“You’re a fucking dumbass,” Andrew deadpans.
Neil hums, blearily taking note of the way Andrew’s left fist clenches around the steering wheel, but more attentive to the slight shift in his hazel eyes as he glances furiously at Neil’s overstretched, limp form.
Neil feels like a puppet whose strings have been flung through the window of a moving car and ruthlessly snapped. He’s been left for dead on a concrete highway. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t had a good run in awhile, the ache in his ribcage is an old bruise of promised violence.
Or maybe it was the asshole at Eden’s who slipped something extra in his uncovered drink.
His memory filters through like a broken kaleidoscope as Neil belatedly takes note of the passing landscape. He's in a car. He was just at Eden's a few moments ago, or was it hours? Days? He doesn't know.
Neil forces his foggy mind back, remembering pounding music before the earth was pulled underneath him, eyes unfocused and body sluggish.
He told Andrew he was going to the bathroom. In a passing glance, Aaron said he didn’t look very good. And Nicky had laughed and joked about “one too many nonalcoholic sodas”.
Then he was in the bathroom, hunched over the toilet of an open stall – the one furthest from the door – with nothing coming out. The floor was distinctly sticky and he felt grit in his nails before he noticed a presence behind him. If his mom was here, she’d scold him for getting soft, being unaware. But she wasn’t.
So Neil let her phantom fear wash over his mind like ice water just as someone flipped him over.
His back hit the ground and his head collided with the edge of the toilet bowl. If Neil weren’t so concerned about the world running laps behind his eyes, he would be grossed out. But all he could feel was sympathy towards steel horses nailed in carousels.
He had slurred out, “Andrew, no.” Which meant, not yes.
It had to be the small blonde who followed him back, fitted his hips against Neil’s, because no one else touched him like this.
But Andrew didn’t halt in his movements, instead fumbling harder with Neil’s zipper, pulling the back of his jeans lower, adjusting long legs to either side of the man’s torso, rubbing a rough palm over Neil’s front.
It was then that Neil’s eyes snapped open, despite the dizzy static that threatened to throw him overboard and drag him to sea.
Andrew would have stopped.
At Neil’s fleeting sudden awareness, an unfamiliar hand gripped both of Neil’s wrists and lifted them above his head, pressing to the sticky floor.
At that moment, despite the tacky wetness running down Neil’s neck and the unpleasant bass of an unknown song thudding in tune with his pounding heart, Neil was brought back to cold eyes and black walls and leather seats and sizzling flesh.
And then a slimy tongue lodged its way down Neil’s throat.
He had the sense of mind to gag and wrench away in confused disgust.
The man above him didn’t seem to notice, trading Neil’s mouth for other sensations; he reached underneath Neil’s backside and groped trembling, pliant skin with sure, rough hands.
Something hard and unforgiving wedged itself between his cheeks and Neil lurched to the side, as far as his restrained wrists allowed him. His pained, choking gasp almost overshadowed the stranger’s deep moan as the man rutted his clothed front in tune with an intruding digit.
Neil skin crawled with a thousand legs of a thousand centipedes. He thought of rats and knifes and sticky floors, and fucking fight back, but his body refused to act for his mind’s wishes.
He belatedly realized he should be struggling harder, use his nails, his hips, his thighs, but Neil was submerged in water – or maybe it was a dream. Maybe he should focus on waking up soon instead.
The movements grew rougher, rocking Neil like a car with three wheels or a boat on uneven waves. And Neil thought he said something, stop or please, but he can’t remember if the words managed to leave his imagination.
Instead, he heard Andrew’s voice, I hate that word. I hate you.
And then his mom’s, Get the fuck up and fight, Abram. Kill him. Nathanial, do you hear me?
Time slipped between his fingers like grains of salt from the beach where he buried her.
Realistically, it only could have been a few moments of sharp movements, shallow moans, before the stranger was ripped away from him, the door slamming open and then closed. Hurried footsteps, more than two. Cold air replaced the heat that occupied Neil's space.
There were distinct sounds of hands on flesh, thuds on walls, echoing screams.
He thought he may have fallen asleep – or maybe he was never awake, never real at all. Maybe he died next to his mom that night, peeled his skin from the seat, or he was still with Riko or Lola or –
Neil’s eyes were pried open by blonde hair and hazel eyes.
“An-ndrew,” he slurred. Black spots invaded his vision.
“Wrong twin,” Andrew-look-alike said back.
Aaron, his muddled mind supplied. He thought he said that out loud but he also thought the sky would look prettier if it was purple so maybe not.
“Hey, hey, stay awake. Are you hurt anywhere else besides your head?” Neil realized his eyes must have slipped closed against his will again.
His head? Neil took note of the warm liquid running down his neck. Sweat? Blood? Does it matter?
He tried to concentrate on the distorted twin in front of him but his eyes were cameras now, focusing in and out, in and out. He wished he had the manual to work this thing.
Focus, the logical part of his brain – the part that kept him alive all these years – urged.
Right. Right. He has to tell Aaron not to drink the soda and not to touch the floor - it’s sticky.
Neil reached his hand up, lightly grappling for Aaron’s face but landing on the side of his neck.
“Don’t drink the floor,” he managed to get out. Aaron stared. Neil stared back. His trembling hand rubbed wearily on Aaron’s neck and flexed desperately.
“You,” Neil took a shaky breath, “You kind of look… look like Andrew. Where – where is…” Neil trailed off as he heard a loud bang and louder cries to his right.
The struggling sounds overlapped with Neil's own thumping heart. Or maybe it was the music. It must have been several minutes since those odd noises began. Or several hours or several years.
Neil's head rolled to the side to gaze under the stall. Found the source. There was a slumped body, red, two blurry figures standing, sharp movements, red –
Neil's thoughts battled each other for clarity but each time one came to the forefront of his mind, it slipped away like a misplaced breeze. Maybe it was never there.
Aaron clenched Neil’s wrist, bringing his attention back to the blonde. Neil's hand had gone limp, only held up by thin fingers. A loaded truck dangling from a spiderweb.
Aaron leaned away to address two blobby figures behind him – his loose, shaky grip still pressed lightly to Neil’s clammy skin.
Neil was sure if Aaron let go, he'd float right to the top of the stained ceiling. Then spin, spin, spin like a broken fan or a steel horse.
A hand tapped his cheek but Neil's cameras stopped working, his eyes had closed on their own accord. His head was filled with bees.
“… concussion… likely drugged… can’t focus on…” Words filtered through the air around him. They traced scars on his cheek.
“No hospitals.” A new voice. Hard, unrelenting, familiar. A tight grip on his ankle.
“... the guy?” Aaron again.
The swarm was restless. Bees - no, wasps now. Their wings snapped together, an all-consuming buzzing. Or maybe it was screaming.
”Dealt with.” The grip tightened. His wrist, his ankle, both.
A third voice now, shaky, tugging, “Andrew, listen… pants… he needs… home... medical supplies...”
Neil floated along a river like a decayed log from a branch that was severed years ago.
He was brought back to sudden wakefulness when someone tugged at his arms and shoulders, making his body sit up and fall forward onto a hard chest. His lower back ached unfamiliarly.
If it didn’t feel like his mind was walking through green jelly, he would have flinched back and opened his eyes. But now? His unresponsive form slumped forward unwillingly. Someone gently fixed his pants, wiped the curls out of his clammy forehead, adjusted his limbs so he was resting comfortably on another’s back. Neil’s arms hung loosely and his cheek rested softly on a clothed shoulder.
The sky would be so much prettier if it was purple.
Neil wakes in the passenger seat of a moving car. His head is slumped over his chest, his body angled toward the barely restrained anger of Andrew in the driver’s seat. Neil blearily takes note of the way Andrew’s left fist clenches around the steering wheel, but he’s more attentive to the slight shift in his hazel eyes as Andrew glances at Neil’s overstretched, limp body.
Neil sees Andrew’s lips move but the cotton in his ears blocks everything besides the rushing sound of his own blood.
“Huh?” Neil slurs out.
“I said,” Neil doesn’t know how Andrew can even speak through the tension in his clenched jaw, ”You’re. A. Fucking. Dumbass.”
“Andrew.” A voice warns from behind.
Neil lolls his head to the side and back, sees Aaron glaring daggers at Andrew’s matched stare in the rearview mirror. Nicky is trembling next to him.
When Neil makes eye contact with the taller boy, he notices one eye is swollen shut, with black and blue blending into the corners of his nose like the same watercolor paintings that decorate Betsy's office. Neil hates watercolors.
Nicky gives him a tentative smile. Neil thinks it’s supposed to be reassuring but it looks more like a grimace.
Neil doesn’t care. Three plus one equals five. Always five. Something – no, someone – is missing.
“Kevin?” Neil questions, his eyebrows furrowing. Something prods the corner of his mind. He can't remember.
“He’s,” Nicky swallows, “He’s back at the Tower, remember? He wanted to stay in and we, um, went to Eden’s. We’re going back to the house now. You know, in, uh, in Colombia.”
In the midst of Nicky’s nervous ranting and side glances, Neil had closed his eyes again and rested his cheek on the center console, facing the road. He’s tired. No, he’s in pain. He’s a steel horse on a carousel.
Silence envelopes the car for a few moments but the blissful unconsciousness that blessed Neil before had clearly taken a one-way train ride miles away from this disaster. So he continues to lay unmoving.
Maybe it was because Neil’s head and back are playing a game of who-can-inflict-more-pain. Maybe it was the soft confusion setting up camp in the black spaces of his mind. Maybe it was the drugs tying ankle weights to every open catalogue of his skin.
“Neil?” The same small voice questions from the back, “Are you, uh, o-okay?”
I'm fine, Neil thinks he says, but the resounding quiet informs him that he’s still lying prone, imitating a dead body. Like Riko. Like his father. Like his mom.
He tries to pry his eyes open and reassure Nicky but the weight drags him under, making Neil unable to move, much less speak. It ends up not mattering when Andrew inevitably snaps.
“Actually, Nicky,” he drawls. Andrew sounds like oil and fire. Like a cobra in a garden Nicky is walking towards.
“You shouldn’t be asking that question. Because, as you know, he was drugged. And then smacked around like some fucking bitch right before he was assaulted. While you decided it would be a good idea to flirt with a homophobic asshole.”
The dangerous tone lingers like stale meat.
If Neil weren’t a thousand miles away from his body, floating – no spinning – above the car, he would have connected the dots. Why they didn't follow Neil in the bathroom. Why it took so long to check up on him. Why Nicky’s eye is swollen and black.
Did Andrew give that to him or was it some other guy in the bar? Is what Neil would have thought if his mind wasn't currently scattered in tiny fragments across the Pacific Ocean.
But instead, he listens tiredly and tries to fit events in empty pockets like loose change that doesn’t add up.
Neil still doesn’t completely know what happened, especially after they had found him. Frustration and confusion fight for missing pieces. He forces himself to sit up slightly and turn to look more fully at Andrew. It drains every ounce of strength from his form. There's dried blood on Andrew’s knuckles.
What happened to the guy? Is what Neil wants to say.
Instead, the rising sun behind Andrew’s stiff silhouette catches Neil's attention. Waves in golden oranges and deep yellows. He’s never seen a sunrise before. Or, he has when he was on the run, but he never had the chance to really notice its rise without fear clogging his throat and an unyielding grip on his arm.
There’s soft lavender, he realizes. Neil feels the stretch of a smile before his head lightly thumps back down on the console.
“The sky would be prettier if it was purple all the time,” is what Neil slurs out.
He thinks Andrew would agree. Or maybe not. Maybe he would think about planes and falling and bruises when they’re at their worst. Neil focuses back on Andrew.
He's staring at Neil, his expression seemingly blank to anyone who doesn’t know him well enough. But Neil does. Neil sees rawness and danger and anger and fear and anger. Neil would rather look at a boring, blue sky for the rest of his life than see Andrew’s face like this again.
He swallows painfully, reaches a shaky, unsteady hand to Andrew’s shirt, right above his heart. It falls limp a moment after, unable to maintain any position that requires strength.
“Hey,” Neil says. It takes him a few times to find his voice, “I’m… I’m fi- okay. My head feels foggy and my back... I think my tongue is… is bigger than it normally is but… the sky is… look at…” Neil trails off.
His head rests forward on his chest. It’s so heavy. How was he able to keep it up before?
But this is important, his mind rationalizes. Neil gets out one last sentence.
“I can still yes or no and it’s still yes with you. Not him, or anyone else, but you.”
Nicky and Aaron are quiet but Andrew’s silence is loud.
Neil lifts his head again and tugs lightly on Andrew’s shirt. His eyes are unfocused and it’s getting more difficult to stay awake. His limbs feel like they’ve been taken off and reattached to another body. Frankenstein was the name of the scientist, not the monster.
He doesn’t know why but he has to stay awake, he has to let Andrew know he’s here. His body watches the scene from the clouds.
“Andrew?” There’s purple behind him. It doesn’t matter.
Andrew looks over and meets his wavering, unsteady gaze. He’s struggling to focus on the color hazel – his frame is blurring in and out like when Neil opens his eyes under a chlorine pool.
“One hundred and one, Josten.” Something lightens in Andrew’s tone, in his eyes, “Go to sleep.”
A part of Neil lets out a slow breath he didn’t know he was holding. His eyes flutter shut one last time and he fully relaxes into the seat. Neil’s arm is still outstretched on the console, his cheek resting on his bicep. Neil doesn't have the strength to move but Andrew doesn’t seem to mind the light brush of knuckles on his shirt at every small bump on the highway.
The sky is likely turning blue now but Neil thinks it’s fine like that anyway.
“Okay. I’m sorry. But - did you understand any of that?” Nicky’s voice pipes up in a hushed whisper from the back, “They have their own language.”
He sounds absolutely giddy.
“Allison is going to completely lose it!”
Aaron snorts once before Andrew’s calm voice breaks through Nicky’s giggles in a sharp cut.
“One more word.” He threatens. It sounds like he's speaking through his teeth.
Neil’s no longer looking at anyone – he’s one step away from a cliff of darkness and purple and peace – but he can still imagine Andrew’s glinting glare and dangerous smile in his mind.
Yeah, he thinks. I'm fine.