Aaron were up a row to leave an empty spot in the middle. Neil didn’t have to ask why. He dropped his backpack on the third seat and sank into the cushion. Leather creaked as Nicky turned, and Nicky grinned over his seatback at Neil.

‘I was starting to think you got lost.’

‘No,’ Neil said. ‘I just wanted to check something.’

Finished with his count, Wymack got into the driver’s seat. The bus rumbled to life and the doors snapped closed. A few minutes later they were on the road. Neil watched out the window until the campus disappeared from view.


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