Throwing this up here on my way out the door (running late, whoops) so sorry if I messed up any of the spacing! I tried glancing it over but I might've missed a spot or two.
Timeline: One year before the events of The Foxhole Court. Part one was here. Part two was here.
Renee wasn't entirely surprised to find Nicky on her doorstep Friday night. Luckily for him, Dan was at Abby's house with Matt and Allison was next door drinking with Seth when he dropped by. Monday was the only day the Foxes had erupted into a full-out brawl, but the entire week had felt toxic. Without Wymack or Abby around to intervene, and with Nicky's fierce cousins nowhere in sight, there was a good chance Nicky would end up hospitalized should he be caught in the dorm.
If Nicky knew what he was risking by being here alone, he gave no sign of it. "Heya," he said brightly. "Gonna be hot where we're going. Got anything less, uh, good Christian daughter-ish?"
"I might have one or two things, if you don't mind waiting while I check."
Renee motioned for him to come in so she could at least close the door behind him. She slipped the lock into place with her thumb and left Nicky poking around the living room while she changed out of her plain gray sweatshirt. She pawed through her closet one-handed, checking and dismissing her usual shirts in a glance. Dan didn't remember much of her night out with the cousins except that they'd gone to a club in Columbia. It wasn't a guarantee they would take Renee to the same place, but the crackers and speedballs they'd fed Matt would've been easier to hide in a place like that.
Renee didn't go out much, but she tended to pack a couple dressy shirts just in case. She found them in the bottom drawer of her dresser near her winter pajamas. She tugged on a pink silk undershirt first. The x-shaped straps across her back did nothing to hide the colorful marks across her shoulder blades, but she found a short-sleeved black jacket to pull on over top. Her stray coin purses were in with her underwear and socks, and it took no time at all to transfer her cards and gum from her purse.
Nicky put down the photo album he'd been flipping through when she reappeared. "All set?"
"All set," Renee agreed with a smile.
She locked up behind her, glanced down the hall to make sure the other suite doors were closed, and followed Nicky downstairs. His cousins were waiting for them out back, Aaron propped against the hood and Andrew sitting on the trunk. Despite Nicky's warning to dress light, Andrew was wearing yet another long-sleeved black shirt. It was all Renee had seen him wearing since he'd shown up—even when he wore his jersey he had a black undershirt on. He was playing catch with a pack of cigarettes, but he crammed the pack in his pockets when he noticed Renee and Nicky.
"Oh, good! Hello." Andrew slid off the trunk and put a hand up in greeting. "We are, of course, thrilled beyond the telling that you could join us tonight. Nicky didn't think you would, see? Shows what he knows."
"Thank you for inviting me," Renee said.
Andrew waved that aside and turned away. "We're leaving!"
Nicky had the keys and Andrew claimed the passenger seat, so Renee ended up in the back with Aaron. Aaron didn't bother to buckle and had even less interest in answering her polite hello. He propped his elbow on the windowsill, perched his chin on his hand, and stared out the window like he didn't know she was there. Renee weighed the pros of pursuing a conversation, found them unsurprisingly slim, and decided to let it go.
Nicky flicked the radio on before pulling out of the parking lot and sent her an apologetic grin over his shoulder. "I don't think any gospel's on at this hour."
"That's all right," Renee said. "I'm not a fan."
"Surprise, surprise," Aaron muttered.
"No?" Nicky asked. "What're you into, then?"
"These days, orchestral pieces," Renee said. "Instrumental soundtracks and such, like the sort you hear in movie trailers. Epic music, I think some people call it?" She considered it a moment, then gave up with a slight shrug. "I like music that's meant to be felt."
"Huh." Nicky eyed his stereo as he thought that over, then flipped channels as he looked for a decent substitute. He found a trance station on his third try and cranked the volume up to where it was barely tolerable. Conversation would be impossible, but maybe that was the point. "Good?"
"Thank you," Renee said.
Nicky grinned and focused on getting them out of town. It took them the better part of an hour to get to Columbia, and they stopped at a packed diner as soon as they arrived. Nicky barely had time to take the keys out of the ignition before Andrew threw his car door open and leaned out. Without the music going anymore it was easy to hear him cough and gag. Nicky and Aaron didn't look at all surprised or concerned by this but got out on the other side of the car. Renee climbed out on her side, closed her door, and turned on Andrew.
Only a white-knuckled grip on the door had kept him from toppling out onto the asphalt, and Renee was close enough to see the shudder that shook his shoulders. Nicky was talking to her about the place they'd stopped at, extolling the virtues of its ice cream and professing their great luck in getting a parking spot at this time of night. Renee responded with the appropriate congratulatory remarks but kept most of her attention on Andrew.
Andrew spat a couple more times to clear the taste from his mouth and finally got out of the car. He slammed the door behind him with such force she expected something to break, and when he turned toward her she had a piece of gum out and ready for him. Andrew paused and glanced from the foil wrapper up to her face. Renee's heart skipped a beat when she saw his face, because for the first time since she'd met him Andrew wasn't smiling.
"It's sugar-free," Renee said. "Better for your teeth."
Andrew took the gum from her, unwrapped it, and let both the stick and the foil fall to the mess at his feet. He didn't stick around to see if she reacted but strode past her toward the door. Aaron waited until Andrew reached the sidewalk before following, and Nicky hung back to match pace with Renee. Renee didn't ask about Andrew, and Nicky didn't volunteer an explanation. Instead they talked about South Carolina summers—a tragic season Renee was getting used to out of necessity but which Nicky had grown up dealing with.
"North Dakota?" Nicky asked, startled, when Renee told him where she was from. "What'd you do, pick whichever school was furthest from home?"
"I didn't have to pick," Renee said, and nodded thanks when Nicky got the door for her. "Palmetto State was the only one to offer me a position. If I'd had a choice, though, I would still have asked to come here. I believe in what Coach Wymack is trying to do with this team. Don't you?"
"How quickly they buy into the publicity stunt," Andrew said, but his mockery lacked the energy and cheer he'd been radiating the last two weeks. He slanted a look at her but didn't let his gaze linger. He was more distracted by the salad bar crackers he was tearing through. Renee didn't know how he could put anything on his stomach so soon after throwing up, but Andrew inhaled almost six packs before their hostess called his name.
"Coach Wymack is a good man," Renee said, neatly outstepping Nicky as they followed Andrew and the hostess to their table. "He is not above publicity stunts, but this is not one of them. He would never choose the program over his individual Foxes."
Andrew gestured like he was trying to shoo away a fly and slipped into the booth. Renee took the spot opposite him. She expected Nicky to slide in beside her, but Nicky climbed in beside Andrew and left Aaron to sit with Renee again. The hostess passed out menus, but Nicky collected them again as soon as she'd left and piled them in front of him. He shrugged at Renee, even though she hadn't asked, and said, "We get the same thing every time. Tradition."
Tradition turned out to be spicy cinnamon vanilla ice cream. The waiter unloaded four bowls onto the table from a wide tray, then set a stack of napkins down in front of Andrew. As soon as he turned away Andrew swiped a hand along the stack, spreading it like a deck of cards. Light glinted off plastic packets that at first could have been condom wrappers. It took Renee only a second more to see the off-color powder inside. Andrew plucked the packets up as fast as he could. Most disappeared into his pockets; the last was opened and upended into his mouth.
Renee wondered if she was supposed to comment on the blatant drug use going on right in front of her. It seemed too predictable, never mind dishonest. Renee knew the cousins had access to drugs, and they knew she knew. She helped no one by feigning discomfort or surprise now. Instead she ate another spoonful of ice cream and said, "This is amazing."
"Isn't it?" Nicky said. "Finding this place was a stroke of luck. I used to work here, see, when I moved back to Columbia a couple years ago. Tried it as a waiter, but the lack of a brain-to-mouth filter kind of uhhh..." Nicky gestured; Renee translated it to mean "a total disaster". "The manager liked me, though, so he let me go to hosting full time instead of tossing me out on my ass."
Just like that they were back where they'd started, with Nicky chattering away about South Carolina and the local area, but it didn't last long. Slowly but surely Nicky started turning the focus of the conversation toward Renee's life. Renee saw it happening a mile away and smiled. Nicky hesitated, maybe sensing something wasn't quite right, but failed to see the gentle warning in her expression. He kept on, and Renee neatly deflected his best attempts at prying. It took her only five questions to turn the conversation right back around, and there was no way Nicky could change topics without it being obvious what he was doing. For a moment he looked frustrated, then highly uncomfortable.
"Imagine that," Andrew said, tossing his spoon aside and motioning for Nicky to get out of the booth.
"Never thought I'd meet someone who could out-talk Nicky."
Renee smiled again, but there was nothing sweet in her stare when she met Andrew's hard gaze. "You could just ask."
Andrew only slid the bill across the table toward Aaron and got to his feet. Nicky hurried off the bench to let Andrew out, but Aaron didn't get up until he'd left a stack of twenties in the center of the table. Finally he moved so Renee could get up, and the four of them left the diner in a straggling line. Traffic had picked up a bit, but their next stop wasn't far. Nicky pulled up to the curb in front of a building too nondescript to justify the long line standing outside it. The twins and Renee got out onto the sidewalk, and Aaron collected a yellow tag from one of the two bouncers. Nicky rolled the window down so Aaron could flick it onto the passenger seat. Nicky pulled back into traffic, and Aaron stabbed a finger at the door in a silent demand that Renee follow Andrew inside.
There was a second set of doors beyond the bouncers' guarded entrance, and Renee gave mental props to whoever installed the sound-proofing insulation in the walls. She heard only a distant hum between the two entrances, but as soon as the second door opened music roared over her skin.
Andrew was too short to be in a crowd this thick, and his dark outfit didn't help matters much. Renee lost sight of him twice in her attempt to follow him around the dais, then found him again by pure luck. He'd found a small, sticky table with only one chair still pulled up to it. He pushed the chair aside without looking to see if he sent it skidding into anyone.
As soon as Aaron stepped up beside Renee Andrew turned away, and Aaron pushed Renee's shoulder in a silent order to follow. It was easier to track Andrew over to the bar counter, and the bartender that greeted Andrew did so with unfeigned cheer. Renee wondered at that: had he simply known the cousins long enough to not be afraid of them, or was that the self-assured smile of the supplier to the addicted? It was promising either way, that someone could look so comfortable around someone like Andrew.
"We're going to be here a while," Andrew said.
"What, you?" the bartender joked. He didn't wait for a response but flashed Renee a toothy smile. "Any special requests?"
"Something canned and carbonated, please," Renee said.
"DD?" he guessed, and she only smiled.
"Canned," Andrew repeated when the bartender stepped away to start mixing drinks.
"Force of habit," Renee said with an apologetic shrug. "Please don't take it personally; there are very few people I'd accept an open drink from."
"I suppose you don't take candy from strangers, either."
"Candy is a little harder to resist."
Andrew waved that aside, and they waited for their drinks in silence. The bartender returned with a full tray of drinks, everything from shots to colorful cocktails, and slid it over the counter toward Andrew. With it out of his hands he was free to grab a soda from a small fridge behind him. Renee took it with a grateful nod and watched the expert way Andrew lifted his tray up to shoulder height. Andrew was too young even now to have gotten a job here at Eden's Twilight where he'd have to handle alcoholic beverages, but maybe he'd been a waiter at Sweetie's with Nicky. Then again, Dan hadn't had any trouble snagging her job at Snowy Starlets a few years back and she definitely hadn't been old enough for that either.
Renee cleared them a path back to the table and found Nicky had caught up with them. Nicky seemed to have lost his taste for nonstop conversation, but Renee was happy just to watch how quickly her teammates could put away the two dozen-odd drinks the bartender had served them. They'd emptied half the tray before Andrew's diner drugs reappeared. Nicky looked to Renee as he took a packet, searching her face for a reaction or condemnation. Renee only smiled.
"Pretty open-minded for a Christian," Nicky said.
"As are you," Renee pointed out. "Faith is my cure, but I know it's not everyone's answer. If this is yours, it is not my place to judge you. I am here to understand and support you."
"Even the flaming side of me?" He said it like a joke, but his smile didn't reach his eyes.
"The heart of all faith is love," Renee said. "That is what religion is supposed to be about: acceptance, peace, and cherishing one another despite and because of our differences. Why anyone would hate something as beautiful as love is, I don't know. Fear is hardly an excuse for today's rampant violence and discrimination."
"Cute," Nicky said. "Andrew, she's cute. Can we keep her?" Andrew didn't say anything, but his look said enough. Nicky grinned and waggled his packet at Renee. "I figure the answer's obvious, but it seems rude not to at least offer. Want in on some crackers?"
"Thank you," Renee said, "but I'm fine for now."
Nicky nodded, and the three tore their packs open. They knocked their drugs back with an ease that spoke of long practice and chased the dust with shots. They made short work of the rest of the tray, and Aaron was gone as soon as he put his last cup down. Andrew stacked the empty glasses onto the tray and vanished. Nicky didn't watch him go but looked out at the dance floor. He was already drumming his fingers along to the beat, but he gave no sign that he'd get up and abandon her.
Renee sent a casual look over her shoulder to make sure Andrew had disappeared into the crowd with his burden, then put a hand on Nicky's arm. Nicky turned to her with a winning smile on his face. Renee didn't smile this time, but Nicky had too much dust and alcohol in his system to notice.
"A week ago you brought Matt down here and gave him speedballs," Renee said. "Why?"
Nicky's smile faltered, but he didn't have the good grace to look guilty. "Andrew already said it, didn't he? That was the truth, what he said the last time you asked him."
"I don't see how Matt's struggle was 'troublesome' for Andrew."
"Oh," Nicky said with a knowing nod. "That's Aaron's fault. I told you! No, I told Dan. No?" Nicky hesitated, thinking it over, then gave it up as a lost cause and barged on. "Aaron has a special eye for people like Matt. He's a recovered addict too, see? Aaron's got dust and Andrew to keep him on the straight and narrow these days, but you can't put him and Matt on the same team and expect it to work out. What a wicked trigger, seeing someone else's desperation that close-up. Andrew doesn't have the patience for that wish-washy need—or, well, for anything else."
She understood more than he knew what it was like to maintain one's sanity while watching some else struggle, but this wasn't the time or place to have that conversation with Nicky. Instead she said,
"If that's true, Andrew honestly believes Matt will beat this."
Nicky nodded energetically. "If Matt fails, he'll drag Aaron down with him. Andrew wouldn't have risked it if he thought Matt would lose. Just 'cause Andrew doesn't want to be here doesn't mean Andrew intends to get cut anytime soon. It'd be inconvenient."
Renee mulled over it in silence for a bit, wondering if Nicky was telling the truth or just passing along his version of it. To believe him meant believing in the good in Andrew when all signs pointed to the contrary and a dozen-odd therapists had supposedly written him off. Even Andrew had said he wasn't interested in doing the right thing.
Maybe because he doesn't judge things in terms of right and wrong, Renee mused. He just acts without worry for consequences or collateral damage. All the wrong things for all the right reasons?
"We can't all be saints," Nicky said when Renee was silent a little too long.
"Saints would get bored with no one to reform," Renee said.
"Yeahhhh, good luck," Nicky said. "You succeed on this one and I will lead the charge for your, uh, uhhhh, what do Catholics call it when their people become saints?"
"Canonization," Renee said.
"Yup. That. Oh, hey," Nicky said.
Renee followed Nicky's distracted glance in time to see Andrew step up to the table again. He'd brought the tray back, loaded down with the same impossible number of drinks. Nicky gave an appreciative whistle, but instead of reaching for a glass he just clapped Renee's shoulder in encouragement or support. He was gone a heartbeat later, finally following Aaron out onto the dance floor. Renee looked back to Andrew, who was rearranging his glasses like their current set-up was unacceptable. As soon as he was done he started in on the drinks. Renee sipped her soda and counted shots as they disappeared. After the fourth Andrew finally looked at her.
"Curiosity killed the cat," Andrew said. He offered the fifth glass to her. She considered turning it down; she'd already told him she didn't take open drinks from many people and Andrew certainly was not one of those trusted few. After a moment, though, she accepted the cocktail and took a neat sip. Andrew emptied the rest of it when Renee passed it back. "Tell me you actually have a reason to be here."
"Do you think I'm a fluke?" Renee asked with a smile.
"I think you're a toadfish."
"Oh, that has unpleasant connotations."
He shrugged such an interpretation off as her problem. She considered him, wondering if she should tell him, debating his motives for asking. He hadn't earned her trust or her story, but maybe he deserved it all the same. This was something she understood—he was something she understood, God save them both, if even a fraction of the rumors surrounding him were true. They were two of a kind, and knowing that, believing that, was enough to make Renee relax. She set her soda aside and motioned to his tray.
If he was surprised by her request, he gave no sign. He only said, "They're loaded."
That he admitted it endeared her to him. "Crackers?" she asked, and when he tipped his glass in confirmation, she chose a drink at random.
She hadn't counted how many drinks Andrew knocked back already, but now she wished she'd paid more attention. Even if the first round hadn't been laced, there was no telling how much cracker dust was coursing in Andrew's veins. That a frenetic upper did nothing to Andrew said worlds for what he'd put his system through over the last several years. It was also an interesting insight into how powerful his prescription was, if it could kick him sky-high but these drugs couldn't. Renee supposed the copious amounts of alcohol helped even the dust out a bit, but even still it was impressive.
"Nothing to worry about, then," Renee said, and toasted him before draining her drink in one long swallow. The alcohol burned, a familiar ache starting in her throat that became a raw knot low in her gut. She set the empty cup down halfway between them, left her fingers lingering on the rim until she trusted herself not to reach for another drink, and looked Andrew straight in the face.
"My name is Natalie Shields, and I was born in Detroit."
She told him her story, in more detail than she'd ever trouble Dan with. Dan would never want to know such things about her and Andrew wouldn't appreciate her glossing out the critical details. Andrew listened in complete silence, calm expression unchanging. It was a little eerie having such an unimpressed audience. At the same time, it was reassuring. Renee hadn't spoken this much about her past since she'd finally embraced the art of Confession. Andrew was no priest, but Renee felt as light now as she'd felt then. This wasn't a cloistered cleansing; this was her giving her darkest shadows voice in a crowded room, never mind that no one else was listening.
Andrew waited until she was done before returning to his drinks. Renee collected her soda and let the carbonation and sugar finally burn the lingering taste of alcohol from her tongue. She could feel the dust like a hum in her veins, leaving her restless and borderline anxious. She remained still only through sheer force of will; she'd grown up with an unbreakable front out of necessity and it was what she defaulted to whenever she felt threatened.
Andrew emptied half of the tray before long and pushed it aside. Renee watched as he reached under the hem of one long sleeve and withdrew a short, thin knife. Andrew held the blade as he offered it to her, and Renee carefully took it by the hilt. Andrew watched the way she handled it, likely judging the validity of her story by how natural the knife looked in her hand. She tested the edge against her fingertips and nodded at how easily her skin peeled up under the slightest pressure.
"Are you any good?" he asked.
"It's not really my place to judge."
"Without your humility, Christian," Andrew said. "Such things bore me."
Renee supposed subtlety would bore someone like Andrew, but it was difficult to tell the truth without sounding like she was bragging. She weighed her word choices and settled for the simplest version: "I've never lost." She turned the knife slowly, watching the way club lights flickered off the blade. If she tilted it enough she could see Andrew's reflection on the metal. "What about you?"
"It's not my first choice."
Renee held his knife out and waited for him to take it before guessing, "You're too short to have a useful reach. Back-up, then, for when you can't finish a fight quickly enough against a larger opponent. Thank you for not drawing it on Dan Monday."
"I don't need a knife to best her," Andrew said. "Would I need it against you?"
Renee knew the right way to answer that but settled for the truth. "Yes," she said, "but I can't promise you it would do you any good."
Andrew smiled a slow smile she didn't believe at all. "Show me."
"I'm afraid I've given up fighting."
"Yet another reason religion is despicable. It breeds boring minions."
"May I ask what the first reason was?" Renee asked, but Andrew only stared at her in silence. "Religion does seem a complicated brouhaha, doesn't it? To be honest, organized religion can feel a bit constricting at times. What is most important to me is faith itself—the ability to believe in good, redemption, and an afterlife. I like believing that we're not alone in this."
Andrew tipped his head to one side and considered her. "You fear death."
"Yes," Renee said. "I've been close to it enough times to fear what's on the other side. Faith is helping me come to terms with it, but it's a slow process. What about you?"
"What a waste of time and energy," Andrew said.
"Fear, or fearing death?" Renee asked.
"Death is unavoidable," Andrew said as he slipped the blade under his sleeve again.
Renee watched the weapon disappear and assumed Wymack didn't know Andrew was wearing a sheath on his forearm. She'd like to think Andrew had chosen to wear it out with her tonight and not that he strapped up on a regular basis, but she felt obligated to warn Wymack. Even if Andrew had hinted practicing restraint with who he used the knife on, it was a safety risk she couldn't ignore.
"How many knives do you carry?" Renee asked.
"One more than you do," Andrew said. "Fight me."
"You can if it means I won't draw it against your teammates, hm?" Andrew asked.
Renee lifted her gaze from his sleeve to his face. Andrew took two drinks from the remaining batch on the tray and set one down in front of her. His he picked up but didn't drink. He was watching her, waiting for a reaction, but they both knew what it'd be.
"Not tonight," Renee said. "I won't fight you when you've been drinking and dusting."
"Sunday," Andrew said.
"Sunday," Renee agreed. "There are study rooms in the basement at Fox Tower. It's carpeted, but there aren't cameras or windows for witnesses. Thin carpet," she explained when he didn't look sold on the idea. "A rough layer over concrete. Not quite like fighting outside, but comparable, I would think."
"That'll do," Andrew decided. He knocked his shot back, dug his cigarettes out of his pocket, and left her behind to guard the table.
Renee watched until he disappeared into the thick crowd, then looked at the drink he'd left her with. She ran her tongue along the backs of her teeth, looking for a hint of dust and scotch, and found nothing. After a minute she picked the glass up and returned it to the tray untouched, and she settled for sipping her soda until the cousins made it back to her.