His last wish, Nero thinks, is to see the ocean. It is what has kept his hands steady on the wheel while the instrument of his destruction sits beside him, staring absently out the window through empty eyes. He should have shot him days ago, Avilio should have killed him weeks ago, the play house at the latest. But here they both stand – or sit, rather – in Cerotto’s stolen car, rolling steadily towards Florida and Avilio’s preferred end.
It takes a little under a week for Nero to cave. He has every intention of treating Avilio as the life-ruining, family murdering menace that he is until they reach the beach. But he can’t. He’s been offering Avilio cigarettes since day one out of (what? Courtesy?), within a week he removes the binds from Avilio’s wrists, soon after he allows him to take shifts driving (it will get them to Florida faster, won’t it?). Life-ruiner. Family Murderer, yet Nero can’t shake the impossible bond he has with Avilio, a transcending companionship with no apparent bounds. Avilio’s presence comforts him as much as it nauseates him; reassures him as much as it angers him. Nero doesn’t know how long he can take this incongruity in feeling, like an itch just out of reach, he feels like he’s burning up in his own skin.
The sooner we get to Florida, the better, he thinks. He spares a glance at his silent companion.
In a few days, he’ll be silent forever. Nero isn’t sure he’ll look much different dead than alive (has he really been alive, these last seven years?).
But all the same…
He’s going to miss Avilio’s vicious mouth and sharp angles, his cunning and his wit. The soft smiles he sometimes allowed when only Nero was around, when they shared a cigarette and watched the sunset, or poured over paperwork in the dead of night, or when Avilio offered to cheer him up when everyone in Lawless wanted his head.
Nero wants to take him by the shoulders and scream “how much of it was real? Was it all a lie? Everything you did and said, was it solely a trick to get me to trust you?”
If he starts screaming now he might never stop.
They make camp in a grove of trees for the night. Nero takes watch first and gazes at the stars, the moon, and the dancing embers as their fire dies. He tries not to notice the slim figure of Avilio sleeping across from him, the elegant curve of his spine, the way he always seems to drown in his clothing.
If only he’d known this unassuming, brilliant, cold man would single handedly orchestrate the ruin of everyone he held dear.
He recalls the night of Frate’s death (Avilio’s doing, of course), but Nero had played a sordid role in the affair. He’d been willing to shoot his own brother, after all.
Nero hid in his office – his father’s office, really – and proceeded to drink himself stupid. Avilio had appeared, because he always did, to reassure Nero, offer his brotherhood to a man he barely knew. Then he sat beside Nero while the other cried into a bottle.
“I don’t want you to be my brother,” Nero said finally.
Avilio had shrugged, unaffected by his rejection until Nero pulled him aside and kissed him.
It must have been terrible, he reflects, he’d been crying for the better part of a half hour and drinking for longer. Avilio remained frozen like a marble statue while he sloppily pressed kisses to his soft pink mouth. In the moments where it seemed like he may have finally broken from his stupor enough to reciprocate, Nero jerked away, wiping off his mouth.
“F-forget I did that,” he stammered, embarrassment hot on his face, “please don’t tell anyone – I’m not…I’m not like that.”
“Like what?” Avilio had deadpanned, but his face spoke otherwise. He always betrayed so little, yet now his eyes were wide, mouth slightly open as when Nero had asked him to join the family, as though pleasantly surprised.
“You should go,” Nero couldn’t make eye contact with him. A cool hand on his cheek caused him to turn his head in Avilio’s direction.
“And if I won’t?” He asked.
“Then you – I–” Nero stammered helplessly as Avilio drew close, crawling onto his lap until he straddled his hips. His hands were cool, cupping Nero’s chin, eyes locked onto his.
“This is what you want?” Nero asked, voice cracked and wavering.
Avilio answered by closing the gap between them and slotting his lips against Nero’s. The angle is better than before, but Avilio’s kisses scream inexperience (but Nero was an emotional drunken mess and in no position to critique).
This was about comfort, about losing himself in Avilio’s rare affection for the time being.
Nero eventually ducked his head down and pressed his face into the crook of Avilio’s neck and shoulder, squeezing him tight. Avilio moved his hands from where they rested at Nero’s jaw to card them through his hair.
“You really should go,” Nero repeated, though it was the last thing he wanted, “I’m the don now…more people are watching me…I can’t afford to-“
Avilio pressed a light kiss to his lips to curtail his rambling. He was already putting space between them, picking up his hat and coat, and slipping out of the room quietly as he had come. He had glanced over his shoulder at Nero before closing the door, and he had felt a horrible swell of gratitude at the gesture.
He liked to believe that, for this instance alone, Avilio’s actions were genuine, a momentary slip In composure before he carefully cataloged his actions and honed them into a weapon just as he did with every other attribute of his false personhood. But he’d seen the way Avilio can manipulate and bend people to his will, without them even realizing, and knows it not to be true.
Nero should have shot him in the car back in Lawless (perhaps in the alleyway outside the car, for Cerotto’s sake). Nero should not have rescued him from the Galassias. Most importantly, Nero should not be taking him across the country to Florida to fulfill his last wish.
Either way, Angelo is glad he will get to see the ocean.
Nero is being kind to him, treating him as if they were somehow still comrades in arms, close friends on a roadtrip. The other man is clearly racked with grief. But Angelo is impressed with how Nero is able to piece himself back together so quickly after losing so much, when he himself had simply withered into a husk of a human being in the aftermath of his own tragedy. He wonders what it might be like to be filled with so much strength and life and emotion.
Angelo steals a glance at Nero as he drives, a furrowed knot of tension has taken up permanent residence on his brow, a tension spreading from his set jaw to his white knuckles gripping the steering wheel. Being Nero is torture.
Hours pass when finally Nero breaks the silence:
“What should I call you?”
Angelo starts but does not move out of his position facing the window, “whatever you want, I don’t care.”
This time the younger man’s head whips around; he makes long, dangerous eye contact with Nero until he has to swerve a bit to right himself on the road. Nero begins tapping his index finger on the steering wheel, agitated.
“Just wanted to see how it felt,” he mutters. He pauses a beat, “but it doesn’t really matter, does it? Look at my options: Angelo the murderer or Avilio the fake,” Nero says bitterly, tapping increasing its tempo.
Angelo resumes staring listlessly out the window; it’s easier than watching Nero try to hold himself together.
By the time the sun sets, Nero can barely keep his eyes open and the car within the bounds of the road. Angelo offers to take over and drive through the night, but Nero stubbornly refuses. They make camp in the hollow shell of a collapsed barn, sitting across from one another, separated by a camp fire. Nero promises that in the morning they’ll find a diner and have some “real food” as opposed to the selection of canned beans and fruits they have been subsisting off of.
“You must be Angelo,” Nero declares once he has finished his canned beans. He lights a cigarette.
Angelo watches Nero intently, eyes glinting in the firelight as though begging for an explanation.
“Avilio was my brother, my closest friend. I trusted him with my life,” he takes a long drag, “as far as I’m concerned Avilio died at the playhouse, along with everyone else I loved.”
Angelo watches him stonily, unmoving like a marble statue. Nero has every right to be angry, and it shouldn’t mean anything to him. (but his words hurt, how they ache like an old, festering wound).
“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” he counters flatly. Neither of them sleep at night, not well, that is. The exhaustion has become a feature of their everyday faces. There’s too much blood, too many corpses between them for it to be any other way. Angelo lays down his coat over a pile of mostly dry straw – it is a vast improvement from sleeping on dirt – and turns his back to the fire and Nero. Half of him wishes Nero would just shoot his exposed back (like he should have seven years ago-), and the other rests easier knowing he has exposed his back to someone whom he trusts (trusted).
The Galassias family still trails them, even deep into the southern reaches of the country. When Strega captured him, he’d been given straightforward instructions: lure Nero out of Lawless and kill him. Doing so would assure Angelo a place in the new don’s ranks. Strega, it seemed, had already taken a liking to him.
Nero knows they are being trailed, and he’s smart enough to escape. Angelo knows he will not survive their visit to the beach. Nero will kill him there, and Angelo is grateful it will be from him.
In rare isolated moments After Frate’s death, they find ways to draw close to one another, a brush of a hand, a stolen kiss. They can afford nothing more that this.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you since during the roadtrip when we fought Goliath,” he admitted on one occasion with a rueful smile.
It is times like this, Angelo wishes, he was really just Avilio Bruno, a street-urchin-turned –pick-pocket-turned-gangster. Avilio had wanted to kiss Nero since the road trip. He could have stayed with the Vanetti family and fallen in love with Nero more every day rather than orchestrate his demise.
But underneath it all is Angelo Lagusa, who knows Avilio is a façade to infiltrate the Vanettis, who has the corpses of his family hanging over him every day, begging for vengeance, asking him why he survived when they all had to perish.
Then one day he added another corpse to the pile: Corteo.
In time, the ghosts of his family have faded into a distant memory, but Corteo’s ghost is fresh and real. He sees him in everything: the coffee he drinks in the morning (made instead by Tigre), the marketplace where he shops for pineapple (this time he shops alone), in every corner of the cursed Vanetti mansion where Vincent is bleeding and dying and Angelo just can’t wait until he can watch it all burn...
At night is the worst, Angelo saw Corteo wherever he looked, by the door, sitting under the window reading, even behind his closed eyes. Corteo was not malevolent in his visions; it was perhaps his greatest fault that he never once resented Angelo.
He cannot sleep this way. Angelo found himself wandering in the direction of Nero’s room before he could convince himself otherwise. He stood at the foot of Nero’s bed, watching him sleep soundly, bare back and shoulders painted silver by streaks of moonlight.
“Nero?” He asked, half hoping he won’t respond.
But he does.
Bleary-eyed, Nero propped himself up on one elbow and asked, “Avilio are you alright?”
He shook his head, he wasn’t there to talk, he just needed to escape.
Nero was confused, but patted the spot beside him, a clear invitation. Angelo curled up against his back, and Nero reached over and captured one of Angelo’s hands, lacing their fingers together. He pressed Angelo’s open palm against his chest, over his heart. With his free hand, Angelo pulled the blankets back up over them both and tried to relax. The thrum of Nero’s heart reverberated through his hollow body like a shout echoing through the deserted vaults of a cathedral, momentarily filling the space inside.
He peered over the smooth slope of Nero’s shoulder to the window, expecting to see Corteo, perhaps furious, that he would seek comfort from the enemy. Instead all he saw were pale swaying curtains, bathed in moonlight. Angelo nuzzled his cheek against the bare expanse of Nero’s back and found himself lulled easily to sleep.
When he’s with Nero, he does not see Corteo. As in life, so it was in death.
Nero kills the engine once they reach the ocean side, but it takes several minutes more for him to undo the white-knuckle grip he has on the steering wheel. He keeps his eyes trained on the horizon before speaking.
“You don’t need a reason to live, you just live.”
And Angelo, would love to believe this, but perhaps he’s too much like his father, because all he can think of are his words “a reason to live gives a man power”. Angelo knows what it is like to be powerless, he’s been powerless for so long and he’s tired, so very tired…
He doesn’t respond to Nero and gets out of the car. Nero follows.
They walk on the beach together. It is, by all accounts, a perfect day. Were it not for the heaviness hanging over the duo. Angelo feels lighter with each step: the ocean is just as beautiful as it was in paintings, and this time, Nero won’t miss. Beside him, he has already stopped walking as Angelo forges ahead. He will make this easy on Nero: he won’t turn around. Eventually, one of the steps he takes will be his last.
As Nero lines up a shot, he wishes with this one bullet he could erase the pain caused to him over the past three months. It is meaningless, what is left of Angelo to kill? What is left of himself? Though part of him rages, killing Angelo may amount to next to nothing, but he will take what he can get.
One bullet, seven years ago, could have saved him this pain, could have prevented the fall of everyone he held dear.
Would it have?
The Galassias’ would still have tightened their noose around Lawless, destroying the Vanetti’s slowly or perhaps in violent confrontation.
And in this scenario had Nero survived, he would be completely alone.
In Angelo he has a kindred spirit; this man brought him low to cause him to suffer equally, not to create a person who could understand him completely. And yet…here Nero stands.
Angelo jumps when he hears the gun fire after so many minutes of soothing ocean waves, he expects pain between his shoulder blades, a bloom of red against the white cloth of his shirt. Instead he sees a shallow divot across the surface of the sand where a bullet might have skimmed before dredging deep into the shore.
In what feels like less than a heartbeat, Nero’s arms wrap around his shoulders from behind, pressing close against the length of his body. The tide creeps up, dancing foam skirting their polished shoes.
“Don’t turn around,” Nero orders, voice muffled.
Angelo is frozen, trapped between confusion, relief and Nero’s arms.
He exhales heavily, “I…need some time to think.” Angelo’s shoulders tense when he presses his forehead against the thin material of his shirt. “For better or worse I can’t kill you…even if that’s what you want…even if it’s what I want.” The young man remains motionless.
“St. Petersburg, Florida is a day and a half drive south along the coast,” Nero continues, “I can’t stay near you right now….but that’s where I’ll be…if you…if you want our paths to cross again.”
“Will you kill me then?” Angelo asks, speaking finally.
Nero sighs, “I don’t know. I need time to think.”
“The Galassias want me to kill you,” Angelo admits, dispassionate as always.
The arms around his shoulders tighten a fraction but he continues, “They said to lure you out of Lawless.”
“That’s why they have been following us this whole time?”
“Mmm, I’ve lured you a bit farther than they expected,” he muses.
“Then…are you?” Nero tenses behind him.
It’s Angelo’s turn to sigh, long enough that Nero wonders if he might exhale all the air in his body, crumple up, and blow away into the sea.
“I don’t want to.” He says it so matter-of-fact, as if killing or not killing is still simple and not mired under plots and grudges and deceit.
They stand in silence for long minutes as the tide pulls in further, waves curling over the tops of their shoes, sloshing at their ankles. The steady push and pull of the water slowly erases their footprints, subsumed by the sea.
“Friendship is a more powerful tool than a knife,” Nero says finally, distantly, breath warm against Angelo’s neck, “That’s what my father used to say.”
“How ironic you would believe those words, seeing as they came from mine,” Angelo says coldly. He is impassable as a statue.
“They were close friends,” Nero pauses a beat, sounding pained, “do you believe them?”
Angelo shrugs awkwardly under the weight of Nero’s embrace
“Is this our legacy?” Nero asks bitterly, “to be just like our fathers? Carving open our friends when they are no longer convenient to keep?”
“You haven’t managed to kill me yet,” Angelo murmurs.
“Do you…do you think we’re meant to be better than them?” It feels like he’s talking mostly to himself.
“Are we?” Angelo’s voice breaks into something raw and honest.
For a moment, his arms tense around Angelo’s shoulders. He wonders if Nero has made up his mind, if he will simply strangle him, snap his neck or throw him down into the rising tide. Angelo would not stop him.
Nero has been forged in violence, but underneath it all is tenderness, so much empathy misplaced in the frame of what should have been a hardened killer. Barbero had been right to accuse him of being unable to kill Angelo – whether it be out of some twisted sense of self-punishment, the frayed tries of familial bonds, or even an incoherent notion of love-
When the arms around Angelo’s shoulders slide away and he has half a mind to grab them back, pull Nero against him never to let go. Without Nero there he is reminded how hollow he has become. Maybe, if Angelo holds fast, crushes Nero impossibly close to his withering form, some of his will to live might spill over into him.
Instead he remains motionless as first the pressure of bodily contact fades, then the warmth. Seawater sloshes around his ankles, soaking up his pant legs.
“One week, St. Petersburg, Florida,” Nero repeats.
Distantly, as if a dream, the car engine starts up, sputters, rights itself, and gradually fades away.