It was a running theme (pun intended) throughout Neil’s life.
It’s not that complicated.
Run away from Father. Run and hide in the cupboard. Run towards the exy ball. Run away from thugs with guns and knives…
It’s incredible, in the end, how easy it was to stop.
He first met Andrew Minyard with a knock on Neil’s crap-box apartment’s door, on a frigid Monday morning. All Neil was wearing was a baggy jumper, leggings and bare feet.
He didn’t know why his shoeless feet were the first thing he felt aware of when he met the man who would change his life, but it seemed important none the less…
(Maybe because, for the first time in a long time, he hadn’t felt immediately vulnerable in the presence of a stranger he couldn’t easily run away from…).
(But who knows? Certainly not Neil).
He learned how to cover a bruise from his mother with cheap concealer and rough hands.
He learned how to contour from an infomercial about a new brand of bronzer, played on mute in a dingy motel when he was twelve.
He discovered that make-up could be something so much more by watching a group of drag queens getting ready for a show in the powder room of a hotel Neil was hiding in. When he was fifteen Neil found out make-up could be colourful and beautiful and larger than life.
He discovered boys could wear make-up on the same day.
His father taught him that life was pain.
His mother taught his how to avoid it…
She also taught him, through the sneer on her face and hateful muttered comments when she finally found him in that powder room, that boys weren’t meant to wear make-up.
When you think about a kid who’s on the run, there’s a few things you assume they’d learn. There’s your standard vodka as disinfectant trick, and maybe they would be better at lifting wallets. They’d definitely learn to be good liars in case any cops came sniffing around. But one thing no-one ever thinks about, is how to hide the bruises.
(That most mothers on the run with their kids don’t leave bruises never crossed Neil’s mind).
Police don’t like seeing bruises on little children, so covering them up became a priority of sorts.
It became something Neil could do well.
Using makeup to smooth over skin and lessen the yellow/green bruises that were forever cropping up all over his body. In the beginning, he never got the skin tone right and the orange smears of foundation were completely obvious, but they kept eyes off him for the precious few seconds it took for him to slip away unnoticed.
Years went by and he got better, could use make-up like an artist uses paint. He never could explore this of course, and only got away with using cheap corner-store stuff, but he did what he could... and he liked it.
Not that he could ever tell his mother that. He could never have a hobby - the only thing he should concentrate on was keeping on running. As fast and as far as they could get.
And they did…
Until they couldn’t anymore.
Burying his mother in a deep grave full of sand was one of the harder things Neil has ever done.
Actively pulling his mother’s blackened corpse out of that car, carrying and burying her was another.
(There’s a reason he can’t eat barbequed meat anymore).
Realising he was honestly alone in this fucking massive, cruel world was never as sharply terrifying as it was in that moment. That was the worst. There was no safety net, and his father’s men were right on his tail. He couldn’t stop to mourn.
His mother was right. He had to just keep running…
Until he couldn’t anymore.
A loud knock echoed through his apartment, and no matter how long it’d been since he stopped running, he flinched.
All the same, he took a deep breath and looked over at the red numbers on his clock, and yep, it was already 12’o’clock (not that he’d slept, just laid in bed watching the sun get higher in the sky). He let out a sigh and dragged himself up. With increasing frequency Neil had found himself agreeing to more and more of Renee’s requests - they always seem small, like doing quick jobs for one of her friends at the gym. But more often than not he ends up with another person in his life that thinks they can just stick around. Well not today. Neil’s up to his eyeballs in ‘people-who-think-they’re-welcome-in-his-home’. Whoever is at his door can stay for the cover-up job Renee corralled him into giving and then leave again.
It seemed like ever since he moved into this flat 6 months ago and met Renee, his life has flown absolutely off the rails - suddenly he had actual people in his life… that refuse to leave. Jeremy, his doltish neighbour, repeatedly calls them all ‘friends’…. Neil doesn’t even know what that word means. Ugh. So, it turns out that being on the run and learning all you know from a crazed, paranoid woman whose favourite phrase was ‘keep your head down and your eyes open’ didn’t actually prepare him for the real world. Go figure. But surely this wasn’t the norm, right? People inserting themselves into your life and demanding you to spend time with them… Geez maybe it is. Who knows?
Right now, he needs to do his job and open the door.
The short blond person on his doorstep didn’t answer and just stared at him. Holding the door close to him, Neil stared back too. A few seconds went by. This wasn’t normal for two complete strangers, right?
Before he could decide what to do, the man had shoved his way into Neil’s apartment, turned around and glared at him.
Like, straight up stood there, arms crossed and glared at him.
“Um, ok,” Neil said. He was never good at making conversation but usually he didn’t have to - everyone else Renee had sent before always did all the talking.
“So, Renee told me you had some bruises that needed covering up for a thing you’ve both got to go to tonight… is that right?”
And… yep, again with the unending staring. Now, Neil was no stranger to animosity, but this seemed like a bit much, no? He hadn’t even done anything yet. He might have been suspicious of whether this person was who he was meant to see, but he knew Renee sent him because she always gave him a description beforehand – and this was definitely a small blond man with a sore-looking purple bruise mottled on his left cheek. Strangers knocking on his door was not something Neil enjoyed (and it was strange that he’d never needed to tell Renee that, and that she was the one who started giving Neil warnings before anyone came around).
“Ok… so shall we just get started then?”
The man gave a huff and started walking to Neil’s bright make-up station. This whole situation was weird. But, at the end of the day, this is what Neil wanted right? Someone he could just work on, and not be bothered by.
So, he went to grab his set of foundations, while the man sat heavily in Neil’s white spin-y chair.
“I’m just going to put some samples I think would work well with your skin tone on your right cheek if that’s ok?”
He had the foundation out ready, but the man hadn’t given him an answer yet, and when he looked up, they caught eyes, and something made him pause. Neil didn’t really know what was happening, but he suddenly felt very strongly that to touch this man without his permission would be very bad indeed.
But he didn’t pull back and his fight-or-flight wasn’t kicking in yet. Which was odd – he could literally feel the tension coming off this man but he didn’t feel afraid.
Slowly, he gave a nod, and Neil carefully brought his sponge up to their face. Why this moment felt momentous, Neil couldn’t tell you. Nor could he tell you why his heart was pounding or his palms were sweaty, or why he felt like this cover-up was the most important thing he would ever do (even though he’s done it a thousand times for Allison).
He touched his sponge onto the stranger’s skin… and the world didn’t end. If he wasn’t so close to this man’s face, he would probably huff out a laugh. As it is, he carries on.
Slowly, Neil began getting into the swing of things again, disregarding the off-kilter feeling being in this man’s presence was giving him, and he started blending on the man’s left cheek.
Lighter and darker shades began merging into each other, allowing the skin’s natural shade to shine through, hiding the purple bruise.
Neil isn’t one for bragging, but even he can acknowledge that he is good at what he does.
He should be surprised that the man under his brush didn’t once flinch, but for some reason, he wasn’t. It seemed to fit his character (never mind that Neil doesn’t know this man from Adam, and he really doesn’t know anything about his character, but that’s neither here nor there).
Andrew has never had a bruise covered up before. Why would he? He doesn’t care about bruises on his jaw, he barely cares about the pain. It keeps him alive after all, pain. Everything else is an ocean of nothingness – except the drugs, of course, but he’s never going back on them.
But Renee had used her connections to get him a job at Koffe, as a barista at the overpriced Indie coffee shop after he got fired from the bar. So, he owes her. And Andrew is many things, but he always lives up to a promise.
And apparently that means covering up his bruises for this shitty charity event that he does not want to go to.
But he doesn’t care either way. So, whatever.
Renee is a friend so he’ll do this make-up job, wear a stupid tux, go to this charity thing, then drown himself in cheap whiskey.
Knocking on this guy’s door, he wasn’t expecting much. He was expecting another Nicky, over the top, a completely out-of-reality type. He was a make-up artist after all.
(Although who the fuck knows what Nicky is like any more. It had been two years since he fucked off back to Germany).
What he wasn’t expecting, was this… a normal looking man. Well, if normal men have big beautiful amber eyes, bed head, bare feet in winter and are absolutely gorgeous.
He will definitely be having words with Renee after suffering through this ordeal.
Neil never noticed it until he realised make-up could be for something more than covering bruises.
It could be glitter and rainbows and beautiful,
Blending and brushing and sweeping shimmering colours.
It can be everything he never had as a kid.
It can be his.
After Renee’s friend left, Neil felt exhausted, and also like he needed to immediately go on an run at the same time. He never gave his name, never spoke, and never gave any indication that he cared what was happening.
And yet… Neil could still feel his heavy gaze like a weight, even after he left.
After over 6 months living by himself, the only people he interacted with were the ones forced on him by Renee.
(So why was he hoping that Renee would send this man to him again… and wondering where he got that bruise)
He dropped his head against his door in defeat. God, he almost forgot about the other people who he regularly interacted with.
“Neil, I know you’re there. Open up!”
Knowing it would be a worthless cause to ignore them, he sighed dramatically and opened his door.
“Hello.” He said, looking up at his two neighbours.
“Neil!” Jeremy exclaimed, prancing his way into Neil’s apartment, and throwing himself on the couch, “You absolutely must tell us who that gorgeous man was that just walked out of here.”
Neil simply sighed again, and waved his arm for Jean to come through as well – unlike his boyfriend, he actually waited to be invited in. And his quiet demeaner was practically a god send when Neil had to put up with Jeremy for long (more than a minute) periods of time.
“I’m not even going to ask how you saw him leave,” Neil said, closing and locking the door behind them. He swears Jeremy has some sort of supernatural sense.
“I’m going to make a cup of tea,” he said instead, making his way over to the kettle. Turning around to offer to his uninvited guests, “Would either of you wan-
“Yes, my gorgeous little neighbour?”
“How many times do I have to tell you to not sneak up on me?” Neil bit out, having turned around to see Jeremy a foot from his face.
As soon as he said it, he regretted it. Jeremy was clearly just excited and had bounced into the kitchen, but now his eyebrows had crinkled into something so sad Neil had to look down.
Sometimes he forgot how much Jeremy couldn’t stand any form of hostility. But Neil had issues too, and speaking with Renee he knew that talking them through was the easiest solution (no matter how much it sucked).
“I’m sorry for snapping, Jeremy,” Neil said softly. “I just have issues with space and people being inside my space.”
Sniffing, Jeremy said, “Yeah, I know, darling. I’m sorry, I just got so excited! It’s usually just either us or Allison you have over...
“I don’t want you to be lonely.”
Oh god, now Neil could see tears welling up in those ginormous blue eyes. Turning away to fix three cups of tea, he saw Jean put one of his massive arms around his boyfriend, whispering lowly in his ear.
Internally he sighed at Jeremy’s dramatics. He had so many people in his life! Maybe he didn’t allow many into his apartment, and it probably paled in comparison to Jeremy’s high-flying life as a PR person – going to parties every other day. But, for Neil? Honestly, just the few people he has now can be overwhelming at times.
Oh, how complicated his life had become since allowing people into it, he sighed. Neil gestured them over to his crappy metal table.
“He was a client. Needed a cover-up for a bruise. Renee sent him,” Neil said.
Dabbing a tissue under his eyes to make sure his mascara hadn’t smudged (it hadn’t, Jeremy looked flawless as usual), “And?” he said with a type of emphasis Neil didn’t understand.
“Honey, and did you like him? Did you talk? Did you get on?” Jeremy asked rapidly.
“I don’t know?” Neil said with a little frown.
Even though he had literally no reason to want to see this man again, he still felt this little pang in his stomach that made him want to. It was a confusing feeling – it had taken many sparing sessions with Renee at their local underfunded gym, for Neil to feel even slightly at ease talking to her.
And she wasn’t even in his house, not like the man was.
(When he first saw her, she even reminded him of-)
“Earth to Neil,” Jeremy said, with a grin, “Looks like you’ve got someone on your mind. Could it be the small, blond and scowling man who we saw stomp out of here not 20 minutes ago… Already can’t wait to see him again, ey?”
Huffing, Neil rolled his eyes, putting wisps of bad memories out of his mind.
“You are insufferable, I have no idea why I keep letting you in here,” he said good-naturedly.
“Oh, my dear, that is because we are fantastic people,” he said, batting his eyelashes, “And when you moved in opposite us my gorgeous mon amour made you a tray full of beef bourguignon that no one in their right mind could ever refuse.”
It was true. Jean’s French cooking was absolutely mouth-wateringly good. It’s also safe to say Neil would have probably lived off noodles and tea without his pushy neighbours making him eat actual food.
“But more than anything, after I found out how unbelievably talented you were, I was never going to let you go darling. I mean, I am good at make-up, but you, my friend, are an artist.”
Neil could feel himself blush, even though Jeremy said this sort of stuff all the time – complimenting his ‘talent’ and stuff.
“I’ve told you to stop that. I’m not anything special – I’ve just had a lot of practise.”
Dramatically placing his hand on his chest and squawking, “Not special!”
Sighing, Neil knew he’d just set him up for a rant, so he slouched in his chair, cradling his cup of tea.
Turning to look at his long-suffering boyfriend, he cried, “He thinks he’s not special, Jean!”
“I heard, love” he murmured.
Whipping his head back around, he pierced Neil with a look that let him know he better listen, or else.
“You. Are. Amazing. Do you hear me?” he said, pointing at him, “If you weren’t, do you really think you would have more than a million subscribers to your MUA page? You’re practically famous!”
“Jeremy, you know I have no idea how the whole ‘Instagram’ thing even works. You do all that for me. And,” he said, taking a breath, “I know you spend lots of time doing that when you don’t have to. All I do is put makeup on Allison while she sits there looking pretty. And I appreciate it,” he said haltingly, “I know you do a lot for me.”
Geez, where did that come from? Gratitude wasn’t something Neil usually expressed. And seeing the gobsmacked look on Jeremy’s face, he thought so too.
“Awww, Neil!” he cooed, “You have too much talent to waste in this tiny room, and since you won’t let me take you out into the big bad world, the least I can do is maintain an Instagram account for you.”
Neil looked up at Jeremy and his easy smile and thought about how much he actually knows about the ‘big bad’ world.
Neil shook away that thought.
He would never wish upon anyone the knowledge he has. The world can be cruel but knowing it can break the best of people. And Jeremy’s broad smile is a thing of beauty if Neil’s ever seen one, and it’s something that should be protected.
And with the haunted, fiercely protective look Neil has sometimes seen in Jean’s eye, he knows it will be.
Neil could feel the tension rising in him. Today had been a lot – usually he spaces out his social interactions to nothing more than one per day. Anything more and he tends to get overwhelmed.
(It took him a while to balance the life he has now - with Renee, Jeremy and Allison at the least - but he’s worked out a medium he’s usually happy with).
Biding goodbye to his neighbours and promising Jeremy that he’ll come over to theirs for dinner soon, he puts on his running clothes.
Neil lives in the inner city – near the crappier end of town. He’s had to replace his running shoes more than once because he stepped in glass and they got all cut up. But he wouldn’t change it for anything.
Feeling the wind tug through his hair and his feet thump on the ground, steadily to match his heart rate, Neil ducked in and around people and bins. The smell of piss and old food on one street, then the scent of fresh bread on the next one.
He can get lost in the crowds, just another face. And with his makeup skills, the most anyone would ever see on his face would be a slight texture difference on his left cheekbone as he flies by.
Ugh, he doesn’t want to think of her today.
His father is dead.
Feet on pavement. Thump. Thump.
It took him years to come to terms with the fact that his father was dead.
He has run all his life, from him.
Even after the FBI let him go, with his scars and his steel blue eyes.
Even after they called him to tell him that his father’s organisation was dismantled and he could live his life now.
(Don’t worry about her. They’re sure she wouldn’t come after you now, why would she? If your father’s already dead.
A few days later he was running and his legs brought him to ‘The Shed’, his little hole-in-the-wall gym that’s drafty and cold, and hasn’t been refurbished since at least the 80’s. But it has everything Neil needs.
He is a runner by nature but sometimes he needs to get rid of a little anger and the boxing bags here help. A lot.
Tapping his card through the scanner, he thought back to first coming here – first letting himself have a gym membership. It might seem like a tiny act to most, but for Neil it was a sign of how he was here to stay.
How he stopped running.
It was probably that high of finally giving himself this gift of stability, that allowed him to accept Renee’s offer to spar in the first place.
It was also because Renee saw his makeup kit in his bag and asked him about it that he she ended up bringing Allison over. And then that escalated into her being his model for his Instagram videos.
…And Neil finally being able to express himself through his art. When Renee paid him to cover up some of her bruises, and some for her friends, he had money to buy more expensive makeup kits.
And even though Allison is a high-profile socialite who does lots of charity things with lots of money (yeah, Neil has no idea what she does), she will still sit in his white plastic spin-y chair and let him paint his creations on her skin.
Yeah, Neil’s life ain’t so bad.
Renee taught him to release his anger out through his fists instead of keeping it pent up, but
Allison taught him confidence.
She taught him how to keep his chin up and unapologetically be who he is.
Jeremy showed him that boys can wear makeup and can rock it.
Neil learned that there were people in the world who saw him, saw him, for who he really is… and they liked him.
Neil learned, slowly, but he learned to stop hiding who he is.
Walking up to the boxing area, he saw Renee faced away from him bracing a boxing bag for someone he couldn’t quite see yet.
“Hiya, Renee,” he said, raising his hand to wave over at her.
Even though he whined about it a lot, he was so incredibly grateful for the people in his life. He had more than he could ever wish for.
So, why was he still thinking of this mysterious man that Renee sent to him?
Still thinking of his quiet solid presence that soothed something in him.
Ugh. He’s getting sappy in his old age… But it wouldn’t hurt to ask Renee about him, right?
“Hi, Neil,” Renee said, turning around and letting into view the man she was sparring with, “What a coincidence, Andrew was just telling me about- oof”
‘Andrew’ just landed a right hook on the punchbag just next to Renee’s face, who laughed and skipped backwards.
“Are you going to spar or keep chatting with your friend?” the man snarled, prowling forward.
“Okay, ok. I’m ready. You going to stay and watch, Neil?” she said, without taking her eyes off Andrew.
“Yeah,” he said, faintly.
Apparently, the universe was listening to him today… because it was him. Here, in his gym. Although seeing this man in tight black gym wear was kind of throwing him for a loop. For some reason, this man… Andrew, had been cemented in his head in what he was wearing when they met. Something that Neil knows is completely stupid – of course he wears other things.
(That’s definitely why he can’t stop staring at Andrew’s muscles, straining against his gym clothes… right?)
Neil ended up sitting down on the mat on the ground. Watching these two people fight was… it was like a storm. They were like thunder and lightning – quick and heavy and utterly eye-catching. Neil couldn’t peel his eyes away if you paid him.
Neil could appreciate a good fight and what these two were displaying... it was shear power. Andrew would push forward, quick like a cat, with fast fists, but Renee had faster feet, and would lean in to the punch and spin away.
Neil was mesmerised.
They were fighting hard, but it wasn't violent (not like his entire childhood).
All too soon it was over. Renee sat heavily down next to him, carefully maintaining Neil’s bubble of space, panting heavily. But Neil kept his eyes on Andrew, tracking him to the water fountain, watching him gulp down as much as he could drink, (missing Renee’s small smile as he did so).
Ugh, he sounded stupid. Why was he doing this? Neil’s tongue had turned to rubber and he had no idea what else to say (what does he want to say?).
Clearing his throat, Neil looked down and started tugging on his grubby shoelaces, waiting for the ground to swallow him up. But before he could get up and run away, Renee placed a cool, careful hand on his forearm.
“Neil, I’d like to thank you again for helping Andrew out on Monday. Allison was insistent that he look perfect and put together for the gala,” Renee explained, “And well, you know how she is.”
Neil nodded. It’s definitely true that Allison accepts nothing less than perfection.
The man in front of him was looking down at Neil, who was still cross-legged on the floor.
Squinting his eyes due to the lights peeking out from behind Andrew’s head, Neil again, felt this rush of emotion. How can Neil feel safe being in presence of a man he barely knows?
A hand reached down, and staring at it for a second in confusion, he took it. Andrew pulled him to his feet, with an ease that belied impressive strength.
“Hello,” Andrew’s deep rumbling voice answered.
Their joined hands started slowly moving up and down, and Neil realised they were shaking hands. Also, staring. Was it Neil’s turn to talk?
Neil could feel a blush spread across his cheeks (which was just embarrassing) and quickly took his hand back. Andrew’s deep amber eyes betrayed nothing, as they both stood there, eyes locked.
“You’re a good fighter,” Neil finally said, looking at Andrew’s slightly yellow cheek.
Alarmingly, Neil had to catch his hand from moving up to touch that cheek. Never once had Neil wanted to touch another person, but for some reason this man was different. There was just something.
He remembered the intensity of Andrew’s eyes, and how it felt to be so close to him…
Feeling Renee’s presence behind him, and zoning back in to the noise of the numerous other people in the gym, Neil stepped back. Usually he was so aware at all time. Maybe being around this man wasn’t good for him at all.
Jesus, he was standing in the middle of the gym, exposed on all sides. He needed to be more alert.
“Well, I have to head off,” Renee said, breaking Neil from his reverie, with her bag slung over her shoulder (when did she pack all her things up?).
“I’ll see you later, Neil,” she said with a sweet smile, and Neil felt himself smiling back automatically. “Andrew, I’ll see you at Kaffe later, you’re working there tomorrow, right?”
“Yes,” he gritted out, with his arms crossed tightly in front of him.
“I’ll be there at about two, but you’re working from nine, right?” she said, smiling at Andrew in a weird, knowing way.
“Yes, which you already know. Now,” he said, throwing on a hoodie and grabbing his bag, “I’m leaving.”
And then he stalked away, without a backwards glance.
And with a wave, Renee left too.
Suddenly Neil didn’t feel like being at the gym.
Feeling jitters under his skin, he made his way out of there, and he ran. He didn’t see Andrew on his way out.
(And he absolutely wasn’t disappointed by that).
It’s a word Renee gave him.
She said it’s what made him so aware of everything.
Of the exits, of people’s hands, of the space behind his back that he cannot see.
He likes that Renee gave him this word,
something to describe the way he feels.
She said it’s the perfectly natural way his brain has decided to cope.
Renee taught Neil that it’s ok,
that he can breathe now.