“Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” –Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Wesninski house was quiet.
Then again, maybe the silence was just in Nathaniel’s head. He hadn’t heard much since he’d watched Nathan burn his mother’s body. He had heard even less after Nathan had rounded on him, Lola salivating at his side.
His world had faded entirely right around the first press of a cigarette lighter between his knuckles. His last sight had been Nathan’s searing eyes. His last thought had been: Mom’s going to be so angry with me.
Implausibly, he woke to the vibration of feet treading heavily through the room. Disoriented, he cracked his eyes open and saw that he wasn’t in the backseat of their most recent car, or squished onto a tiny mattress, but in the basement of his childhood home.
The footsteps stopped, right in front of his face.
Nathaniel scrambled backwards from the man, slamming into the corner he hadn’t realized he’d been dumped in. Every inch of his body screamed. His hands felt like raw wounds, his face like a jigsaw puzzle.
The man crouched down in front of him, and he saw his mother’s face looking back. Brown hair, dark grey eyes, that angle to his jaw. He was saying something, but Nathaniel couldn’t hear him. Mom had tried to teach him to read lips, and he employed it now, poorly: Na-l, Na-iel, the man was saying. Na-iel sa—, safe—
Nathaniel, you are safe.
Neil gazed out the window of the armored car, thinking of how absurd it was to transport him in such a thing. As if he were an assassination risk. He clutched his duffel bag to his lap.
In three days, Neil lost his mom, his father, his hearing, his home, his rest. Now he lost one more thing—the only thing he was truly glad to see gone: his name.
What to do with him had been the question. Stuart—Neil couldn’t quite bring himself to call him uncle, even in his head—wanted him close, but something about Neil made him reconsider. Maybe the way Neil still only responded to about half of what was said to him. Maybe the way Neil couldn’t help flinching every time Stuart moved, even just to shift on his chair.
Maybe the way Neil had only slept four hours in three days, because every time he did, Mary’s burning corpse rose from the flames to beckon him towards her. In the dream, Neil ran to her. That scared him more than anything.
In the end, Stuart had a contact several degrees removed from Neil, but still somehow connected. Neil didn’t care to know how. He had a house on the Yorkshire moor, and Neil was being sent there.
Stuart, driving, kept glancing back at him. He spoke, but Neil didn’t hear him. Sound had yet to return, but sometimes there was a blanket white-noise.
Neil didn’t think Stuart realized why he never responded—maybe he thought it was the trauma of those last few nights in the Wesninski household. Well, he wasn’t wrong. Stuart gestured out the window, and Neil turned his gaze there.
It was empty, he thought dispassionately. The countryside stretched out, flat, damp, and barren. It looked just like his mind felt. If he stepped outside the car he would still hear white noise, but it would be because that’s how this place sounded.
The car wound up a long driveway. They halted for a gate to be opened, then continued. Whoever this contact was, he had land.
And a house. A manor, more like. It loomed ahead of them, lashed by the growing rain. Neil’s only association with houses this big was the Wesninski house, and even thinking of it made the white noise in his head grow louder.
He made himself focus on small differences. This house was rambly, overgrown with ivy. This house had ugly, bright orange curtains in every window. This house had a several chimneys puffing smoke. Who on earth burned wood fires anymore?
This house had a man and a woman outside, watching them crawl up the drive.
Stuart stopped the car and got out, opening an umbrella. He came around to Neil’s door and held the umbrella out over him as he stiffly, painfully unfolded himself from the curled position he had held for most of the ride. He patted the zippers on his duffle bag compulsively, looking away from Stuart’s face, which was emoting pity.
They walked to the house together, painfully slow as Stuart matched Neil’s steps. The man and woman ushered them into the entrance hall, and the man held out a hand for Neil’s bag.
Neil clutched it to him and took a step back, and the man raised his hands, face neutral. He was about his father’s size and weight, and Neil’s heart began pounding without his say-so.
He looked up at Stuart—for what, he had no idea. For something. For the lesser evil. For the devil he knew. Stuart was saying something, but it was just white noise, and Neil’s vision wouldn’t settle to give a half-hearted attempt at lip-reading. He stared at the floor.
Suddenly, there was a hand in his vision. It was slender and brown, nails painted bright yellow. Neil followed it up to the woman crouching in front of him. She had a calmingly neutral face, a soft gray sweater, and pearl earrings. Slowly and precisely she mouthed: Can you hear me?
He shook his head.
She nodded in understanding as a large hand came down on his shoulder. In rapid reflex he twisted away from it and backed into the wall, eyes fixed on Stuart’s stricken face. His uncle raised his hands, saying sorry, sorry. He pointed to his ear and shook his head, face baffled. Neil nodded. Stuart’s face grew infinitely weary.
The woman came back into his field of vision. She had a pad of paper and a pencil.
My name is Abby, she wrote. I’m a nurse. That man is my partner, David Wymack. How long have you been unable to hear?
Nathaniel held up a hand. Four days.
Stuart looked stricken, and it was making Neil uncomfortable.
The man came over to them and crouched down as well, mouth twisting when Neil inched backwards. He took the paper from Abby and scrawled for a few moments, then handed it to Neil.
Call me Wymack. This house is called the Foxhole. I promise you are safe here. Will you stay?
Wymack tapped the paper to draw Neil’s attention, and held out a keyring, eyebrows raised. Neil looked from the paper to the key to Wymack’s face. He nodded.
Wymack and Abby showed him his room. There was a bed, desk, and a small table with chairs. There was also a fireplace, burning low. He pointed to it, looking at Abby.
She laughed and took out the pad of paper. Old house, she wrote.
Neil clutched his bag and looked around the room. Wymack waved his hand for his attention, and showed him a safe tucked under the bed. Something settled in Neil’s chest.
Abby got his attention. I’m your nurse, she wrote. Checkup in morning. Stuart sent med records. + talk about hearing.
Neil scowled, Abby shrugged, and they left him for the night.
Neil waited for a few minutes, poked his head out the door to make sure they were gone, and locked it. He shoved his duffle bag into the safe and locked that as well, finding the combination on a sticker. He found a piece of string on the mantelpiece and strung the key around his neck. Then he checked over every inch of the room, turned off the lamp, and climbed into the bed.
It was right next to the window. If he put his face against the cold glass, he could feel the raindrops hitting it. He didn’t sleep that night, just dozed, alternately lulled to sleep and jolted awake by the raindrops like fingers pattering against the glass.
At one point in the middle of the night he came awake to the fire smoldering the hearth, too similar to the fire in his dreams Mary rose out of, and forced himself to ignore it by looking out into the dark. At first he could make out nothing, and then, slowly, he could see little lights. They seemed so far away as to almost be stars, but they broke the bubble of isolation he had been suspended in.
When he next drifted off, those far-away lights were in his dreams.
He woke in the morning to a muffled noise, distinct from the white noise he had been hearing. It was a sort of watery, muted thumping, and after a moment of disorientation he realized he was hearing someone knocking at his door.
Experimentally, he knocked his own hand against the window. It too made a thump, like he was hearing through many layers of cotton wool. He thought he should be optimistic about it, but really he hadn’t felt much of anything in a long while. Except fear.
The thumping continued, and he realized he was supposed to unlock the door. Gingerly, he unfolded from his huddle against the window and got out of bed. Every inch of him ached, from recent wounds and from being locked in one position all night. His eyes were blurry with sleeplessness, and when he opened the door to a young man instead of Abby or Wymack, he thought at first he was hallucinating.
The man gave him the sunniest smile he could ever remember seeing, and hefted a tray he was carrying. Bewildered, Neil let him in. The moment the man put his tray down, he raised his hands and began to sign.
Abby told me you can’t hear. Do you know BSL?
Yes, Neil signed, relief flooding up. He hadn’t realized just how much of a strain he had been under to communicate (or not) the last few days until it was suddenly, miraculously, lifted. Who are you? His signing was rusty; mom and he had practiced until they could sign easily once upon a time, but it had been years ago.
Matt. I’m living here with Wymack for a few months. He asked me to bring you breakfast. With a grin, he made a dramatic gesture at the tray. Neil looked at it hesitantly. There was porridge, eggs, toast, bacon, and tea. The thought of consuming any of it made his stomach roll.
Abby said she’ll be here in half an hour, Matt told him. Want me to stay?
Neil shook his head automatically, but Matt didn’t look upset. He gave Neil a thumbs up instead, and held out his hand to shake. Neil grimaced and held up his own hands to show the bandages. Matt’s mouth opened in shock, but he recovered quickly, changing his handshake into a peace sign and leaving the room.
Neil sat at the table and faced the food, wondering why he had sent away the one person he had been able to really talk with in four days.
The porridge had honey and brown sugar and blueberries on the side for him to stir in. He ate a few blueberries, tasting ash, then went back to bed.
Abby came a while later. She too knocked on the door, and looked surprised when he sat up and faced her when she came in. She pointed to her ear, eyebrows raised.
He tilted his hand. So-so. She passed him a pad of paper so he could elaborate, and, fingers painful around the pen, he wrote in messy handwriting how he had started to hear muffled noises.
She nodded. Trauma, she wrote. Not permanent. Slow progress, be patient.
He shrugged. He could have figured that out on his own. He could tell she read his irritation on his face, because her lips quirked up ruefully.
Bandages, she wrote. Let’s change them. Shirt off.
I can do it, he wrote.
She looked pointedly at his hands, trembling to hold the pen.
He took off his shirt.
He looked resolutely away so he couldn’t see her reaction, but he felt her stiffen beside him all the same. Luckily, she fell back into professionalism fairly quickly and changed his bandages efficiently. When he tugged his shirt back on, she asked: Same shirt?
David will bring you something.
Her gaze went to his untouched breakfast. He knew she’d been waiting for the moment to bring it up. You should eat.
She gave him a look that said “I see through your bullshit.” Do you want to see the house?
He shook his head.
Okay. David will come with lunch. She packed her bag and he watched. She rested a hand against his shoulder before leaving, and he felt it there for a long while after.
As promised, Wymack brought lunch some hours later. Neil hadn’t moved much since Abby left, but he adjusted his posture to keep Wymack in his line of sight. Wymack had a pad of paper in his pocket, but he kept to simple gestures. A raised eyebrow at the sight of the full breakfast tray. A firm point at his lunch and a clearly-mouthed eat. And a heft of the bag in his other hand, which he tossed to Neil. It contained gently used clothes, a little big for Neil but definitely not Wymack-sized. Vaguely, he wondered where they had come from.
With one more eyebrow raise and gesture at lunch, Wymack left.
Neil dragged himself off the bed to inspect lunch, which was a turkey sandwich, carrots and hummus, and more tea. He drank a cup of tea and managed five carrots before he limped back to bed, huddling under the window. He shoved the new clothes under the bed.
Abby came again with dinner, her lips pursing at the sight of the lunch and Neil at the window. Neil ignored her, even as she built up the fire and the growing shadows of flame on the wall spiked up to consume him as they had consumed Mary.
He didn’t even get out of bed to look at dinner. The smell of it was sickening enough. He pulled the heaviest blanket around himself, pressed his cheek to the window, and floated.
The second day passed in a haze. He didn’t leave the bed. He didn’t touch the food. He didn’t look at whoever entered his room to leave it there.
He wasn’t allowed to get away with it a third day.
He woke from a haze of non-sleep to the thump of a knock on the door, but didn’t bother to tear his gaze from the window. But Abby had brought backup, and it was Matt’s friendly face that Neil saw when he turned to see who the hell had actually hit him with a pillow.
Good morning, Matt said, as Abby watched with crossed arms. Abby says it’s time to get up.
Neil’s gaze drifted back towards the window. Then he yelled in protest as Matt’s arms scooped under his knees and back, and he was bodily lifted from the bed.
What the fuck? he signed in outrage at Matt, who just shrugged with a face-splitting grin as if to say, sorry, hands are occupied!
He was carried out of the room, down the hall, and into a bathroom, a steaming bath already drawn. Matt set him down and Abby appeared the doorway before he could storm out. She pointed towards a bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner, a shaving kit, deodorant, and a fresh set of clothes on the counter. She said something, and Matt scooted into his line of vision.
She says you’re not leaving the bathroom until you’ve used every single one of those. And I have to agree with her, bud. You stink.
Neil flushed with anger and embarrassment, but before he could respond they left the room, shutting him in.
For a moment he was filled with a kind of rage he hadn’t felt in a long time. He turned and swept everything off the counter to the floor. It fell in silence, and abruptly he was drained of emotion again. His hand ached, his breathing was too fast. He tried to get it under control as he picked everything up and set it back on the counter. Then he got in the bath.
Abby had been right, he admitted to himself, and only to himself, after re-dressing, all toiletries used. And his wounds needed to air as well. Bundling his old clothes inside his used towel, he opened the door. The corridor was empty, and he made his way back to his room.
There was breakfast on the table, with a note. Neil. If you don’t start eating, you’re going to have to be hospitalized. Neither of us wants that. Eat as much as you can, then go outside and work up another appetite. If you get back in that bed, Matt will carry you again. –Abby
Frustrated again with no one around to take it out on, he sat down hard in the chair and stared at breakfast. It was just a bowl of porridge this time, cream and blueberries already stirred in. He took a bite. It tasted like ash. Slowly and grudgingly, he ate the bowlful of cinders, feeling each clump lodge in his stomach like a lump of coal. By the time he was finished he felt like if he opened his mouth, black char would come out, tasting of Mary’s bones. He tore the note up and left it spitefully inside the bowl.
A gently used pair of shoes had been left by the door, next to a black jacket. He put both on, made sure the key was still around his neck, and left the room.
It took him ten minutes to find his way outside.
The house was circuitous; there seemed to be hundreds of doors, though Neil knew that was his imagination and lack of sleep. He went up and down several flights of stairs before he found a small back door. He tested his key in the lock to be sure it worked before he left—it did. That meant Wymack had given him the master key. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
He stepped out of the house and into air as cold and clear as a still lake. He immediately zipped his windbreaker, pulling the hood down over his ears and the sleeves over his hands. As he stood there trembling in the bright cold, contemplating going back inside, he suddenly thought of what Mary would say if she could see him now. Pathetic. He almost went back inside just to spite her memory, but she hadn’t been dead that long.
He ventured forward and found himself in the center of a sprawling, mazelike lawn. Large ivy-colored stone walls lined the cobblestone path, which squiggled forward like a snake. The walls, at least, offered a bulwark from the wind.
His progress forward was halting, and he was viciously glad that no one had decided he needed supervision for his enforced air-taking. He hunched like a hill against the cold, forcing his legs to move, glad, at least, Nathan hadn’t managed to take the cleaver to them like he had been promising. The memory of it knocked him from the present, and he only came back when something touched his hand.
He tripped backwards from the touch, and found himself on the ground looking up at a gardener. She wore overalls with muddy knees, bright pink wellingtons, and her hair was tied back in a bandana patterned with bumblebees. She was looking at him in concern, having stood from where she was planting rows of perfectly-spaced bulbs.
She said something, but Neil had forgotten to focus on her lips. He pointed to his ear and shook his head, shrugging. She nodded in comprehension and held out a hand to help him up. He refused it, standing and stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets.
She didn’t seem offended, just placidly pleasant. It was aggravating. He was the angriest thing in this house, and it just made him angrier.
The woman pointed to her chest, then pointed to her bandana, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re…Bee?” Neil asked. It was strange and uncomfortable to speak without hearing his voice.
She nodded, pleased, and pointed to the garden, then the house.
“You’re the gardener,” he said. “Funny, I had picked that up already.”
She smiled at him, and he wanted to stomp all over her OCD bulbs. Immediately, he was furious with himself. What would Mary say, to see him so thoroughly in the grip of his own emotions?
Bee caught his attention, winked at him, and pointed to a nearby hedge. Neil followed her finger to see a little furred face peeking back at him. The fox stared at them inquisitively for a few moments, then disappeared through the hedge.
Bee smiled at him, and Neil turned away.
He wandered circuitously for a while more, discovering little hidden benches and birdfeeders and cold, wary creatures like himself. He arrived back at the door after two hours of clear air, feeling, despite himself, a bit better. Bee waved at him as he went inside; he ignored her.
He got lost on his way to his room and wandered into the kitchen, where a young woman was preparing food. She looked up, startled, but seemed to have been told about him already. N-E-I-L? she asked, her BSL broken and slow.
She pointed to herself. D-A-N. M-A-T-T girlfriend.
Neil didn’t respond, but she saw his glance at the food she was making. Hungry?
She pulled a stool over to the counter anyway, and he felt obliged to sit on it. Dan was tall and muscular, not as good-humored as Matt but certainly friendly. She offered him a slice of cheese as she made three sandwiches, and when he ate it she gave him another.
Surprisingly, when she was done with the sandwiches she gave one to him and picked up another to eat herself. When he gave her a look, she grinned at him, gesturing for him to eat. He didn’t feel like he could refuse after having sat and watched her make it. He managed three-fourths of it and then shrugged at her, as close to an apology as she was going to get. She waved a hand and ate the rest herself. The third sandwich sat on the counter, presumably for someone else.
When she moved to the sink to start washing dishes, Neil took up a dishtowel and dried, earning an approving grin. He wondered with a vague curiosity why she and Matt were at the house, but surely Dan didn’t know enough BSL to communicate that.
When they finished, he fidgeted for a moment then signed, L-O-S-T. He had to repeat it several times before she nodded in realization and led him through the labyrinthine house to his room. Thank you, he told her at the door.
As he entered the room he was struck by a wave of overwhelming exhaustion. He barely had time to toe off his shoes and unzip his jacket before he fell into bed, asleep despite his mind’s protests.
Nathaniel, why did you leave me? his mother wailed. Her charred hand jutted from the flames, creeping ever close towards him. Why would you leave your mother to burn? You did this, Nathaniel, you killed me!
Neil woke with a gasp, sweat pouring off him, the fire still with him in the room—still there, still burning, reaching towards him—he leapt off the bed and seized the jug of water from the nightstand, a great billow of hot steam erupting from the fireplace as he tossed it on—he stumbled backwards, hit something, gave an unheard yell and whirled around, knocking over the table he had hit.
His father opened the door with a thump, silhouetted in the steam, furious, and Neil did the only thing that might save him and dropped to his knees, doubled over, arms up to protect his face—but no, that wouldn’t help, he would just be angrier, why had he covered his face, why couldn’t he uncover his face—his arms weren’t working—
A hand descended onto his head and he waited for the pain—waited—the hand left—waiting—waiting—he felt a sob work out of his chest and he stifled it ruthlessly—
A breeze brushed across his neck.
There was no breeze in the basement. There was no air like this in the Wesninski household, frigid and clean.
A hand touched his hand. It was small; it traced light circles over his bandages.
Bandages. The breeze.
His body released all tension at once, and the hand caught his as it dropped from the air, another coming up to cup it. He spent a minute there, shaking from adrenaline, allowing himself to feel relief.
Nathan is dead. Mom is dead. I am Neil.
Then the dread set in. He uncurled, levered himself up on his knees. Abby held his hand, her face determinedly smooth. She reached out and brushed a curl of sweaty hair from his face. Behind her was Wymack, face shuttered.
“Sorry,” Neil made himself say, though he hated speaking when he couldn’t hear himself. “I’m fine.”
Wymack gave an exaggerated gaze around the room. The fireplace was soaked, the table and chairs knocked over. The cold wind blowing in from the window chilled the three of them, but it reminded Neil that he was alive, here, in the Foxhole.
“Nightmare,” he said clumsily. “The fire. Nathan made me watch him burn my mother’s body.” Abby’s eyes filled with tears, and she squeezed his hand. He stared over her shoulder, uncomfortable. “Can I go back to bed?”
They picked up his room, rebuffing him when he tried to help. Wymack put the fire out completely, and brought him more two thick blankets instead. They looked like they wanted to say more, but Neil turned his back to them, letting the breeze play over his face.
He didn’t leave the house again for a week.
Abby came to have breakfast with him every day now, and today she was hiding something. He could tell because she kept smiling and repressing it. He wished he could say she came to eat with him because she enjoyed his company, but he hadn’t spoken a word since that night and she watched his food consumption too closely to be casual. But today she was excited.
He raised an eyebrow at her.
She pulled over her pad of paper. I guess I can’t keep a secret. We got you something.
He stared at her, expectant. With the attitude of a person announcing an engagement, she stepped outside of the room and brought in…an exy racquet.
Out of all the things in the world, he had not expected that. He reached for it automatically, feeling a kind of hunger erupting in his stomach. He hadn’t thought about exy in years. But his hands still knew it, inspecting the netting, the handle. His mind still knew it, recognizing a quality racquet. It was an expensive model, in excellent condition, but not new. He wondered where it had come from.
Abby produced a ball as well, grinning.
Stuart told Wymack you play, she wrote.
It was news to Neil that they talked to Stuart. He guessed he shouldn’t be surprised. It was unlikely his uncle would have simply abandoned him.
“I used to,” he said.
I’m willing to bet you remember.
Oh, did he remember. His whole body remembered, a sense-memory awakened by just holding the thing.
You can’t play in the house, she wrote, her face carefully neutral.
It was an unsubtle trick, but for once Neil didn’t care.
This time Neil brought a hat. The clear wind bit into his skin, but with an exy racquet in his hand things looked a little different. He still moved slowly, but last week’s agony of movement had subsided.
He slipped the ball into the net, wound up, and flung it down the garden path. It lodged in the far hedge. He jogged to get it and threw again. Five minutes into this he ran into Bee—or rather, his ball did. He rounded the corner to see her staring at him in amusement, cradling the ball.
He slowed a bit, and she threw it—a good throw. He caught it solidly in his net, and looked up to see her grinning at him, giving him a thumbs up. He didn’t return it, but he didn’t think she expected him to.
Beckoning him with a finger, she stood and led him down a few paths. He followed suspiciously, until they arrived at a gate. She pointed to the lock, eyebrows raised, and he dug under his shirt to show her his key. Satisfied, she pushed the gate open and revealed the countryside, unoccupied as far as he could see.
It was about as barren and cold as it had looked from the car window. But it was wide open, and Neil couldn’t keep hurling the ball into hedges and walls. He gave Bee a short nod and she smiled again and left him to his devices.
He marked off space not far from the garden and began to run drills. It was hard: he hadn’t so much as held an exy racquet in years. But his body remembered with a wild, fierce joy the likes of which he’d forgotten he could feel. He kept it up until his legs began to fail him, and realized with dim surprise that the sun had passed its zenith. He had missed lunch, and he was hungry.
He unlocked the gate, hurried back to the house, and went into the kitchen. He had been eating lunch with Dan over the past week, assisting her with cooking, but today he had missed her. He found leftovers from last night’s soup in the fridge and microwaved a bowl of it, eating standing up at the counter.
It was like this that the Wymack found him, sweaty and dirt-covered, eating soup standing up, racquet leaning next to him. Wymack paused in the entrance to the kitchen, evaluating him, then pointed at the fridge. Neil realized he was asking permission to come into the room, and wondered what would happen if he denied it. Shaking it off as a pointless question, he nodded slowly and watched as Wymack fixed a sandwich.
Instead of leaving the kitchen to eat as Neil thought he would, Wymack settled at the opposite counter, mirroring Neil. After eating a few bites of his sandwich, Wymack pointed to Neil’s exy racquet, then to himself.
Possible meanings spun through Neil’s mind. “It’s…yours?” he asked. Did Wymack want it back? He held it out, though he was loathe to give it up.
Wymack’s hands went up, head shaking. With a grimace of frustration, he pointed to himself, the racquet, and then mimed…putting on a hat?
“You’re…a coach? An exy coach?”
Wymack nodded. Excitement stirred in Neil’s gut, overriding his usual uncertainty around Wymack.
Wymack thought for a moment, then abandoned all gravity and made two claw-hands in the air, baring his teeth.
“The Jackals?” Wymack shook his head. “The Foxes?” A nod. “Palmetto?” A thumbs up.
Neil knew he was showing his hand, could feel how wide his eyes were and how fast his heart was beating all of the sudden, but he couldn’t get himself under control. “Why are you in England?”
Wymack considered momentarily. Then, he pointed at Neil.
“Because of me?”
Wymack shook his head, shrugged, and finally held out his hand. Neil stared at it. It didn’t waver, patient. Neil, infinitely cautious, placed his hand in it. Wymack brought his other hand over and traced a word into Neil’s palm. H-E-A-L.
“You’re healing?” Neil asked.
Wymack nodded, and made a gesture that seemed to encompass the whole house. Everyone was healing.
That night Neil was in the middle of the deepest sleep he could remember having in living memory, when he was awoken by a howl of terror. At first he thought his mother had followed him from his dreams again, and then he thought it was the wind singing battle cries. It took him a few moments to deduce that it was, in fact, coming from inside the house.
It took him only a second more to realize that he was hearing it. He would have been pleased at the progress, but he was too irritated that he had been woken from such a rare thing as good sleep.
Brusquely, he poked his head out of his door just in time for Matt to almost run him over.
What’s going on? Neil signed.
Nothing, Matt said, harried. For the first time Neil had witnessed, he wasn’t in a sunny mood. Go back to bed.
Please, just go back to bed. He hurried away.
Neil considered going back to bed. Then he crept down the hallway after Matt, paranoid about the noise he might or might not be making—he couldn’t tell. He followed Matt who followed the howling, which, despite it being evidence of recovery, Neil began to despise almost immediately.
The sound led to a bedroom in a wing he hadn’t been into yet, where a light had been flung on, casting many moving shadows on the ground: a full room. Neil didn’t dare get closer.
Then Dan exited the room and saw him, stopping short. Neil met her with a blank face and she only sighed, resting a hand on his shoulder and pushing. She led him back to his room, gave him an exhausted, halfhearted smile, and left.
This time Neil went back to bed. It took a long time for sleep to catch him—he was to busy wondering.
The next day found Neil unceremoniously booted outside. Abby had tucked a scarf around his face, packed him a lunch, and shown him the door, looking distracted and stressed. The look was one his mother had often born, and so he didn’t press her for answers.
He passed the morning running drills, and let himself back into the garden for lunch. He was looking for a likely spot when he saw a familiar face: orange and white, whiskered, and staring at him from inside a hedge.
The little fox disappeared again, and Neil decided on a whim to follow it.
There was just one problem. He couldn’t get to wherever the fox was. He walked around and around the block of hedges and walls it had poked its head out of, wondering if he was delusional, but there was simply no entrance. There had to be something inside, because the fox had come from there, and the walls marked a boundary of something. The entrance had been hidden.
Abandoning exy gear and lunch, he set himself to a hands-on investigation, inspecting the walls and the curtains of ivy that draped down overtop them. After ten minutes of detailed searching he found it: a space that was more ivy than wall, and was in fact more hidden, locked door than ivy. Even his master key didn’t work.
Neil had never been stopped by a locked door before.
The old lock was easy to pick, and as the gate swung open with a muffled groan that Neil could hear, he saw a fox tail whip out of sight.
He retrieved his things, stepped inside, and closed the gate behind him.
It was a little garden that appeared to have been long-abandoned. Dead rose bushes had grown and then died over everything: a low bench, a few scrawny trees, some desiccated shrubs. Why this place had been boarded up, Neil couldn’t say. The privacy of it appealed to him, though.
He sat and ate his lunch in the secret little garden. He tossed his leftover chicken to the place he’d seen the fox disappear from, and was soon rewarded with its quick reappearance, snitching the meat and vanishing again. It probably wasn’t a good idea to feed wild animals, but here in the garden he couldn’t bring himself to care.
Everything once beautiful about this garden was gone. No-one had cared enough to tend to it for years, and now it was empty. Neil lay back on the ground and wished he could feel something other than anger.
The next day he discovered two things: a key and a man.
Abby ate breakfast with him again, though she looked strained, and he didn’t press. Instead he told her of his recovered ability to hear high-pitched sounds, and she smiled and patted his hand. When she offered to make him a lunch he waved her away and went to the kitchen to do it himself.
Matt was there, looking exhausted as he fixed two bowls of porridge. He looked guiltily at Neil as he entered.
I can’t tell you, he signed preemptively. Sorry.
It’s…a private matter. A privacy matter.
Neil gave him a hard look, and Matt looked desperately guilty but also unrelenting, so Neil just shrugged and stuffed an assortment of foods into a bag.
Matt pointed to his racquet, which Neil had leaned on the wall inside the kitchen. You play exy?
Yeah, striker. What’s your position?
Neil considered. When he was young, he had been a backliner. But he was leaving a lot of things in the past. I used to be a backliner, but I want to switch to striker.
Cool! School team?
Neil winced. Ah, no. No school. Do you have a team?
Matt raised his eyebrows. Wymack’s.
Neil felt his stomach plummet to his toes, his hands momentarily frozen with shock. Palmetto?
Matt nodded, his face rueful. Neil felt sick. Matt was a professional. Next to him, Neil was just a kid who had played little league.
Maybe we can play together sometime, Matt suggested.
Yeah. Avoiding his eyes, Neil picked up his lunch and racquet. He was prevented from leaving the room by Matt’s careful hand on his shoulder.
I’m serious, Matt signed earnestly. I want to play with you. You’re my friend.
His stomach came back up from his shoes and lodged itself in his throat. Stupidly, unforgivably, he didn’t know how to respond against the abrupt tide of his own emotion. So he nodded once, spun on his heel, and fled.
Bee was in the garden, singing to herself. He couldn’t hear it, but he could see her mouth the words and sway to the beat. All of the sudden, he missed music. He had never really listened to much, but it had always just…been there, and now it wasn’t. He had the strongest urge to scream as loud as he could just to make sure he could hear it.
Bee seemed to catch his mood, because she motioned him down next to her. Lacking a polite way to tell her hell no, he knelt. He watched her work in silence for a while, hands methodical and practiced. Eventually, he pointed to a bulb and raised his eyebrows.
She turned the crate she was fishing bulbs from around to show him the label. They were daffodils. Then she dug in her pocket and held out a packet of seeds—blue larkspur, according to the print. She raised a hand and signed flower, grinning at him.
Hesitantly, he signed it back. Then she spelled, M-A-T-T.
“Matt’s teaching you sign?” he asked in his underwater-voice.
She nodded. Then she pressed the larkspur seeds into his hand.
“I don’t need these."
She shrugged and picked up her trowel to dig a hole for the next daffodil bulb.
Irritated for no reason, he stood and left. On his way to the exy field, as he had deemed his little practice area, the fox caught his eye again. It was scrabbling at something in the dirt outside the secret garden, and when it saw him coming it darted away.
He went over and finished its work the toe of a sneaker, prodding out of the ground an old, large key.
On a hunch, he walked over to the hidden garden door. Sure enough, the key fit perfectly.
Casting a suspicious glance at the fox, he strung the key on the same cord around his neck as the master key and carried on to the field.
Why would someone lock a garden and bury the key? Who did it? Wymack? Abby? Bee? Who even knew about it? The mystery niggled at his mind, a curiosity he hadn’t felt in a long time growing steadily stronger.
Practice felt different today. His body acted less as though it was sewn loosely together from component parts and more like it was one whole machine. His throws felt easier, his legs pushed off the ground smoother. By the end of it he was so tired he decided to eat right there instead of going to his garden, which he had already grown to think of in the possessive.
He was staring out onto the moor eating an apple when he saw the figure. It were so small he assumed it was very far away, then he assumed it was a child, and then he was watching in mild surprise as a small blond man hiked his way across the landscape like he was stomping it into submission, heading right for Neil.
When he got closer, Neil watched him notice Neil’s makeshift markers, then his exy stick, and then finally Neil himself, still sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating his apple. The man’s lip curled. He spoke not a word as he let himself into the garden—he had a key!—and disappeared.
Neil frowned, finished his apple, and followed. The man knew within a moment, whirling on Neil the second he even thought about maybe trying to be stealthy. It wouldn’t have mattered, since Neil had no way to know how much noise he was making.
The man, who couldn’t be more than five feet tall, stalked over to him. He was saying something pissily. Neil waited for him to finish, then said with painful annunciation, “I can’t hear you.”
The man looked incredibly annoyed. Not at Neil, per se, but rather at the world. He pointed at Neil, the directly behind himself, and shook his head with slow menace.
“Don’t walk behind you?” The man stared at him. “Okay.”
He walked beside the man for the rest of the way, noticing out of the corner of his eye—he assumed the man would tolerate staring no better than walking behind—the man’s black armbands, peeking out from the sleeves of his black pea coat.
The man’s had snapped towards him suddenly, raising a supremely sarcastic eyebrow. What the fuck do you think you’re looking at? the gesture said.
“Sorry,” Neil muttered, turning away.
To his surprise, the man was heading for Bee. The gardener stood up as soon as she saw them approaching and nodded to the man. In turn, the man pointed at Neil in an exasperated manner, as if it was Neil’s fault they hadn’t been introduced. Bee spoke too quickly for Neil to hope to follow, presumably telling the man who he was. The man turned to him and looked him up and down, eyes narrowed as if he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. Then he pointed at himself and slowly fingerspelled A-N-D-R-A-W.
Neil felt himself smile minutely. A-N-D-R-E-W, he corrected. Andrew’s eyes darkened.
Andrew proceeded to cross his arms, staring coldly between Neil and Bee.
Neil could take a hint. He took the rest of his lunch to his garden, this time using the key. The little fox was there, skulking around pretending it wasn’t waiting for his scraps. When he finished he sat under the shriveled tree and pulled out the packet of blue larkspur seeds.
Surely nothing would grow in this place.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try.
Unsure of what he was doing or why he was doing it, he walked over to a spot by the wall and began digging a hole with a bit of branch.
When something tapped him on the shoulder, he reacted instinctively, whipping around and sweeping Andrews legs out from under him. He went down with a thump that Neil felt through the ground. Neil stared at him in shock as Andrew glared with a heat that could melt steel.
“You surprised me,” Neil said, shrugging. He didn’t offer Andrew a hand, and Andrew didn’t seem to want one, pushing himself up and settling cross-legged next to Neil. He pointed at the packet of seeds.
“Bee gave me them.” Neil handed them over.
Andrew looked from the packet, to Neil, to the hole he had dug, and snorted, lip curling. As Neil watched, he patted the dirt back into the hole and then made a small depression with his thumb. Handing the packet back, he held up three fingers.
Neil shook three tiny seeds out into his hand and dropped them in the depression. Andrew covered them gently with dirt.
“It’s not like it matters,” Neil said, feeling a little hollow. “Nothing grows in this place. It’s dead.”
Andrew tapped the ground next to him, then slowly fingerspelled I-D-I-O-T.
Raising his eyebrows, Neil gestured around at the brown, withered plants. Andrew rolled his eyes and stood, looking expectantly at Neil until he did the same.
Andrew led him to the withered tree he had been sitting under, removed a surprising knife from inside his sleeve, and pulled one of the branches down. He chose a point and scraped a thick piece of bark off, shoving the result in Neil’s face: green wood.
Andrew let the branch spring back upwards, his face blank, and pointedly slipped the knife back into its hiding place.
“Do you play exy?” Neil asked, a little desperately.
With the greatest roll of his eyes yet, Andrew turned his back on Neil and left the garden.
Neil spent an hour carefully distributing larkspur seeds, wondering about the garden, and wondering about Andrew. After dripping careful droplets of water onto his newly planted seeds with the cap of his water bottle, he broke the points off a hundred rose vines, just to see for himself the life in them.
The next day Andrew found him during drills. Neil paused for a moment to determine what he wanted, and when it appeared he wanted nothing, resumed practice under his watch. Halfway through, Andrew got bored enough to lie on his back and stare up at the sky, but he didn’t leave.
Neil sat beside him with his lunch and silently offered half of his sandwich. They ate in silence, and then Andrew stood and began walking away, back out onto the moor. Neil watched him until Andrew whipped back around in aggravation and gave him a pointed stare.
“Oh!” Neil scrambled up, left his exy and lunch supplies just inside the gate, and hurried after Andrew, who had resumed walking.
“I haven’t been on the moor,” Neil felt compelled to say, walking alongside Andrew against the wind. Neil felt he might be swept up in the gale, but Andrew seemed like a knife the wind was sharpening. Andrew didn’t even deign to respond, so Neil stopped trying to share. It was a relief, since talking was still uncomfortable.
It had begun as a cloudy and cold morning, but the sun began to peek out as they walked, catching them in glints of chill light. The moor was scrubby and grassy and brown, still more winter than spring, and Neil felt as empty as it did.
After some time walking, Andrew sat down on a stone protruding from the ground and Neil sat on one next to him, hunching forward against the wind. To his surprise, Andrew took a box of cigarettes and a lighter from his pea coat pocket.
Neil remembered his mother smoking. The smell had always comforted him; if she was smoking, then they didn’t have to run immediately. There was time to rest, at least for a few minutes.
But Andrew’s cigarette didn’t remind him of restful moments. The smoke swirled around them and suddenly Neil was in a different place, watching a different fire.
You killed me, Nathaniel.
You killed me, Nathaniel.
There was hand on the back of his neck, small and strong, grounding, not oppressive. The smoke was gone. All he could smell was the cold wind and the earth of the moor. Nothing else. Somewhere it registered that this meant Andrew also smelled of the moor.
“I’m fine,” Neil said. Andrew’s hand gave him a quick shake of rebuke, then abandoned his skin to the wind. Neil clambered back up to his rock. The cigarette was nowhere to be see. “The smoke—”
Andrew held up a hand. Neil stopped talking.
They sat and watched the gray sky.
Later, Andrew walked him back to the manor, and Neil remembered him watching his drills. “You play exy,” he said confidently. “Bring your racquet tomorrow.”
Andrew raised a severely incredulous eyebrow, and mouthed a deliberate “tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Neil said. He raised a hand and waved. “See you then.”
He slept deeply that night, the howling wind outside finding a place in his bones. And like a give-and-take the universe required, he was awakened by another howling.
This time he was stealthier. As running feet sent vibrations through the hallway, he slipped on a pair of socks and slid down the halls after them, sure he was making less noise. He memorized the route this time so he could find it again. Once more he was led to that wing he hadn’t been in, where lights were flicking on and voices were raised until he could hear the sound.
How he wished he could make out words.
He could make out the thump of something being thrown, though, and the resulting shouts. When the voices started quieting to the point where he could no longer hear, he made his escape, sliding on sock-feet back to bed.
Climbing back into his nest beside the window, he felt both disturbed and excited. His sleep for the rest of the night was inconsistent and patchy, but whenever he woke up he could feel a cool pressure on the back of his neck, reassuring, inexorably guiding him back to sleep.
For the next week, Andrew came and watched Neil practice. He never joined, though Neil asked him without fail to bring his racquet the next day. Neil began to pack extra lunch to share, though Andrew never thanked him for it. After practice, they went either to the garden or out on the moor.
In the garden, Neil obsessively checked over his blue larkspurs, and Andrew showed him how to pull up weeds around the rose bushes, which still showed no outward signs of life.
On the moor, he followed Andrew on long meandering walks against the wind, and Andrew showed him secret hidden places without ever saying that’s what they were. A little copse of low trees, where a rabbit warren was. An outcrop of rocks under which he had stashed a bag of snacks. Andrew never lit another cigarette in Neil’s presence again, though he often held them and tucked them behind his ears.
These secrets were shown as part of a game.
Well, maybe it was a game. Maybe it started off that way. Maybe.
It was truth for truth, secret for secret. Andrew started it. Had pointed to the scars on his hands and sat there with arms crossed until Neil told him: “My father and his associate were trying to torture me to death.”
It was the truth. He didn’t often allow himself to acknowledge it, that Nathaniel had certainly meant to kill him, after making his last few hours as agonizing as possible.
Andrew made a circling motion with his hand: and?
Andrew sighed, reached for Neil’s hand, and then stopped abruptly. Neil finished the gesture, bumping his hand into Andrew’s. Andrew traced the ugly pink burn between his first two knuckles, looking pointedly at Neil.
Andrew nodded, and his fingers pushed up Neil’s sleeve, revealing hatch-mark scars. They were still pink. The brush of Andrew’s fingers over the healing skin made tremors rumble through Neil.
“Knife. My knife, after Lola took it from me.”
Andrew’s hands fell. His gaze was dark and heavy. Under it, Neil found himself unzipping his jacket, yanking down the collar of his shirt to reveal an old, wide burn. The wind bit into the ruined skin. “Iron. My father.” Pulling up the end of his shirt, “Bullet, my father’s man.”
Andrew’s hands came in again and stopped his midair. He zipped up Neil’s coat for him. Then he shoved the sleeve of his pea coat up to reveal a black armband, which he slipped two knives out of before rolling off.
Neil’s hands hovered half-risen, until Andrew gave a tiny nod. His fingertips descended on Andrew’s skin, trying to be as delicate as Andrew had been with his own scars.
But then Andrew’s hand gripped his wrist, and after a moment’s hesitation he gripped Andrew’s, and they sat there for a long, cold, still moment, holding each others’ scars.
He had been at the Foxhole for three weeks. For the first time that night he had gone to bed in anticipation—to see Andrew, to check on his larkspur sprouts. But when he woke it was pouring with a vengeance he had never seen the likes of.
What’s more, he could hear the drops.
Abby found him pressed against the window, eyes closed, listening. She knocked against the wall to alert him, and he turned towards her.
“Try saying something,” he said clumsily.
Her lips moved. He made out a blur of sound, like hearing underwater, and told her as much.
That’s wonderful, she wrote. I’m pleased with the pace of your recovery. It’s the air on the moor. The wuthering wind is good for you.
"Wuthering?" he asked.
She nodded. All that healthy air is getting into you at last.
Maybe partly, Neil was willing to concede. But he’d be willing to bet a certain blonde had something to do with it as well.
No moor today, though, Abby said, looking out the window. This will be a good, hard storm.
He felt restless as she checked him over. She didn’t eat breakfast with him most days anymore—he preferred to eat in the kitchen with Matt or Dan—but today was an official checkup. She pronounced herself pleased with his overall progress, and let him know that she and Wymack were going to town.
He looked from her to the window in disbelief. He could barely see the moor.
I know, she wrote, face rueful. But it’s an emergency.
Nothing, she said. Family matters.
That one, for some reason, stung. She seemed to sense it, her mouth opening in regret. She spoke in her hurry to repeal the words, but Neil only heard muffled noise.
I didn’t mean it like that, she wrote hastily. I consider you family now, Neil. I meant David’s family.
Neil nodded, though he felt flustered and angry with himself. When had he given himself permission to have a family? To consider these people family? Family was Mary, family was Nathan.
You killed me, Nathaniel.
Abby gave him an awkward hug before leaving, and he went to the kitchen. Matt and Dan were both there, eating bacon and eggs. Matt rose to fix him a plate, but Neil waved him off, popping some bread in the toaster and cracking three eggs.
Rainy day, Matt signed, his smile sunny despite it. I love rain on the moor.
I wanted to practice, Neil said. Matt laughed, interpreting for Dan as they went along. By now Matt knew all about his morning practice, though Neil still hadn’t taken him up on his offer to play together.
You know, Dan is our captain, Matt said idly. Neil almost dropped his toast, spinning to look at Dan, who was pouring herself a second cup of coffee.
That hot feeling of inadequacy rose up again, and Neil fought desperately to squash it.
You, Dan, Wymack, Neil signed. Why are you all here? Team retreat?
Dan spoke after a pause, Matt interpreting. “We had some things happen to us. As a team, and individually. We all needed a break. We got special permission to take a semester leave, for…extenuating traumatic circumstances.” She looked rueful. “Only the Foxes.”
Neil was dying to know what had happened, but Matt shook his head slightly.
What are you doing today? Neil asked.
Matt glanced at Dan, blushing slightly. Taking advantage of the empty house. Dan squawked and hit him, but didn’t deny it.
Oh. Neil felt supremely awkward all of the sudden.
Hey man, didn’t mean to make it weird, Matt said, punching his shoulder. You get it, right?
Not really, Neil said, his signs small.
I don’t swing.
“And that’s fine,” Dan said, desperate to be done with the conversation. “Will you be okay on your own, Neil?”
The question stumped him for a moment, trying to remember if he had ever been asked that. Yes, he signed. Go…have fun.
Matt laughed, and Dan cracked a smile.
Go have fun, Neil thought to himself as he cleaned up his dishes. What a stupid thing to say.
But it was true that he would be okay on his own, because with Matt and Dan…occupied, and Wymack and Abby out of the house, he was finally going to know who was in that room.
He went to the pantry and packed enough snacks for two. Then he wandered the hallways for a while, exploring idly, just in case Matt or Dan realized they forgot something.
After he had passed an hour inspecting small animal figurines and watching a little nest of baby mice, he made a beeline for the suspect room in the west wing of the house.
All was quiet as he approached it: no moaning or screaming or crying. There was a light shining from under the door, and Neil didn’t allow himself to hesitate: he knocked twice on the door and walked in.
Kevin Day looked back at him from the bed.
Neil halted in absolute shock. Kevin’s book fell from his hand. They stared at each other. Neil read Kevin’s lips as he said, “Nathaniel?”
In slow motion, Neil saw Kevin start to panic.
“My father’s dead,” Neil said, loudly, he hoped. “Everyone is.”
Kevin had brought a hand up to his heart, gripping his nightshirt. It called Neil’s attention to his other hand, the right one, immobilized in a cast. He took a compulsive step forward at the sight, and Kevin jerked the hand closer to himself. He was saying something.
“Oh, and I can’t hear,” Neil said. That shut Kevin up for approximately one second, after which he continued speaking but also pointed at the open door. Neil shut it.
“I can’t hear you,” Neil said again, to make Kevin’s lips stop moving. “Here.” He found a pad of paper and a pen on the desk.
Kevin’s lips pursed in frustration, but he took the pen awkwardly in his left hand and scrawled out a barely-legible, why?
“Nathan killed my mom. My uncle and the feds stepped in. Stuart sent me here.” He shrugged. “What about you? What the hell happened?” He pointed to Kevin’s hand.
Kevin said one word that Neil read easily. “Riko.”
Neil reached for Kevin’s hand and Kevin gave it. What wasn’t encased in the cast was pure mangled bruise. It was an atrocity.
“So you left?” Neil said. “You went to Wymack?” Kevin nodded. “What else is hurt?”
Kevin looked at him blankly.
“You’re…bedridden? Are your legs injured?”
Kevin shook his head, then looked down at his lap. Neil understood what Kevin wasn’t going to say. What kept him in the bed wasn’t physical.
“What about exy?”
Kevin Day shrugging about exy was something Neil had never dreamed he would see, and it was almost as horrible as the sight of his hand.
“What about the Moriyamas?” Neil asked. “Are they coming for you?”
Kevin looked from his left hand to the pad of paper, face twisting in frustration, and then threw it across the room.
“Mature,” Neil said. “Is Riko dead?”
Kevin twisted to the side and pulled his blanket up over his head.
“Fine,” Neil said. He opened his lunch bag and pulled out a bag of chips, hurling them at Kevin’s blanketed form. “I’ll be back.”
If Kevin said anything as he left, he didn’t hear it.
“I found Kevin Day yesterday."
Andrew raised a slow eyebrow. They sat beside each other on the metal bench in the garden, since the ground was saturated.
“You fuck,” Neil said. “You knew. How the hell did you know?”
The eyebrow stayed up.
“Well, he’s in a pitiful state,” Neil said. “I don’t know if Riko’s dead or alive or what, but he’s taking it poorly. Not that I blame him—the only good thing that came out of my mom taking me was that I didn’t end up at Evermore.” He glanced sideways at Andrew’s impassive face. “I’m going to get him to come out here.”
Andrew’s expression was exasperated beyond human understanding.
“Don’t be a jackass,” Neil said. “Maybe if someone would play exy with me, I wouldn’t need to convince Kevin his life isn’t over.”
Andrew gestured around them at the garden and shook his head.
“I won’t bring him here. Just to the field.”
Andrew rolled his eyes at his description of the tiny patch of moor.
“Anyway, it’s my turn. I’ve told you about my family. Do you have family?”
Andrew’s face shuttered.
“You don’t have to answer.”
Andrew was still for a long moment, fingers smoothing his pea coat over his forearms. Then he nodded. “Brother,” he said, the word simple enough for Neil to catch. Then he fingerspelled, A-A-R-O-N. T-W-I-N.
“A twin,” Neil repeated, surprised. He had a hard time imagining it.
“Cousin,” Andrew said, and had to repeat it several times. N-I-C-K-Y.
Andrew tapped his chest. Same age.
“I’d….” Neil hesitated. Andrew reached over and poked his knee, hurrying him out of caution. “I’d like to meet them. Where do you live?”
Andrew pointed in the direction of the small town that was about five miles away from the Foxhole.
“You walk here every day? Five miles?”
Andrew nodded, and then he looked supremely irritated. “Yesterday,” he said, giving Neil a radioactively pissy glare.
“It was pouring!” Neil said.
Neil scowled at him. “Next time I’ll be there. Tell me you didn’t walk ten miles in that storm.”
Andrew’s gaze went impassively up to the clouds. Neil huffed. They sat in stillness for a few minutes more until Andrew decided to take his turn. He extended a finger, and waited until Neil gave a nod to poke his chest, both eyebrows raised.
Andrew did this often—made Neil guess his meaning. He didn’t like to fingerspell, didn’t like to talk for Neil to read his lips. It was like he was testing how much Neil could just know, and Neil didn’t mind. He was pretty good at knowing, it turned out.
“Me? Something about who I am?” Andrew nodded. “My…age? Birthday?” Andrew shook his head. Something uncomfortable sank in Neil’s stomach. “My name?”
“Why do you think Neil isn’t my real name?”
Andrew merely gave him a bored look.
You killed me, Nathaniel.
Andrew’s hand on his neck. His other hand waved brusquely, flicking the question away.
“No. My father was Nathan. I was Nathaniel. Was. I’m Neil now?” It came out a question. Why had it come out a question?
Andrew shook his neck, making him look up. This close, he could see the minute changes of Andrew’s eyes as he mouthed, clearly, “You are Neil.”
“My middle name is Abram,” Neil said. “It’s the same.”
“Abram,” Andrew mouthed. Said. Mouthed. Said.
“Did you just say that?” Neil raised a hand to hover over Andrew’s, waiting for his nod to grip his wrist. “Andrew, I think I heard that. Say it again.”
“Abram,” Andrew said, and it was muffled still, but he heard it.
“Abram,” Neil repeated.
“Neil.” Andrew raised an eyebrow.
Andrew smiled, a tiny flicker, there and gone, but it was like a glimpse of a shooting star.
The next morning, Neil went to Kevin’s room before breakfast. Kevin’s eyes went immediately to his exy racquet, looking one part apathetic and one part apoplectic.
Neil twirled the racquet. “Wymack gave this to me. I wondered where he got it; it’s an expensive model. Do you know?”
Kevin’s glare could have leveled mountains.
“It certainly performs well,” Neil went on. “I’m switching to striker, did you know? I’ve had to train myself, though. No one to practice with. I don’t suppose you know anyone who could help with that?”
Kevin’s glare switched from Neil to his hands in his lap. Neil sighed and walked over to the bed. “Come on, Kevin. You’re wasting away in here. You have another hand—surely you’re good enough not to let this destroy your life.”
Kevin’s body curled in such a way as to suggest he very well could and would let this destroy his life.
Neil ran on instinct for his next gamble. “Fine. I found someone to practice with, at least. I think you know him. Andrew?”
Kevin’s gaze snapped up. Neil swore he saw Hades.
“We’ve been practicing together for a while now,” he lied cavalierly, and shrugged. “If you change your mind, we play right outside the garden."
After another morning of Andrew watching him practice, he flopped down on the ground and confessed, “I told Kevin you practice with me, just so you know.”
Andrew turned a murderous gaze on him.
“I thought it would get a rise out of him. I was right.”
Andrew scooted closer to him and said, “Neil Josten, professional antagonizer.”
Neil processed the words for a moment before smirking. “Guilty.”
“Bee, can I have some more flowers?”
It was the first time Neil had ever spoken to her. She beamed up at him, looking like the sunflowers that patterned her bandana today. She withdrew a second packet of larkspurs from her pocket.
The next day there was another packet of seeds slipped behind the ivy of the garden door. The day after that, there was a small trowel. Then a watering can, more seeds, and two pairs of gloves. Small green shoots started to sprout where Neil would have sworn nothing could ever grow. Neither of them ever spoke of it as Neil passed her on his way to practice, but he thought she could tell the garden was growing.
In the garden, Andrew examined the rosebuds and the larkspur sprouts. He put his mouth close to Neil’s ear. “Spring is coming.”
“The roses are about to bloom."
Kevin didn’t look up from his book. It was all he did, read. They were dated romances of some kind, bodice-rippers, and Kevin seemed to hate them. Neil wasn’t sure why he read them.
“Spring is coming. I’ve been planting blue larkspurs. Maybe I can show you them one day.”
Neil perched on the chair beside Kevin’s bed, not really sure how to go about instilling the desire to live in a person.
“Do you know what a blue larkspur is? I can sort of hear now, so you can tell me.”
No response. Neil sighed and pulled his exy racquet onto his lap, plucking at the strings. He saw Kevin glance at it once, furtively.
“I know this is your racquet. Thanks for the loan, I guess. And the clothes. And the shoes.” Neil laughed. “I’ve gotten a lot of your cast-offs, actually. Take it up with Abby and Wymack. But I stole someone else’s hat, I think. I need it when the wind is wuthering.”
Kevin turned to face him, actually making eye contact to raise a bewildered eyebrow.
“Wuthering,” Neil said. “It’s when the wind is blowing around and howling and moaning. Abby taught me the word.” He stood. “Here, let me open the window. You can hear it.”
“No!” Kevin’s good hand was clenched in the covers. It was the first word he had spoken since Neil had found him.
“What are you afraid of?” Neil asked.
Kevin fixed his gaze on the sheets. It was a pointless question. The Moriyamas. Wymack. The master. The Foxes. Neil. Riko. Riko, above all things. Riko, or Riko’s ghost.
Neil sat back down, trying not to let his anger show. “Is he dead or alive?” Neil asked. “Tell me that, at least.”
Kevin gazed dully into space. Neil grabbed his shoulder, shaking him a little. “Tell me, Kevin. Dead or alive?”
Kevin wet his lips. “Dead,” he said hoarsely.
“And?” Neil asked. “How do you feel about that? Good? Bad? Relieved? Heartbroken?”
Kevin stared at the wall for a very long time. Finally, he answered. “I feel nothing.”
We’re doing it, Matt declared one morning. Come on, Neil! It’s exy time! Dan can’t make it, but I told Wymack I needed the morning. He was in workout gear, his exy racquet in hand.
Neil hesitated. I….
Come on, Neil! I want to play with you.
Neil bit his lip. Okay. It’s just one thing. I don’t practice alone….
No fucking way, Matt said, five minutes later. Dan will never believe me. Let’s go.
Andrew gave Neil a look to wither plants when he showed up with Matt in tow, but did not leave, not even when Matt tried to make painfully awkward small talk.
At the end of the match, Andrew even deigned to inform Matt, “You’re still too hesitant against friends. It’s going to get you slaughtered one day.”
Matt laughed in astonishment, and signed as he spoke for Neil’s benefit. “I never thought I’d live to see the day Andrew Minyard gave me playing advice.”
“It’s not advice, it’s a warning,” Andrew snarled.
“Wait a moment,” Neil said. A storm was brewing in his head. “Wait a fucking moment. You’re on the goddamn team.”
If Neil looked carefully at the squint of Andrew’s eyes and the jut of his chin, he could distinguish an actual flutter of guilt.
“You’re a goddamn Fox just like everyone else in this house!” Neil shouted.
Matt looked between the two, Neil enraged, Andrew stoic. Andrew said something that was too muffled to be heard.
“What?” Neil snapped.
“You never asked,” Andrew said.
Neil glared at him. “I’m pissed.”
“Uh….” Matt said. Neil, you’re really good.
Neil looked to the side. “Whatever.”
No, seriously. You’re good. Andrew, did you know he was this good?
They looked to Andrew for an answer before Matt remembered to say it aloud.
“I’ve been watching him practice for a month,” Andrew said.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Go away, Boyd. We have things to do.”
“What did you say?” Neil asked.
“Go away, Boyd. We have things to do.”
“Like fuck we do. Come on, Matt.”
“Are you why all the Foxes are here in this town?” Neil asked.
Kevin kept his eyes on his book.
“You probably are, right? Where are the others? You have to have at least three other players, or your team can’t play.”
Kevin mumbled something.
“Speak up, Kevin.”
“They are not my team!”
Kevin threw his book at Neil. “They do not want me.”
“Why? Is it because your hand is busted? Because you refuse to get out of this bed? Because you’ve given up on them, and yourself, and exy? Which is it?”
Kevin screamed in rage and actually got out of bed, stumbling a bit.
“Why? Is it because you were so dependent on Riko that you can’t survive beyond his death? Is it that you’re so afraid of the master’s retribution it’s literally paralyzed you? Which is it?”
Kevin hit him. With his bad hand. He crumbled to the ground with an agonized moan.
“You fucker,” he moaned. Neil had to bend down to hear him. “They let me go.”
“I am nothing,” Kevin repeated, his eyes on the floor. “I am nothing.”
“You’re not,” Neil said. “You’re the best, actually, if Riko’s dead.”
Kevin’s whole body went still.
“It’s up to you if you want to prove it or not.”
Don’t be too hard on him, Matt signed.
Why not? Neil resumed furiously packing his lunch, considering strongly only packing enough for one.
This year…I won’t tell you his business, and I can’t believe I’m defending him. But it’s been hard for all of us, and worse for him. Maybe he just wanted an escape from everything.
Neil’s movements slowed. After a second of consideration, he put a second apple in his bag. Okay. Thanks, Matt. I had a good time playing with you.
You’re really good, Matt said. He had said as much about six time since Neil had entered the kitchen. Do you plan on playing on a college team?
The impossibility of such a thing spun through Neil’s mind at the rate of a heartbreak. He shook his head and left the kitchen.
Andrew was waiting for him outside the garden. His arms were crossed, fingers crimping the thick wool of his pea coat. “I’m not going to apologize,” he said loudly, once Neil was close.
“Will you tell me what happened?” Neil asked.
Andrew’s gaze went blank. Then he nodded. “Leave your shit here.”
He took them far from the manor, walking idly, almost but never quite purposeless. The moor around them was impatient to bloom, springtime rushing closer. Neil had never been able to see it as lovely before, but maybe there was a hint of it in the air now. A forgiving taste to the cool, clear wind.
Andrew sat them down on top of a low-rising hill where they watched the heather withstand the wind.
Andrew beckoned him close so he could hear. “Don’t touch me,” he warned, so Neil sat on his hands.
Barely distinguishable from the noise of the wind, Andrew coldly, impersonally, stated a series of events that had begun in his childhood and ended definitively last Thanksgiving. Somewhere in there were the facts of Kevin’s return, the murder of a Fox, Evermore’s abuse scandal, and Riko Moriyama’s execution, but Neil dismissed them as comparably trivial.
When Andrew finished, he leaned away from Neil, plucked a cigarette from his pocket, and rolled it between his fingers. His gaze was impossibly distant.
“And Aaron….” Neil finally dared ask.
Rather than come close to Neil again, Andrew raised a hand and fingerspelled: F-R-E-E.
Stillness reigned again.
“Why aren’t you with the others at the manor?”
Andrew snorted. N-O R-E-S-T.
It was true, Neil couldn’t imagine the manor as it was being a restful place for Andrew. Too much…everything.
Neil let out a breath. “I played little league exy with Kevin Day for a year before my mother stole me from Baltimore. The first place we went was Berlin.”
“Andrew told me everything,” Neil said.
Kevin ignored him. He had been ignoring him, lying on his side facing the wall, since Neil had come in.
“I understand why you’re all out here, now. I still don’t understand why you’re in this bed.”
Kevin sat up. “You don’t understand? If Andrew told you everything, then you know enough to understand. Riko destroyed my life, I ran from Evermore, Riko killed Seth in retribution, and Ichiro killed Riko and dismissed me as a lost investment. The only reason he let me live is because it would draw too much attention with the scandal at the Nest. My life means nothing. I am no one. And you don’t understand?!”
“No, I don’t understand,” Neil said. “All of what you just told me, it just means you’re free! Of Riko, of the Moriyamas. Without Riko, you are still someone. Do you understand that?”
“Without Riko, I am nothing.”
“Why the Foxes, then? Why did you even go to Palmetto? Help me understand, Kevin, because your argument doesn’t make any sense. If you’re nothing, why did you leave? If this team doesn’t matter to you, why did you go to them?”
Kevin bent down over his hand, pressing his head to his knees.
“If you’re saying something, I can’t hear it.”
Kevin’s head snapped up. “Wymack is my father.”
That one blindsided Neil. “What?”
“Wymack is my father.” Kevin’s eyes closed in pain. “And he hates me.”
The garden trembled on the edge of spring. Neil and Andrew sat under the tree. The edges of their shoes leaned against each other. Neil had hardly dared to breathe for the last half hour in fear Andrew would move away.
Andrew garbled something next to him.
“What?” Neil asked lazily.
Andrew brought his mouth within shivering-distance of Neil’s ear. “What’s that?”
Neil looked where he was pointing. There, on the on the other side of the tree, something was poking out of a budding rosebush. Something metal. He had never noticed it before.
He wanted to investigate, but he didn’t want his foot to stop touching Andrew’s, so he just shrugged. Andrew pulled away anyway and gave him an unimpressed look.
Sighing, Neil shuffled around the tree and began removing briars from the metal thing. It was a plaque with an inscription.
May your roses ever bloom.
“Why do you think Wymack hates you?”
Kevin turned his face away and said something.
“I can’t fucking hear you.”
Furious, Kevin faced him. “He loved my mother, and she chose the Moriyamas over him. And I am just another Moriyama puppet.”
“That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard.”
“It is the truth.”
It was rare that Wymack ate with him, being a generally reticent man and probably, Neil thought, embarrassed about not knowing any BSL. But Abby must have told him about Neil’s improving hearing, because tonight he joined Neil in the small dining room off the kitchen.
“I heard you play exy,” was Wymack’s opener. “No, wait.” The man looked slightly chagrined. “First of all, how are you doing?”
Neil smiled. “I’m good. I want to talk about exy more.”
“Thank god.” Wymack gave him a tentative smile. “Abby’s trying to drill it into me to talk about exy second. But in all seriousness, are you settling in? Are you…happy?”
Neil considered it. “I…yes. I am…happy.” He realized the truth like sinking into a bubble bath. He asked himself when he had ever been happy before, and he couldn’t remember. “I am. Thank you, Wymack.”
Wymack rubbed the back of his neck. “Call me Coach.”
“I’m a striker,” Neil said confidently. “I played with Matt the other day.”
“He told me. Said you were good.”
“Play with Dan, too,” Wymack advised. “She can tell you how to improve your game."
They chatted about exy and the Foxes until they had finished their soup, and then Neil, cautiously, asked: “Do you spend any time in the gardens? I never see you there.”
Wymack frowned. “No.”
“Why not?” Neil pressed. “They’re…beautiful. And yours, right?”
“They were beautiful,” Wymack agreed. “Well, I suppose they must still be. Bee’s been taking care of them, because she loves to garden. She tells me they’re about to bloom.” In an instant, his face was drawn and tired.
“Maybe you should go see them,” Neil hedged. “There are some beautiful rose bushes."
“Roses?” Wymack scraped some dregs of soup up with his spoon and let them fall. “I don’t really like roses. I’m sure they’re nice, though.”
The next day stormed.
Neil woke up and thought about going back to sleep. Rain lashed the windows with a vengeance. The room was pitch black without a light on.
He thought about Andrew walking five miles in the rain.
“You’re going out?” Dan asked in the kitchen, as he wrapped their lunches in a plastic bag. “It’s pouring!”
“Well, have fun.”
He gave her a thumbs up, and then, impromptu, a fist bump. She looked delighted.
There was a raincoat hanging by the back door, and he put it on, for all the good it would do him. His first step out the door felt like stepping into another world. He could barely see twenty feet ahead of him. Dark, towering clouds blanketed the sky. The hedges shook with the force of the rain.
He ran all the way to the back gate, soaked and freezing by the time he got there.
Andrew was waiting, in a black raincoat and a raised eyebrow. He held his hand out to Neil. Neil took it.
Andrew towed him across the moor. He could have been leading him off a cliff and Neil still would have followed the warmth of his hand. The rain was blinding; every gust of the wind sent it horizontal into his face, and it was glorious.
When Andrew tugged him to a stop they were on top of a tall hill. Andrew dropped his hand, tipped his head back, and let the water wash over his face as thunder rolled out a great echo overhead. Neil watched him, entranced, until Andrew gave him a look. Then he tilted his head back as well.
The water coursing over his face was freezing, and like the wind on the moor it felt clear. He opened his mouth and it tasted like nothing else, like freedom, like joy. He screamed into the gale and felt Andrew watching him fiercely.
They stood on the hilltop and weathered out the storm. At some point they had rejoined hands, one point of warmth between them. They watched the rain slacken until it was nothing but a sprinkle, the sky a blue not unlike a picture book illustration.
“Tomorrow,” Neil said. Andrew raised an eyebrow at him. “Tomorrow I’m getting Kevin outside.”
Tomorrow didn’t come. Instead Neil was woken from a deep sleep by the most god-awful screams known to man. This was the first time he had been able to hear the cries clearly, and he recognized the sound of pure terror.
He didn’t hesitate. Seizing his exy racquet and ball—just in case—he flung open his door and smashed straight into Matt. Matt reached out for him, but Neil was faster. He flew down the hallway, tracing the now-familiar path to Kevin’s room.
He was the first one to reach the pitch-dark room, Matt close behind him, whisper-shouting for him to stop. Instead, he opened the door and flipped on the light switch.
Kevin lay convulsing in bed, screaming from nightmares, shouting for Riko, for the master, for Jean.
“Kevin!” Neil called. “Wake the fuck up!” He seized the end of the bed and jerked it back and forth.
Kevin came awake with a heaving gasp, leaning over the side of the bed and puking into a bucket Matt had rushed to his bedside just in time. Matt stroked the back of his neck, and Kevin allowed it for a few trembling moments before shaking him off.
“Go away, Neil,” Kevin groaned, pushing himself up to the headboard.
“Why?” Neil asked. “You think this is the most pathetic I’ve seen you? Guess what, it doesn’t even compare."
Matt gaped at him, while Kevin looked enraged. “Shut up, Wesninski! You don’t know what the hell I have gone through, you don’t know me, you don’t know anything! Just shut up!”
“Don’t ever call me that again,” Neil said. “I don’t know what you’re going through? Maybe not. But guess what, I’ve gone through hell too! Don’t try to preach to me! Riko’s dead and you have to move on! You’re not a Moriyama anymore, and you have to be just Kevin now, and you have to get out of that bed, and you have to live, Kevin! I have to live, so you have to live!”
“I AM NOT YOU! DON’T TELL ME WHAT I HAVE TO DO!” Kevin screamed. “I AM NOTHING!”
“No, you’re not!” Neil shouted. “You’re Kevin Day, you’re Wymack’s son, and he doesn’t hate you by the way, you’re a Fox, and you’re the number one exy player in the world if you’ll just fucking let yourself be!”
Kevin opened his mouth to scream at him some more, and Neil was abruptly done. He seized his exy ball from the net of his racquet, drew back, and threw it as hard as he could directly at Kevin’s face.
It was a throw that would have broken his cheekbone, if he hadn’t caught it.
With his left hand.
The room fell silent. Ambient sounds became clear as glass. Kevin’s ragged breathing. Neil’s own measured breath. Matt’s crying. A sniff that came from Abby, frozen in the doorway.
Neil didn’t take his eyes off Kevin. Kevin stared at the ball in his hand for long seconds, as if convinced it would reveal itself an illusion. Then he looked at Neil, his red, puffy eyes wild.
Neil pointed his exy racquet at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow. You’re playing.”
And he left the room.
He paused outside the door and listened to Abby rush towards the bed. “Kevin,” she murmured, “you can’t truly think David hates you?”
When the tears started, he left for good.
Matt caught up to him at his doorway. How long have you known? he signed.
Since you and Dan took advantage of the empty house.
Matt brought a hand to his forehead. None of us have been able to get through to him like that.
I…am familiar with his history, Neil said evasively.
You’re a miracle worker, Matt said. Thank you, Neil.
Will you play with me again sometime? Neil asked. You and Dan?
No, I think tomorrow’s on you, my friend.
Neil arrived at Kevin’s room to find him sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed to work out. His hand was now in an athletic brace, and he was holding Neil’s exy ball, squeezing it methodically. His racquet was propped beside him.
“Ready to go?” Neil asked.
Kevin turned to him, nodded, and stood unsteadily.
As they walked through the house, Neil tried not to call attention to how often Kevin stumbled or had to hold onto the wall as they went.
Before they exited the manor, Neil turned to him. Kevin’s head was ducked, but Neil caught a flash of fire in his eyes. “Two months ago, I couldn’t walk the gardens for ten minutes without getting exhausted,” Neil said. “Exy stopped feeling like torture after weeks of practice.
“Try to coddle me one more time and I will kill you,” Kevin said conversationally, and opened the door.
Neil watched the first breath of cold, clear air hit him. His whole body stiffened like he had just stepped out of a spaceship. He walked out the door like a wobbling colt, breathing deeply.
“The moor air is good for you,” Neil said. Kevin glared at them.
Neil led them at a slow pace through the garden, letting Kevin take his time and also take in the surroundings. They found Bee planting ivy around a little ornamental bench.
“Good morning, boys,” she said placidly, firmly unsurprised to see Kevin. “It’s almost spring. Can you feel it in the air?”
“Yes,” Neil said. He could. The breeze was a little more forgiving, its scent tinged with something new.
“Hello Betsy,” Kevin said stiffly.
“Hello Kevin. I’m glad to see you enjoying the garden.”
Kevin gave a stiff nod, and they continued on.
They arrived at the back gate. “I have a master key,” Neil told him. “I’ve just been using stones to mark off a place to practice on the moor.”
Kevin gestured impatiently, and Neil rolled his eyes and opened the door to the countryside.
Something about being in the storm had made Neil see the landscape a little differently. Now, when he looked out at the heathered and briery hills, he felt Andrew’s warm hand in his. He thought maybe Abby had been right, all those times she’d told him how beautiful the moor was.
Andrew was there, a little late today, still walking in from the town. Neil and Kevin stopped and watched him come. As he got closer, Neil perceived that his silhouette looked a little different. His pea coat was absent. He balanced something over his shoulder.
He was carrying, of all things, an exy racquet.
Neil’s heart stopped beating, and then restarted at a rabbit’s pace. His gaze laser-focused on watching Andrew walk, who did so with such nonchalance you’d think he’d come in athletic gear with a goalkeeper’s racquet every single day, instead of sitting and watching Neil.
Andrew reached them and looked at Neil with an eyebrow crooked. His face, if you knew how to read it, was unbearably smug. Neil was paralyzed.
“You are a liar,” Kevin said conversationally.
“Andrew has never practiced with you before, or you would not react like this.”
“React like what?” Neil was fairly sure his hands were trembling.
“Whatever,” Kevin scoffed. “Show me the drills you’ve been running.”
Andrew reached over and poked him in the shoulder. Neil smiled at him.
“Junkie,” Andrew scoffed. “Are we running stickball drills or not?”
They ran drills. Though Andrew had never run them with him before, it didn’t show. Kevin joined them, and though he was clumsy and slow, not even Andrew said a word. Then Kevin promptly informed Neil how subpar the drills were, scolded Andrew for not teaching him different ones, and rearranged Neil’s marker stones to teach him some hellish Raven drills.
After running Neil into the ground—somewhere along the line Kevin had taken over their practice—he set up a few goal markers, ordered Andrew into it, and demanded to see Neil fire on him. He scored five times before Kevin marched up to Andrew and started ranting about laziness, ethics, the common good, and Andrew’s personal shortcomings. The talking-to ended when Andrew jabbed the butt of his racquet into Kevin’s stomach.
“What’s he talking about?” Neil asked. “Are you holding back?”
Andrew merely watched him.
The excited roiling in Neil’s gut hadn’t calmed, and at this silent confirmation, it grew more turbulent. “Show me,” Neil demanded.
Andrew gave one more scoff at the inconceivable stupidity of those around him, and proceeded to shut down the makeshift goal for as long as Neil cared to fire at him, which was about fifteen minutes before his arms gave out.
“Holy shit,” Neil panted, watching Andrew take a long drink of water. “Holy shit.”
“Exactly,” Kevin said smugly. “The trick is getting him to cooperate.”
Andrew got back into goal, and Kevin took up his racquet in his left hand, scooping the ball into it. He took a few minutes to evaluate the new weight in his hand, flexing his fingers and working his arm. He fired on the goal, and Andrew didn’t even bother with it, the shot going far to the left.
When Kevin and Andrew just stared at him, Neil sighed, levered himself upright, and retrieved the ball, hurling it back to Kevin. Kevin jerked his racquet up and almost caught it, instead hitting it with the edge.
Kevin’s face was dogged. It was going to be a long, wonderful afternoon.
To no-one’s surprise, Kevin pushed himself to the point of collapse. With one raised eyebrow from Andrew, it fell to Neil to help him back into the house. He handed him off to an ecstatic Matt outside his bedroom.
Neil was ravenous by the time he reached their secret garden—when had he started thinking of it in that possessive?—but one look at Andrew, sweaty and flushed, reclining against the hidden door, drove the thought of food completely from his mind.
“Get in the garden before you embarrass yourself, junkie.”
Neil flashed him a rueful smile and unlocked the door. They settled cross-legged under the tree, and Neil tried to busy himself with setting their lunch out. But Andrew smelled like the moor and sweat and exy, and he was still breathing hard, and Neil had never felt like this before. Like there were a thousand threads connecting him to Andrew, every movement he made setting Neil’s hair on end.
He stole a thousandth glance at the red flush on Andrew’s pale face, and then thin, strong fingers captured his chin. Andrew led his head up until they were looking at each other face-on. Andrew’s eyes were the color of the moor in storm.
“Yes or no?” Andrew asked.
Andrew kissed him.
And kissed him
And kissed him.
And Neil kissed him.
And kissed him.
And kissed him.
It was the meeting of hot and cold fronts and the resulting storm. Andrew’s tongue in his mouth was the gradual opening of a rose bud, Andrew’s hands guiding Neil’s to his shoulders were the winds of spring overtaking the moor, Andrew’s breath against his mouth the sun peeking through gray clouds.
When at last they parted, Neil crumpled the shoulders of Andrew’s shirt in his hands. His face was beginning to ache from smiling.
Andrew’s face was still tilted towards him. His mouth was infinitely tender. “I hate you,” he breathed.
“Yes or no?”
The cold, clear wind tousled their hair and made Andrew’s eyes glitter. “Yes.”
Neil kissed him.
The three of them practiced together all week. Kevin improved incrementally, a pace that frustrated him into pushing himself harder and harder. On the days Kevin decided to stay in bed Neil dragged him out of it.
Eventually, Matt and Dan started joining them, Dan’s captaincy a welcome relief from Kevin’s domineering standards. Neil’s days fell into a blissful routine of morning exy practice and afternoons in the garden with Andrew.
Spring was coming with a vengeance. The rosebuds trembled on the edge of awakening, the vibrant green larkspur sprouts pushed inexorably to the sky. It took Neil little time to grow fond of the color of the soft green grass against Andrew’s pale hair.
Two new Foxes arrived at the house. Neil met them in the kitchen—in the fervor over exy and Kevin’s improvement, everyone had forgotten to tell him of their arrival. He came to breakfast, which he, Kevin, Matt, and Dan now ate together. A young woman with white hair and rainbow-pastel tips rested her head on the shoulder of another woman whose fingernails ran through her hair, each of them as sharp and deadly as her gaze fixed on Neil.
“Oh,” Dan said, realizing their failure to prepare him. “Neil, this is Renee and Allison.”
“Nice to meet you, Neil,” said Renee. Allison merely watched him.
“Where have you been?” Neil asked, sitting warily beside Matt to eat.
“Oh, in town,” Renee said. “We needed a little time to ourselves.”
Seth was Allison's boyfriend, Matt signed discreetly.
“That’s fucking rude, Matt,” Allison snapped.
“I hope you don’t mind if we join you for practice this morning,” Renee said.
Neil shook his head. Renee smiled and pretended she didn’t know he was lying. He felt irritated with himself: this had never been his house in the first place, so what if there were more people there? So what if his peaceful mornings with Andrew were long gone, replaced by a violently mood-swinging Kevin, a too-cheerful Matt and Dan, and now two strangers?
Andrew seemed to read his mood, and tugged him away to the garden directly after practice, to the protest of Matt and Dan.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said, sitting them down under the tree and pushing Neil’s head down to rest on his thigh.
“I’m not,” Neil said grumpily. “It just used to be quieter.”
“For you,” Andrew said.
Neil laughed, surprising himself.
“My family is coming tomorrow. Consider this a warning.”
“Nicky and Aaron? They’re on the team too? Jesus. Am I the only one here who’s not a Fox?”
Andrew was silent. After a moment his fingers started threading through Neil’s hair, and that was too distracting to continue any conversation.
Nicky turned out to be enthusiastic to the point of pain, obviously trying to make up for Aaron’s sullen attitude. Around them, Andrew became a little sharper, a little angrier. But they completed the team, and they began to have real scrimmages after warm-ups. Afterwards, sharing lunch with Andrew in the garden, Neil thought that he’d never known anything better than this.
“Junkie,” Andrew said, at the look on his face.
A further thought occurred: he’d never known anything better than this, and he never would again.
The strength of his own stupidity frightened him. He never would have made such a miscalculation with Mary. How could he have let himself become lulled by this life? How could it not occur to him that the Foxes would have to leave eventually? Go back to their dream lives and leave him…somewhere far behind.
His mood plummeted. Andrew sensed it and didn’t so much as try to hold his hand for the rest of the day. He went in early and slept, and the next morning, for the first time in three months, he didn’t want to get up.
So he didn’t.
Matt came and found him around breakfast, and he mumbled that he didn’t feel well. Matt brought him a ginger ale and some saltines that lay uneaten on the table.
The day passed. Neil tried furiously to stop caring about the Foxes before they broke his heart, and realized with terrible certainty that it was much too late.
He tried to pull the same thing the next morning, but Kevin was having none of it.
“You stupid idiot,” Kevin said, standing imperiously over the bed. “You are not allowed to do this.”
Neil was silent.
“Without you we do not have a full set for scrimmage,” Kevin said. “Get up. You owe me.”
“I don’t owe you shit,” Neil said, but he got up.
Andrew’s gaze was on him the whole practice. Neil noticed with irritation that he wasn’t even trying to defend the goal, and knew it was retribution for his absence the day before. The entire team either treated him with kid gloves (Matt, Dan, Nicky) or increased vitriol (Kevin, Aaron, Allison). Renee stayed serenely removed from the entire thing.
After practice, Andrew stood waiting with his arms crossed.
“Garden?” Neil asked half-heartedly.
“I don’t know,” Andrew said, scowling. “Are you too “sick”?”
“I had a bad day,” Neil said.
“You’re going to tell me.”
In the garden, Neil tore at the grass, refusing to meet Andrew’s eyes. “You’re going to leave.”
“No shit. This is a “healing retreat,” the words were said in a sickly sweet tone, “not a retirement.”
“You’re going to leave me,” Neil said, clawing up a dandelion, staring at the dirt.
Andrew caught him under the chin, jerking his head up. His eyes were blazing. “I’m not leaving you,” he said slowly.
“Do you want to leave?”
Neil looked at him and saw the moor in his eyes and the spring in his mouth. “Okay.”
Neil brushed some pollen off of Kayleigh’s plaque. “Andrew?”
Andrew sighed like the weight of the world had been placed on his shoulders. “Fine.”
“I didn’t even ask yet.”
Andrew flopped down on the ground, staring up at the sun. “Fine, we can let Kevin in the garden.”
“And Coach too?"
Andrew shrugged. “I guess it is his.”
The next morning, Wymack came to watch them play. He hadn’t come yet. Neil had mentioned to him that they’d all been practicing, and he had grunted and said it was about time.
The team seemed to take on new life with Wymack there. Their practices had been serious beforehand, but now the Foxes played as if they wanted to show their coach they hadn’t been beaten by what had happened to them. Neil felt like an imposition inside the gale of their resolve, a stranger that had inserted himself into their game. But when Kevin scored on Andrew with his left hand, the team swept him up with them in their impromptu celebratory dogpile.
Wymack got emotional as he talked to the team afterwards. Neil tried to distance himself from the talk, but the moment he tried to shuffle away, Matt and Dan each grabbed an arm and anchored him into the circle. It felt awkward, but also good. Very good.
“Neil,” Wymack called, after the circle had split. “Walk with me?”
“Sure,” Neil said. He caught Andrew’s eye as they headed back into the garden, and was met with a blank face.
Wymack walked pensively, looking around at the hedges and walls like he’d never seen them before. “Bee does good work,” he grunted.
“Yeah,” Neil agreed. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Well,” Wymack said. He hummed for a moment, scratched the back of his neck. “Let’s be real, Josten. What are your goals in life?”
“Goals?” Neil asked.
Neil’s mouth opened and closed. Up until three months ago, his only goals in life had been to keep himself and his mother alive and away from his father. He had failed on almost all counts.
“Be happy,” he said, surprising himself. “Stay with Andrew. Play exy.” He shrugged. “Live long enough to have more life goals.”
“You’re a good striker,” Wymack said, giving him a side-eye. “Even Kevin has mentioned it.”
“Kevin said I was a good striker?” Neil asked, shocked. The closest thing to a compliment Kevin had ever paid him was a short “better than the last one,” after he’d almost scored on Andrew. Equally shocking was the implication that Kevin and Wymack had been speaking.
“Once or twice,” Wymack said. “And you work well with the team.”
Neil shrugged. “They work well with each other. I’m just…filling in.”
“Would you like to keep doing so?”
Neil struggled to parse that statement. “To keep…?”
“Filling in.” Wymack stopped walking and faced him. “More than that. Neil, I’m offering you a position as a Fox.”
The gears of Neil’s brain ground to a halt.
“You have speed. You have the raw skill that would be sharpened on a college team. You’re the demographic I recruit. You get Andrew to participate. And most of all, you already play like you’re part of the team.”
Neil stared at him.
“You’re a year behind the standard college enrollment, and there’s nothing I can do about that—you’d be starting at PSU as a freshman, on an academic scholarship. You’d need to keep your grades up, but there are good tutors available.”
Neil said nothing.
“You can have the week to think about it,” Wymack said finally.
Neil forced his brain into motion. “Think about it? Think about what?”
Wymack squinted at him. “Whether to accept the offer.”
“Are you serious?” Neil asked.
“Then there’s nothing to think about. I accept.” Neil’s heart was doing something he’d never known it could do and didn’t know how to classify.
Wymack clapped him on the shoulder, smiling broadly. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Are you serious?” Neil asked again. “You know my...past."
“And you know my team’s past. Believe me, we can handle it. At least yours is dead and gone.” Wymack looked briefly and ruefully exhausted. “I’ll get your contract drawn up by tomorrow. Why don’t you go tell the team the good news?”
“Okay,” Neil said dazedly. “Sure.”
Wymack headed back to the house, and Neil, body on autopilot, went back to the makeshift pitch. The whole team went silent and stared at him as he exited, and he felt his face break into a trembling smile. The moment they saw it he was surrounded. Matt tossed him into the air and caught him, Dan kissed his cheek and ruffled his hair, and Nicky did the same. Allison pronounced him “adequate,” Renee gave him a soft smile, and even Aaron gave him a tiny nod.
Andrew hung back, but Neil didn’t blame him. He could read the emotion in Andrew’s eyes: pride, satisfaction, and happiness. He imagined his looked the same.
The next day Neil woke to find spring had finally come to the moor. The sky was blue as a robin’s egg, and when he cracked his window he could smell life rushing in upon the breeze, filling up the room.
He left a note for Wymack taped to his door, and went to breakfast.
The team was as animated as the weather, their practice almost euphoric. Jackets were shed, hair was tied resolutely back, and gloves were foregone, even if they really shouldn’t have been.
Neil caught Andrew’s eyes as he fired on him, and understanding passed between them. Today.
“Kevin,” Andrew barked, after practice was over and the Foxes were trickling away. “Stay.”
“I am not a dog,” Kevin said, and stayed anyway. “Where the hell are we going?”
The took the long way to the garden, looping and wandering and listening to the birds chirp. By the time they got to the there Kevin had cooled off a little, and was even looking a little enchanted by the setting.
When Andrew pulled the curtain of ivy aside and Neil opened the door, he even followed without complaint.
Just as Neil had felt, the garden was in bloom.
Roses exploded over everything: the walls, the tree, the shrubs, the bench. It was like walking into a firework. The blue larkspurs put up a valiant effort as well, and the overall effect was of a great gasp of life after a near-drowning. Kevin turned around and around in the center of it, until Neil and Andrew walked him to the plaque.
May your roses ever bloom.
Kevin stood frozen in front of it for a long moment. Then he fell to his knees and touched the plaque softly. Slow tears made their way down his cheeks.
Neil and Andrew left him and sat by the larkspurs. Neil had the unnerving urge to put a flower behind Andrew’s ear. Andrew glared at him like he could sense it.
The door to the garden swung open. Wymack stood there, clutching Neil’s note in his hand and looking around at the roses like he might be dreaming. Then his gaze fell on Kevin, and he wavered for a long second before striding over and sinking down beside him.
Neil and Andrew watched long enough for Wymack to put a tentative arm around Kevin and say something softly, and then Neil tugged Andrew out of the garden, shutting the gate softly behind them.
Outside, a little flash of red caught his eye. The fox peered at them from the hedge, then turned and scampered away.
“We’ve lost our garden,” Andrew grumbled.
Neil headed towards the back gate. “The whole moor is out there waiting.”
Andrew rolled his eyes, took Neil’s hand, and towed him on. The clear cold air, now tinged with warmth, brushed across their knuckles.