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To Be Certain We'll Be Tall Again

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“Kevin, I can’t fix this.” Jean’s voice was as broken as Kevin’s hand.

“I know,” he whispered back. His mind was racing, and he didn’t know how he was still conscious. It had to be the shock. Kevin knew he needed to act before it wore off—before he succumbed to the pain and hopelessness.

Jean knew, too. “Go,” he said. “You have to go get help.”

Kevin swallowed heavily. “He’ll kill me.” He’ll kill you, too went unsaid.

“What else is new?” Jean shrugged. If you don’t go, you’re dead already.

“I’ll come back,” said Kevin. He didn’t know if it was a confession, a promise, or a lie. “I just—I need a doctor. And then I’ll come back. I don’t want to leave you here.”

Jean closed his eyes and shuddered. “We all do things we do not want to do.”

Kevin felt the ghost of Jean holding him down while Riko destroyed his hand. He forced his thoughts back to the Jean in front of him now, holding him together. “I know. You did what you had to do.”

Jean nodded sharply. “I know.” He opened his eyes. “Go. Before it’s too late.”

“I’ll call when I can. Or text,” said Kevin. “I’m going—”

“Don’t,” Jean cut him off. “Don’t tell me. The less I know, the better.”

“Right,” said Kevin. “I’m gone.”

“Kevin.” Jean reached out and touched his arm. “I will cover for you as long as I can. But go fast. And lay low.”

“I will,” said Kevin. He wanted to say so much more—I’m sorry, I love you, stay safe—but it was too much, and there wasn’t enough time. “Thank you.”

And he was gone.

***

I’m out, and I’m settled. This is my new number. Don’t share it with anyone else.

Did you really go to Wymack?

Does he know, or is he just crazy enough to add you to his band of misfits?

Thea asked if I had heard from you. I did not know what to tell her.

Don’t tell her anything.

It’s not like I have much to tell.

It’s better that way.

Better for who?

You told me the less you knew, the better.

You are right. I know.

It is just very weird, not knowing where you are.

Or if you are okay.

I’m as okay as I can be.

Good. Stay that way.

Make this worth it.

***

Kevin was reeling. He couldn’t breathe. The walls of Wymack’s apartment were closing in around him, and he needed to hear it from Jean. “Give me your phone.”

Wymack crossed his arms, his expression between exasperation and concern. “If you think I’m going to let you use my phone to call him, you—”

“Jean. I have to call Jean. I have to hear him say it.”

Something in his face must have persuaded Wymack he was telling the truth, because he handed over his phone without hesitation. Kevin dialed the number he still knew by heart, and Jean answered on the second ring. He didn’t waste time with a greeting; he just cut to the heart of it, speaking French. “Tell me it isn’t true. Tell me he didn’t.”

Jean was silent for only a second. “Of course it’s true,” he said. “How long did you think he’d leave you alone?”

Kevin hung up the phone with a snap and dropped it as if it burned. He’d been clinging to the side of a cliff, and now the cliff was falling, too.

Wymack sighed. “Wait here.” After a minute, Wymack returned with a handle of vodka. “Drink. I’ll be right back.”

Kevin unscrewed the lid and took a long swig. The alcohol didn’t stop the fall, but it slowed it down, and it blurred the rocks as he tumbled past. He stared out the window of Wymack’s apartment. He just wanted the pain to stop.

He had a feeling it never would.

***

You shouldn’t have called.

I shouldn’t have had to.

***

Of course they were seated across from the Ravens. It had been foolish to hope they could at least keep their distance. Riko probably hadn’t even had to pull any strings to make it happen. After Kathy’s show, the entire exy world wanted to see what happened next between Riko and Kevin. Numbers one and two.

At least the seating arrangement meant Kevin could get a good look at Jean. There was no visible damage, but that didn’t mean much. Riko was careful, usually. Kevin’s hand had been an exception. A costly one.

Jean was currently antagonizing Neil, which seemed like a bad idea for everyone.

“You look familiar,” Jean said.

“If you watched Kathy’s show you saw me there.”

“Ah, you are right. That must be it. What was your name again? Alex? Stefan? Chris?”

For some reason, that made Neil’s shoulders tighten, just a bit. Kevin hadn’t realized he was so sensitive about his name. “It’s Neil.”

“Hmm? You don’t look much like a Neil.”

“Blame my mother. She named me.”

At this point, Riko took an interest in the conversation. “How is she doing, by the way?”

“Don’t antagonize my team Riko,” said Dan, and Kevin felt a rush of gratitude towards his new captain for stepping in. Even if it was foolish. Even if it was a losing battle. “This isn’t the place for it.”

“I was being polite,” said Riko. His smile was cold, and Kevin looked back at Jean. “You haven’t seen me antagonistic yet.”

Jean met Kevin’s gaze. “Hello, Kevin.”

“Jean.”

There was so much more to say. There was always more to say. But there were too many eyes, too many ears, and not enough time. Kevin couldn’t decide if he was grateful or disappointed when Andrew interrupted.

“Jean. Hey, Jean. Jean Valjean. Hey. Hey. Hello.”

Jean shifted his attention to Andrew, who had held out his hand. If Jean had been at his best, he wouldn’t have been foolish enough to take it. Instead, Jean let himself be pulled into Andrew’s crushing grip. Kevin stared at their hands, watching Andrew’s knuckles turn white.

“I’m Andrew. We haven’t met yet.”

Andrew’s grip hadn’t loosened, but Jean had regained some of his composure. “For which I am grateful,” he said. “The Foxes as a whole are an embarrassment to Class I Exy, but your very existence is unforgivable. A goalkeeper who doesn’t care if he is scored on has no right to touch a racquet. You should have stayed on the sidelines like the publicity stunt you are.”

Renee stepped in. “That’s a bit out of line, don’t you think?”

Corrinne—a third-year Dealer seated on Riko’s other side—snorted loudly. “If someone like that replaced you in goal, you must be downright terrible. I can’t wait to watch one of your matches. I think it will be entertaining. We would make a drinking game of it but we don’t want to die of alcohol poisoning.”

It was harder to die of alcohol poisoning than one would think. Kevin kept staring at Jean’s hand, still tightly within Andrew’s grip in the middle of the table.

“Yeah, that’d be a shame,” said Dan.

Renee was still trying to smooth things over. Kevin didn’t know why she bothered. “This is the first time our teams have met,” she said. “Do we have to start off so poorly?”

This wasn’t a start. It wasn’t even an end. It was just another stop along his endless purgatory.

“Why not?” asked Corrinne. “You’re poor at everything else you do. Is it honestly fun to be so terrible?”

“I image we have more fun than you do, yes,” said Renee.

Kevin looked at Renee. She was smiling, serene, calm. He wanted to ask her how she did it.

“Fun is for children,” said Jean, and he turned to look at Renee, too. It stopped him in his tracks for just a moment, but then Riko moved—just a little—and the moment was gone. “At this level it is supposed to be about skill, and your team is sadly lacking. You have no right to play with us.”

“Then you shouldn’t have transferred districts,” said Matt from somewhere on the other side of Dan. “No one wants you here.”

“You took something that does not belong to you.” Kevin didn’t recognize the Raven who spoke. Maybe he was a freshman, or a transfer. Or maybe he’d just never been important enough for Kevin to bother learning his name. “You brought this year’s humiliation on yourselves.”

“We didn’t take anything,” said Dan. “Kevin wants to be here.”

Kevin wanted to be anywhere but here.

Damien—backup striker, senior—laughed. “Don’t tell me you really believe that,” he said. “Kevin went to you because someone had to teach you what Exy is supposed to look like on a court.” Kevin went to the Foxes because he had nowhere else to go. “If he had stayed on as an assistant coach maybe he would learn to stomach your failures. Now that he’s playing with you there’s no way he will last the season.” Was that a threat? Or was it just the truth? “We know Kevin better than you ever will. We know how much your incompetence must grate on him.”

“So do we,” said Aaron. “It’s not like he’s shy with his opinion.”

Kevin had to say something. He couldn’t just let them keep talking about him as if he weren’t there. And maybe he could buy himself some more time. “They know how I feel, but words alone won’t fix anything. A team that needs this much work requires a longer commitment than that.”

“You won’t stay.” Jean was asking him—telling him—begging him. “You should reconsider our offer before we rescind it for good, Kevin. Face the facts. Your pet is and always will be dead weight. It’s time to—”

“What?” Andrew interrupted, looking at Kevin with mock surprise. “You have a pet and you never told us? Where do you keep it, Kevin?”

“Don’t interrupt me, Doe,” said Jean.

Nicky sounded offended on Andrew’s behalf, but Andrew just grinned. “Oh, points for trying, but save your breath,” he said. “Here’s a tip for you, okay? You can’t cut down someone who’s already in the gutter. You just waste your time and mine.”

That couldn’t be true, thought Kevin. He was certainly in the gutter, and somehow he kept getting cut down lower and lower.

“Enough,” said Dan. She snapped her fingers. “Break it up. This is a district event and we have twenty officials on hand. We’re here to get to know each other, not to start fights. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. That goes for both teams.”

Riko shifted his attention back to Neil. Kevin absently wondered why he was devoting so much attention to Neil—was it just because of his performance on Kathy’s show? Either way, he was grateful for the diversion, however slight. “Is that why your new child is being so quiet?” Riko asked. “He doesn’t have anything ‘nice’ to say?”

“Leave him alone,” said Matt.

“He was very spirited the last time we met,” said Riko. So it was Neil’s performance on Kathy’s show. That was fine. It had an explanation, and maybe Neil had enough common sense to keep from putting on a repeat performance. “Perhaps that was just a show for the crowd?” Riko taunted. “Hello, I am speaking to you. Are you really going to ignore me?”

Neil stayed quiet, and Kevin let out a near-silent breath of relief.

And then Riko spoke again.

“What a coward,” he said. “Just like his mother.”

That was the second time Riko had mentioned Neil’s mother, but Kevin didn’t have time to think about that, because Neil had snapped. “You know, I get it,” Neil said. “Being raised a superstar must be really, really difficult for you. Always a commodity, never a human being, not a single person in your family thinking you’re worth a damn off the court—yeah, sounds rough. Kevin and I talk about your intricate and endless daddy issues all the time.”

Neil didn’t know—he couldn’t know—how dangerous that was to say. Kevin needed to stop him. “Neil.”

Neil kept going as if Kevin hadn’t spoken at all. “I know it’s not entirely your fault that you are mentally unbalanced and infected with these delusions of grandeur, and I know you’re physically incapable of holding a decent conversation with anyone like every other normal human being can but I don’t think any of  us should have to put up with this much of your bullshit.”

They were going to die. Riko was going to kill them all. They might not even make it out of the banquet hall. That might not be a bad thing. At least it would be over.

But Neil wasn’t done. “Pity only gets you so many concessions, and you used yours up about six insults ago. So please, please, just shut the fuck up and leave us alone.”

There was a stunned silence on both sides of the table. Kevin couldn’t look away from Riko. If looks could kill, Neil’s body would already be cold.

Instead, Neil turned to Dan. “Dan, I said please. I tried to be nice.”

“Matt,” Dan choked out. “Matt, Coach. Get Coach. Oh my god.” Matt was gone in an instant. At least someone understood the gravity of the situation.

Jean found his voice next. “You can’t say things like that.”

“Then he shouldn’t have asked me to join the conversation,” said Neil. How could he possibly sound so calm? Kevin didn’t know if he was brave or stupid. He didn’t know if the distinction mattered. “I was happy sitting here saying nothing.”

Jean turned to Kevin and switched to French. “What the hell is this?”

Kevin didn’t have an answer for him. “His antagonism is a personality flaw we’re learning to live with.”

“Live with,” echoed Jean in disbelief. “No! You should have dealt with him two weeks ago when he first stepped out of line. We trusted you to discipline him. Why doesn’t he know his place yet?”

Kevin felt like he was missing something. Sure, Neil had insulted Riko on Kathy’s show, but he was hardly a problem for the Ravens. Certainly not someone who should ‘know his place.’ “Neil has no place in Riko’s games,” said Kevin. “He is a Fox.”

Jean stared at him intently. “He is not a Fox!”

Neil chose this moment to reveal that he could understand them. “Funny. I’m pretty sure the contract I signed said Palmetto State University.”

Jean shot him a startled look when he started speaking French, but he recovered quickly. “A contract does not change the facts,” he said. “Did you forget who bought you?”

Neil looked as confused as Kevin. “Bought me,” he repeated. “Nobody bought me.”

Kevin wasn’t used to this—to not knowing what Jean was talking about—and he didn’t like it. Especially not when Jean looked like that. “Jean,” he said, “what are you talking about?”

Somehow, Jean’s expression dropped further. “You don’t know.” It was an accusation, an expression of disbelief, a statement of flat horror. “How can you not know? Why else would you have recruited him, Kevin?”

“He has potential,” said Kevin. The words felt empty coming out of his mouth, devoid of meaning even as he tried to insist they were true.

Jean’s laugh was hysterical, and the panic bubbling in Kevin’s stomach was threatening to come up through his throat. “God save you both, you useless fools,” said Jean. “No one else can. How either of you have lived this long when you’re so miserably stupid is beyond my capacity to understand.”

Kevin still had questions—so many questions—but Wymack had arrived, and he spoke first. “What the hell is going on over here?”

Instead of answering, Jean turned to Riko and spoke in Japanese. “He doesn’t know who his new striker is. He says he just recruited him for his potential.”

Riko’s icy stare faltered for a second, and he stared intently between Kevin and Neil. “He expects us to believe this is a coincidence?”

Jean gestured helplessly, and Kevin tried to put the pieces together. “Had you tried to recruit him, too?” he asked slowly.

Wymack interrupted again. “On your feet. Abby is talking to the event coordinators about finding us a new table.’

Kevin was torn. He still wanted answers, but he needed air, and time to catch up. Maybe he’d get the chance to talk with Jean later, away from the others. He stood up with his teammates.

And then Jean turned to Neil and spoke in rapid French. “Riko will have a few minutes of your time later,” he said. “I suggest you speak with him if you do not want everyone to know you are the Butcher’s son.”

Kevin let out a strangled sound somewhere between a whimper and a shout, and Neil shoved him backwards so hard he nearly fell. “That’s not true,” he said hoarsely, even as the pieces started to click into place.

“Shut up,” said Neil. “Don’t say anything else.”

“Run along,” said Jean. “It’s what you’re best at, isn’t it?” He didn’t spare Kevin another glance as the Foxes retreated to their new table.

Kevin kept his focus on Neil, mind reeling. How could he have missed this? How could he have brought this down upon himself? If it was true—it had to be true; why else would Neil have reacted like that?—how could Neil have let it happen? If he was the Butcher’s son, he knew who the Moriyamas were. He knew how dangerous it was for him—for all of them—to be here. Was he planning something, or was he just that stupid?

When they sat at their new table—somewhere on the outskirts, it didn’t matter where, just far from the Ravens—Kevin turned sideways in his chair and grabbed Neil’s chin. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he found it, buried under the colored contacts and what had to be dyed hair. Worst of all, there was a sick fear in Neil’s eyes that matched his own. Neil clearly didn’t have some kind of grand plan, either. They were all just fucked.

Kevin opened his mouth to say something—anything—but Neil stopped him, speaking quiet French. “No, Kevin. Not here. You and I will talk tomorrow.”

Neil was right. They shouldn’t talk about it here, in public. They shouldn’t talk about it ever. But he needed to know. “Does Andrew know?”

“He only knows pieces of it,” said Neil. “He doesn’t know my name.”

That didn’t answer Kevin’s question. It didn’t tell him whether the man who’d promised to keep him safe had known about the land mine in their midst. “Does he know who you are?”

“I said no.” Neil pulled himself free of Kevin’s grip. “We’re not doing this here.”

This was too much. Jean had known. Worse, he’d assumed Kevin had known. And he never tried to talk to him about it. And Andrew had known something. Maybe not everything, maybe not enough, but more than Kevin. Everyone had known more than Kevin. He needed it to stop. He needed it to slow down for long enough to get him out of this banquet hall, back on the bus, back to South Carolina. He didn’t know where he was going when he stood up from the table, but it didn’t matter. Abby was at his side instantly, her face drawn with concern. He didn’t have any words left, but he gestured towards the door and started walking, hoping she’d follow.

It took her a moment, but she did, and Kevin felt a rush of gratitude. Everything else may be falling apart, but he still had Abby there to put him back together. Or, in this case, help him take himself apart enough to cope.

Abby put a soothing hand on his shoulder when she caught up with him near the doors. “Need some air?”

A healthier Kevin would have said yes. A healthier Kevin would have been able to take a walk in the cool fall air and come back feeling centered and in control. A healthier Kevin wouldn’t have needed to leave the banquet hall in the first place.

“Vodka?” he choked out, barely above a whisper.

Abby just nodded. “On the bus.”

She sat with him as he drank until the screaming in his head had faded to a muffled buzz, and then she took him back into the banquet hall. With the panic numbed, he was able to play his role again. The Son of Exy, bright, talented, resilient, charming. He didn’t think about Neil—not any more than he’d think or talk about any other new recruit to his starting Striker line—and he didn’t think about Riko—not any more than he was expected to think of him, the Number One to his Number Two—and he certainly didn’t think about Jean—no one ever expected him to think of Jean.

Back in his comfort zone, far from the panicked thoughts he’d shoved under the floorboards of his brain, the evening was passing almost quickly. Kevin made amiable small-talk with the exy coaches seated across from them at dinner, and then he mingled successfully with the other teams, Andrew and Neil flanking him while he made the rounds. If he carefully avoided his former teammates, well, no one said anything.

Of course, it couldn’t last.

He felt their presence descending on them before he saw them.

“Andrew,” said Neil quietly.

“Oh, finally,” said Andrew. “Kevin, look. We have company.”

Kevin tried to keep the dread out of his voice as he politely excused himself from the conversation he’d been having with some of the Breckenridge Jackals. Whether or not he’d succeeded, they seemed to get the message, and they scurried away as Kevin moved up to Andrew’s other side.

The Ravens approached in a well-choreographed V formation, Riko at the center, coming towards them like the point of an arrow. He stopped first, and the V reversed itself until he, Andrew, and Neil were trapped in the middle. It was almost impressive, how well Riko could isolate him in the middle of a crowded banquet hall. He was always good at making sure there were no extraneous witnesses.

And then Renee appeared on Kevin’s other side and looped an arm through his. She held her other hand out to Jean. “Jean, wasn’t it?” she said, as if this were an ordinary meeting and not a cross between an interrogation and a hostage situation. “My name is Renee Walker. We didn’t really get a chance to talk earlier.”

Whatever Renee was doing, it seemed to work, at least to some extent. Jean’s stoic mask dropped just a bit, and his manners kicked in. He focused on Renee—not looking at Kevin—and shook her hand. “Jean Moreau.”

Renee kept talking quietly with Jean. The buzzing in Kevin’s ears was too loud for him to make sense of the words, but it seemed like a regular conversation, and it seemed to be working. The other upperclassmen had infiltrated the Ravens’ triangle, and he could hear Dan exchanging insults with some of the Ravens’ strikers. Kevin stayed focused on Renee and Jean, even when he heard a Raven yelp in pain—he was pretty sure Dan had delivered a vicious blow with her stilettos. Kevin just wanted to join their conversation. He wanted to be able to talk to Jean, for it to be easy, for it to be safe. He wanted Jean to look at him with the same cautious curiosity he was showing Renee. He wanted to talk to him—he should talk to him—but his stomach was caught in his throat and it was getting in the way.

And then the Master said his name, and everything else stopped. “Kevin Day.”

“Master,” he said, fighting desperately to keep his voice steady. “It’s been a while.”

At the Master’s signal, the other Ravens dispersed, filling in the gaps between the other Foxes. He gestured for Kevin to step forward, and he moved without hesitation. This was it. They were going to take him back to the Nest, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

“Your hand,” said the Master. Kevin held it out to him obediently, and the Master looked over his scars. “A pity,” he said. “You could have been great.”

“I’m improving,” he said quickly.

“Perhaps,” said the Master dismissively, and he dropped Kevin’s hand like the discarded garbage it was. He switched to Japanese. “But we have more pressing matters to discuss. Your new toy. Where did you find him?”

“His coach sent his file to Wymack,” said Kevin. “I didn’t know. I just thought he had potential.”

The Master looked amused. “You weren’t wrong,” he said. “Keep training him, for now. Tell him that if he keeps quiet and learns his place, he will join the Ravens in the spring, the way he was supposed to. In the meantime, we can keep this . . . discovery between us.”

Kevin hesitated. Even in Japanese, he wasn’t sure how much he could say. “You mean . . . ?”

“There is no need to burden the rest of the family with this knowledge. Not unless the boy gives us a reason to. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, Master,” said Kevin. “Thank you. I will tell him.”

“Good,” said the Master. “I’m sure you can convince him to do the right thing.”

Kevin felt a hand come down firmly on his shoulder, and he flinched before he realized it was Wymack. “Tetsuji,” he said. “Sorry to cut the reunion short, but I’m just gathering up my team to go. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, and it’s been a rather eventful evening.”

The Master’s lip curled into something between a smile and a scowl. “Of course, David. It seems your team may need a bit more practice socializing before the Christmas Banquet.”

Wymack smiled gamely. “It seems like we could all use some practice.”

The Master’s scowl deepened, and he turned to Kevin. “We will talk soon, Kevin.”

Wymack’s grip tightened on his shoulder, but Kevin just bowed his head. “Yes, Master.”

The Master waved his arm, and the remaining Ravens fell into line behind him. Kevin realized too late that Riko wasn’t in the group.

“Where’s Josten?” asked Wymack, and Kevin’s stomach sank further into the ground.

“I can go find him,” he said.

Wymack snorted. “Like hell you can. You’re not leaving my sight until we’re back in South Carolina.” Part of Kevin wanted to push back. Wymack didn’t know who Neil was, either. He didn’t know how bad this was. But Kevin also felt safer than he’d felt all evening, so he just nodded, and Wymack turned to scan the rest of the Foxes before settling on Matt. “Boyd, go find Josten and get him back here. Tell him we’re leaving.”

“Yes, Coach,” said Matt, and he set off in search of Neil.

Andrew came up beside Kevin. “If we’re about to leave, Coach, shouldn’t you make the rounds? Make nice with the other coaches, apologize for our behavior, tell them you’re still working on our house-training?”

Wymack glanced at Kevin and sighed. “I should,” he agreed.

“You can leave Kevin with me,” said Andrew. He nodded towards the wall, where Renee and Dan were standing. “We’ll keep him out of trouble.”

Kevin was so tired of being talked about as if he weren’t there, as if he didn’t have any thoughts of his own. But he was also just tired, and it was nice to not have to pretend to have the energy to care, so he didn’t protest when Wymack nodded in agreement and left him in Andrew’s care, and he didn’t protest when Andrew led him over to wait with Dan and Renee. He hardly even reacted when Matt showed back up with Neil, who looked shaken but unharmed. They would talk—they had to talk—but not tonight. Kevin didn’t have any words left tonight. He felt unmoored, and he let himself be tossed out on the waves, moving like a silent, obedient shadow all the way back to the bus, back out of his fancy banquet clothing, back into a restless slumber, where he stayed, fitfully, for the rest of the drive back to Palmetto.

***

How long did you know?

Why didn’t you tell me?

You should have known. It’s not my fault you are as stupid as he is.

He won’t join the Ravens. You have to know that.

Convince him.

What if I can’t?

Pray we don’t find out.

They can’t blame you. It’s not your fault.

They have to blame someone. And I’m still here.

I’m sorry.

Don’t be. It doesn’t do either of us any good.

Chapter Text

Kevin had been dreading their game against the Ravens. He wasn’t ready to see them. He wasn’t ready to face them. Worse, the Foxes weren’t ready. There was no way it would be anything short of humiliating.

But he needed to see Jean. And this was the only way. Kevin followed the Ravens’ games, of course, and their press, but it was easier to disguise things from miles away through a camera lens. He needed to know Jean was still all right.

Or at least as close to all right as he could be. As all right as any of them were.

He was alive, at least. Jean’s playing was still sharp—maybe even sharper, now that he didn’t have to keep his place as third in line quite as carefully. He had a little bit more room to grow without overstepping his designated position.

Playing against him on the court was almost familiar. For a minute, Kevin could pretend things were normal. If normal meant wearing the wrong uniform and playing with the wrong hand and being in the wrong stadium.

At least Kevin felt alive.

It was frustrating, playing against Jean. Kevin and Neil had been gaining an edge on opposing teams by calling out directions to each other in French, but that was useless against Jean. And Jean certainly wasn’t holding back. He’d checked Kevin hard enough to knock him over at the start of the match, and the game hadn’t gotten any less violent as it went on. The Foxes were losing—they were always going to lose; there was never really any other option—but Kevin scored, and when the goal lit up, he felt more powerful than he had in months. Years. Maybe ever.

And it gave Kevin a leg to stand on when Riko approached him at the end of the game.

“Foxes.” Kevin didn’t have to turn and look at him to know it was Riko. He would recognize that voice anywhere. Awake or asleep, it haunted him. “I admit I’m at a loss as to what to do now. I cannot thank you for the night’s game because I can’t call this debacle a game. I thought I knew what to expect when we came here tonight, but I am still embarrassed on your behalf. You have fallen so far, Kevin. You should have stayed down and saved us the trouble of forcing you back to your knees.”

Kevin turned, and he held his head high. “I’m satisfied,” he said. He needed to project confidence. This was his chance to show he had a plan, he knew what he was doing. He saw Jean, hovering a few steps behind Riko, and it gave him the shot of courage he needed. “Not with their score or performance, but with their spirit. I was right. There’s more than enough here for me to work with.”

“How many balls did you take to the helmet?” asked a Raven from somewhere in the crowd.

Kevin just smiled and turned back to Andrew, offering him a hand to pull him to his feet. He was a little startled by just how weak Andrew still was, but he was heartened by it, too. Andrew had tried, and that was enough. He passed him off to Renee and turned back to the Ravens. “Thank you for the game tonight. We will see you again at semifinals. It will be an interesting rematch, I promise.”

“One man cannot carry you that far,” Riko scoffed. “Even you are not stupid enough to believe that. You should give up now.”

Not a chance. “One is enough to start with.”

“Thanks for nothing and good night,” said Dan, taking charge of her team. “We’re out of here.”

Kevin gave Jean one last look before he turned and left the court with his team. Enough to start with.

***

It worked, you know.

Your little speech.

They are content to let you keep your pet project for now.

Neil?

No. Nathaniel is a dead man. The Foxes.

Oh.

Thank you for telling me.

You are still an idiot.

I know.

Be careful.

That’s rich, coming from you.

Jean. Please.

I will be careful.

I always am.

It’s just never enough.

***

Kevin was on edge. By all rights, he should be enjoying himself. The Winter Banquet was supposed to be a party, and the Foxes had just been announced as the second-ranked team in the district. Things were going well. They were on track.

And they were in the same room as the Ravens, and he was without Andrew. Kevin hadn’t realized quite how heavily he’d relied on him until he was gone. Andrew’s absence stung like a missing limb, and Kevin didn’t have any left to spare.

Neil, at least, had been glued to his side all night. Neil was a source of stress in his own right, but at least Kevin knew he had his back. And at least he wasn’t alone.

Riko found him. He always did. He always would. It didn’t stop Kevin from freezing as soon as he spotted him approaching, flanked by Jean. Neil took a step forward, putting himself between Kevin and Riko, and Kevin couldn’t help but wonder if Neil didn’t realize the target on his back was as large as Kevin’s, or if he just didn’t care.

“Your lack of survival instincts is supremely distressing,” said Riko, looking at Neil with a gloating sort of hunger. “Take that look off your face before I carve it off.”

Neil was grinning back at Riko, and the expression made Kevin glad that Neil, at least, was on his side. “I would love to see you try,” said Neil, his voice steady and cold. “You think I’m afraid of your knife? I’m the Butcher’s son.”

“That’s three strikes,” said Riko, dragging a finger lazily across his throat. He turned to Kevin. “I am disappointed in you, Kevin. You promised the Master you would take care of this. Obviously you have not, and I am very curious as to why.”

Kevin hadn’t found his voice yet, but Neil answered before him. “He tried. It didn’t take.”

Riko pressed his thumb against Neil’s cheek, and Kevin felt his own tattoo burn. “Do us all a favor and do not speak again. Your insolence has already cost you two teammates. You cannot even imagine what is coming next.”

Kevin barely felt the impact of Riko’s admission. Two. Seth, he’d known. Was Riko saying he was responsible for taking Andrew out of the picture, too? He wouldn’t put it past him. He’d been foolish to think Andrew could protect him; he couldn’t even protect himself. Not from Riko.

Neil, somehow, was still going. “I’m shaking with fear,” he said, holding out a steady hand.

“You should be,” said Riko. “You think you can defy me because I am not your father, but you are forgetting one very important fact: I am the family your father was afraid of. And yes, Nathaniel, he was very afraid.”

Kevin silently begged Neil to back down, to stay quiet. It was a futile wish.

Neil leaned close to Riko and lowered his voice. “Not of you,” he said. The screaming in Kevin’s brain got louder, but it couldn’t drown out Neil’s words—his stupid, reckless words. “You’re not part of that family, remember? You’re the cast-off.”

Kevin was going to vomit. He was going to die. Neil was as good as dead. He should have run when he had the chance.

Riko kept his eyes trained on Neil. “Jean, take Kevin and leave us.”

Jean didn’t need to be told twice. Giving Riko as wide a berth as possible, he grabbed hold of Kevin’s arm and pulled him away. It felt like a lifeline. With a start, Kevin realized he and Jean hadn’t touched each other—checks on the court didn’t count—in almost exactly a year. Not since he left the Nest. Neil might be about to die, but at least Jean was holding his arm.

Matt and Dan caught up with them, and Jean went still, but he didn’t let go. “Moreau,” said Dan, eyeing Jean suspiciously. “Back off.”

“I’m okay,” said Kevin quickly. “Really.” He stopped himself from looking back towards Riko and Neil, but Matt followed his aborted gaze and took a step towards them. “No,” Kevin said, reaching out with his free arm to stop him. Matt shrugged him off and took another step forwards, but Neil waved him off.

“I hate this,” muttered Matt, but he stayed put.

“Join the club,” Jean muttered back darkly. Dan and Matt both turned to face Jean, startled, but Jean was only looking at Kevin. Kevin looked back.

“Are you okay?” he asked in French.

Jean’s frown deepened. “Don’t ask stupid questions.” He reached into his suit pocket, took out a folded piece of paper, and slipped it into Kevin’s pocket. “This is for Nathaniel. He will ask for it later.”

“What is it?”

“Something he will use, if he is not as stupid as he has led us to believe.”

Kevin let it go. He’d look at the paper later, or Neil would tell him. There was something else eating at him. “Two teammates,” he said. “Riko said that Neil’s insolence cost us two teammates.”

Jean’s mouth was tight. “Yes.”

Kevin glanced at Dan and Matt. They were watching closely, curiously, and Kevin tried to figure out a way to ask the right questions without using names. Before he could think of anything, he heard a crash from the direction of Riko and Neil.

Shit.” Matt had already cleared half the distance between them. Jean dropped Kevin’s arm and rushed back towards Riko, who was locked in close combat with Neil. Matt and Jean were the first ones to get between them, and it didn’t take long for others to follow. Neil kept struggling to break free and get at Riko until Wymack bodily pulled him away. Kevin wasn’t moving. He wasn’t even sure he was breathing.

Breckenridge’s coach stepped in with a bellowing shout. “What the hell is going on here? This is a Christmas banquet. If you missed the memo, that’s Christmas, as in make merry and goodwill to man. I want a goddamned explanation for this.”

Riko was the explanation. There didn’t need to be anything more.

Neil and Riko were still just staring at each other, breathing heavily. Neil spoke first. “Yes. I understand.”

Riko looked satisfied. “Apology accepted.”

Another coach—Kevin didn’t pay attention to which one; he wasn’t important—spoke up. “The next person to start a fight here is getting written up and will sit out of the next five scheduled games, spring or fall. Do I make myself clear?” After pausing a moment for consent, he continued. “You two stay away from each other the rest of the night. Wymack, get him off the court until he’s feeling civil.”

“Neil wasn’t fighting himself,” said Wymack, anger ringing loudly in his voice. “If Coach Moriyama wants the Away side, I’ll take Home.”

“Of course,” said the Master smoothly, stepping up beside Riko. Kevin took half a step back, hoping to blend into the crowd, but he needn’t have bothered. “Riko?” said the Master, and then the two of them were gone, and Wymack was herding his team over to the Home benches. Once the team was in line, Wymack rounded on Neil. Kevin tuned them out and watched Neil intently. He had been so calm—tauntingly so—when Jean and Kevin had left him. What made him snap so thoroughly?

Neil met his eye, and then he looked away, and Kevin made himself start listening again. “Riko bought off the prosecution,” said Neil, and Kevin knew what the words meant, but he didn’t want to. “That’s why Drake risked coming all the way here to see Andrew. Riko would get the charges dismissed if Drake would—”

The silence was long and heavy. There was an incessant dance beat playing through the speakers, but it sounded like it was a million miles away.

“You’re lying,” said Aaron flatly.

Neil looked at Kevin and switched to French. “Did you get it?” he asked. “My ticket?”

Kevin just stared back at him. Ticket? That must be the paper Jean had slipped him. It could only be a ticket to the Nest. It might as well be Neil’s death certificate.

“Kevin, look at me,” said Neil.

“I’m going to kill him,” said Nicky.

No,” said Neil fiercely, switching back to English to address the rest of the team. “We’ve got to break him first. If Exy is the only thing he cares about we’re going to take it away from him. First we destroy his reputation, then we destroy him. I don’t want us to lose a single game this spring. Can we do that?”

As far as pep talks went, this wasn’t a bad one. Too bad it wouldn’t matter. Once Neil was dead, they wouldn’t even have enough players to field a team. Not even if they got Andrew back. And with Neil and Andrew gone, Kevin was as good as dead, too.

“Not a single damn game,” said Dan, matching Neil’s energy. She didn’t know—she couldn’t know—how futile it was.

Neil focused his attention back on Kevin and switched to French again. “Do you have my ticket?”

“You’re not going,” said Kevin desperately. “Do you know what he’ll do to you?”

“Do you know what he’ll do to Andrew if I don’t go? I don’t have a choice. I have to go. You have to trust me.”

Neil didn’t get it, either. If he understood, he’d listen. “He will break you.”

“He wishes he knew how,” said Neil. His eyes blazed with a determination almost strong enough for Kevin to believe it. “Trust me. I promise I’ll come back, and when I do I’ll bring Andrew back with me. It’s going to be fine. So do you have my ticket or don’t you?”

Neil couldn’t promise any of that. If this were a Foxes’ bet, Kevin would put money down against it. Neil would go to the Nest, and he would never come back, and Andrew wouldn’t come back, either, and Kevin would be alone again.

But he had the ticket. And Neil was going to use it, whether Kevin wanted him to or not. He looked away. “I have it.”

And that was the end of it.

***

Take care of him.

You know I can’t do that.

Yes you can. If anyone can, it’s you.

Why would I risk myself for the son of the Butcher?

Not for him. For me.

I have already paid any debts I might have owed you.

But he will be my partner while he is here. If he doesn’t get us both killed, I will try to help him as much as I can.

Thank you.

For everything.

Convince him to behave, and I may live long enough to accept your gratitude.

***

The other Foxes were busy packing and talking about their holiday plans, but Kevin was staying quieter than usual.

He checked his watch. Matt was probably on his way back from the airport by now.

Kevin had no idea what he was supposed to do with the binder Neil had shoved at him shortly before he left. He’d stuck it in an old grocery bag so it would draw less attention, but did Neil expect him to keep it on his person at all times? What about when they were in Times Square for New Year’s? It seemed to Kevin the binder would’ve been more secure if Neil had just left it in his safe.

Still, though, it was the one thing Neil had asked of him. Kevin pushed down the thought that Neil may never find out whether or not Kevin had successfully held onto the binder. He didn’t let himself think about what he’d do with it if Neil never came back.

Maybe he’d give it to Andrew.

Maybe Andrew would never come back, either.

Maybe he’d burn it.

He should have talked to Neil before he left. He knew he couldn’t have stopped him from going, but he could have given him a better idea of what to expect. Neil thought he knew, thought he could survive it, but he had no clue. And once he was in the Nest, he wouldn’t have any lifelines.

Except Jean.

But Neil didn’t know that. And he didn’t know that Jean would be punished for Neil’s mistakes. Missteps. Miscalculations. It was almost funny—Neil was going to the Nest to protect Andrew and the rest of the Foxes, but in doing so, he was almost certainly going to make things worse for Jean. Neil didn’t know when to shut up, and it was too much to hope that he’d learn while he was on the plane.

If he knew that Jean could be an ally, though, he might at least try. Kevin pulled out his phone and sent Neil a text:

Jean will help you if you help him.

He hoped Neil got the text. He hoped he understood it. He hoped it was enough.

***

He is an idiot, but he is still alive, and he is still a Fox.

How?

He wouldn’t sign. I think they are planning to let his father finish him off.

His father is in jail.

Not for long.

Will they tell his father where he is?

They won’t have to. Did you know Junior is the spitting image of his father?

He’s as good as dead.

We all are. Stop acting surprised.

I’m still alive, too, by the way.

Not that you asked.

I should have.

I know it was a difficult two weeks for you, too.

Three weeks. Or have you forgotten how time works in the Nest?

Three weeks.

Did he try to make things any easier for you?

He is an ignorant child. He doesn’t know how to make things easier for anyone.

But he did at least recognize that our fates were linked.

That’s something, at least.

I’m glad you’re alive, too.

For now.

Chapter Text

Spotting Riko and Jean in the Longhorns’ stadium before the game had been jarring, but Kevin recovered. He had a game to play. He’d spent his entire life proving his worth on the court, right up until he had proved it a little too well and Riko had tried to take it away from him for good. Still, though, it was enough to let him push his fear aside, for at least ninety minutes.

The game was over now, though, and he couldn’t take his eyes off of them. Renee had boldly walked up to the VIP section to greet them, and Jean had taken her offered hand. Kevin wanted to run. He wanted to be the one shaking Jean’s hand. He just stood there, frozen, staring.

“He’s interested in her,” said Neil. He was watching them, too.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Kevin. “It won’t work.”

“Maybe not,” Neil agreed, “but it could give us an edge. Do you still know his number? Give it to her and see what she can do between now and finals.”

Kevin didn’t know what exactly Neil expected Renee to do—act as a spy? Get Jean off his game? Convince Jean to rebel against Riko?—but it wasn’t going to happen. Neil wasn’t waiting for a response, though. He had already started for the locker room when a reporter called out a question.

“Neil, is it true you’re marked for Court?”

Neil wasn’t supposed to be on press duty. There was a reason Neil wasn’t supposed to be on press duty. His face was still bandaged. They were supposed to have more time. And they still could. Neil could just keep walking, pretend he hadn’t heard the question, go into the locker room. Kevin might get questions about it, but he was ready. He could deflect.

Neil was never one for deflection. “I’m sorry,” he said, taking off his helmet and heading for the reporters. “Did you say something?”

“Rumor has it you’ve been invited to the perfect Court,” said the reporter, shoving a microphone towards Neil. “Care to comment on that?”

“Oh, you mean this,” said Neil, and he peeled the bandage off his cheek. He had a dangerous expression on his face, and the reporters were too eager or too stupid to notice.

Kevin wasn’t scared of the reporters, though. “Don’t push him,” he hissed to Neil in French.

Neil’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t even spare a glance for Kevin. “It’s actually impressive, isn’t it?” Neil asked. “I think it’s the first time Riko’s ever been wrong. He always seemed too thickheaded to admit when he’d made a mistake.”

They were dead. They were all dead. Riko was already here; he wouldn’t even have to travel to have them killed.

The reporters were falling all over each other to get the story. “You think he made a mistake marking you?” one asked. “You don’t think you deserve the number?” shouted another.

Neil feigned surprise, as if he hadn’t planned out this entire interaction, as if he wasn’t actively digging his own grave and dragging Kevin with him. “I don’t think he deserves us,” he said, officially implicating Kevin with his gesture, “but that’s neither here nor there.”

“What do you mean?” asked one of the reporters. She might as well have handed Neil a shovel.

“Look, I’m going to be honest. I know Riko’s good. Everyone does. His uncle’s name has gotten him pretty far in life and the Ravens have an impressive record. But Riko as a person is hard to respect,” said Neil. Kevin was still frozen. The ever-present buzzing in his brain had escalated to a desperate keen.

Somehow, Neil was still talking. “Up until December, I figured he was an egocentric maniac who was so desperate for his own glory he refused to see the potential in anyone else. He, of course, assumed I was a know-nothing from nowhere with no right to have an opinion. This Christmas we tried to meet halfway. Riko invited me to practice with the Ravens over the holidays so I could see the discrepancy between our two teams. This is what we walked away with,” said Neil, gesturing towards his tattoo. “He admitted he was wrong about me, and I promised to live up to his expectations. We’re never going to be friends and we’ll definitely never like each other, but we’ll work around each other for as long as we have to.”

Kevin swallowed down the hysterical laughter threatening to bubble up within him. The only reason they weren’t already dead was that Riko was here, was in the stadium, and maybe he couldn’t hear what Neil was saying in front of the cameras. But it wouldn’t take him long to find out. Someone might be telling him now. Neil had to stop, had to leave, had to give Kevin a chance to clean up after him.

“There was a rumor you might transfer to Edgar Allan,” said one of the reporters.

“It was mentioned while I was there, but we both know it’ll never happen. I’ll never get where I need to be if I play with the Ravens,” said Neil casually. “Besides, I could barely tolerate them for two weeks. I can’t imagine playing with them for four years. They’re horrible human beings.

Kevin wondered if Neil would stop talking once Riko killed him, or if he’d somehow just keep going. It seemed increasingly likely.

Neil still wasn’t finished. “But you know what? That’s petty. I said I’d be honest, but that was a little too transparent. Let’s say this instead: we promised the Ravens a rematch this spring, so I’ll cheer them all the way to finals. If Riko didn’t think we could meet them there, he wouldn’t have marked me or flown halfway across the country to watch us play tonight. He knows we have a chance. He just hasn’t figured out yet that we’re going to win the next time we meet. Keep an eye on us, won’t you? It’s going to be an exciting year.”

The reporters kept trying to get more, but Neil was, at last, done. “Good night,” he said, and—finally, too late—he turned and went into the locker room.

Kevin and Dan had been scheduled to talk to the press, but there was nothing left to say. Dan seemed satisfied with Neil’s performance, and Kevin didn’t know how to undo it, so they just followed him back into the locker room.

“That was a disaster,” said Kevin as the locker room door closed behind him, and Neil was on him in an instant, pinning him against the wall. Dan just stared, and Andrew—his Andrew, the one who promised to keep him safe—took a deliberate step back. Kevin was alone, alone, always so alone.

“Enough,” said Neil in French, his tone low and angry. “Don’t ever try to censor me again. I am not going to let him dictate how I end this.”

At least Neil knew it was an ending. “You are going to bring him down on all of us,” he said. “You don’t think.”

“You aren’t thinking either,” said Neil furiously. “You can’t be afraid of him anymore.”

Kevin’s jaw stiffened. He’d seen the way Neil reacted to the mere mention of his father. Neil should know better. “It is not a switch you turn on and off. You of all people know this.” He shoved Neil just hard enough to dislodge him. “You did not grow up with him. You do not get to judge me.”

“I’m not judging you. I’m telling you it’s past time to stand your ground,” said Neil, sounding frustrated. “What’s the point of any of this if you’re still his pet at the end of the day? If you really believed in us—if you really believed in yourself—you’d push back.”

He couldn’t. “You don’t understand.”

“I don’t,” Neil agreed, still angry. “You have a way out. You have a future. So why won’t you take it? Why are you so afraid to take it?” An edge of desperation had creeped into Neil’s voice. “When I first found out about the Moriyamas, I stayed because I thought you had a chance. One of us had to make it and I wanted it to be you. But you still believe in that number on your face. What’s so important about being second-best?”

Neil’s words echoed in Kevin’s head. He’d heard them before, in different forms. First, from Jean, when he finally gathered the courage to leave. It was too much to tell Neil, and he wouldn’t understand anyway. But he could tell him about the second. His gaze slid over to Andrew. “When we tried to sign Andrew to the Ravens, he said the same thing. He said I didn’t interest him because I made a career of coming second. I don’t want this, but I’m not like you.” He looked back at Neil, willing him to understand. “I have always been Riko’s. I know more than anyone what happens when you defy a Moriyama.”

“You know. But they already took everything away from you,” said Neil. “What else do you have to lose?”

Everything else. The progress he’d made. His future. Jean. Andrew. Neil.

But, with the exception of his departure from the Nest, he’d kept his head down and stayed in line his entire life. And what had it gotten him? A lifetime of trauma. A broken hand. And nothing he’d done had kept anyone else safe, either.

He wanted to see Jean.

He wanted a drink.

Neil walked away.

***

How are you?

How did he react when he saw the interview?

Are you okay?

Renee says you’ve been texting her back.

Then ask her how I am.

I did. She wouldn’t tell me anything.

She is a good friend.

What’s that supposed to mean?

I know Palmetto is an inferior university, but I thought you had retained your basic reading comprehension.

Just tell me you’re all right.

Do you want me to lie?

Of course not. I just want to know you’re okay.

You cannot have both.

I’m okay.

Okay. Thanks.

***

Kevin’s phone buzzed with a text from Neil.

Do you think it’s serious?

It only took a second for him to figure out what Neil was talking about. Wymack had given them all a heads up that Kengo Moriyama had collapsed at a board meeting and was currently in the hospital. Details about his condition were still well under wraps. Kevin hadn’t watched any of the interviews with Riko, where clueless reporters had carelessly asked about his father, but he’d seen enough to know how angry he was. He sighed and replied to Neil.

It better not be.

Riko still believes he can win his father’s attention with his fame. If the lord does not recover, Riko will take his anger and grief out on everyone around him.

Kevin didn’t have to try hard to imagine it. Their entire childhoods, he had watched Riko try and fail to get his father to acknowledge him. Each failure had resulted in pain. For Riko, sure, but Riko refused to suffer alone.

Neil’s reply didn’t take long to arrive.

Good thing you’re not there anymore.

He was right. And that had been Kevin’s first thought, too, when he heard the news. But it wasn’t enough.

Jean still is.

Kevin didn’t wait for another response from Neil. He shoved his guilt and his phone into his pocket and walked to class.

***

Any updates?

You’ve seen the news. You tell me.

I mean any updates that haven’t made the news.

He’s out of the hospital.

I said updates that HAVEN’T made the news.

I don’t know.

It’s still not good.

The Master spoke to him.

!!!

And Riko?

No.

He still won’t see him.

Shit.

Why do you care? You’re not here.

You are.

I’ve noticed.

Is there anything I can do?

Not unless you’ve gotten a medical degree while I wasn’t looking.

Be careful.

I’m always careful. Give that advice to someone who needs it, like Josten.

I’ve tried. He’s impossible.

He doesn’t expect to live past the end of the year, so he’s thrown away any self-preservation instinct he ever had.

We have more in common than I thought.

What does that mean?

Jean.

What are you saying?

Don’t worry about it.

Are you still talking to Renee?

Yes.

Not that it matters. She can’t do anything, either.

Just hold on.

For what?

I don’t know.

Exactly.

***

Kevin cornered Renee in the hallway of the dorms. “You’re still talking to him, right?”

Renee turned and gave him an even look. “If you mean Jean, then yes. I’m trying.”

“Trying isn’t good enough.” Kevin ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “Look, just—don’t give up, okay?”

“Don’t let him give up, you mean,” said Renee. It wasn’t quite a question, and her soft smile was a little bit too knowing. “I’m doing my best, but that is ultimately up to him.”

“You don’t get it,” Kevin snapped. “Kengo is back in the hospital. If he dies—” His words caught in his throat, and the alcohol in his stomach threatened to come up with them. “It will be bad. Really bad. Riko—he won’t be happy.”

Renee’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Do not forget. I am familiar with the power dynamics of gangs.”

“This isn’t some Midwestern street gang,” said Kevin irritably.

“I am aware,” she said. “And I am worried about Jean, too. Now, what are you willing to do about it?”

Kevin took a step back. “What are you talking about?”

“The same thing you are talking about,” said Renee. “Or, at least, that’s what I thought.” She took a small step forward. “Kengo Moriyama is in poor health. When he dies, Riko will be upset, and he will take it out on whoever he can. The most likely target of his ire will be Jean. So, let me ask you again: what are you willing to do about it?”

“No,” said Kevin, shaking his head. “It’s not—you can’t. He’ll come down on all of us.”

Renee looked disappointed, but she nodded. “I see. When the time comes, I won’t expect your assistance.”

“My assistance with what?” he asked, swallowing down his panic. “Whatever you’re planning, it’s a bad idea. It’s too dangerous. For us, and for him, too.”

“I’m planning to keep Jean alive,” said Renee thinly. “I’ve told him that, when the time comes, if he needs to get out, he should call me.”

Kevin let out a breath of humorless laughter. “And then what do you expect to do? Waltz up to the Nest and pick him up? You think they’ll let him go?”

“Something like that,” said Renee.

“You’ll get him killed.”

“I may fail,” Renee agreed. “But do you not think you’re just as likely to fail him by doing nothing?”

“No,” said Kevin, barely above a whisper. He wasn’t even sure what he was denying. He needed another drink.

There was pity in Renee’s eyes. “This is why, when the time comes, I will do this without you,” she said. “It’s not your fault, Kevin. It’s too close to your trauma.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what this is. Or—maybe it’s that, too, but I’m not being paranoid. I’m right.”

“We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose,” said Renee. Kevin suddenly noticed how tired she looked. She turned to leave, but then she paused and looked back. “Take care of yourself, Kevin. He needs you, too.”

Jean needed a lot of things, but Kevin was pretty sure he wasn’t one of them.

When he got back to his room, he went straight to the bottle of vodka in the cabinet.

***

Renee says you’ve agreed to call her if you need to.

She has offered. I have not agreed.

You haven’t?

Don’t worry, you can save the lecture. I am not stupid like you and Josten.

I know there is nothing she can do for me.

Make the call.

How drunk are you?

It doesn’t matter. Make the call.

You should check the bottle. I think it has gone bad.

When the time comes, make the call.

Do you really think she has the power to help me?

No.

Yes?

Maybe.

Just promise me you’ll call her. When it’s that or give up, don’t give up.

I gave up years ago.

Jean. Please.

Fine.

If the time comes, I will try.

That’s all I ask.

You don’t get to change your mind when you sober up and realize the consequences.

I won’t.

Won’t what? Sober up, or change your mind?

Both, probably.

Be careful.

I keep telling you, I am always careful. It just doesn’t do any good.

***

To say it had been a difficult week would be a severe understatement.

But, by some miracle, they’d all come out the other side. Neil was still alive, and his father was dead, and now the Foxes were all spring breaking together at a cabin somewhere away from it all. Never mind that that one person who had promised to keep Kevin safe had turned on him. Never mind that his one remaining secret was about to become public knowledge.

He couldn’t even blame Andrew. Not really. He’d done worse to people he loved for less. Andrew had thought Neil was dead, and he thought Kevin had withheld information that could have saved him. It wasn’t a surprise when he snapped. Still, that didn’t take away the sting.

And he couldn’t blame Neil for asking for a diversion. Neil was about to be outed as the son of the Butcher of Baltimore. What right did Kevin have to be upset about being outed as the son of his exy coach? Besides, Wymack had deserved to know. It had gone on too long; Kevin just needed a push, and Neil had given it to him.

For two more glorious days, though, they could forget about all of that and just exist. It was a rare luxury.

The rest of the Foxes were already in the kitchen, starting to get breakfast together, when Andrew and Neil came out of their room.

“Wait,” said Allison, frowning. “Where’s Renee? I thought she was with you.”

Neil shot an alarmed look around the room. He paused on Kevin for just a moment too long. “She didn’t tell you?”

“Clearly not,” said Allison impatiently. “What’s up?”

Neil glanced over at Andrew, who gestured for him to continue, and he let out a long sigh. Even though Allison had asked the question, he looked at Kevin when he answered, and Kevin knew. It was Jean. And it was bad. “Kengo Moriyama is dead,” said Neil. “Riko hurt Jean. Renee went to get him.”

Everything went cold. Kevin was pretty sure he could hear his own heartbeat. It sounded too loud, too fast. “She can’t.” His voice sounded hollow and far away. “They’ll never let her in. Especially not now.”

Neil shrugged. “That’s what I said. She disagreed.”

“It’s a suicide mission.”

“It’s a rescue mission,” Andrew corrected. “She has a plan.”

No plan in the world was good enough for this. Not when Riko was mad with grief and unchecked power. He couldn’t even be glad that Jean had listened, had called for help the way he’d asked him to. She would never be able to get there in time. Jean was probably dead by now. And there was nothing Kevin could do to stop it.

Kevin hadn’t done anything to stop it.

Everyone else was still talking, still asking questions, still moving as if the world hadn’t stopped.

Kevin needed to be somewhere else.

Without another word, he turned and fled the kitchen, racing up the stairs and locking the bedroom door behind him.

***

Jean.

Renee’s coming.

Hold on.

Please tell me it’s not too late.

I still don’t know how, but she thinks she can get you out.

Hold on long enough to let her try.

You’re not allowed to die on me, Moreau.

Don’t let this be it.

Your story is not supposed to end this way.

I need you.

I’m so sorry.

You deserved so much better.

Chapter Text

By the time Renee returned the next morning, Kevin had given up all hope. Renee’s phone had been off the entire time, so none of them had heard from her. And Jean’s phone was off or dead or destroyed—Kevin had called it over and over again, and it kept going straight to voicemail.

It had been nice to hear Jean’s voice, even in a recording. He tried not to think about the fact that recordings might be all he had left.

When Renee came through the front doors, she looked surprised to see the entire team assembled, watching her. Kevin looked for clues in her expression, but he couldn’t find anything. “Oh,” she said. “Good morning.”

“How is he?” asked Kevin. He didn’t want her to say it—to make it real—but he had to know.

“He’s not well, but Abby is doing what she can for him.”

Air rushed into Kevin’s lungs. If Abby was doing what she could, that meant he was alive. And he was out. Renee had done it. Somehow, against all odds, she’d done it.

“You didn’t seriously kidnap Jean,” said Dan.

“I didn’t have to,” said Renee, taking her coat off. She was so calm, so deliberate in her movements as she folded it neatly and draped it over the back of a chair. “Edgar Allan’s president lives on campus, so I stopped by his house and asked him to intervene.”

“You didn’t really,” said Allison, staring at her in awe.

“I put him on the phone with Stephanie,” said Renee. Kevin’s brain struggled to catch up. Stephanie was—her foster mother? He’d ask later. “She made it clear he had two choices: he could settle this quietly between us or she’d get all her industry friends to run with news of Evermore’s violent hazing. He chose the one that would hurt his school the least, or at least he tried. Coach Moriyama couldn’t produce Jean when Mr. Andritch asked him to, so we made an unannounced trip to the stadium. Did you know not even the president has access to the court? I don’t think he knew his codes were out of date. He had to get the new ones from security. Either way, the Ravens weren’t expecting us.”

“That sounds like an understatement,” said Matt.

It still didn’t make sense—it wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been enough. The university president was powerless in the Master’s realm. “The Master would have covered his tracks,” Kevin said. “If he knew Andritch was looking for Jean for some reason, he would have found a way to hide him from view.”

“Coach Moriyama wasn’t there. He was in New York,” said Renee. Her words didn’t make sense. Kevin just stared at her, trying to process what she was saying. “He was invited to the funeral,” she continued. “Riko wasn’t.”

Kevin’s flinch was full body. “No.” Riko’s fury and grief would have been insurmountable. He didn’t know how Jean had even had the chance to reach out to Renee.

“Mr. Andritch let me take Jean away when he saw the shape he was in,” Renee said. “I left him my number and promised to keep in touch while the school investigates. Abby has also promised to keep them updated on his recovery. Unfortunately—or not—Jean is unwilling to name names or press charges. He is not happy to be in South Carolina. He has already tried leaving twice.”

If he was trying to leave, he was conscious. He could move, probably. It was more than Kevin had dared hope.

“To go where?” asked Nicky, confused. “Not back to Evermore. Is he crazy?”

Neil saved Kevin from having to answer. “It’s self-preservation. If Riko and Tetsuji think he’s pointing fingers behind their backs, they’ll kill him. Even this could be considered defiance since he’s not where he’s supposed to be.”

“How bad is it?” asked Matt tentatively. “Kevin got out of his school contract when he got injured.”

It was about more than school contracts, but he didn’t want to get into that. Not here; not now. And it was a reminder that—in spite of everything—they were still hopelessly trapped. “They had no choice,” said Kevin. “I couldn’t play. If Jean will heal, they can still claim him as theirs and there is nothing we can do about it.”

“But the president’s involved, right?” asked Nicky. His optimism was painfully grating, but he surprised Kevin with a bout of pragmatism. “So the school board’s going to get in on it soon enough, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to hide this. It’ll kill their precious reputation if this gets out.”

Renee nodded. “If Jean won’t implicate anyone and my mother agrees to keep quiet, they might be willing to let him transfer to another school. That is the best-case scenario, anyway.”

It wouldn’t be enough. Jean wouldn’t trust it. And Kevin couldn’t blame him. He was right. “Jean won’t agree.”

Renee smiled softly at him. “Perhaps you can talk him into it. I would appreciate the help.”

Kevin shook his head. “He isn’t safe with us. I won’t give him false hope.”

“Some hope is better than none at all,” Renee argued gently. She was wrong. Hope was deadly. “It is the same deal we offered you, and you are still here.”

It wasn’t the same deal at all. “I stayed because of Andrew.”

“And I’m not taking in any more refugees,” said Andrew. That wasn’t unexpected, especially given the extent to which Andrew seemed to have abandoned his existing refugees.

“I know,” said Renee, unfazed. “Jean is my problem, not yours. The consequences and fallout are mine to deal with, I promise.”

Dan spoke up again, looking for a simpler solution that didn’t exist. “He doesn’t have family he could stay with?”

“His parents sold him to the Moriyamas to repay a debt,” said Kevin shortly. “The Ravens are all he has.”

Neil looked at him, then shook his head. “Kevin will talk to him when we get back.”

“I didn’t say that,” Kevin protested.

“But you’re going to,” said Neil. His expression was hard and unyielding. “You already walked away from him once knowing what Riko would do to him in your absence. Don’t do it again. If you don’t protect him now, his death is on you.”

And what if I try to protect him and it gets him killed?

“Damn, Neil,” said Nicky, looking nervously between them. “A little harsh?”

Neil stayed focused on Kevin. “Renee already did the hard part. She got him out of there. You just have to put your foot down and keep him here. You outrank him in Riko’s imaginary hierarchy. He’ll listen to you.”

If the hierarchy were truly imaginary, Kevin didn’t think it could have caused so many real injuries.

“Yeah,” said Matt, slowly siding with Neil. Everyone always did. “Weren’t you two friends once?”

Weren’t you two friends once? It was too much and not enough, and Kevin didn’t know how to answer. He looked away. “That was a long time ago.”

“Kevin,” said Renee softly. “Please.”

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t look the Foxes in the eye and make them think there was a chance when there was none. And if he couldn’t do that to the Foxes, there was no way he could do it to Jean.

But he’d beaten so many odds already. What if there was a chance? Didn’t he owe it to Jean to try?

“I’ll do what I can,” he said at last, “but I won’t promise anything.”

“Thank you.” Renee said it to Kevin, but she looked at Neil. Neil, who had nearly been killed by his father a week ago, who still kept fighting.

It didn’t matter. They were done here. And Kevin needed to figure out what he was going to say to Jean. He waved his hand in a curt dismissal. “I’m going to pack.”

He’d made it up to his room before he heard the footsteps of someone following him up the stairs. He was sitting on the bed, curled in on himself, when Neil walked into the room and sat beside him.

“How do you do it?” Kevin asked. He wasn’t even envious anymore. He just wanted to know. “After everything that’s happened this year, after Riko and your father and the FBI and knowing Lord Ichirou has found out about you, why aren’t you afraid?”

“I am,” said Neil without hesitation. “But I’m more afraid of letting go than I am of holding on.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You do,” Neil insisted,” or you wouldn’t have trusted Andrew and Coach in the first place. Problem is you put yourself in their hands and refused to commit any further than that. You think Riko will hurt you for your defiance, so you’re afraid to step too far out of line. But this middle ground won’t save you forever.”

Stepping too far out of line wouldn’t save him, either, though. Neil’s bandages and Seth’s death and Andrew’s stay at Easthaven were all evidence of that.

“Kevin,” said Neil. He waited for him to meet his eyes before he continued. “Figure out what you want more than anything, what it would kill you to lose. That’s what’s at stake if you let Riko win. Calculate the cost of your fear. If it’s too much, you need to fight. Wouldn’t you rather die trying than never try at all?”

It was a false choice. “It’s die either way.”

“Die free or die a failure,” said Neil with a shrug. “The choice is yours, but pick your side before you see Jean again. If he thinks you’re bluffing you’ll never win him over.”

Kevin said nothing, and Neil left without another word.

***

I’m glad you got out.

You can trust Abby. She’ll take care of you. She’s good.

We’re on our way back from the cabin.

It was nice. Maybe we can go sometime.

I’ll see you soon.

If you’ll let me.

***

Renee had pulled her car into Abby’s driveway just ahead of Andrew, and she didn’t wait for any of the others to go inside. That was good, probably. Jean would want to see her. Kevin, on the other hand, would be a lot more complicated. He didn’t know why Neil and Renee had so much confidence he’d be able to keep Jean from going back to the Nest. Jean would take one look at him and run.

Well. He almost certainly wasn’t in any condition to run yet. But he’d try. It’s what Kevin would have done.

Kevin was glad Renee had been given a head start, but he didn’t waste any time catching up. As soon as they were inside, he found Abby, and she ushered him into the back bedroom, where Renee was already sitting with Jean. He was vaguely aware of Abby closing the door to give them privacy, but he didn’t take his eyes off of Jean.

Injured, broken versions of Jean had haunted Kevin’s nightmares for years. More frequently, since he left the Nest. Jean would come to him, clinging to just enough life to level accusations. You did this, he would say. You left me. You knew what would happen. You may as well have delivered the blows yourself. The setting changed, and the cuts and blood and bruises, but one thing never did: no matter what Kevin did, he couldn’t change anything. He couldn’t save him.

Even in the worst of his nightmares, Jean had never looked so bad.

His nose had been broken, and both eyes were blackened and swollen. Bandages covered most of the rest of his face. His scalp was bald and bloody in patches. He wore loose, baggy clothing, and it didn’t take much imagination to assume the damage extended beyond the hems of the sweats. One arm was in a sling, but Kevin didn’t see anything that looked like a cast. That was something, at least.

He took a step forwards. “Jean.”

“Go away.” Jean’s voice was hoarse and strained. Kevin was frozen.

“Jean,” said Renee gently, “I think you should talk to him. He cares about you.”

Jean tried to give a snort of laughter, but it quickly turned into a shudder of pain. Kevin didn’t think; he just moved to close the gap between them. But the way Jean flinched away stopped him in his tracks.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin choked out, dropping down to his knees. “Jean, I’m so sorry.”

“You didn’t kill Kengo, did you?” Jean asked. “This one is not on you.”

It’s all on me. “What can I do?”

“Make them let me go,” said Jean without hesitation. “If I leave now, it might not be too late.”

No,” said Kevin vehemently. He’d made up his mind on the drive back—he needed to fight. It was still death either way, but he’d been called a coward one too many times. He wasn’t going to let it be true. Still, he hadn’t gotten rid of all of his fears and doubts. He’d just shoved them in a little box and locked the door as tightly as he could. Seeing Jean, though, and hearing him beg to go back to the place that had nearly destroyed him—both of them—was enough to sink the box into the ocean. “You’re not going back. I won’t let you.”

Jean glared at him. “Then it will be your fault when they come for me.”

“They won’t,” said Kevin, sounding more confident than he felt. “We won’t let them.”

“You can’t stop them,” said Jean. “They may have left you alone, but Palmetto State is not beyond the Ravens’ reach. They will expect me to come back, and it will be worse if I make them come to collect me.”

“We’ll protect you,” Kevin insisted.

“Your little goalie?” asked Jean scornfully.

“No,” Kevin admitted. “Not Andrew.”

“I fully intend to protect you, as well as I can,” said Renee. “Stephanie will also continue to help you. Abby has said you can stay as long as you’d like, and she’s unlikely to hand you over to Riko. Neither will Coach Wymack. And the upperclassmen have agreed you should stay here, at least until you’ve had time to heal.”

“Theirs is not the permission I am worried about,” said Jean. He looked back at Kevin. “Explain to her.”

“She knows,” said Kevin. “She understands.”

“Clearly, she does not,” said Jean. “Or, perhaps, you do not. Because if you did, you would understand that I am Moriyama property.”

“You are still a person,” said Renee.

Jean just shook his head.

“Look,” said Kevin, “just give it a little more time. Let yourself heal. No one knows you’re here. You’ve got time.”

“They know who took me,” said Jean, glancing over at Renee. “It will not take them long to figure it out.”

“They know I’m involved,” Renee agreed, “but the other Foxes have been conspicuously absent. Stephanie, on the other hand, has been quite present. If I were looking for you, I’d try there, first.”

“Then it is even more important I get back before they start looking,” said Jean. “I will not be responsible for any harm that may come to your mother.”

Kevin felt a twinge of guilt. Jean was willing to give himself up for a woman he’d never even met. Kevin hadn’t even been able to help Jean.

“Stephanie can take care of herself,” said Renee. “I’m sure she would appreciate the sentiment, but she would be far more upset if you undid everything we’ve done to get you out in the first place. She wants you to be safe, Jean. We all do.”

“Nowhere is safe,” said Jean.

“You’re safer here than back at the Nest,” said Kevin. “If you stay here, sure, they might catch up eventually, but if you go back, it’s over. Riko won’t hesitate to finish the job.”

“The Master will be back by now,” said Jean. “I can prove my worth. He won’t let Riko kill me.”

“Are you certain?” asked Kevin quietly. “After everything the Master has allowed, do you really believe his presence affords you any protection?”

“You didn’t see Riko when the Master was gone,” said Jean. “It was worse.”

It wasn’t working. And the worst part was that Jean was right. Kevin was having a harder and harder time arguing with him. He changed tactics. “Fine. If the Master is so merciful, he will understand that you were unable to come back to the Nest right away. He’ll appreciate that you tried, and he’ll know we were the ones who stopped you. Just take it one day at a time. Stay long enough for your wounds to heal, at least a little.”

“How long?” asked Jean. “How long am I to be your prisoner?’

“One day at a time,” Renee repeated. “We can discuss it again tomorrow, and the day after that, as many times as it takes.”

Jean slumped back against the wall. “This is bullshit. At least in the Nest, they were upfront about the fact that I would not be allowed to leave.”

“We’re not holding you captive,” said Kevin. “We’re just unwilling to send you back to your death.”

Jean closed his eyes. “Death would be easier.”

Kevin reached out slowly, tentatively, and put his hand on Jean’s arm. Jean let out a long, shuddering breath, but he didn’t move away. “Just hold on,” he said. “Please. This is a real chance. Real enough, at least. Let that get you through.”

Jean was quiet for so long Kevin thought he might have fallen asleep. “Fine,” he said at last. “I will not leave today. Ask again tomorrow.”

The relief washed over Kevin like a wave. “Tomorrow,” he agreed. “We’ll check back in tomorrow.”

***

Jean? It’s Kevin. Abby said she got you a new phone.

She did not lie.

Do you know what happened to your old one?

No. Shockingly, it was not high on my list of priorities.

It was locked, though, right?

Presumably, yes.

That’s good.

Sorry. It’s just that I kept trying to text you.

Not too much or anything.

It would just be better if none of the other Ravens saw the messages.

You should have thought about that before you texted a dead man.

You aren’t dead.

Yet.

Yet is what matters.

Go away. I am supposed to be resting.

That’s good. Listen to Abby. She’s very good at her job.

Sorry. I’ll shut up.

I hope you get some rest.

***

Kevin stopped short when he saw Neil waiting outside of his history class. He had no idea what Neil wanted, but based on his expression, it couldn’t be good.

When Neil spoke, it was in French. “I’m taking you to Abby’s,” he said. “We have to talk to Jean.”

“Not right now,” said Kevin. Jean was resting. And probably mad at him. And Kevin had another class. Whatever Neil wanted could wait.

“Yes now,” Neil insisted. He put an arm out in front of Kevin as if to physically stop him from walking away. “Ichirou just came to see us.”

Kevin let out a panicked noise of disbelief. It wasn’t possible, and Neil should know better than to say things like that. “Don’t joke about such things,” he said hoarsely. Neil just stared back at him, not saying anything. Not apologizing. Not taking it back. Kevin flinched half a step backwards. “No,” he said. “He won’t even meet Riko. He wouldn’t come here.”

“Come on,” said Neil, and Kevin had no choice but to follow him.

He followed Neil through campus in a daze. At some point, Neil must have texted Andrew, because he was waiting for them at the car. Kevin didn’t know whether Neil had told him anything—probably not; he was stupid, but he wasn’t stupid enough to put something like that in writing—but Andrew wasn’t asking any questions. He wasn’t looking at Kevin, either.

Which was just as well, really. Kevin was sitting in the backseat trying not to let himself think.

It wasn’t working.

It couldn’t possibly be a good thing that Ichirou had come to see them. There was no way it could be good to draw the attention of the main branch—the head of the main branch. Riko had craved the attention his whole life, but Kevin had seen enough to know he wanted nothing to do with it. The Butcher associated with the main branch. They were power and enforcement and death. However bad things had been at the Nest, it had always been clear the main branch could do much worse.

But Neil had met with Ichirou, and he was still alive. He walked away from the meeting looking tense and maybe a little shaken, but alive. Maybe even good. He wasn’t running—unless that’s what this was. Maybe they weren’t actually going to see Jean. Maybe he’d told Andrew it was time to go, and they were on the run, now. But if Ichirou had really been here, that meant he couldn’t be far yet. Which meant they wouldn’t get very far, either.

This was Abby’s street, though, Kevin registered as he looked out the window. It seemed they were at least actually going to see Jean. Maybe going to get Jean, so he could run with them. He wouldn’t go. But it was nice of Neil to give him the choice. Kevin hadn’t. But Kevin hadn’t been given any choices, either.

When Abby answered the door, she frowned, but she let them in. “Don’t you have class right now?” She was looking at Kevin, but Neil answered.

“No. Where’s Jean?”

“He was asleep the last time I checked in on him,” said Abby, still frowning.

“It’s important,” said Neil impatiently. “I’ll wake him up.”

Abby looked carefully at Kevin. He wasn’t sure what exactly his face was telling her, but she stepped aside and let them past her.

Neil knocked at Jean’s door, but he barely paused before pushing the door open. Jean started at the noise and tried to sit up, but he didn’t make it far. He was in no shape to move yet—especially not quickly. He looked worse than he had the day before. The bruises were darker, and they covered even more of his face. Abby had taken some of the bandages off, and they revealed a thin line of stiches across his chin and his cheek. He was in no shape to run. Neil would have to see that.

“Hello, Jean,” said Neil, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Go away,” said Jean. His voice was rough and angry, and Kevin recognized the pain behind it. “I have nothing to say to you.”

“But you’ll listen,” said Neil, “because I just told Ichirou where you are.”

Kevin sank down onto the bed on Jean’s other side. That had been their one advantage—that Riko and the Master weren’t certain where Jean was. And Neil had just given that up. Maybe they should run.

“He came for me,” Neil said. “Because I’m a loose end. With my father dead, and the FBI investigating the remnants of his ring, I’m an unknown, and a risk. He said—he said he liked to know the value of things before he threw them away, so he’d know how to compensate for their loss. Anyway, I offered up my value as an exy player, and—” Neil paused and took a deep breath. “I told him Riko is the real threat to the empire. I told him what he did to you,” he said, nodding at Kevin, “and how he killed Seth, and left a money trail all across the country to hurt Andrew. I also told him how Riko made me go back to my natural looks so my father’s people would find me, which led to the confrontation that got my father killed and brought the FBI down on his operations.” He turned to face Jean. “And I told him what Riko did to you. That he was lucky it was you, and not someone who would talk, but that the Ravens were being investigated, and Riko had left a lot of paper trails.”

Neil paused and took another breath. He seemed to be waiting for someone to react, or say something, but Kevin and Jean were still sitting in stunned silence, waiting to see how the hammer would drop. Andrew, leaning against the doorframe, seemed unbothered, but equally unlikely to speak, so Neil continued.

“He believed me, I guess. He made a deal—not just for me. For all of us. Eighty percent of our earnings for the entirety of our careers. We have to make the cut, but as long as we do, we’re okay,” he said. “It’s not a pardon and it’s not really freedom, but it’s protection. We’re assets for the main family now. The King’s lost all his men and there’s nothing he can do about it without crossing his brother. We’re safe—for good.”

Jean was the first one to react. He let out a terrible sound—half cry, half scream—and buried his face in his hands. Kevin tried to form words, but he still couldn’t speak. He looked over at Jean. Broken, haunted Jean. Jean, whose life now depended on getting back on the exy court.

Neil, apparently, had run out of patience. He got up and walked out of the room, Andrew trailing after him. Kevin felt another pang of something as he watched Andrew choose Neil, again.

But Jean was here, and he needed him. “You’ll be on the court again,” said Kevin. “Not this year, sure, but by the fall, you’ll be able to play.”

Jean gave a choked laugh. “What if I don’t want to?”

Kevin stared at him blankly. “What do you mean? You have to.”

“Where?” asked Jean. “I can’t stay here.”

“Why not?” asked Kevin. Jean gave him a withering look, and Kevin’s shoulders slumped. It would be too much. For both of them. Jean knew it, and Kevin knew it, too, if he let himself think about it. “There are other teams,” said Kevin. “You’re a great player. You’re worth the investment.”

Jean’s eyes flashed bitterly. “Am I?” he asked. “I can barely even sit up.”

“It’s only been a few days,” said Kevin. “Your legs are okay, and your hands. You’ll play.”

“I have to, now,” he said bitterly.

Kevin frowned. “That was always part of the plan, though,” he said. “We’d talk about it. Graduating, going pro, making Court together.”

Jean shook his head, just a little. “That was your dream. For me, it was an inevitability. Maybe a way out. Now, it’s just more proof I’ll never be out. Neil was right. This isn’t freedom.”

“No,” Kevin conceded, “but he was right about it being safety, too. Riko can’t touch us now.”

Tomber de Charybde en Scylla,” said Jean. To fall from Charybdis to Scylla. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

“Maybe,” said Kevin, “but it’s a chance, at least.” He sat up straighter. “And now you can’t go back.”

Jean glared at him. “That is not a good thing.”

“Yes it is,” said Kevin. “Jean, he would have killed you.”

“Maybe I was ready to die.”

Kevin’s stomach caught in his throat. “You don’t mean that,” he said, his voice tight.

Jean looked away. “Are you going to tell me what I am allowed to think now, too?”

“If it means telling you to live, then yes,” said Kevin urgently.

“That takes a lot of nerve,” said Jean, “when you are the one who left me there to die.” Kevin felt like he’d been punched in the gut, but Jean didn’t give him time to recover. “That’s when I decided, you know. The night you left is when I realized I would not live long enough to make it out of the Nest. Or maybe a day or two later. Riko made it difficult to tell when one ended and the next began.”

“I’m sorry,” whispered Kevin. “I didn’t have a choice. I know that’s—it’s not enough. But it’s the truth.”

“I know,” said Jean dismissively. “And I do not blame you. Not really.”

“It’s why you can’t join the Foxes, though,” said Kevin sadly.

“It’s not the only reason,” said Jean. “The Foxes are your second chance. Not mine.”

“You’ve got one, too, though,” Kevin insisted. “We’ll find it for you.”

Jean slowly turned away from him and lowered himself back down onto the pillows. “I am tired,” he said. “Let me sleep.”

Kevin watched him for another long moment. There was so much more he wanted to say, but he was still reeling from Neil’s news, too. He checked the time. His class was nearly over. And Andrew had almost certainly left with Neil by now, so he didn’t have a ride back to campus, anyway. Maybe Abby would let him crash on the couch until practice. Or maybe she’d give him a drink. Maybe both.

He got up and left to find her, softly closing the door behind him to give Jean some peace.

***

I practiced tonight.

You practice every night.

Left-handed.

Oh.

And?

I’m not ready yet. But I will be.

And you will be, too.

Do not waste your dreams on me. Save them for yourself.

You can dream, too. You can have a future.

Go to sleep.

Maybe you’ll at least be able to dream while you’re asleep.

My dreams all turn to nightmares.

They don’t have to. Not anymore.

I wish I could believe you.

You will.

Chapter Text

Kevin knew there was a team party waiting back at the dorm, but he just wanted to see Jean. He’d caught a ride back with Abby, who had agreed to drive him back to the dorms when he was ready, and now he was in her living room, looking at a surprised Jean while Sports Center played in the background.

“Shouldn’t you be celebrating your win?” asked Jean.

“You saw?” he asked. “The press conference. Did you see it?”

Jean glanced pointedly at the television. “It has been rather difficult to avoid,” he said. “So, the world knows that Wymack is your father. And that you’ve never been skiing.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin. The adrenaline was still coursing through his veins. He needed to Jean to react. He needed Jean to tell him he’d done the right thing. He needed Jean to be proud of him, more than anyone else. “So,” he said casually, “what do you think?”

Jean looked at him carefully. “I think you are a reckless idiot,” he said, looking away, and Kevin felt the little light that had begun to glow within him go dim. Jean slowly turned back and met his eye. “But you are also very brave.”

The glow came back, a little stronger than before. “I nearly passed out when I got back to the locker room,” he admitted. “I told Neil we were all going to die.”

Jean snorted. “We are.” He paused, and a little bit of that glow reflected back at him from Jean’s eyes. “But maybe not quite so soon as we thought.”

Kevin grinned—a real grin that spread across his whole face. He felt lighter than he had in ages. As long as he could remember. They could do this. They were going to make it.

Jean smiled back at him—true, but guarded. “You should go,” he said. “Enjoy the win with your team.”

Kevin nodded and took a step back. “Yeah. Okay.”

Abby moved forward and put an encouraging hand on his arm. “I’ll drive you,” she said warmly.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling, and he turned to go. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder at Jean. “See you tomorrow?”

Jean gave a small shrug. “If I don’t have other plans.”

Kevin bit back a laugh. “See you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Jean agreed.

***

I didn’t say it earlier, but I’m proud of you.

Thanks, Jean. That means a lot.

Especially from you.

Maybe we’ll go skiing together someday.

Maybe so.

***

The courage and euphoria had started to fade by the next morning. Kevin’s laptop was open in his lap as he sat in front of the television, obsessively watching the coverage regarding his confessions from the night before. Logically, he knew Riko couldn’t do anything—not really; not without invoking the ire of Lord Ichirou—but he wasn’t sure whether Riko knew that.

The Ravens were denying it, of course. Both as an entity and as individuals. It seemed the press had reached out to every Raven they could find who had overlapped with Kevin and Riko even a little bit. But of course, the only one who had been there when Riko broke his hand had been Jean. None of the others knew.

That didn’t make it sting less to hear his former teammates try to twist his words into something more palatable.

He absently heard the door open, and Neil saying his name, but he didn’t pay it any mind until a hand reached out and wrenched his laptop off to the side. He looked up, ready to yell at whoever it was, when he froze.

Thea.

Kevin should have expected her to show up at some point. He had, actually, in the beginning. They’d been in a relationship, supposedly. Supposedly, they still were. The first few months, he’d kept thinking she would come. That she’d find a way to reach out to him despite his dodges and evasions. That she’d find out, and believe him.

But she hadn’t, and time had kept passing, and now more than a year had passed, and it all felt too late.

He still wanted her to believe him, though. When she grabbed his left wrist and pulled his arm around so she could see the scars, he let her.

Thea glanced over at Neil. “Get out.” Neil didn’t move, but Andrew wandered into the doorway. “You get out, too.”

She dropped Kevin’s wrist, and he got to his feet. “Thea. What are you doing here?”

She looked pointedly from Kevin to the TV, then flicked another annoyed look at Neil and Andrew. “They’ll leave or I will. I won’t talk to you in mixed company.”

Something clenched in his chest. “We are mixed company regardless,” he said. “I am not a Raven anymore.”

Thea was unamused. “I will count to three. One.’

“Stop it,” said Kevin. If she was still interested in talking, he could still convince her. “Just talk to me.”

“Now you want to talk,” she said, glaring at him. “Two.”

“I always wanted to talk,” Kevin insisted, and it only felt a little like a lie. “But it was complicated.”

“‘Complicated,’” Thea echoed mockingly. “‘Complicated is having to find out from a press conference that you broke your hand and left the line-up. ‘Complicated’ is finding out the hard way you disconnected your old number and having to hear from Jean that you didn’t want anything to do with any of us effective immediately. Don’t you dare use ‘complicated’ on me. I deserve better than that. Three.”

She did deserve better than that. But he couldn’t let her go. Not until she believed him. She turned to go. Kevin caught her wrist and realized how he could convince her. “Jean.” Thea’s expression was split between anger and confusion. Kevin shook his head. “If you’re going to believe me, you need to see Jean first.”

“What’s left of him, anyway,” said Wymack, and Kevin looked over in surprise. He hadn’t noticed Wymack’s presence. “I came so I could get her into the dorm,” he said to Kevin, “but she picked up a rental car at the airport. Catch a ride to Abby’s with her so I can figure out what the hell is going on around here.”

Thea watched him for a moment, frowning, before pulling her hand free and gesturing towards the door. Kevin took it as the small victory it was and walked down the hall with her.

They stayed silent until they’d gotten into Thea’s car. “Look,” started Kevin, “I—”

“No,” said Thea shortly. “I’ll go see Jean. Until then, you don’t get to say anything unless you convince me otherwise.”

“How can I convince you otherwise if I’m not supposed to speak?”

Thea shot him an icy stare. “How indeed.”

Kevin pressed his lips together and leaned back against the passenger seat. She wasn’t wrong, exactly. He shouldn’t have shut her out. He just hadn’t been able to trust that she would believe him.

Which, if he thought about it, might have been part of the problem. It was hard to be with someone you didn’t trust.

Or someone you didn’t speak to for a year.

“Address?”

Kevin blinked at her. “What?”

“The address,” said Thea impatiently. “Where are we going?”

“Oh, yeah.” He put the address into the GPS. Thea looked at the directions for a minute, nodded, and started the car. Neither of them spoke another word until they reached Abby’s.

Wymack must have given Abby a heads up that they were on their way. She answered the door almost as soon as Kevin knocked, and she didn’t look surprised to see them. “Welcome, Thea,” she said, giving her a warm smile that Thea did not return. Abby turned to Kevin. “He’s in his room. And he’s expecting you.”

“Thank you,” said Kevin, pushing down a pang of guilt. He should have warned Jean they were coming. Jean shouldn’t have to do this without warning. At least Wymack and Abby were thinking clearly enough to avoid blindsiding him. He led Thea down the hallway and into Jean’s room, closing the door behind them.

Jean was sitting up, leaning against his pillows. He looked better than he had a week ago, but his injuries were still apparent, and they were still enough to stop Thea in her tracks. “What the hell happened to you?” she asked, looking him up and down. “This doesn’t look like a bad sprain.”

Jean let out a puff of bitter laughter. “Is that what they are telling people?”

“Not publicly,” said Thea. “They want to avoid giving your opponents time to adjust to the fact that you’ll be out of the lineup.”

“Their opponents,” Kevin cut in. Thea stared at him as if he’d grown another head. “Jean isn’t a Raven anymore, either. The Ravens’ opponents are not his.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Thea scoffed. “Is that what you think people do now? Get hurt and transfer here?”

“I will not be transferring to Palmetto,” said Jean.

“Where, then?” asked Thea. “You’re a Raven. You belong in the Nest.”

Kevin took a long breath and went to sit next to Jean. This was going to be harder than he’d hoped. He looked up at Thea. “How do you think he got hurt?”

For the first time since she’d arrived, Thea faltered. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Some kind of accident. A bad fall, or something.”

“Riko did this,” said Kevin quietly. “He did it, and he did it on purpose. Just like when he broke my hand.”

Thea shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “You’re his numbers two and three. He wouldn’t do that.”

“He did,” said Kevin.

“Why?” asked Thea, folding her arms.

“Because he was—”

“No,” said Thea, cutting him off with a sharp gesture. “Why are you saying this? Riko is like a brother to you. Why would you try to destroy his reputation?”

“Thea,” said Jean. “He did this.”

She slowly sank into the chair near the bed, keeping her eyes on Jean. “Okay,” she said at last, “I’ll bite. Why would he do this to you?”

Jean glanced at Kevin. Thea had been a regular member of the team. She had only a limited grasp of the Moriyama family dynamics, and she didn’t know anything about the Yakuza. They needed to answer carefully, and Jean was deferring to Kevin. “Did you hear that Riko’s father died?” he asked.

“Yeah, a week or so ago, right?” she said dismissively. “He’d been sick for a while. And he was pretty old. It can’t have been a surprise to anyone.”

“Maybe,” said Kevin, “but Riko took it very hard. He had always hoped to gain his father’s attention and approval, and with his death, any chance for that disappeared. He took his anger and grief out on Jean.”

Why, though?” asked Thea, shaking her head. “It still doesn’t make sense. It’s not like Jean killed his father. He has nothing to do with this.”

“He knew I would not fight back or cause any problems,” said Jean. “I do not have any family to complain or to ask too many questions.”

“No,” said Thea again. “That’s not—why would he do something like this out of the blue?”

Kevin studied her face. Her confusion seemed genuine, but he wasn’t sure how. “You spent five years in the Nest,” he said slowly. “You have to know this wasn’t the first time.”

Thea looked away. “You know I was never really involved in any of that,” she said. “Some degree of hazing is normal in college athletics.”

“This was not normal,” said Kevin.

“It was never this bad,” Thea insisted, but there was uncertainty in her eyes. “Tell me it was never this bad. I would have noticed.”

“He is very good at causing pain in ways that are not likely to be seen by those who do not know to look for it,” said Jean.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” asked Thea. “The Master—”

“The Master was in on it,” said Kevin. “He would not have done anything to stop it.”

Thea frowned. “What about you?” For a horrible second, Kevin thought she was asking why he hadn’t done anything to stop it, either. He didn’t have an answer for her. But she kept talking. “What happened to your hand?”

Kevin took a deep, shuddering breath. This question wasn’t easier, exactly, but at least he had an answer. “The press was starting to say I was better than him,” he said. “I was supposed to be Number Two, not Number One. I was encroaching on what was his, and he got jealous.”

“He couldn’t have,” said Thea. “You can’t just do that to a person. Someone would have noticed.”

“Jean told you Riko was careful,” said Kevin. “He knew how to cover his tracks. And Jean was the only one there when he did it. I left the Nest that same night.”

“All right, fine,” said Thea. “Maybe no one in the Nest would have helped you. But if all this was going on, why didn’t you report it as soon as you were out? Why wait more than a year?”

Because I was terrified. Because he would have killed me. Because he would have killed Jean. “I don’t know,” said Kevin. “It’s not that simple.”

“It should be,” said Thea, frustrated.

“Is that what your life is like?” asked Jean. His tone was curious, not accusatory. “Simple? Do things always happen the way they are supposed to?”

“Of course not,” said Thea. “It’s just—Ugh. I should have known.” She turned to Kevin. “You should have told me.”

Kevin looked at her levelly. “Would you have believed me?”

“Yes,” said Thea. Kevin raised an eyebrow, and Thea deflated. “Maybe. I don’t know.” She glanced at Jean, then turned away. “Probably not.”

Kevin nodded. At least he knew, now, that he had been right not to tell her. “What about now?” he asked. “Do you believe us now?”

Thea swallowed heavily and shook her head as if to clear it. “It just doesn’t make sense,” she said, a hint of desperation in her voice.

Jean raised his chin. “Would it make sense for us to make something like this up?”

Thea stared at him for a long moment, her face gradually settling into a sort of dismayed acceptance. “No,” she said at last. “I don’t think you made it up.” She leaned forward. “You said Riko did it, and the Master knew. Who else?”

Kevin glanced at Jean. “What do you mean, who else?”

“Who else was involved?” asked Thea urgently.

“Why does it matter?” asked Jean. “You are not going to do anything about it. You shouldn’t do anything about it.”

“I want to know,” Thea insisted. “I want to know who to avoid.”

Kevin was still watching Jean. Even before—before Kevin left, before Kengo died—Jean had faced the worst of it. This was not Kevin’s story to tell.

Jean closed his eyes and sighed. “I think it would be easier to tell you who not to avoid.”

Thea drew in a sharp breath. “No.”

“Do you believe us or not?” asked Kevin, narrowing his eyes and moving closer to Jean.

“That’s not what I meant,” said Thea quickly. “I said I believed you, and I meant it. I just—everyone?”

“Not everyone,” said Jean, “but close.” He glanced over at Kevin and grimaced. “It was worse this last year, after Kevin left. Most of the Ravens left in the Nest participated in some way, and everyone knew.”

“I want to know more,” Thea pushed. “I want to know who did what.”

Jean had been steadily getting paler, and his eyes were growing distant. “Stop,” said Kevin. “You are not entitled to his trauma.”

Thea frowned. “I just want to know enough to evaluate who the real problems were.”

“He said everyone,” said Kevin tightly. “I think it’s safe to assume any Raven is a problem until proven otherwise. At the very least, anyone who is still publicly defending them is a problem.”

“That’s not fair,” said Thea. “We are Ravens. Of course we defend each other. We stick together.”

“Even after what we’ve told you?” challenged Kevin. “Even now, knowing what you know, would you defend them?”

Thea fingered the Number 14 pendant she had always worn—her Ravens number. “The Ravens made me,” she said. “They made you. How can you just turn your back on all of that?”

“They turned their back on us, first,” said Kevin. “It’s harder to give something credit for making you when it’s also the reason you’re broken.”

“You’re not broken, though,” said Thea dismissively. “You’re playing again. And Jean, you’ll be back on the court again, too, before long.”

“So, since we’ll recover, it’s all supposed to be fine?” asked Kevin. “No harm, no foul?”

Thea’s eyes dropped to the scars on Kevin’s hand, then over to the bruises and stitches on Jean’s face. She slowly took off her necklace, and she pocketed it. “You’re right,” she said. “It will take some time to—I can’t just cut it all off right away. But you’re right.”

“Thank you,” said Jean quietly. “For believing me. Us. And for trying.”

Thea nodded, looking pained, and she stood up. “I should go,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have come in the first place. People will ask questions if they realize I’m here.”

“I’m glad you did,” said Kevin, standing up, too. “It was the only way for you to know the truth.”

For a second, Thea looked like she was going to argue, but then she just nodded again. “Probably so.” She glanced between Kevin and Jean. “Should I give you a ride back to campus, or are you going to stay here?”

“I’ll—should I stay?” said Kevin, looking over at Jean.

“Do whatever you would like,” said Jean, but Kevin hadn’t missed the hopeful glint in his eyes.

“I’ll see Thea out, and then I’ll come back,” he said to Jean.

“Okay,” said Jean, and he relaxed back against the pillows.

“Goodbye, Jean,” said Thea. “Let me know when you decide where you want to go next. I’ve got connections, through Court. I’ll help if I can.”

Jean’s jaw tightened, but he gave her a small smile. “Thank you. I will.”

Satisfied, Thea walked out of the room, and Kevin followed. “That was good of you,” said Kevin once they were out of earshot, “offering to help him find a new team. He’ll need one.”

Thea shrugged. “He won’t need my help,” she said. “He’s talented, and a hard worker.”

“Still,” said Kevin. “Thanks.” They had nearly reached the door, but there was something else Kevin needed to do before Thea left. Abby, mercifully, was nowhere to be found, so at least they wouldn’t have an audience. “Look, Thea,” he said, catching her wrist. “I, um. Well. I really do appreciate everything. And you coming here. And I know I probably should have tried to talk to you sooner—that’s on me. I’m sorry I left you hanging for so long, and I’ll try to do better. But—I don’t think it will be enough.”

“Enough for what?” asked Thea, looking amused. Maybe she didn’t understand what Kevin was trying to do. He needed to be more direct.

“Enough to be in a relationship with you,” said Kevin. “I know it’s kind of shitty to string you along all this time just to break up with you the first time we actually talk, but you were right. You deserve better.”

“Seriously?” Thea laughed, and Kevin frowned. He thought he had been clear, but maybe not.

“Yes,” said Kevin. “We were never publicly together, so you shouldn’t have to deal with any questions about it. If anyone’s noticed you were here, you can just say you were in the area and stopped by to see a friend.”

“Kevin,” said Thea, her tone pitying. “I am here to see a friend. Did you really think we were together this whole time?”

“We weren’t?”

Thea rolled her eyes. “No, we weren’t. In order to be in a relationship, you do, in fact, have to talk to the other person at least occasionally.”

“Right,” said Kevin numbly. “That’s—that makes sense. Okay.”

Thea hesitated, then smiled a little. “I’ve been seeing someone, actually,” she said. “For a few months. We’ve been keeping it quiet.”

“Oh,” said Kevin, still reeling slightly from the fact that his breakup speech had been derailed by the revelation that they were, apparently, already broken up. “That’s nice,” he said, struggling for the right thing to say. “He’s a lucky man.”

Thea arched an eyebrow. “Who says it’s a man?” She laughed at the bewildered expression on his face. “It may still be easier to remain heterosexual,” she said, her tone gently mocking, “but it’s not the only option.”

Kevin, too stunned to respond, just nodded.

Thea laughed again. “Goodbye, Kevin,” she said. She paused at the door. “Do you still have my number?”

“I think so,” said Kevin. “Is it the same?”

Thea nodded. “Good. Use it, this time. We may not be dating, but I expect more than yearly communications with my friends, too.”

Kevin blinked at her. “We’re friends?”

Thea gave him an odd look. “Do you know what friends are? Do you know how to have friends?”

“Um,” said Kevin, but Thea waved him off.

“Never mind. Don’t answer that. I don’t have enough energy for that conversation,” she said. “Make sure Jean has my number, too, okay?”

“I will,” said Kevin.

She gave a crisp nod, and then she was gone. Not long after the car pulled away, Abby wandered back into the room. “Kevin,” she said, sounding surprised. “I saw Thea’s car leave; I thought you would’ve gone with her.”

He nodded. “I should’ve asked. Will you be able to bring me back to campus later? I just wanted to talk to Jean a little longer.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” said Abby. “Did Thea have to get back? I would have expected you to want to spend more time with your girlfriend. You hadn’t seen her since you got to Palmetto, had you?”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” said Kevin. “Apparently, she, uh, hasn’t been for a while.”

“Oh,” said Abby, her face carefully neutral. “That’s . . . how is that?”

“Fine,” said Kevin, and he was surprised to realize he meant it. “We’re friends.”

“That’s good, then,” said Abby. “I’ll be around if you need anything, okay?”

“Thanks,” said Kevin, and he went back down the hall to Jean’s room. He closed the door behind him and looked at Jean. “Are we friends?”

Jean gave him a withering look. “What are you talking about?”

“Are we friends?” Kevin repeated. “Thea said she and I are friends, and then she implied that I don’t know how to be a friend.”

Jean snorted. “She’s not wrong,” he said. “But, yes, we are friends, I suppose.”

Kevin looked at him critically. “You don’t know what friendship should look like, either, do you?”

“How would I?” asked Jean. “You saw where I grew up. Same as you.”

Kevin laughed, and he was surprised by how easy it was. After everything—all the pain and the suffering and the trauma—it was a miracle he could still laugh at all. To laugh with Jean was a gift he wasn’t sure he deserved.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Jean.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” said Jean. “Like you think I might disappear.”

Kevin’s smile faded a little. “You will, though,” he said. “We’ve talked about it. You can’t stay here.”

Jean shrugged and looked away. “Just because I can’t stay here with you does not mean I will disappear."

“We’ll find somewhere good for you to go,” said Kevin. “Not just a good exy team—that’s a given. But somewhere with good people.”

“Does that even exist?” asked Jean.

“Yes,” said Kevin suddenly. “USC. The Trojans. They’d be perfect.”

Jean wrinkled his nose. “California? Too much sunshine. I will burn.”

“You’ll buy sunscreen.”

“Still,” said Jean. He looked up at Kevin. “Do you think they’re really like that?”

Kevin nodded. “I do. They always win the Day Spirit Award for a reason. They’re good, on and off the court.”

Jean pressed his lips together. “In public, at least. We both know how different things can be behind closed doors.”

“I know,” said Kevin, crossing the room to sit back down beside Jean. “It’s a risk. There’s always a risk. But if the Trojans aren’t good, then . . .” he shrugged helplessly. “Then who is?”

“No one,” said Jean, like it was obvious.

“In that case, they’re your best bet,” said Kevin. “And they’re good players, too. Good enough to help you go pro. And make Court.”

“Good enough to keep me from being executed, you mean.”

Kevin flinched. “Yes.”

“It’s on the other side of the country. I won’t know anyone.”

“You’ve met some of them before,” said Kevin. “Like Jeremy Knox.”

“There is no way Jeremy Knox is a real person,” said Jean. “No one smiles that much.”

“He does,” Kevin said. “I don’t know how, but I think he really does.”

“That might be worse,” said Jean. “If he’s really like that—if they’re really like that—they won’t want someone like me on their team.”

“Of course they will,” Kevin insisted. He wasn’t so sure why he needed this to work so badly, but now that the idea was in his head, he couldn’t get rid of it. “You’re a great backliner.”

“And a shitty person.”

“You’ve been dealt a shit hand,” said Kevin. “That’s not the same thing.”

“Maybe not,” Jean conceded, “but I’m no match for Mister Sunshine.”

Kevin shrugged. “Like you said, maybe he’s not as bright and sunny as he looks from the outside.”

“You don’t believe that.”

Kevin closed his eyes. “I can’t,” he said softly. “I just—there’s something about him. I really need him to be real.”

Jean was silent for so long Kevin thought he might not reply at all. “Okay.”

Kevin’s eyes shot open. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Jean repeated, nodding. “We can look into it. See if the Trojans will take me.”

“Great,” said Kevin. He felt as though a weight had been lifted from his chest. “We fly out there and play them in a couple of weeks. I’ll ask, if I get the chance.”

“Thank you,” said Jean. “I know this is not easy for you, either. And you don’t have to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Help me, like this. You don’t have to come see me, and you don’t have to go to so much trouble to find a new team for me. Much less a good team.”

“Yes I do,” said Kevin without hesitation. “How could I not? After everything, how could I not?”

Jean leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. “After everything, how could I expect you to?”

The imaginary knife that stayed lodged in Kevin’s gut twisted a little deeper. “I’m sorry,” said Kevin, just as he’d said so many times before. “I know it doesn’t help, but I really am sorry.”

“I do not blame you,” said Jean, just as he’d said, too, so many times. “You did what you had to do.”

“That’s not enough to make it better, though,” said Kevin.

“Maybe not,” agreed Jean, “but it’s a start.”

Kevin nodded tightly, then sighed and scooted back to lean against the wall. “I broke up with Thea,” he said. “Or—I was going to. But it turns out we had already done that, at some point. A while ago.”

This time, Jean laughed. “Oh my god. And you didn’t know? You really are as fucked up as I am.”

Kevin flipped him off, but there wasn’t any malice behind the gesture. “How was I supposed to know? We hadn’t talked.”

“I am pretty sure that’s how,” said Jean. “You can’t be in a relationship with someone if you just don’t talk to them for a year.”

“So I’ve been told,” said Kevin.

Jean quirked a corner of his mouth up. “Now that you’re single, you’re free to hit on Jeremy Knox.”

Kevin threw a sham pillow at him, and it bounced off his hip. “I’m straight.”

“Sure you are.”

He’s probably straight.”

“Sure he is.”

Kevin frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jean shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Just that it’s worth a shot.”

Kevin gave a sharp, dismissive gesture and shoved down the flutter in his stomach. “Even if that’s true, I’m not the kind of person he’d be interested in.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Jean, rolling his eyes. “Kevin Day, the gorgeous and talented Son of Exy. What a loser.”

“Kevin Day, the guy who’s so self-centered and inept at relationships that his long-term girlfriend broke up with him and he didn’t even notice.”

Jean looked at him sideways. “Did you really not know?”

“Nope.” Kevin grimaced. “Maybe you should make a move on him.”

Jean snorted. “I tell you I don’t even think he’ll want me as a teammate, and you tell me to hit on him?”

“Sure,” said Kevin. He couldn’t figure out who the feeling of jealousy bubbling in his chest was directed at, so he just kept ignoring it. “Why not?”

“Do you want me to list the reasons?” asked Jean. “First, if this transfer even works, he’ll be my captain. Second, I’ve watched you harbor a massive crush on him for years.”

“You don’t have to do that anymore,” said Kevin quickly. “Put yourself behind me, I mean. We’re not at the Nest anymore. You don’t have to be so worried about stepping out of line.”

“It’s not that,” said Jean, shaking his head. “I may not be good at friendship, either, but I think that’s one of the first rules.”

“Oh,” said Kevin. “That’s—you still don’t have to do that.”

Jean looked at him carefully, then sighed. “Let’s see if he’ll let me join his team, first.”

“He will,” said Kevin confidently. “He’d be stupid not to.”

Jean smiled tightly. “We’ll see.”

***

You haven’t talked to USC yet, have you?

Not yet. We don’t get there until tomorrow, just before the game, and this is more of an in-person conversation.

Why?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

We’ve been over this.

More than once.

They’re your best shot.

What if they say no?

They can’t say yes if you don’t give them a chance.

I know.

So? Do you actually want to call it off, or are you just scared?

“Just”

The point stands.

Fine.

You can ask.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Good. It’s a long flight. I don’t think you can hold your breath that long.

Hah. Very funny.

Thank you.

That was not a compliment.

It was if I take it as one.

That is not how compliments work.

Not with that attitude.

You are insufferable.

You’ve suffered me for a pretty long time.

What can I say? I’m a masochist.

This will work out. They’ll take you.

When did you become an optimist?

I don’t know.

It’s new. I’m still trying it out.

It doesn’t suit you.

Maybe I’ll grow into it.

Go to sleep. You have a game tomorrow.

Think we can win?

I think the odds of the Foxes winning are the same as the odds of the Trojans adding me to their lineup.

I’ll take those odds.

Goodnight, Kevin.

Goodnight.

Chapter Text

Kevin felt completely at home and relaxed in USC’s stadium. Exy was a rough sport, and the Trojans certainly weren’t easy or gentle on their opponents, but he knew the Foxes could count on a clean, fair game, played the way his mother had intended. The Trojans were the antithesis of the Ravens in so many ways, and—no matter the outcome of the game—Kevin was confident he’d learn something, and it would be a quality match.

That had made it easy to handle the pregame press coverage, too. Most of the team looked uneasy and nervous, but Dan—who had press duty with him—was holding it together reasonably well, and Kevin had no problem projecting the right level of confidence and offering light praise for USC.

It wasn’t until half an hour before serve that Jeremy Knox made his way over to where the Foxes were warming up. Jeremy’s game face shifted into a friendly grin when he spotted Kevin, and Kevin walked past his teammates to meet him.

“Coach Wymack,” said Jeremy, shaking his hand, “welcome to SoCal. We’re excited to host you tonight.” He turned back to Kevin and his grin widened as he clapped him on the shoulder. “Kevin, you crazy fool. You never cease to amaze. You’ve got a thing for controversial teams, I think, but I like this one much better than the last one.”

Kevin tried to temper his expression as he basked in the compliment. “They’re mediocre at best,” he said, “but they’re easier to get along with.”

“Same old Kevin, as unforgiving and obnoxious as always. Somethings never change, hm?” said Jeremy fondly. His smile faded. “Some things do,” he said, looking at Kevin more closely. “Speaking of your last team, you, uh, you created quite a stir with that thing you said two weeks ago. About your hand, I mean, and it maybe not being an accident.”

Kevin studied Jeremy’s expression, weighing how much he should say. He’d been planning to talk to Jeremy and his coach about Jean after the game, but this opening seemed too valuable to pass up. “I have a backliner for you,” he said simply. “Do you have room on next year’s line-up?”

Jeremy furrowed his brow in confusion, and Kevin walked him out of earshot of the other Foxes. They needed to keep warming up, and this should be a more private conversation.

“Are you talking about Jean Moreau?” asked Jeremy before Kevin could figure out where to start.

Kevin nodded. “How did you know?”

“It was just a guess,” he said. “He’s been conspicuously out of sight the past few weeks, and after what you said about your hand . . .” Jeremy shrugged. “There was some speculation that something may have happened.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin grimly, “you could say that.”

Jeremy took half a step closer. “What happened?” he asked. “How bad is it?”

“Bad,” said Kevin. “But he’ll recover. Faster than I did, probably—a few ribs were broken, and his nose, but no other bones. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches. A dislocated shoulder. He’ll be able to play, though, in time to be ready for next season.”

Jeremy let out a low whistle. “Playing seems like the least of his worries.”

“No,” said Kevin quickly—too quickly, based on Jeremy’s expression. He couldn’t tell Jeremy why it was so important Jean play again, but he could appeal to his love of the game. “Exy has been his life for so long. It’s a very high priority for him to get back on the court. He still wants to go pro.”

“I guess that makes sense,” said Jeremy slowly. He frowned a little. “What happened?” he asked. “I get it if you can’t tell me, or don’t want to. It’s none of my business. I just—”

“It’s okay,” said Kevin. “I can’t fault you for asking.”

“But you can’t tell me, either, can you?”

Kevin hesitated. “It’s not mine to tell,” he said. “Especially if you let him come here. He needs the chance to talk to you about what he’s been through on his own terms.” Kevin pressed his lips together. “Let’s just say he’s never been skiing, either.”

“Got it,” said Jeremy. “Okay, so I get why he needs to transfer. But why here?”

“He needs to be somewhere good.”

Jeremy was nodding. “Well, yeah, if he wants to go pro, it will help to be at a quality team, but there are still other options.”

Kevin shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. He needs that, too, of course, but—he needs to be somewhere safe. Somewhere he can trust his teammates.” He looked Jeremy squarely in the eye. “And his captain.”

Jeremy exhaled heavily. “No pressure, though, huh?”

“It’s a lot of pressure,” said Kevin. “But I think you can handle it.”

“Does he know you’re talking to me about this?”

“Yes,” said Kevin. “He’s afraid you’ll say no.”

Jeremy blinked in surprise. “Why?”

“You’ve met Jean,” said Kevin. “He has been a Raven for a very long time. He’s not exactly the type of player—or person—you typically recruit out here.”

“He’ll put in the work, though, right?” asked Jeremy. “It’s okay if he doesn’t mesh perfectly with our team culture right off the bat, as long as he’s willing to try.”

“He’ll try,” Kevin promised. “He’ll put forth the effort.”

“It will be a big adjustment,” Jeremy warned. He gestured towards Kevin. “You know what it’s like, getting used to a new team. And here,” he said, waving his arm out across the court, “we’ve got a zero tolerance policy for violence. Our fans are great,” he added, expanding his gesture upwards towards the packed stadium crowd, “and they fully buy into the team culture. They won’t tolerate it if he’s still playing like a Raven.”

“He knows,” said Kevin. “That’s part of why I want him to come here. He needs to be somewhere different. Very different. I think being here could bring out the best in him.”

Jeremy gave him a long look followed by a sharp nod. “Okay,” he said. “I can’t make any promises without talking to Coach Rhemann, but I can’t see him saying no.”

Kevin smiled—a real, genuine smile that he could feel across his entire face. “Can you ask him before we leave?” he asked. “I’d really like to be able to go back to Jean with good news.”

“Yeah, of course,” said Jeremy. “After the game, probably, but I’ll let you know.”

“Thank you,” said Kevin. “Truly. I can’t tell you how much this means to me. And to him.”

“Thank me later,” said Jeremy, reaching over to give Kevin’s shoulder a hard squeeze. “Like next year, when Jean’s helping the Trojans kick your ass across the court.”

“Let’s get through tonight’s game, first,” said Kevin with a laugh. “Speaking of, do you have a copy of your line-up for tonight? We still haven’t gotten one.”

“Right,” said Jeremy, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a folded piece of paper. “That’s actually why I came over here.”

“Don’t give it to me, give it to Coach,” said Kevin, walking Jeremy back over to the rest of the team. Jeremy handed the paper over to Wymack, who skimmed it quickly, then stared.

“Our line-up,” said Jeremy. “It’s late to be getting it to you, I know, but we were trying to avoid as much backlash as possible.”

“Backlash?” asked Dan.

Wymack wordlessly handed her the sheet, and she went pale. Kevin looked between them, trying to figure out what could possibly be so shocking about the Trojans’ line-up. Wymack turned back to Jeremy, shaking his head. “Your pity’s a little misplaced. Tell Coach Rhemann we don’t want handouts.”

“This isn’t pity,” said Jeremy quickly. “We’re doing this for us, not you. Your success this year has us rethinking everything about how we play. Are we second because we’re talented or because we have twenty-eight people in our line-up? Are we good enough as individuals to stand against you? We have to know.”

Kevin had been patient long enough. He snatched the paper from Dan’s hands and read it. Then he read it again. It didn’t take long; it was a short list.

“You’re joking,” said Matt from behind Kevin’s shoulder. “You’re joking. You’re not?” Allison yanked Matt’s sleeve, and he explained. “There are only nine names on it.”

“Two goalies, three backliners, two dealers, two strikers,” Jeremy said. “You’ve made it this far with those numbers. It’s time to see how we’d fare in that situation.” He grinned widely. “I’m excited. None of us have ever played a full game before. Hell, most of us don’t even play full halves anymore. We don’t have to because the numbers are always in our favor.”

Kevin looked at him with wonder. “And you called me a crazy fool,” he said. “You’ll lose tonight if you play like this.”

“Maybe,” said Jeremy breezily. “Maybe not. Should be fun either way, right? I don’t remember the last time I was this psyched for a game.” He laughed. “Bring it, Foxes, and we’ll bring it too.”

Jeremy had made it halfway across the court before any of the Foxes recovered enough to speak. Nicky got there first. “I take back what I said about earthquakes. I have a new favorite team.”

Kevin felt alive. “That was always the crucial difference between USC and Edgar Allan,” he said, looking away from Jeremy and back towards his team. “That’s why more Trojans make Court than Ravens do. Both teams are obsessed with being the best, but only the Trojans would risk their standings to improve. They’ll play tonight with everything they’ve got and they’ll be better for it. Next year is going to be interesting.”

More than interesting, Kevin thought, next year might actually be good.

***

We did it!

I watched the game. It was less that you did anything and more that the Trojans decided to lose.

But they’ll be better players for it.

Perhaps. But in the meantime, they look like fools.

Maybe it will be a good thing when they reject me. I could not stand for such idiocy.

You might want to start practicing.

Why?

Do not joke about this.

I’m not joking. They said yes. They’re going to fax the paperwork over to Wymack this week.

No.

Yes!

Jean?

This is a good thing.

I know.

It just doesn’t seem real.

It is, though. You’re going to be a Trojan.

You’re sure?

I’m sure.

I don’t know if I can believe it.

It’s late there. Get some sleep. We’ll be back in the morning. And this will still be real.

We’ll see.

Congrats on the win.

Congrats on the contract.

***

“Kevin,” said Wymack, calling him into his office after practice.

“Yes, Coach?”

“It’s here,” he said, holding up a thin stack of papers.

Kevin looked at him in confusion for a moment before it clicked. “From USC?”

“Yep,” said Wymack. “Coach Rhemann faxed it over this afternoon. Thought you might want to come with me to Abby’s, to give it to Jean.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin, grinning. “Now?”

“You got some reason to wait?”

Kevin shook his head. “Let’s go.”

The short drive to Abby’s felt slower than usual—possibly because Wymack’s driving was considerably more conservative than Andrew’s, but Kevin suspected it was mostly his nerves and excitement. He sent a quick text to Jean to let him know they were on their way; he just got an okay in response, and it made him pause.

“Do you think we’re doing the right thing?” he asked.

Wymack glanced sideways at him. “Do you want my answer as your coach or as your father?”

Kevin swallowed. “Are the answers different?”

“Answer, no. Reasons, yes, a little bit.”

“Both, then?”

“Yes,” said Wymack, “I think we’re doing the right thing. For both of you. As your coach, I think the two of you would clash on the court, and you’d bring out each other’s worsts habits—at least for a while—and I’m not in the mood to work through that transition, or put the rest of the team through it.”

“That makes sense.” Kevin kept his gaze carefully on the road ahead. “And as my father?”

“Neither one of you will be able to recover if you’ve got a constant reminder of the Nest at your side—and we both know that’s how it would be. The two of you have been through a lot together, both good and bad, and you’ve both got a lot more healing to do on your own before you can spend that kind of time together.”

Everything Wymack had said was true. Most of it paralleled with what he’d said to Jean himself. It still stung, a little bit. He was excited for Jean. He knew USC would be a good fit. He knew Jean couldn’t stay with the Foxes, and Kevin didn’t want to leave. The space would be good for them. But part of him still wished Jean could stay. Or maybe Kevin wished that he could go to California, too.

“You still there?”

Kevin blinked and looked back over at Wymack. “What?”

“You went quiet on me,” he said. “Did I say more than you wanted me to?”

“No,” said Kevin, shaking his head. “You were completely right.”

Wymack softened a little. “It’s still a lot, though, huh?”

Kevin shrugged and looked out the window. “It’s always a lot.”

“We’re getting close to Abby’s,” said Wymack. “Need me to make a block first, or are you good?”

“I’m good,” said Kevin. “Let’s go make Jean a Trojan.”

Jean was waiting for them when they got there, sitting at Abby’s table and looking nervous. “May I look at it?” he asked, eyes fixed on Wymack.

“Of course,” said Wymack, sitting down across from Jean and pushing the paperwork across the table towards him. “It’s yours. Take as long as you want, and feel free to ask questions.”

Jean nodded and started reading, and Kevin slid into the chair next to Jean and resisted the urge to read over his shoulder. When Jean made it through the last page, he looked up at Wymack. “Is this really enough?” he asked quietly. “Will this keep them from being able to take me back to the Nest?”

“No,” said Wymack, and Kevin and Jean both froze. “It’s a piece of paper. If they try to come after you, a contract isn’t going to be what stops them. But, once you sign, you’ll be a Trojan, and Edgar Allan won’t have a legitimate claim to you.”

Jean grimaced and turned to Kevin. “Does he know?” he asked in French.

“Yes,’ Kevin answered in English. “And it doesn’t change anything he said. Your family’s debt was to the main branch, and now that’s who you’re going to repay. Not Riko and the Master. Not anymore.” Kevin pushed every ounce of confidence and reassurance he had into his voice.

It wasn’t much, but it seemed to be enough. Jean nodded and picked up the pen.

Once the contract was signed, Wymack picked up the papers and straightened the stack. “I’ll get this faxed back to Coach Rhemann.” He put a hand on Jean’s shoulder. “Congrats, kid. Welcome to the Trojans. They’re lucky to have you.”

Jean looked a little nauseous, but he gave Wymack a tight smile. “Thank you.”

“Let’s call Jeremy,” Kevin suggested. He’d blurted it out before the idea had even had time to process, but it felt like the correct thing to do. “He’ll want to know you got the contract, and you’re all set.”

Tension flared up in Jean’s shoulders. “We could just text him,” he said. “I do not want to be a bother.”

“You won’t be,” Kevin promised. “He’s not like that.”

“Neither is Riko, in public,” said Jean.

Kevin grimaced. “I know.” He took a deep breath. “I really think we can trust him, though.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Jean, slipping back into French. “You get to stay here.”

Kevin blinked at him in surprise and switched to French, too. “Do you want to stay here?”

Jean looked away. “No. I know we can’t . . . and I don’t want to. Not really.”

“Then let’s call,” urged Kevin. “Best case, he continues to show us he really is as good as he seems to be. Worst case, it sends the message that you’ve got people in your corner, and we’ll be watching.”

“I can think of several cases that are much worse than that,” said Jean. He sighed. “All right,” he said in English, glancing at Wymack, who had wandered off towards the living room to give them some space. “Let’s call Jeremy.”

“Great,” said Kevin, and he took out his phone and dialed before Jean could change his mind.

Jeremy picked up on the second ring. “Kevin Day,” he said, his voice light and cheerful. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Hey, Jeremy,” he said. “I’m here with Jean.”

“Oh, fantastic!” said Jeremy. “Hey, man, how’s it going? Coach said he was sending over the paperwork for your transfer today—did you get it?”

Jean looked alarmed to be addressed directly, and his answer was stiff. “Yes. I have received it.”

Jeremy picked up on the tone, but not the reason for it. “Is there something wrong with it? We can make corrections and send over another copy if we need to. It’s no problem, really.”

“No,” said Jean quickly, “the papers are all in order.”

“Don’t tell me you’re reconsidering,” said Jeremy, sounding nervous. “If you’re getting another offer from someone else, at least give us a chance to try and match it.”

“I have not spoken to any other teams,” said Jean. “I signed the contract. Coach Wymack will be faxing it back to your coach.”

“Awesome!” said Jeremy. “And not just my coach—if you’ve signed, that means Rhemann is your coach, too, now.”

“I am sorry,” said Jean. “My coach. I will remember.”

“Shit,” said Jeremy. “That’s not what I meant. You’ve got nothing to apologize for. I’m just excited to have you on the team. I’ll try to remember, too, that some of the stuff I say might not come across the way I mean it to.” He laughed a little. “I know I can come on a little strong.”

Jean was staring at the phone as if he didn’t quite understand it, but he relaxed a little bit. “That is okay,” he said. “I suppose we will both have some adjustments to make.”

“And lots to learn!” said Jeremy. “Have you thought about when you want to make the move out here? We’ve got housing lined up for you starting this summer, but we’d love to get you on campus sooner, if you’re feeling up to it. You’ll have a place to stay whenever you’re ready for it.”

Jean shot Kevin a slightly panicked look, and Kevin shrugged. Jean could leave whenever he wanted, and Kevin didn’t want to do anything to make him think otherwise. “When I go to California,” said Jean, “people will know. Won’t they?”

“Yeah, probably,” said Jeremy. “Is that a problem? We can try to keep in on the down-low for as long as possible.” His tone hardened. “I saw that Coach Moriyama has announced you’re out with a sprain. I get it if you want to keep that story plausible for as long as possible.”

“No,” said Jean, staring intently at the phone. “I do not want to hide. You can announce my transfer.”

“Are you sure?” asked Jeremy. “I know the Ravens have a passionate fanbase. I don’t want to sic them on you or anything.”

“They will find out at some point,” said Jean, looking mildly ill.

“Announce it after your game against them,” Kevin suggested. The Trojans would be playing the Ravens on Friday for a spot in the finals. Something about it felt poetic. “Win or lose. In your post-game interview.”

“You think?” said Jeremy.

Jean was nodding. “I like it. I suspect my absence will be discussed. This way, we can at least choose when to say what I will be doing next.”

“Reclaiming the narrative,” said Jeremy thoughtfully. “Okay. I’m on board. We’ll have your paperwork all set by then, too, so the transfer will be official. Sounds like as good a time as any to make an announcement!”

“Thank you,” said Kevin. “Just so you know, you’ll probably get some hate directed towards you, too, if you’re the one to share the news.”

Jeremy laughed, unbothered. “Bring it. I can handle a little negativity from jealous fans.”

Kevin refrained from reminding him of the way Ravens’ fans had destroyed the cars of all the Palmetto athletes after Neil’s remarks to the press in Texas. California was farther way from West Virginia; maybe the Trojans would be fine.

“Anyway, I’ve got to run,” said Jeremy. “I was actually on my way to practice when you called. Wish us luck Friday!”

“Good luck,” said Kevin. “Don’t do anything crazy like you did against us, and you might have a chance.”

“We’ll see,” said Jeremy optimistically. “It’ll be interesting to see how they play with two big holes in the lineup, now. And hey, Jean, no rush on picking a date to move out here. Just let us know.”

“I will,” said Jean. “Maybe—would sometime after finals work?”

“Sure,” said Jeremy. “If the season’s over, maybe Kevin can come with you for a few days, to help you get settled.”

Jean glanced up at Kevin, who tried to keep his face carefully neutral. He didn’t want Jean to feel like he had to say yes or no. Jean studied his face for a minute, then looked back at the phone. “We will talk about it and let you know.”

“Works for me!” said Jeremy. “All right, catch you later.”

Kevin and Jean said their goodbyes and hung up the phone. “See?” said Kevin. “That all seemed good, right?”

Jean frowned. “So far, yes.”

“Some things stay good.”

“Not for us.”

“Maybe for us,” Kevin argued.

“Do you believe that?” asked Jean, staring at him critically. “Really?”

Kevin shrugged. “I don’t know,’ he admitted. “I’d like to.”

Jean sighed. “I would like to, too.”

Wymack cleared his throat from the doorway. “Kevin, are you ready for me to give you a ride back to campus?”

He stood up and nodded. “Yes, Coach.”

“All right,” said Wymack. “And Jean, I’ll get this paperwork faxed back out west tonight.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Jean.

Wymack looked at him for a minute. “I’ve known Coach Rhemann a long time,” he said. “If I didn’t think this would be a good fit, I would’ve said something. You’ll learn a lot out there, and they’ll take care of you.”

Jean forced a smile that almost reached his eyes. “I hope so.”

Kevin hoped so, too.

***

Do you want to watch the game with us?

You mean with you and your horrendous teammates? No thank you.

They’re not that bad.

Josten is one of them.

He’s not that bad, once you get to know him. And he’s got a lot of potential on the court.

Not everything is about the court.

Hah. Very funny.

Anyway, you’re invited to watch in the dorms with us if you want. Or I could come watch with you at Abby’s.

Who says I am going to watch?

Wait, are you serious?

It’s your former team and your new team, in the championships, competing to go to finals.

You have to watch.

I’m going to. I just wanted to see your reaction.

Watch with your friends. I do not think I’ll be feeling up for company.

Are you okay?

Fine. Tired, mostly.

Are you nervous about what Jeremy will say after the game?

No.

Yes.

I don’t know. Probably.

You can still tell him not to say anything, if you want.

I would rather people know, I think. I am just anxious for them to find out.

You sure you don’t want company tonight?

I am sure. I would rather watch alone.

Okay. Let me know if you change your mind.

***

It was done. The Trojans had played hard and come close, but they’d lost, and the Foxes were going to finals.

At the Nest.

This time, some of the butterflies in Kevin’s stomach were from excitement rather than nerves. This time, they had a chance. This time, he was going to be ready.

Despite the loss, Jeremy was still upbeat in his post-game interview. “We almost had it, right? I don’t think anyone was expecting us to get that close.” Kevin thought he noticed a small glint in Jeremy’s eyes as he continued. “It feels really different out there without Kevin and Jean on the line.”

“Worst time of year for someone to be injured,” said a reporter in agreement. “Rumor has it Jean won’t make it back in time for finals.”

“Yeah, I spoke to Jean earlier this week. He’s definitely done for the year, but he’ll be back in the fall. He just won’t be back in black.” Jeremy smiled widely, and Kevin braced himself. Jean was out—he was a Trojan—and the world was about to know. “Yesterday he faxed us over the last of the paperwork we needed to make this thing official, so I’m allowed to tell you: he’s transferring to USC for his senior year.”

Kevin could hear the ripple of shock through the press pool. “Let me make sure I heard you correctly,” said a reporter. “Jean Moreau is leaving Edgar Allan for USC?”

“We ordered his gear this morning,” said Jeremy with a relaxed smile, as if he hadn’t just announced one of the biggest shakeups in the world of exy. “We’ll have to get him some sun this summer, though! He’s a little pale to pull off red and gold right now.” He laughed, and Kevin felt himself smiling, too. “Unfortunately his number was taken already, but Jean said we can reassign him to whatever’s open. I’ll let him tell you what his new one is going to be.”

“Can you tell us why he’s transferring?” a reporter shouted out.

Jeremy kept his expression carefully neutral. “I can’t get into all the details because it’s not my place to tell his personal business, but I can say we’re excited to have him. I think we have a lot to learn from each other.” Jeremy’s smile returned. “Next year is going to be amazing. I think you’re going to see a lot of changes across the board. We’ve all got to take another look at what we bring to the court.”

Jeremy got up to go back to the locker room, and Nicky took the remote and cut the TV off before it could switch to any more coverage of the Ravens. “I’ve got a theory that Renee and Jeremy are long-lost siblings,” he said. “What do you think would happen if they ever joined forces?”

“They’d get murdered,” said Aaron without hesitation. “War’s profitable; no one wants their world-peace nonsense.”

“Thanks for that cheery dose of reality,” said Nicky, making a face, and they made their way out of the dorm and to the car to go to Columbia.

But Kevin kept thinking about what Nicky had said. Whether the others realized it or not, Jeremy and Renee were joining forces—to help Jean. He thought of the fierce courage Renee had shown in going into the Nest and getting Jean out. He thought of the bold determination with which Jeremy had gotten Jean a spot in the USC lineup, and the casual confidence with which he’d announced it to the public. So far, at least, Jeremy and Rene had made a formidable pair. Maybe—just maybe—they wouldn’t all get murdered, after all.

***

Do you want to come to finals? We’ve got extra tickets in our block. You could travel with us on the team bus.

Spending hours on a bus with your atrocious team would be bad enough even if it weren’t going back to the Nest.

I’ll pass.

That’s fair.

Will you at least be watching?

I don’t know. Depends on if there is anything else on TV.

Do you have any idea how much reality television exists? It is truly fascinating.

Seriously?

There is a show called The Real Housewives of Orange County. I am watching it to learn how I will be expected to behave in California.

I don’t think any of the Trojans are housewives, so you might need to expand your frame of reference.

I don’t know. It seems very informative.

But I can probably put off my binge watching for one night.

I’ll be watching.

Thank you.

***

“You sure about this, kid?” asked Wymack.

Kevin nodded. “Yes. I just need another drink first.”

Wymack sighed, but he handed over the vodka. “One of these days, we’re going to have to get you a healthier coping mechanism.”

Kevin just took another swig of vodka. He barely even felt it as went down. Part of him registered that he should, perhaps, be concerned about that, but his goal was numbness, so part of him was just relieved it seemed to be working.

No one knew what he was about to do, other than Wymack. And possibly Wymack’s tattoo artist, though he’d been promised total discretion. He’d left Neil in charge of night practice without explanation—he needed to do this without input or interference. Whether the other Foxes would congratulate him or call him crazy, he didn’t think he could stand hearing it until it was done.

He wasn’t number two anymore. It was time to get that number off of his face.

But there was one person he wanted to see first.

Kevin put the vodka bottle down and looked over at Wymack. “Do we have time to see Jean?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Wymack. “But if we’re swinging by Abby’s first, we should leave now.”

Kevin nodded and stood up. The room was a little shaky, but he felt steady as he walked to the door. Wymack’s hand on his shoulder, and the way he guided him into the passenger seat of his truck, told him otherwise. He felt like he barely had time to blink before he was getting back out of the truck at Abby’s.

She answered the door with a warm smile and pulled him into a hug. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

Kevin pulled back and looked at Wymack. “You told her?”

Wymack and Abby both looked uncomfortable. “I’m sorry,” she said, “was I not supposed to know?”

Kevin waved her off. “It’s okay,” he said. “Jean?”

“In the living room,” said Abby, stepping aside to let him in.

Jean was sitting on the sofa looking tense. “What is wrong?” he asked. “Abby said you were coming, but she did not say why.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” said Kevin, sitting down beside him and putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m getting rid of it.”

Jean’s brow furrowed. “Of what?”

It felt harder to put the words together than it should be, but he needed Jean to understand. “I’m not number two anymore. I don’t want to see it every time I look in the mirror.”

Jean was staring at his cheek with a mix of awe and horror. “Your tattoo. You are getting rid of it?”

Kevin nodded. “I’m covering it up. Tonight.”

“With what?”

“A chess piece,” said Kevin. “The Queen. The deadliest piece on the board.”

“Why?” asked Jean.

“I told you,” Kevin said. “I’m done being number two.”

“Not that,” said Jean, shaking his head. “Why the chess piece? Do you even play?”

Kevin hesitated, and when he spoke, his words were slow and deliberate. He had never shared this before, and we wanted to get it right. “No,” he said, “but I did. When I was little. My mom taught me. It’s a game of intense strategy, always thinking several moves ahead. She thought about exy the same way, and that’s how she taught me to play.”

“That is very touching,” said Jean. “It won’t stop him from killing you when he sees.”

Kevin paled. “I know,” he said. “But I don’t want to be scared anymore.”

“There is a lot of space between scared and reckless,” said Jean. He eyed Kevin carefully. “How much have you had to drink?”

“That’s not the point,” said Kevin, brushing him off. “I decided to do this before I started drinking.”

“So you decided to do it, and then you needed to get so sloshed you could barely sit straight in order to go through with it?”

Kevin frowned. “No,” he said. “Maybe. I just know that I need to do this.”

“Does it have to be right now?” asked Jean, leaning forward. “If you wait just a few more days, finals will be over. There will be time for things to calm down before you have to reveal it to anyone.”

“It has to be tonight,” said Kevin. “I don’t want to go back there with this still on my face.”

“You’re a madman,” said Jean. “And a dead one, if you aren’t careful.”

“I’ve been careful long enough,” said Kevin. A sudden burst of inspiration came over him, and he put a hand on Jean’s arm. “Come with me.”

“For moral support?”

Kevin shook his head. “No. Get yours covered up, too.”

“You are the fool, not me,” said Jean. “Absolutely not.”

“Come on,” Kevin urged. “You don’t need to be in his shadow anymore. Or in mine. Get the tattoo covered up.”

Jean pulled back. “I said no.”

Kevin recoiled. “I’m not—I didn’t mean—”

“I know,” said Jean quietly. “Just—don’t.”

Kevin nodded quickly. “I won’t push it. I get it. Not tonight. But—think about it, okay?”

Jean rolled his eyes. “If you live through the weekend, I’ll consider it.”

“Fair enough,” Kevin said with a crooked smile. “Start thinking about what you’ll get.”

“You’ve got a lot of confidence tonight,” said Jean. “How much of it is yours and how much of it is borrowed from the alcohol?”

“Does it matter?”

Jean gave him a long, hard look. “I guess we’ll find out.” He reached out and grabbed hold of Kevin’s shoulder. “Go. Get your new tattoo. And then go show them all how far you’ve come.”

“Do you think I can do it?”

“Get a tattoo? Sure.”

Kevin shook his head. “Win.”

Jean paused for so long Kevin thought he might not answer at all. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I think you might have a chance.”

Kevin grinned. “That’s good enough for me.” He looked back at Wymack, who was standing with Abby by the door. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

***

Sure you don’t want to come to the game?

Absolutely positive. Have fun, though, or whatever it is you expect to do tonight.

I think I’m going to play left-handed.

You really are a madman.

Are you ready?

I don’t know. Not for a full game, I don’t think. But maybe for the second half, depending on how things are going.

The triumphant return of Kevin Day.

Do you think I can do it?

How should I know? I haven’t seen you play left-handed since before.

But if anyone could do it, it’s you.

I’ve just felt so small for so long. I want to be tall again.

You will be.

No. WE will be.

Good luck tonight. I will be watching.

Chapter Text

Kevin was exhausted.  He was sorer than he’d ever been. And he was happy.

The game had been everything he wanted it to be—everything he’d barely dared hope or dream it could be. He had gone out there, he had faced his fears, and he had scored the winning goal, left-handed and strong. Kevin felt more like himself than he had in years. Since his mom died, probably. He felt like a version of himself he thought had died with her a long time ago.

It was good to be back.

Too good, it turned out. Too good to last.

He’d known Riko was injured—the whole world had seen the way he attacked Neil right after the game, and the way Andrew’s blocking blow had broken Riko’s arm. It had been a difficult blow, but Kevin expected him to recover. Kevin had, after all, and his hand had been broken much less cleanly than Riko’s arm. Hopefully, the injury would give him enough perspective to soften the hard, angry edges that had sharpened over the years. Kevin still remembered Riko as a boy; he hadn’t always been so cruel and sadistic. With some time away from the court, and a reminder of his own human fragility, perhaps Riko would remember that boy, too.

It turned out, he would never get the chance.

Kevin hadn’t bothered to check his phone since the game ended—he wanted to keep this feeling going for as long as possible, and, given the post-game events, he was sure his inbox was piling up with messages asking about what happened. He didn’t want to think about it. Not yet. There would be plenty of time for that later.

About half an hour outside of Palmetto, though, Neil stood and woke everyone up. “There’s something I want to tell all of you before we get back to campus,” he said. “I want you to know what really happened before we start getting questions from the press.”

Kevin’s heart leapt to his throat. He knew Neil had been taken by a security guard, right before they’d been allowed to leave the stadium. But Neil had returned looking relaxed and happy, so Kevin had pushed it aside. Maybe, just once, it had been an actual security guard who actually had a few more questions for him.

He should have known they could never be that lucky.

“Right before we left, they took me up to the Tower,” Neil said. “Ichirou was there, and my uncle, and Tetsuji.” He glanced over at Kevin. “And Riko.”

“How was he?” asked Nicky. “I bet he’s super pissed about his arm. Do you think he’s going to try to get revenge?”

“No,” said Neil. “He’s dead.”

The rest of the Foxes burst into an uproar, but everything in Kevin’s head ground to a halt. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t hear anything other than the screaming in his ears.

Neil finally got everyone else to calm down enough to continue, and the screaming in Kevin’s ears quieted enough for him to hear it. “They will say it was a suicide, but Ichirou pulled the trigger.”

“Why?” asked Dan, eyes wide. “I mean, I know Riko was awful, but why would Ichirou kill his own brother?”

Neil shrugged. “It’s not like they were ever really brothers. Ichirou was cutting his losses. I told him how unstable Riko had become, and how many loose ends he was leaving across the country. I think the broken arm gave him an easy out. Tetsuji is stepping down as coach, too. The Ravens will be getting an entirely fresh start.”

Kevin didn’t know how Neil could be talking about a fresh start when everything was clearly ending.

Neil looked at Kevin. “Our deal is still good. Maybe even stronger, now, with Riko out of the way. We’re safe.”

Kevin wasn’t sure he’d ever feel safe again.

***

Congratulations! You did it, you crazy bastard.

Oh my god. Did I just see what I thought I saw?

Did Minyard just break Riko’s arm on national television?

I know he was going at Josten. It was clearly defensive. But still.

Are you on the way back yet? Or are you going to stay overnight?

Have you been seeing these reports? No one’s been able to verify anything, but they’re saying Riko is dead.

He can’t be.

Is it true?

Kevin. Text me back. I am getting worried.

A body was brought out of the stadium. They still think it’s his, but I’m getting nervous.

It’s him.

He’s gone. Neil saw it.

Fuck.

They’re saying it was suicide.

Was it?

We are not having this conversation over text.

That means no.

That means I’ll talk to you when we get back. We’re close.

***

By the time they made it back to campus, most of the team was satisfied with the answers they’d gotten from Neil, and none of them seemed worried about potential repercussions. The mood was light and celebratory as they separated back into their groups for the drive to the dorms.

Andrew paused by the locker room door, looking back at Kevin, but Kevin shook his head. “I’m going to see Jean.”

Andrew nodded and left him there.

Jean was still up and waiting for them when Kevin got there with Abby and Wymack. When they first opened the door, Jean had looked tense and alarmed, but he relaxed a little bit when he saw it was them. Numbly, Kevin realized Jean hadn’t been certain who might come through that door.

“What happened?” asked Jean urgently, taking a step towards them. “Tell me. Please.”

“Riko,” said Kevin, and he choked on the name. “He’s dead. Ichirou killed him. He set it up to look like a suicide, but—it was Ichirou.”

Jean fell half a step backwards and sank into a chair at the kitchen table. “Why?”

Kevin sat across from him. “Neil said he was tying up loose ends.”

“What kind of loose ends?”

“You heard what Neil told him when he made our deal,” said Kevin. “He thought Riko was getting sloppy. Putting the family at risk. So he got rid of him.”

“And the Master?”

“Alive, as far as I know, but stepping down.”

Jean took a few more shallow breaths, and then he started laughing. “We did it,” he said. “We outlasted the bastard.”

Kevin shook his head and blinked at him, sure he was misunderstanding him. “What are you talking about?”

“Riko,” said Jean, a slightly manic grin spreading across his face. “He’s gone. He can’t come after us, or hurt us anymore.”

“He’s dead.”

“And we’re not.”

“He was our brother.”

Jean’s smile fell, and his face shuttered. “You’re not serious right now.”

Kevin shook his head, still not understanding. “I know by the time you got to the Nest, he was already starting to get more difficult, but—”

“Difficult?” Jean let out a sound of disbelief. “You call what we went through difficult?”

“It got bad,” Kevin acknowledged. “Really bad. But are you not even a little bit upset that he’s dead?”

Jean looked at Kevin like he was a stranger. “No,” he said. “Are you?”

Kevin glanced towards the living room, where Wymack and Abby were sitting on the sofa trying very hard to look like they weren’t listening. “Yeah,” he said. “It was complicated, sure, but I was with him nearly my entire life. And Ichirou just killed him like he was nothing. How could I not be upset?”

“You were terrified of him,” Jean reminded him. “He abused you for years. He destroyed your hand. And that’s not even getting into what he did to Minyard, or Josten. Or to me.”

“I know,” said Kevin. “I know. But—he’s dead. Don’t we have to forgive him, at least a little?”

“No,” said Jean flatly. “I still have nightmares. Don’t you?”

Kevin looked away. “That’s not the point.”

“Isn’t it?”

“He’s dead,” Kevin said again, desperation creeping into his voice. “How does that not change things?”

“It does change things,” said Jean. “It makes them better. I just wish I’d been there to see it so I could be sure he’s actually gone.”

“How can you say that?”

“How can you not?”

Kevin just shook his head, trying to clear it. “I didn’t expect Neil to understand,” he said. “He never knew what Riko was like in his good moments. He just saw the worst of him. But you were there. You knew him. He wasn’t all bad. Not all the time.”

“You’re defending him?” asked Jean, and the pain in his voice was enough to stir around the tumultuous feelings of guilt in his stomach. “After everything, you’re still taking his side?”

Kevin felt the guilt shift into a sort of defensive anger. “What do you mean, still? I was always on your side, as much as I could be. And I’m not taking his side now! He doesn’t have a side, because he’s dead!”

Jean let out a noise of frustration and tried to run a hand through his hair, but he stopped with a violent flinch when he hit one of the bald patches where his scalp was still healing and the hair hadn’t grown back yet. He stood up. “I have not slept yet. I should go to bed.”

Kevin stood up, too. He was still feeling too much, too many emotions, and he needed Jean to understand. To feel them with him. It didn’t feel fair for him to walk away like this.

But then, Kevin had walked away from Jean, too, under much worse circumstances.

“You’ll come to the funeral, right?” he asked. “Even if you’re not—even if you’re not upset about it, you should still come. It would look bad if you didn’t.”

Jean gave him a long, searching look, and he didn’t seem to like what he found. “I think I’ll go to California.”

“Now?”

Jean shrugged. “Tomorrow, maybe. Sometime this week. I don’t know how quickly they can make the arrangements. But I should get settled. And I do not want to miss any more of spring training than I have to. I will already be coming in at a disadvantage, and you know how important it is that I play well enough to make the starting line-up.”

“Right,” said Kevin, feeling the numbness slipping back over him. “That makes sense. You should text Jeremy. He’ll work with Coach Rhemann to get things set up for you.”

“I know,” said Jean. They stared at each other in silence. “Congratulations on the win.”

“Thank you,” said Kevin. It was automatic, and devoid of all emotion.

Jean walked away, and he didn’t look back. Kevin heard the door to his room click shut.

He jumped when he felt Wymack’s hand on his shoulder. He hadn’t noticed his approach. “Should I take you back to the dorms?” he asked.

Kevin nodded. “Yeah. That would be good. Thanks.”

Wymack hesitated. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” said Kevin. His voice was thin, and he just wanted to get back to his dorm and into his bed before anyone could see him cry. Over Riko, over Jean, over all of it.

***

Why did I have to find out from Jeremy that you’re in California?

I did not realize I had to run my agenda by you in advance.

You don’t.

I just thought we might talk again before you left.

I said everything I wanted to say.

I didn’t.

You said plenty.

He was the most important person in my life for years.

I’m sorry I can’t just turn it off like you.

Did you really have to leave while we were all at the funeral?

It was nice, by the way.

Thea was there. And a bunch of other Ravens, but most of them kept their distance.

She says hi.

We can’t just leave things like this between us.

Talk to me.

Please.

Fine. Be like that.

Talk to me when you’re ready.

I’ll be here.

I don’t want you here.

There’s a reason I had to move across the country. I need space.

Okay.

Sorry.

Let me know if you change your mind.

***

It was summer break, and Kevin was spiraling.

Nicky was in Germany with Erik. Aaron was with Katelyn at her family’s lake house. Andrew and Neil were in Columbia. Kevin hadn’t felt like third-wheeling any of them, so he was staying at Wymack’s. Not that Wymack was there much, either. He was busy with preparations for the arrival of the new freshmen, the start of the new season. Kevin spent a lot of time practicing alone at the court while Wymack worked in his office.

It felt a lot like it had when he first got to Palmetto. Except now, Andrew wasn’t even there to watch over him. He was just alone.

But he still had his racquet and the court and the bucket of balls at his side, and now, he had his left hand again, so maybe he didn’t need anyone else.

It was late—he didn’t know how late—when he finally stopped, panting, and started to pack up for the night. Wymack would probably be wrapping up for the night by the time Kevin got out of the showers. Somehow, no matter how long Kevin practiced, it always worked out that way. He was pretty sure Wymack timed it that way on purpose, listening for him to go back into the locker room. He hadn’t asked about it, though. He was too scared to be wrong. It was the nicest thing anyone had done for him in months, and he didn’t want to find out it wasn’t real.

Kevin was almost back to the locker room when his phone started to ring. As soon as he saw the name on the Caller ID, he scrambled to answer.

“Jeremy? What’s wrong? Is Jean okay?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” said Jeremy quickly. “Shit, I forgot about the time difference—it’s after midnight there, isn’t it? There’s no rush, I can call back in the morning.”

“No, it’s fine, I was up,” said Kevin. “So, what’s going on?”

“Are you sure I didn’t wake you up?” asked Jeremy. “You sound—you sound kind of out of breath, actually.”

“I was practicing.”

Jeremy laughed. “Of course! I should’ve guessed. You got Josten and Minyard out there running drills with you?”

Kevin sank down against the wall of the court and closed his eyes. “Not tonight,” he said, fighting to keep his tone light. “It’s just me.”

“Oh, okay,” said Jeremy, sounding surprised. “That’s—well, that’s actually a pretty good transition to what I wanted to ask you about. How long did it take for you to start being able to do that?”

“Practice?” Kevin asked, confused. “Is Jean not practicing yet? Every injury is different, but he should be able to be back out there by now, even if he’s not at full capacity.”

“No, no, not that,” said Jeremy. “We’ve been practicing together for a few weeks now. Hasn’t he told you?”

Kevin swallowed heavily. He hadn’t spoken to Jean since he left. “He, uh, hasn’t mentioned it. I guess we haven’t had much time to talk, what with him getting settled and all.”

“Oh,” said Jeremy again. “Now that I think about it, I guess I’ve mostly heard him talking to Renee.” He paused. “I’m sure he’d appreciate a call.”

Kevin laughed a little, and he looked up at the sky. “I don’t think so.”

Jeremy hesitated. “If you say so. You know him better than I do, I guess,” he said. “Anyway, that’s why I called. He’s doing really well, overall, but he’s still having a really hard time going anywhere by himself. Not that it’s a problem, really. I’m his roommate, and I’m happy for the chance to get to know him and help him out. But—well, my mom’s been asking when I’m going to come spend a weekend at home for a while now, and I don’t really know what to tell her. So, how long did it take for you to be okay by yourself?”

Kevin closed his eyes. He wasn’t going to break down. Not to Jeremy. Not over this. “Ravens do everything in pairs,” he said. “Classes, meals, everything. It takes a long time to unlearn that.”

“Right,” said Jeremy, and Kevin could hear him sigh. “Okay, so—which do you think would be less overwhelming for him: staying on campus with people he doesn’t know very well, or coming home with me and meeting my parents and four siblings?”

“I don’t know,” said Kevin, trying to focus on the question instead of the pangs of jealousy that Jean actually had someone there, looking out for him, the way he deserved. “Honestly, neither one sounds ideal, but it’s really nice that you care—that you’re thinking about it.”

“It’s not enough to think about it, though, if I still do the wrong thing and make it worse for him.”

“Ask him,” said Kevin. “He’ll appreciate the chance to choose. Just make sure he knows it’s not a trick, and there’s not a wrong answer.”

“That makes sense,” said Jeremy, sounding more relaxed. “I can do that.”

“And be sure you can actually follow through with whichever one he picks,” Kevin added. “If he wants to go with you to see your family, make sure they’re on board with him coming over. If he wants to stay on campus, make sure you’ve got someone lined up to be there with him.”

“Got it,” said Jeremy. “I should probably go—Jean was showering, but I just heard the water cut off. Unless you’d like to say hi?”

Kevin wanted to speak to Jean so badly it hurt. “No, you should go,” he said. “He probably wouldn’t like that you called me for advice about him.”

“If you’re sure,” said Jeremy reluctantly. “Look, I—he’s told me some of it. Some of what happened at the Nest, and—and after.”

Kevin sank lower into the ground. He wished it would swallow him. This was it. This was when Jeremy Knox, beacon of light and hope and goodness, was going to lecture him on all the things he’d done wrong in his life. Or, worse, tell him how disappointed he was in him. There were sides, now, and Jeremy was not on his. “You don’t have to say it,” he choked out, desperate to stop him. “I know. I know I—there were a lot of things. A lot of things I—”

“Hey. No. That’s not where I was going with that,” said Jeremy, quickly and soothingly. “Kevin. Breathe. I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant.”

This time, Kevin couldn’t stop the hysteria from creeping into his laugh. “You’re not the one who should be apologizing.”

“Yes, I should,” said Jeremy. “I should’ve been more careful about how I phrased it. I was going to say I have a better understanding of how awful it all must have been for you, and that I think I get why things are so complicated between you and Jean.”

Kevin tried to calm his breathing. “You weren’t—you weren’t going to tell me I was wrong?”

“No,’ said Jeremy emphatically. “You were both in a horrifically terrible situation for a very long time. What could you be wrong about?”

“Jean thinks I’m wrong,” said Kevin quietly.

“About what?”

“About—the way I reacted. To Riko. To his death.”

“Ah. Yeah, he mentioned that,” said Jeremy. “I don’t think you were wrong. I don’t think either of you were wrong. And I get why it would be hard for the two of you to talk about it.”

Kevin nodded, and then he realized Jeremy couldn’t see him. “Yeah. It’s. Um. We haven’t.”

“Haven’t . . . ?”

“Haven’t talked.”

“At all?”

“At all.”

Jeremy let out a low whistle. “That explains a lot, actually.” He sighed. “Look. He misses you. And it sounds like you miss him, too. It doesn’t have to be tonight, but call him. Or text him. Just—reach out. He still needs you, too.”

“He asked me to give him space,” said Kevin.

“And you did,” said Jeremy. “A whole country’s worth of space. I’m not saying you should go overboard or anything. Just open the door.”

“What if he doesn’t want the door to be open?” whispered Kevin. “What if he slams it in my face?”

“Then you give it some time and you try again,” said Jeremy. “I should go. But—reach out to him. And me, for that matter. Is someone at the court with you to get you home?”

“Yeah,” said Kevin, focusing on the part he could actually answer. “Wymack’s here.”

“Good,” said Jeremy. “Get home safe. Get some rest. And call me, any time.”

Kevin shook his head. ‘You’ve got your own problems to deal with.”

“I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it,” said Jeremy.

“Are you doing this for Jean, too?”

“Yes,” said Jeremy. “As much as I can.”

“Good,” said Kevin without hesitation. “He needs that. He needs someone like you in his corner.”

“He does,” Jeremy agreed, “and so do you.”

Kevin wanted to deny it, to push back, to argue. But he was so tired. And maybe, just maybe, Jeremy could be right. “Thank you,” he said instead.

“Goodnight, Kev. Thanks for the advice. Talk soon, okay?”

“Okay,” Kevin agreed, and it felt like a promise.

***

Hey. I know you still might not want to hear from me, but I hope things are going well in California.

No need to reply. I just wanted you to know.

Jeremy said I should respond. He did not tell me what to say.

You don’t have to say anything.

He’s not making you, is he?

No. He does not make me do things.

It is very odd.

Good. I’m glad.

I still do not know what to say to you.

That’s okay.

I don’t know what to say to me either.

Is that your attempt at a joke?

I don’t know. Was it funny?

Not really.

Then no, I guess not.

Thank you for texting me back.

I’ve missed you.

Thank you for the space.

I’ve missed you, too.

Chapter Text

Kevin had barely been able to contain his excitement all week. Classes hadn’t started yet, and the season was still a few weeks out, but Wymack and Coach Rhemann had arranged a private pre-season scrimmage between the Foxes and the Trojans. The USC team was in the air now. Jean was in the air now. And Jeremy. Kevin couldn’t wait.

Since his call with Jeremy back in June, he’d been talking to Jean more regularly again. Things weren’t back to normal between them—or, whatever passed for normal—but they were better than they’d been in a while. They still hadn’t seen each other in person since their fight about Riko’s funeral, and they hadn’t really addressed it, but they were moving forward, and he was here, and Kevin was going to see him.

He couldn’t wait.

The fact that Jeremy would be there, too, was just an added bonus.

The final hours and minutes before the Trojans’ arrival ticked by with painful slowness. Kevin tried to distract himself with practice and warmups and last-minute preparations. It helped a little—with other things to focus on, he was able to keep his excitement from shifting into anxiety and dread. For the most part, at least.

Eventually, though, he ran out of things to do. He was pacing restlessly around the locker room when Renee came up beside him. “He’s looking forward to seeing you, too,” she said.

Kevin stopped walking at looked sharply at her. “Did he say that?”

“Not in so many words,” Renee admitted, “but he is. I can tell.”

“What if he’s not?” Kevin asked. As soon as the question left his lips, he regretted it. It was too needy, too vulnerable. He needed to walk it back. “Not that—I mean, it’s fine. It’s just a scrimmage. The fact that Jean will be here doesn’t make a difference.”

Renee raised an amused eyebrow at him. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” said Kevin. He tried to glare at her, but he was pretty sure he was too anxious for it to be effective.

Renee reached out and touched his arm. “It will be good to see him.”

Kevin nodded tightly. “Yeah. I think so.” He swallowed. “I hope so.”

“I know so,” said Renee confidently. She squeezed his arm and walked away.

She hadn’t made it far before Neil took her place at his side. “Is your head in the game?” he asked in quiet French. “Because I’ve got my hands full with the stupid freshmen. I don’t have time to babysit your nervous breakdown.”

This time, Kevin’s glare was more successful. “I’m fine.”

“That’s my line,” said Neil.

“It’s true,” said Kevin. “Don’t worry about me. Focus on the stupid freshmen.”

“If you say so,” said Neil.

“I do.”

Neil just shrugged. Before Kevin could further defend himself, Wymack walked into the locker room.

“All right, listen up, everyone,” he said. “The Trojans have arrived, and they’re getting settled in the visitors’ locker rooms. In the interest of treating this like a real game, we’re limiting our contact ahead of the scrimmage, but we’ll debrief together afterwards, and then we’re all going over to Abby’s for a post-game party. I expect all of you to be on your best behavior.”

“We’re always on our best behavior, Coach,” said Andrew.

“And I’m a monkey’s uncle,” said Wymack. He held up a piece of paper. “Coach Rhemann and I exchanged lineups. They’re not pulling any funny business this time—they’re playing a full spread. This is supposed to be a learning experience for both of us. Take advantage of it.”

Dan took the lineup sheet from Wymack and read over it, nodding. “No real surprises,” she said. “Except—” she glanced at Kevin, then at Renee. “Hmm. That’s a little unexpected.”

Kevin narrowed his eyes. “What’s unexpected?”

“You’ve been talking to Jean, right? He’s been cleared to play by now, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Kevin. His stomach was sinking down into the floor. “Why?”

“He’s not in the lineup for today,” said Dan, holding up the paper.

Kevin crossed over to her and snatched it out of her hands. He scanned it quickly, then more thoroughly. “He’s not on the list.”

Dan shot him an annoyed look. “Yes, that’s what I just said.”

“There must be a mistake,” said Kevin. He strode towards the door to the court.

“Hold up,” said Wymack, stepping in front of him. “Where are you going?”

“To talk to Jeremy,” he said, and he pushed past Wymack before he could stop him.

The Trojans were out on the court warming up, and it didn’t take Kevin long to spot Jeremy’s golden-blonde hair. When Jeremy saw Kevin walking towards him, he stopped his stretching and waved. “Hey, Kevin,” he said with a grin. “Good to see you—but I thought we weren’t talking until after the scrimmage.”

“Your lineup is wrong,” said Kevin without preamble.

Jeremy furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

Kevin shoved the lineup sheet at his chest, and Jeremy grabbed it before it fell. “It’s wrong,” said Kevin. “Jean isn’t on it.”

“Oh,” said Jeremy, looking a little uncomfortable. “That’s not a mistake.”

Kevin shook his head, sure he hadn’t heard him right. “What are you talking about? He’s still healthy, right? Did he have a setback?”

“No, he’s in great shape,” said Jeremy.

“Then what’s the issue?”

Jeremy pressed his lips together and glanced to the side, then back at Kevin. “He’s just not in the lineup.”

Kevin fought back a surge of panic. If Jean wasn’t in the starting lineup, he wouldn’t get enough playing time to attract the attention of pro scouts. If the scouts weren’t impressed by him, he wouldn’t get drafted to a pro team. And if he didn’t get drafted to a pro team—

Kevin grabbed Jeremy’s arm and pulled him further away from the rest of the Trojans. “Look, Jeremy, he has to be in the lineup. It’s really important. Just—he has to make the starting lineup.”

Jeremy took a breath, then stopped himself, giving a quick look around to make sure no one was in earshot. “I know,” he said quietly. “Not—I don’t know exactly. But I know it’s important.”

“Then why isn’t he in the lineup?” asked Kevin urgently.

“Because I asked not to be.” Jean had appeared at Jeremy’s side, and he looked annoyed. “It is not Jeremy’s fault. And it does not mean I will not make the starting lineup for the actual season. It just means I will not be playing today.”

“Why?” asked Kevin.

Jean glared at him. “I do not owe you an explanation.”

Jean’s words hit Kevin like a punch, and he took half a step back. “I know,” he said. “I know you don’t. I was just—I was worried.”

Jean stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. “You don’t have to be. I can play. I will play. Just not today.”

“He will,” Jeremy agreed. “He’s 100 percent on track to be in the starting lineup. Coach Rhemann wanted him out there tonight.”

“Okay.” Kevin took a deep breath. His stomach was slowly settling back into place. “Good. That’s good.” He turned back to Jean. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” said Jean, looking down. “I will be okay.”

“Will be?”

Jean grimaced. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m just not ready to play against you.”

“Oh.” Something clenched uncomfortably in Kevin’s chest. “That’s—that makes sense.” He closed his eyes for a minute, processing. “What if I didn’t play?”

“What?” Jeremy was looking at him as if he’d lost his mind.

“I mean it,” said Kevin, still looking at Jean. “You’re just getting back out there, and with a new team. You could use the game time more than I could.”

“Who are you and what have you done with Kevin Day?” asked Jean, folding his arms. “The Kevin I know would never volunteer to give up any playing time.”

Kevin shrugged uncomfortably. “Don’t get used to it.”

Jean frowned. “No.”

“No?”

“No. I do not want your charity,” said Jean. “Besides, we’ve already exchanged lineups. The decision has been made.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s too late to change it,” said Kevin.

“Yes, it does,” said Jean.

“But—”

“Don’t,” said Jeremy, taking a step forward between Kevin and Jean. “He said no.”

Kevin flinched. He was doing it again—he was fucking things up. Jean didn’t need to be pushed, especially by Kevin. That was the whole reason they couldn’t play together in the first place—even, apparently, on opposite sides of the court. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking at Jean. “If you’re sure, you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” said Jean. His voice was thin, but he gave Kevin a small smile.

“Good, then,” said Kevin, and he smiled back. “I told you before, I don’t want you holding yourself back on my account. I just wanted to make sure that wasn’t what was happening here.”

“It’s not,” said Jean. “Well, it might be, but—but not like that.” He turned his smile towards Jeremy. “You are not the only one who is making sure of that.”

Jeremy flushed and stared back at Jean for a moment too long before laughing a little and put a hand up to the back of his neck. “I’m just doing my job.”

Kevin shoved down the uncomfortable mix of emotions that were threatening to bubble up at the way Jean and Jeremy were looking at each other. This was a good thing. If it was even a thing at all. Jean deserved someone good and whole, and there was no one better than Jeremy. He smiled, and he hoped it looked genuine. “I think you’re doing a lot more than just your job.”

Jeremy laughed him off. “What can I say, I’m an overachiever. And Jean makes it easy.”

“I am sure that is not true,” said Jean.

“It is,” Jeremy insisted.

“Okay,” said Kevin. “Good. That’s good. I should go, let you get back to warm-ups. The scrimmage should be starting soon.”

“Looks like it,” said Jeremy. “Here comes the rest of your team.”

Kevin turned and looked over his shoulder. Sure enough, the rest of the Foxes were filing out of the locker room and onto the court. Most of them were shooting furtive glances his way, but Dan, Neil, and Andrew were blatantly staring, and Renee gave Jean a little wave, which he returned. “Right,” said Kevin. “I should get back over there.”

“Sounds good,” said Jeremy. Kevin started to go, but Jeremy grabbed his arm. “And hey, I’m looking forward to catching up with you more afterwards! Should be a fun night.”

For just a second, he thought Jeremy might be looking at him the same way he’d been looking at Jean earlier. Then he thought he might be delusional. Then he thought that might just be the way Jeremy looked at people. Then he realized he’d probably been staring back at him for far longer than he should have. “Yeah,” he said, forcing himself to blink. “It should be fun.”

“Have a good game,” said Jean. “I will be taking notes.”

Kevin nodded. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “Even if you’re not on the court, it can be useful to watch another team’s offensive strategy and think about how you’d counter it.”

“Sure,” said Jean, “but I was thinking more about how much fun it will be to read you a list of all the things you did wrong after the game.”

Kevin gaped for a second, then he smirked, tension broken. “It’ll be a short list.”

Jean raised an eyebrow, and his eyes sparkled. “We’ll see about that.”

As it turned out, the list was longer than Kevin would have liked, but far shorter than Jean had threatened. The scrimmage was exhilarating. The Trojans came out ahead, but just barely, and they tried some truly innovative plays and strategies that Kevin couldn’t wait to analyze in more detail. And it felt good to play, especially against a team that actually respected the integrity of the game. Even the Foxes, for the most part, played a clean game. The freshmen still had a lot to learn, but none of them had done anything malicious that could jeopardize the goodwill between the Foxes and the Trojans, so Kevin considered that a win.

Both teams went back to the lounge in the Foxes’ locker room to go over some of the film and debrief, but they stayed seated by team. Kevin sat at the end of the Foxes’ sofa closest to the Trojans, with Andrew on his other side. He determinedly stayed focused on the coaches and the film screen at the front of the room. If that focus included a few glances over to where Jean and Jeremy were sitting across the room—well, it made sense to see how the Trojans were reacting to the feedback, too.

“All right,” said Wymack, “that’s enough seriousness for tonight. Let’s go over to Abby’s for some food and fun.” He eyed the Foxes side of the room. “I trust that all of you will continue to make our guests feel welcome.” Wymack was met with a scattered chorus of ‘yes, coach,’ which seemed to satisfy him. “Okay, let’s go. I’ll let Abby know we’re on our way.”

Andrew and Neil were already halfway to the door; Kevin, Aaron, and Nicky hurried after them.

Nicky turned to Kevin as soon as the car door closed. “So,” he said, “what’s the deal with Jean and Jeremy?”

Kevin shot him a look. “What deal?”

“Oh come on,” said Nicky. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. I saw the way you were looking at them, too.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Kevin stiffly.

Aaron rolled his eyes. “Sure you don’t.”

“Anyway, there’s got to be scoop there,” said Nicky. “Spill.”

Andrew glanced back at them in the rearview mirror. “Back off.”

“What?” said Nicky. “But I just—”

“Back off.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Do not make me say it again.”

Nicky pouted. “Fine, fine, whatever.” He brightened. “Maybe Renee will talk.”

Kevin relaxed a little bit and stared out the window. The odds of Renee talking were slim to none. Not that there was anything to talk about. Especially not anything that involved Kevin.

Meanwhile, Kevin needed to remember that people were watching. Even in private, even with the Foxes. He needed to be more careful. He should warn Jean to be careful, too. Or maybe he shouldn’t—maybe Jean was finally doing all right and didn’t need that kind of input from Kevin.

Kevin needed a drink.

And he got one, as soon as they got to Abby’s. Andrew’s Maserati had beaten the Trojans’ bus by a significant margin, so the light buzz was already kicking in by the time other team was walking in. Most of the Trojans were eager to chat with Kevin—about the scrimmage, about the upcoming season—so it was easy for him to stay distracted and occupied. Some of them asked questions about the championship, and his return to left-handed playing, but all of them carefully steered clear of any discussion of Riko, for which Kevin was grateful. He wondered if they had all independently come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t bring up Riko, or if they’d been told to avoid it by Coach Rhemann. Or maybe Jeremy. Either way, it was nice, and it likely meant they were offering Jean the same courtesy. Unlike the Foxes, the Trojans didn’t seem inclined to push personal boundaries.

Jeremy had a crowd of his own. Kevin watched nervously while Nicky talked to him, but he relaxed when Dan and Matt engaged him in an animated conversation. Jean was hovering nearby but out of the spotlight, with Renee at his side and Jeremy frequently glancing over to check on him. Both Jeremy and Jean kept glancing over towards Kevin, too. Every time they did, Kevin took it as a cue to relocate to a different part of the room. He wasn’t avoiding them, exactly. He just hadn’t figured out what to say yet.

No matter how often he relocated, though, their eyes would always find him, and it wasn’t long before they came over to talk to him. The USC dealer he’d been chatting with had just walked away to get a snack, and Jean and Jeremy walked up to him before he could find another conversation.

“Hey, Kevin,” said Jeremy, reaching out to give his shoulder a clap and a squeeze. “I’m glad we finally made it over here to talk with you—you’ve been in high demand!”

“So have you,” said Kevin, ignoring the heat radiating out from the place where Jeremy had touched his shoulder. “You’ve got a good team.”

“You do, too,” said Jeremy. “This has been fun. Y’all will have to come out to L.A. sometime and let us return the hospitality.”

Kevin nodded. “That would be great.” He looked at Jean. “How are you holding up? I know it’s a lot of people, and the Foxes can be . . . well, the Foxes.”

“I am okay,” said Jean. “It was nice to talk to Renee for a while. And Jeremy has been staying nearby.”

“That’s good,” said Kevin. He hesitated, then, with a glance at Jeremy, switched to French. “Just be careful, okay? People are watching.”

“Kevin,” said Jean, his tone strained.

“I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at each other,” said Kevin. “And that’s fine—I’m not jealous or anything.”

“Um, Kevin,” said Jeremy tentatively.

Kevin ignored him. “But other people have noticed, too, and I want to make sure—”

Jeremy took a step forward and cut him off. “Je parle français.”

Kevin froze. He was pretty sure he had also stopped breathing. “What?” he asked, shocked back into English.

“Sorry,” said Jeremy. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I just—I took French in high school, and since Jean got to USC, I’ve been brushing up on it, so I, uh. Well, I understood most of that.”

“Right.” Kevin wished for the floor of Abby’s living room to open up and swallow him whole. “You don’t need to apologize for speaking French. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

Jeremy shook his head. “I should’ve said something sooner. But, since I did hear,” he paused and, with a glance at Jean, switched to French. “We’re not—nothing has happened. I am his captain. We’ve talked. And I’m not going to cross that line.”

Kevin nodded. We’ve talked. That meant there really was something to talk about. And of course Jeremy was wary of doing anything that could put Jean in an uncomfortable position with his new team. Anything that could be perceived as pressure.

“And—you don’t have to say anything,” said Jeremy, still in halting French, “but—you said something about—jealous?”

Jeremy might have said something else, but Kevin couldn’t hear anything. His ears were buzzing, and he wasn’t sure he was breathing. “I have to go,” he said tightly. He wasn’t sure what language it came out in, and he didn’t wait around to see how anyone reacted. He turned and went down the hallway towards Abby’s spare bedroom—the one Jean had used.

When he opened the door, he saw a freshman Fox making out with a USC goalie. “Leave,” said Kevin harshly. The pair jumped apart and scrambled past him out the door, shooting him nervous looks as they hurried away. Kevin closed the door behind them and leaned against it, sliding down to the floor and trying to regain control of his breathing. He wished he had something to drink.

He wished he’d kept his mouth shut. He wished he’d known Jeremy spoke French. He wished he could undo the last five minutes.

There was a tentative knock on the door. “Kevin?”

Jean’s voice was both a comfort and a dagger. Kevin didn’t know whether to let him in or pretend he wasn’t there.

“It’s just me,” said Jean. “Can you let me in?”

Just Jean. Kevin could handle that, probably. He slid away from the door and, still leaning against the wall, reached up to turn the handle. The door clicked open, just a hair, and Jean pushed it wide enough to slip inside. Closing the door behind him, Jean sat down next to Kevin and leaned against it.

“Breathe, Kevin,” said Jean quietly.

Kevin took a deep, shuddering breath. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know he spoke French.”

“I should have told you,” said Jean. “I did not expect it to come up. I should have.”

Kevin shook his head. “You’ve both been apologizing. You don’t have to. Neither of you did anything wrong.”

“I have learned,” said Jean, “that sometimes, people apologize not because they did something wrong, but because they could have done something better.”

“Did you learn that from Jeremy?” asked Kevin.

“Not just Jeremy,” said Jean. “Renee, too. And the rest of the Trojans. All of them have been very kind.” He made a face. “It is rather strange.”

Kevin felt like his chest was being torn in two. “That’s good,” he said. “You deserve kindness.”

Jean gave him a sad smile. “So do you.”

“I don’t think so,” said Kevin, shaking his head. “I’m not—I don’t know how to deal with it.”

“Neither did I,” said Jean with a shrug. “You can learn.”

“That’s not what it’s like here.”

Jean looked at him sharply. “You don’t mean—”

“No,” said Kevin quickly. “It’s nothing like that. Everyone here has been through too much to be that soft. Except Renee, I guess.”

“I would not call Renee ‘soft,’” said Jean.

“Not soft, then,” said Kevin. “But kind. The rest of us aren’t kind. We’re assholes.”

“I am not going to argue with you there,” said Jean. “Most of the Foxes are assholes.”

Kevin snorted. “See? I’m right.”

“About that part, sure,” agreed Jean. “But I am right, too. Just because your team is full of assholes does not mean you should not have kindness.”

“It’s not just them,” said Kevin. “It’s me, too.”

Jean rolled his eyes. “Do you have any idea how many times they’ve told me I’m being an ass since I got out there?”

Kevin looked over at him. “Really? Why?”

“Probably because I was being an ass.” Jean shrugged. “The important part, though, is that they are still kind to me. Even when I do not think I deserve it.”

Kevin gave a small nod. It made sense, for Jean. He just couldn’t make it apply to himself. He grimaced. “I think I’m going to have to avoid Jeremy for the rest of my life.”

Jean shook his head. “No you won’t.”

“Maybe he’ll make it easier and avoid me.”

“He’s definitely not going to do that. Which you would know if you hadn’t fled the room.”

Kevin frowned. “What do you mean?”

Jean sighed. “He likes you, too.”

Kevin shook his head. “He likes you. The two of you have literally talked about it.”

“Yes,” said Jean, “which is how I know that he also likes you.”

The knots in Kevin’s stomach wound themselves tighter. “Tell him I’m not interested.”

“I am not going to lie to him.”

“And I’m not going to get in the way of this for you,” said Kevin.

Jean shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying.”

Kevin looked at him blankly. “Then what are you saying?”

“He likes me. And he likes you. At the same time.”

Kevin nodded slowly. One of them was clearly missing something, and Kevin had a feeling it was him. He just couldn’t figure out how. “Yeah. And that’s why I’m not getting in the way. I know graduation is a ways off, but once the season ends and he’s not your captain anymore, you can—you can do whatever. And I won’t get in the way. Of either of you.”

Jean looked at him intently. “Of either of us?”

Kevin had confessed to too much tonight as it was. He couldn’t handle any more rejection—even self-imposed. “Of you,” he said, looking away.

Jean was silent for a long time. When Kevin finally risked a glance over at him, his eyes and his expression were closed. It was only because Kevin knew him so well that he could see the slight downward curve of his mouth and strain around his brow. Before he could figure out why, though, Jean shook his head and stood up. “I should go.”

“Go?” Kevin repeated.

“Yes.” Jean tried to smile a little. “You don’t seem to be having a panic attack anymore. You don’t need me here.”

I always need you. But he couldn’t say that. It wasn’t fair to Jean. “You look good,” he said instead. “Happier.” Jean raised an eyebrow. “Maybe not right this second,” Kevin amended, “but in general. I think this is the happiest I’ve ever seen you.”

Jean’s face softened. “You’ve been looking happier, too. Not right this second, but in general.” He sighed. “Jeremy will want to talk to you. He will not want to leave things like this. Can I tell him it is okay for him to come in?”

Kevin’s stomach clenched again, but he nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be here.”

“All right,” said Jean. For a second, he looked like he wanted to reach out towards Kevin, but he just touched the doorframe instead. “We’ll talk soon,” he said, somewhere between a question and a statement.

“Yeah,” said Kevin without hesitation. “Yes. Of course.”

“Good,” said Jean. He took a breath and squared his shoulders, and Kevin watched him transform back into someone willing and able to go back to mingling at a party in a house full of near-strangers. “I will find Jeremy and tell him he can come in.”

“Okay,” said Kevin, and Jean slipped out the door, closing it behind him.

He wasn’t sure how long he waited, but it seemed fast—like Jeremy had been waiting near the door. Jeremy knocked lightly, but he didn’t pause long before tentatively pushing the door open. “Hey,” he said, stepping inside. “Mind if I sit?”

“Sure,” said Kevin. His voice sounded almost normal; it was a relief.

Jeremy closed the door and sat down against it, almost exactly where Jean had been sitting. “I’m sorry, again,” he said. “I should have told you I spoke French sooner. Like, weeks ago.” He let out a humorless laugh. “Maybe you could’ve even helped me practice.”

Kevin shook his head. “I shouldn’t have assumed you didn’t. I wasn’t listening. I was pushing.” He grimaced. “Again.”

“Only because you care so much,” said Jeremy, smiling softly. It looked too much like the way he’d been looking at Jean.

It was more than Kevin could handle. “I’m not—I don’t—” His lungs felt tight and stiff.

“No, fuck, that’s—I didn’t mean to—shit.” Jeremy pivoted to face him. “Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay. Breathe, Kevin.” He hesitated. “Can I touch you?”

The question startled him enough to smooth his breathing a little. He answered before he could overthink it. “Yes.’

Jeremy scooted closer and grabbed hold of Kevin’s shoulders. His hands were firm but gentle. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “You’re okay, Kevin. You’re okay. Jean’s okay. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

Kevin let himself lean into Jeremy’s touch. He didn’t deserve it, but maybe it would be okay for him to accept it, just a little bit, for just a little while. He let himself glance over at Jeremy’s face. “You’re good at this,” he said. “You—you’ve been helping him?”

Jeremy didn’t have to ask who he meant. “I’ve been trying.”

“More than trying,” said Kevin. “He looks good. Happy. Happier.”

“I hope so,” said Jeremy. He leaned back against the wall, but he kept one hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “It’s hard to see it, sometimes.”

“I can tell,” said Kevin. “He’s doing better. You make him better.”

Jeremy’s mouth twisted. He managed to turn it into a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You’d know better than I would. That’s . . .” He shook his head. “I know I can’t compete with that.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “Compete? With what?”

“The two of you,” said Jeremy. “You and Jean. Your closeness. The way you understand each other. I know I’m not there.”

Kevin waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, you are. You know what he needs. And you can actually give it to him.”

Jeremy sighed. “I’m just trying to avoid crossing any lines.”

“I’m the wrong person to talk to about that,” said Kevin, shaking his head.

Jeremy tilted his head. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“I’m always hard on myself,” said Kevin, “but that’s not what this is. I’ve crossed so many lines with Jean that he and I can’t even play on the same team anymore.”

“There’s more to it than that, though,” said Jeremy, giving Kevin’s shoulder a squeeze. “With everything the two of you have gone through, it makes sense that being on the court together could be triggering.”

Kevin tensed. “How much do you know?”

Jeremy hesitated. He took his hand off Kevin’s shoulder and ran it through his hair. “You should probably ask Jean.”

“I’m asking you,” said Kevin levelly. “He shouldn’t have to go over it all again just to make sure I don’t tell you something he didn’t want you to know.”

Jeremy frowned. “And I don’t want to say something he didn’t want you to know.”

“I know all of it,” said Kevin.

“Do you?” asked Jeremy. His gaze was sympathetic but unyielding. “He’s told me about some of the things they did to him after you left.”

Kevin flinched. “Oh.” He took a steeling breath. “What else did he tell you?”

“I’m not doing this,” said Jeremy flatly. “I’m not just going to guess. If we’re having this conversation, Jean should be in the room, too. And I don’t think any of us have the energy for that conversation tonight.”

Kevin closed his eyes and deflated. “Fuck. I’m pushing again.”

“You are,” Jeremy agreed, “but at least you noticed.”

“Too late. After I did it.”

Jeremy smiled at him, and his eyes were kind without showing pity. “I can take it.”

Kevin shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to. You deserve better.”

Jeremey raised an eyebrow. “Better than Kevin Day?”

Kevin flushed. “I’m serious.”

“So am I,” said Jeremy. He took a breath. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“What do you mean?” Kevin asked with a frown.

Jeremy hesitated. “I know it’s not really my business, since you didn’t mean for me to understand, but—earlier, when you said you weren’t jealous, what were you getting at?”

Kevin bit his lip. He might be able to convince Jeremy he’d heard him wrong. He shook his head and tried to look confused. “Maybe you mistranslated something?”

Jeremy’s expression was gentle, but he didn’t back down. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s jaloux, right?”

Fuck. It was worse now that Jeremy knew he’d tried to lie about it. “Oh. Um. Yeah, I might have said that.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself if you don’t want to,” said Jeremy. “It’s just—well, you said you weren’t jealous, but it sort of seemed like you might be, and you don’t—I mean, I don’t—”

“I’m not,” Kevin lied, pushing all of his emotions deep inside where he couldn’t reach them. “I’m happy for you and Jean,” he said more sincerely. “I mean, assuming you’re both still interested in the spring, once you’re not his captain anymore.”

Jeremy nodded. “I know it’s a ways out, but . . .” He shrugged.

“He’s worth it,” said Kevin softly.

“Yeah.” He let out a breath of laughter. “I mean, you of all people know how wonderful he is.”

Kevin paused just long enough to gather his courage and spoke before he could lose it again. “You are, too, you know.”

Jeremy looked at Kevin and smiled. “And so are you.”

Kevin turned away. “This isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about Jean. Leave me out of it.”

Jeremy took a breath, then slowly let it out. “Okay.”

Kevin glanced back over at him sharply. “Okay?”

“Yeah,” said Jeremy with a shrug. “I’m trying not to push, too.”

“Right.” Kevin grimaced. “Thanks.”

Jeremy nodded. “Of course.” He sighed. “I should get back out there.”

“Go,” said Kevin. “I’ll be out, too, in a minute.”

“All right,” said Jeremy. He reached over and clasped Kevin’s shoulder. “We’re good, right?”

“Totally,” said Kevin. That was the answer Jeremy needed, and it was the one Kevin needed, too. Maybe if they both leaned into it, it would be true. “We’re good.”

“Good,” said Jeremy. “Find us when you come back to the party, okay? We’d love to talk more before we go.”

A rush of emotions coursed through Kevin’s veins at Jeremy’s easy use of us and we. Jean was included in Jeremy’s speech and his life automatically, without a second thought. It made Kevin feel warm and happy and very, very alone. “Sure,” he said, smiling back at him. A press smile, not a real one, but close enough to satisfy Jeremy. “I’ll do that.”

Jeremy grinned and stood up. “See you soon, then,” he said, and he slipped out the door.

Kevin leaned his head back against the wall and let out a long, heavy breath. He hadn’t lied to Jeremy—not really. If he went back out there, he fully intended to find them.

He just didn’t plan to go back out there.

Reaching up, Kevin twisted the lock on the doorknob so no one could come in unannounced. He convinced himself to stand so he could walk across the room, over to the bed, and he lay down, hugging a pillow to his chest. He knew Abby had washed the sheets and pillow cases. And he was pretty sure other people had stayed in the room since Jean left. But still, laying there and holding the pillow, he felt closer to Jean, and a little bit less alone.

***

Are you coming back to the party?

Andrew asked where you were. He seemed to think I might have murdered you.

We are about to leave.

You okay?

If Jeremy hadn’t talked to you after I did, I would probably start to think I might have murdered you, too.

Sorry, I’m good. Just fell asleep.

You’re on the way to the airport by now, right? Have a safe flight!

We’re through security. Most of the team is very hungover. It is very funny.

Jeremy tried to order one of those gallon boxes of coffee for them, but apparently the airport Starbucks does not sell in bulk.

Why would they? It’s an airport.

That is what I said. He did not find it as amusing.

I told him you agreed with me. I think he may be ready to admit defeat.

Probably for the best.

I’m really glad y’all were able to come out here for the scrimmage. Sorry I kind of messed up the party.

You didn’t. It’s okay.

It was good to see you.

Next time, you’ll be on the court, too.

I know. I think I will be ready.

You ARE ready.

Not yet. But I will be.

Our flight is boarding. Talk later?

Of course.

Chapter Text

Kevin always looked forward to exy. He looked forward to watching it, to practicing it, and—more than anything else—playing games. There were a limited number of games per season, and he was realistic enough to know he had a limited number of seasons before he would have to retire. That meant that each game was something to be treasured.

Kevin was dreading the Foxes’ game against the Ravens.

The Foxes weren’t ready. They’d only had three games so far—four if you counted the scrimmage against the Trojans—and they hadn’t gone particularly well. Certainly not well enough to stand a chance against the Ravens. Even a Ravens team that was in disarray.

Still, if that was all there was to it, Kevin could still have looked forward to the game. Even difficult games with frustrating losses were learning opportunities. Tonight, though, the Ravens would be out for blood. Specifically, Andrew’s and Neil’s. The Ravens blamed the two of them for Riko’s death and the Master’s resignation.

They’d be out to get Kevin, too, of course. It had been clear at Riko’s funeral that the remaining Ravens viewed him as a traitor. His rise had mirrored Riko’s downfall, and the Ravens blamed him for that, too. Facing them had been bad while Riko was alive. It should be better, now that he at least didn’t have to face him. Somehow, though, his ghost was worse.

The locker room continued to buzz around him, but Kevin was moving in slow motion. That was why it took him a minute to realize Wymack was calling his name.

“Day! You’ve got company!”

Kevin turned around, and, for a minute, he thought he was hallucinating. Jean Moreau and Jeremy Knox were standing next to Wymack. Jean looked somewhat uneasy and out of place, but Jeremy was relaxed and grinning. Kevin crossed the room in an instant. “Are you okay?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey, Kev,” said Jeremy. “We’ve got a bye this week, so we thought we’d come check out the hot-ticket game of the season.”

Kevin didn’t understand. He’d spent the day wishing he could somehow be anywhere but this game. He couldn’t fathom flying across the country to attend. He switched to French and looked at Jean. “Is he here? Did he tell you to come?”

“No,” said Jean quickly. He grimaced. “We do not play the Ravens during the regular season. Jeremy thought it would be best if my first time in a stadium with them happened before we faced them in the post-season. Coach Rhemann agreed. And so we are here.”

“We thought you could use some friendly faces in the crowd, too,” said Jeremy, also in French.

The rush of gratitude Kevin felt for them was almost overwhelming. “Thank you,” he said, switching back to English. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Give them hell for us,” said Jean quietly, still in French.

Kevin looked at him closely. The Southern California sun that had soaked into Jean’s skin had masked it at first, but he had a slightly sick pale to him. He was standing very close to Jeremy—not quite leaning against him, but nearly. Kevin hoped it was helping. “How are you doing?” he asked in French. “Being here—with them—it can’t be easy.”

Jean shrugged uncomfortably. “It is not easy for you, either,” he said. “Better now than during a championship game.”

Kevin wasn’t sure it worked like that. Between games and banquets, he’d faced the Ravens half a dozen times since leaving the Nest, and it hadn’t started feeling any better or more manageable.

Jeremy reached over and squeezed Jean’s arm. “You’ve got this,” he said. “And I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Ah. Maybe it would work like that for Jean. He had someone at his side to help make it so.

Andrew and Neil came up beside Kevin, but they were focused on Jean and Jeremy. “Is everything okay?” asked Neil.

“Yes,” said Jean. He didn’t elaborate.

“Just here to cheer you guys on,” said Jeremy with an easy grin.

Andrew looked at them critically for a minute, then he shrugged. “Okay.” He turned and walked away without further comment.

Neil was frowning at Kevin. “If they aren’t here to tell us about some kind of problem, why do you look so nervous?” he asked in French. “He is dead. This is just another game.”

“It is never ‘just another game’ against the Ravens,” Jean snapped, also in French.

Neil ignored him. “Can you even play?” he asked Kevin.

“I can play,” he said tightly, automatically. He needed to play. “If I don’t play, they win.”

“If you play like shit, they’ll probably win, too,” said Neil.

Kevin hadn’t been talking about the game—not really—but Neil was right. “I won’t play like shit.”

Jeremy took a step closer to Kevin and joined the conversation. “He’ll have an extra cheering section in the crowd to give him some support.”

Neil blinked at Jeremy and frowned. “You speak French?”

“Yes,” said Jeremy without elaborating.

Neil turned to Kevin. “You knew?” Kevin nodded. “You should have told me.”

Kevin shrugged uncomfortably. “We can trust him.”

“With everything?”

“With enough.”

The look Neil gave Kevin said he didn’t trust his judgment on the matter, but Renee walked up to them before they could say anything else. “Hello, Jean,” she said, smiling. “And Jeremy. I’m so happy you could make it!”

Kevin frowned at her. “You knew they were coming?”

“I knew they were going to try,” said Renee.

Kevin tried not to look hurt, but, based on Jean’s wince, he apparently failed. “I did not want to tell you until we knew for sure we were coming,” Jean said apologetically.

“It’s a long flight,” said Kevin quietly.

“Yes,” said Jeremy, putting a hand on Jean’s back, “but we didn’t know whether we’d make it to the game until we got to the stadium. We thought it would be worse to tell you we were planning to be here and then not show up.”

Once again, Jeremy sounded perfectly reasonable, and Kevin felt like an ass. “Right. That’s—that makes sense. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” said Jeremy easily. “I wish we could’ve given you more of a heads up.”

Kevin shook his head. “You were right. This is better.” He smiled—a real smile. They hadn’t told him they’d be coming, but it was because they’d been thinking about him, too—not because they forgot or discounted him. “I really am glad you’re here.”

“We all are,” said Renee. “Will you come with us to Abby’s after the game?”

Jeremy glanced at Jean, who nodded. “That is the plan,” he said. “Our flight back to California is not until tomorrow evening. Once she found out we were here, she offered to let us stay with her.”

“We’ve got a hotel room, too, in case it’s too much,” said Jeremy. “But I think we’ll probably take her up on it.” He grimaced. “We’d rather avoid being in the same place as any Ravens fans, and it’s a lot harder to be sure of that in a hotel.”

“You should definitely stay at Abby’s,” said Kevin. “If the Foxes are too much, just get her to kick us out.”

Jean snorted. “The Foxes are always too much,” he said, but his eyes had a sparkle to them, and he was looking more relaxed than he had when they’d first arrived. It made Kevin feel a little bit calmer, too.

Wymack and Abby had been giving them space, but now, they came up to them. “We should get the two of you to your seats,” said Wymack. “Abby will take you out there.”

“We’ve got you in our friends-and-family seats, right by our bench,” Abby said warmly. “You should be surrounded by Fox fans; there won’t be many Ravens on the home side.”

“Thank you,” said Jeremy. “We appreciate it.” He reached over and squeezed Kevin’s shoulder. “Remember, just going out there is a victory.”

Kevin felt the warmth spread from his shoulder through the rest of his body. He looked at Jean. “For you, too.”

Jean nodded. “All right,” he said, turning to Abby. “Let’s go.”

The rest of the Foxes weren’t far behind. When they went out for warmups, Kevin felt better seeing the ratio of orange to black. It was a home game for the Foxes, so it made sense that their own fans would outnumber the Ravens’, but Kevin hadn’t expected them to do so by quite so much. The Foxes were coming off of a championship and the Ravens were coming off of a very public scandal; and it seemed to have made a difference in the teams’ publicity and fan base.

The team itself, however, seemed unfazed by their lack of support. Kevin had followed the roster changes in the off-season; most of the tolerable Ravens had transferred, which meant the current Edgar Allan team was filled with players who seemed to relish in the role of pariah. When Neil and Dan went over as Captain and Assistant Captain to shake hands, they came back grim-faced.

As soon as they were firmly back with the Foxes, Dan rounded on Neil. “You can’t go out there.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “We’ve covered this. I’m playing.”

“They’re going to kill you. Like, straight up murder.”

“I wonder what it’s like for someone to try to kill me,” said Neil flatly.

Dan turned to Andrew. “I am begging you to talk some sense into him.”

Andrew’s mouth twitched down. “I am not his keeper. He wants to play, so he’ll play.”

Kevin knew it wasn’t that simple; he’d listened to the two of them fight it out in the dorm all week. He’d even participated on a few occasions. Neil had been right, and he’d won, so he was playing.

“What about you?” Dan asked Kevin. “They’re coming for you, too. You have to know that, right?”

“Of course I know that,” Kevin said. His tone was harsher than he’d meant it to be, but he couldn’t afford to question the decision now. It was the right one, and allowing in any doubts would only serve as a distraction. He tried out the argument of Neil’s that he thought Dan would find most persuasive. “If we don’t start, the Ravens will just try to take whoever’s at our position instead out of the game in order to force us onto the court. If you try to bench us, you’re just turning someone else into collateral damage.”

She frowned. “For the record, I hate this.”

“I’m having the time of my life,” said Andrew flatly.

“We can handle this,” said Kevin, sounding more confident than he felt.

Dan stared him down for a minute, and Kevin held her gaze steadily enough to win the silent battle. “Fine,” she said, turning to the rest of the team. “Okay, guys, we all know the Ravens are going to play dirty. Our number one goal is to have each other’s backs and make sure we all get out of this game in one piece.”

“Shouldn’t our number one goal be to win?” asked Jack, one of the freshmen.

“We can’t win if we’re wiping our bodies off the court,” snapped Dan. “The Ravens will be trying to win, sure, but they’ve made it clear that they are coming for us, personally. Especially Neil, Kevin, and Andrew. They’ve got targets on their backs the size of South Carolina, and we’re not going to let the Ravens get a bullseye. Got it?”

“Did they say that?” asked Nicky, looking at Andrew, Neil, and Kevin nervously. “Like, when you went over there, were they making thinly-veiled threats or something?”

“In order for them to have been thinly-veiled, they would have had to be veiled at all,” said Dan, her mouth pressed into a thin line.

“Sorry, but is this really news to anyone?” asked Allison. “We all knew this was how tonight was going to go. Nothing has changed. Let’s go out there and kick some Raven ass.”

Kevin took in his teammates’ confidence and determination, and then he looked over to where Jean was sitting next to Jeremy, head held high and posture strong but relaxed. “We’ve got this,” he said. “We’ve practiced for this. Allison’s right. This doesn’t change anything. Let’s go win this game.”

Dan looked grim, but she gave a sharp nod. “You heard him,” she said to the others. “Let’s go win this game.”

Once it actually started, Kevin was able to center his focus on the task at hand. He tuned out the insults and threats the Ravens’ backliners threw at him, and he dodged their attacks, working in tandem with Neil to slowly and methodically pick them apart and exhaust them. By halftime, he’d managed to score three times, and Neil had scored twice.

On the defensive side, the Foxes were struggling, but holding steady. The team had taken Dan’s directive to heart, and they were doing everything they could to keep the Ravens as far away from Andrew as possible. The Ravens had taken an absurdly high number of shots on the goal—two of which involved a Raven throwing his entire body at the goal, and one of which resulted in a red card for the striker in question—but Andrew had only missed four times. Going into the half, the Foxes were ahead five to four.

As soon as they got into the locker room, Kevin went up to Andrew. “Can you finish the game?”

Wymack stopped abruptly next to them and frowned. “We’ve got a full roster now. We don’t need him to play a full game. We don’t need any of you to play full games.”

Kevin snapped his attention to Wymack. “I can finish it,” he said. “Let me finish it.” He turned back to Andrew. “What about you?”

Andrew glanced at Wymack, then at Kevin, and then over Kevin’s shoulder—at Neil, Kevin assumed, but he didn’t turn around to check. Andrew’s gaze slid back over to Wymack. “Put me in, Coach. I’m ready to play.”

“Me too,” said Neil quickly. “We’ve almost got them. We can do this.”

“You’re insane,” said Dan. “You realize they’re going to be putting in a fresh, well-rested set of players equally intent on killing you, don’t you? Like, that’s something that you know, right?”

“We’re fine,” said Neil. Matt threw an empty Gatorade bottle at him, and he swatted it away. “We know how important this is. If we didn’t think we were the best players to finish out the game, we’d tell you to bench us ourselves.”

Wymack snorted. “The second you or Kevin bench yourselves, I’m immediately taking you to Betsy for a full psychological evaluation.” He rubbed his brow, then sighed. “You’re not going back in at the start of the half.” Neil started to protest, but Wymack held up his hand. “You’ll go in for the last quarter of the game. That gives you enough time to rest and them enough time to think maybe they’ve gotten you off the court, after all.”

Kevin nodded. “Yes, Coach.” He didn’t like being pulled from the game at all, but it was a good compromise. At least they’d be in for the end—the most important part, the make-or-break. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand watching the final seconds tick down from the sidelines.

As it turned out, he couldn’t stand watching the first seconds of the half tick down from the sidelines, either. Renee had taken the goal and was holding her own reasonably well, considering, but the freshman strikers were weak. Neil was pacing along the front of the bench.

“Sit down,” said Kevin. “We’re supposed to be resting.”

Neil glanced over at him but didn’t slow his motion. “Every muscle in your body is tensed. At least I’m staying loose.”

Kevin consciously unclenched his jaw. “That’s not true. Besides, at least I look like I’m resting.”

Andrew, who was lounged on the bench beside Kevin, snorted. “Neither of you know how to relax. And it’s obvious.”

“He’s right,” said Wymack. “Neil, quit pacing like a caged animal. Kevin, do some breathing exercises or something. I’ll put you back on the court when you’ve convinced me you’ve recovered enough to be useful.”

Neil sullenly sat down on Andrew’s other side, and Kevin took one deep, slow breath, and then another. It didn’t help him feel any better, but Wymack seemed satisfied.

By the time Wymack allowed Kevin and Neil to sub back in, the Ravens had only scored three times, but the Foxes hadn’t scored at all. They were behind by two points with just over twenty minutes to go.

Kevin always played like he was trying to overcome a deficit. It kept him from getting complacent, and it ensured he would keep pushing himself and playing at his best, even when he could technically afford to pull back. Tonight, though, he reached a new level of intensity, and Neil matched it.

Splitting his attention between the game itself and the increasingly desperate physical attacks of the Ravens, Kevin didn’t have the mental bandwidth to even process the verbal attacks the Ravens’ backliners were lobbing at him. Even better, he could see how much his non-reactions frustrated them. The satisfaction alone was nice, but frustration made their play sloppy, and Kevin was having an easier and easier time scoring on them. He got one goal, then two, then three, then four, and Neil got two of his own. Meanwhile, Andrew had only allowed three goals. With less than two minutes to go, the Foxes were ahead eleven to ten.

As the final buzzer ticked nearer, Kevin’s strategy shifted slightly. Instead of a frenzied effort to score as quickly as possible, he worked to keep possession of the ball for as long as he could. It became a numbers game: if the Ravens didn’t get the ball, they couldn’t score.

Of course, holding onto the ball for longer periods of time gave the Ravens more time to aggressively check him while arguably staying within the realm of propriety. With about two minutes to go, they crossed that line. Kevin had just enough time to notice the Raven dealer charging towards him before he was slammed to the ground. His helmet bounced against the court, but he was back on his feet before he processed that the referee had given the Raven a red card and Kevin a penalty shot. The world was tilting slightly as he stepped towards the goal.

Neil was at his side in an instant. “Go let Abby check you out,” he said in French. “I can take the shot.”

Kevin shook his head, which was a mistake. His vision was swimming, but he looked at Neil as steadily as he could. “No. I can do it.”

“You’re probably concussed,” Neil argued. “Don’t let your pride get in the way. This isn’t about your personal grudge. This is about winning the game.”

“I can to it,” said Kevin again. “I’ve played through worse.”

Neil snorted. “So have I. It’s a low bar.”

Kevin looked towards the goal. Instead of a clean outline against the wall of the court, the goal was blurred and doubled. “Fuck.” He blinked hard. It didn’t help. “Fine,” he said to Neil, signaling to the referee and the bench that he was coming off the court. “Don’t fucking miss.”

Abby had clearly been waiting for his signal; she made it over to him in an instant, and Kevin didn’t wait for a response from Neil before allowing her to walk him back to the bench. Once they stepped off the court, though, she started to steer him towards the locker room, and Kevin balked. “I need to see the end of the game.”

“And I need to check you out,” she said firmly.

“It’s just concussion protocol,” he said dismissively. “I have to see the end of the game.”

Abby frowned. “You do understand that concussion protocol means you hit your head hard enough for us to be worried about a brain injury, right?”

“If you take me to the bench, I’ll be a model patient,” he bargained. “I’ll let you do whatever tests you need to do. But I can’t leave now.”

Abby studied him for a second and then sighed. “All right. To the bench.”

Kevin walked as quickly as he could to the end of the bench and sat down before she could change his mind. The way the ground tilted beneath him made his stomach turn, but sitting down was easier than standing, and he made it to the bench in time to see Neil take the penalty shot. He couldn’t follow the ball, but he had no trouble seeing the goal light up. Neil had scored, and the Foxes were up by two with two minutes left in the game. It wasn’t over yet, but it was so close he could taste it.

The Ravens got the ball after Neil’s penalty shot, and Kevin watched closely as they took it closer to the goal. One of the Ravens’ strikers took a shot—too soon; she was still too far away, and Andrew caught it easily and lobbed it back across the court to Neil. The Ravens were starting to look desperate, and it was making them sloppy.

A minute and a half.

“Kevin,” said Abby gently, “I know the game’s nearly over, but I do need to check you out.”

“Go ahead,” said Kevin automatically, not taking his eyes off of the court.

Abby sighed. “Did you fail to follow my light with your eyes because you couldn’t, or because you didn’t notice me asking you to?”

“What?” asked Kevin absently. Once her words processed, he frowned. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t notice.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Abby.

Neil was checked hard enough to jar the ball loose, but not hard enough to lose stride. He was in hot pursuit, but the Raven backliner threw the ball up to his own striker before Neil could catch up. It was the same one who had taken the shot too hastily a few seconds earlier, and she made the mistake again. Andrew blocked the shot and then deliberately turned away from Neil’s side of the court, throwing the ball towards Cartwright, the freshman who’d subbed in for Kevin, instead. He clearly hadn’t liked the way the Raven backliner had plowed into Neil the last time he’d had the ball.

Less than a minute.

Kevin realized he was following the action clearly without any double vision or blurriness. “I think I’m feeling better,” he said.

“What happened to the model patient I was promised?”

“Can’t you just watch me follow the ball instead of your finger?”

Cartwright wasn’t as good as Neil, and he still scared too easily. His mark didn’t even have to hit him to cause the ball to slip out of his racquet and straight to the waiting Raven dealer. He passed it to the Ravens’ other striker, who took his time—limited as it was—to get into position for his shot on the goal. This time, the shot made it past Andrew, and the goal lit up in red. The neon glow made Kevin’s head hurt.

Thirty seconds.

Abby kept pushing through concussion protocol. “Who are we playing?”

“The Ravens.”

“Which team scored the last goal?”

“Them.”

“What happened right after you left the game?”

“Neil got the penalty shot.”

“Can you stand up and balance on one foot?”

Kevin shot her a look. “Now?”

“Yes, now,” she said. “I’ll even let you keep your eyes open.”

Dan had the ball, and she was slowly and deliberately making her way down the court. She passed the ball to Neil, who caught it easily. His mark was too slow to keep up.

Fifteen seconds.

Kevin got up and drew one foot up to his opposing knee. “If I’m still standing here when the buzzer goes off, will you clear me?”

“As long as nothing seems off tonight and you let me do a follow-up in the morning, yes,” said Abby.

The Ravens were desperate, but they were nearly out of time. Neil bounced the ball back to himself and dodged past the Raven backliner between him and the goal. Kevin kept his foot in the air and his eyes on the court.

Five seconds.

Neil faked towards the left and then fired the ball towards the lower right corner of the goal. It lit up in a rewarding red, and this time, the light didn’t make Kevin’s head swim nearly as much. They were going to do it—they were going to win. Up by two with less than three seconds left, it didn’t matter that the Ravens had the ball again. They got the ball to half-court and took another shot, but it went wide, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The buzzer went off, and the score was final: Foxes win, thirteen to eleven.

Kevin grinned and lowered his foot back to the ground. “Am I cleared to go celebrate?”

Abby tried to give him a stern look, but it was obvious that she was excited about the win, too. “Take it easy, and check in with me if you feel off, even a little bit,” she said. “But yes, you’re cleared.”

Kevin whooped and started towards the court, following the rest of the team from the bench to join those already celebrating near the goal. He paused to look back towards Jean and Jeremy in the stands. They were both standing up and cheering. Jeremy saw him looking first; he gave him a thumbs up and nudged Jean. Jean smiled—one of his rare, real smiles—and Kevin felt lighter than air. He returned the smile and pumped his fist, and then he jogged out onto the court to join his team.

Neil was waiting for him. “Not so bad to step back and let me handle the last couple minutes after all, huh?”

Kevin glared at him, but there was no heat to it, and he was too happy to hold the expression for long. “Good job,” he said, clapping him on the shoulder. Neil grinned back at him, and they let themselves get pulled into the sea of celebrating Foxes.

Kevin was on post-game press duty with Dan, and he had never been more antsy and ready to be done. He just wanted to get back to Abby’s and see Jean and Jeremy. He and Dan cruised through questions about the game and their overall strategy, and then things got more personal.

“Kevin, you took a pretty big hit near the end of the game, and it took you out for the final two minutes—how are you feeling?”

His press smile was firmly in place. “Much better.”

“Why did you come off the court for such a critical part of the game?”

“Protocol,” he said. “Like you said, it was a pretty big hit, and I needed to get checked out to make sure there was nothing seriously wrong.”

“Have you been cleared to play?”

Technically, he wasn’t sure—Abby hadn’t specified whether he was cleared to play or just cleared to celebrate; Kevin didn’t feel the need to do so, either. “I’ve been cleared.”

“Jean Moreau and Jeremy Knox were in attendance at tonight’s game.”

Kevin waited, but the reporter didn’t expand on his statement. “Is there a question?”

“Why?”

“You’d have to ask them,” said Kevin, “but they knew they were likely to run into one or both of these teams during post-season play, and they don’t play either of us during the regular season. It’s not uncommon to check out the competition.”

“Even when it involves a cross-country flight?”

Kevin shrugged. “They’ve got a bye week. They’ve got time.”

“This was the first time Jean Moreau has seen the Ravens in person since his transfer. Do you know if he reconnected with any of his former teammates?”

Kevin’s smile tightened. “I won’t speculate on Jean’s agenda for his trip out east,” he said. “Now, does anyone have any questions about the Foxes?”

“This was also your first time seeing the Ravens since Riko’s death. What was it like?”

Kevin paused and carefully considered his answer. “This is a very different Ravens team than the one we played in the spring,” he said. “I am optimistic that they will learn from the mistakes of their past and continue to improve.” He turned to Dan. “I think we’re done here.”

Dan nodded in agreement, looking pleased. “Thanks, y’all. Have a good night—I know we will!”

Back in the locker room, Kevin gave a quick scan for Jean and Jeremy, but they weren’t there. He frowned. With the number of Ravens fans around—the number of frustrated Ravens fans around—he would have expected Abby to get them out of the stands and bring them back to the relative safety of the Foxes’ locker room.

“Abby already took our esteemed guests back to her place,” said Andrew. He was leaning against the wall by the door, with Neil, Nicky, and Aaron waiting nearby. “That is who you’re looking for, right?”

Kevin didn’t particularly feel like admitting it, but it was hard to deny when Andrew had read him so clearly. “In that case, we should get going,” he said. “Abby doesn’t need to be entertaining them on her own.”

Nicky, who was looking positively giddy, started to say something, but Andrew shut him up with a look. “Let’s go,” he said, and the others followed him out to the car.

They weren’t the first ones to arrive at Abby’s, but they were close. Kevin didn’t make it far past the door when he was pulled into a hug by Jeremy. “Congrats on the win!” he said. “You guys looked really impressive out there!”

Jeremy’s compliment warmed Kevin to the soul. “I’m glad y’all were here to see it,” he said.

Jean was watching him closely. “How hurt are you?” he asked in French.

“I’m okay,” Kevin said quickly. “I thought it might be a concussion at first—dizziness, double vision—but the symptoms dissipated. Abby wants to keep an eye on me, but she cleared me. At least for tonight.”

Jean was frowning as if he didn’t quite believe him. “If you’re okay, why did you leave the game?”

“I wasn’t seeing well enough to take the penalty shot,” he admitted. “The point was too important for me to stay in and risk missing it.”

“And who convinced you of that?” Neil chimed in over his shoulder.

Kevin rolled his eyes, but Jeremy spoke up before he could respond. “We’re just glad you’re okay now,” Jeremy said. “And we’re glad you had the sense to take a step back when you were feeling off,” he added, giving Jean a pointed look that he neatly dodged.

“They’ll consider it a victory,” Jean said. “They got you off the court. That was their goal. They’ll just come harder next time.”

Kevin nodded grimly. “I know. I’ll be ready.”

“How can you possibly be ready for that?” asked Jean.

“Not to interrupt,” said Jeremy, switching back to English, “but could we just go somewhere more private to talk? My French has gotten pretty good, but I’d rather be having this conversation in English.”

Kevin paused. He wasn’t sure how much longer this particular line of conversation would go, anyway, but he wasn’t going to turn down a chance to talk to Jean and Jeremy away from the prying ears of his teammates. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s go to the guest bedroom.”

Jean gave a quick nod and started down the hallway with Jeremy and Kevin close behind. Neil started to go with them, but Andrew said something in German, and he stopped, grabbing Kevin’s arm. “Should I come, too?”

“Um,” said Kevin uncertainly. On one hand, Neil was just as affected by everything they should be talking about as he and Jean were. But on the other hand, some of the things he wanted to talk to them about—like how Jean was doing, really, and how things were going between Jean and Jeremy—were really none of Neil’s business. “Do you want to?”

Neil glanced back at Andrew, who gave him an unreadable look that Neil, apparently, understood perfectly. “I’m good,” he said. “Come get me if there’s anything I need to know.”

Kevin nodded, then he went the rest of the way down the hallway to the guest room. Jean and Jeremy were already there; Kevin shut the door behind him.

“No Josten?” asked Jean, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” said Kevin. “He just said to tell him if there’s anything he should know about.”

Jean shrugged and went to sit on the chair. “That is fine with me,” he said. “I still do not like him very much.”

“He’s—” Kevin started. Neil was a lot of things, many of which contradicted each other. Cautious but reckless. Talented but rash. The reason they had a future at all, but the reason that future was tied permanently to the Moriyamas. “He means well, usually.”

“A ringing endorsement,” said Jean with a snort.

“It’s true, though,” said Kevin. He wasn’t sure why it felt so important to defend Neil to Jean and Jeremy—they didn’t need to like all of the other people in Kevin’s life. And if their roles were reversed, Neil would probably just agree that Kevin could be a bit of an asshole and move on. Still, Neil was one of his best friends, and he needed Jean and Jeremy to understand. “I know he can be abrasive, but he’s important to me.”

Jeremy and Jean exchanged a glance. “He’s—are the two of you . . . ?” asked Jeremy, making an odd gesture.

“Are we what?”

“You obviously don’t have to tell us whether you are or not,” Jeremy added quickly, clarifying absolutely nothing. “It’s not any of our business. Except—well, it would be nice to know, so we don’t say or do something inappropriate.”

Kevin frowned. His head was starting to hurt again, and he still couldn’t make any sense of what Jeremy was saying. Maybe he was concussed. “Inappropriate how?”

“Jeremy, mon amour,” said Jean, and Kevin pushed down the twist in his gut at the casual intimacy of Jean’s language. “Back it up. He has no idea what you are trying to ask.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Jeremy with a slightly nervous laugh. “I got ahead of myself. I’m asking—and again, you don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to; it’s personal, you can just tell me to fuck off, but—are you and Neil together? Like, romantically?”

“Or sexually,” Jean added, his face perfectly neutral.

“Or that,” Jeremy agreed, looking like he wanted to disappear into a puddle on the floor. Kevin wanted to join him.

No,” he said emphatically. “He’s with Andrew.”

Jeremy relaxed a little. “We knew that. Or, we suspected, at least. But just because he’s with Andrew doesn’t mean the two of you couldn’t be . . . something.”

“Or the three of you,” added Jean. “That would also be an option.”

Kevin stared at Jean. He had clearly gone to California and lost his mind. “I’m not with Neil,” he said again. “Or Andrew. Or any combination thereof. And I don’t want to be.”

“Good,” said Jeremy. “I mean—not that it would be bad if you were. But since you don’t want to, it’s good that you’re not.”

“Right,” said Kevin. A sudden wave of tiredness came over him, he went over to the bed and sank down onto one end. “It’s good.” He still felt like he was missing something obvious, but he had no idea what, and Jeremy didn’t seem to be willing to elaborate. Not yet, at least. He turned to Jean. “How do you feel about tonight? Was it helpful for you to be here?”

Jean paused to think about it, and then he slowly nodded. “I think so, yes. It was harder, in some ways, but also easier, in others. And I am glad I was able to see them in person without the pressure of a game of my own.”

“The press is going to be on you about it,” Kevin warned. “You probably didn’t see it, but they were asking me why you were here and whether you’d talked to any Ravens.”

“We know,” said Jeremy, moving across the room to perch on the other end of the bed. “Abby got us out of the stadium and back here pretty quickly, so we caught most of your press conference.”

“Your answers were good,” said Jean. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Kevin said, shaking his head. “It’s none of their business.”

“Still,” said Jean with a shrug, “you handled it well. I appreciate it.”

“We both do,” said Jeremy. “It may not seem like much, but it matters.”

It felt like the absolute least Kevin could have done. He had spent his whole life keeping other people’s secrets; he wasn’t about to break that habit by sharing personal information about Jean, of all people. “You matter,” he said. “Both of you.”

Jeremy and Jean exchanged another significant look that Kevin couldn’t interpret. He wasn’t jealous—he wouldn’t be jealous of this. Jean deserved to have someone like that, someone who could understand what he was thinking with a glance. Kevin used to be that person. And now it was Jeremy. A better choice all around. Kevin wasn’t going to begrudge him that.

“So,” said Kevin, “the two of you are . . .”

“Trying very hard not to cross any lines,” said Jeremy quickly, looking away from Jean.

Jean gave Jeremy a soft smile. “And doing a very good job of it,” he said.

Jeremy shrugged, very deliberately not making eye contact with either of them. “You know what they say. Worth the wait, and all.”

“Great,” said Kevin. His voice sounded strained, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

“Are you sure you are feeling all right?” Jean asked, studying his face.

“Yeah,” said Kevin quickly. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’m happy for the two of you.”

Jean raised an eyebrow. “I was referring to your recent head injury.”

“Oh.” Kevin flushed. “Yeah. I’m good, I think. Just tired. I should be able to just sleep it off.”

Jeremy frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to stay awake if you’re possibly concussed?”

Probably. Kevin couldn’t remember. “I’ll check with Abby before I go to bed,” he said. “But really, I’m fine.”

Jean snorted. “You have been spending too much time with Josten.”

“Or it’s a common phrase used by people who are, in fact, fine,” said Kevin. He shifted the conversation back to Jean. “How have things been going with the Trojans?”

“You’re deflecting,” said Jean.

“I want to know,” Kevin argued.

“You have watched all of our games. I know this because you text me incessantly every time you do.”

“I’m not just asking how things are going on the court,” said Kevin. “How have you been adjusting?”

“I can leave if you want,” said Jeremy. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to censor yourself in front of me.”

Jean shook his head. “Stay,” he said. “You should know by now that I do not censor myself around you.” Jeremy gave him a look, and he amended his statement. “I censor myself less around you than anyone else.” Kevin’s headache was starting to reach a distracting level; he tried to keep his expression smooth when Jean looked back over at him. “Except maybe Kevin,” Jean added.

Kevin knew he should appreciate being included in that. Less than a year ago, Jean had censored himself around Kevin as much as anyone. Maybe more. It was just so hard to focus. “So, how are things going, really?” he asked.

An odd look crossed Jean’s face; it took Kevin a moment to recognize it as optimism. “Things are good,” he said. “Really. The Trojans are . . . very different. And they have been very welcoming.”

“And you’re getting enough out of practices?” Kevin asked. “You’re able to push yourself and improve?”

“He pushed himself too much if you ask me,” said Jeremy.

Kevin looked sharply at him. “You said you knew how important it was for him to play, last time you were here,” he said. “That should mean you know how important it is for him to challenge himself.”

Jeremy looked steadily back at Kevin. “I also know what happens if you push too hard,” he said. “Too much too fast, and, at best, you’re not going to perform as well as you could. At worst, you’re asking for an injury. As I understand it, that would be a major problem, yes?”

He was right. Again. It was good that Jean had Jeremy looking out for him and not Kevin. He didn’t know how to stop pushing. “Yeah. It would be.”

“Don’t worry,” said Jean. “I am getting enough out of practice. And I am not pushing too hard.”

“Good,” said Kevin. He was feeling a little nauseated. “I’m glad.”

Jean frowned at him. “You don’t sound glad,” he said. “You sound like you’re going to be sick.”

He felt like he was going to be sick. He swallowed thickly. “I’m—maybe.”

Jeremy stood uncertainly. “Should I get Abby?”

Kevin wanted to say no. He wanted to power through. He wanted to be okay.

But, as usual, it didn’t really matter what Kevin wanted. “Yes,” he choked out.

Jeremy hurried out of the room, closing the door again behind him. Kevin had just a moment to be grateful for the privacy; he barely made it to the en suite bathroom before the nausea won. Jean stood nearby; it was familiar in a way that was both painful and comforting.

“I might have a concussion after all,” he said weakly.

“No shit,” said Jean. “Now that you’ve thrown up, do you feel better or worse?”

Kevin sat back on his heels. “Better?”

Jean relaxed a little. “Good. Now do whatever Abby says when she gets here.”

Kevin didn’t think he’d have the energy left to fight her even if he wanted to. “Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “I will.”

***

You played well tonight.

Not like someone who’s been benched for most the last week on concussion protocol.

I followed all medical advice to the letter.

Which you should know, since I’ve been complaining to you about it all week.

It could all be an elaborate ruse. Text me as if you’re languishing on the bench as cover for the fact that you’re back on the court sooner than you should be.

When did you become such a stickler for allowing time to heal?

As soon as I learned it was an option.

Right.

Sorry.

Not your fault.

Mostly, at least.

Really, though, you looked good tonight.

It was an easy game. They didn’t even need me.

Learn to take a compliment. You would think it would be easier for someone as talented and self-centered as you.

. . . thanks?

Better.

You are feeling okay? Really?

Yeah, I’m good.

You said that last time, you know. Your credibility on the matter took a serious hit.

I know. But I mean it. I’m good.

Good. You need to be in top shape for when you go up against us in the playoffs.

Bring it on.

We will.

He knows, by the way. Jeremy. The rest of it.

ALL of the rest of it?

Yes.

Why?

You know how dangerous that is.

For him, and for us.

He had some questions after the conversation with Neil in the locker room, and I answered them.

He already knew most of it. He’s better off knowing all of it.

Are you sure?

Yes. But even if I weren’t, it’s done.

You should have talked to me first.

You would not have had anything useful to contribute to the conversation.

I could have told you all the reasons it’s a bad idea to tell him.

I do not need your judgment. I am just telling you now so you know you can speak freely in front of him.

I am right about this. He already knew enough for it to be dangerous. Now, he also knows enough to be careful.

Sorry.

That makes sense.

It’s probably good that you told him. I was just caught off guard.

You are right, too. I could have told you before I did it.

I DID put thought to it. But I did not know when I was going to tell him until it happened.

It’s okay. You’re the one who sees him every day. I trust your judgment.

And I’m glad he knows.

Me too.

Chapter Text

Kevin was pacing relentlessly around the dorm.

“You know,” said Andrew from the couch, “if you’d been walking in a straight line, you might have made it to the NCAA offices by now.”

Kevin paused his pacing to flip him off.

“The rankings are important,” said Neil. He was perched on the arm of the couch next to Andrew, staring at the television. The ESPN anchors were chattering about the season, filling time until the final rankings of the regular season were released. “They determine who we face in the semifinals. They could determine whether we even make it to the death matches.”

“Sure,” Andrew agreed, “but they’re not going to announce them any faster if you stare a hole through the TV.” He glanced at Kevin. “Or if you pace a hole through the floor.”

He was right, of course. Kevin didn’t bother explaining that the pacing was the only thing keeping his anxiety from boiling over. He itched for a swig of vodka. He’d been drinking less, though—trying to find healthier coping mechanisms—and he didn’t want to give up on himself. Not yet. Not over this.

“There’s no way they’ll put the big three in the same division again this year, right?” asked Neil. “We’ll probably have to face at least one of them.”

Kevin nodded. “The committee says they don’t take that kind of thing into account when they’re setting the rankings, but it would be weird for it to happen two years in a row.”

“Which one would you rather get?” Neil asked thoughtfully. “We’ve already beaten the Ravens once this year, and we’ve improved a lot since then. But they’ll definitely be out for revenge now that we’ve beaten them twice in a row, and they’ve gotten better, too. Maybe Penn would be preferable? They didn’t even make the death matches last year, and they’ve had a rough season.”

“Or maybe USC,” said Andrew, giving Kevin a pointed glance. “Could be fun to see them. Don’t you think, Kevin?”

“USC should make the championship,” said Kevin, ignoring whatever insinuations Andrew was trying to make. “If we play them, we will lose.”

Neil snorted. “Way to believe in your team.”

“It’s not about belief,” said Kevin. “We lost to them in the preseason scrimmage, and Jean wasn’t even playing. Sure, we may have improved, but so have they. And they’ve improved more.”

“We can beat them,” Neil insisted.

“Maybe,” Kevin allowed, “but it’s certainly not something we can count on.”

“Looks like we won’t have to. Not yet, at least,” said Andrew, eyes on the television. “Rankings are up.”

Kevin turned back to the TV and took in the list. USC, Palmetto, Edgar Allen, and Penn made up the top four—in that order. The rest of the teams rounding out the semifinals bracket were unimportant; the games might not be easy, but they were definitely winnable.

“The Big Three are split evenly, with us,” said Neil. “All four of us can make the Death Matches. And we don’t even have to play USC or the Ravens before then.”

“It’s a lucky draw,” said Kevin, nodding. A mix of emotions swirled in his stomach. He was relieved to avoid facing the Ravens in semifinals—even if they won, the game would be rough, and the Foxes couldn’t afford injuries. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact that they wouldn’t face the Trojans unless they both made the Death Matches. He’d meant what he said before—he wasn’t sure the Foxes would be able to beat them. But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to see them.

And, of course, if the Foxes weren’t playing either of them, that meant the Ravens and the Trojans were playing each other.

He needed to talk to Jean.

***

You have seen the schedule?

Of course.

How do you feel about it?

I don’t know.

Jeremy says I am ready.

And it’s better than seeing them for the first time in the Death Matches, probably.

He’s right. You’re ready.

I do not feel ready.

You don’t have to feel ready. You just have to BE ready. Which you are.

At least it will be a home game.

I do not think I could go back there.

You could, if you had to.

Maybe.

But I am still glad that I do not have to.

Me too.

Can I ask a favor?

Of course. Anything.

It is a big ask. And you can absolutely say no.

What is it?

The Foxes have a bye the same week that we play the Ravens. Is there any way you could be there?

In California?

Never mind. I should not have asked.

No, that’s not it. You SHOULD ask.

I’m just trying to figure out if it could work.

It’s okay. You do not need to come.

It’s enough that you thought about it.

Hold on.

Don’t worry about it.

I will be fine.

I don’t expect you to drop everything in the middle of the playoffs to fly across the country just because I am not strong enough to face them by myself.

I will not even be by myself. Jeremy and the rest of the team have been great.

I would barely have time to see you anyway.

It’s not worth it for you to come.

Well, too bad, because I’ll be there.

What?

With Wymack. There’s a recruit he wants to check out over there anyway.

You do not have to do this.

I know. I want to.

And I told you, Wymack has a recruit he wants to see. The timing works out.

Thank you.

It’s not a big deal.

It is.

I know it is still difficult for you to see them, too.

All the more reason for me to be there.

It has to get easier eventually.

If it does, let me know.

I will.

***

Kevin was just about to gather Neil and Andrew for night practice when his phone rang. Jean. He answered without hesitation. “What’s wrong?”

“Tell Jeremy that if I did it now, everyone will just think that I am copying you.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘Tell Jeremy that if I did it now, everyone will just think that I am copying you,’” Jean repeated, speaking with the slow deliberation of someone taking extra effort to articulate his words.

“That clarified absolutely nothing,” said Kevin. “Can you just—can you put Jeremy on?”

“I’m here!” Jeremy’s voice came through the speaker as if he was yelling from halfway across the room. “Tell Jean he should do it anyway!”

“What is it?” Kevin asked.

“The tattoo,” said Jean. “I want to cover it up. But if I do it now, people will say I am copying you. You already covered your tattoo before playing the Ravens in the playoffs. Now I cannot also cover up my tattoo before playing the Ravens in the playoffs.”

Kevin put a hand to his cheek, rubbing the chess piece. “Yes, you can,” he said. “Do it. It doesn’t matter what they think. If you’re ready, do it. Do it for yourself.”

“I told you so!” said Jeremy. He sounded as if he’d moved closer to the phone, but he still seemed to be shouting. “Come on, Jean. Let’s go. If we leave soon, we won’t even have to reschedule the appointment.”

“You’ve got an appointment?” Kevin asked.

“Yes,” said Jean. “We made the appointment, we went to a consultation, and then I started to doubt myself, and I got very, very drunk to compensate.”

“Wait, how drunk are you?”

Jean snorted audibly. “Not as drunk as you were when you went to get yours done.”

“Okay, fair enough.” Kevin ran a hand through his hair. “So, what are you going to get?”

“A swan,” said Jean promptly. “Graceful, strong, and mean as fuck.”

Kevin laughed. “That’s perfect.”

The phone line was quiet for a long moment, then Kevin heard Jean take a deep breath. “Do you really think that I should do it?”

Kevin paused for a moment. Covering the tattoo was a big decision. It would draw attention. It would be a distraction. It might even put an additional target on Jean’s back.

But, if he was really ready, it could also set him free.

“Do it,” Kevin said. “And send me pictures.”

Jeremy let out a whoop in the background, and Jean let out a small, slightly manic laugh. “All right, then,” he said. “I will do it.”

“And you’ll send me pictures?”

“And I will send you pictures.”

***

Did you see it?

What do you think?

You JUST sent the pics, give me a second to look.

I do not have a second.

I want to know what you think NOW.

I am very impatient.

I will peck you with my swan beak.

You don’t have a swan beak, you have a swan tattoo.

And it’s perfect.

You look great.

You really think so?

I really think so.

I can’t wait to see it in person.

Me neither.

You’re already seeing it in person.

How much DID you drink?

Picture me flipping you off right now.

I meant that I cannot wait for YOU to see it in person.

Soon.

Now get some sleep.

I am not tired yet.

That sounds like a personal problem.

I can make it your problem, too.

Hmmm.

I might actually be a little bit tired.

I think the adrenaline is wearing off.

Hey, Kevin?

Yeah?

Thank you for giving me the courage to go through with it.

Any time.

That’s what we do for each other.

We make each other stronger.

I am glad you will be there for the game. I am ready to win, and I want you to see it.

I’m looking forward to it.

***

Kevin was practically buzzing with excitement. The minutes were ticking down on the game clock, and the Trojans were up ten to seven over the Ravens. Laila Dermott, the USC goalkeeper, blocked a difficult shot on the corner of the goal and heaved the ball back up the court, and Kevin let out a loud whoop.

Wymack gave him an amused look. “I thought you were planning to stay neutral. Something about it being unprofessional to show bias?”

“I was,” said Kevin, shrugging uncomfortably. And the impulse hadn’t been wrong. He was already in a somewhat perilous position by even being at the game. While most exy fans seemed to have come down against the Ravens in the aftermath of Jean’s transfer and Kevin’s allusion to what really happened to his hand, some of that animosity had lessened after Riko’s ‘suicide.’ Kevin’s attendance at the game at all was already drawing attention and speculation. Openly cheering for the Trojans over his former team would send a bigger message than Kevin had intended. “I don’t think I care anymore.”

Wymack clapped him on the shoulder. “Good for you, kid.”

Kevin smiled at him—a real smile—and turned his attention back to the court. Jean and Jeremy were both playing, and had been most of the game. He’d watched the tapes of all their games, but it didn’t compare to seeing them play in person. Jeremy played with a sort of infectious enthusiasm that made his accuracy and precision come as a surprise. And Jean. Jean. He had always played with intensity and aggression, but now, there was a freedom and confidence to his movements that hadn’t been there before.

And he was going to win.

The Ravens weren’t making it easy. Even as victory slipped further out of reach, they played with a relentless brutality. Throughout the game, they had persistently targeted Jean, but he had stayed one step ahead, engaged in an artful dance. And the rest of the Trojans were dancing with him. Kevin took note of the way they continually pushed the Ravens away from Jean. It didn’t make him look weak; it made him look supported.

Jeremy had the ball, and he was driving towards the goal. He was taking his time, draining as many seconds from the clock as possible. When he finally scored, there was less than a minute to go, and Kevin was on his feet cheering with the rest of the crowd.

Their four-point deficit was too much to overcome, but the Ravens hadn’t given up. That made it even sweeter when Jean stole the ball from the Ravens’ striker and threw it back across the court to Jeremy, who scored one more time in the final seconds. One of the Ravens’ dealers made a last-ditch shot on the goal from mid-court, but it was so off target that Laila had already started running towards her teammates in celebration by the time the buzzer went off and the ball bounced harmlessly off the wall.

Kevin wanted to stay and watch their celebration, but, now that the game was over, he had become one of the more interesting things in the stadium. He was suddenly very conscious of the curious eyes focusing in on him.

Wymack, apparently, felt it too. “Ready to get out of here?” he asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

He wasn’t, really, but he was ready to get away from the prying eyes, and it wasn’t like they were truly leaving—Coach Rhemann had given them a spare key, and they were going back to his place. And, once they’d showered and finished press duty, Jean and Jeremy would be meeting them there. “Yeah,” Kevin said. “Let’s go.”

Kevin and Wymack worked their way through the crowd and out to Wymack’s rental car without incident. Wymack naturally gave off a gruff air that made him seem unapproachable, and, in his years with the Ravens, Kevin had mastered the closed-off expression that inspired just the right amount of awe to stop anyone from even considering speaking to him until he was long gone. He sank into the passenger seat and relaxed—just a little; they were still in a crowded parking lot, and there were still windows.

Wymack glanced over at him and sighed. “I hope that one day you get to turn it off.”

Kevin knew that his act couldn’t fool Wymack, but it still caught him off guard to be called out on it. “What do you mean?”

“You know damn well what I’m talking about,” said Wymack, putting the car in gear and starting to drive. “Now, turn on the radio. I bet we can find the post-game coverage.”

Kevin relaxed in earnest and began adjusting the radio. He found the right station just as Jeremy started to speak. For the first few minutes, the questions were focused on the substance of the game; it took longer than Kevin had expected for them to turn to more personal topics.

“Jean, how did you prepare to finally face your former teammates?”

Kevin tensed, but he shouldn’t have worried. Jean was ready, as always.

“I prepared just as I would for any other game. At the end of the day, they are just another team. My preparations were focused solely on the court.”

“He’s very good at this,” said Wymack.

“He’s had to be,” said Kevin quietly. “We all did.”

“Think we could get him to give Josten some lessons?”

It was an obvious attempt to lighten the mood, but it worked. Kevin let out a snort. “Maybe, but I doubt they’d be effective.”

“Still, could be worth a shot,” said Wymack. “Something to consider.”

Kevin hummed in agreement.

“If the Ravens are just another team, why did you choose this week to unveil your new tattoo?”

“The timing just worked out,” said Jean evenly. “It is something I had been meaning to do for a while.”

“Why did you do it?”

“I am no longer number three. It was time for the tattoo to reflect that change.”

“Kevin Day covered his tattoo before playing the Ravens in the championship last year. Did you draw inspiration from him?”

Kevin grimaced. He’d been hoping that, somehow, he would stay out of the conversation. He should’ve known better.

“We discussed it,” said Jean evenly, “but the decision was mine.”

“Why was Kevin Day at the game today?”

Jeremy jumped in and took this one. “You’d have to ask him. I heard he’s a fan,” he said easily.

Kevin smiled. It was a far more accurate answer than Jeremy’s casual tone let on.

“Jean, will you and Kevin see each other before he leaves California?”

“I do not know his travel schedule,” Jean answered. It was a good response—misleading, but not technically a lie. “In any case, I expect we will see each other in a few weeks during the Death Matches.”

“The Death Matches won’t be set until semifinals are completed; can we take this as a sign that you are confident in both the Trojans’ and the Foxes’ chances?”

“Yes,” said Jean, sounding as if it were obvious. “We are the best teams in each of our sections, and we have continued to prove that through our semifinals matches. I am confident we will both come out on top.”

“All right, I think that’s a good place to end things for the night,” said Coach Rhemann. “Thank you all for coming out. Go Trojans!”

“The man’s got good timing,” said Wymack, turning onto a narrow street. “We’re almost to his place—that’s it just up ahead.”

Kevin turned off the radio, which had transitioned to post-game interviews with the Ravens, and focused instead on the house in front of them. It looked nice—brightly colored and welcoming, with an expansive and well-maintained lawn. He felt a little weird about going to Coach Rhemann’s house, but it was the easiest way to get some time alone with Jean and Jeremy without drawing unwanted attention. His desire to see Jean and Jeremy was strong enough to negate some of the awkwardness he felt about hanging out at the house of the Trojan’s coach.

He and Wymack didn’t have to wait very long for the others to arrive. They had, apparently, left as soon as possible after the press conference, and they’d made good time.

“David,” said Coach Rhemann, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks for having us,” Wymack said. “And congrats on the win.”

“Congratulate these guys, not me,” said Coach Rhemann, gesturing to Jeremy and Jean. “They did all the hard work.”

“Under your leadership,” said Jeremy with a smile. “You’re too modest, Coach.”

Coach Rhemann laughed. “Tell that to my ex,” he said. “Anyway, you kids probably don’t want to hang out with us old farts. Jeremy, you can take them downstairs to the game room.”

“Sure thing, Coach,” said Jeremy. He grinned at Kevin and Jean. “Come on, let’s go.”

Kevin and Jean followed him across the room and down a wide set of stairs into the basement—the game room. Coach Rhemann had a great setup. There were televisions on every wall, with large, comfortable-looking couches in the middle, a bar in one corner, and a ping pong table off to one side. “Sweet set-up,” said Kevin. “Do you come over here often?”

“A decent amount,” said Jeremy, grabbing two Gatorades from the bar. “You want anything?”

Kevin hesitated. “Just water.”

“Here you go,” Jeremy said, tossing a water bottle over to Kevin. He came back over to the couch, handing one of the Gatorades to Jean, and sat down. “Make yourself at home.”

Kevin sat on the couch across from them and just took in the scene. Jean and Jeremy were sitting close to each other—not touching, but close enough that they could without effort. And both of them looked completely at ease. For Jeremy, that was normal. Kevin could count on one hand the situations in which he’d looked anything but comfortable. For Jean, though, it was noteworthy. Kevin wasn’t sure he’d ever seen him looking so relaxed—in the Nest, his tension had been constant, even in his sleep. But now, he was sitting next to his captain in the house of his coach, a swan on his cheek instead of a number three, casually leaning back against the couch and smiling.

“You look good,” said Kevin, before he could think himself out of it. “The tattoo—it really does look better in person.”

Jean sat a little taller, a little prouder. “Thank you,” he said. “I am very pleased with it.”

“You should be,” said Kevin. “It looks great. And so do you. You look—happy.”

Jean’s smile deepened, and his eyes brightened a little. “I am.”

“Good,” said Kevin. And it was good. It was all he’d really hoped for when Jean went to the Trojans. He would figure out the twinge in his stomach later, when Jean wouldn’t have to deal with it. “And you were great on the court tonight—both of you,” Kevin said, gesturing to include Jeremy, too. “The whole team, really. You’ll be tough to beat.”

“We had a really great night, didn’t we?” said Jeremy with a grin. “This one definitely meant a lot to us. I mean, we’ve always kind of seen the Ravens as the antithesis of everything we stand for, and now that we know more about just how true that is . . .” Jeremy shrugged. “We wanted to win for all the obvious reasons, but we also wanted to win for Jean. And you. And everyone else who’s suffered because of those bastards.”

“Not only did you win; you might’ve knocked them out of the championship,” said Kevin.

“We’ll see how it shakes out once all the games have been played, but if they are out, we’ve also got Texas to thank,” said Jeremy modestly. “If they hadn’t beaten them a couple of weeks ago, the Ravens would still be in second place.”

“Texas has an easy schedule from here on out,” said Kevin. “And the Ravens still have to play Miami—they’ve been on a hot streak.”

“The odds are looking good,” Jeremy agreed. He glanced over at Jean. “Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if neither of us have to play them again. I guess I’m just nervous about setting my expectations too high and then being caught off guard if they make the Death Matches after all.”

“If they make it, they make it,” said Jean. He looked at Kevin. “We’ve faced them. We’ve won. We can do it again.”

Kevin’s smile started slow and stretched into a grin. Jean’s newfound confidence was captivating and infectious, and he never wanted it to end. “Yes. We can.”

“I still hope we don’t have to,” said Jeremy. “They play dirty. I’m still not over that hit they put on you when you played them.”

Kevin waved him off. “I was fine.”

“You were concussed.”

“Just a little.”

“Is there really such a thing as a ‘little’ bit concussed?”

“Sure,” said Jean, chiming in. “Concussions have varying degrees of severity. You can definitely be a little bit concussed.”

Kevin nodded in robust agreement. “See?”

Jean turned on him with a raised eyebrow. “You, however, were at least moderately concussed.” Kevin opened his mouth to protest, but Jean held up a hand. “You came out of the game and you threw up later. Don’t pretend you didn’t. We were there.”

Kevin grimaced. “You may have a point.”

“I always have a point,” said Jean, looking very pleased with himself.

“It’s a talent,” said Jeremy with a laugh. “Even when I’m the one he’s disagreeing with, part of me still feels like he’s right.”

“That is because I am,” said Jean, lightly flicking Jeremy on the shoulder. He shifted his gaze back to Kevin. “That does, however, lead us to a . . . related topic.”

Kevin frowned. “Related how?”

“Something we had intended to talk to you about last time we saw each other, before the concussion.”

Nothing about Jean’s tone made it seem like it would be something bad, but Kevin felt himself tensing for the worst anyway. Whatever it was, he felt a desperate need to keep it from happening. “Is now really a good time?” he asked. “I’m—you know, I’m pretty tired actually. The jet lag, I think.”

Jean snorted. “You are fine. And I do not know why you are trying to avoid this. It isn’t bad.”

Kevin sank deeper into the couch. Jean knew him too well for him to hide. “Okay,” he said cautiously. “What is it?”

Jean raised an eyebrow at Jeremy. “You want to take this one?”

Everything about Jeremy’s posture said ‘no.’ Maybe Kevin was right to be nervous. Jeremy took a deep breath and forced a smile that looked more like a grimace. “Yeah, totally.”

Jean looked amused. “You’re the one who taught me the importance of open and honest communication.”

Jeremy laughed a little, and his resolve seemed to strengthen. “You’re right.” He turned so he was sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing Kevin. “Okay, so, first of all, if this is wrong, or off base, or just too much, stop me. We’ll drop it, no hard feelings.”

“Okay,” said Kevin slowly. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was agreeing to, but he trusted them.

Jeremy studied him for a moment and then nodded. “Good. Okay. So, you know that Jean and I like each other, and that we’ve decided not to act on it until the season’s over and I’m not his captain anymore.”

Kevin nodded. “And I think that’s great,” he said. “Really.”

“We think so, too,” said Jeremy. He smiled at Jean, then turned back to Kevin. “So that part—we’re all definitely on the same page with that part. And none of the rest of this changes any of that.”

“What’s the rest of this?” asked Kevin cautiously.

Jeremy looked nervous again. “We—that is, Jean and I—and you don’t have to, obviously, but Jean thinks—we think—”

“We both like you, too,” said Jean. “And we think that you like both of us, as well.”

Kevin’s eyes widened for just a second before he swallowed his emotions back down. He’d already shown too much. He wasn’t going to let himself derail whatever had been building between Jean and Jeremy. It was good—Jeremy was good—and Jean deserved that goodness. Kevin didn’t see how he could be anything but an obstacle to that. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You—you don’t?” asked Jeremy, looking confused.

“No,” said Kevin stiffly, ignoring the way Jeremy’s confusion slipped into hurt and disappointment. “I don’t.”

“Bullshit.” Jean was looking at him intently, eyes narrowed and arms crossed.

“Excuse me?”

“Bullshit,” Jean repeated. “You’re lying to us. I just don’t know why.”

“I’m not,” Kevin insisted.

“Not what?” Jean pushed.

“Not—” Kevin closed his eyes and shook his head. “Not any of it.”

“Jean,” said Jeremy tentatively. “Maybe we should—”

No,” said Jean. His voice was forceful enough to make Kevin look back over at him. “What is it? Are you scared? In denial? Worried about the press?”

“It would be stupid not to be,” said Kevin, “but no. That’s not—I’m not—”

Jean leaned forward in his chair. “Not what?”

Kevin felt like he was being backed into a corner. “I’m not—”

Finish the sentence.”

“I don’t know how!”

“Yes you do,” Jean insisted. “Just tell us the truth. Don’t you think you owe me at least that?”

“Of course,” said Kevin desperately. “But I’m not—”

Not what?”

“I’m not going to fuck this up for you!” Kevin said. He heard Jeremy’s sharp intake of breath, but he ignored it. “Yes, I like you. Both of you. But it doesn’t matter, because you have each other, and I’ve told you both that I’m not going to get in the way.”

“What do you mean—in the way?” asked Jeremy. “How do you think you’d be in the way?”

Kevin still couldn’t make himself look at him. “How could I not be?” he asked. “You like Jean. Jean likes you. Neither of you need me there.”

“But we want you there,” said Jeremy.

Kevin was staring at the ground. “You should want Jean. And he should want you. If you options are me or him, pick him.”

“Oh,” said Jeremy, as if everything suddenly made sense. “Those aren’t the options.”

“What are you talking about? Of course those are the options.”

“No, they’re not,” said Jeremy. “It’s not him or you. It’s him and you. The three of us. All together.”

Kevin turned and blinked at him. “That’s an option?”

“Sure,” said Jeremy. “Why not?”

Kevin looked at Jean, who shrugged. “I have learned a lot of things in California.”

“Apparently,” said Kevin faintly.

“So,” said Jean, challenge in his eyes, “is this something you want?”

Kevin’s mind was racing. The obvious answer was yes, but he still didn’t feel like it was allowed. “What about the press?” he asked. “What about pro teams? Court? Them?”

Jean frowned. “Maybe they don’t have to know.”

“And it might not even be an issue,” said Jeremy. “It’s not like we’d be the first queer players in the league.”

“That’s one thing,” Kevin protested. “This is—they wouldn’t understand this. And people don’t like things they don’t understand.”

“Maybe,” Jeremy acknowledged, “but why does it matter what they think?”

Kevin stiffened. “You know why it matters. If Jean and I don’t play professionally, we’re dead.”

Jeremy’s expression tightened. “I know that,” he said. “I just—it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t be any of their business.”

“It doesn’t matter whether it should or shouldn’t,” said Kevin. “It is their business. Everything we do is their business.”

“Everything we do, you mean,” said Jean quietly, gesturing between himself and Kevin. He turned to Jeremy. “It does not have to be like that for you.”

“Yes, it does,” said Jeremy. “We’ve been over this. If it affects you, it’s going to affect me, too. You’ve given me plenty of chances to change my mind.”

“It’s different if it’s just the two of you,” said Kevin. “Easier. Safer.”

“It’s a risk,” Jeremy acknowledged, “but that’s not a good enough reason to say no to this.”

“Isn’t it?” asked Kevin. “What kind of—if I was willing to put you at risk just for some crush—”

“Is that what this is for you?” asked Jeremy. “Just a crush?”

Kevin knew he should say yes. He wanted to say yes. But Jeremy was looking at him as if his words could either give him the world or take it away, and Jean was looking at him with the same quiet intensity he played with on the court, and he couldn’t bring himself to lie to them. “No.” He swallowed heavily. “This is—something. It could be something real.”

“It is something real,” said Jean. “That means something. It matters.”

“I just don’t know if it’s enough,” said Kevin quietly.

Jeremy leaned forward, eyes hopeful. “Do you want to find out?”

Kevin pressed his lips together. “What do you think it would mean to ‘find out’?” he asked. “When I say I don’t know if it’s enough, I’m not talking in a ‘sometimes love just isn’t enough and things don’t work out’ kind of way. I’m saying they might not allow it. They could stop us. Hurt us. Hurt you.”

“Would they, though?” asked Jean.

Kevin gaped at him. “You know who we’re talking about. Of course they would.”

“I do not think so,” said Jean. “Think about it. This will not stop us from getting signed with professional teams. We will still be valuable assets, making them money. Why would they be so concerned with our personal lives that they take that risk?”

Kevin couldn’t tell if he actually thought Jean was right or if he just wanted him to be. “How sure are you?” he asked. “Are you willing to bet your life on it? Jeremy’s life?”

Jean faltered for only a second. He glanced over at Jeremy, who was watching him with a cool confidence, and his resolve visibly returned. “Yes. Jeremy and I have discussed the risks, and we are both willing to take them. For each other, and for you.”

It was bold. It was brave. He wanted it desperately, but the danger—to himself, to Jean and Jeremy—was immeasurable. “What if I’m not?” Kevin asked, fighting to keep the break out of his voice.

“Think about it,” Jeremy implored. “I know it’s complicated, and it’s a lot to think about. It wouldn’t be fair for us to ask you to make a decision in one night. I mean, Jean and I have been thinking about it for months.”

Kevin blinked at him in surprise. “You have been?”

“Yeah,” said Jeremy. “This isn’t some spur-of-the-moment thing. We’ve had the chance to think it all the way through, and this is what we want—each other, and you. If you’ll have us.”

Kevin hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to,” said Jean. “Not yet. Tell us when we see each other for the championship.”

That startled a smile out of Kevin. “You’re still that confident we’ll both make it?”

“Yes,” said Jean simply. “So, do we have a deal?”

He wasn’t agreeing to much—just to think about it, and to let them know what he decided. He could do that. “Okay. Deal.”

“One caveat,” said Jeremy, holding up a hand. “Can you not tell us until after the game? I just—either way, it will be a pretty big distraction, and I’d rather not think about it until the game is over.”

“Of course,” said Kevin quickly. “Don’t worry. I won’t do anything to throw you off. Not intentionally, at least.”

“I know,” said Jeremy with a smile. Kevin would do just about anything to keep that smile in place.

He had a lot to think about between now and the championship.

***

Congrats on the win!

Congratulations to you too! Feels good to officially make it through semifinals.

And it feels very good that they did NOT make it through semifinals.

It very much does.

I assume you’ve seen the finals schedule?

Yes. If we each do our jobs against Penn and Texas, we’ll just play each other once, for the championship.

The Foxes definitely plan to do their job.

As do the Trojans.

Looking forward to it.

It will be good to see you

Does this mean you have thought about it?

About seeing you? Sure.

About our deal. And what you’ve promised to tell us at the championship, when we see each other.

I’ve been thinking about it.

It’s hard to think about anything else.

Even exy?

Other than exy.

Good. If you are THAT distracted, it will be too easy for us to beat you. I want it to be a fair victory.

Is it a good sign or a bad sign that you have been spending so much time thinking about it?

I’m not supposed to tell you now. I’m supposed to tell you at finals.

If you are going to turn us down, I would rather know in advance.

It doesn’t work like that. If I agree to only tell you if it’s a no, you’d be able to figure out whether it’s a yes based on my refusal to say anything.

It COULD work like that.

I know that’s not the deal.

I am looking forward to it. I just do not want to be disappointed.

What if you tell me now, and I promise not to tell Jeremy?

Could you even pull that off? I feel like he’d know as soon as you do.

I am offended. After all this time, do you really think I cannot keep a secret?

From him? I’m not sure.

I could, if I needed to.

Especially if it was to protect him.

I think you know that.

Good.

And you’re right, I do.

Anyway, I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to. I don’t know yet.

Oh.

It feels like a bad sign, you still not knowing.

It’s not.

Or, at least, I don’t think it is.

There’s just a lot to think about.

Would it help for me to list again all of the reasons you should say yes?

Probably not. I know them already.

In fact, your voice listing all the reasons I should say yes is one of the things that makes frequent appearances while I’m trying to focus on other things.

Now THAT sounds like a good sign.

It might be.

There are a lot of voices in my head.

Maybe you should talk to someone about that. I hear your team psychologist is very good.

Hah. Thanks.

Don’t worry, I am always here to give you good and helpful advice.

I know you’re joking, but you really are. And I appreciate it.

Don’t get all sentimental on me now.

Unless you are about to tell me you’re planning to accept our offer, in which case you can get as sentimental as you’d like. A one-time free pass.

I still don’t know. Really.

But you’ll be the first one I tell.

With Jeremy.

After the championship.

We will be waiting

Chapter Text

The seconds were ticking down in the final minute of the championship game. The Foxhole Court was filled with orange and white, red and gold, and the noise was deafening. The energy the stadium was palpable.

And the Foxes were going to lose.

That didn’t mean Kevin was going to give up. Down by three with less than a minute to go, victory may have been out of reach, but it was the last game of the year—the last chance, this season, for him to throw himself wholeheartedly into a game, a real game, that actually mattered—and he wasn’t about to waste a second of it.

Neither was Neil. He passed the ball to Kevin, who made an aggressive charge towards the goal. Unfortunately, his mark was Jean, who had been making his life difficult all night. And not just with his playing, though that was certainly part of it. Kevin had fully intended to make up his mind about what to tell Jean and Jeremy before the game, so he could put it out of his head and fully focus on the match instead. But he kept going back and forth, and having Jean right there in front of him all night hadn’t helped. He knew what he wanted; he just wasn’t sure it was something he could actually have.

Right now, though, he wanted to score one more goal, and he was determined to make that, at least, happen.

Jean knew him well enough to predict his every move, but Kevin knew Jean just as well. With a quick zig to the right where he typically would have zagged, Kevin was able to get around him and get a clear shot on the goal. Laila Dermott was in position, and she was good, but she also hadn’t been expecting Kevin to get past Jean, and she had started to let her guard down now that a Trojan victory was inevitable. That made it easier for Kevin to get one more little victory of his own. The goal lit up just a few seconds before the buzzer went off. The Foxes still lost, but by two instead of three, and Kevin got the final score he’d been angling for.

Kevin dropped back and let the Trojans celebrate. The conglomeration of red and gold jerseys came together near center court, jumping, hugging, and cheering. Jean stayed to the outside of the group, but he was very much a part of it—even more so once Jeremy got close enough to put an arm around him and gently pull him towards the rest of their teammates.

Allison came up beside Kevin, watching him watch them. “So, are we still inviting them to Abby’s post-game, or are you going to be too jealous?”

“Jealous? Why would I be jealous?”

Allison raised an eyebrow at him. “I really don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but they won the championship, and we did not.”

Right. Of course she was just talking about the game. It was her last one—Renee’s and Dan’s, too. It only made sense that she was upset, and that she’d expect him to be, too. “They deserved the win,” he said, and even he was a little surprised by how much he meant it. “I’m fine.”

Allison’s eyebrows shot up higher. “You’ve officially spent too much time with Neil. We’re going to have to separate the two of you. Anyway, are we still on for the after party or not?”

“Yeah,” said Kevin. “I mean, if the rest of you still want to.”

“Good,” said Allison. “There is a very cute Trojan dealer who has been flirting with me all game, and I need the opportunity to follow up.”

Maybe she wasn’t as upset as Kevin had thought. He was saved from answering by Jeremy, who had come over with the rest of the Trojans to start shaking the Foxes hands. “Good game, Kev,” he said. “You guys fought hard—kept us on our toes!”

“Good game,” Kevin repeated, clapping him on the shoulder. “You really capped off a great season with an exclamation point. Congrats!”

“It was a team effort,” said Jeremy, grinning back at the Trojans gathered behind him.

“Good game,” said Dan. She and the other Foxes had come to join Kevin and Allison. Her smile was tight but genuine. “We hope you’ll all still come over and let us celebrate with you.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” said Jeremy. He glanced over at Kevin. “We’ve been looking forward to catching up with you guys.”

“Great,” said Dan. “In that case, the sooner we get showered and changed, the sooner we can start the party. See you in a bit!”

Wymack met them as they stepped off the court. “Good game, all of you. Not the outcome we were hoping for, sure, but you should be damn proud of the way you went out there and gave it your all.” He turned to Kevin and Renee. “Walker, Day, you’re on press duty.”

Kevin hesitated. He’d been hoping to use the time to figure out what he was going to tell Jean and Jeremy. “Coach, I—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” said Wymack. “You and Renee are the only ones I trust not to say anything rude about the Trojans.”

Kevin opened his mouth to protest, but then he closed it again. Wymack was probably right. He sighed. “Yes, Coach.”

“That’s more like it. Now, go get showered and changed.”

Neil caught up to Kevin as they entered the locker room. “You played well,” he said in French. “And so did Jean. I think the Little Lord will be pleased.”

Kevin frowned. He’d been so tied up thinking of what Ichirou might think about his off-court activities he’d forgotten to worry about his opinions of their on-court performance. The reminder made him realize that Neil might be able to offer some insight into his dilemma. “Speaking of the Little Lord,” he said slowly, still in French, “do you think—does he know about you and Andrew?”

Neil paused. “We’ve never discussed it,” he said carefully, “but I think so. Yes.”

Kevin pushed down a quiver of hope. “Does he care?”

“What do you mean?” asked Neil, furrowing his brow. “Are you asking if he’s threatened him, or tried to use him against me? Because he hasn’t, but if you’ve heard something—”

“No,” said Kevin quickly. “Nothing like that.” He took a breath. “I was wondering if you think he cares that you’re with another man.”

“Oh,” said Neil, visibly relaxing. “No, I don’t think he cares at all. As long as it doesn’t affect my performance on the court, it doesn’t matter.” He shot a glance at Kevin. “Why the sudden interest? Are you thinking about going public?”

Kevin’s eyebrows shot up. “With what?”

“With whatever’s going on between you, our French friend, and sunshine personified,” said Neil.

Kevin took a moment to appreciate that Neil at least hadn’t used their names. “There’s nothing going on,” he insisted. “Why would you think that? Is that something people think?”

Neil looked at him skeptically. “Andrew and I have heard your phone calls. We noticed the way you went off alone with them the last times they were in town. And everyone knows about your trip last month.”

Kevin swallowed the panic threatening to bubble up from his stomach. “There’s nothing to notice,” he said. “We’re friends. We had things to talk about.”

“Okay,” said Neil with a shrug. “If that’s the story, I’ll go along with it.”

“It’s not a story,” Kevin insisted. “It’s the truth.”

“Sure,” said Neil agreeably. “If it wasn’t, though—just hypothetically—I don’t think he’d care.”

Neil knew. He knew, and Kevin felt—better? “Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate your perspective.”

“Good,” said Neil. “Now, go get cleaned up so you can talk to the press and we can all get out of here.”

With a sharp nod, Kevin followed Neil’s advice.

A few minutes later, he and Renee were sitting in the press room, taking questions from reporters. Kevin never particularly enjoyed press conferences—historically, they were opportunities for him to slip up, to say something wrong that would lead to pain and punishment. And they were usually a waste of time, too. The questions were rarely unique and almost never interesting.

Press conferences after a loss were particularly grating, and this was no exception. The questions were focused on what went wrong, how the Foxes could recover for next year, what it was like to end the season—or, in Renee’s case, her exy career—on a loss like this. Their answers were the appropriate level of polite and subdued. Kevin could have handled this press conference in his sleep. He found himself hoping for something, anything, to make it at least a little bit interesting.

He should have known better.

“Kevin, this marks the first championship in more than a decade that didn’t feature the Ravens. How do you feel about that?”

Kevin hid his grimace well. “The Ravens have had a difficult year,” he said diplomatically. “I’m sure they weren’t pleased to be watching the championship from home tonight. It will be interesting to see how they make adjustments in the coming years.”

The reporter gave a small laugh, as if he were in on some kind of joke. “Well, not all of the Ravens were watching from home.”

Kevin’s jaw tightened. He knew exactly what the reporter was implying, but he was going to make him say it. Kevin feigned confusion. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I follow.”

To his credit, the reporter faltered slightly, but he pressed on. “I’m referring to you and Jean Moreau. The two of you represented the Ravens well tonight.”

“Jean is a Trojan,” said Kevin icily, “and I am a Fox. Neither of us has represented the Ravens in quite some time. As an exy reporter, you should be aware of that.” He turned to Renee. “Ready to go?”

Renee smiled at him. “Yes, I think so.”

As soon as they’d left the press room and gotten back into the privacy of the locker room, Renee reached over and put a hand on his arm. “You handled that very well. I think Jean will like your answer.” She paused. “And Jeremy, for that matter.”

Kevin stopped short. “What do you mean? Why would—Jeremy?”

Renee smiled softly. “I don’t mean to overstep,” she said. “But Jean and I do talk, quite a bit. I know about his and Jeremy’s feelings for each other. And their feelings for you.”

“Oh,” said Kevin. He fought down the swell of panic that had come from Renee’s revelation. Neil knew, Renee knew—and neither of them seemed to think it was a bad thing. Unless—“Did he tell you about tonight?”

“You mean that tonight is when you said you’d tell them whether you return those feelings?” Renee asked.

Kevin nodded. “Yeah, that.” He swallowed heavily. “Do you think—I mean, does he think—do you know—”

“If you’re trying to ask what you should say,” Renee interrupted gently, “I think that’s up to you.”

Kevin’s shoulders slumped. “Right. I shouldn’t have asked.” He turned to go.

“Kevin,” said Renee, reaching out to him again. He stopped. “I can’t tell you what you should say, but I can tell you they very much hope you’ll say yes.”

“What about the risks?” he asked, barely above a whisper.

“They know about the risks,” said Renee, “and you’re worth it.”

“I’m not,” Kevin said, his voice breaking.

“You are to them,” said Renee simply. “And to the rest of us.”

He stared at her, trying to process what she said. He’d heard the words, but he was struggling to believe them. “Really?”

“Of course,” Renee said with a smile. “Now, are you ready to get to Abby’s?”

Kevin took a steadying breath, and then he smiled back at her. “Let’s go.”

The drive to Abby’s was quick and companionable. Kevin realized he was going to miss Renee—although, given her friendship with Jean, he might not have to miss her so much, after all. She kept the conversation light, and it did wonders for his nerves. He could see why Jean had found such comfort and companionship with her.

By the time they arrived, the party was already well under way. The other Foxes hadn’t waited for Renee and Kevin to finish with the press before leaving for Abby’s, and the press had talked to the winners first, so the Trojans had had plenty of time to get to Abby’s, as well. Kevin hoped that he and Renee could slip in quietly—if he could get in unannounced, maybe he could give himself a few minute before he needed to talk to Jean and Jeremy. Maybe get a drink. Think a little more. Not that thinking had done him much good so far, but—well. A few more minutes could help.

Part of Kevin’s wish came true. Most of the crowd didn’t react at all when he and Renee entered Abby’s house. But Jean and Jeremy were standing right by the door, clearly waiting for them.

Jean went to hug Renee first. “It is good to see you,” he said.

“It’s very nice to see you, too, Jean,” said Renee with a smile. She hugged Jeremy, too. “And you, Jeremy. Congratulations on the victory!”

“Thanks, Renee,” said Jeremy, grinning. He looked around the room at the rest of his teammates. “I’m really proud of everyone.”

“You should be,” said Kevin. “Truly.”

“That means a lot, coming from you,” said Jeremy. “I know you wouldn’t say that if you didn’t mean it.”

Kevin shrugged. “Yeah, well.” He glanced towards the kitchen; he thought he could see a makeshift bar set up. He didn’t need much to drink—he really had been cutting back—but something would still be nice. “I can let you guys catch up,” he said, gesturing between Renee, Jean, and Jeremy. “You can just find me later, if you want.”

“I do not think so,” said Jean, taking half a step towards him and reaching out to touch his forearm. “You owe us an answer first.”

“I don’t know if it has to be first,” said Kevin.

Jean was unamused. “You said after the game. It is after the game.”

“Well, technically, everything is ‘after the game’ at this point.” Jean squeezed his arm a little harder. “Okay. Yeah. Sorry.” Kevin took a deep breath. “Spare bedroom?”

Jean and Jeremy nodded. Renee reached over and put her hand lightly on Jean’s shoulder. “We’ll talk afterwards, all right?” she said. She glanced at Kevin. “Either way.”

Jean nodded. “Thank you.”

Renee slipped off into the crowd, and Kevin was left alone in the entryway with Jean and Jeremy. He still didn’t know what to say to them, but he was out of time. “Shall we?” he said, gesturing down the hall. He didn’t wait for an answer before starting down the hallway. Worst case, they wouldn’t follow him and he would have extra time to figure out his answer.

They did follow him, though. Of course they did. Jeremy was the last one in the room, and he shut the door behind them. Kevin sat on one end of the bed, against the wall. Jean sat on the other end, and Jeremy took the chair, pulling it a little closer to Jean on the bed. They were studying Kevin—looking for clues. He wanted to ask them what they saw; maybe it would help.

“So,” Kevin said slowly. Jeremy reached over and took Jean’s hand, and a realization washed over Kevin. He looked at Jeremy. “The season’s over. You aren’t his captain anymore. Does that mean . . . ?”

Jeremy looked to Jean, who nodded. “Yes.” He smiled at Jeremy, who flushed. “We discussed that in the locker room.”

“Discussed?”

Jean shrugged, his expression coy. “Our mouths were involved.”

“We kissed,” said Jeremy quickly. “Not where anyone could see. And we didn’t make any kind of public announcement or anything. We just confirmed to each other that we were both, you know, still interested.”

“And we did something we have been wanting to do for a very long time,” said Jean, reaching up to touch Jeremy’s cheek.

“Good,” said Kevin, his throat tight. They were happy and they were in love and Kevin still couldn’t see how he could be anything other than an unnecessary complication. There was his answer—he should tell them no. “I’m glad for you.”

Jeremy stopped and turned to Kevin, reaching a hand out towards him. “This doesn’t mean—you know we still want you too, right?” He gave a small, hopeful, nervous smile. “If you’ll have us, of course.”

Kevin hesitated. He shouldn’t. He’d just reached that conclusion.

But.

But he wanted to. “I still don’t know.”

Jean moved closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me you don’t want this.”

This was it; this was where they would finally tell him that no, they didn’t need or want him here, after all; this was where he gave them an easy out by telling them no, after all. But Jean was rubbing his shoulder, and it was warm and soothing and electric. And confusing. “What?”

Jean’s expression was too close to Jeremy’s—hopeful, nervous. “I think you do want this. I hope you want this. But if you can say it—if you can look me in the eye and tell me you don’t—I’ll believe you. We won’t bring it up again.” He took a deep breath. “So, tell me. Do you want this?”

“Of course I want this,” said Kevin, half-desperately. “Who wouldn’t want this? But I shouldn’t—”

Jean put his other hand to Kevin’s mouth, cutting him off. He moved his hand from Kevin’s mouth to his cheek, gently touching it the same way he’d touched Jeremy’s just a minute before. “When is the last time you let yourself have something you truly wanted?” Jean asked. “Let yourself have this. Let us have this.”

Kevin closed his eyes. Let us have this. If he told them no, he wouldn’t just be denying himself. He’d be denying them something they wanted, too. Him. They wanted him, in spite of all the reasons they shouldn’t. They kept saying it, and he was finally starting to believe them. “Okay.” He opened his eyes. “Yes. I’m in. I’m a little terrified, but I’m in.”

Jeremy leaned closer, looking so excited he could burst. “Really? Are you sure?”

Jean glared at Jeremy. “I just got him to say yes. Do not make him question it.”

“I’m sure,” said Kevin quickly. “I’m not going to back out. ‘A little terrified’ is kind of my constant state of being.”

Jeremy’s smile was so soft Kevin wanted to melt into it. “You’re so brave.”

Kevin shook his head. “I literally just said I’m constantly terrified. That’s the opposite of brave.”

“It’s not,” said Jeremy, reaching out to touch Kevin’s knee. “You’re scared, but you do it anyway. That’s brave.”

“Oh,” said Kevin. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“Jeremy is very smart,” said Jean, smiling at him. “I have found it is best to listen to him”

“I’m learning quickly,” said Kevin. He laughed a little. “This doesn’t feel real.”

“It is, though,” said Jeremy with a grin. “So get used to it, Day.”

“I’d like to,” Kevin said.

Jean leaned back a little. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “this might be the happiest I have ever been.”

“Because of the championship?” asked Kevin. He knew he was deflecting, but it felt like too much to even think for a second that it could be because of this. Whatever this was felt far too new, too fragile for that kind of pressure.

Jean shot him a withering look. “I’ve won championships before.”

“It’s different, though,” said Kevin. “Winning when it’s not with them. Isn’t it?”

Jean paused, considering. “Yes. It is very different.”

“Different in a good way, I hope?” asked Jeremy.

Jean nodded. “It is better. Much better.” He turned back to Kevin. “The winning is good—especially like this—but that is not what I was talking about.” He reached out and took Kevin’s arm, turning it so Kevin’s hand was on Jean’s forearm, too. “I am very happy that you said yes. That you both said yes to this. If you had told me even a year ago that I could have any of this, I would never have believed you. And now . . .”

“It’s hard to imagine it any other way,” Jeremy finished for him.

“I can still imagine a lot of ways it could go wrong,” Kevin admitted quietly.

“Can I?” Jeremy asked, gesturing at the space on the bed in front of Kevin. He nodded, and Jean scooted a little further back to make room. Jeremy knelt in front of him, placing one hand on his leg and the other on the arm that was still being held by Jean. “You’re right,” he said. “There are still plenty of things that could go wrong.”

“I must say, this is not your most uplifting pep talk, mon amour,” said Jean dryly.

Jeremy ignored him. “Your concerns are founded,” he continued, “but they’re not necessary. Any relationship will have its share of issues. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. That doesn’t mean it’s not good, or it won’t last. I need you to know that, so I can know you won’t just give up on this at the first sign of trouble.”

Of course. He’d done that to Jean once before. They were right to be concerned. They were right to—

Stop that,” said Jean in sharp French, giving his arm a squeeze. “I can see you spiraling,” he said, switching back to English. “You do not need to. That’s not what he’s talking about. That wasn’t the same thing.”

Kevin looked over at him, eyes drawn and strained. “It’s close enough, though, isn’t it? You thought of it, too.”

“Will someone please catch me up?” asked Jeremy, looking anxiously between the two of them. “What did I do?”

“Nothing,” said Kevin. “You didn’t do anything.”

“He thinks you are referring to the way he left the Nest,” said Jean. His jaw tightened, and he looked away. “The way he left me at the Nest.”

“Oh. Oh, fuck, no, that’s not what I meant at all,” said Jeremy quickly, his eyes wide. “Kev, look at me. Jean’s right, that wasn’t the same thing at all. You did what you needed to do. You had to get out, and you did, and that’s a good thing. That’s such a good thing. It wasn’t giving up. It was giving yourself a chance.”

“You had to go,” said Jean softly. “I’ve told you a million times, and I’ll keep telling you until you believe me.”

“You’ve also told me what happened to you because I left,” said Kevin. “I could have—”

“You could have what—postponed the inevitable? Been there to die with me?” Jean shook his head. “If you hadn’t gotten out, I wouldn’t have, either.”

Kevin blinked at him. “You really don’t blame me for leaving? For what happened to you because I left?”

“No,” said Jean firmly, “and I need to you stop blaming yourself, too. This won’t work if you are still carrying that guilt. And I very much want this to work.”

Kevin took a steadying breath. “I might need some reminders,” he said, “but I think I can do that.”

“Good,” said Jeremy, relaxing a little. “And I’ll try to do better.”

“With what?”

“With not accidentally saying or doing things that will hurt you,” said Jeremy.

Kevin shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to do that. I should be stronger than that.”

“It’s not about strength,” said Jeremy. “But even if it were, that wouldn’t change anything. You shouldn’t have to be strong with us.”

Kevin was about to protest—to say that it felt backwards, giving them less than he gave to people who weren’t nearly as important to him—but Jean cut him off. “We care about you, you absolute imbecile,” he said fondly. “Let us care.”

“I’ll give it a shot,” Kevin promised. “It’s—it’s going to be an adjustment.”

Jean shrugged. “Can’t be worse than the adjustment it took for me,” he said.

“And we’re patient people,” said Jeremy. Jean gave him a look. “Okay, I’m a patient person. And Jean can be patient when it’s important.”

“I’m not very patient, either,” Kevin admitted.

“That is an understatement,” Jean snorted.

Jeremy laughed. “We can work on that. For both of you.” Kevin and Jean gave him matching dubious looks. “Or I can just be patient enough for the three of us.”

“That might be the best way to go,” said Jean.

Kevin nodded. “Probably, yeah.” He took a breath. “So, how does this . . . work? Like, logistically?”

“Do you mean . . .” Jean wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Kevin’s cheeks flushed. “No. Well, yes, that too, probably, but just . . . all of it. Do we tell anyone? How does this change things between us? What are the rules?”

Jeremy nodded. “Those are all good questions. As to telling anyone, I’m on board with whatever the two of you want to do. If you don’t want anyone to know, that’s okay with me.”

Kevin glanced at Jean, whose face was carefully neutral, and he thought about his conversation with Renee. “I’m not ready to go public,” he said, “but we should be able to tell some people. Like—you should be able to tell Renee, and anyone else you trust not to sell us out.” He paused. “I think I’d like to tell my dad.”

“That sounds good to me,” said Jean. “So, close friends and family. What do we do if someone asks a direct question?”

Kevin frowned. “I don’t want to lie, but I’d really rather not tell the world about this. Not yet, at least.”

“That makes sense,” said Jeremy. “So, don’t deny it, but don’t confirm any specifics. I think we can manage that.”

“Thank you,” said Kevin.

“It’s not just for you. It’s for all of us,” said Jeremy.

“Still,” said Kevin. “I appreciate it.”

“Now, for ground rules,” said Jeremy. “I think it’s important for this to be a fully equal relationship. Like, I know that the dynamics between each of us won’t be exactly the same, and that’s fine, but—I don’t want any of us to feel excluded.”

“That would be nice,” Kevin said quickly. “Just to—to make sure none of us ever feels like a third wheel.”

“Is that something you are worried about?” asked Jean, looking carefully at Kevin. “Because of the distance?”

Kevin hesitated. “I know you’re not—I mean, it’s not like the two of you chose to live together on the other side of the country. Hell, I’m the one who suggested it.”

“Still, it makes sense that it would be harder for you, being further away,” said Jeremy. “Anyway, it’s—well, it could only be for a few more months. I’ve got a few offers, but I haven’t committed to a pro team yet, so—” he shrugged. “I could end up anywhere.”

“What are your offers?” asked Kevin.

“Yes, Jeremy, what are your offers?” asked Jean.

Kevin looked between them. “You haven’t talked about it?”

Jeremy grimaced. “I’ve mostly been trying not to think about it,” he said.

“It’s an important decision, though,” said Kevin. “We could help. What teams are you considering?”

“Um, well, there’s Dallas,” said Jeremy. “Also, Nashville. And New York.”

“All solid options,” said Kevin, nodding. “It depends on what you’re looking for—New York has the best team, but Nashville has been on the upswing, and Dallas desperately needs a new striker, so you’d probably be a starting player right away.”

“Yeah, that’s all part of the consideration,” said Jeremy. “There’s—there’s also Los Angeles.”

“You’ve got an offer from the Stars?” asked Kevin. “That’s what you should do, then, right? I mean, that’s home, and—and then you’d still be close to Jean.”

“Don’t base the decision on me,” said Jean quickly. “That is not a good enough reason for you to make such a big decision.”

“I know,” said Jeremy quickly. “But it’s—well, it’s a tempting offer. And it would be nice to still be nearby.”

“We only have one more year before Kevin and I graduate, too,” said Jean. “And who knows where we will end up.”

“I’ve thought about that, too,” Jeremy said. “Like, maybe I should go with the team I think is most likely to be able to make a high enough offer to get the two of you, too. Or maybe I should pick a team with the highest number of other teams nearby, so we have better odds of at least being geographically close to each other. Or maybe it doesn’t really matter where I start, since I’ll probably end up trying to transfer after a year or two, once you guys are settled.”

“You shouldn’t base it on us,” said Jean. “We won’t be able to base our decisions on you.”

“Exactly,” said Jeremy. “That’s why I should do it. I’m the only one of us whose decisions aren’t going to be directly controlled by them. I’ve got flexibility.”

“You should do what’s best for you and your career,” said Kevin. Jean opened his mouth to argue, but Kevin held up a hand to stop him. “First, none of us can guarantee this relationship will work—as much as we want it to, we can’t know that—and it’s definitely too early to be making major life decisions based on it. Second, picking the best team for your personal growth and development as a player will give you the most leverage later on, if you are trying to transfer to a specific team. If you’ve gotten off to a great start and drawn the right kind of attention, you’ll have the most control over your career long-term. Plus, it increases your odds of making Court. At the very least, we can all play together there.”

Jean nodded forcefully. “Yes. Listen to Kevin. He is right.”

Jeremy gave a slow, slightly reluctant nod. “That does make sense,” he said. “I’ll—I’ll talk it over with Coach, and see what he says.”

“Good,” said Kevin, satisfied. He smiled. “You should’ve asked me for advice sooner.”

Jeremy laughed. “Yeah, maybe so.”

“What else?” asked Kevin. “What are the other—rules, or expectations, or whatever?”

“I’m not sure,” said Jeremy. “I mean, I’ve never done anything quite like this before.”

“At least you’ve dated, though,” said Jean. “Our experiences have been . . . quite different.”

“I know,” said Jeremy. “And that’s—that’s one ground rule we should have. I don’t want either of you to feel pressured into doing anything you don’t fully want to do. Just because we’re together doesn’t mean you’re obligated to—to be intimate, or act a certain way, or—or anything.”

“Thank you,” said Kevin. “That’s—I mean, not that I’d expect any less, but—thank you.”

“I can think of one obligation that might be a bit of a struggle for you, Kevin,” said Jean. “Unlike your previous relationship, we will expect you to speak with us regularly, and to tell us about any major life changes.”

Kevin grimaced. “That was, apparently, an expectation in my last relationship, too.” He gave Jean a small smile. “Besides, you’ve always been the one I talk to. More than anyone else, at least.” He looked at Jeremy. “And—you too. I’ll work on including you in that, too.”

“It’s okay if that takes some time,” said Jeremy quickly. “The two of you have years of history relying on each other. I don’t expect to just seamlessly become a part of that.”

“We want you to be a part of that,” said Jean.

“Agreed,” said Kevin without hesitation. “That’s—that’s what this is, isn’t it? The three of us, together.”

Jeremy grinned. “Good. That’s good.”

Kevin looked between the two of them. “This is going to work,” he said suddenly, confidently. “We may not know exactly how, yet, but we can do this. We’re going to do this.”

Jean was giving him a soft look. “I like this side of you,” he said. “More open. More free.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” said Kevin.

“That’s what we can do,” said Jeremy. “Bring out the best in each other.”

“I’d like that,” said Kevin. “I’d like that a lot.”

“You know what else I would like?” asked Jean. His eyes were on Kevin’s lips.

“Yes,” said Kevin without hesitation. He glanced at Jeremy. “I want—both of you. Please.”

Jean reached up and stroked his cheek. “Tell us what you want.”

Kevin took a breath. This felt like a point of no return. Once he kissed Jean and Jeremy, he didn’t think he would be able to go back to a world in which he didn’t get to kiss them. But then, it was already too late. Just knowing they cared for him—wanted him—was more than he could come back from. “Kiss me.”

They didn’t need to be told twice. Jean’s lips met Kevin’s, and Jeremy gently pressed his mouth against Kevin’s neck. They were warm and soft and safe and Kevin couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. The kisses shifted between them. They were different—Jean’s were strong and confident, and Jeremy’s were soft and comfortable. He went from one to the other to both, and they did the same. Even as their attentions moved and flowed, it felt balanced and equal, like they’d promised.

When they finally broke apart, they stayed close, limbs casually intertwined. Kevin glanced at the door. “We should go back out there,” he said. “You should celebrate with your team.”

“We will have plenty of time to celebrate with them when we are back in California,” said Jean. “I would rather stay here with you.”

“So would I,” said Jeremy, leaning into him. “Besides, right now, I’m not sure I could keep my hands off of you. If we go back out there, both our teams would know.”

“If you’re sure,” said Kevin, resting his head against Jean’s shoulder. “I’m happy to stay, too.”

Happy.

More than happy, he felt real and golden and loved. After the years he’d spent hiding, holding back, making himself small, he finally felt like he was able to uncurl, to stretch out, to bask in the glow of it all. With Jean and Jeremy at his side, he felt tall again. And he was never going to let that feeling go.

Chapter Text

We’re out of paper towels.

And protein bars.

Okay? And what am I supposed to do about it?

I don’t know, pick some up if you get the chance??

We are currently on our way to the same event.

We will be going home at the same time.

When, exactly, would I have the chance to make a grocery run without you?

Oh my god, forget I asked.

I put in an order with the delivery service; they should be waiting for us when we get home.

Yet another example of why Jeremy is the best person in this relationship.

No arguments from me. He is certainly better than you, Kevin.

Is now really the best time for y’all to pretend not to like each other?

Yes.

It’s always a good time.

I also might be slightly nervous.

Really. I had no idea.

It’s okay to be nervous! And it’s okay if you don’t want to go through with this.

No, I do. It’s time.

I’m ready.

So am I.

Good. Let’s do this!!

💛💛💛

🧡🧡🧡

💚💚💚

***

Kevin took a moment to gather himself before stepping out of the car. The Exy Association gala was usually one of his favorite events of the year. He got to dress up, see most of his friends, and spend the evening talking about exy. Plus, since it was always held in New York, he didn’t even have to travel for it.

And tonight, he would also get to be with Jean and Jeremy.

Openly.

In public.

For the first time.

There had been rumors, intermittently, through the years. And they’d kept their promise—none of them had ever specifically denied the relationship. But they were very good at deflecting and very good at keeping things strictly professional in front of other people, so the rumors had always faded.

The attention would fade, too, after tonight. Eventually. But their relationship wouldn’t be a rumor anymore. And Kevin couldn’t decide if he was more excited or terrified.

Still, he couldn’t hide in the car forever. He thanked his driver, took one more deep breath, and stepped out of the car.

Kevin was relatively early, and there wasn’t much of a crowd, so he was able to walk right in. Scanning the hall, he found Andrew and Neil standing near one of the high top tables looking unapproachable as usual. Relieved, he walked over to them, stopping a waiter to ask for a vodka tonic on his way past.

“Hey,” he said, “good to see you. When did you get into town?”

“This evening,” said Neil. “Just enough time to drop our stuff at the hotel and get changed.”

“Good,” Kevin said. “You’re still planning to come practice with us tomorrow, right?”

Andrew rolled his eyes, but Neil grinned. “Yeah, we’ll be there. Thanks again for making the arrangements—your coach probably wasn’t thrilled about letting a couple players from a rival team come in and use your facilities.”

“It was no problem,” said Kevin. “Jeremy asked.”

“Ah, Jeremy Knox,” said Andrew. “Sweet-talking coaches into doing things since—how old is he again?”

“Twenty-seven.” Kevin’s answer was swift and automatic.

Andrew snorted. “Do you get bonus points for remembering your boyfriends’ birthdays?” Neil and Kevin both glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot, and Andrew looked at them critically. “What, did the plan change? Are you not telling everyone about your relationship tonight?”

“No, we are,” said Kevin. ‘Just—habit, I guess.”

Andrew nodded. “You’ve done a good job hiding it for so long,” he said. “It’s almost tempting to see how long you could’ve kept it up.”

Kevin made a face. “Sure, but it’s exhausting,” he said. “You know that better than most. The two of you went public ages ago.”

“You’ll be glad you did it,” said Neil. “The next few weeks will probably suck, but then people will get bored, and you’ll probably end up having more privacy.”

“I hope so,” said Kevin with a grimace. “At this point, I just want to get it over with.”

A waiter stopped back by with his drink, and he took a sip. Andrew was watching him closely. “Starting strong?” he asked.

“Don’t worry, this is my one drink for the night.”

“You’ve been good?”

Kevin raised a shoulder. “Mostly, yeah. Sometimes better than others. But I’ve been good for a while.”

Andrew nodded, satisfied, and the three of them stood in comfortable silence for a minute, watching people file into the hall. Finally, Kevin spotted Jean—even in a room of athletes, he was taller than most of the people around him. Kevin waved him over.

“Hello, mon amour,” said Jean, putting a hand on the small of Kevin’s back and lightly kissing his cheek.

“If that’s all you’re going to do, no one’s ever going to figure out you’re dating,” said Neil, unimpressed.

“We cannot have all the fun without Jeremy,” said Jean, but he kept his hand loosely on Kevin, and Kevin leaned into him a little.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said quietly. “And I’m glad we’re doing this.”

“Me too,” said Jean. He glanced at his watch. “I hope Jeremy gets here soon.”

“Why did you all arrive separately, anyway?” asked Neil. “Shouldn’t you have all been coming from the same place?”

“I came from the court,” said Kevin, “but Jeremy was doing a clinic at a local high school.”

“So, practicing exy and teaching kids about exy,” said Andrew. He looked at Jean. “What were you doing? Reading a book about exy?”

“Absolutely not,” said Jean, wrinkling his nose. “I was at the ballet. There was a matinee performance of Stravinsky’s Festival IV.”

Andrew turned to Kevin. “I like him.”

“You’ve liked him for years,” said Kevin.

“I’ve been largely indifferent to him for years,” Andrew corrected. “Now I like him.”

“From Andrew, indifference is basically a compliment,” said Neil.

“And I shall take it as such,” said Jean.

“Oh, thank god, Jeremy’s here,” said Kevin, spotting his golden-blonde hair across the room. “I hope he makes it over here without getting—oh, no, Laila and Alvarez are definitely going to get to him first, aren’t they?”

Sure enough, Laila Dermott and Sara Alvarez cut Jeremy off and pulled him into a big hug before he made it halfway to Kevin and Jean. Fortunately, Jeremy seemed just as eager to get to them. After a quick greeting, he started towards them again, with Laila and Alvarez trailing after him.

Jeremy grinned at them. “You ready?” he mouthed as he got close. Jean and Kevin both nodded subtly. “Hello, my loves,” Jeremy said, considerably louder than necessary. A few people at nearby tables started to glance their way. “I know I saw you both at home this morning, but I’ve still missed you.”

“We have missed you, too,” said Jean, smiling.

By now, Jeremy had reached the table. He slipped an arm around each of them and kissed them on the lips, one right after the other. The kisses were by no means over-the-top, but they were clearly romantic in nature. Kevin tried to ignore the camera phones he could see pointing at them out of the corner of his eye. They wanted people to see. That was the point.

Jean glanced over at one of the cameras and then back at Kevin and Jeremy. “Do you think that they believe they are being subtle?”

Jeremy laughed. “Who knows? I’m happy to call them on it, though.” Before either of them could stop him, he’d turned towards a nearby woman whose camera was poking out over the top of her purse. “Would you like a picture? We’re happy to pose, if you’d just ask.”

The woman nearly dropped her phone and purse in surprise. “You—oh. Um. All of you?”

“Well, I can’t speak for Neil and Andrew or Laila and Sara, but Kevin, Jean, and I are up for it.” Jeremy leaned towards her with a conspiratorial smile. “We’re the ones you were mainly looking at anyway, weren’t we?”

“Um—well, kind of yeah,” she said. “Are you—um, not to pry, but, the three of you, are you—um, never mind.” She cut herself off with a nervous laugh, glancing at Jean and Kevin, who were flanking Jeremy like bodyguards.

“Are you asking if Kevin Day, Jean Moreau, and Jeremy Knox are in a relationship?” Jeremy asked.

“He’s really leaning into this hard,” said Laila quietly, admiration in her tone.

“Right?” Alvarez agreed. “Talking about himself in the third person and everything.”

“Because if that’s what you’re asking,” Jeremy continued, “the answer is yes! Have been for about five years, actually.”

“Closer to five and a half, at this point,” said Kevin.

“True,” said Jeremy, smiling back at him. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“That’s—since college?”

Kevin wasn’t sure where the question had come from; they were gathering quite a crowd. Jeremy was unfazed. “Yep. We officially got together right after the Trojans won the championship my last year.”

A man Kevin vaguely recognized as a player for Boston’s team took a step forward. “Hold on. So, Jeremy, you’re dating Kevin Day and Jean Moreau?” he asked, looking a little awe-struck.

“That’s not quite how I’d phrase it,” said Jeremy. “I mean, they’re also dating each other. And ‘dating’ feels a little more casual than what this is.”

“I think what Jeremy is trying to say,” said Jean, “is that he, Kevin, and I are in a serious relationship and have been for quite some time.”

“Hold on,” said Theo, one of New York’s defensive dealers. “You’re telling me I’ve played on the same team with all three of you for years and you never said anything?”

Kevin shrugged. “It’s not like we ever denied it.”

“Well, yeah, I guess,” said Theo. “But. Like. We share a locker room, dude. We socialize together. And you never said anything!”

“It is not personal,” said Jean. “We are just very private people.”

Still,” said Theo. “I should’ve noticed. Like, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you guys, but what the fuck?” He shook his head. “Shit, man, congrats. I need a drink.”

Theo wandered off to find a waiter, and Jeremy, Jean, and Kevin used it as an opportunity to turn back towards their friends.

“That went well, I think,” said Jeremy, speaking at a normal volume again. He looked over at Neil, Andrew, Leila, and Alvarez. “Thoughts?”

“Ten out of ten,” said Alvarez without hesitation. “An A plus. Straight fire. I loved every second of it.”

“How mad do you think people will be if I tell them I knew literally before you did?” asked Leila. “Like, jealous-mad? Genuinely mad? Or just the fun kind of mad?”

Jean considered. “I would expect you would get a variety of reactions,” he said.

Kevin raised an eyebrow at Neil and Andrew. “Well? I’m sure the two of you have opinions.”

Neil blinked at him. “Good job. You sure told people.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “Insightful commentary. Thanks.”

“You did it,” said Andrew. “Adequately clear delivery; you shouldn’t end up with a bunch of weird articles debating whether you’re really just roommates or something.”

“Oh, yeah, Andrew and I got a few of those,” said Neil, nodding. “They were annoying.”

“Us too,” said Alvarez, sticking out her tongue. “It was super annoying.”

“Anyway, if we’re rating it on a scale from one to ten, I’d give it a seven,” said Andrew.

“A seven?” asked Jean, looking insulted. “Why only seven?”

“Not enough drama,” said Andrew. “You had years to plan this. It wasn’t bad, but, frankly, I was expecting better.”

“I’d give it a seven and a half,” said Neil thoughtfully. “I agree with Andrew, but I also like that you just got it all out of the way right at the top of the evening. Drama is great, but there’s also something to be said for efficiency.”

Alvarez frowned. “Well, shit. Now my ten out of ten seems rash and overinflated.”

“Hey, now,” said Jeremy. “No takebacks. We earned that ten.”

Jean nodded seriously. “You cannot allow yourself to be influenced by the other judges.”

Alvarez sighed. “Yeah, I guess. Fine, you can keep the ten, but I’m not happy about it.”

“In that case,” said Laila, “I give you a six.”

Six?!”

“Sorry, Jer, but it had to be done,” said Laila, shaking her head. “It would have been an eight, but I had to dock a couple of points to make up for the fact that Sara couldn’t.”

Babe,” said Alvarez. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. Hey, would it steal their thunder if I propose to you right now?”

“Sara. We’re already married.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

Jeremy shook his head and laughed. He took half a step back from the table, gently tugging Kevin and Jean with him. “So,” he said softly, just for them, “what did you think of it?”

“I think it went well,” said Kevin slowly. “I mean, we won’t know for sure until we talk with our publicists, and until we see what people are saying on social media, but—I mean, no one said anything bad. And Coach Flemming already knew, so unless there’s some kind of backlash none of us anticipated, we can be pretty confident our contracts are fine, which means they shouldn’t have anything to complain about. There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but—well, we only decided to come out like this because we thought it would be okay. And—it was, right? It seemed like it was, didn’t it?”

“Breathe,” said Jean firmly. He reached up and gave Kevin’s cheek a gentle stroke, then leaned in and kissed him—quickly, quietly, confidently. Kevin hadn’t realized how far the panic had built until Jean brought it back down with a single touch. “It went about as well as it could have, I think,” he said. “And I quite enjoy being able to do that, now, without waiting until we are home behind closed doors.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin. “That’s—that was helpful.”

“A stellar review,” said Jean flatly. “My kisses are helpful.”

Jeremy stifled a laugh. “Maybe you should get a second opinion,” he suggested.

Jean didn’t hesitate. With one hand still tucked around Kevin’s waist, he leaned in and kissed Jeremy. “Well?” he asked, pulling back slightly.

“Excellent kiss,” said Jeremy, nodding. He smiled, a playful glint in his eyes. “Very helpful.”

Jean threw up his hands in mock frustration. “That’s it. I’m leaving you both for someone who will appreciate me.”

“Can you imagine the scandal?” asked Jeremy. “The pure drama of announcing our gay polyamorous relationship of five and a half years on the same night we end it?”

“We might get a few more points from Andrew,” said Kevin. “He was looking for more drama.”

“That is worth considering,” said Jeremy seriously. “Although, if we break up, at least one of us will have to move, right?”

Kevin nodded. “Probably two of us,” he said. “And maybe all three. I mean, imagine staying there alone with all of the memories.”

Jean sighed. “Fine, then. I suppose I will stay. For now.”

“Only for now?” Jeremy asked, his tone light and teasing.

Jean pretended to think about it. “Maybe longer. We will have to see how it goes.”

“Hey,” called Alvarez, “are you guys done being cute over there? Because, as much as I’m enjoying this, the three of you do live together, while I haven’t seen any of you in months. So, like, not saying you should be having this conversation later, but you definitely could be having this conversation later.”

Jeremy laughed and let himself be pulled back into the group, and Kevin and Jean followed after him. Kevin let himself drift in and out of the conversation, focusing instead on how nice it was to be able to casually touch Jean and Jeremy in public without worrying whether anyone saw or read something into it. He leaned into Jean while he told a story about their vacation to Ireland over the summer. He put a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder while they argued with Neil about which teams—besides their own—were best situated to win the league next season. Jean’s arm was looped around Jeremy while the president of the Exy Association thanked them all for coming to the gala. And then, at the end of the night, they walked outside together, and they got a car together, and they went home together, and they knew they were being watched and photographed, but it was okay. It was allowed. And it was invigorating.

The high of it all kept Kevin going until they were home, safely behind closed doors. His eyes landed on his laptop. “Do I want to know what people are saying?”

“Probably not,” said Jean with a shrug. “But you are going to look anyway, so you might as well look now.”

Jeremy looked at his phone for a minute, then grinned and nodded. “Go for it.”

“You know something?” Kevin asked, looking at him sharply. His stomach had jumped up into his throat.

“My publicist texted me,” he said. “It’s—it’s good. Really good. Turns out, people love us.”

“Really?” Kevin pulled out his phone and checked the Foxes’ group chat. He’d muted it ages ago, but it was still the best place to go for real-time hot takes and gossip. It didn’t disappoint tonight. There were over fifty messages, and only about half of them were from Nicky. He had, apparently, been gathering social media screenshots and sending them to the chat. “We’re—we’re trending?”

“Number two trending topic in sports, worldwide,” said Jean, nodding.

Jeremy frowned. “What’s number one?”

“The world series is currently happening,” said Jean. Jeremy made a noise of acknowledgement, as if that made sense, and Jean looked at Kevin. “Baseball. The championship.”

Kevin made a face. “Still. Baseball.”

“You know,” said Jeremy, sitting down on the couch, “if we wanted to make a go at taking over the number one spot, we could contribute to the conversation.”

“What do you mean?” asked Kevin, sitting down beside him.

“At this point, all the chatter is from other people,” said Jeremy. “Sure, there are some pictures of us from the gala, but the gala was a private event, so we really haven’t said anything publicly yet.”

“It felt pretty public to me,” said Jean, sitting on Kevin’s other side.

“Well, yeah, and it was, but not, like, Twitter-public,” said Jeremy. He glanced over at them, looking them up and down. “We still look pretty damn hot. If you wanted, we could take a nice post-event photo and post it.”

Kevin paused. “Oh. That—that could be nice, right? People would like that?”

“Probably, yeah,” said Jeremy. “I mean, they seem pretty into the whole thing even without direct confirmation from us.”

“We are very popular,” said Jean smugly. He put his feet up and leaned against Kevin, taking out his phone. “Come on. Let’s take a selfie.” Jeremy scooted closer, grinning, and Kevin relaxed back against him. Jean snapped a few photos, then sat up a little straighter to look at them, holding his phone to Kevin and Jeremy could see, too. “This one,” he said, pausing on one of the pictures. “It is the best. I will send it to you.”

“Which one of us should post?” asked Jeremy. “Or—we could all post it at the same time.”

Kevin nodded. “And we can each write our own caption, and see which one people like best.”

“I do not know why you continue to insist on making everything a competition,” said Jean. “Especially when you are so clearly going to lose.”

Kevin snorted. “Bring it.”

For a minute, the three of them were sitting quietly together, each of them trying to draft the perfect caption. At least, that was what they were supposed to be doing. Kevin couldn’t stop looking at the picture. Usually, Kevin thought he looked stiff in photographs—especially posed photos, and especially photos he expected to be shared publicly. Most people couldn’t identify his press smile, but he could, and he rarely showed his true smile for a camera.

In this selfie, though, he did. The Kevin in the photograph was relaxed. He was happy. He was real.

“Ready?” asked Jean, lowering his phone.

“Ready,” Jeremy agreed.

Kevin hesitated for just a moment before typing a quick caption and nodding. “Ready. Let’s post.”

Jean counted them down. “Three, two, one.”

Kevin watched his post upload and then refreshed the feed to see what Jeremy and Jean had said.

He saw Jeremy’s post first and read it aloud. “Back home with my loves after a wonderful night at the Exy Association gala, and there’s no place I’d rather be.” Kevin smiled fondly at him. “Very nice,” he said.

“It’s good,” Jean agreed. “Informative, appropriately sappy. Well done.”

Kevin scrolled to Jean’s post and laughed out loud: “Really, Jean? Good luck trying to decide which of us to be most jealous of?”

“What?” asked Jean innocently. “It’s true. They will have a very difficult decision to make.”

“He’s got a point,” said Jeremy, grinning. Kevin held his breath as Jeremy and Jean found his post. “Oh,” said Jeremy. “Oh, Kevin, I love yours!”

Joy,” Jean read, his smile obvious in his voice. “We do look quite happy, don’t we?”

“Even better,” said Kevin. “We are happy.”

In fact, Kevin was quite certain he had never been happier.