Neil sometimes wonders where it all went wrong. (In the quiet spaces between his breath and Andrew’s, he already knows.)
As the countdown ticks down to what he knows will be his last breath, he stares at the little fox paw on his thigh, right above where his favorite shorts end. He traces its outline with a finger, thinks of cigarettes and roofs and sunrises. He thinks of strong hands and lies and he begs for forgiveness for what he knows is inevitable in the quiet of his own mind.
Back when the reality of how much he was going to hurt Andrew had first hit him in the face, theat day that blood had covered his clothes in the locker room and a message of doom had been painted for him on the wall, he had finally realized that there was no going back. He’d dug his grave long before this day, when he’d looked at Kevin Day straight in the eyes and not run.
He measures the passing of time with looks and kisses. He presses his fingers, feather light, over Andrew’s armband where he knows his mark is the day the countdown hits 19. He kisses the corner of Andrew’s mouth with a soundless apology the day it hits 11. He stares at Andrew’s cold eyes the day it hits 9 and he wishes so hard that things had gone differently.
On the day it hits one, he’s quiet, Andrew’s hands on his hips and Andrew’s mouth on his neck, chasing lies across his skin. He burns with want and with shame as fingertips trace the scars on his front with more kindness than he has ever felt in his life.
He doesn’t know how to explain to Andrew that he shouldn’t be this kind; that Neil doesn’t deserve it. He doesn’t know how to ask for forgiveness for letting this happen, for opening both of their bleeding hearts and getting ready to step on them mercilessly.
How do you ask forgiveness for wanting what you can’t have? How do you ask for forgiveness for hurting the other half of your soul?
You don’t. So Neil doesn’t, and the clock hits 0.
On the bus, he can see the darkness in Andrew’s eyes as he wonders what the problem is when Neil asks to be let go, but Andrew doesn’t say anything, not one for holding onto broken birds and haunted dreams.
Andrew is dangerous in the way his mother had warned him, her hands like claws in his hair and her voice a promise of death in his ear. Andrew makes Neil want to protect someone that is not himself, for once, so Neil decides to do what he can to keep Andrew safe.
He receives the phone call with his heart in his throat and his mind set. He keeps his feeling as close to his heart as he can when he goes back to the locker room, avoiding Andrew’s eyes and saying goodbye and I’m sorry the best he can.
He turns his back to the life he’s built and he follows Death.
He doesn’t break the bond while in the car, flames melting his face into an unrecognizable mess and Lola’s blade carving promises and lies into his arms. He doesn’t break the bond yet because he still has hope, as hopeless as the situation is, until the very last moment when he wakes up in his father’s basement. He still waits for a miracle, so he doesn’t break the bond and begs for forgiveness once more for the pain he must be inflicting Andrew.
And then he wakes up from his dreams and is hit in the face by the truth, for once in his life.
His father is not there yet, but he will be soon. So Neil focuses his mind on the mark on his thigh, tracing it with trembling, barely responsive fingers, Lola’s wild eyes and her wide grin sucking the life from his battered body.
He thinks of warm gold, of sunshine and smoke. He thinks of broad shoulders and promises and strength. He thinks of a tiny little fox paw hidden by an armband and he follows the thread that connects him to the broken pieces of the rest of his soul and he pulls.
The agony he feels is almost unbearable, his soul twisting and breaking and reshaping itself around the empty void at the center, where the tear ate away the light and left only darkness behind.
He tries to be as quiet as possible, muffling his whimpers against his bleeding arms and hoping Lola will think they are a result of her cuts and fire.
He doesn’t know if Andrew feels the same way Neil does now, like an empty shell. He thinks he must; they were mirrors of each other after all.
He hopes everything will be over soon. He doesn’t want Andrew to feel this empty for long. Maybe if Neil dies it will be easier. It will grant him peace of mind.
Except he doesn’t die. His father’s cleaver stops an inch away from his body, bullets flying around the basement and tearing apart his nightmares.
He is left standing in the middle of the room with the realization that he is alive, and he won’t die. After tearing his soul in half to keep Andrew protected from his death, he won’t die.
The anger and the betrayal he feels swallow him whole. If only they had come a little bit earlier. If only they had been able to save him before he’d decided to shred the light from the rest of his life. Before he’d decided to ruin Andrew’s life.
When the FBI talks to him, he is still reeling, shame curling in his gut and eating him up. He knows he can’t face Andrew. Not after what he did. He also knows he can’t fake his own death because Andrew will know that it’s a lie, the mark not the black it’s supposed to be when your soulmate dies.
So he doesn’t fake his death. And he doesn’t face the Foxes, self pity and fear leading his actions.
He lets Browning take him away, putting a wall around the edges of the hole inside his soul when Andrew should have been.
He can’t go too far, something keeping him close enough that he could still go back, if he wanted to. If he could find the courage to look at Andrew’s eyes without flinching.
He doesn’t go too far, but it’s still a whole year before life starts making sense again, Fate or Luck putting them on the same path once more.
It’s something so small. Neil doesn’t even like coffee shops, but he’s been buying and drinking sugar bombs for a year now, almost daily, the taste sweet and heavy on his tongue a reminder of what could have been.
He doesn’t go anywhere he knows Andrew and his lot used to hang around, so he doesn’t expect to meet anyone there, much less the one person he was trying to avoid the most.
He stares at the shadow in front of him, frozen to the spot, and wanders once more what went wrong. Andrew looks blank and haunted, like a blurry picture. Neil can’t stand the thought that he put that look on his face.
Neil doesn’t run, because he’s hurt Andrew enough already, and Andrew doesn’t talk, and Neil doesn’t blame him, because what could he even say to Neil’s messed up face, to his empty eyes, or to his trembling mouth?
What could he say to make this better?
He follows Andrew out of the coffee shop, and to his car. They don’t talk for a while, smoking in silence and remembering a time when everything was easier. (Maybe they were lying to themselves even back then, and nothing was really easy, they just wanted it to be)
When they finally talk, it’s quiet, a trembling candle of light in the darkness they have inside.
They talk about promises and lies and hurt. They talk about voids inside and emptiness and darkness. They don’t talk about what might have been because it hurts too much. They don’t ask for forgiveness because they’re not ready yet.
They’re tired and broken and alone together when Andrew reaches across the space between them in the Maserati, his hand heavy on Neil’s neck.
The kiss is as empty as the hole in their souls, bleeding hurt and fluttering like a dying heart.
Neil wishes he could feel what he remembers as he gets out of the car, the goodbye heavy on his shoulders.
He’s not more than five feet away from his past when he feels it happen, the tingling sensation spreading from the back of his neck to his shoulders and his fingertips.
Shocked he turns towards Andrew, who is watching him with his blank face twisted in what could be considered confusion, his hand hanging with uncertainty in the air.
Neil walks back slowly, wanting to hope but too scared to let his heart unguarded again.
His breath catches when he sees the fox paw on Andrew’s neck where his lips had been moments before, and his hand flies to his own neck before Andrew stops him, covering Neil’s tingling skin with reverent fingers.
He doesn’t dare hope, but he aches with the need to.
Quickly, he looks at himself in the rearview mirror, turning his head to look at the small key there.
The torn parts of their bond mend themselves, filling the void.
They are not empty anymore.