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there’s a niche in his chest where a heart would fit perfectly

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I.

 

He’s eight the first time he steals a sip of his mom’s beer.

 

It’s seven forty PM and she’s passed out on the couch, and the glass is wet with condensation but the beer is lukewarm in his mouth. It’s bitter and disgusting and he spits it up in the kitchen sink, reminding him of the moldy bread he uses to make sandwiches when she doesn’t have the money or time or energy to run out to the store.

 

And that’s - that’s life. That’s just how things are. She smacks him around and calls him her baby and he eats expired crackers at night that he hides under his mattress, because she screams when he sneaks food.

 

Aaron’s not dumb. Maybe at first, he didn’t think anything of it, but by the time he’s in school, he knows to keep his mouth shut and tell teachers he gets cold easily, that he doesn’t want to leave his sweater in his cubby after recess. That he left his coat at home this morning, but it’s fine, he can stay in the library. He likes reading, anyway.

 

He likes escaping.

 

 

Andrew Doe comes into his life like a hurricane, leaves him breathless like Bonnie. Becomes a Minyard, until they’re fifteen and blond and five foot zero, nothing separating them.

 

Andrew likes to push, say, hey hey hey where’d that bruise come from, brother dear. Likes to flush drugs down the toilet, say, sorry, Tilda, didn’t realize we needed those. Laughed the few times she took a swing at him before kicking her chair out from under her.

 

Aaron steals ace bandages from the school nurse, takes ibuprofen from the bathroom cabinet and prescription pills from his mom’s dresser. And Andrew pushes, Aaron, Aaron, A-a-ron, Aaaaaron. Does your throat hurt yet from puking? You kept me up all night, I hope you drown next time.

 

It’s like it’s a game for him, duck and cover, fight back and wipe the blood from your mouth. He’s less of the always wanted sibling, less of the inside jokes and sleepovers every night, more of a monster completely different from the one that spawned him, but a monster all the same.

 

 

A year after Andrew comes home, he leaves to go grocery shopping with Tilda one night. They don’t come back - there’s a call to the house phone an hour later, from some overworked hospital secretary, There’s been an accident, do you have a way up here, dear? Anyone else we can call? You were the only one listed.

 

And Andrew looks so fucking small in a bed, too pale with too many wires, a tube down his throat and an EKG’s steady beeping in the background, one heartbeat for every two of Aaron’s.

 

Tilda’s dead, and Aaron wants to kill Andrew himself. He wants to climb into that hospital bed and straddle his twin, slap him out of his goddamn coma and strangle him. He wants Andrew to beg him for mercy. He wants to deny him.

 

He wants Andrew’s heart to break like his own, because Tilda was reckless and a walking traffic hazard, but she could drive better coked out than most people could sober. Because Andrew killed her, selfish to the end.

 

II.

 

Aaron notices her vaguely, while his intro biology teacher drones at the board about the class syllabus, but he can only see the back of her head. He has a passing thought, something about, how do girls find the energy to do stupid braids in the morning I can barely get over my bedhead and brush my teeth.

 

She’s out of the room before he can see her face, but he remembers that braid - one of the girls on the exy team would do it after practice, while Coach Wymack talked strategy. A week later and two more classes of staring at the back of her head and trying to guess the genetic likelihood of her having blue eyes, he sees her at the last place he expects: Friday night, the first home exy game of the season. A vixen, because God hates Aaron Minyard.

 

Andrew notices and smirks, because of course. Aaron’s surprised he can do that much, with how much he’s puking up his guts from withdrawal. Betsy’s giving him Gatorade and trying to get him to breathe deeply, but he just keeps laughing between his dry heaves.

 

That night, Andrew throws a knife at his head in the house in Columbia.

 

“Remember the deal, Aaron.”

 

“What deal? The one you made me make when I could barely see straight?” He doesn’t even know her name, but he’s so angry, because he can barely look at a girl but Andrew can fuck guys at Eden’s without a second thought. “Because you’re sure as hell not keeping your end.”

 

“You’re safe aren’t you? Or are you still snorting every time I don’t hold your hand in the bathroom?”

 

He doesn’t know where Nicky is - probably off crying on the phone to his stupid German boyfriend, oh, they won’t stop fighting, I wish I was back with you. When the twins first lived with him, Aaron hated making Nicky cry. Now, it’s just another competition between him and Andrew.

 

“Get the fuck out of my life.”

 

Andrew never listens.

 

 

The vixen’s name is Katelyn, and she’s on the pre-med track, too, but with a focus on pediatric surgery. She has dimples that make Aaron forget how to sleep and she’s so fucking smart and driven. They study together, and her notes are neat and precise and color-coded, and she introduces him to the magic of OneNote, and it all goes downhill after that.

 

 

Their first date - a real one, no orgo included - is on a Thursday in October. She’s wearing a thick sweater and a maroon skirt, and holds his hand while they walk through downtown. He feels like all his jokes are dumb until she snorts at one of them and drops his hand to cover up her blushing cheeks.

 

“You’re beautiful,” he says during dinner, partly to see her blush again, partly because he can’t keep it in his mouth any longer unless he wants to choke.

 

“You’re not too bad yourself,” she says around the straw of her sweet tea, and he does choke, that time.

 

 

Her dorm is on the second floor of the tower along with the rest of the cheer program. He walks her to her door and leans against the door jamb, tilting his head back so he can see her face.

 

“I had fun tonight,” he says, and immediately wants to kick himself. Fun is - it’s too simple. It’s what you say about watching a shitty movie with your friends, or playing GTA with your twin for fifteen hours straight over Thanksgiving break your junior year. It’s just shy of boring. It’s tolerable.

 

Dinner with Katelyn is anything but.

 

She smiles anyway, and the curve of her mouth makes him think she already can read him better than he thought. “I had fun, too,” she says, quiet, before leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek. He swallows and hopes she can feel his heartbeat where her hand is on his jaw.

 

She pulls back for half a second, biting her lip. She kisses his mouth this time. Her lipstick is waxy and soft, and her mouth is warm. Her hand presses a little harder against his jaw, and he can feel the outline of her rings. She pulls away too soon.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” she asks.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says, a promise.

 

 

Andrew hates Katelyn to absolutely no one’s surprise.

 

He calls her the tramp, talks about what the cat dragged in. Says that she’s lucky, locking down a trauma surgeon early. You’re so goddamn loyal, Aaron. She’ll use that. Aaron becomes close to the vixens instead, gets dragged into their study groups and movie nights and inside jokes when Andrew’s seeing his shrink or in his own classes.

 

He leaves for Columbia a few Fridays a month, and every time he kisses Katelyn goodbye, he thinks, there must be something better than this.

 

III.

 

Andrew reacts to Aaron’s new friends by throwing an unopened soda can at the TV. He misses - Aaron’s pretty sure that was intentional, but he’s unsure - and then turns on Aaron.

 

“So one girl wasn’t enough? You had to go get her entire little team?”

 

Aaron barely glanced up from his phone when Andrew started his temper tantrum, and he’s not going to look up now, either. “It’s not my fault you don’t have any friends. Do you think it’s your personality?”

 

“Maybe it has something to do with my fantastic mother abandoning me. At least my foster parents taught me manners. Did yours?”

 

That part catches Aaron off guard, just a little. Andrew doesn’t bring up his time in the system with anyone, even his family. He’ll mention juvie, sometimes, but that was more common when they were in high school and he wanted someone to stop fucking with him. Foster care was strictly off limits; he only pulled it out when he wanted to win, and fast.

 

“I’m sorry, she was too busy doing drugs. Did you forget about that? I remember there was a car accident or something because of it.” He still hasn’t looked up. It’s what Andrew wants, after all; he won’t give him the satisfaction.

 

“So you don’t need Mommy Dearest anymore?” He’s laughing, too high to be sincere, even for him in his drugged out state. “Has little Aaron finally grown up?”

 

Aaron jerks his head up. Andrew’s looking at him, head tilted to the side like a puppy. Like a child, confused and alone. “I didn’t have a choice. You killed her.”

 

“You didn’t have a choice?” He rolls his eyes. Aaron knows, physiologically, that it’s impossible for your eyes to fall out that way. He wouldn’t be surprised if Andrew managed it, just to get out of practice and spite his body’s limitations. “Neither did I, dumbass. At least you had a home.”

 

 

A month later, Andrew brings home a stray from the winter ERC banquet.

 

Kevin Day is bloody and broken and drunk. He’s joined to Andrew at the hip, another member of the family. If Day wasn’t so dead set on being straight, Aaron would have thought they were fucking. Either way, an outsider joining their circle breaks the deal.

 

Aaron’s not going to forget about it any sooner than he’ll forget what Kevin mumbles while he sleeps.

 

IV.

 

Neil Josten comes to campus halfway through May. Aaron doesn’t trust him from the get-go. Two weeks ago, he heard about Kevin’s field trip to Arizona with Coach and Andrew, and afterward, heard Kevin’s drunken ramblings about flighty strikers and exy racquets to the stomach. Andrew smokes through two packs of cigarettes in a week and says he wants to go rabbit hunting.

 

There’s a new fox. Maybe he’ll last longer than Janie Smalls, maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s changed.

 

 

Except it has - Andrew brings Neil out with them to Eden’s and breaks down into his component parts when his rabbit runs - defend, fight, kill. Aaron’s never seen his twin panic over him like that, white-knuckling the wheel, music too loud, ash spilling out of the cigarette tray when he breaks too hard on the interstate.

 

Even with Kevin, it took him months before Andrew had wrapped himself around the striker tight enough to get the same reaction. It wasn’t until he had recovered enough that Abby let him back onto the court. More so, when he announced he was back to playing and the Moriyamas started to care about him again.

 

Neil Josten, however, isn’t one of them. He’s a liar from Arizona, and wherever he was before that. His eyes are off just enough to be unsettling. He holds himself too tight, too closely drawn in. Everything he says is bitten off and choked out.

 

(He’s a liar. He’s going to get them killed.)

 

 

“He needs to go,” Aaron says at the beginning of November. The dorm was cold enough that he had to sleep with socks on and wished that Katelyn’s roommate went home to the beach more so he could curl up in bed with her for the night. (She wants him to meet her parents; he wants to, too. He probably won’t tell Andrew he’s going until he’s already packed.)

 

“Who.” Andrew never asks questions (demands them) and he never answered them either (ignores them) - every conversation between them was like pulling teeth.

 

“Josten, obviously.” Pulling his own teeth, he amends. Removing his own brain tumor without anesthesia. Threading a needle with his teeth so he can sew himself shut. “Your shiny new toy?”

 

“Why do you want him gone?” Andrew is still smoking out the window, making his voice raspier than normal. A voice in the back of Aaron’s head that sounds like a mix of one of his professors and Kevin whispers about the dangers of habitual chain smoking.

 

“He’s a threat. Since he showed up, Seth died. Did you forget about that? Riko killed him because Josten can keep his fucking mouth shut, not because of anything Kevin did. The Moriyamas are a danger to the entire team, and more people are - “

 

“No one’s going to die.”

 

“Someone already did die.”

 

“Seth was Renee’s group. If you have a problem, take it up with her.”

 

“God, you just - “ Aaron’s going to rip his hair out and force it down Andrew’s throat with his boot. “Cut Josten lose. He can’t stay.”

 

“Your deal doesn’t negate his.”

 

“Then get rid of his deal. Shouldn’t Kevin and I’s outweigh his? You took psychology. It’s a basic trolley problem.”

 

“And why would I do that?” Andrew stubs out his cigarette, but instead of lighting another, he hurts to look at his twin. There are bags under his eyes that weren’t there the day before.

 

Something clicks - “You like him.”

 

“I despise him.”

 

Aaron doesn’t argue after that, but he sees it for what it is - a way out of the deal. Andrew can’t keep him trapped if he’s breaking it too.

 

V.

 

Aunt Maria calls Nicky that night.

 

Aaron can’t tell what she’s saying, and Nicky’s answering in Spanish anyway, but his skin is pale and his hands are shaking when he hangs up. He locks himself in the bathroom to shower before Aaron can ask what it was about, even though they still have afternoon practice in an hour. He’s quiet the rest of the night.

 

The next morning, on the drive to the gym, he leans past Kevin to look at Aaron and Andrew in the front seats. “Mom called last night,” he says. Aaron doesn’t respond because he already knew, and Andrew ignores him in favor of hitting the turn signal when he pulls until Perimeter Road.

 

“She wants us to come down for Thanksgiving. She said Dad invited Kevin too.”

 

Kevin snorts in the backseat. “I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s racist and the food is fattening and - “

 

Nicky elbows him. “Anyway, she said we could all come.”

 

“You can go by yourself,” Andrew says. “Or do you need someone to hold your hand?”

 

“I can only go if we all go.”

 

“That sucks.” Andrew hits the radio power button. Immediately, his shitty alternative roars to life. “I’m not going.”

 

“I have a project due right after we get back. I don’t have time to go to Columbia,” Aaron says. “Sorry, Nicky.”

 

Lie - he’s going to Katelyn’s parents' house for Thanksgiving. They’ve met over Skype and FaceTime before, and their golden retrievers always slobber over the camera. Aaron thinks he likes Rosie and Livvie more than Katelyn; she only pouted a little when he told her.

 

It’s their first holiday/vacation of campus together, and the first family event. He would be nervous if he wasn’t so excited.

 

 

So, of course, Neil ruins it.

 

Nicky goes behind everyone and gets him to ask Andrew, because Andrew is so far up Josten’s ass, so twisted around his little finger, Aaron thinks Andrew would kill for him if Neil batted his eyelashes at anyone else.

 

They drive down to Columbia two weeks before Thanksgiving, crammed into the GT without the siren call of Eden’s to ease the trip. At least this way, he can still go to Katelyn’s for the break. That’s the one thing stopping him from shoving Josten through the window as Andrew tears down the highway.

 

 

And then Drake happens.

 

+ I

 

Andrew comes home from Easthaven, leaving Aaron scrambling to relearn who his brother is. Unmedicated Andrew is cold and doesn’t laugh and snaps faster and harder. He chokes Allison in the parking lot and strangles Kevin until he whispers out Nathaniel Wesninski was supposed to be dead and breaks Riko’s arm on national television with his racquet.

 

Unmedicated Andrew sits at the witness stand and stares at the portrait of George Washington on the far wall instead of the prosecuting attorney or Aaron’s lawyer or his family sitting in the audience.

 

Unmedicated Andrew talks about living with Cass and Richard Spear like it happened to someone else, like Drake would hurt some other little boy every time he came home on leave. He recounts what happened in November while the jury examines the photographs taken by the hospital staff.

 

Aaron doesn’t know this version of Andrew, who reacts violently to every threat against his family, but barely acknowledges ones against him.

 

(He didn’t know that version in November, laughing and bleeding and concussed. He likes this version better. He wants this one to stay.)

 

 

Katelyn holds his hand as they walk out of the courthouse; she squeezes it, periodically, to keep him grounded. He got off better than Waterhouse had hoped for, just a few years of mandatory community service and probation. Nicky laughed when he got off better than Andrew did after the fight at Eden’s, says, maybe they learned that medication doesn’t always work.

 

“I’m proud of you,” she says. The sun is too bright, casting long rays between the buildings. “I wouldn’t have been able to remain that calm.”

 

“You would have been calmer,” he says just to be contrary, to make her smile.

 

“You know that’s not true. I would have lost it and called the DA a gossip whore or something.”

 

“There’s still time. You could probably beat him to his car.”

 

She shoves him, not hard enough to stumble. He glares at her anyway, but still says, “Home?”

 

She looks at him, eyes bright and smile crooked, and Aaron knows he’s so fucking gone. “Home.”