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The Raven King: Chapter 5

Neil had a quarter of a million dollars and directions to another half mill hidden in his dormitory room. He and his mother had hit the road with far more than that, but years on the run had whittled away at their stash. What was left was considered a small fortune by most people and a dismal future by Neil. It’d be tricky getting a job when he couldn’t give employers his social security number, and every time he moved he needed a new name, a new face, and a new place to live. Costs added up fast.

Disguises were cheap. A new hairstyle, a new color, some contacts, and an accent were usually enough to fool people. Neil used his mother’s British accent when he was overseas and his father’s American accent when he was in the United States. He needed an address, sometimes a new language, and ways to fill his time that would complete his persona without drawing too much attention. Luck let him squat in Millport, but he had to assume he’d be paying rent in the future.

Some changes took expensive to a whole new level. If Neil survived this year, he’d only do so by pulling out all the stops. A simple change in names and cities couldn’t save him after he’d antagonized Riko Moriyama and put his face on the news. He needed to cut every string he had, up to and including the United States.

Getting a new passport wasn’t a simple matter, but at least he knew where to start. His mother was born into a British crime syndicate, and he’d inherited a list of unsavory contacts from her. Because most of them were European, they were outside his father’s reach. Neil wasn’t entirely sure they’d deal with him in his mother’s absence, but he hoped her name would at least smooth the process. The paperwork he needed came at a steep price, but it was some of the best work on the market. It had to be considering how fast technology was changing.

Because Neil could guess at how much money he’d need in May, he didn’t want to make any unnecessary purchases until then. He’d been stupid with his money on that disastrous welcome party in Columbia, so he wanted to hold tight to what was left. His teammates had other ideas, however, which was how Neil wound up shopping for clothes on Tuesday.

No one had told him they weren’t going straight home after practice. They’d piled him in the car and dragged him out to the mall without even a by-the-by. This Saturday was the southeastern district’s fall banquet and they all knew Neil didn’t have anything appropriate to wear. It was a less formal event than the winter banquet in December would be, but it still required more than ratty jeans and worn-out t-shirts.

‘At some point you’re going to have to try something on,’ Nicky said.

‘I could just not go,’ Neil said.

‘Shut up. You’re going,’ Kevin said, like he wasn’t dreading this himself. All fourteen southern Class I teams would be in attendance, and that included Edgar Allan’s Ravens. Kevin wanted to see his former teammates even less than Neil did. ‘The other teams want to get a look at you.’

‘I don’t care,’ Neil said. ‘The only place they matter to me is on the court.’

‘Don’t lose face, Neil.’ Andrew was systematically tugging clothes off their hangers and dropping them on the floor. He chucked one of the empty hangers at Nicky, who squawked and ducked just in time. Andrew shrugged at his miss and looked at Neil. ‘You laughed at Riko on Kathy’s show. If you don’t go, he’ll say you’re too afraid to face him! For shame, Neil.’

But Neil was afraid, and Andrew knew that.

‘Here,’ Aaron said, handing Neil a scrap of paper. ‘Take this before I forget it.’

It was a short list of names and numbers in bubbly blue print. Nicky leaned over to see and made a dismissive noise. ‘Seriously, Aaron?’

‘Dan asked me to get a list from Katelyn,’ Aaron said.

‘Who are these people?’ Neil asked.

‘They’re the single Vixens.’

‘They’re all women,’ Nicky said. ‘That doesn’t help us.’

‘Nicky,’ Neil started.

Nicky plucked the list from Neil’s fingers and crumpled it. ‘Your ignorance is endearing, Neil. You’re nineteen and you’ve never looked at Allison’s tits? There’s no way you’re straight. You and I really need to sit down and talk about this sometime.’

‘You know what, I’m done here.’ Aaron put his hands up and turned away. ‘I’ll be in the food court when you guys are finished.’

‘Stop being a bad influence,’ Kevin told Nicky. ‘I am going to make him Court. It’ll be easier if he remains heterosexual. You know more than any of us how prejudiced people can be. Imagine the impact it would have on his career.’

‘We aren’t really having this conversation,’ Neil said.

Nicky clapped his hands to either side of Neil’s head as if trying to shield Neil from their argument. It didn’t really work, as he missed Neil’s ears completely. ‘You worry about Neil’s career. I’ll worry about his personal happiness. Come on, Kevin. Even you have to admit this is really weird.’

Andrew threw his hands up. ‘Newsflash, Nicky: Neil isn’t normal!’

‘This is beyond abnormal.’

‘I am standing right here,’ Neil said, ‘and I can hear you.’

Nicky sighed dramatically and let go. ‘Fine, fine. Take a cheerleader if you want to.’

‘I’m not taking anyone,’ Neil said. ‘I don’t even want to go to this thing.’

‘Do you have any idea how pathetic it is showing up stag to an event like this?’

‘Are you bringing someone?’ Neil asked, surprised. ‘What about Erik?’

‘He’s in Germany,’ Nicky said. ‘Yeah, I’m bringing a date, but I’m not going to date the guy. I just want someone to go and have fun with. You know, fun? That thing people have sometimes? You two are impossible.’

Neil looked at Andrew, but it was Kevin who answered. ‘It’s none of your business.’

‘Three,’ Neil said. ‘Allison.’

Two words killed Nicky’s good humor. Neil refused to feel bad about it after everything Nicky had just said about him, but he didn’t feel vindicated, either. Nicky muttered under his breath and left to look at shirts further down the aisle. Neil turned his attention back to the slacks hanging in front of him, but he couldn’t concentrate. He pushed a couple hangers around without paying attention to size or cuts and looked up at Kevin.

‘Would you take her?’

He thought maybe he was as surprised by the question as the two men now staring at him. Neil fidgeted with the hangers but refused to look away from Kevin. ‘She and Seth were excited to go. It was all they could talk about when we had lunch together. Now she’s going to go and he won’t be there.’

‘That’s a cheap way out,’ Andrew supplied with a bright, mocking smile. ‘Getting someone else to clean up behind your mess? Oh, Neil. Do better than that next time, won’t you? You’re boring when your tail’s between your legs.’

‘Fuck you,’ Neil said. ‘Your theory is still just that: a theory. When you prove it—’

‘What, it’ll miraculously make it easier for you to look Allison in the eyes?’ Andrew feigned shock. ‘When I prove it, it puts a target on Seth’s back and a paintbrush in your hands. Rethink that a bit, would you?’

Neil didn’t have an answer for that. Andrew only gave him a couple seconds before he laughed and walked off. Neil watched him go and wondered which one of them he hated more.

‘I won’t bring her,’ Kevin said, because someone had to break the quiet. ‘You might have brought Riko’s wrath down on the striker line, but I’m the reason he’s in the south in the first place. Neither of us has the right to speak to Allison now.’

‘You think Andrew’s right,’ Neil said.

‘Yes,’ Kevin said.

‘You don’t kill people over a game.’

‘It isn’t a game where I come from,’ Kevin said. ‘I know Riko was behind this. I know what people like him are like. Be glad you’ll never understand the way they think.’

Any other time, Neil would be relieved to hear such words from Kevin. It meant Andrew hadn’t told Kevin the truth about Neil’s past and that Kevin had yet to recognize Neil. For a split second though, Neil considered correcting him. He wanted to tell Kevin he’d seen a lot of cruel things done but that none of them had been this senseless. Neil’s father had a fierce and loyal syndicate. Few people were stupid enough to insult the Butcher; fewer tried crossing him. When they did, the Butcher made an example of them—of them, not their neighbor or coworker. Riko should have come after Neil for what he’d said, not taken it out on Seth.

‘Hey,’ Nicky called from the end of the aisle. Neil was grateful for the distraction, but Nicky was slow to approach. ‘I can’t handle anymore doom and gloom today. Whatever you guys are talking about needs to stop before I get down there, okay?’

Kevin answered by turning soundlessly away. Nicky still looked a little leery as he stopped at Neil’s side. Neil looked at the massive bundle of clothes in his arms, none of which looked appropriate for a banquet. He wasn’t going to ask, but Nicky noticed the glance and puffed up with pride.

‘I have good taste in clothes, right? If you want to try them on you can, but you don’t have to. I know they’ll fit.’

‘Why would I try them on?’

‘Oh, because these are yours.’ Nicky said it like Neil should already know that, then kept going before Neil could react. ‘Did you know Coach has been waiting for us to fix your wardrobe since, like, June? He threatened to sign us up for a marathon if we didn’t do something about it. A freaking marathon, Neil. Guys like me aren’t supposed to run that far. Do me a favor and don’t argue about it.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the clothes I have.’

‘Can we go back to the part where I said not to argue? I remember it pretty clearly considering it happened just five seconds ago.’ Nicky moved the clothes out of Neil’s reach when Neil moved as if to take them from him. ‘Um, no. I’ll hang onto this. You’re supposed to be finding pants.’

Neil silently counted to ten, but it didn’t do much against his flaring impatience. ‘I am not shopping with any of you ever again.’

‘So you think. Man, I’m starting to see why Andrew left you here,’ Nicky said. ‘Good thing he ignored me when I told him to take you along.’

‘Take me along where?’

‘Oh, you know,’ Nicky said vaguely. ‘Task at hand, Neil. The longer you stall the longer we’re stuck here.’

Neil pushed Andrew, Allison, and Riko from mind and focused on finding something to wear. Slacks were easy to pick out, but Nicky rejected the first several shirts Neil considered. Finally Neil gave up and let Nicky choose something for him. They went up to the registers together, but then Nicky refused to let go of Neil’s unwanted clothes. He batted at Neil’s hands and turned stubbornly away.

‘Why would you pay for all this when you didn’t want it in the first place? Technically the university is paying for it, since Coach is going to expense it. Hey,’ Nicky said, retreating when Neil tried again to wrest the stack from his arms. ‘Touch it again and I’ll bite you. Don’t think I won’t. I will. I’m a biter. Just ask Erik.’

‘Stop embarrassing us.’ Kevin pushed them apart. ‘Find a different register, Nicky.’

‘I can buy my own things,’ Neil said when Nicky pranced off.

Kevin gave him a slow head-to-toe. Neil’s jeans were so faded they were whitish-gray, and the hems of his shirt were frayed and coming undone. This wasn’t the first time someone had looked at Neil like he was street trash, but from Kevin condescension was a thousand times more effective. The first spike of heat in Neil’s stomach was shame, but he refused to let it take hold. His reasons for letting his wardrobe slide were valid. Someone like Kevin, who’d grown up in the spotlight and made a fortune off his talent, would never understand.

‘I can’t stand you,’ Neil said.

‘I don’t care.’ Kevin pointed over Neil’s head at the waiting cashier. ‘Let’s go.’

When they were done they lugged their bags into the mall. They rode the next set of escalators down and Nicky led them to the towering fountain that marked the mall’s center. Andrew was waiting for them there, sitting cross-legged on the faux marble wall surrounding the water. He didn’t look up at their approach, too busy tapping away at the phone in his hands. Nicky dropped the bags on the ground on front of Andrew and leaned over to get a better look.

‘What is that dinosaur?’ Nicky asked, dismayed. ‘No one put money on a flip phone, Andrew. You ruined a really good pot.’

Neil idly wondered if there was anything his teammates wouldn’t bet on.

‘So sad,’ Andrew said, not a whit sympathetic.

‘You couldn’t have even found him a qwerty?’

‘What for?’ Andrew finished what he was doing, snapped the phone shut, and tossed it at Neil. Catching it was instinctive, but Neil froze at the next words out of Andrew’s mouth. ‘Who is Neil going to text?’

‘Um, me, for starters,’ Nicky said, like that should be obvious.

‘What.’ Neil couldn’t even make it a question.

He uncurled his fingers and stared at the gray phone resting in his palm. He didn’t think a small thing like this should hurt so much, but the grief that punched through him left him in pieces. The roaring in his ears sounded like the ocean. For a moment he was back there on the beach watching fire eat through the car. He remembered how it smelled, the salt of the water and the sick stench of burning flesh. He could still feel the sand on his fingers, warm up top where the sun shone and cold deep down where he’d left his mother’s bones.

He’d saved their phones for last. Every time they moved they got new cell phones, prepaid burners they could ditch at the first hint of trouble. He wanted to keep hers. He wanted something real to hold onto in her absence. Even then he’d known better. He threw them into the waves before leaving the beach. He’d never gotten a new one for himself. He’d never seen a point; Neil had no one in the world he could call.


The urgent tone of Nicky’s voice finally cut through the buzzing in Neil’s ears. Neil dragged his stare up to Nicky’s face and realized too late Nicky had been speaking to him. Nicky’s expression was tight with concern.

Neil swallowed hard and tried to remember how to breathe. He closed his fingers around the phone so he wouldn’t have to look at it and held it out toward Nicky. ‘No.’

Nicky held up his hands. He looked less like he was warding off the phone and more like he was trying to calm a cornered animal. ‘Neil,’ he said, speaking very slowly and carefully, ‘we kind of need you to hold onto that. We need a way to get in touch with you this year.’

‘You have this way of making people want to kill you,’ Andrew said.

Nicky looked pained by that tactless explanation but he didn’t take his eyes off Neil. ‘What if Coach needs to talk to you about something or Riko’s freaky fans start causing trouble? Last year got really crazy toward the end, and this year isn’t off to a good start. That’s our just-in-case. You’ll make us all feel better if we know we can find you.’

‘I can’t.’ It was too ragged and too honest, but Neil couldn’t help it. If he didn’t get rid of that phone he was going to be sick. ‘Nicky, I—’

‘Okay, okay,’ Nicky said, taking Neil’s hand in both of his. ‘We’ll figure it out.’

Neil thought he’d feel better when Nicky had the phone, but the overwhelming sense of loss still knotted up his lungs. He tugged his hand free and took the bags of clothes Nicky had hooked over his arm. He didn’t have to ask for the keys. Andrew pilfered them from Nicky’s pocket and held them up in offering.

Neil grabbed them, but Andrew held on for a moment. Andrew leaned forward on his perch and smiled at Neil. ‘Hey, Neil. Honesty looks awful on you.’

Neil wrenched the keys out of his grasp and walked away to the sound of Andrew’s laughter. He didn’t go back inside afterward, but they came out to find him not much later. No one mentioned the cell phone and, although Nicky kept shooting him worried looks in the rearview mirror, no one spoke to Neil on the ride back to campus.

The silence couldn’t last, though Neil wished it would. He came out of the bathroom in half of his gear for his night practice with Kevin and found Kevin had already left the locker room. The scattered clothes on the bench hinted he’d been kicked out before he was ready.

Andrew was straddling the bench as he waited for Neil, and in front of him was Neil’s new phone. Neil glanced down at it instinctively and quickly jerked his stare up to Andrew’s face. Andrew wasn’t smiling anymore. He’d skipped his nine o’clock dose so he could start winding down for bed even though he was usually out with Kevin and Neil until midnight.

‘A man can only have so many issues,’ Andrew said.

‘I don’t need a phone.’

‘Who needs one more than you do this year?’

Andrew took his own phone out of his pocket and set it down beside Neil’s. His was black but otherwise seemed to be the same model. He flicked both open and pressed a couple buttons. A few seconds later Andrew’s phone started to ring. Neil expected a generic ringtone, but a man started singing. It didn’t sound like something Andrew would assign to his phone until Neil listened to the lyrics. It was a song about runaways.

Neil crossed the room and sat facing Andrew on the bench. He scooped Andrew’s phone up and crushed the reject button with his thumb. ‘You’re not funny.’

‘Neither are you. You put a noose around your neck and handed the loose end to Riko,’ Andrew said. ‘I distinctly remember saying I would watch your back. Give me one good reason why you’d make that difficult for me.’

‘I survived for eight years because no one could find me,’ Neil said.

‘That’s not why.’

‘Are we doing the honesty thing again?’

‘Do we need to?’ Andrew asked, taking his phone from Neil. ‘You start.’

Neil turned his new phone in circles on the bench, unwilling and unable to pick it up. ‘You know, most parents give their children phones so they can keep track of them throughout the day. I had one because of the people my father worked with. My parents wanted to know they could reach me if the worst should happen. ‘Just in case’,’ Neil said, echoing Nicky’s words.

‘When I ran away, I kept the phone. I saw my parents die, but I kept thinking maybe I was wrong. Maybe one day they’d call and say it was an act. They’d say I could come home and things would be fine. But the only time it rang it was that man demanding I bring him back his money. I haven’t had a phone since. I shouldn’t have one now. Who am I supposed to call?’

‘Nicky, Coach, the suicide hotline, I don’t care.’

‘I’m remembering why I don’t like you.’

‘I’m surprised you forgot in the first place.’

‘Maybe I didn’t.’ Neil pushed the phone Andrew’s way. ‘There has to be a better way.’

‘You could occasionally grow a spine,’ Andrew suggested. ‘I know it’s a difficult concept for someone whose kneejerk reaction is to run away at the first sign of trouble, but try it sometime. You might actually like it.’

‘What I’d like is to put this phone through your teeth.’

‘See, that’s more interesting.’

‘I’m not here for your entertainment,’ Neil said.

‘But, as expected, you are talented enough to multitask. Question for you, Neil. Do I look dead to you?’ He pointed up at his face, waited for Neil to answer, and didn’t seem surprised when Neil didn’t. ‘Here.’

Andrew beckoned Neil closer as if he wanted to show Neil something on his phone’s small screen. He flipped the phone open one-handed and pressed down hard on a single button. There was silence, then the distant hum of Andrew’s phone dialing out. Between them Neil’s phone started to sing. The words were different than Andrew’s ringtone, but the voice was the same. Neil knew it was from the same miserable song. The lyrics hurt just as much as Andrew’s had. Neil stared down at the phone and let it ring.

‘Your phone is ringing,’ Andrew said. ‘You should answer it.’

Neil picked it up with numb fingers and opened it. He spared only a second to look at Andrew’s name on the screen before he answered and put it to his ear.

‘Your parents are dead, you are not fine, and nothing is going to be okay,’ Andrew said. ‘This is not news to you. But from now until May you are still Neil Josten and I am still the man who said he would keep you alive.

‘I don’t care if you use this phone tomorrow. I don’t care if you never use it again. But you are going to keep it on you because one day you might need it.’ Andrew put a finger to the underside of Neil’s chin and forced Neil’s head up until they were looking at each other. ‘On that day you’re not going to run. You’re going to think about what I promised you and you’re going to make the call. Tell me you understand.’

Neil’s voice had left him, but he managed a nod.

Andrew let go and snapped his phone shut. Neil closed his own with a quiet click. After looking down at it for another endless minute, he leaned over and put it in his messenger bag. Andrew watched with hooded eyes until Neil sat upright. Neil didn’t want to look at him when he wasn’t sure he’d gotten his expression back under control, but he couldn’t help it. Andrew considered him a minute longer, then sighed and straightened out of Neil’s space.

‘If you’re done having issues, take your turn. Kevin is probably fuming waiting on you.’

Neil meant to ask about Kevin, but the phones reminded him of another problem. He could bother Kevin for a better explanation of his deal with Andrew. This other question was something only Andrew could answer.

‘Why did the Oakland PD call you?’

‘Right for the throat. Maybe not so spineless after all,’ Andrew said, amused. ‘Children’s Services is opening an investigation into one of my foster fathers. Pig Higgins knew I lived with them, so he called me looking for testimony.’

‘But you won’t help him.’

Andrew flicked his fingers in dismissal. ‘Richard Spear is an uninteresting but relatively harmless human being. They won’t find anything to pin on him.’

‘You sure?’ Neil asked. ‘Your reaction was a little extreme for a misunderstanding.’

‘I don’t like that word.’

Neil hesitated. ‘Extreme?’


‘It’s an odd word to have a grudge against.’

‘You don’t have any room to judge other people’s problems,’ Andrew said.

Andrew swung his leg over the bench and got to his feet. Neil guessed that meant the conversation was over. He reached for his workout shorts as Andrew left. The door had barely closed behind Andrew before it was pushed open again. Andrew was right; Kevin looked thoroughly annoyed he’d had to delay practice for them. Neil expected some sort of scathing rebuke, but Kevin’s angry movements spoke for him.

They finished changing as quickly as they could and worked out their stress on the court. Andrew was waiting for them when they were done, looking half-asleep on his feet, and they went back to the dorm together. Neil changed for bed in the bathroom, pushed his discarded clothes aside with a foot, and sat on the side of the tub. The overhead light glinted off the curved surface of his phone where it was nestled in his palm.

It felt like an eternity before he could open it. He slowly scrolled through the menu and wasn’t entirely surprised to see Andrew had already filled out his contacts list. He’d even set a couple speed dials. Andrew was first, then Kevin, then Wymack. Neil had no idea why the team’s psychiatrist was programmed as an emergency contact. He had no intention of speaking to Betsy Dobson again. Neil deleted her information.

When his contacts list refreshed, Neil went to his call history. One name was listed with two timestamps beside it. It wasn’t his mother’s name, but it wasn’t his father’s, either. Neil would learn to live with that one day at a time.

Neil’s phone went off the next morning and startled five years off his life expectancy. Neil was packing his things to leave his Spanish class when he heard the distinctive buzz. He dropped his textbook immediately and dug his phone out of the depths of his bag, mind going a million miles an hour on everything that could be going wrong.

A message was blinking at him in his inbox. Neil’s heart slowed a bit when he saw Nicky’s name attached to it, because Nicky was the last person Neil thought would be the bearer of bad news. He opened the message anyway and found a two-character smiley staring back at him. Neil waited to see if anything else came through, but that appeared to be it.

The next time his phone went off, it was Dan: ‘nicky said u have a phone y/y’.

‘Yes,’ Neil sent back, and hoped that was enough.

Seconds later Dan was back with ’bout time thought u’d never get one’.

Neil considered asking her how she was doing in her English classes but took the higher road of silence.

By the time Neil made it to the athletes’ dining hall for lunch he had twenty messages. Most of them were from Nicky, idle comments about nothing in particular. Neil read them but didn’t respond unless Nicky was asking a question. Two were from Matt, first checking up on the rumor of Neil having a phone and then complaining about the bet Andrew sabotaged by getting such a cheap model.

‘No one uses those anymore. Did he find it at a pawn shop?’ Matt messaged Neil.

Neil didn’t know what to make of it. The Foxes spent seven hours together at practices every day and roomed with each other at Fox Tower. How they had anything left to say to each other was beyond him. He wanted to turn the messaging off somehow or tell them this wasn’t why he had a phone. Phones were for emergencies, not running commentary on a teacher’s boring lecture. Neil refrained because he knew he was in the wrong this time, but he still jumped every time his phone hummed at him.

The others were undeterred by his silence. Nicky peppered him throughout the day and through most of Thursday. Finally Neil’s patience wore thin enough to say something. He sat on the stairs of the hall where he had his tutoring session and painstakingly typed a message out.

‘What happens when you use up all your messages and then need them?’

Nicky’s response was almost immediate. ‘???’ A couple seconds later he came back with something more useful: ‘our plan has unlimited txt. we can’t use them up. man i try tho :)’.

Neil sighed and gave the fight up as a lost cause.

He had seventy messages by the time they boarded the bus late Friday afternoon. They were up against USC-Columbia tonight. Columbia was the only other Class I Exy team in the state, so the two schools had a rowdy rivalry. The odds were good, even though the Foxes were playing with the same crazy lineup they used last week.

Nicky wanted to drive to Columbia separately so they could go out to Eden’s Twilight afterward, but Wymack put his foot down. He knew what sorts of things they got into at the club and didn’t want to risk it this close to the banquet. If any of the officials at the banquet thought for any reason Andrew was off his drugs they could push for blood work to be done. Wymack didn’t want dust showing up in the results. Andrew didn’t fight Wymack’s decision, but Nicky was more than a little grumpy about it.

Nicky turned in his seat to talk to Neil over his seatback. Halfway through his rant about a current class project Neil’s phone hummed. Neil answered without thinking. It was a smiley face from Nicky. Neil looked up at Nicky, not understanding.

‘See?’ Nicky said, sounding pleased. ‘That’s much better. That’s how a normal human being looks when they check their phone, Neil.’

Neil stared at him. ‘Is that really why you’ve been messaging me nonstop?’
‘Mostly,’ Nicky said. ‘Andrew told me to handle it. That’s the easiest way I knew how.’

‘Handle what?’

‘You, of course. Question,’ Nicky said. ‘If I hadn’t been bothering you would you have touched that phone at all this week?’

‘I have it for emergencies,’ Neil said, ‘so no.’

‘Question again,’ Nicky said. ‘Do you honestly think you’d have used it if you had an emergency? No, really. You didn’t see your face when Andrew gave you that, Neil. That wasn’t disinterest or shock. That was like, mental meltdown the likes of which I haven’t seen in years. I don’t know why, but I know it wouldn’t have occurred to you to call us if something went wrong.’

Neil knew he was right, but he said, ‘You don’t know that.’

‘Couldn’t risk it. We didn’t want to find out the hard way just how screwed your mental wiring is.’

‘I called Matt from Columbia when I needed help.’

‘Yeah,’ Nicky said, unimpressed. ‘So we all heard. You called Matt, gave him your ‘I’m fine’ song and dance routine, and then hitchhiked with strangers back to campus. Maybe you remember?’ Nicky waited, but Neil couldn’t defend himself against an accusation like that. ‘Anyway, you’re welcome. I just saved you at least two hundred dollars in intensive therapy.’

Neil didn’t think Nicky wearing down his guard was something to be grateful for, but he obediently said, ‘Thank you.’

‘You ever say that like it’s not a question?’ Nicky asked, looking pained. ‘Oh well. I’ll take my victories where I can. Focus on the battles first, then win the war, right? I don’t know how the quote actually goes but you know what I mean. So where was I?’

It didn’t take him long to remember. He chattered away a mile a minute about his upcoming presentation. Neil let it go in one ear and out the other. His mind was more on the phone still sitting in his hands than the put-upon tone of Nicky’s voice. When Nicky finally turned away to harass Aaron about something, Neil flipped his phone open. He went past his packed inbox to his call history. It hadn’t changed; Andrew’s name was still the only one there.

It didn’t make sense.

Kevin claimed he had something Andrew wanted. Neil didn’t know what it was, but it had to be something big if Andrew was willing to defy the Ravens and work around all of Neil’s problems. Neil made a mental note to talk to Kevin about it this weekend, but they had to survive the fall banquet first.

Thoughts of seeing Riko tomorrow were enough to sour his mood. Neil buried his phone in the bottom of the bag and tried to think of nothing at all.


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