After everything that happened—the kiss, the lunch, the graveyard, the funeral—Kieren is surprised to realize he doesn’t know Simon very well at all. Simon already feels like a fact of his life, fitting neatly into his house, into his town, and against his body on the long afternoons they spend in Simon’s bed, trading touches Kieren thinks he’s waited years for: unhurried, ardent, unafraid. But Kieren doesn’t know what Simon’s favorite film is, or what his hobbies are, or how he feels about sports; doesn’t know the big things, either, like his family or the people he’s loved or what it used to feel like to be high. Sometimes he’s sure he’s halfway to loving Simon, but sometimes he doesn’t know what it even means to love someone he doesn’t know everything about, whose childhood stories he wasn’t there for—he’s never been in this position before.
So Kieren’s solution is to fill up their afternoons with questions, traded back and forth, like a game. Simon is amused when Kieren suggests it, but he agrees easily, and it becomes their private ritual, starting up spontaneously when they’ve finished kissing and are curled comfortably together, with Simon asking whether Kieren ever learned to cook (not successfully) or Kieren asking Simon’s opinion on the Young British Artists (loves the dead shark but guiltily). And in between silly, harmless questions, the difficult ones lose some of their power. Of course they’ll talk about death and undeath, love and grief. It’s part of the getting to know each other; it’s starting to feel safe.
Kieren’s sitting up against the headboard with Simon settled between his legs, his back pressed tight to Kieren’s chest. The sun is setting, and Kieren has to go home soon; he’s allowed to spend the night—or rather, he’s an adult and didn’t phrase it as asking for permission—but he always lets his parents know ahead of time, and truth be told, he likes rationing those nights, likes the sweet sorrow of parting and the sure knowledge that they can see each other tomorrow and for an eternity of tomorrows. He presses his hands tighter to Simon’s stomach under his jumper and murmurs, “Last question,” in his ear before kissing his way down his neck.
Simon’s sigh makes Kieren laugh softly. Simon retrieves one of Kieren’s hands and kisses the back of it, saying plaintively, “Stay,” as he does every time Kieren leaves and has ever since he started feeling reasonably sure that Kieren would be coming back.
“I said I’d come home tonight,” Kieren says, and bites Simon’s earlobe. Simon turns enough to capture Kieren’s lips in a rough kiss, which Kieren lets go on for a full ten seconds before pulling away. “No,” he says firmly, “last question. Make it a good one.” He laces his fingers with Simon’s over his clothes and hooks his chin over his shoulder.
“Alright,” Simon says, but he’s silent for a long time, watching the sun slip down to the horizon, which means one of the bigger questions is coming. Kieren can’t help tensing up a little, but it’s his game, and Simon so rarely asks a really serious question, as wary of approaching the sensitive areas of Kieren’s life as he is forthcoming about his own.
“Okay,” Simon says eventually. “Yeah. Tell me something about your death. Just one thing. A detail. Something…quirky,” he adds, and Kieren laughs again, because that wasn’t as bad as he was expecting, and because Simon’s word choices are ridiculous. Simon relaxes and tips his head back against Kieren’s neck.
“I have one, actually,” Kieren says. “Something quirky. I remember singing,” he says, and Simon makes a soft surprised noise. “Or humming, maybe. The blood loss….” He stops. Simon squeezes his hands briefly. “I remember feeling relieved and, I suppose euphoric is the right term. I was a bit blasted, really,” and Simon snorts and mutters something that sounds like, you and me both. “Yes, well,” Kieren continues. “I’m sure I started singing something, but I don’t know what it was? Sometimes I try hard to remember, and it’s just on the tip of my tongue but I can’t quite get it—it’s bloody irritating.” He pauses. “Poor choice of words.” Simon lets out a shocked little giggle against Kieren’s collarbone, then immediately says, “That’s not funny.”
“But it is quirky,” Kieren says, and Simon laughs again. “It’s good for there to be something funny,” he says, quieter, and this time he lets Simon push him against the pillows and cup his face in his broad cold hands and kiss him until the room is dark and the first stars are glittering in the sky.
“Kier, nobody’s heard of Keaton Henson,” Jem says.
“That’s no excuse,” says Kieren. “You have to let me play you his music, you’re a guitarist, you’ll love it.”
“I’m not, I mean, I only play a little,” Simon says.
“I bet you’re great,” Kieren says. “Which I would know—”
“—if you would play for him,” Jem choruses with the end of Kieren’s sentence, and she rolls her eyes at them. Kieren’s mum hides a smile behind her roast beef.
“Is Keaton Henson that sad bloke?” Kieren’s dad asks.
“Yeah, the one he played for a solid year when you were what, fifteen?” Jem says. “You couldn’t go into his room without hearing the same two albums on repeat.”
“I was fourteen, he just released a third album, and you’re all philistines,” Kieren says primly.
“Hey, I haven’t been given a fair shake yet,” says Simon.
“I have a mix CD with the best song order, let’s go,” says Kieren.
“After dinner,” his mum says mildly. “Steve, could you pass the brussels sprouts?”
After dinner, Kieren commandeers the downstairs stereo over Jem’s strenuous objections (“If he’s going to subject himself to bloody depressing pretentious folk rock, make him do it in his room!” “Language, Jemima.”), and while Kieren’s parents settle into the living room for the evening and Jem goes upstairs, Kieren dries the dishes about half as fast as Simon is washing them and introduces every song as it comes on, Simon nodding along seriously. Kieren hasn’t actually listened to this CD in a while, certainly not since he came back, and it’s weird to revisit this headspace: that time of being fourteen and lonely, on edge and miserable and starting to suspect there was something wrong with the helpless ache in his chest when his best friend smiled at him. He’s…actually not enjoying this so much—the way his skin is crawling, the tight lump in his throat, the sense memory of adrenaline sharp in his mouth—but the music is still fucking brilliant, and he still loves it, and Simon is so carefully attentive, commenting favorably on each song as it finishes: the yearning anger of “Beekeeper,” the haunting melody of “Corpse Roads,” the jagged—
“Kieren?” Simon says, frowning in worry at Kieren who has gone still and silent and far away.
“This is the song,” he says.
“The—oh,” Simon says. There’s a pause. The faint pressure of a hand on his shoulder. Then a hard hug from behind. Simon’s chin is digging into his shoulder. Simon is leaving damp handprints on his shirts. Simon is breathing in and out, in and out.
It’s dark behind his eyelids, and it’s dark in the cave, and Kieren breathes in and out and thinks about dying, and thinks about waking up, and about the morning sun slanting through the windows of the bungalow. He lifts his hands slowly and places them on Simon’s wrists and holds on as hard as he can and thinks about Amy; about his father’s embrace; his sister’s laugh. He thinks about kissing Simon, and kissing Rick, and the way blood looked staining his jeans, and what pain used to feel like and what pain feels like now. He listens to the voice on the stereo; to his own voice, thin and fading. He stares at his mother’s dinner table and concentrates on the dish towel between his palm and his boyfriend’s wrist and breathes in and out, and the song is over, and Kieren is alive.
He twists around in Simon’s arms and presses a clumsy, heartfelt kiss to the corner of his mouth, for once careless of the fact that people are around to see. “Glad that mystery’s solved,” Kieren says lightly. “It was driving me crazy,” and he reaches up to touch Simon’s tiny, anxious smile. “We can listen to something else now,” he adds.
“Yeah,” Simon breathes. “Yeah, how do you feel about the Smiths?”
“Mmm, sorry, I don’t have any Smiths CDs,” Kieren says, disentangling and picking up a platter. “Bad luck. Unless someone’s willing to provide a live performance, of course.”
Simon raises his eyebrows and huffs, but his mouth is quirking up and his gaze is warm and clear. “I guess I could be persuaded.”