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We Could Be
come on skinny love, just last the year,
pour a little salt, we were never here.
skinny love – bon iver
New York is too big for a boy like him.
The streets are endless, stretching as far as the eye can see, or until they are obscured by buildings higher than he's used to. Back home, the highest building he had ever stood on was at the top of Maxxie's estate and even then he was convinced he was going to fall, his reflexes dulled by too much beer and Michelle's arm brushing against his.
But these days, he tries not to think of home too much. Not when he's entirely uncertain of where that may be. His heart is torn; is home here in New York where he currently resides, living in a cramped little flat with Cassie? Or is home back in Bristol with his empty house and Tony-Michelle-Maxxie-Anwar-Jal-Chris? But, he thinks bitterly, kicking a crushed can onto the road with more force than necessary, Chris is dead.
Chris is dead and his dad is dead and Tony got hit by a bus and nobody in this noisy city cares apart from Cassie. And these days, she doesn't do much talking.
Sid sighs. He's not quite sure what he expected when he ran to NYC in pursuit of Cassie, but it sure as hell wasn't anything like this.
But if there is one thing that he has learned, it is that the future is never really what you expect it to be. Sometimes he thinks it is best not to hope at all.
Cassie sits in the corner of the room on her pink and white striped beanbag, painting her nails to match. The overwhelming scent of the nail polish reaches him where he sits, in the opposite corner from her. Anna Karenina lies on his lap, his thumb holding his page as he is otherwise distracted. He can remember reading this book to Tony as he lay still in his hospital bed, his voice so hoarse that the beeping from the machines almost drowned him out.
Her blonde hair obscures her face from him. Sometimes he thinks she does it on purpose. She blows her nails, waving them in the air to dry them and then gets to her feet. Still not looking at him, she darts suddenly across the room in the direction of the bathroom, but her foot catches on an open pot of green polish and it spills over the clean wooden floor. He hears her swear quickly and turn back around, her hair flying by him as she hastily mops up the mess with a bit of tissue.
It doesn't clean it all up. He knew it wouldn't, and she probably knew it too. She sighs and trudges to the bathroom. She still has not spoken to him since yesterday.
He watches her as she goes. Her form is skinny, her legs like matchsticks. The fragility of her makes him shiver unpleasantly; even now she still looks ill. She swore to him when he arrived that she was eating now, that she was much, much better than she was before and that she was going to be lovely for him, and he believed her then when her eyes shone clear and bright with honesty and he couldn't count her ribs, but now – now she is as she was before.
She comes back from the bathroom clutching a damp cloth in her hand. Her loose pyjama bottoms hide her skinniness but also emphasise it with the way they hang off her waist. Quickly, she scoots past him as he expected and drops to her knees, mopping at it frantically. Something inside of him breaks – maybe his pride, he thinks with the tiniest trace of humour, and he gets to his feet.
"I'll help," he says. They are the first words he has spoken to her today.
Cassie doesn't acknowledge him; she simply keeps scrubbing at the floor until no traces of the emerald green remain. She scrubs and scrubs and scrubs until he thinks she might wear a hole in the floor. Then, she does something that surprises them both. She throws the cloth to the ground and bursts into tears.
Sid has never been very good around crying girls, especially not ones he likes. Resisting the urge to pat her awkwardly on the back and say, "It's okay," he can only sit and wait for her to stop.
It's a long time before she does, but eventually her crying subsides and he stops feeling so awkward. He holds his breath as she raises her gaze to look at him. He can't remember how long it's been since they made proper eye contact without one of them looking away quickly. She bites her lip and pushes her hair behind her ears.
"I miss Chris," she says eventually. It's barely more than whisper but he hears it as if she had shouted it at him. "I miss Jal. I miss Anwar. I miss Maxxie. I miss Tony. I even miss Michelle."
"Me too," he replies, and they look at one another again.
Sid wonders how everything got so fucked up so fast.
Cassie's hand in his is cold and limp as they walk down the street. Times Square at night is a magnificent array of lights and sounds but he can't even bring himself to appreciate it when Cassie is not looking at him again. Her lips are set firmly in a downward curve as she gazes at the street ahead of them.
"Want to stop for something to eat?" Sid asks, rubbing his hands together. It's freezing and he longs for the warmth that the Chinese they just passed can offer them, or the Indian a couple of shops down. He glances at her out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes, it's like talking to a brick wall.
"Mm," she answers absently, her hands coming up and fiddling with the bottom of his hat as her lips form a toothy smile that seems to come too easily to her. "Maybe later."
"Cass—" he begins, but her eyes flash dangerously though her smile never falters.
"Maybe later, Sid," she repeats, her tone harder, and Sid drops it.
"Do you love me?" she asks one night after slipping into his bed. Her touch is electricity on his exposed skin as her fingers tiptoe their way up his arm. Goosebumps erupt along the path she traces and he shivers unwillingly. Yes, there is no doubt that he loves her. It's just that loving her is a bit too much for him to handle sometimes.
"Yes," he replies honestly. Her face is slightly blurred without his glasses, but she's still pretty, even though her eyes are ringed with dark purple and her face is a little too pale and her lips are bitten raw. How could he not love her, however hard it can be?
A smile splits her face then, and the last bit of skin clinging to her lip splits. Blood beads at her mouth and she wipes the back of her hand across it quickly, coming away with a thin trail of red stained to the white skin of wrist.
"You shouldn't bite your lips so much," he tells her quietly.
She just looks at him with her big eyes and smiles again. "S'okay, Sid. It doesn't hurt."
"I know it doesn't," he replies. He pulls her fingers away from her mouth. The tips of them are red, but her lip has stopped bleeding now. "But just don't."
To that, she doesn't have an answer. Instead, she glances down and lets her body relax against the bed. "Sid," she says, after a short pause. He waits expectantly. "Don't you ever wonder if I love you?" Her hand twists against the duvet covering them, squishing the top of it into her palm.
He tugs the duvet away from her with a gentleness he didn't even know he possessed. "Yes," he answers.
"Why don't you ask?" She props herself up on her elbow and tilts her head to the side.
"I don't know," he replies. "Just... can't bring myself to sometimes, I s'pose."
"Why's that, Sid?" Her teeth pull at her lips, though there's little skin to bite off.
"I'm just not sure I could stand to hear the answer," he says slowly.
Cassie considers him for a moment before she presses her mouth, hot and unyielding, to his. He draws away almost immediately, briefly meeting her gaze – a mixture of confusion and hurt – before staring hard at the white sheet beneath them.
"Why not?" comes her voice, quiet with an underlying sense of frustration. He can almost understand that.
"I – Cass, I don't know," he confesses, the words coming out in a rush. "I just don't know any more."
"Mm" He listens to the sound of her breathing for another minute before she says, "Oh, wow. Okay," and leaves him alone. Furious with himself, he pulls the duvet high over his head and curls into a ball, ignoring the sounds of her bashing about in the bathroom next door and trying not to focus on the noisy squeaks of the pipes above him as the toilet flushes.
She did that on purpose. She knows how much he hates that sound.
Sid is alone, and higher than he has ever been.
The city is spread below him like a satellite image. From here, he can see miles into the distance. New York is never ending, it seems. Far, far into the distance are the faint purple outlines of hazy mountains, drifting above the horizon line like smoke from a fire. It's only then that he realises just how far he has travelled.
He takes a drag on his cigarette, inhaling deeply and trying not to splutter when it burns his lungs more than he remembers. Once the coughing has subsided, he relaxes a little and tunes out the droning voices of all the tourists. He isn't sure what possessed him to go to the very top of the Empire State Building and stay there for what has seemed like hours on end, but Cassie isn't here so it seems as good a place as any.
Below him, the people are like ants. It's a clichéd turn of phrase but it's the only one that springs to his mind; everyone is so insignificant. He is insignificant. However tall he feels in comparison to the people down below, however important he feels, none of it is real. He's as insignificant as everyone else. The thought sends a strange tingle up his spine.
"Cass," he whispers, staring out to the horizon. He hates how pathetic he sounds. "Cass, I miss you."
"Who's Cass then?" asks some greasy New Yorker in passing, brushing against Sid's shoulder. His voice is laden with mockery. "Your girlfriend?"
Sid shrugs away from the man, dropping the cigarette and shoving his hands deep in his pockets. "Something like that," he mutters, before he fights his way to the front of the queue for the elevator. Heights were never really his thing anyway. It was always Tony who sought out higher ground when hurt, though he'd never admit it to anyone.
The elevator comes to a stop and everyone pours out. He finds his way back onto the street again and takes a lungful of fresh air. Taking a few steps back, he glances up to the top of the building. he can't even see the people up there, though he knows how crowded it is.
Insignificant, he thinks again, and then he trudges home.
"I'm sorry," Cassie says from the other side of the room. He can't see her face again. She's wearing those cute pink pyjamas that make her impossible to hate because they make her seem years younger than she really is. Her feeble apology, however, does nothing to weaken his resolve. "Can we stop fighting now?"
Sid doesn't reply. He doesn't know how to.
"Sid?" she asks again, bringing her head up. He drops his gaze. It does nothing to stop her efforts. Instead, she simply stands up and walks over to him, crouching so her lips are at his ear. "How much longer are we going to play this game?" Her tone is deadly soft.
"I've never been the one who played games, Cass," he says, staring straight ahead. "That's always been you."
"Not true," she counters, but there's no real feeling behind her words.
"It is, and you know it."
There's a long silence where all he can hear is the quiet sound of her breaths. Then, she says, as if she is ashamed of it, "I know." He hears her sit down beside him and they stay like that until the early hours of the morning, when Cassie finally stands and stretches a little. "Goodnight, Sidney." She presses a slow kiss to his cheek.
"You don't want something to eat before you go?" Sid tries, glancing up at her. She merely shakes her head before retreating into the dark of her room.
He doesn't know why he said it.
"I wish," says Cassie, biting her bottom lip, "we could go back to how we used to be."
Sid sighs and remains silent. Her hand slips on top of his and she squeezes just a little too hard, her nails biting into his flesh.
"Yeah," he says eventually. "Yeah, me too."
Cassie pulls him down the street, her hand gripped tightly around his wrist. He has to break into a light jog to keep up with her as she's moving in such a hurry, her feet slapping off the tarmac as she runs. She pulls him down main roads and alleyways, navigating her way through the heart of the city with such precision that he gets the feeling she's come this way before.
"Where're we going?" he calls to her, but she just glances back at him quickly and laughs.
"I told you!" she says, never once slowing. "I'm going to show you something!"
"What?" he asks. He knows it's futile because Cassie never tells her secrets to anyone, but it's worth a try. "What are you showing me?"
"You'll see!" She's grinning wildly as she meets his eye.
They run for another five minutes before Cassie finally slows down to a walk. She doesn't let go of him, though her fingers move from around his wrist to between his own fingers, locking him beside her. It takes another couple of minutes before Sid realises what she wanted to show to him.
"Central Park," he says.
Cassie nods, still grinning. "You said you hadn't been, but I thought – you can't stay in New York and not go to Central Park. It's so big, Sid!" He thinks her laugh could be heard from the other side of the city. "If you run through it, just run – it feels lovely." Her smile is contagious and he grips her hand tightly in his.
"Let's do it," he says. Maybe it will cause them both to remember how easy they used to be.
Cassie laughs again and pulls him along with her and they run through the endless expanse of grass, just narrowly missing running into children and adults alike. Then Cassie lets out a squeal of, "Oh, wow!" and starts giggling and Sid laughs with her and soon, they both end up collapsing to the ground and clutching at one another and laughing until they can't laugh any more. Her hands are still in his.
"I missed you, Sid," she says once their laughter has subsided. Her voice is quiet and her eyes are sincere.
"Missed you, too," he replies.
"I forgot how lovely we were," she tells him. Her hair tickles his face. "Don't let me forget again. Right?"
"Right," he agrees, and then he kisses her. Because Cassie might not be eating properly and he might still be a little bit broken on the inside but he's discovered that New York has its own way of mending broken hearts and he kind of likes that a lot.
And if he could listen to the sound of Cassie's laughter every day, then New York might not be as terrible as he first thought.
He almost thinks he could get used to city life, after all.