Timeline: One year before the events of The Foxhole Court. This is the fifth & last part of Son Nefes.
One - Two - Three - Four
#2 - KEVIN DAY, STRIKER
February 22, Pisces
Virginia hosted the Christmas banquet that year, so the Foxes stuffed their nice clothes in the storage compartment under the bus and boarded for a rowdy ride north. The cousins predictably sat all the way in the back and talked to no one, but the upperclassmen chattered amongst themselves with rare boisterous cheer. Finals were over, they'd qualified for spring championships, and they were one weekend away from winter break. Even Reggie and Juan, who had nowhere to go for Christmas break except to Abby's house, were in good moods.
Their spirits petered off as they reached the stadium parking lot, and the mood that permeated the bus now was a sharp mix of smug defiance and discomfort. The Foxes were expected to show up at these banquets, as they were NCAA-hosted and planned, but they knew they weren't welcome. There was only so much their peers could do to them when every coach and team staff would also be in attendance, but snide asides and dismissive looks would always cut. Such things were harder to deal with here than on the court—at least in a game they could body-check the rudest of their opponents.
Tonight was different, though, for the first time since the Foxes' very first fall banquet. The small team was finally making a comeback, and their winning streak through the last half of the season was enough to earn them some reconsideration. Some teams hung back, unwilling to play nice when they'd lost to the Foxes this year, but others finally made overtures of friendship. Dan and Renee spent most of the night with the four girls from the Wilkes-Meyer Hornets, Matt got bounced from one group to the next so people could get another look at him, and the Jackdaws were bold enough to seek out the cousins.
All in all, the banquet wasn't nearly the disaster the Foxes expected it to be, and for the first time in team history they didn't duck out early. They were exhausted and yawning by the time Wymack rounded them up and ushered them toward the bus afterward. Renee hesitated as she stepped off the court, then rubbed sleep out of her eyes and looked again. She was tired, but not tired enough to be seeing things. Wymack wasn't wearing what he'd shown up in. The jacket was same, but the simple white undershirt was replaced by something blue. It was odd, but not worth asking about when Renee realized Abby was missing. The oldest bet the Foxes had was whether or not Wymack and Abby would ever hook up.
This wasn't that, Renee decided after another look at Wymack's face. His expression was calm, but there was a quiet tension in his body language. He was trying to hurry them out of here without looking like he was rushing them. She wouldn't slow him down by asking about it, so instead helped him shoo her sleep-drunk teammates through the locker room and out to the parking lot. Wymack didn't open the bus door until everyone had loaded their travel bags into the compartment, and then he got on first and stood near the driver's seat.
"Keep it moving," he said, and Renee didn't understand the warning until her shoe hit the second step. The bus smelled like blood. Dan rocked to a stop at the top of the stairs, but Wymack caught her shoulder and gave her a small push. "On the bus, all of you. Go, go, go."
Abby was standing to one side at the top of the stairwell, forcing the Foxes to squeeze past her to get down the aisle and acting as a physical barricade between them and the first seat. Dan shot a wild look between Abby and Wymack before darting for the second bench. Renee understood her reaction better when she reached the top of the stairwell and realized there was a body curled up on the first seat. Abby had changed out already into jeans and a sweater, and the dress she'd worn for the event tonight was draped over their battered visitor from his head to his waist. Renee slid in alongside Dan but couldn't get a glimpse of the man's face even from here.
"Keep it moving," Wymack said again, because every Fox who stepped onto the bus wanted to stop and gawk. "We have to get out of here right now."
That bit of urgency finally got through to them, and the Foxes hurried to their places immediately. The team usually split up one to a seat for bus rides, but now they packed in two to a row to get as close to the action as possible. The only ones who didn't break routine were the cousins. Andrew motioned to Nicky when Nicky might have hesitated, and Nicky and Aaron set off for the back of the bus ahead of him like nothing strange was going on. Wymack closed the bus door as soon as everyone was on board and stood in the aisle. He didn't have to wait long; all eyes were on him already and the Foxes were dead silent as they waited for an explanation.
Wymack unbuttoned and shrugged out of his jacket. Under it was a blue t-shirt, likely what he'd packed to wear on the ride home, but there was blood smeared across it in dark swathes. Dan was on her feet in a heartbeat, the start of a strangled, panicked cry on her lips, but Wymack shook his head. Quieting her before she had an outburst, perhaps, or reassuring her it wasn't his blood. Dan choked on what she could have said and dug her fingers into Renee's arm hard enough to bruise. Wymack passed Abby his jacket, and she immediately draped it over their guest's legs.
"Listen up," Wymack said, "because what I'm about to say is non-negotiable, and I am not going to repeat myself. We," he gestured to include the entire team, "are not going to repeat it, under any circumstance, to anyone. Friends, family, friends with benefits, I don't care. One word of this gets out before we're ready for people to hear it and a lot of people are going to get hurt. Tell me you understand me."
They nodded, but Wymack said nothing else until he got a "Yes, Coach" from everyone. When even Andrew chipped in a too-cheery affirmation, Wymack looked to Abby. His gaze couldn't stay on her for long before he looked past her at the crumpled figure.
"There's been an accident. Right now we are the only ones in a position to help him, so we are going to have a visitor for a while."
Wymack went quiet, visibly working out the right words to say. His expression twisted—just for a moment, but enough to catch Renee' breath in her throat. That wasn't frustration; it was grief. This was personal, whatever it was, but Renee didn't think Wymack knew anyone outside of his team.
"Coach?" Renee asked.
"It's Kevin Day," Wymack said at last, and if those words weren't enough to knock the Foxes off their feet, the next ones surely were: "His left hand is broken."
It took a second for the full impact to hit. The first shock was the name, was the mere thought that Kevin Day—Kevin Day!—was on their bus with them. Kevin was a sophomore at Edgar Allan University and vice-captain of the first-ranked team in the NCAA. He played for four different teams, including the national Court. He'd been born to play, literally—his mother Kayleigh and the Ravens' coach Tetsuji Moriyama had invented the sport years ago.
And then the rest of it kicked in: Kevin was a left-handed athlete.
"Oh my God," Dan said, horrified. "Oh my God."
"You're fucking me," Seth said, bewildered.
Juan was out of his chair in a heartbeat and down the length of the bus to stare at Kevin's covered body. Abby leaned to one side so he could see better but refused to move out of his way. Juan didn't seem to notice, and a second later Seth and Dwayne were right behind him. The three upperclassmen were a rude and raucous bunch, but they were still strikers. Kevin wasn't exactly a role model, but he was an impossible dream to aspire to.
"Er, why is he alone?" Dwayne asked.
Juan elbowed him, but Renee thought it a legitimate question. She wasn't as versed in Kevin's statistics as the strikers might be, but anyone who knew Kevin's name knew he shouldn't be here by himself. Kevin was one half of an unbreakable, unbeatable pair. The other half was the slightly more popular Riko Moriyama, Tetsuji's nephew and the Ravens' captain. Riko and Kevin had grown up together, and they were always in the same room. They played on the same four teams, slept in the same room, went to all the same classes at all the same times, and took every interview and photo shoot as a pair.
"It's not really broken," Seth said.
Wymack traced a line across the back of his left hand. "Abby put the bones back in." Seth gave a fierce jerk of his hand, rejecting that, but Wymack only shook his head and said, "I don't know yet what happened, but I do know he wants to be left alone. You know what will happen if people find out he's down south with us. We aren't ready to face that kind of response; I don't know if we ever will be. So we're going to hide him until he doesn't need to hide anymore."
"Yeah," Juan said after a moment. "Yeah, no problem, Coach."
"Thank you," Wymack said, and the seniors slowly went back to their seats. Wymack waited until they were settled before getting into the driver's seat, and the ride south was dead silent.
Christmas break came and went, and the Foxes who'd gone home moved back to Fox Tower. They'd kept their eyes on the news during their two weeks off, but there hadn't been a peep from Edgar Allan about Kevin's injuries. It made all of them uneasy, because someone should have said something about how he'd gone missing. But Tetsuji said nothing, the Ravens said nothing, and Riko was conspicuously absent from the news.
When spring semester started, the Foxes started whispering foul play. Gossip was a glue that temporarily tied the upperclassmen together, but it wasn't strong enough to close the gap between them and the cousins. Nicky perked up every time the Foxes started trading terrible theories but wouldn't join in. Aaron and Nicky were definitely talking about it, though—Renee couldn't understand German, but she picked out more than one "Kevin" in their heated chattering. The only one cheerfully oblivious was Andrew. Renee tried bringing Kevin up with him only once, when she and Andrew had a moment alone near the water fountain at afternoon practice, but Andrew changed topics seamlessly.
All Wymack and Abby would say about the matter was that Kevin was now living with Wymack and that he still required their silence. It took a couple days before Renee realized that was all they could say. Wymack believed in keeping people's secrets, but Abby got flustered when asked too many questions and was bound to slip up. Since even Allison couldn't get a good answer out of her, Renee deduced Kevin still hadn't told them anything else about what had happened to him.
The first championships game was scheduled for the second week of the semester, so the Foxes had a little time to try and get their groove back. The first week ended with a gloomy, gray day that promised overnight storms. It was the perfect weather for goulash, so as soon as the team made it back to Fox Tower Renee set to work in the kitchen. Allison volunteered to do dishes afterward since Renee had cooked, so Dan disappeared next door to see Matt as soon as she was done eating. Renee turned the kitchen over to Allison's capable hands and went to start her homework in the bedroom.
She was half-burrowed under her covers and only a couple pages into what promised to be very boring reading when Allison interrupted her.
"Your pet monster's here," Allison said, and Renee looked up in surprise. Allison jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Get him out of my room."
Renee set her book aside and eased off her bed. Allison turned in the doorway to let Renee by and stayed put, unwilling to return to her duties so long as she felt threatened. Renee found Andrew waiting in the living room. Renee hadn't heard it start raining, but Andrew's coat was dripping onto their carpet. He hadn't bothered to put a hat on, so his hair was matted to his skull. Water trailed down his face and dripped off his chin. She wondered how long he'd been out in the downpour.
More curious was what had brought him here, though. Since their first fight last June Andrew and Renee met up biweekly to spar. Sometimes Andrew was quasi-sober, the rest of the time he was manic-high. Andrew caught up with her outside her classes or after practice so they could decide on a time to meet. He'd never come to her room before, and Renee couldn't see him fighting in such a wrecked state. He was so cold she thought she saw him shivering.
Renee took one look at his face—and the distinct lack of a smile—and decided against a cheerful greeting. Instead she nodded silent hello and went past him to the kitchenette. She filled two mugs with water, dropped a teabag in each, and popped both cups in the microwave for a couple minutes. Andrew stepped into the doorway to watch, but the gaze that roved her kitchen was distant. The microwave gave a discordant beep when it was done, and she held a mug out in offering.
"Coat," Andrew said as he took it.
Renee put her own drink aside and eased past him. Allison was still in the bedroom, and she scowled at Renee.
"He's still here," she said pointedly.
"This is my room too," Renee said, gently so Allison wouldn't take it as an argument. "If you can have Seth over, I can have Andrew over."
"Except I'm dating Seth," Allison said, and even in her annoyance she was honest enough to add, "Occasionally. You didn't change your mind, did you?"
A few months ago it'd been amusing thinking the Foxes were betting on whether or not she and Andrew were going to start dating. These days it was more tiresome than anything else. She knew why it was impossible, but that secret wasn't hers to give away. So she endured the snide remarks from the boys and the significant looks Dan and Matt kept sending each other when they thought she wasn't paying attention. Only Allison believed her when Renee said it wasn't going to happen, because Allison believed Renee was as honest as she was.
"Good, because you'd cost me a fortune if you did," Allison said. She watched as Renee shrugged into her coat and said, "You're not actually leaving with him right now, are you? Did you not look outside?"
"I'll be back in a bit," Renee said, and smiled in the face of Allison's blatant disapproval.
Andrew was waiting for her in the kitchen. He passed her drink to her so she wouldn't have to get by him again, and Renee led him out into the hallway. They walked side-by-side to the stairwell and went down to the ground floor. Renee could hear the rain from the landing and pulled her hood up over her head. Andrew had no such protection, but he didn't think twice about stepping outside. Renee hugged her mug close to her chest and followed after him.
They went across the parking lot and onto one of the back roads. Renee was soaked through by the time they stepped off the asphalt and onto a concrete sidewalk. Andrew took two more steps and stopped, and Renee obediently stopped beside him. She took a sip of her tea, which was cooling quickly from the rain and chilly breeze. She watched Andrew over the rim of her mug, studying the way the shadows and rain blurred the features of his face. Andrew considered his tea another minute before upending the mug onto the ground at their feet. It splashed them both, but it was a fleeting warmth against her shins.
"I'm going to let him stay."
It took her a moment to realize he meant Kevin. That the displaced striker could have caused Andrew's dark mood tonight surprised her, and she lowered her mug to see Andrew better. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"Yes," Andrew said.
He told her about the Moriyamas' divided family: Tetsuji Moriyama, one of the creators of Exy and the most influential man in the sport, and Kengo Moriyama, the billionaire head of an international trading company. Tetsuji, the abusive, controlling coach of the Edgar Allan Ravens, and Kengo, the head of a criminal empire he'd moved to New York years ago. He told her about Riko, Kengo's second-born son, an egotist who had no standing in the yakuza hierarchy but who'd inherited a cruel psychosis all the same. He told her about Kevin's place in the sadistic puzzle, then told her how and why Riko broke Kevin's hand. Renee listened to it all in silence, heart pounding in her chest.
"Riko will come for him," Andrew said at length. "Of this, Kevin is certain."
"You believe him."
"If he was only property, he would still be valuable, injury notwithstanding," Andrew said. "He's a face, and a name, and a reputation years in the making. But he's not just a commodity. He's Riko's second, and he knows more secrets than he should about the Moriyamas.
"I'm going to protect him," Andrew continued, speaking slowly like he was still adjusting to the notion. "Him, and mine. They," he said, meaning the rest of the Foxes, "are not my concern. Do you understand?"
Renee couldn't see Fox Tower from here, but she looked over her shoulder anyway. She thought about what it would mean for them to tangle with Edgar Allan's fervent fans and the Moriyamas' murderous influence. She could only imagine the trouble this would bring to their doorstep, but such thoughts didn't sway her. The risks would have to be acceptable because the alternative was unforgivable. Letting Kevin out of their sights would be unconscionable.
"Leave them to me," Renee said. "I understand."
"Oh, I do hope so," Andrew said.
She took the empty mug from him and traded him her full one. It was probably ice cold by now, but Andrew drank it just the same. Renee watched him, wondering if all the shadows on his face were from the night. Somehow she didn't think so.
"You are remembering to sleep around all this rescuing, aren't you?" she asked.
"No rest for the wicked."
"So you're sleeping like a baby," she guessed.
Andrew just looked at her. "I will be downstairs tomorrow morning."
"Seven?" she asked, because it was easier to fight when the rest of the dorm was still asleep.
He returned the second mug to her without a word and set off into the storm. Renee headed back to Fox Tower alone. Her shoes squelched with every step up the stairwell, and she left a trail of water down the carpeted hall to her door.
Dan and Allison were waiting for her on the couch. Allison smacked the heel of her palm to her temple and looked to the ceiling for patience, but Dan was on her feet in an instant.
"You're soaked," she said, hurrying over to take the mugs out of Renee's frozen fingers. "You want to die of pneumonia or something? Go take a hot bath. I don't want to see you again until your blood is boiling."
"Yes, Dan," Renee said obediently, but she sloshed her way to the bedroom first. She knelt by her dresser and pulled open the bottom drawer. She was getting her folded clothes wet, but she didn't care. She found what was was looking for in the back left corner: the only knife Andrew had left her with when he'd confiscated her shoebox last June. She turned the weapon over and over in her hands, checking the blade for wear and tear, and finally tucked the knife under her pillow.
Dan was watching her from the doorway when Renee turned around. Renee went to her and said solemnly, "I will not let anything happen to you."
"What did he do?" Dan asked. "What happened?"
"He is not who you should be worried about," Renee said, "but it is a long story. We'll talk when I get out of the shower, all right?"
Dan hesitated, then stepped out of Renee's way. "Bath," she emphasized. "Boiling blood. Bad news can wait."
"Bad news can take a number and wait in line," Allison grouched from out of sight.
"If only," Dan said.
Renee shut herself in the bathroom, set the tub to fill, and studied her reflection. She stripped out of her coat and clothes until she stood naked and shivering in front of the mirror. She traced her cross necklace, but her fingers were too numb to feel the silver. Her nerves were operating on muscle memory now, and all they felt were her knives.
Let me be strong enough to protect them, she prayed. Let me be strong enough not to fall.
The Foxes lost their first game by a handful of points. They were disgruntled but not worried, because the first round required two out of three to proceed. If they could pull it together for the next two games they'd at least get to the death match. If not, well, it was good enough that they'd gotten this far, right?
Monday afternoon was a rude wake-up call, because Kevin Day was waiting in the locker room for them. The table in the lounge was covered with paperwork: graphs of plays, printouts of game reports from various sites, and copies of the Foxes' individual files. Shock kept the Foxes from immediately reacting to his presence, and that gave Kevin the opening he needed to tear them a new one.
Getting chewed out wasn't unusual, but having a national champion go up one side of them and down the other was a new feeling that none of them liked. The Foxes froze halfway into the room, too startled to even sit down to hear him out. Kevin demanded answers for how they'd played but didn't wait long enough to let them make excuses. Apparently he'd watched their game on Wymack's TV Friday night and spent the entire weekend humiliated on their behalf.
Andrew stuck around for the first part of the lecture, then got bored and started for the changing room. Kevin twisted in his chair and fixed Andrew with a dark look. "Where are you going?" he demanded. "You're not exempt. You're the worst offender here."
"Oh, oh, tell it to someone who cares!" was Andrew's cheery retort, and he disappeared down the hall.
Wymack intervened when Kevin might have gone after him. He was sitting beside the TV on the entertainment center and he'd watched the entire spectacle with a bemused look on his face. Now that Kevin had gotten temporarily distracted by Andrew's apathy, he spoke up.
"Foxes, Kevin Day. Kevin, meet the Foxes." Wymack arched an eyebrow at his dumbfounded team. "In exchange for our hospitality, Kevin's volunteered to be my assistant coach this spring. I expect you to extend to him the same courtesy and obedience you do me."
Kevin barely let him finish before asking, "How did you make it to championships?"
"We, uh," Dan started uncertainly.
"We're getting better," Dwayne said grumpily.
Kevin didn't say anything, but he didn't have to. The look on his face said more than enough, and Renee could positively feel her teammates' shock giving way to uncomfortable defiance.
Oh, my, she thought. This is going to be a rough week.
"Rough" was the understatement of the year. The Foxes had faced a lot of criticism and rudeness in their years, but they'd never gone up against such an unforgiving tutor in such close quarters. As far as Kevin was concerned, they couldn't do anything right. It took the Foxes only a day to get over the novelty of having a national champion help them out, and then they were so offended by his high-handed and condescending attitude they attempted a revolt.
Kevin didn't care that they couldn't stand him, and he had no problems yelling down the Foxes' strikers whenever they talked back. His left hand was in a cast, but his right was still free, and he didn't hesitate to shove his new team out of his way. This was the side of Kevin the newspapers had never seen: the ruthless and relentless man who refused to accept anything but perfect results. This was no place for confident quotes and camera-ready smiles; this was a place where niceties came to die.
"Suck it up," Wymack said, the ninth or tenth time his Foxes demanded he kick Kevin off their court. "If you don't like what he's saying to you, then shut him up by getting better. Prove him wrong."
It wasn't the answer any of them wanted, but it was the only one they got.
Kevin couldn't attend their second game since he was still in hiding, but he watched it at Wymack's apartment. The Foxes hit the court with a savage energy, fueled more by the desire to shut Kevin up than any real interest in winning. They won six-four and spent the weekend wallowing in smug relief. Kevin ruined that on Monday when he had a list of things they'd done wrong.
"But we won," Reggie argued.
Kevin put his face in his good hand. "Just get out of my sight, all of you."
Kevin didn't deserve the last word, but they'd take any excuse to get away from him, so the Foxes left him seething alone in the lounge.
Andrew was the only reason the Foxes didn't snap and murder Kevin in his sleep, and Andrew's medication was the only reason Andrew didn't take care of it himself. Kevin was brutal to all of the Foxes but downright merciless with Andrew. Andrew listened to Kevin's ranting because he had to, but he did it with that too-wide, mocking smile on his lips that said he wasn't going to give Kevin an inch. Kevin's lectures went in one ear and out the other, and everyone could see it.
"You'd have better luck teaching a stone to breathe," Matt told Kevin.
Renee privately agreed, but Kevin was undeterred. Kevin's existence revolved around Exy, and a man so obsessed couldn't forgive Andrew's attitude. Andrew's potential was squandered, withering away under the crushing weight of his apathy. Kevin wanted Andrew's best like a dying man wanted one more breath of air, but Andrew refused to play along. The more Andrew dug his feet in, the harder Kevin pushed, and the harder Kevin pushed, the more Andrew resisted. Kevin didn't stop sniping, and Andrew didn't stop smiling, but Renee could feel the tension growing between them.
It broke two weeks later, in the week-long gap between the Foxes' third match and the death match they'd miraculously qualified for. The Foxes were halfway through drills when Kevin interrupted them. He stomped right into the thick of things without warning. Dan called a quick halt on the court, and Matt aborted his throw with a short and frantic jerk. Kevin didn't seem to notice the near-miss but strode for Andrew. In one fierce move he wrenched Andrew's racquet out of his hand and threw it. It clattered hard against the ground and slid almost to the wall.
Renee was waiting on the half-court line to try and return any balls back to this half of the court, but at this new violence she started toward her teammates. She was still too far way to hear if Kevin said anything, but Kevin only made it a few steps from goal before Andrew went after him. Andrew used his body like a battering ram to knock Kevin down and stalked for the door before Kevin could get up again. Kevin cradled his cast to his stomach as he stumbled to his feet. He caught up with Andrew with a couple long strides and grabbed Andrew's shoulder to wrench him around.
"Get back in goal," Kevin snapped.
"Fuck off," Andrew said.
Dan shot Renee a quick, startled look as Renee stopped beside her. Renee didn't return it, too busy trying to make out Andrew's expression through his bulky helmet. She knew Andrew was on his drugs—Kevin's presence meant Andrew had to be more careful about when and how often he attempted to be sober. She'd never heard Andrew lose his cool while medicated, but there was violence in Andrew's jerky movements as he stripped his gloves off.
"We're not finished," Kevin said.
"We are finished for today," Andrew said, and pulled his helmet off next. He was smiling, but it was not at all nice. This was the smile of a crazed clown right before he opened fire on a laughing crowd. "If you touch me again I will rethink my decision to let you stay. Go away. Hear me? Go away. Go play with the rest of your toys. I'm not interested."
Kevin opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again soundlessly. He watched in frustrated silence as Andrew left the court. Andrew slammed the door behind him, and Renee could see him and Wymack arguing through the wall. Kevin snatched the ball from Matt and threw it at the court wall. His aim was off, but it smacked close enough to where Andrew's head was that Andrew got the hint. Andrew threw his helmet at the wall in response, and the thud of it echoed on the court. Kevin snarled something unintelligible and turned back on the Foxes.
"Do it again," he said, "and do it right this time."
The team exchanged considering looks and silently got back to work.
That evening they found out why Kevin was in such a foul mood. After accepting Andrew's offer of protection over New Year's, Kevin had given Wymack permission to talk to Coach Moriyama. Moriyama had expressed relief and gratitude for Wymack's patronage, and he'd had a story ready about a skiing trip that had ended badly for both Kevin and Riko. Wymack pretended to believe him, and the two ended the call without agreeing on what would happen to Kevin next.
As January progressed, they were forced to talk a few more times, as the Ravens had started championships with neither Kevin nor Riko on their line-up. Halfway through January Moriyama had a press conference to finally share his story with anxious reporters. He stressed patience and promised updates. If he meant to quite any rumors, his words did the opposite, and his vague answers about the famous strikers left their fans in a panicked uproar.
The day Kevin and Andrew fought was the day the nation found out about Kevin's hand. Wymack had taken out every loan he could and written Edgar Allan a check. He'd sent the envelope to the bursar's office and included a letter explaining the money as a repayment of Kevin's athletic scholarship. With an opening line like that, the receptionist had to read the rest of it, and the news was too big and shocking to not share. By lunchtime the story was everywhere: Kevin was sidelined with a broken hand. He wasn't fit to play, which freed him from his contractual obligations with the Ravens, and by repaying his scholarship he was making it clear he didn't expect them to keep him.
Moriyama retaliated with a press conference and confirmed that Kevin had lost his dominant hand and would never play again. He went on to say that Kevin hadn't just left the Ravens—he'd had to leave all four of his teams.
Two months ago, Kevin was a rising star with international fame. Today he had nothing except an unofficial position as Wymack's assistant. Renee watched Moriyama's conference and felt very bad for Kevin, no matter that he was making it hard to like him. The other Foxes weren't so quick to forget and forgive, especially when Kevin's sour mood persisted the following day. Perhaps that snide outrage was for the best; Kevin didn't seem the sort to handle sympathy well.
If Renee thought her teammates were unforgiving, they had nothing on Andrew. Andrew refused to get on the court so long as Kevin was around. He showed up for practice and changed out with the rest, but he wouldn't pick up his racquet and he wouldn't touch a ball. Wymack pulled Andrew aside to talk to him about it. They were too far away for Renee to hear them, but Wymack's pointed gestures and Andrew's energetic flailing said it was a pretty strident argument.
Later she wished she'd been able to eavesdrop, because it wasn't Andrew who stood down. She'd expected Wymack to bully Andrew back onto the court. It wouldn't have been difficult—for all his rowdy mockery and cheery disregard Andrew tended to follow Wymack's lead. This time was different, though, and Wymack let Andrew do laps and weights away from the rest of the team.
Renee didn't get a chance to ask about it until Wymack gave them a break, and then she coaxed Andrew into walking around the inner ring with her. As soon as the court was between them and the Foxes, she sent Andrew a curious look.
"I would think your medication made grudges impossible."
Andrew waved that aside. "Oh, Renee. This isn't a grudge! It's self-preservation." As wired as he was, he didn't need to be prompted to explain, and he flashed her a cheery grin. "He says he's going to save me from myself! The same promises, all these years later. Someone ought to give him a new script."
"He wants you to care about the game," Renee said. That much wasn't a secret.
"He wants me to be him." Andrew huffed like the idea offended him. "Another mindless drone with no other reason to live. You'd think he'd know better, considering how it turned out for him! I warned him he'd crash, you know. He didn't want to listen to me. Now instead of learning from his mistakes he persists in his delusions. I'm obligated," he said, with exaggerated air quotes, "to live up to my potential."
"He is a bit dramatic," Renee said mildly, "but would it be so bad to listen to him?"
"You have no idea," Andrew said. "There is only so much of me left, Renee! I am not giving the scraps to him to ruin."
"Fair enough," Renee said, and she let it drop.
In typical Fox bad luck, Palmetto State drew straws to play Penn State in the death match. The Penn State Lions were one of the "Big Three" in NCAA Exy alongside the USC Trojans and Edgar Allan Ravens. The Lions and Trojans were constantly battling each other for second and third place behind the Ravens in championships. When Kevin found out about the match-up, he had nothing polite to say about it, but part of that anger stemmed from bias: Kevin was a huge fan of USC and therefore destined to hate the Lions.
The Foxes didn't lose the death match only because "losing" implied they might have had a chance to win. In reality, the Foxes showed up, got steamrolled from the first minute onward, and went home feeling worse about themselves than they had in a very long time. For once Kevin had nothing to say to them about the game. Maybe he thought the nineteen-zero score said more than enough. Somehow his silence just made them feel worse, and the Foxes retreated to their rooms to lick their wounds in private. Their season was officially over and they'd ended on the worst possible note.
The Foxes had the rest of February off, but their break was anything but restful. Kevin couldn't hide in Wymack's apartment any longer, so he took the initiative and finally outed his location. The Ravens' fans took the news as well as the Foxes suspected they would, and the Foxes bore the brutal and maniacal retaliation as gamely as possible. After a couple campus riots, vandalized cars, and a few police raids, things finally started to calm down.
They were due back on the court in March. Spring practices were optional for the graduating seniors, so none of the three bothered to show up. Seth, who'd signed for five years instead of four, was the only one of his group to make it to the stadium. With no one to share a couch with, he took over one of the two chairs. Allison abandoned her usual spot with Dan and Renee to take the other chair beside him, and Matt filled in the new gap at Dan's side. The cousins took over the seniors' couch, with Nicky sitting between the twins.
And then there was Kevin, sitting on the entertainment center with a racquet in his right hand.
Seth was the first to think the racquet wasn't just decoration, and he stabbed a finger at Kevin. "What is that?"
"We can't scrimmage with just one striker," Wymack said, like it was obvious.
"He's left-handed," Allison said.
"Was," Wymack said. "While you lot were drinking your way through February he was down here practicing with me. Everyone's accounted for, so let's get moving. We've got a lot to get through today."
"Oh, this oughtta be rich," Seth said, getting to his feet.
"Awkward" would have been a better term for it, because it was painfully obvious from the get-go that Kevin was playing with his less-dominant hand. His aim was almost startlingly off, but he was decent at catching and carrying. He was rough enough to tangle with Matt and unafraid of challenging Nicky and Aaron, so at least he helped practice by controlling defense, but a striker who couldn't score added nothing to the game.
Seth thought it did more harm than good to have Kevin on his line, and he said so more than once, but Wymack ignored him and Kevin snarled rude appraisals right back. Dan said nothing about it until she was back in the privacy of the girls' room, and then she agreed with Seth's frustration.
Practices seemed endless as the team adjusted to the loss of their seniors and the unexpected arrival of Kevin on their court, and then the unthinkable happened: on Friday, Kevin scored against Renee using his right hand.
"Fluke," Seth said, except an hour later Kevin did it again.
That night the girls looked at each other over their dinner and whispered, What-if?
And on the tail end of that, Why not?
On Monday, Andrew was on the court again, and Kevin was back to square one. His aim was improving daily, but he was a far cry from where he used to be and he wasn't ready to take on Andrew. Instead of getting irritated, Kevin got quiet. He stopped sniping at his team and toned down his nasty exchanges with Seth. He was too focused on Andrew now. Extreme concentration put a severe look on his face, and Renee could watch him thinking every swing through. Even when they were on break he drew invisible lines on the court walls, angles and approaches and nitty-gritty details that no one could possibly think about in the heat of a game. Andrew ignored him in favor of walking laps with Renee, and Renee wisely didn't ask why Andrew was suddenly playing again.
It took Kevin seven weeks—three alone with Wymack, one against Renee, and three more against both Andrew and Renee. Seven weeks, and then Kevin did the impossible and scored on Andrew right-handed. None of the Foxes knew how to react when the goal went red. Andrew was probably the most surprised, though the look on his face was closer to amused offense than shock. He considered his goal over his shoulder, head cocked to one side in consideration or disbelief, and tapped his racquet against the ground in an agitated rhythm.
Kevin missed his next four shots, but even Andrew knew he was firing wide on purpose. Kevin was drawing a cross around the goal: hitting too high, then too low, then to either side of the goal lines. He was narrowing and placing his aim with those shots. On his fifth shot he moved like lightning and slammed the ball home against the goal before Andrew could react.
Then he did it again—and again.
"Dude, you going to let him show you up like that?" Matt asked, and Andrew hit Matt with the next ball he deflected. Matt threw the ball right back, and Andrew popped it over to Kevin. Kevin snagged it, tossed it, and heaved it right at Andrew's face. Andrew caught it with his glove and stared past his hand at Kevin. Kevin stared back, silent and unmoving. Renee felt the old tension sizzle again between them, and she half-expected another outburst.
But all Kevin said was, "Let's play."
Andrew burst into startled laughter. "You are obnoxious."
"I am?" Kevin demanded.
Andrew smiled in the face of that accusation. He turned his hand over and uncurled his fingers to consider the ball in his palm. At length he shrugged and tossed it to Dan. She got her team moving with a quick serve. The next time Kevin took a shot at goal, Andrew deflected it. Andrew stopped the next four shots, and then Kevin scored again. Renee saw a flash of teeth as Andrew smiled. It was more a sneer than anything else, there and gone again, but for a heartbeat it changed Andrew's entire expression. It wasn't until that night that Renee understood what she'd seen.
For one moment, for the first time all year, Andrew had looked—awake. Interested.
Breathe, stone, breathe, Renee thought, and crossed her fingers for luck.
The next day, a Thursday, Wymack took his Foxes aside one by one to talk to them about Kevin. Wymack wanted to sign him, but like with Andrew it wasn't a decision he was willing to make alone. Kevin brought too many problems with him, from his reputation to his fans to the distant threat of the Moriyamas. Added to that was his injury and the knowledge that Kevin was going to their court at half-strength at best.
Wymack laid it out for them and heard out their reservations and concerns in private. Seth had no problems repeating his angry resentment outside of Wymack's office, and his opinion made it back to Dan and Renee via Allison and Matt. Seth had pitied Kevin that first night, but he'd hated Kevin pretty much ever since. It was difficult to be a striker when Kevin was around, even though Kevin poured most of his energy into dealing with Andrew. Despite his boiling resentment, even Seth signed off on it.
Friday morning Wymack gave Kevin a contract. It took Kevin all day to make up his mind, and then he scrawled his name across the line on the last page. For now, he was still an unpaid assistant coach. In June, he'd be a starting striker for the Palmetto State University Foxes. It was a long way to fall, but it was the only way back onto the court and even Kevin knew that.
Nicky caught up with Kevin after practice, and only Andrew and Renee were close enough to overhear him say: "This is cause for celebration! We're gonna take you out to Columbia tonight, yeah? I'm guessing you don't have anything proper to wear. Don't worry, we'll grab something before we pick you up at nine."
Renee glanced at Andrew. "Coach will stop you."
"Coach knows he doesn't have to," Andrew said with a shrug. He slanted a look at Renee and grinned. "If I wasn't already an alcoholic, Kevin's issues would have me drinking to an early grave. Maybe next year Coach will recruit a quiet child that won't bother anyone."
Renee smiled, knowing Andrew didn't mean a word of it. "That would be boring, wouldn't it?"
"Oh, but you're right," Andrew agreed. "I take it all back."
He tapped two fingers to his temple in a cheery salute and went to collect his cousin and Kevin. Renee left them to each other's questionable care and went to find her friends.
When Renee walked into the locker room on Monday afternoon, the sight waiting for her stopped her in her tracks. Andrew's lot had beat them to the stadium, and Kevin had traded his spot on the entertainment center for a place at Andrew's side. It should have been uncomfortable, having four of them stuffed onto a three-person couch, but Kevin fit between the twins like he'd been born to fill that space. Andrew had an arm propped on Kevin's shoulder and was gesturing at the travel guide Kevin was flipping through. He was rambling about heat and something called Montezuma's Castle when the rest of the Foxes showed up.
Kevin frowned, oblivious to the way the upperclassmen were staring them, and said, "My camera is in West Virginia. We will have to get a new one before we go."
It was such an abrupt turnaround from the previous month's antagonism even Renee didn't know how to react. She looked over at Dan, but Dan was just as baffled. Matt met Renee's stare over Dan's head and arched an eyebrow at her in a silent but clear What the hell?
"You coming in or what?" Wymack asked.
Dan opened her mouth, likely to demand an explanation, then closed it again without a word. Renee understood her restraint. Somehow Kevin was clawing his way into Andrew's world. How and why and when didn't matter so long as he succeeded.
"What's in Arizona?" Renee asked as she followed Dan and Matt to the couch.
"Some know-nothing striker Kevin wants to recruit," Andrew said. He flashed Renee a wicked grin. "Coach is taking us to see him later this week. Maybe this one will last longer?"
"Us," Matt echoed.
"Kevin and Kevin's new bodyguard," Nicky said dryly. "Get this: the kid's only been playing a year. A year! Can you even imagine how people are going to react? Pissy Seth, prissy Kevin, and some clueless newbie from a water tower town."
Seth stared. "You're shitting me."
"You wish," Aaron said.
"No way!" Seth turned an outraged look on Wymack. "Coach—"
Wymack lifted his hands in a careless shrug. "Kevin's convinced we need him."
"He's off his fucking rocker," Seth said.
"Yeah, and who here isn't?" Matt asked.
"There goes my senior year," Seth muttered.
"Kevin's vouching for him," Dan said. "That's got to be worth something, right? This could be a good thing for us."
Renee privately thought she was going with this only because Wymack wasn't fighting it. Either Wymack trusted Kevin's judgment, or Wymack understood they were out of time. His first-choice recruit had attempted suicide a couple weeks ago and was currently committed to a ward. It was already April—most of the best players had already been snatched up by bigger, richer teams.
Seth scowled and said nothing. Allison sighed and reached for him, and Seth slipped his fingers through hers with only a moment's hesitation. Renee considered their joined hands, then sent a slow look around the room as she studied the new lines between them. Without the rest of the seniors, the gaps were few and shallow. Seth was connected to them via Allison, and Kevin's new place in Andrew's group would keep the cousins on track. They weren't a unified front, but this was the closest they'd ever been. One unknown striker sub couldn't shake things up that badly, especially if Kevin was hellbent on recruiting him.
"Oh, Dan," Renee murmured. "Next year is going to be so much fun."
SON NEFES - END
And all the suffering that you've witnessed
And the hand prints on the wall
They remind you how it's endless
How endlessly you fall
And the answer that you're seeking
For the question that you found
Drives you further to confusion
As you lose your sense of ground
So don't forget to breathe
Don't forget to breathe
Your whole life is here
No eleventh hour reprieve
So don't forget to breathe