The sun rises on the taste of bloodshed in Columbia. Neil recognises it sticking his tongue to the roof of his mouth as he wakes and he feels sick with the weight of it. The bed is empty but a fading warmth ghosts the sheets to his left. It reminds Neil of his mother and panic sets in. He is up and across the room before his brain registers the movement, jacket in hand and sneakers on his feet by the time he reaches the door. He doesn’t know where he’s going but away sounds like a good start.
The layout of the cousins’ house means he can get to the front door without having to detour past the kitchen. He leaves without interception. He knows the others will hear the lock click shut behind him and come looking for explanation, but he doesn’t wait around to offer one. The heavy slap of sole on pavement is as familiar as the metallic taste at the back of his throat, and he falls into the steady rhythm like it’s the last breath of air from his collapsing lungs.
Neil has been running in circles for some time now: around the inner court of the Foxhole Court, around the winding border of Perimeter Road, and around Andrew at the centre of his universe. He keeps his feet dancing and his heart pumping over familiar ground. And mostly it’s enough just to be moving, just to be breathing, just to be kinetic energy buzzing into motion. He swallows his promises and runs off the excess guilt until his feet guide themselves back into orbit of their own accord. Back to the only thing that ever mattered. Back home.
He does not know Columbia well but his feet take up their ritual and his mother’s voice bites at his ankles whenever he slows. He has been outrunning her for years but the past has a horrifying habit of catching up with him when he falls complacent. Like calls to like, blood finds blood under the most unlikely of circumstances. He runs for what feels like a lifetime.
The house is lit up when Neil returns, his body a house of cards caving in under the dying light of late afternoon, but the Maserati isn’t parked out front. Neil’s pockets are empty but the door swings open almost instantly when he fists a trembling hand to knock it.
“Oh, thank God,” Nicky breathes, reaching immediately for Neil like he’s a drug Nicky has been craving. Neil trips over his feet in his haste to stumble backwards and Nicky retracts his hand as if burned.
“Come and sit down before you do yourself any harm. Well, any more harm,” he says, throwing a pointed look at Neil’s wilting posture. Neil opts not to comment. Nicky trails him to Andrew’s bedroom, but pauses in the doorway to watch Neil sink desperately onto the edge of the bed.
“I’m going to call Andrew. Don’t move.”
Neil doesn’t think he could if he tried, but he says nothing. Nicky takes it for what it is: silent agreement.
Neil’s body has given out on him, but his mind kicks into overdrive, desperate to move, move, get away from here, get out. All he can hear is his mother whispering in his ear. All he can taste is blood.
Andrew enters the room like a whirlwind, loud in all the places Neil expects silence and demanding for attention without saying a thing. He pushes the door closed with his foot and leans up against it, arms crossed and expression blank. They play a dangerous waiting game, walking unsteady lines between one another with the razor sharp edges of their resolve and tipping the scales back and forth with the weight of their silent stares.
It’s Neil who breaks it—far too many voices clamouring in his ears for him to hold his own tongue in check.
“I didn’t mean to leave,” he says, which isn’t strictly true and he wonders when he let the lies slip so seamlessly back into his vocabulary. Honesty is difficult when he’s holding blood between his teeth.
Andrew stares. Neil feels himself begin to crack.
“Are you mad because I left or because I didn’t tell you?”
Andrew blinks at that, as though he doesn’t quite understand what Neil means, tilts his head away, and speaks.
“You ran,” he says and Neil shatters to pieces.
“I didn’t— not— not like that, Andrew. God.”
Andrew looks everywhere except at Neil. His gaze is a waterfall and Neil has been burning for days.
“Like what then?” Andrew asks and he doesn’t sound like he cares but Neil can hear the tempered glass in his voice. It stings when it hits him, a million shards shattering over his raw and aching skin. Andrew has this way of taking Neil’s world between the palms of his hands and tipping it topsy-turvy, dislodging loose parts and spilling his past all over the present. Neil swallows blood and regurgitates truth, swaps heartache for heartache, and tries not to think of his mother’s grip at his wrist.
“I just couldn’t be here today. It’s— My mother died.” He struggles against the weight of a lie pulsing insistently at the inside of his cheek. Honesty seeps through the cracks and he clenches down on the compulsivity of deception. “She died and I didn’t keep one single promise I made. She’d kill me for this if she hadn’t spent so long trying to keep me alive.”
“This is news to no one,” Andrew says impassively. “I know that you already know this.”
“She died,” Neil repeats, a broken record stuck on the one line he can never outplay. He is helpless to the memory of her body filling itself with emptiness.
“Yes,” Andrew agrees.
“No, Andrew. She died. Today. She died two years ago today. I can still feel her skin turning cold under my hand. I can smell her blood so clearly. I can taste it.”
Andrew’s gaze catches on Neil and sticks, unflinching in the face of his self-destruction. He watches Neil come undone, stitch by careful stitch, until he spills himself all over the floor between them.
“What do you need?”
The question rubs Neil raw, leaves him trembling under the weight of it. He doesn’t know—has never really known—what it is that he needs, if he needs anything at all. What he needs is to pick apart the patchwork quilt of his recovery and sink into shadows the way he knows best. What he needs is to disappear.
“I— this is too much, Andrew. You. Them. Us. It’s just— It’s a lot. I don’t know how to be this.”
Andrew watches him, perfectly still, perfectly empty.
“Kevin wants to go to Exites. Nicky will come if we get food after,” he says finally, turning to the door. Panic jolts the edge of Neil’s senses, drowning his desolation for a moment.
“No,” he says and reaches aimlessly in Andrew’s direction. Andrew turns back in one fluid movement, like he’s in an orbit all of his own and Neil is the steady pull at the centre. “Don’t go. You’re the only thing keeping me sane right now.”
Andrew pauses, expression flitting through several harried emotions before settling back on impassivity. He flicks two fingers at Neil’s request, but takes no further action to leave.
“I am not here to sympathise. Ask Nicky.”
Neil grimaces, makes a valiant effort to pick up his broken pieces, and succeeds in slipping further through his own fingertips.
“I would hate it if you did. Just— I need you to stay.”
And this is the only certainty Neil knows. He needs Andrew like nothing else, like the moon needs the Earth to keep its head straight and its feet homeward bound. He needs Andrew to hold him together when his fingers only know the frequency of falling apart.
Andrew steps forward, stopping a breath from Neil’s legs and staring down at him with calculated concern.
“What do you need?” he asks again and Neil crumbles.
“Lie with me,” he says, but it comes out a broken whisper, weak in the middle and smudged around the edges. Andrew waits for him to scoot backwards, kicking off his shoes and curling onto his side, before climbing onto the bed beside him. They mirror each other, two question marks curving away and meeting in the middle. Andrew stares hard at Neil for a few seconds longer and raises his hand to hover above Neil’s head.
“Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Neil breathes, exhaustion seeping into his voice. Andrew dips his hand gently into Neil’s hair, tugging the strands away from his forehead and scraping his nails lightly against Neil’s scalp. His fingers make repetitive motions, pulling out knots and dislodging curls, and Neil lets his eyes drift closed to the familiarity of this closeness. They don’t touch at any other point, but Andrew’s hand shifts to the back of Neil’s neck as Neil allows the edges of sleep to make a grab for him.
“You are not what your mother made you,” Andrew says softly, washing over Neil as he slips further from consciousness. “You are better.”
Neil falls asleep to the beat, beat, beat of his universe holding him in place. He is content to be still, grounded, alive and his mouth fills with the taste of tomorrow.