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i am flesh (i am bone)

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"You're not thinking ahead to the next moment," Renee says quietly, "You're leaving yourself wide open."

"Go on then," Andrew snarls, "Tell me you're going to pray for me." He stands there, wiping sweat from his mouth with the back of his hand, and Renee thinks: someone made a mess of us, and here we are.

"You know I won't," Renee says, "You know I'll never," because she doesn't pray for people without asking, and she has never asked Andrew. She's sure she knows the answer.

Andrew stares at her for a moment, assessing. Then rolls his eyes. It's the most expression she's seen on Andrew since he came back to them.

"Do whatever you want, Renee," he says, and starts walking towards the door. They're done for today, then.

"That's not permission," she reminds him, and when he slams the door in her face, she starts to smile.

"I think he's good for you."

"He doesn't fucking like you," Andrew snaps, without his usual heat. He's leaning over, picking at his shoelaces, a cigarette in the other hand.

"No," Renee says, "I make him nervous. And he doesn't have to. Like me, that is."

"You," Andrew says slowly. "You make Neil fucking Josten nervous." He doesn’t sound disbelieving, more that he’s turning the knowledge this way and that, mulling it over before slotting it into place.

"We have religious differences," Renee says, and Andrew blinks at her slowly, assimilating this into his memory too, and then looks away.

"He's not nervous around you," she adds. 

Andrew stays silent, but Renee can see how tense he's gotten, so she drops it. This is the thing that people forget about her. She's got the sort of face that makes truck drivers call her darlin' and Sunday morning mothers smile good morning and once, once upon a time, made dangerous men and women go she's just a kid. People see the cross and the pale rainbow hair and don't look at her eyes and they forget: Renee Walker plays the long game. Renee's been playing it for years, hauling herself out of an early grave one closing wound at a time, and what's a few years on top of that?

That's why Neil Josten doesn't like her, she thinks. She gives the impression of someone with time.

*

The next time they're due to spar, it's three days after Neil's come back from the dead. Renee doesn't think about resurrection, but she traces the old knife wounds across her belly as she gets dressed and is relieved to see enough of herself in the mirror to go and meet Andrew in the lounge.

Andrew is sat moodily on one of the beanbags, three empty coffee cups by his side. Bad things come in threes; that's the power of them, surely? He keeps watching the closed door.

"I'm tired tonight," Renee says, and it's true as much as it is an out, "If you don't -" but he stands up fluidly and walks past the door Renee would bet years of her reclaimed life Neil is pretending to be asleep behind.

Renee can feel the anger leeching its way out of Andrew's skin, thinks about how this is not the same as bleeding out. She is not surprised when Andrew takes out his knives.

See, here’s the thing: Renee understands what it is to think I will never feel safe again. Renee looks away from the cross at church and looks over her shoulder just in case, just in case, always just in case, the three words as constant in her throat as amen every Sunday. Renee knows about fighting demons; she wrings the necks of hers with every breath, and she says God, give me strength, give me peace, give me something to tether myself to. And the Lord provides, and Renee takes out her knives in turn, and the sickle-moon of Andrew’s smirk is just that: sickly.  

“You’re angry tonight,” she says, taking up a fighting stance. He shrugs, scowling deeper.

“Pray for me yet?” he challenges. When he brandishes his knives they reflect off his eyes. Both are opaque.

She moves first, because on nights like this, where Andrew looks half-sick of shadows and she is shivering in her own skin, she’s noticed making him go on the defensive first, reminding him he can hold his own, settles him on some bone-deep level. It settles her too, to know she is still capable of putting up a fight.

They don’t speak again until after, lying on their backs on the mats staring up at the infrastructure of the ceiling, the pockets of darkness in amongst the reinforced steel beams.

“I keep thinking,” Andrew says, “I don’t know how to stop.”

Renee watches the ceiling and doesn’t look at him. Eventually, he sits up and she can hear the click of the lighter.

"Sometimes," Renee says, "I want to find every person who ever hurt me, and I want to hurt them back."

"Only sometimes," Andrew says, the sound sardonic, the smell of cigarette smoke.

"Always," Renee corrects, "But I only think about digging their graves sometimes."

"What happened to 'thou shalt not kill'?"

"I'd ask for forgiveness afterwards."

"You'd ask someone who let that happen for forgiveness?"

"People happened to me," Renee says. "That's different." Andrew scoffs again.

"I thought you're supposed to forgive and forget," the boy with the photographic memory says.

He doesn't say: I can't. He doesn't say: I won't. Renee says, "Scripture is open to interpretation."

Andrew stays silent, so she carries on.

"I think they all lost the bet," she says, changing tack. Next to her, Andrew shifts.

"Good," he says shortly, and inhales more smoke.

"How's Neil doing?"

"We're not talking about Neil."

"I never asked you to talk back," Renee says. Andrew shifts again. She's kept on looking at that ceiling. Above her, only light.

"It must have been difficult," she tries. Andrew sighs.

"You're not Bee," he says.

"No, we're friends."

"Shut up," he says, voice harsh. He doesn't leave, though. Everything that Andrew is, is about displacement; she knows this.

"Neil," he says eventually, "is a fucking idiot with a death wish."

"He's not dead," Renee reminds him. "It's okay to want to kill the people who were hurting him, though, Andrew."

"Are you done," Andrew says in a monotone, standing up. They drive home in silence; when Renee switches on the radio, Andrew switches it back off. Renee leans back in the passenger seat and closes her eyes.

When he pulls into the carpark at the Tower, Renee opens her eyes again.

"He'd probably like seeing you," she says.

"It's late," Andrew bites back, hands locked onto the steering wheel, staring out through the windshield.

"You really think he's asleep?"

"How the fuck should I know," Andrew says, "I'm not his fucking keeper," and Renee shrugs and gets out of the car before can tell her to. She smiles at the night sky and holds the lift door open for him.

Andrew leaves the lift without a word, and she doesn't watch to see if he goes to check on Neil. He won't go if he knows she's watching.

*

Renee gets a cough a week or so later; when Andrew hears it, he glances up towards her, and she sees the flash of his eyes and she says -

“Don’t,” Andrew says, scathing, “say you’re fine. I only need to hear that once a day. I only need to hear it from one idiot at a time.”

Neil, from where he sits in the corner pretending to study and from where he sits actually watching Andrew in the faint shaft of sunlight, raises his eyebrows before looking back down at his handouts.  

Renee doesn’t lie, not outright, so she doesn’t say she wasn’t going to say that. Instead she says, “I’m going to make something to drink.”

“No, you’re not,” Andrew says, pushing her firmly down into the beanbag, and goes to the kitchen himself, walking through the dust motes the light picks out in the air and leaving Renee alone with Neil.

“We’re not obligated to talk,” she says quietly, “I want you to know that.”

“I know that,” Neil retorts, but the frost on his voice is thinner than it used to be. The burns on his cheek look raw in her vision but she simply lets her gaze glide over them. They all have war stories; they all are war stories; she smiles at Neil. There’s a ghost of a smile before Neil looks back down and Andrew walks back in with a mug of hot honey and lemon. It’s too sweet.

“Thank you,” she says, and drinks it all.

*

Renee is dyeing her hair, sat in her bra and pants, cross-legged on the floor; Andrew comes and sits cross-legged next to her. She clips a finished section away from her face and waits, inspecting her bare face in the mirror, rubbing at some faint healing acne on the underside of her jaw. Allison uses makeup like old Greek heroes used armour, to plate her meat and say not for you, never for you; Renee uses hers to make herself look softer, look better, dusts highlighter across her bones like that will make them shine. Andrew rests his forearms, in armbands like vambraces, across his knees and silently hands her the next bowl of dye.

One time, Nicky asked Renee what Andrew and her talked about; from the next seat over on the coach, Andrew had said what makes you think I talk to her? Everyone had shifted, uncomfortable, and looked apologetically at Renee and Renee had smiled and tilted her face to catch the last dying rays of the sunlight from through the window because there are things too big for anything but silence, because Renee is a modern-age redemption made flesh -

Because, when it comes down to it, when it comes down to the bone of it, Andrew Minyard never, ever lies.

*

They’re sparring again. Renee blocks and swerves, blocks and swerves.

“You’re getting better,” she says. Andrew shrugs. “You’re thinking ahead.”

Andrew, in lieu of a reply, takes her legs out from under her in a wide arc.

“Stop analysing me,” he snaps, out of breath and trying to hide it. Her back hits the mattress hard, the jolt of it singing through her. She blinks it away. Andrew waits for her to get up and sighs when she doesn’t. She hears him go to his bag and rummage through it, the click of the lighter. She looks up at the ceiling, at the fluorescence of the strip lighting. Above her, only light.

“Aren’t you getting back up?” he says, heading back over and nudging her with his foot, sounding bored. She grins at him; abruptly, recklessly, dangerously happy.

“Always,” she says, and takes his outstretched hand.