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The Foxhole Court

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Neil Josten is the newest addition to the Palmetto State University Exy team. He's short, he's fast, he's got a ton of potential - and he's the runaway son of the murderous crime lord known as The Butcher.Signing a contract with the PSU Foxes is the last thing a guy like Neil should do. The team is high profile and he doesn't need sports crews broadcasting pictures of his face around the nation. His lies will hold up only so long under this kind of scrutiny and the truth will get him killed.But Neil's not the only one with secrets on the team. One of Neil's new teammates is a friend from his old life, and Neil can't walk away from him a second time. Neil has survived the last eight years by running. Maybe he's finally found someone and something worth fighting for.
Year:
2016
Publisher:
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Language:
english
Pages:
260
ISBN 13:
9781516801510
Series:
All for the Game 1
File:
EPUB, 234 KB
Download (epub, 234 KB)

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12 comments
 
Bella Monday
This book sucks so much.
12 May 2021 (22:30) 
Bella Tuesday
Yeah this book is trash.
12 May 2021 (22:30) 
Bella Wednesday
This book gave me herpes.
12 May 2021 (22:30) 
Bella Thursday
Is it needlessly cynical to read a pompous celebrity’s very bad novel purely in order to dunk on it? Yes. But the true joke is on me, because it’s physically impossible to dunk on a novel that is already dunking on itself so hard. Bob Honey is an exercise in ass-showing, a 160-page self-own … Nothing hangs together. Often when critics compare a novel to a ‘fever dream,’ they mean it as a compliment, conveying that the book creates its own otherworldly universe and dream logic. When I say that Bob Honey is reminiscent of a fever dream, I mean that it’s nonsensical, unpleasant and left me sweaty with mingled horror and confusion … Scattered throughout is the sort of gleeful racism and misogyny that qualifies Penn’s work as ‘darkly comic’ … It’s not often that you read a literary novel about which the most flattering adjective you might use is ‘derivative,’ but such is the case here … This is all, apparently, supposed to seem deeply witty and profound. Instead, it’s akin to the product of a postmodern literature bot. It doesn’t seem quite possible that a human person wrote this mess.
12 May 2021 (22:32) 
Bella Friday
This book is an abomination.
12 May 2021 (22:33) 
Bella Saturday
This book brought me to tears, and not in a good way.
12 May 2021 (22:33) 
Bella Sunday
Horrible. This book is horrible.
12 May 2021 (22:34) 
mj
lol okay i loved this book so much the whole series is so good
16 May 2021 (22:44) 
Afrah
Bella darling get a life hun
07 June 2021 (00:55) 
vania
holy f bella who hurt you this badly
09 June 2021 (04:30) 
Rowds
I am very confused if I should read it because of what it did to Bella
13 June 2021 (22:16) 
i love this séries
bella what are you even talking about
15 June 2021 (15:12) 

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The Foxhole Court


Title Page

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN





THE FOXHOLE COURT


Nora Sakavic ALL FOR THE GAME The Foxhole Court The Raven King All the King's Men

Copyright 2013 Nora Sakavic Smashwords Edition





CHAPTER ONE Neil Josten let his cigarette burn to the filter without taking a drag. He didn't want the nicotine; he wanted the acrid smoke that reminded him of his mother. If he inhaled slowly enough, he could almost taste the ghost of gasoline and fire. It was at once revolting and comforting, and it sent a sick shudder down his spine. The jolt went all the way to his fingertips, dislodging a clump of ash. It fell to the bleachers between his shoes and was whisked away by the wind.

He glanced up at the sky, but the stars were washed out behind the glare of stadium lights. He wondered—not for the first time—if his mother was looking down at him. He hoped not. She'd beat him to hell and back if she saw him sitting around moping like this.

A door squealed open behind him, startling him from his thoughts. Neil pulled his duffel closer to his side and looked back. Coach Hernandez propped the locker room door open and sat beside Neil.

"I didn't see your parents at the game," Hernandez said.

"They're out of town," Neil said. "Still or again?"

Neither, but Neil wouldn't say that. He knew his teachers and coach were tired of hearing the same excuse any time they asked after his parents, but it was as easy a lie as it was overused. It explained why no one would ever see the Jostens around town and why Neil had a predilection for sleeping on school grounds.

It wasn't that he didn't have a place to live. It was more that his living situation wasn't legal. Millport was a dying town, which meant there were dozens of houses on the market that would never sell. He'd appropriated one last summer in;  a quiet neighborhood populated mostly by senior citizens. His neighbors rarely left the comfort of their couches and daily soaps, but every time he came and went he risked getting spotted. If people realized he was squatting they'd start asking difficult questions. It was usually easier to break into the locker room and sleep there. Why Hernandez let him get away with it and didn't notify the authorities, Neil didn't know. He thought it best not to ask.

Hernandez held out his hand. Neil passed him the cigarette and watched as Hernandez ground it out on the concrete steps. The coach flicked the crumpled butt aside and turned to face Neil.

"I thought they'd make an exception tonight," he said.

"No one knew it'd be the last game," Neil said, looking back at the court.

Millport's loss tonight booted them from state championships two games from finals. So close, too far. The season was over just like that. A crew was already dismantling the court, unhinging the plexiglass walls and rolling Astroturf over the hard floor. When they were done it'd be a soccer field again; there'd be nothing left of Exy until fall. Neil felt sick watching it happen, but he couldn't look away.

Exy was a bastard sport, an evolved sort of lacrosse on a soccer-sized court with the violence of ice hockey, and Neil loved every part of it from its speed to its aggression. It was the one piece of his childhood he'd never been able to give up.

"I'll call them later with the score," he said, because Hernandez was still watching him. "They didn't miss much."

"Not yet, maybe," Hernandez said. "There's someone here to see you."

To someone who'd spent half his life outrunning his past they were words from a nightmare. Neil leaped to his feet and slung his bag over his shoulder, but the scuff of a shoe behind him warned him he was too late to escape. Neil twisted to see a large stranger standing in the locker room doorway. The wife beater the man wore showed off sleeves of tribal flame tattoos. One hand was stuffed into his jeans pocket. The other held a thick file. His stance was casual, but the look in his brown eyes was intent.

Neil didn't recognize him, which meant he wasn't local. Millport boasted fewer than nine hundred residents. This was a place where everyone knew everyone's business. That ingrained nosiness made things uncomfortable for Neil and all his secrets, but he'd hoped to use that small-town mentality as a shield. Gossip about an outsider should have reached him before this stranger did. Millport had failed him.

"I don't know you," Neil said.

"He's from a university," Hernandez said. "He came to see you play tonight."

"Bullshit," Neil said. "No one recruits from Millport. No one knows where it is."

"There's this thing called a map," the stranger said. "You might have heard of it."

Hernandez sent Neil a warning look and got to his feet. "He's here because I sent him your file. He put a note out saying he was short on his striker line, and I figured it was worth a shot. I didn't tell you because I didn't know if anything would come of it and I didn't want to get your hopes up."

Neil stared. "You did what?"

"I tried contacting your parents when he asked for a face-to-face tonight, but they haven't returned my messages. You said they'd try to make it."

"They did," Neil said. "They couldn't."

"I can't wait for them," the stranger said, coming down to stand beside Hernandez. "It's stupid late in the season for me to be here, I know, but I had some technical difficulties with my last recruit. Coach Hernandez said you still haven't chosen a school for fall. Works out perfectly, doesn't it? I need a striker sub, and you need a team. All you have to do is sign the dotted line and you're mine for five years."

It took Neil two tries to find his voice. "You can't be serious."

"Very serious, and very out of time," the man said.

He tossed his file onto the bleacher where Neil had been sitting. Neil's name was scrawled across the front in black marker. Neil thought about flipping the folder open, but what was the point? The man this coach had researched so carefully wasn't real and wouldn't exist much longer. In five weeks Neil would graduate and in six he'd be someone else somewhere very far away from here. It didn't matter how much he liked being Neil Josten. He'd stayed here too long as it was.

Neil should be used to this by now. He'd spent the last eight years on the run, spinning lie after lie to leave a twisted trail behind him. Twenty-two names stood between him and the truth, and he knew what would happen if anyone finally connected the dots. Signing with a college team meant more than standing still. It meant he'd be stepping into a spotlight. Prison couldn't stop his father for long, and Neil wouldn't survive a rematch with him.

The math was simple, but that didn't make this any easier. That contract was a one-way ticket to a future, something Neil could never have, and he wanted it so badly he ached. For a blinding moment he hated himself for ever trying out for Millport's team. He'd known better than to step on a court. His mother told him he'd never play again. She'd warned him to obsess from a distance, and he'd disobeyed her. But what else was he supposed to do? He'd run aground in Millport after her death because he didn't know how to go on without her. This was the only thing he had left that was real. Now that he'd had a taste of it again, he didn't know how to walk away from it.

"Please go away," he said.

"It's a bit sudden, but I really do need an answer tonight. The Committee's been hounding me since Janie got locked up."

Neil's stomach hit his shoes at that name. He snapped his gaze from the folder to the coach's face. "Foxes," he said. "Palmetto State University."

The man—who Neil now knew had to be Coach David Wymack— looked surprised at how quickly he put it together. "I guess you saw the news."

Technical difficulties, he'd said. It was a nice way of saying his last recruit Janie Smalls tried to kill herself. Her best friend found her bleeding out in a bathtub and got her to a hospital just in time. Last Neil heard, the girl was on suicide watch in a psychiatric ward. Typical of a Fox, the anchorman had said in crass aside, and he wasn't exaggerating.

The Palmetto State University Foxes were a team of talented rejects and junkies because Wymack only recruited athletes from broken homes. His decision to turn the Foxhole Court into a halfway house of sorts was nice in theory, but it meant his players were fractured isolationists who couldn't get along long enough to get through a game. They were notorious in the NCAA both for their tiny size and for getting ranked dead-last three years running. They'd done significantly better this past year thanks to the perseverance of their captain and the strength of their new defense line, but they were still considered a joke by critics. Even the ERC, the Exy Rules and Regulations Committee, was losing patience with their poor results.

Then former national champion Kevin Day joined the line. It was the greatest thing that could happen to the Foxes and it meant Neil could never accept Wymack's offer. Neil hadn't seen Kevin in almost eight years, and he'd never be ready to see him again. Some doors had to stay closed; Neil's life depended on it.

"You can't be here," Neil said.

"Yet here I stand," Wymack said. "Need a pen?"

"No," Neil said. "No. I'm not playing for you."

"I misheard you."

"You signed Kevin."

"And Kevin's signing you, so—"

Neil didn't stick around for the rest.

He bolted up the bleachers for the locker room. Metal clanged beneath his shoes, not quite loud enough to drown out Hernandez's startled query. Neil didn't look back to see if they were following. All he knew, all that mattered, was getting as far away from here as possible. Forget graduation. Forget "Neil Josten". He'd leave tonight and run until he forgot Wymack ever said those words to him. Neil wasn't fast enough.

He was halfway through the locker room when he realized he wasn't alone. There was someone waiting for him in the lounge between him and the front door. Light glinted off a bright yellow racquet as the stranger took a swing, and Neil was going too fast to stop. Wood slammed into his gut hard enough to crush his lungs into his spine. He didn't remember falling, but suddenly he was on his hands and knees, scrabbling ineffectually at the floor as he tried to breathe. He'd puke if he could only manage that first gasp, but his body refused to cooperate.

The buzzing in his ears was Wymack's furious voice, but he sounded a thousand miles away. "God damn it, Minyard. This is why we can't have nice things."

"Oh, Coach," someone said over Neil's head. "If he was nice, he wouldn't be any use to us, would he?"

"He's no use to us if you break him."

"You'd rather I let him go? Put a band-aid on him and he'll be good as new."

The world crackled black, then came into too-sharp focus as air finally hit Neil's tortured lungs. Neil inhaled so sharply he choked, and every wracking cough threatened to shake him apart. He wrapped an arm around his middle to hold himself together and slanted a fierce look up at his assailant.

Wymack already said the man's name, but Neil didn't need it. He'd seen this face in too many newspaper clippings to not know him on sight. Andrew Minyard didn't look like much in person, blonde and five feet even, but Neil knew better. Andrew was the Foxes' freshman goalkeeper and their deadliest investment. Most of the Foxes were self-destructive, whereas Andrew seemed keen on collateral damage. He'd spent three years at a juvie facility and barely avoided a second term.

Andrew was also the only person to ever turn down the first-ranked Edgar Allen University. Kevin and Riko themselves set up a meet-andgreet to welcome him to the line, but Andrew refused and joined the dead-last Foxes instead. He never explained that choice, but everyone assumed it was because Wymack was willing to sign his family as well —Andrew's twin Aaron and their cousin Nicholas Hemmick joined the line the same year. Whatever the reason, Andrew was blamed for Kevin's recent transfer.

Kevin played for Edgar Allen's Ravens until he broke his dominant hand in a skiing accident this past December. An injury like that cost him his college contract, but he should have recuperated where he'd have his former team's support. Instead he moved to Palmetto to be Wymack's informal assistant coach. Three weeks ago he was officially signed to next year's starting line-up.

The only thing a dismal team like the Foxes could offer Kevin was the goalkeeper who'd once spurned him. Neil spent this spring digging up everything he could find on Andrew, wanting to understand the man who'd caught Kevin's eye. Meeting Andrew face to face was as disorienting as it was painful.

Andrew smiled down at Neil and tapped two fingers to his temple in salute. "Better luck next time."

"Fuck you," Neil said. "Whose racquet did you steal?"

"Borrow." Andrew tossed it at Neil. "Here you go."

"Neil," Hernandez said, catching Neil by his arm to help him up. "Jesus, are you all right?"

"Andrew's a bit raw on manners," Wymack said, coming around to stand between Neil and Andrew. Andrew had no problems reading that silent warning. He threw his hands up in an exaggerated shrug and retreated to give Neil more room. Wymack watched him go before looking Neil over. "He break anything?"

Neil pressed careful hands to his ribs and breathed, feeling the way his muscles screamed in protest. He'd fractured bones enough in the past to know he'd gotten lucky this time. "I'm fine. Coach, I'm leaving. Let me go."

"We're not done," Wymack said.

"Coach Wymack," Hernandez started.

Wymack didn't let him finish. "Give us a second?"

Hernandez looked from Wymack to Neil, then let go. "I'll be right out back."

Neil listened to his footsteps as he left. There was a rattle as he kicked the door prop out of its spot and the back door swung closed with an agonizing creak. Neil waited for it to click before speaking again.

"I already gave you my answer. I won't sign with you."

"You didn't listen to my whole offer," Wymack said. "If I paid to fly three people out here to see you the least you could do is give me five minutes, don't you think?"

The blood left Neil's face so fast the world tilted. He took a stumbling step back from Wymack, a desperate search for both balance and room to breathe. His duffel banged into his hip and he knotted a hand around its strap, needing something to hold onto. "You didn't bring him here."

Wymack stared hard at him. "Is that a problem?"

Neil couldn't tell him the truth, so he said, "I'm not good enough to play on the same court as a champion."

"True, but irrelevant," a new voice said, and Neil stopped breathing.

He knew better than to turn around, but he was already moving.

He should have guessed when he saw Andrew here, but he hadn't wanted to think it. There was no reason for a goalkeeper to meet a potential striker. Andrew was only here because Kevin Day never went anywhere alone.

Kevin was sitting on top of the entertainment center along the back wall. He'd pushed the TV off to one side to give himself more room and covered the space around him with papers. He'd watched this entire spectacle and, judging by the cool look on his face, was unimpressed by Neil's reaction.

It'd been years since Neil stood in the same room as Kevin, years since they'd watched Neil's father cut a screaming man into a hundred bloody pieces. Neil knew Kevin's face as well as he knew his own, the consequence of watching Kevin grow up in the public eye from a thousand or more miles away. Everything about him was different. Everything was the same, from his dark hair and green eyes to the black number two tattooed onto his left cheekbone. Neil saw that number and wanted to retch.

Kevin had that number back then, too, but he'd been too young to have it done permanently. Instead he and his adopted brother Riko Moriyama wrote the numbers one and two on their faces with markers, tracing them over and over anytime they started to fade. Neil didn't understand it then, but Kevin and Riko were aiming for the stars. They were going to be famous, they promised him.

They were right. They had professional teams and played for the Ravens. Last year they were inducted to the national team, the US Court. They were champions, and Neil was a jumble of lies and dead-ends.

Neil knew Kevin couldn't recognize him. It'd been too long; they'd both grown up a world apart. Neil had further disguised his looks with dark hair dye and brown contacts. But why else would Kevin Day be here looking for him? No Class I school would stoop so low, not even the Foxes. Neil's records said he'd only been playing Exy for a year. He'd been very careful this year to act like a know-nothing, even loading up on and lugging around How-To books last fall. It was easy to pretend at first, since he hadn't picked up a racquet in eight years. The fact he was playing a different position now than he'd played at little league helped, since he had to relearn the game from a new perspective. He'd had an enviable and unavoidable learning curve, but he'd still fought hard to not shine.

Had he slipped? Had it been too obvious that he had past experience he wasn't talking about? How had he caught Kevin's eye despite his best attempts to stay hidden? If it was that easy for Kevin, what sort of beacon was he sending to his father's people?

"What are you doing here?" he asked through numb lips.

"Why were you leaving?" Kevin asked.

"I asked you first."

"Coach already answered that question," Kevin said, a tad impatiently. "We are waiting for you to sign the contract. Stop wasting our time."

"No," Neil said. "There are a thousand strikers who'd jump at the chance to play with you. Why don't you bother them?"

"We saw their files," Wymack said. "We chose you."

"I won't play with Kevin."

"You will," Kevin said.

Wymack shrugged at Neil. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but we're not leaving here until you say yes. Kevin says we have to have you, and he's right."

"We should have thrown away your coach's letter the second we opened it," Kevin said. "Your file is deplorable and I don't want someone with your inexperience on our court. It goes against everything we're trying to do with the Foxes this year. Fortunately for you, your coach knew better than to send us your statistics. He sent us a tape so we could see you in action instead. You play like you have everything to lose."

His inexperience.

If Kevin remembered him, he'd know that file was a lie. He'd know about Neil's little league teams. He'd remember the scrimmage interrupted by that man's murder.

"That's why," Neil said quietly.

"That's the only kind of striker worth playing with."

Relief made Neil sick to his stomach. Kevin didn't recognize him and this was just a horrible coincidence. Maybe it was the world's way of showing him what could happen if he stayed in the same place for too long. Next time it might not be Kevin. Next time it might be his father.

"It actually works in our favor that you're all the way out here," Wymack said. "No one outside of our team and school board even knows we're here. We don't want your face all over the news this summer. We've got too much to deal with right now and we don't want to drag you into the mess until you're safe and settled at campus. There's a confidentiality clause in your contract, says you can't tell anyone you're ours until the season starts in August."

Neil looked at Kevin again, searching for his real name on Kevin's face. "It's not a good idea."

"Your opinion has been duly noted and dismissed," Wymack said. "Anything else, or are you going to start signing stuff?"

The smart thing to do was bail. Even if Kevin didn't know who he was, this was a terrible idea. The Foxes spent too much time in the news and it'd only get worse with Kevin on the line. Neil shouldn't submit himself to that sort of scrutiny. He should tear Wymack's contract into a thousand pieces and leave.

Leaving meant living, but Neil's way of living was survival, nothing more. It was new names and new places and never looking back. It was packing up and going as soon as he started to feel settled. This last year, without his mother at his side, it meant being completely alone and adrift. He didn't know if he was ready for that.

He didn't know if he was ready to give up Exy again, either. It was the only thing that made him feel real. Wymack's contract was permission to keep playing and a chance to pretend at being normal a little while longer. Wymack said it was for five years, but Neil didn't have to stay that long. He could duck and run whenever he pleased, couldn't he?

He looked at Kevin again. Kevin didn't recognize him, but maybe some part of him remembered the boy he'd met so many years ago. Neil's past was locked in Kevin's memories. It was proof he existed, same as this game they both played. Kevin was proof Neil was real. Maybe Kevin was also the best chance Neil had at knowing when to leave again. If he lived, practiced, and played with Kevin, he'd know when Kevin started to get suspicious. The second Kevin started asking questions or looking at him funny, Neil would split.

"Well?" Wymack asked.

Survival instincts warred with need and twisted into an almost debilitating panic. "I have to talk to my mother," Neil said, because he didn't know what else to say.

"What for?" Wymack asked. "You're legal, aren't you? Your file says you're nineteen."

Neil was eighteen, but he wasn't going to contradict what his forged paperwork said. "I still need to ask."

"She'll be happy for you."

"Maybe," Neil agreed quietly, knowing it was a lie. If his mother knew he was even considering this, she'd be furious. It was probably a good thing she'd never know, but Neil didn't think "good" was supposed to feel like a knife in his chest. "I'll talk to her tonight."

"We can give you a lift home."

"I'm fine."

Wymack looked at his Foxes. "Go wait in the car."

Kevin gathered his files and slid off his perch. Andrew waited for Kevin to catch up and led him out of the locker room. Wymack waited until they were gone, then turned a serious look on Neil.

"You need one of us to talk to your parents?"

"I'm fine," Neil said again.

Wymack didn't even try for subtlety with his next question. "Are they the ones who hurt you?"

Neil stared at him at a complete loss. It was blunt enough to be rude on so many levels that there wasn't a good place to start answering it. Wymack seemed to realize that, because he pushed on before Neil could respond.

"Let's try that again. The reason I'm asking is because Coach Hernandez guesses you spend several nights a week here. He thinks there's something going on since you won't change out with the others or let anyone meet your parents. That's why he nominated you to me; he thinks you fit the line. You know what that means, right? You know the people I look for.

"I don't know if he's right," he said, "but something tells me he's not far off. Either way, the locker room's going to be shut down once the school year ends. You're not going to be able to come here during the summer. If your parents are a problem for you, we'll move you to South Carolina early."

"You'll do what?" Neil asked, surprised.

"Andrew's lot stays in town for summer break," Wymack said. "They crash with Abby, our team nurse. Her place is full, but you could stay with me until the dorm opens in June. My apartment's not made for two people but I've got a couch that's a little softer than a rock.

"We'll tell everyone you're there for conditional early practice. Chances are half of them will believe it. You won't be able to fool the rest, but that doesn't matter. Foxes are Foxes for a reason and they know we wouldn't sign you if you didn't qualify. That doesn't mean they know specifics. It's not my place to ask, and I'm sure as hell not going to tell them."

It took two tries to get the word out. "Why?"

Coach Wymack was quiet for a minute. "Did you think I made the team the way it is because I thought it would be a good publicity stunt? It's about second chances, Neil. Second, third, fourth, whatever, as long as you get at least one more than what anyone else wanted to give you."

Neil had heard Wymack referred to as an idealistic idiot by more than one person, but it was hard to listen to him and not believe that he was sincere. Neil was torn between incredulity and disdain. Why Wymack set himself up for disappointment time and time again, Neil didn't know. Neil would have given up on the Foxes years ago.

Wymack gave him a second to think before asking again, "Are your parents going to be a problem?"

It was too much to take a chance on, but too much to walk away from. It hurt when he nodded, but it hurt more to see that tired look settle in Wymack's eyes. It wasn't the pity he thought he could see in Hernandez from time to time, but something familiar that said Wymack understood what it cost to be Neil. He knew what it was like to have to fight to wake up and keep moving every day. Neil doubted the man could ever really understand, but even that tiny bit was more than he'd ever gotten in his life. Neil had to look away.

"Your graduation ceremony is May eleventh, according to your coach," Wymack said at length. "We'll have someone pick you up from Upstate Regional Airport Friday the twelfth."

Neil almost pointed out that he hadn't agreed to anything yet, but the words died in his throat as he realized he really was going.

"Keep the papers tonight," Wymack offered, pushing his folder at Neil again. This time Neil took it. "Your coach can fax the signed copies to me on Monday. Welcome to the line."

"Thank you" seemed appropriate, but Neil couldn't manage it. He kept his stare on the floor. Wymack didn't wait long for a response before going in search of Hernandez.

The back door banged shut behind him, and Neil's nerves broke. He ran for the bathroom and made it to a stall just in time to dry-heave into a toilet.

He could imagine his mother's rage if she knew what he was doing. He remembered too well the savage yank of her hands in his hair. All these years spent trying to keep moving and hidden, and now he was going to destroy their hard work. She would never forgive him for this and he knew it, and that did nothing at all to help the clenching feeling in his gut.

"I'm sorry," he gasped out between wet coughs. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

He stumbled over to the sinks to rinse his mouth out and stared himself down in the mirrors that hung above them. With black hair and brown eyes, he looked plain and average: no one to notice in a crowd, no one to stick in one's memory. That was what he wanted, but he wondered if it could hold up against news cameras. He grimaced a little at his reflection and leaned closer to the mirror, tugging hard at chunks of hair to check his roots. They were dark enough that he relaxed and leaned back a bit.

"University," he said quietly. It sounded like a dream; it tasted like damnation.

He unzipped his duffel bag enough to put Wymack's paperwork away. When he returned to the main room, the two coaches were waiting on him. Neil said nothing to them but went past them to the door.

Andrew opened the back door of Hernandez's SUV when Neil passed and gave Neil a knowing, taunting smile. "Too good to play with us, too good to ride with us?"

Neil flicked him a cool look sped up to a jog. By the time he reached the far edge of the parking lot he was running. He left the stadium and the Foxes and their too-good promises behind him, but the unsigned contract in his bag felt like an anchor around his neck.





CHAPTER TWO

Neil long ago lost count of how many airports he'd seen. Whatever insane number it was, he'd never gotten comfortable with them. There were too many people to keep an eye on, and flying with falsified passports was always risky. He'd inherited his mother's connections after her death, so he knew the work was good, but his heart did double-time every time someone asked to see his papers.

He'd never been through Sky Harbor or Upstate Regional, but there was something familiar about their frenetic pace. He stood off to one side of his gate in Upstate for almost a minute after everyone else from his flight rushed off to Arrivals or their transfers. The crowd swirling around him seemed the usual mix: vacationers, businessmen, and students heading home at the end of the semester. He didn't expect to see anyone he recognized, as he'd never been to South Carolina before, but it never hurt to check.

Finally he followed signs down a hall and up a flight of stairs to Arrivals. Friday afternoon meant the small lobby was comfortably crowded, but spotting the ride Coach Wymack promised him was easier than Neil expected.

It was the weight of his teammate's stare that brought Neil's gaze almost right to him. It was one of the twins. Judging by the calm look on his face, Neil laid his bets on it not being Andrew. Aaron Minyard was oft-referred to as "the normal one" of the two, though that was usually followed by a debate over whether or not he could be sane when he shared genes with Andrew.

Neil crossed the room to meet him. Neil had been the shortest player on the Millport Dingo line, but he had a good five inches on Aaron. The all-black ensemble Aaron wore did nothing to make him look any taller, and Neil wondered how he could stand wearing long sleeves in May. Neil felt hot just looking at him.

"Neil," Aaron said in lieu of hello, and he pointed. "Baggage claim."

"Just this." Neil tapped the strap of the duffel bag hanging off his shoulder. The bag was small enough to be a carry-on and large enough to carry everything Neil owned.

Aaron accepted that without comment and started away. Neil followed him through sliding glass doors into a muggy summer afternoon. A small crowd was waiting at the crosswalk for the light, but Aaron pushed right through them into the street. Brakes screeched as a taxi slammed to a stop inches from Aaron's pint-sized body. Aaron didn't seem to notice, more interested in getting a cigarette lit and between his lips. He paid even less attention to the rude words the driver yelled at him. Neil made an apologetic gesture at the cabbie and jogged to catch up.

A sleek black car was parked six rows back in the short-term parking garage. Neil didn't know much about cars in general, but he knew expensive when he saw it. He thought for a moment there must be a smaller car out of sight behind it, but Aaron unlocked it with a button on his key chain.

"Bag in the trunk," he said, opening the driver's door and sitting sideways in the seat to smoke.

Neil obediently put his duffel in the back before climbing in the passenger seat. Aaron didn't go anywhere until his cigarette was half-gone. He flicked the butt onto the concrete at his feet and tugged the door closed. A twist of the key in the ignition got the engine humming, and Aaron glanced at Neil again. The ghost of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, but it was a decidedly unfriendly expression.

"Neil Josten," he said again, as if testing the way it sounded. "Here for the summer, hm?"

"Yes."

Aaron cranked the air conditioner up as high as it could go and put the car in reverse. "That makes five of us, but word is you're going to stay with Coach."

Coach Wymack warned Neil the cousins Andrew, Aaron, and Nicholas would be in town, but it still didn't add up. Neil knew who that fifth person had to be. He didn't want to believe it even as he knew he should have expected it. Kevin had been glued to Andrew's side since his transfer. Still, Neil had to be sure.

"Kevin stays on campus?" he asked.

"Where the court is, Kevin is. He can't exist without it," Aaron said derisively.

"I didn't think it was the court Kevin was staying for," Neil said.

Aaron didn't answer. It was a short drive to the parking lot exit and Aaron had cash ready for the lady at the booth. As soon as the bar lifted to let them out, he stepped down on the gas. A horn sounded at them in warning as they cut right into traffic and Neil discreetly tightened his buckle. Aaron either didn't notice or didn't care. When they were on the road, he flicked Neil a sideways look.

"I hear you didn't hit it off with Kevin last month."

"No one warned me he was going to be there," Neil answered, watching the scenery rush by outside the window. "Maybe you'll forgive me for not reacting well."

"Maybe I won't. I don't believe in forgiveness, and it wasn't me you offended. That's the second time a recruit has told him to fuck off. If it was possible to dent that arrogance of his, his pride would have shreds through it. Instead he's losing faith in the intelligence of high school athletes."

"I'm sure Andrew had his reasons for refusing, same as me."

"You said you weren't good enough, but here you are anyway. You think a summer of practices will make that much a difference?"

"No," Neil said. "It was just too hard to say no."

"Coach always knows what to say, hm? It makes it harder on the rest of us, though. Not even Millport should have taken a chance on you."

Neil shrugged. "Millport's too small to care about experience. I had nothing to lose by trying out and they had nothing to gain by refusing me. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, I guess."

"Do you believe in fate?"

Neil heard the faint scorn in the other man's voice. "No. Do you?"

"Luck, then," Aaron said, ignoring that return question.

"Only the bad sort."

"We're flattered by your high opinion of us, of course."

Aaron pulled at the wheel, sliding the car from one lane to the other without bothering to check the traffic around him. Horns blared behind them. Neil watched in the rearview mirror as cars swerved to avoid hitting them.

"It's too nice of a car to wreck," he said pointedly.

"Don't be so afraid to die," Aaron said as the car kept gliding across the four-lane road to an exit ramp. "If you are, you have no place on our court."

"We're talking about a sport, not a death match."

"Same difference," Aaron said. "You're playing for a Class I team with Kevin on your line. People are always willing to bleed for him. You've seen the news, I assume."

"I've seen it," Neil said.

Aaron flicked his fingers as if that proved his point. Neil would be hard-pressed to say he was wrong, so he let it slide.

Kevin Day and his adoptive brother Riko Moriyama were hailed as the sons of Exy. Kevin's mother Kayleigh Day and Riko's uncle Tetsuji Moriyama created the sport roughly thirty years ago while Kayleigh was studying abroad in Fukui, Japan. What started as an experiment spread from their campus to local street teams, then across the ocean to the rest of the world. Kayleigh brought it home with her to Ireland after completing her degree and the United States picked it up soon after.

Kevin and Riko were raised on Exy. When Edgar Allen's massive stadium Castle Evermore, the first NCAA Exy stadium in the United States, was little more than blueprints, Kevin and Riko had custom racquets. After Kayleigh's fatal car accident, Tetsuji took Kevin in, but the Ravens' new coach had no time to raise children. Riko and Kevin spent their formative years at Evermore with the Ravens instead and were considered the team's unofficial mascots. When they weren't being coached by Tetsuji, they were coached by the team, and tutors were brought onsite so they wouldn't have to leave the stadium for school.

Kevin and Riko grew up in front of cameras, but always with Exy as a backdrop and always together. Until Kevin transferred to Palmetto State, he and Riko were never seen in separate rooms. Their unconventional childhood led many to worry about their psychological well-being but also fueled a rabid obsession with the pair. Riko and Kevin were the face of the Ravens. To many, they were considered the future of Exy.

Last December, Riko and Kevin vanished from the public eye for weeks. When spring championships started in January, neither man was on the Ravens' starting line-up. It wasn't until the end of January that Tetsuji Moriyama addressed the topic at a press conference, and the news was a cruel blow to Exy fans everywhere: Kevin Day had broken his playing hand on a skiing trip. According to Tetsuji, Kevin and Riko were too devastated to face either the Ravens or their upset fans just yet.

The next day, Coach Wymack told the press Kevin was recuperating in South Carolina. Hearing Kevin would never play again was bad; finding out he'd left the Ravens was somehow worse for his obsessive fans. If Kevin was relegated to the sidelines as an assistant coach, he should at least lend his prestige and knowledge to his home team. Fans took offense on their beloved team's behalf, but most everyone assumed he'd transfer back as soon as his hand was finished healing. Except Kevin Day signed with the Foxes in March —not as a coach, but a striker.

His fans went from feeling heartbroken to feeling betrayed. Palmetto State had borne the brunt of that rage since. The university and stadium had been vandalized upwards of a dozen times and there'd been numerous fights on campus. It would only get worse when the season started and people saw Kevin wearing the Foxes' colors. Neil wasn't looking forward to getting in the middle of that mess.

The apartment complex where Wymack lived was a twenty-minute drive from the airport. The parking lot was mostly empty, since it was mid-afternoon on a workday, but there were three people waiting on the sidewalk. Aaron was the first out and he aimed the key ring at the back of the car. Neil heard locks pop as he climbed out of the car. Aaron went to meet the others at the curb while Neil retrieved his duffel bag from the trunk. Neil slung it over his shoulder, relaxing a little at the familiar weight of it, and pushed the trunk closed. When he looked up he was the center of attention.

The twins were standing to either side of Kevin, dressed identically but easily distinguishable by the looks on their faces. Aaron looked bored now that he'd fulfilled his duty in getting Neil here. Andrew was smiling, but Neil knew his cheer didn't mean he was going to play nice. He'd been smiling when he smashed a racquet into Neil's stomach, too.

Nicholas Hemmick was the only one who looked genuinely happy to see Neil, and he stepped up to the curb at Neil's approach. Neil was glad for the distraction, since it kept him from looking at Kevin, and he readily accepted the hand Nicholas offered.

"Hey," the other man said, using his grip on Neil's hand to pull him up onto the curb. "Welcome to South Carolina. Flight go okay?"

"It was fine," Neil said.

"I'm Nicky." Nicky gave Neil's hand another hard squeeze before letting go. "Andrew and Aaron's cousin, backliner extraordinaire."

Neil looked from him to the twins and back again. Where the twins were light, Nicky was dark, with jet-black hair, dark brown eyes, and skin two shades too dark to be a tan. He also had the better part of a foot on them. "By blood?"

Nicky laughed. "Don't look it, right? Take after my mom. Dad 'rescued' her from Mexico during some la-di-dah ministry trip." He made a show of rolling his eyes, then jerked a thumb at the others. "You already met them, right? Aaron, Andrew, Kevin? Coach was supposed to be here to let you in, but he had to head up to the stadium real quick. The ERC called him, probably with more BS about how we haven't publicized our sub yet. In the meantime you're stuck with us, but we've got Coach's keys. Suitcases in the trunk?"

"It's just this," Neil said.

Nicky arched an eyebrow at him and looked at the others. "He packs light. I wish I could travel like that, but hell if I ain't materialistic."

"Materialistic is just a start," Aaron said.

Nicky grinned and caught Neil's shoulder, guiding him past the rest toward the front door. "This is where Coach lives," he said unnecessarily. "He makes all the money, so he gets to live in a place like this while we poor people couch surf."

"You have a nice car for someone who thinks he's poor," Neil said.

"That's why we're poor," Nicky said dryly.

"Aaron's mother bought it for us with her life insurance money," Andrew explained. "It's no surprise she had to die to be worth anything."

"Easy," Nicky said, but he was looking at Aaron when he said it.

"Easy, easy." Andrew lifted his hands in a careless shrug. "Why bother? It's a cruel world, right Neil? You wouldn't be here if it wasn't."

"It's not the world that's cruel," Neil said. "It's the people in it."

"Oh, so true."

They rode the elevator up to the seventh floor in silence. Neil watched the numbers tick above the door so he wouldn't look at Kevin's reflection. Unease over being so high off the ground was almost distraction enough. He preferred staying to lower levels so he could make an easy escape if need be. Jumping out the window here was definitely out of the question. He made a mental note to find any and all fire escapes.

Wymack's apartment was number 724. They gathered around the door so Aaron could dig the key out of his pocket. It took him two tries to remember which one he'd put it in. Neil didn't notice when he found it and unlocked the door. He was too busy staring at Aaron's pants pockets. They were much too flat to be hiding a pack of cigarettes, but Neil had seen Aaron put the pack away before crossing the street at the airport.

"Here you go, Neil," Nicky said, and Neil forced his gaze up to the open doorway. Nicky gestured for him to precede them. "Home sweet home, if anything involving Coach can be called sweet."

Neil had known since April he'd be crashing on Coach Wymack's couch for a couple weeks. He'd known, in the days following Wymack's visit, that it would be uncomfortable. He still wasn't prepared for the way his stomach roiled inside him now. He'd been on his own since his mother died, and the last man he'd lived with was his father. How was he supposed to let Wymack lock the door every night with both of them under the same roof? He couldn't possibly sleep here; every time Wymack breathed Neil would wake up and wonder who was after him. Maybe he should back out and check into a hotel, but how was he supposed to explain that to Wymack? Would he have to explain? Wymack thought Neil's parents were abusive, so maybe he'd understand Neil's reticence.

He hadn't expected to lock up like this, and he'd hesitated too long. He saw the look Nicky sent Aaron, curious and confused, and knew he'd made a mistake. Still, it wasn't until Andrew stepped up alongside him to see what the holdup was that Neil could move again. Andrew was smiling, but his pale stare was intense. Neil met his eyes for only a moment and knew it was worse to stay out here with them than it was to cross that threshold. He'd figure it out, but not here and not now, not with Andrew and Kevin as witnesses.

Neil stepped over the threshold and started down the hall. The first doorway opened up into the living room Neil would be sleeping in. The couch Wymack had referenced was cleared off and even had a sticky note tacked to it saying that the blankets were in the coffee table drawer. It was the only clean surface in the room. Everything else was covered in paperwork and empty coffee mugs. Overflowing ashtrays were in unhealthy abundance as well.

Neil was halfway across the room to look out the window when Nicky spoke up behind him.

"What was that all about?"

Neil's blood turned to slush. It wasn't the words that got him but the language Nicky used. German was Neil's second language thanks to three years spent living in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He remembered more of Europe than he wanted to; most of their time there had been a cold mess. He knew the tang of blood in his mouth was just his imagination, but it was sharp enough to choke him. He could feel his heartbeat on every inch of his skin, going so fast it set him trembling head to toe.

How did they know he spoke German?

Neil had half a mind to run for it, but then Aaron answered, and Neil realized with a sick rush Nicky wasn't talking to him. No, they were talking about him, not intending for him to understand. Neil forced himself to move, finishing his trip to the window. He pushed the curtains back and put his hands to the glass, needing something to steady him while his heart tried to ease back to a normal rhythm.

"Maybe he was savoring the moment," Aaron said.

"No," Nicky said. "That was pure fight or flight. What the hell did you say to him, Andrew?"

Neil looked back at them. Nicky wasn't looking at Andrew, maybe already knowing he wasn't going to get an answer, but was watching Neil across the room. When Neil turned, Nicky gave a bright smile and switched back to English. "How about a tour?"

Neil considered saying something, but he'd already given too much away. "Sure."

There wasn't much to look at. A bathroom and kitchen sat opposite each other, and the bedrooms were at the end of the hall. Wymack had converted the second bedroom into an office. The office made up for the bare living room walls: it was covered with newspaper articles, team photos, outdated calendars, and miscellaneous certificates. Two bookshelves lined the wall, one full of Exy books, the other a mishmash of everything from travel guides to classic literature. Wymack's desk was buried in paperwork, not an inch of wood visible, and Neil's file was on top. Holding down one corner was a hefty prescription bottle. Nicky scooped the bottle up with a triumphant sound and twisted the lid off.

"That's not yours," Neil said.

"Painkillers," Nicky said, ignoring that implicit accusation. "Coach shattered his hip a few years back, you know? That's how he met Abby. She was his therapist, and he got her the job here. Team's still split fifty-fifty on whether or not they're boning. Andrew refuses to vote, which means you're the tiebreaker. Let us know ASAP. I've got money riding on it."

He shook a couple pills into his hand, screwed the lid on, and put the bottle back. Neil looked to see what the others thought of this, but Andrew and Kevin had vanished. Only Aaron remained, and he didn't look at all concerned.

"You'll meet Abby tonight at dinner," Nicky said, stuffing the pills into his pocket. "We've got a couple hours to kill before then, so maybe we can take you by the court and let you gawk at it. We've got the perfect number for scrimmages now. Kevin's probably pissing himself in excitement."

"I doubt that," Neil said, thinking of Kevin's dispassionate expression downstairs.

"Kevin doesn't do excited," Aaron agreed, "but since Exy is the only thing he cares about, no one wants you on our court more than he does."

Neil's answer got stuck somewhere in his throat as he processed that. It was the same thing Aaron said in the car, almost, except Aaron sounded apathetic now where he'd been scornful earlier. Between that sudden change in attitude, the disappearing pack of cigarettes, and the matching outfits, Neil was starting to second-guess what was going on here. These were just small things, but Neil had learned to survive on the fine details.

"Isn't it difficult playing with him?" he asked, changing what he'd been about to say. "I mean, with him being a champion."

"Technically we haven't played with him yet," Nicky said. "He just started getting into drills with us last month. If he's anything on the line like he is as an assistant coach, you are going to have the most awful year ever." Despite his ominous words, Nicky sounded amused. "But he's worth it."

"Worth the fights, too?" Neil asked. "Like that one two weeks ago that Aaron said got completely out of hand. How many people got injured in that, again?"

There was a slight pause as Aaron thought, and for a moment Neil decided he'd imagined things. Then Aaron answered, "Eleven."

It was the right answer; Neil had read about the brawl in an article. But he and Aaron hadn't had that conversation in the car and Aaron should have known that.

Too late, Neil remembered Nicky's exasperated accusation in the living room: "What the hell did you say to him, Andrew?" Neil had assumed Nicky was referring to their first meeting in Millport, but Nicky had been talking about the car ride from the airport. It wasn't Aaron who picked Neil up from the airport after all.

Neil was annoyed by the trick and relieved he'd seen through it, but caution overrode both. Andrew wasn't cheerful naturally; his mania was drug-induced and court regulated. Two years ago some men attacked Nicky outside of a nightclub. Andrew was within his rights to defend Nicky, but he'd almost killed the four of them. The courts thought his violence to be a gross overreaction and tried to charge him. His lawyers struck a deal instead: Andrew would spend some time in intensive therapy, attend weekly counseling, and take medication.

After three years of this they'd let him off his medication long enough to assess his progress. Sobriety at any point before that was a violation of his parole. If the team nurse, Andrew's current psychiatrist, or the court psychiatrist who managed Andrew's parole suspected Andrew wasn't following the rules, they could request a urinalysis. If Andrew failed he'd be charged.

Andrew only had to hold out through spring, but apparently he couldn't wait that long. Neil couldn't believe Andrew would even risk sobriety when the consequences were so steep. He wondered if his arrival had to do with it, if Andrew wanted to meet his newest teammate without a hazy mind, or if Andrew just hated spending his summer break drugged to the gills.

As if on cue, Andrew appeared in the doorway with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and Kevin at his back. "Success."

"Ready, Neil?" Nicky asked. "We should probably beat it before Coach shows up."

"Why?" Neil pointed at the liquor. "Is this a robbery in progress?"

"Maybe it is. Will you tell Coach on us?" Andrew asked, sounding entertained by the notion. "So much for being a team player. I guess you really are a Fox."

"No," Neil said, "but I would ask him why you're not medicated."

There was a heartbeat of startled silence. The only one who didn't react was Andrew; even Kevin looked surprised.

Nicky was the first to find his tongue, but he reverted to German to ask Aaron, "Am I crazy? Did I just see that happen?"

"Don't look at me," Aaron said.

"I'd prefer an answer in English," Neil said.

Andrew put a thumb to the corner of his mouth and dragged it along his lips to erase his smile. "That sounds like an accusation, but I didn't lie to you."

"Omission is the easiest way to lie," Neil said. "You could have corrected me."

"Could have, didn't," Andrew said. "Figure it out for yourself."

"I did," Neil said. He tapped two fingers to his temple, copying Andrew's mocking salute from their first meeting. "Better luck next time."

"Oh," Andrew said. "Oh, you might actually turn out to be interesting. For a little while, at least. I don't think the amusement will last. It never does."

"Don't mess with me."

"Or what?"

There was a rattle as someone tested the knob on the front door. Andrew's smile was back in a heartbeat, bright and vacant. He turned to Kevin, and Kevin moved at the same time. The whiskey vanished somewhere between them in a practiced move.

"Hi Coach," Andrew called over his shoulder.

"Do you have any idea how much I hate coming home and finding you in my apartment?" Wymack demanded from out of sight.

Andrew held up his empty hands in an innocent gesture no one believed and stepped into the hallway. Aaron and Kevin went after him, presumably with the alcohol tucked between their bodies, and left Nicky and Neil in the office.

"I didn't break anything this time," Andrew said.

"I'll believe that after I've checked everything I own." The door slammed down the hall, and it wasn't long before Coach stepped into his office doorway. Clad in jean shorts and a faded tee, Wymack looked more like a garage band rocker than a university coach. Neil guessed he didn't have to look presentable on his home turf, but it was still disorienting.

Wymack gave Neil a once-over and nodded. "I see you made it all right. I was pretty sure Nicky's driving was going to get you killed."

Neil felt Nicky watching him and said, "I've survived worse."

"There is no surviving worse driving than that idiot's," Wymack said. "There's just open casket or closed."

"Hey, hey," Nicky said. "That's not fair."

"Life isn't fair, tweedle-dumb. Get over it. What are you still doing here?"

"Leaving," Andrew said. "Goodbye. Is Neil coming too?"

"Going where?" Wymack asked, looking suspicious.

"Jeez, Coach, what kind of people do you think we are?" Nicky asked.

"Do you really want me to answer that?"

"We're taking him to the court," Aaron said. "We can give him a lift to Abby's after. You didn't need him, did you?"

"Just to give him this," Wymack said, and Neil snagged the keys tossed his way. There were two rings looped together, two keys on one and three on the other. Neil eyed them as Wymack ticked them off on his fingers. "Long key is for when the front gate closes at night. Small one gets you into the apartment. The others are for the stadium: outer door, gear room, and court doors. Kevin has a matching set, so make him show you which is which. I expect you to make as much use of them as he does."

"Thank you," Neil said, clenching his fingers tight enough around them he could feel the teeth digging into his palm. He felt steadier with them in his hand. It didn't matter where he was sleeping or what tricks Andrew was up to. There was a court here and he had permission to play on it. "I will."

"Blatant favoritism, Coach," Andrew said.

"If you ever went to the court of your own volition, maybe I'd give you a set too," Wymack said. "Since I don't see that happening anytime this lifetime or next, you can shut up and share with Kevin."

"Oh, joy, joy," Andrew said. "My excited face begins now. Can we go?"

"Get out," Wymack said, and Andrew vanished. Kevin and Aaron followed. When Nicky reached the office doorway, Wymack put a hand in his path to stop him. "Don't you dare traumatize him his first day here."

Nicky looked from Wymack to Neil. "Neil's not traumatized, right?"

"Not yet," Neil said.

After a moment's debate, he shrugged his bag off his shoulder. The thought of leaving it behind made his skin crawl, considering what was hidden inside it, but he didn't trust Andrew's intentions. Neil didn't know why Andrew was sober or why he'd picked Neil up from the airport when it now seemed Wymack had tasked Nicky with that responsibility, but he didn't think Andrew was done playing yet. Neil trusted Wymack more than he did Andrew right now and hoped he wasn't making a mistake.

"Do you have someplace safe I can hide this?" he asked.

"There's space in the living room," Wymack said.

Neil glanced at Nicky, wondering how he could elaborate without making them curious enough to pry. He never walked away from his bag unless it was locked up somewhere, usually in his locker at Millport's stadium.

Before he could say anything, Wymack gave Nicky an impatient look. "Why are you still here? Get out."

"Rude," Nicky said, but he slipped past Wymack and disappeared down the hall.

Wymack looked at Neil again. "How safe is safe?"

Neil had never been an easy read before, but then, he'd never let the situation get so completely out of hand, either. On the run his mother had always stayed in control, weaving the perfect stories and choosing ideal marks to help them. Neil had fumbled his way through his transition to Millport, but he could have cut and run at any time if he didn't like the way things were going. This, he desperately wanted to make work, for however long he could hold onto it.

"It's all I have," Neil said at length.

Wymack motioned for Neil to get out of his way. Neil watched as he unlocked the bottom drawer on his desk. It was full of hanging files, but Wymack pulled them all out and stacked them on the floor nearby. The pile tilted over as soon as he let go, papers and folders sliding every which way. Wymack didn't even seem to notice, too busy digging a tiny key off his key ring.

"This is only a temporary fix," Wymack said. "When you move into the dorms, you're going to have to figure something else out."

He held the key out to Neil. Neil looked from him to the desk to the pile of papers and back again. He opened his mouth, closed it, and tried again. He'd only managed "Why" before Wymack got tired of waiting on him and pushed the key into his palm.

"Better hurry before Andrew sends someone looking for you," Wymack said.

Neil swallowed the rest of his question in favor of stuffing his duffel into the drawer. Luckily most of what was in the bag was clothes, so it fit into the cramped space with a couple shoves. Neil pushed the drawer shut and locked it. He tried to give the key back, but Wymack gave him a pitying look.

"The hell would I want that?" Wymack said. "Give it back when you move out."

Neil looked down at the key in his palm, at the security Wymack so easily and unquestioningly gave him. Maybe Neil wouldn't get any sleep tonight, and maybe he'd spend the next couple weeks waking up every time Wymack snored a little too loud, but maybe Neil really was okay here for now.

"Thank you," he said.

"Move along," Wymack said.

Neil left the office. The others had left the front door open and were waiting for him in the hallway. Neil slipped the key onto his key ring as he walked to meet them. Andrew led his cousins and Kevin to the elevator while Neil closed the door and locked it behind him. The elevator car arrived only seconds after Neil rejoined them, and they filed inside.

Neil's fleeting sense of safety vanished the second the doors closed behind him, because the others had arranged themselves in a ring around the walls of the elevator: Nicky and Aaron to his sides and Andrew and Kevin opposite him. All eyes were on Neil.

Andrew's smile vanished when the elevator started its slow crawl down. Neil returned his stare, every muscle tensed for a fight. At the fifth floor, Andrew pushed away from the back railing and started for Neil. He reached for Neil's keys, but Neil moved the ring out of reach. Andrew tried again, and Neil had to step back to dodge his grab. He backed right into the metal doors and realized a moment too late Andrew didn't care about his keys at all. He buried the ring in his pocket, feeling pinned in. How stupid, that someone so short could have such presence.

"How nice to meet you, Neil," Andrew drawled. "It will be a while before we see each other again."

"Somehow I don't think I'm that lucky."

"Like this," Andrew clarified, gesturing between their faces. "It will have to wait until June. Abby threatened to revoke our stadium rights for the summer if we break you sooner than that. Can't have that, can we? Kevin would cry. No worries. We'll wait until everyone's here and Abby has too many other Foxes to worry about. Then we'll throw you a welcome party you won't forget."

"You need to rethink your persuasion techniques. They suck."

"I don't need to be persuasive," Andrew said, putting a hand to Neil's chest as the elevator slowed to a stop. "You'll just learn to do what I say."

The doors slid open behind Neil. As soon as they'd parted enough Andrew gave Neil a small push. Neil tripped backward into the lobby. Andrew shoved past him, bumping him from shoulder to hip, and headed for the door. Kevin was a half-step behind him, and Aaron didn't even look at Neil on his way by. Only Nicky stayed behind long enough to smile at Neil.

"Ready for this?" he asked, and he went on ahead.

Neil remained behind for a few seconds longer to stare at their backs. He was starting to think Kevin wasn't his only problem at Palmetto State. It was almost a relief. Neil couldn't anticipate Kevin; he couldn't ask how much Kevin remembered about his past and he wouldn't know until too late what finally triggered Kevin into remembering him. But Andrew was just a psychotic midget, and Neil had grown up around violence. Handling him would be easy. Neil would just have to be careful.

"Ready," Neil said, and started after his teammates.





CHAPTER THREE

Neil spotted the Foxhole Court long before they made it to the stadium parking lot. Built to seat sixty-five thousand fans, it'd been placed on the outskirts of campus where it could tower over the shorter utilities buildings nearby. The paint job only made it stand out more: the walls were a blinding white with obnoxiously bright orange trim. A gigantic fox paw was painted on each of the four outer walls. Neil wondered how much it cost the university to build and how desperately they regretted the investment, considering the Foxes' miserable return.

They passed four parking lots before turning into a fifth. There were a couple cars already there, probably for maintenance staff or summer school students, but none were parked at the curb closest to the stadium. The stadium itself was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Gates were placed equidistant down the length of the fence for handling a game night crowd, and all of them were chained shut.

Neil went up to the fence and stared through it at the outer grounds. It was deserted now, the souvenir stands and food stalls boarded up until the season started again, but he could imagine what it'd look like in a couple months. It made every hair on his body stand on end, and his heartbeat echoing in his ears sounded like an Exy ball rebounding off a court wall.

Nicky clapped a hand to Neil's shoulder. "All the orange grows on you," he promised.

Neil twisted his fingers through the metal links and wished he could break the fence down. "Let me in."

"Come on," Nicky said, and led him down the fence.

They'd reached the end of the gates—they'd parked by 24, and the next was 1. Between the two gates was a narrow door sealed with an electronic keypad. The door led to a hallway that cut the outer grounds in two; whoever made it as far as gate 24 would have to go into the stadium and through the stands to reach gate 1. The others were waiting for Nicky and Neil outside that door. Aaron had brought the whiskey with him.

"This is our entrance," Nicky said. "Code changes every couple months, but Coach always lets us know when it does. Right now it's 0508. May and August, get it? Coach and Abby's birth months. Told you they were boning. When's your birthday?"

"It was in March," Neil lied.

"Oh, we missed it. But we recruited you in April, so that should count as the world's greatest present. What'd your girlfriend get you?"

Neil looked at him. "What?"

"Come on, cute face like yours has to have a girlfriend. Unless you swing my way, of course, in which case please tell me now and save me the trouble of having to figure it out."

Neil stared at him, wondering how Nicky could care about such things when the stadium was right there. They knew the code to get inside, but they were standing around like his answer was the secret password. Neil looked from Nicky to the keypad and back again.

"What's it matter?" he asked.

"I'm curious," Nicky said.

"He means nosey," Aaron said.

"I don't swing either way," Neil said. "Let's go in."

"Bullshit," Nicky said.

"I don't," Neil said, and impatience put an edge in his voice. It wasn't quite the truth, but it was close enough. "Are we going in or not?"

In response, Kevin tapped in the code and pulled the door open. "Go," he said.

Neil didn't have to be told twice. He went down the hall, already turning his key ring over in his hands. The hall ended at another door marked FOXES. He showed the key ring to Kevin in silent question. Kevin fingered the appropriate key.

It was strange sliding it into the knob and listening to the lock clack undone. Coach Hernandez occasionally let Neil sleep in the Millport High locker room, but it never occurred to him to give Neil a key. Instead he looked the other way whenever Neil broke in. Keys meant Neil had explicit permission to be here and do what he liked. They meant he belonged.

The first room was a lounge. Three chairs and two couches took up most of the space, forming a semicircle around an entertainment center. The TV was obscenely large, and Neil couldn't wait to watch a game on it. Posted above the TV on the wall was a list of sports and news channels.

The rest of the walls were covered in photographs. Some of them were official: team photos, snapshots of the Foxes' goals, and pictures obviously clipped from newspapers. The majority of the pictures looked like they'd been taken by one of the Foxes themselves. These were scattered anywhere they could fit and held up by tape. Taking up one entire corner was a clump of photos featuring the Foxes' three ladies.

Exy was a co-ed sport, but few colleges wanted women on their lines. According to Fox lore, Palmetto State refused to approve any of the women Wymack asked for his first year. After the Foxes' trainwreck first season, they were a little more willing to listen, and Wymack signed three women. On top of that, he made Danielle Wilds the first female captain in NCAA Class I Exy.

If Exy fans weren't kind to the Foxes, they were downright cruel to Danielle. Even her teammates were willing to shred her in public during her first year. The more outspoken misogynists blamed her for the Foxes' failings. Despite the controversy and with only Wymack at her back, Danielle held onto her position. Three years later, it was obvious Wymack made the right choice. The Foxes were still a mess but they fell in behind Danielle and slowly started racking up wins.

Neil's mental picture of Danielle was that of an aggressive and unrelenting woman, but the pictures he was looking at undermined that impression. Danielle was smiling in every photo, a toothy grin that was equal parts menace and mirth.

Nicky noticed his distraction and tapped the faces in the closest photograph. "Dan, Renee, and Allison. Dan's good people, but she'll work you to the bone. Allison's a catty bitch you should avoid at all costs. Renee's a sweetheart. Be nice to her."

"Or else?" Neil asked, because he could hear it in Nicky's tone.

Nicky only smiled and shrugged.

"Let's go," Kevin said.

Neil followed him out of the lounge. A hallway led from the lounge past two office doors labeled DAVID WYMACK and ABIGAIL WINFIELD. A door with a simple red cross on it was next. Further down two doors opposite each other were marked LADIES and GENTLEMEN. Kevin pushed open the GENTLEMEN door a bit, showing Neil a quick glimpse of bright orange lockers, benches, and tiled floor. Neil wanted to explore, but Kevin wasn't slowing on his way down the hall.

The hall dead-ended at a large room Neil dimly remembered from news clips. It was the room that opened into the stadium and the only place where the press could meet Foxes after games for interviews and photographs. Orange benches were set here and there, and the floor was white tile with orange paw prints. Orange cones were stacked in a corner, three deep and six high. A white door was on the wall to Neil's right, and an orange door was opposite him.

"Welcome to the foyer," Nicky said. "That's what we call it, anyway. By 'we' I mean whatever clever smartass preceded us."

Andrew straddled one of the benches and dug a bottle of pills out of his pocket. Aaron handed Kevin the whiskey they'd snitched. Kevin brought it to Andrew, waited while Andrew shook a pill onto the bench in front of him, and traded him the whiskey for the pill bottle. The medicine disappeared into one of Kevin's pockets, and Andrew swallowed the pill with an impressive swig of whiskey.

Kevin looked at Neil and gestured to the plain door across the room. "Gear closet."

"Can we—?" Neil started.

Kevin didn't let him finish. "Bring your keys."

Neil met him at the orange door and let Kevin pick out the right key. The other side of the doorway was darkness. There wasn't a ceiling, but Neil could see the walls rising up on either side. Neil followed Kevin into the shadows. Ten steps later he realized they must be in the stadium itself.

"You get to see the Foxhole Court looking its best," Nicky said behind him. "We made enough money off Kevin's presence we could get the floors refurbished and walls done. Cleanest this place has been since year one."

Light from the locker room bled into the stadium, the path to the inner court was too long for it to be much help. Inner court was mostly inky shadows with vague outlines. Neil closed his eyes and tried to imagine it. This space was reserved for the referees, cheerleaders, and teams. Somewhere around here were the Foxes' home benches. The plexiglass walls surrounding the court were invisible in the dark, as was the court itself, but knowing the court was there set Neil's heart racing.

"Lights," Aaron called from somewhere behind them.

Neil heard the hum of electricity before the lights came on, starting with emergency lights at his feet and cascading upwards. The stadium came to life before his eyes, row after row of alternating orange and white seats disappearing into sky-high rafters and the court lighting up in front of him. Neil was moving before the ceiling lights turned on, crossing the inner court to the court walls. He pressed his hands to the thick, cold plastic and looked up, where the scoreboards and replay TVs hung over the court's ceiling, then down to the glossy wood. Orange lines marked first, half, and far court. It was perfect, utterly perfect, and Neil felt at once inspired and horrified by the sight of it. How could he possibly play here after playing on Millport's pathetic knockoff court?

He closed his eyes and breathed in, breathed out, imagining the way bodies sounded as they crashed into each other on the court, the way the announcer's voice would only come through in muffled, scattered bursts, the roar of sixtyfive thousand people reacting to a goal. He knew he didn't deserve this, knew beyond a doubt he wasn't good enough to play on this court, but he wanted and needed it so badly he ached all over.

For three and a half weeks, it would be just the five of them, but in June the Foxes would move in for summer practices and in August the season would begin. Neil opened his eyes again, looked at the court, and knew he'd made the right decision. The risks didn't matter; the consequences would be worth it. He had to be here. He had to play on this court at least once. He had to know if the crowd screamed loud enough to blow the roof off. He had to smell the sweat and overpriced stadium food. He needed to hear the buzzer sound as a ball slammed inside the white goal lines and lit the walls up red.

"Oh," Nicky said, leaning against the wall a short ways down from Neil. "No wonder he chose you."

Neil looked at him, not really understanding the words, not really listening when his mind was still racing with the tick-tick-tock of a game clock counting down. Past Nicky was Kevin, who'd watched his father take a man apart and gone on to sign with the national team. Kevin was watching him, but the second their eyes met he pointed back the way they'd come.

"Give him his gear."

Aaron and Nicky brought Neil back to the locker room. Andrew hadn't followed them into the stadium, but he wasn't in the foyer either. Neil didn't care enough to ask but followed the cousins into the changing room. The front room was lined with lockers, each one marked with the players' numbers and names. Through the doorway at the back Neil could see sinks and he assumed the showers were around the corner out of sight. He was more interested in the locker that had his name on it.

Coaches Hernandez and Wymack had spent the last few weeks of Neil's senior year arguing details on what sort of equipment Neil needed. Knowing that everything was going to be here for him wasn't half as good as seeing it. There were five outfits for workouts and a set of both home and away uniforms. Mounds of padding and armor took up most of the space in his giant locker, and his helmet was on the top shelf. Underneath the helmet was something neon orange and shrinkwrapped, and Neil carefully pulled it out to examine it. It opened to reveal a windbreaker that was almost brighter than the stadium paint. "Foxes" and "Josten" were printed on the back in reflective material.

"Satellites can pick these up in outer space," he said.

Nicky laughed at that. "Dan commissioned them her first year here. She said she was tired of everyone trying to look past us. People want to pretend people like us don't exist, you know? Everyone hopes we're someone else's problem to solve." He reached out and fingered the material. "They don't understand, so they don't know where to start. They feel overwhelmed and give up before they've taken the first step."

Nicky gave himself a small shake and smiled, melancholy instantly replaced by cheer. "You know we donate a portion of ticket sales to charity? Our tickets cost a little more than anyone else's because of it. Renee's idea. Told you she's pure gold. Now come on, let's get you looking foxy."

He turned away to find his own gear, so Neil pulled out what he needed and brought it to the bathroom. Changing out in a stall was awkward and uncomfortable, but he'd done it so many times he had it down to an art form. He traded out a t-shirt for shoulder and chest padding. He did a couple twists to make sure the straps were snug enough without being too tight, then tugged his jersey on overtop. He could put on shorts around the others, so he returned to the main room to finish dressing.

He traded jeans for shorts first, then sat on one of the benches to hook his shin guards into place. He covered those with long socks and put on scuff-free court shoes. He pulled thin cotton gloves on, snapping them closed just above his elbows, and strapped arm guards onto his forearms. He left his outer gloves by his helmet where he could carry them down to the court and pulled his bangs up under an orange bandanna. The last thing to put on was his neck guard, a thin band with a tricky clasp. It was a pain to deal with and occasionally made him feel like he was choking, but it was worth putting up with if it'd protect his throat from a stray ball.

They went back to the foyer, and Nicky had Neil unlock the gear door Kevin indicated earlier. Aaron got a bucket of balls while Nicky rolled out the stick rack. The racquets were arranged by numbers, a pair for each player with Neil's at the end. Neil unhooked one and gave it a slow spin, testing the weight and feel of it in his hand. It was dark orange with a single white stripe at the base of the head and white rope netting. It smelled brand new and felt like a dream, and it was all he could do to keep from smashing the taut net against his face. At Millport he'd used one of the older team racquets. This one had been ordered specifically for him, and the thought alone was enough to set his heart racing.

Kevin was right where they'd left him, waiting for them in the inner ring. He watched silently as they tugged on their helmets and gloves, and said nothing when Aaron led the way to the home court entrance. Neil used his last key to unlock the door and then stuffed the keys into his glove for safekeeping.

After the door closed behind them, Neil looked at Nicky and asked, "Is Kevin not going to play today?"

Nicky looked surprised that he'd ask. "Kevin only tolerates our court under two conditions: alone, or with Andrew on it. He'll have to get over it this fall when Renee's in goal at games, but for now he can get away with being a snob."

"Where's Andrew?"

"He just dosed up, so he's out cold somewhere. He's going to crash and reboot into crazy mode."

"You don't think he's crazy now?"

"Crazy, nah," Nicky said. "Soulless, perhaps."

Neil looked at Aaron, waiting for him to defend his twin, but Aaron only led the way to half-court. Neil kept pace with Nicky, idly poking his fingers through the netting on his racquet. He looked at Kevin, who was still watching them through the court wall, and asked, "Kevin can't really play, can he? They said it'd be a miracle if he ever picked up a racquet again."

"His left hand's pretty much out," Nicky said. "He's playing as a rightie from now on."

Neil stared. "What?"

Nicky grinned, obviously pleased to have dropped that bombshell. "They don't call him an obsessive genius for nothing, you know."

"It's not genius," Aaron said. "It's spite."

"That too," Nicky said. "I wish I could see the look on Riko's face when he sees our first game. Rat bastard."

Kevin pounded on the wall in a demand for them to get moving.

Nicky waved a hand at him in dismissal. "We're doing this in our free time, you know!" he yelled, not that Kevin could hear him through the court walls.

"Thank you," Neil said belatedly.

"Huh? Oh, no. Don't worry about it. You can make it up to me some other time when the others aren't around."

"Can you try and get ass when I'm not standing right here?" Aaron asked.

"You could leave and let me and Neil get to know each other better."

"I'll tell Erik on you."

"Bald-faced lie. When's the last time you said a civil word to him?"

Neil didn't know any Foxes past or present with that name. "Who is Erik?"

"Oh, he's my husband," Nicky said happily. "Or will be, eventually. He was my home-stay brother for a year in Berlin and we moved in together after graduation."

Neil's heart skipped a beat. "You lived in Germany?"

He tried to do the math in his head, guessing Nicky's age against how long ago he'd been in high school. Chances were Neil had already moved on to Switzerland by the time Nicky made it to German soil, but it was such a close call Neil couldn't breathe.

"Ja," Nicky said. "You heard us earlier with the mumbo-jumbo, right? That was German. The little punks studied it at high school because they knew I could help them pass. If you take German as your elective here, just let me know and I'll tutor you. I'm good with my tongue."

"Enough. Let's play," Aaron said, putting the bucket of balls down.

Nicky gave an exaggerated sigh. "Anyway, remind me to show you his picture later. Our babies are going to be gorgeous."

Neil frowned, confused. "He doesn't live here?"

"Oh, no. He's in Stuttgart. Got a job he loves with great career potential, so he couldn't leave to follow me here. I was only supposed to stay long enough to get these kids through high school, but when Coach offered me a scholarship Erik said I should go for it. It sucks being apart for so long, but he came here last Christmas and I'll go there this year. If things ever die down around here I'll even get to spend next summer in Germany." Nicky sent a meaningful look toward the wall where Kevin was watching them.

They spent the next hour and a half teaching Neil drills. A lot of them Neil had done before, but there were a few he didn't recognize, and it gave him a thrill to learn something new. They ended with a short scrimmage, one striker against two backliners and an open goal. Aaron and Nicky weren't the best defense players in the NCAA by far, but they were far better than any of the high schoolers Neil was used to playing.

Aaron called them to a stop at last and Neil caught the ball on a rebound. When he dropped it into the bucket the others started unstrapping their helmets. Neil squished a flare of disappointment that they were done so soon, but he wouldn't push them to play any longer; Nicky had already said that they were giving up their summer break to play with him.

Nicky smeared his cheek against his shoulder, trying to wipe sweat off onto his jersey. He smiled at Neil. "How's that?"

"It was fun," Neil said. "You two are really, really good."

Nicky beamed, but Aaron snorted. "Kevin would kill himself if he heard that."

"Kevin thinks we're a waste of oxygen," Nicky said with a shrug.

"At least you're not going to completely drag us down," Aaron said. "It'll take most the season to get you where we need you to be, but I can see why Kevin picked you."

"Speaking of…" Nicky tipped his head toward the wall. "Someone's ready to get his hands on you."

Neil followed the gesture and looked through the wall toward the Foxes' benches. Andrew had reappeared and was lying flat on his back on the home bench, playing catch with a spare ball. Kevin had gotten his racquet at some point and was spinning it as he watched them. With half the court and a half-inch-thick wall between them, Neil could still feel Kevin's stare like a physical weight.

"Fear for your life," Nicky said. "He's not a forgiving tutor, and he doesn't know how to be nice. Kevin can piss anyone off on an Exy court, up to and including a drugged Andrew. Well, anyone except Renee, but she's not human so she doesn't count."

Neil looked at Andrew again. "I thought his medicine made that impossible."

"Spring was a learning experience." Nicky propped his racquet against his shoulder and started for the door. "Wish you'd seen it. Andrew would've taken Kevin's head off if Kevin hadn't already thrown Andrew's racquet halfway across the court. I can't wait to see how you handle it."

"Fantastic," Neil said, grabbing the balls bucket and following them off the court.

Andrew sat up as the court door banged closed behind them and tossed his ball to Nicky. He'd brought the whiskey with him and left it on the ground by his feet. Now he scooped it up and twisted the lid off.

"About time," he said. "Nicky, it's so boring waiting on you."

"We're done now," Nicky said, hooking his helmet over the end of his racquet so he could reach for the whiskey. "About time you stop that, don't you think? Abby's going to beat me senseless if she realizes you've been drinking."

"Doesn't sound like my problem," Andrew said with a brilliant smile.

Nicky looked to Aaron for help, but Aaron went ahead of them to the locker room. Nicky mimed blowing his own brains out and went with him. Neil meant to go after them, but he'd made the mistake of looking at Kevin. Once he met Kevin's eyes, it was hard to look away again.

Kevin's expression was indecipherable. Whatever it was, it didn't look particularly happy. "This is going to be a very long season."

"I told you I wasn't ready."

"You also said you wouldn't play with me, but here you are."

Neil didn't answer that accusation. Kevin got right in his face and tangled his fingers through the netting on Neil's racquet. When he started to pull it away, Neil held on tighter, silently refusing to let go. Kevin probably could have wrenched it away if he tried a little harder, but he seemed content just to hold on.

"If you won't play with me, you'll play for me," Kevin said. "You're never going to get there on your own, so give your game to me."

"Where is 'there'?" Neil asked.

"If you can't figure that out there's no helping you," Kevin said.

Neil gazed back at him in silence, pretty sure 'there' didn't apply to someone like him. Kevin must have seen that in the unimpressed look on his face because he reached up and covered Neil's eyes with his free hand.

"Forget the stadium," Kevin said. "Forget the Foxes and your useless high school team and your family. See it the only way it really matters, where Exy is the only road to take. What do you see?"

Imagining life in such simplistic terms was so ridiculous Neil almost laughed. He kept the vicious twist of his mouth off his face through sheer willpower alone. Something still must have shown, because Kevin gave his racquet a hard tug.

"Focus."

Neil tried to picture the world as if Neil Josten was really all there ever had been and would be. It was almost enough to make him despise the persona when he could see it in such easy terms, but he swallowed that distaste and turned his mental gaze toward Exy.

Had the game ever been his, or had it been pulling him to this point? Exy was the only bright point of his shattered childhood. He remembered his mother bringing him to little league Exy games, traveling an hour outside of Baltimore to where no one knew his father and the coaches would actually let him play. He remembered her cheering for him as if their every move and word wasn't scrutinized by gun-toting bodyguards. The memories were fragmented and dreamlike, distorted by the bloody reality of his father's work, but he clung to them. They were the only times he'd ever seen his mother smile.

Neil didn't know how long he played with his little league team, but his hands remembered the weight of a racquet as well as they did that of a gun.

That thought was sobering, as it put him right back to square one and the fact that Neil Josten was a fleeting existence. It was cruel to even dream he could stay like this, but Kevin had escaped, hadn't he? Somehow he'd left that bloody room behind at Edgar Allen and become this, and Neil wanted the same so bad he could taste it.

"You," Neil said at last. Kevin pulled at his racquet again, and this time Neil let go.

"Tell me I can have your game."

It wouldn't do them any good, but Neil wasn't going to get into that. "Take it."

"Neil understands," Kevin said, dropping his hand and sending Andrew a pointed look.

"Congratulations are in order, I suppose! Since I have none to give, I will tell the others to respond appropriately." Andrew pushed himself to his feet and swallowed more whiskey on the way up. "Neil! Hello. We meet again."

"We met earlier," Neil said. "If this is another trick, just let it go."

Andrew grinned at him around the mouth of his bottle. "Don't be so suspicious. You saw me take my medicine. If I hadn't, I'd be keeled over somewhere by now puking from the withdrawal. As it is, I might puke from all the fanaticism going around."

"He's high," Kevin told Neil. "He tells me when he's sober, so I always know. How did you figure it out?"

"They're twins, but they're not the same." Neil lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "One of them hates your obsession with Exy while the other couldn't care less."

Kevin looked to Andrew, but Andrew only had eyes for Neil. Andrew took a second to process those words before he started laughing. "He's a comedian, too? An athlete and a comic and a student. How multitalented. What a grand addition to the Fox line. I can't wait to find out what else he can do. Perhaps we should throw a talent show and find out? But later. Kevin, we're going. I need food."

Kevin handed Neil his racquet back and the three went to the locker room. Aaron and Nicky were already in the showers when they arrived. Neil heard water running and sat on a bench in the changing room to wait.

"We're not taking you by Abby's like that," Kevin said. "Wash up."

"I won't shower with the team," Neil said. "I'll wait, and if you don't want to wait on me, just go on ahead. I'll find my way there from here."

"Nicky going to be a problem for you?" Andrew asked.

Neil didn't like the look of his manic smile, but he liked Andrew's veiled warning less. "It's not about Nicky. It's about my privacy."

Kevin snapped his fingers at Neil. "Get over it. You can't be shy if you're going to be a star."

Andrew leaned toward Kevin and put a hand to his mouth, but he didn't bother to lower his voice. "He has to hide his ouches, Kevin. I broke into Coach's cabinet and read his files. Bruises, you think, or scars? I think scars, too. Can't be bruises if his parents aren't around to beat him, right?"

Neil felt cold all over. "What did you just say?"

"I don't care," Kevin said to Andrew, ignoring Neil.

Andrew, in turn, ignored Kevin and gestured at Neil. "Showers aren't communal here. Coach put in stalls when he built the stadium. The board wouldn't pay for it—they didn't see the point—so it came out of Coach's own pocket. See for yourself if you don't believe me. You don't believe me, do you? I know you don't. That's probably for the best."

Neil barely heard him. "You had no right to read my file!"

He regretted not flipping open the folder when Wymack put it down by him at the stadium. He couldn't believe Hernandez had said such things in his letters to Wymack. He knew Hernandez had to explain his situation, or at least as much as Hernandez understood it to be, to prove Neil was a fit for the Foxes' halfway-house team. Neil still felt betrayed, and on its heels was anger that Andrew had dug up those papers about him.

Andrew laughed, sounding delighted to have crossed such a personal line. "Relax, relax, relax. I made that up. We were locked in Coach Arizona's office to watch your game on the local TV station, and he said our secret meet-and-greet would be easy since you always shower alone last. Told Coach he still couldn't find your parents. Coach asked if they'd be a problem, and Arizona said he didn't know because he hadn't met them a single time. Said they spent a lot of time commuting to their jobs in Phoenix and no time at all checking in on you. But I'm right, aren't I?"

Neil opened his mouth, then closed it before he gave Andrew a piece of his mind. Andrew wanted him to react, so Neil had to reel it in. He sucked in a slow breath through gritted teeth and counted to ten. He only made it to five before Andrew's smile was too much.

Neil didn't believe Andrew about the showers, but it was better to investigate than stay here and take a swing at Andrew. He got off the bench and went to the bathroom. The sinks with their ceiling-high mirrors were the connecting section between the toilets and the showers, and the showers were around the corner out of sight. He edged around for a quick look. Andrew was telling the truth for once. The walls were lined with stalls, tall enough to afford complete privacy and outfitted with locking doors.

"Weird, right?" Andrew said at Neil's ear. Neil hadn't heard his approach over the sound of the cousins' showers. Lashing out was instinctive, but Andrew caught the elbow Neil would have slammed into his ribs. Andrew laughed and retreated a couple steps. "Coach never explained it. Maybe he thought we'd need to grieve our disastrous losses in private. Only the best for his rising stars, right?"

"I didn't think Wymack recruited rising stars," Neil said, pushing past Andrew for his locker.

"No," Andrew agreed. "The Foxes will never amount to anything. Try telling Dan that, though, and she'll box your ears." He scooped up his whiskey and started for the door. "Kevin, car."

Neil watched the door close behind them before gathering his clothes and heading to the showers. He washed as quickly as he could and grimaced as he got dressed again. Vents kept the air moving, pulling moisture out to cut back on mildew, but the room still felt heavy and wet. Neil felt sticky as he tugged his clothes on. He raked his fingers through his hair as he met up with the cousins in the main room. They showed him where to put his armor so it could air dry and his uniform to be washed. Aaron got the lights on their way out, Neil locked the doors, and they found the other two waiting by the car.

Nicky took the keys from Andrew and shook them at Neil. "It's your first day, so you get shotgun again. Enjoy it while you can. Kevin hates sitting in back."

"I don't have to sit up front," Neil said, but Kevin and the twins were already piling into the backseat with Kevin in the middle. The way they sat put Andrew behind Neil's seat, so Neil hoped the ride was short.

Abigail Winfield lived in a onestory house about five minutes from campus. Nicky parked at the curb since there were already two cars in the driveway when they arrived. The front door was unlocked, so they let themselves in without knocking, and they were greeted by the thick smells of garlic and warm tomato sauce.

Coach Wymack and Abigail were in the kitchen already. Wymack was grumbling as he dug through the silverware drawer and Abigail ignored him in favor of stirring something at the stove. Coach spotted the Foxes first and stabbed a finger at Nicky.

"Hemmick, get over here and be useful for once in your mangy life. Table needs setting."

"Aww, Coach," Nicky complained as Abigail turned. "Why do you always have to pick on me? You already started it. Can't you finish?"

"Shut your face and get to work."

"Can't you two behave when we've got a guest?" Abigail asked, setting aside her spoon and coming to greet them.

Wymack raked the group with a look. "I don't see any guests. Neil's a Fox. He's not going to get any special treatment just because it's his first day. Don't want him thinking this team is anything but dysfunctional or June will be a rude wake-up call."

"David? Shut up and make sure the vegetables aren't boiling over. Kevin, check the bread. It's in the oven. Nicky, table. Aaron, help him. Andrew Joseph Minyard, that had better not be what I think it is." She made a grab at the whiskey, but Andrew laughed and ducked out of the doorway. Abigail looked like she wanted to go after him down the hall, but Neil was in her way. He stepped neatly to one side to let her through, but she settled for flicking Nicky a murderous look.

"What was I supposed to do?" Nicky asked, avoiding her eyes as the three split up to their various chores. "Take it from him? No way in hell."

Abigail ignored him in favor of facing Neil. "You'd be Neil, then. I'm Abby. I'm nurse for the team and temporary landlord to this lot. They're not harassing you too much, are they?"

"No worries," Andrew called from out of sight. "He'll actually take work to break, I think. Give me until August, maybe."

"If you dare give us a repeat of last year—"

"Then Bee will be here to pick the pieces up," Andrew interrupted, reappearing in the doorway at Neil's side. He'd lost the whiskey along the way and he splayed his empty hands at her in a calming gesture. "She did so well with Matt, didn't she? Neil won't even be a blink on her radar. You did invite her over, didn't you?"

"I invited her, but she declined. She thought it would make things awkward."

"Things aren't anything but awkward when Andrew and Nicky are around," Coach said.

Andrew didn't even try to defend his honor but looked at Neil. "Bee's a shrink. Used to work in the juvie system, but now she's here. She deals with the really serious cases on campus: suicide watch, budding psychopaths, that sort of thing. That makes her our designated handler. You'll meet her in August."

"Do I have to?" Neil asked.

"It's mandatory once a semester for athletes," Abby confirmed. "The first time is a casual meet-andgreet so you get to know her and find out where her office is. The second session is in spring. Of course, you're free to visit her any time you like, and she'll talk to you more about scheduling while you're there. Counseling services are included in your tuition, so you might as well make use of it."

"Betsy's amazing," Nicky said. "You'll love her."

Neil doubted it, but he let it slide for now.

"Let's eat, shall we?" Abby asked, motioning for Andrew and Neil to enter the room.

Neil had just about lost his appetite, but he sat at the table as far as he could get from Kevin and Andrew's seats. Conversation died as everyone got settled and served up what they wanted, but it started up again as they dug into chunks of steaming lasagna. Neil tried as best as he could to stay out of it, more interested in seeing the way they interacted.

From time to time the table split as Kevin and Wymack got caught up talking about spring training and recruits at other schools and Nicky regaled the other half of the table with gossip about movies and celebrities Neil didn't know. Andrew watched Kevin and Wymack, but he had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Instead he hummed to himself and pushed his food around his plate.

It was after ten when Wymack decided it was time to go, and Neil left with him. Getting in the car alone with him was the hardest thing Neil had done all day. Andrew was crazy, but Neil had an ingrained distrust of men old enough to be his father. He spent the entire ride frozen and silent in the passenger seat. Maybe Wymack noticed the rigid set to his shoulders, because he said nothing to Neil until they were back at his apartment.

When Wymack closed and locked the front door behind them, he asked, "Are they going to be a problem?"

Neil shook his head and discreetly put more space between them. "I'll figure it out."

"They don't understand boundaries," Wymack said. "If they cross a line and you can't get them to back off, you come to me. Understand? I don't have perfect control over Andrew, but Kevin owes us his life and I can get to Andrew through him."

Neil nodded and went down the hall to get his bag from Wymack's desk. It'd been locked up all day, but he unloaded it onto the couch anyway to check his things. The second his hands closed over the binder at the bottom of his bag, his heart kicked into overdrive. He wanted to go through it and make sure everything was there, but Wymack was watching him from the doorway.

"You plan on wearing the same six outfits over and over again this year?" Wymack asked.

"Eight," Neil said, "and yes."

Wymack arched an eyebrow at him but didn't push it. "Laundry room is in the basement. Detergent's in the bathroom cabinet under the sink. Use what you need, and take what you want from the kitchen. It'll piss me off more if you act like a skittish stray cat than it will if you eat the last bowl of cereal."

"Yes, Coach."

"I've got paperwork to go over. You good?"

"I might go running," Neil said.

Wymack nodded and left. Neil set his running pants to one side and stuffed his sleeping pants and tee under the couch for later. He changed in the bathroom and went around Wymack to lock his bag up again. Wymack didn't even look up from the papers he was perusing, though he grunted what might have been a goodbye as Neil left again. Neil locked the door behind him, stuffed the keys to the bottom of his pocket, and took the stairs down to ground level.

He didn't know where he was or where he was going, but that was all right. If he gave his feet a direction, they'd take him running past all of his thoughts, and he'd be happy to let them.





CHAPTER FOUR

Neil spent the following morning exploring the campus and memorizing its layout. When he was sure he knew his way around, he left school grounds and went for a long run. Gradually he looped his way back around. He had an hour to stretch out and eat lunch before he met the others at the stadium, and he made sure to show up early enough to change in private.

When the others arrived, Neil was waiting for them on the court. He watched as Kevin propelled Andrew toward the home goal. Andrew was laughing about something, but Neil couldn't hear what Kevin was saying to him. Aaron and Nicky scattered balls down the first-fourth line, and Nicky rolled a couple Neil's way. Neil spaced them out at half-court around him.

They started with drills, some of which Neil practiced yesterday and a few more he didn't know. The exercises gradually increased in difficulty and Neil grimaced a little as Andrew deflected every shot Neil aimed his way. It was only a little comforting that neither Aaron nor Nicky was scoring, either, but Kevin landed almost a third of his shots. It was a poor show from a former national champion, but it was also intensely humbling as Kevin had grown up playing left-handed. Seeing him take on Andrew righthanded was ballsy enough; seeing him actually score was surreal.

Kevin kicked them off the court for a water break after an hour and a half of drills, but instead of following the backliners and Neil to the locker room, he stayed behind with Andrew to keep practicing. Neil watched them over his shoulder.

"I saw him first," Nicky said. "I thought you had Erik," Neil said. "I do, but Kevin's on the List," Nicky said. When Neil frowned, Nicky explained. "It's a list of celebrities we're allowed to have affairs with. Kevin is my number three."

Neil pretended to understand and changed the topic. "How does anyone lose against the Foxes with Andrew in your goal?"

"He's good, right? But Andrew sat out most of last year." Nicky shrugged. "Coach didn't need a third goalie when he signed us, so Andrew was a bench warmer up until November. Then the ERC threatened to revoke our Class I status and fire Coach if we didn't start winning more often. Coach bribed Andrew into saving our collective asses with some really nice booze."

"Bribed?" Neil echoed.

"Andrew's good," Nicky said again, "but it doesn't really matter to him if we win or lose. You want him to care, you gotta give him incentive."

"He can't play like that and not care."

"Now you sound like Kevin. You'll find out the hard way, same as Kevin did. Kevin gave Andrew a lot of grief this spring," Nicky said as they pushed their way into the locker room. Aaron went ahead of them to the water fountain and Nicky propped himself against the wall to watch Neil. "Andrew walked off the court for an entire month. He said he'd break his own fingers if Coach made him play with Kevin again."

The thought of Andrew willingly destroying his talent made Neil's heart clench. "But he's playing now."

Nicky took a couple quick sips from the fountain as soon as Aaron stepped out of the way and smeared a hand across his mouth. "Only because Kevin is. Kevin got back on the court with a racquet in his right hand, and Andrew wasn't far behind him. Up until then they were fighting like cats and dogs. Now look at them. They're practically trading friendship bracelets and I couldn't fit a crowbar between them if it'd save my life."

"But why?" Neil asked. "Andrew hates Kevin's obsession with Exy."

"The day they start making sense to you, let me know," Nicky said, moving so Neil could get a drink. "I gave up trying to sort it all out weeks ago. You could ask, but neither of them will answer. But as long as I'm doling out advice? Stop staring at Kevin so much. You're making me fear for your life over here."

"What do you mean?"

"Andrew is scary territorial of him. He punched me the first time I said I'd like to get Kevin too wasted to be s