Andrew smoked as he walked: The smell of tobacco reminded Neil of his mother, his uncle. His fingers perused the various roses, still thriving despite the cool beginning to settle in. His fingertips were gentle on the leaves, the thorns, the petals, though he seemed to hold zero interest in what he was doing.
“Shall we?” Neil offered.
They continued down the path, curving around the house’s east wing.
“Riddle me something, Hatford.” Andrew said lightly. “I have heard many a thing about you.”
“I highly doubt the correspondences are true.”
“Perhaps.” Andrew said, taking a puff of his pipe. “But according to my findings, you have a lavish estate that you acutely leaving untouched, money to your name that many would beguile you for. What on earth are you doing here? Though, it doesn’t seem like much of a downgrade.”
“I prefer to not discuss the topic of my father.” Neil said, frigid. “Though everyone assumes for the wrong reason.”
“That I’m sad for his passing.” Neil admitted, coming to a lull in his pace. “I am objectively pleased. My mother’s…frailties are widely known, and it no one’s fault but his own.”
“And your own frailties, Mr Hatford?”
Neil looked at the man. He was entirely serious. Looking back to his feet, he continued marching down the path.
“Too callous, perhaps.” Andrew said as he caught up. “I’ll share one of my own miseries in exchange for one of yours. How is that?”
“Extremely transactional.” Neil murmured. “But alright. What is it you want to tell me?”
“What is it you want to know?”
Neil hummed. “Why come to my uncle? It seems unnecessary, when you have a fortune and excellent ties. What more could you need?”
“At first I came because the opportunity presented itself. Lord Wymack suggested I should acquaint Kevin with your uncle, as they would get along splendidly, and that your uncle has more niche resources that could be of use.” Andrew acknowledged, before glancing to Neil as they walked. “But it seems I have returned for the company of an intriguing young man.”
Neil was more than a little shocked. “No one has ever confessed that I was a motivation before.”
“Merely a prize, Hatford. Don’t get ahead of yourself.” He allowed. Neil grinned.
“It is beginning to grow too cold for my liking. Shall we retire to the drawing room?”
Before meeting with Neil once more, Andrew checked his attire: a frill at the neck, tight enough to accentuate his jaw, suit properly fitted to the curve of his shoulders, hair still properly styled. He was sure that Hatford would never even consider the thought of loving a man, but perhaps the urges would become more prevalent with a small amount of effort.
He was there prior to his company, relaxing into the nook of his couch, furthest away from the fire. Then he waited.
When Neil arrived, he had donned an evening coat and pushed his curls out of his eyes. The corner of his mouth ticked up at Andrew’s presence, and he closed the door behind him.
“I am sure that my uncle and Mr Day will join us soon enough.”
Shame, Andrew thought, only acknowledging him with the tilt of his head.
“I—“ He looked to the opposing chairs, then back to the space beside Andrew. When he took his seat by Andrew’s side, he crossed his ankle at the knee and looked at Andrew like he was challenging him to say something.
Of course there was nothing wrong with sitting beside another man in a room full of free chairs.
“I believe you owe me, Mr Hatford.” He said, settling his gaze onto the other man.
Neil returned his look with something of appraisal. “Well, ask away.”
“Ever seen a dead man?”
Neil looked up from under his eyelashes. “Are you sure that is what you want to hear?”
“Of course not.” Andrew leaned forward. “But to assume something more sinister is to place rumour before truth, and that is outside of my small realm of tolerance. Not many know the true source of the Wesninski fortune, do they?”
“How do you?” Neil whispered, accusatory. “You say not many know: It is meant to be that no one knows.”
“I am well acquainted with that aspect of my society, as I’m sure you’re already well aware of. So? Did you?”
Neil looked into the fire.
“Neil.” Andrew said.
“He was going to kill her.” His teeth were gnashing together, jaw grit ferociously. “So I took a glass and smashed it into his head. I cleaned everything up myself and strolled down to the police station to pay off the nearest officer and sign the death certificate. There. Is that enough? Enough to understand why we are both here, rather than on our own property? Enough to understand why my uncle doesn’t let me loose? He thinks I’ve let my nervous impulses control me. That I’m possessed by something otherworldly.” He let out a shaking sigh, unable to look in Andrew’s direction.
“There was a young woman.” Andrew said, after a terse moment of silence. “Relatively young. She was visiting my father to beg for more money to fuel her opiate habit. He couldn’t say no to her: She’d birthed his illegitimate children years ago, and would out him to his pregnant wife. ”
“They were in a carriage together.” He continued. “I pulled a bolt out of the wheel. It flew off and the inheritance fell to me, when the unborn child miscarried and the woman died of grief.” He leaned closer. “I did it to protect my brother. She would hit him and scream at him and drug him to all hell. Do you understand? We are the same.”
Neil looked at him, gaze hollow but regarding him with perfect understanding.
The door was thrown open. “Ah! You’re both here. Excellent. Shall we continue our discourse here, Mr Day?”
Andrew settled back to where he was sat before, keeping his eyes lidded and ignoring the way Neil’s gorgeous gaze nestled right into the curve of his cheekbone.
I do fear that this journal I write in is becoming worryingly close to completion, but I have yet to consolidate Mr Hatford and his many inconceivable elements. I saw a recognisable spark of anger in his eye when we discussed the matter of his father. It does not bother me. It would be extremely hypocritical if it did.
I understand that ferocity. Mr Hatford is growing more incomprehensible every passing hour, and I have so many loose ends and no clue how they all started. At least I am correct on something: Jean Moreau’s tidbits on the Wesninski family business have proved true. I do not have to fear the move of Neil, nee. Nathaniel Hatford and his mother to somewhere so close to Wymack and Palmetto: Neil has proven worthy of necessary vigilanteism when it is required.
I will understand him yet. And should he choose to act on his little affectionate gazes, well.
I won’t say no.
“I’m afraid Mr Hatford is feeling rather unwell this morning and cannot make it to breakfast.” Renee informed the small party in the dining room.
“Does this often happen?” Kevin inquired. Andrew wanted to kick him.
“Quite.” Stuart nodded. “He is easily overwhelmed by the…elements, shall we say.”
“What are your plans for today, Mr Minyard?”
Andrew levelled him with a careful look. “I shall write.”
“Of course.” Kevin muttered.
“Please use the drawer room.” Stuart offered. “I hope it’ll be most comfortable for you.”
Andrew nodded, standing up from the table as soon as he had finished what small portion was left of his food and folded up his napkin, before bidding the other men good day.
He had the entirety of last night’s encounter recorded, in code, of course. He would have rather slit his own wrists than incriminate the man.
He let Renee guide him to Neil’s chambers, before knocking firmly on the door.
His faint “Come in,” came after Andrew had already opened the door, stepping into the premises.
Neil was sat up in his bed, hair in disarray as he pondered over a pencil and sketch book.
“What is it, Renee?”
“Again, you speak before you look.”
Neil looked up with thinly-veiled horror, snapping his book closed and sitting up from his pillows. He didn’t seem at all unwell, aside from the flush collecting on his cheeks, but perhaps that was just because of his usual modesty: Now he wore a robe that was loosely tied, revealing some discolouration upon his skin. He pulled the robe closed, clambering out of bed hastily.
“Andrew,” He said. “What are you doing here?”
“Coming to ensure it wasn’t what we were discussing last night that put you in such a predicament.” He crossed his hands over the head of his cane. “I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you.”
“Of course not.” Neil assured him. “Discussing it brings—well, it makes sleep a little more fantastical, does it not?”
“I find good air to be refreshing. You didn’t show me the gardens around the west wing of the estate, did you?”
Neil glanced down at himself, wringing his fingers together.
“Alright.” He said. “Give me ten minutes to dress.”
Neil followed Andrew out into the pebble-lined courtyard, right beneath the window to his mother’s room. He hoped she was sleeping: Whenever she witnessed him talking to another, she grew inconsolably angry. No one was safer than family. No one could be trusted outside of blood.
“You haven’t offered your condolences for my mother.” Neil said.
“Should I? I thought she was still alive.”
“A mere husk of what she once was. When she passes, it will be a great relief. She is in much pain.”
Andrew simply hummed and continued onwards, hands laced behind his back. “You don’t care for condolences. Pity has no value in a world of communal misery, does it not, Mr Hatford?”
“You’re quite right.” Neil said, walking beside him.
For a few minutes they were simply walking, whilst Neil considered what he spur a conversation upon.
“Do you always dress flamboyantly?” Neil inquired. He was wearing a very loose shirt underneath breaches, with bell cuffs and matching lace at the neck.
“What’s your real question, Hatford?” He challenged.
Neil cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose it’s to spite someone, is it?”
“Quite right. My uncle was rather enthralled when we came into such fortune that he tried to take it from under our noses with some sinister methods. I dress in fashions he aptly despises, the devilishly boring plank of oak wood that he is.”
Neil snorted. “You have a remarkable charm, Mr Minyard.”
“So I’ve been told.” Andrew agreed.
“Here,” Neil said, taking Andrew’s wrist without thinking and pulling him towards the vinery. It was a broad wooden arch, creating a unique little gazebo that was shadowed by the ochre-toned leaves. “One of my favourite places in the garden. In summer I would sit here and—“ He paused. “Draw. I imagine if you wanted to return during summer, you could write here. It is very—“
“Atmospheric.” Andrew said. “Yes.”
Neil realised he was still holding onto the other man’s sleeve and dropped his hand, clinging it to his chest. “Oh—I’m sorry—“
“Quiet.” Andrew stepped close, holding a finger up to Neil’s lips and tilting up his chin to look at him. “Do not apologise. Not to me.”
“I didn’t mean to touch you.” Neil insisted. “It was inappropriate.”
He straightened the lapels of Neil’s coat. “I believe you.”
Neil smiled hesitantly. “You’re a very curious man, Mr Minyard.”
“I believe you’re owed the exact same congratulations.” He said. “Come back to Palmetto with me.”
Neil blinked. “What?”
“Next weekend. I am sure that your uncle will permit you: Some distance from here may do you a world of good, and he trusts my judgement, does he not?”
“I—“ Neil said, hesitant. What would he do amongst strangers? How would they look at him? And how could he leave his mother?
“Yes or no?” He inquired.
Neil felt that strange little hearth within him, warm and ever-present when he was the anchor of Andrew Minyard’s gaze.
He realised how dangerous it could be to trust such a man with his frailties and truths, but it seemed helpless to avoid it. He wanted a moment to himself, without any preexisting attachments restraining him or forcing him into a form he didn’t want to be. He couldn’t be the standard of propriety, the socialite: He had no desire to be a cunning industrialist, nor own and shepherd land. He’d never been granted the chance to simply be.
Perhaps this was his chance.
He bit into his lip and closed his eyes: When he opened them, he was sure.