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L'amour parle en fleurs

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Stage II - Anger

“The tree forsakes not the flower: the flower falls from the tree.” – Alexandre Dumas  

*

June arrived, the days growing longer and longer, carrying the year towards its apex.

Andrew slept fitfully. The nights turning clammy and hot. Evenings lasting too long. Mornings arriving too soon.

Drowning out the cacophony inside his head was becoming almost impossible. It was the same old problem Andrew always faced with his brain, which retained information no matter how unimportant or horrifying. A number plate, a smile, a mist rising over a river, the sound of footsteps approaching an unlockable door – he remembered it all. He didn’t forget like other people, couldn’t just shuck what was useless and savour what was relevant. He didn’t struggle with the usual fallibilities, frailties and imperfections of memory faced by everyone else. He was stuck with photographs in his head – soundbites and scenes – all of which refused to be worn away by forgetfulness, all of which left him living with phantoms howling through his synapses. His was a skull full of a thousand momento mori. Aaron was just the latest.

It was the stillness of the night that conjured the latest penumbra in his head. The depth of the silence. That was something he’d always struggled with – complete isolation, separation from everyone, everything – it left too much space for the ghosts to get in. The murmurings of the house hovered whenever he opened his eyes, but even they were spectral sounds – a breeze making the curtains rise and fall and rasp like a pair of lungs, the wind making the floorboards creak like someone stirring in a nearby room. Every sound in the silence was a gun cracking off against his temple. They sent hot sparks through his head, made his brain fizz and fracture into moments he didn’t want to revisit.

Sometimes, somewhere in the house, a door clinked on its hinges and the sound would match that of a wedding ring hitting cold stone, and in the stifling dark, Andrew would find himself looping through images. The phone call, Katelyn’s sobbing down the line, her ring, the way she couldn’t look at him.

Sometimes, the cats would shift in the bedding and Andrew would keep falling back into the moment in the morgue, see a white sheet over a silver table, hands shaking as he reached out – the horror in his head daring him again and again to take a look at what lay beneath.

And sometimes he lay, half dreaming, listening to the breeze and he would imagine how things might have been if this time had turned out like that long-ago Thanksgiving, when despite the blood on Aaron’s face and under his nails, Andrew’s fingers found themselves desperately checking for injuries that weren’t there. But mostly, on those nights, he wanted to laugh at his naivety – at the foolish relief he’d felt – as if invisible injuries didn’t cut the deepest.

Because now wasn’t then. Like Andrew’s memory, the truth couldn’t be undone. Katelyn made the call. The sheet was lifted. Andrew stood over Aaron’s corpse, hating, hating, hating his twin so fiercely he thought the world might catch fire. Aaron wasn’t the one who was meant to die young.

Perhaps Andrew should have been relieved then – when after another restless night of twisting around in a silence full of ghosts, memories tangling like the sheets that seemed too heavy – he finally saw (or rather heard) Nathaniel.

As promised in his letter, the mysterious landowner never seemed to be around – though occasionally Andrew found fresh eggs or gazpacho in the fridge or a new pot of lavender honey. Always with a note:

The chickens are laying like crazy down the road so brought a dozen back for you. Try making an omelette with le fromage de banon, c’est magnifique! – N

Used way too many tomatoes and cumbers, so thought it was only right to share. Croutons in the pantry. – N

This is Hatford Hives honey – if you don’t like it, I won’t be offended. Lavender honey isn’t for everyone J  – N 

And Andrew, like an idiot, kept them all.

Not that he could explain why.

But on that morning, Andrew gave up on sleep before six, throwing off the covers, much to the disdain of the white and grey cat curled at his feet. He was too restless to care. His chest felt tight, his skin uncomfortable, his heart beating to the wrong rhythm. Silence had left him hanging onto an edge. He was about to drop. He would fall and there was nothing he could do but cling and claw and refuse to look down. He did not want to remember.  

Andrew set off towards the pool. He didn’t grab a towel. Didn’t stop to consider putting on trunks. He took the steps two at a time, determined to shut off his brain, to make his mind stop, stop, stop.

Dawn had arrived, bleaching away the moon with its rictus grin and the pinpoint stars in the sky, burning away the weave of mist that shrouded the mountains, faint and blue and jagged against the horizon. The smells of the flower fields kept catching in a rough wind, each gust bringing with it a sly and gossiping sound that set his teeth on edge.

Half way down the steps, however, he heard it – the humming – unashamedly off-key and arrhythmic, stopping and starting as whoever went about whatever they were doing. Andrew paused in the early morning sun, eyes darting around for the intruder. The sound was echoing off the house and the hills, making it hard to work out where it was coming from. 

Non, rien de rien. Non, je ne regrette rien.” 

Whoever it was couldn’t sing any more than they could hum, and Andrew winced. The voice was male and for the words the singer didn’t know, nonsensical sounds took their place, intermittently dropping back into humming.  

“Dahhh, dahh, daaaaeeeeeh, oublié.”

Andrew was going to strangle them. That noise was meant to be Edith Piaf?  But Andrew couldn’t actually see the singer. Wherever they were, they were very fortunately out of sight and out of harms way. The humming grew fainter and fainter and Andrew was going to put it down to a sleepless night right up until he noticed a slim shadow at the very bottom of the garden, passing through the sun-dappled lines of trees. They were moving away from where Andrew knew the barns lay, headed towards the gate out onto the farm.

Squinting without his glasses, Andrew frowned down the garden. He could make out that it was a man in a straw hat and dusty coloured clothes, sleeves rolled up tanned arms that were pushing a barrow along in front of him. His face was obscured but there was no doubt he was the owner of the horrible voice.

Car mes laaaaaaah ohhhh aujourd'hui,” he sang, tuneless as the day was young.

And then he pushed open the gate and was gone, the attempt at song quickly swallowed by the fields.

“That fucker,” Andrew said. “That fucking fucker.”

At least irritation proved a distraction from the dark parts of Andrew’s thoughts.

Anger, for Andrew, was easy. Easier than fear, easier than loss, easier than guilt. Always had been. Like the cage fights where all that mattered was the strike of his fists and the controlled rampage of his blows. Like when Aaron had forced his way into Andrew’s life – unwelcome, unwanted, unnecessary. But anger was simple. He could accept anger. He could feed it as he swam, nurture it as he tossed and turned in the dark.

So the next day he rose at the same time and went out to the terrace to watch and listen and wait for the tug of frustration. Again, beyond the purpling lavender bushes roamed Nathaniel, pushing his wheelbarrow and humming into the morning. This time he was wearing an ungodly orange bandana that clashed with his billowing blue shirt. The straw hat was gone. His hair was lit up by the early morning sun in cornfield golds and carnelian reds. His voice hung in the air like a vixen’s scream, completely and utterly horrific.

Hateful, Andrew thought. Loathsome. Shuddersome. Tragic.

Only when Nathaniel was gone did he stub out his cigarette and stomp inside for coffee, Sir darting around his ankles as he went. Andrew leant down to scratch behind ginger ears and pushed all thoughts of Nathaniel away.

Eat. Drink. Swim. Repeat.

Eat. Swim. Drink. Repeat.

Andrew clung to the monotony, but spite put more strength into his strokes, rage stoked the heat in his belly no matter how he tried to drown it with coffee or booze.

But the next morning was the same, and so was the one following that. Suddenly, Andrew had a new part of his routine, waking early enough to spot the comings and goings of his mysterious host, listing off as many synonyms of disdain that he could.

Because worst of all, Nathaniel never seemed to notice him back. It rankled. Andrew was there in the open, smoking in the morning sun, and Nathaniel was in his own little world, humming like he couldn’t hear himself.

Didn’t the idiot care that he was killing music the world over with that voice? Not to mention disturbing Andrew’s peace and quiet – the peace and quiet he’d not only paid for but actually stooped to asking Allison ‘Bitch Barbie’ Reynolds for a favour to find? Didn’t the moron think that maybe – just maybe – he should keep his caterwauling outside the property lines?

Apparently not, was the answer, because four days after the first time Andrew saw Nathaniel there was a large pastry dish sitting on the kitchen counter when Andrew returned from the boulangerie. Propped against the dish, the note read: Salut! The neighbouring farm is testing a new tarte tatin recipe using our lavender honey, I hope you enjoy! – N  (ps. there’s a mistral blowing in tomorrow so I might sleep in the house, I will try to stay out of your way!)

Andrew scowled. Looking outside at the bright blue sky and the dark blue mountains, he raised an eyebrow. There was no sign of a brewing storm. Barely a cloud hung in the sky. The wind bore a chill (and made Nathaniel’s voice feel uncomfortably close that morning), but it didn’t feel blustery.

Prickles of anger goosed up Andrew’s arms, he didn’t want Nathaniel in the house. He went to the door he knew was Nathaniel’s entrance to the kitchen and tried the handle, it was locked. He went to his own room and triple checked the door there could be locked too. He stormed back into the kitchen and shoved the pastry dish into the fridge so hard that he heard the porcelain clack against the far side. He grabbed a beer, raged as he took great gulping mouthfuls and opened a second within the space of a minute. So what it was before ten in the morning, he did not want Nathaniel anywhere near him. He stalked outside, lighting up before he could inhale any of the fresh, grassy scents.

Birdsong sparkled in the air; mists looped around the furthest mountains and slid down their flanks, slow and soundless as waves crashing against a distant coast. Staring down the garden, Andrew could see the door in the wall, slightly ajar, revealing a crack of green and gold grass.

Before he knew it, Andrew’s feet were carrying him down the stone stairs, veering by the pool and stalking through the trees towards the fields. The garden rose up around him, smelling of dirt and grass, of flowering trees and water. He moved between the hedges, surprised to find they made a sort of maze this close up, but he’d viewed it enough from his peak on the terrace to know where the turns and twists were, how to navigate his way to the long promenade to the gate. He could see the golden gap becoming wider, becoming greener.

Other than to walk the short distance to the boulangerie, this was the first time Andrew would leave the comfortable bubble of the house since he arrived, and he let his rage carry him like a spark catching light on a dry branch and being dragged through a field by the wind. It was like defending goal but with actual passion. Like the itch before a fight but with less control. He was almost running when he slammed the gate open and –

Stopped.

Beyond the wall lay forever, a landscape of rolling hills in shades of green and gold, palest artichoke to darkest teal, bright mints and chartreuse to shadows of olive and celadon. Looking closer, revealed the ripple of them, the way the wind stirred the colours like sunlight over the ocean, lightening and darkening in variegated patterns. It was like staring out to sea and seeing nothing except the horizon – nothing but infinite, endless water, waves cresting and ready to rise up, ready to swallow you whole.

Andrew took a step further, another, feeling smaller and smaller the more he moved into the expanse of fields. Where different crops grew at different heights, he could see the balance of light to dark, yin to yang. His eyes travelled with the wind, down the slopes and up the other side of the valley. Above them, he could see the white peaks of the Alps, and the glistening silver lines where snow melted into rivulets, steaming off the mountainside in the summer sun.

He hated it. Hated that he felt like a child lost in a howling city – everything so much bigger than he was. Yet, the endless grass, the endless leaves, the scattered trees and the luxury of their greenness – it all seemed to reach out to Andrew, to want lure him further away from the walled safety of the house.

No, he thought, he would not go.

Fumbling, he shoved a cigarette between his teeth and cupped one trembling hand around the tip to light it. He stared at the open flame contained by his palm and felt the urge to throw it into the fields, to sit back and watch the whole crop catch light. He took his thumb from the sparkwheel and felt the madness flicker out.

Breathe, Andrew, he conjured Bee in his head, her voice a buzz of comfort, and sucked in a breath of smoke. It mixed with the fresh air, the crushed green and leafy scent of the fields, the rosemary curl of growing lavender.

Andrew stood on the perimeter a moment longer, taking long and deep drags until the cigarette was half gone. His anger was still there, fizzing along his skin, but he set off along the edge of the fields all the same, keeping close to the stonewall that cut the farm off from the bastide.

There was no sign of Nathaniel. The lull of the hills must be hiding him from view. Andrew lit a second cigarette as he started to climb the slope around the side of the house. As he walked, he noticed that over the western mountains, clouds were gathering more heavily, casting bruising shadows across the furthest slopes.

Andrew walked one way, turned and went back the other. He realised that the crops were all arranged in neat, curving lines, like a thousand crescent moons tucked against each other. In a few weeks, months maybe, he could see how the silver-green bushes would purple and flower, turn into row upon row of lavender. In all the godawful foster homes he’d had, even the most rural ones, he’d never witnessed anything like this. Never seen anything as careful, as cultivated, as sun-drenched and wild. There was artfulness here. There was tenderness. He couldn’t tell if it intrigued or incensed him.

Andrew ended up looping the house, discovering several more side entrances in the garden wall, a dirt track that was clearly for heavy vehicles, and several views of the nearby towns that were invisible from the terrace and the pool. From this angle, the red slate of the rooves in Grasse seemed to glow in response to the gold fields sprawling around them and the sun above, the green lines of trees disrupting their synchrony like a shadow. He glanced at his feet, at the gargoyled shape of himself as it twisted and puckered over the rough earth. He scowled and dropped his cigarette into the space where his face would be, smothering it with his boot. He pulled his foot back, stared at the crumpled butt. Even stained with mud it looked horrible and wrong there in the dirt, the only pollutant for acres. He stooped and plucked it up, shoving it into his pocket instead.

Grumbling swearwords under his breath, Andrew began to stomp back to the main entrance, back to the garden, back to the pool. He’d go for a swim. He’d work all this restless energy out of his muscles. He would feed the fucking cats even though he wasn’t supposed to. He would –

“Hello,” said a voice. “Andrew?”

Andrew jerked to a halt, head snapping up.

And there he was – the most annoying man Andrew had ever had the displeasure of renting from, the worst singer Andrew had ever had the misfortune of hearing, the most attractive farmer Andrew had ever mistakenly stormed after. Because it was an absolutely grievous error that had led Andrew to standing in front of Nathaniel Abram Hatford, whose skin was butterscotch, and hair was wisteria-wild, and eyes were the clearest blue Andrew had ever seen.

They stared at each other; two wild cats unsure of whose move came next.

Nathaniel was small, lithe, something that his loose shirt did nothing to hide, and as the folds of material were plucked at by the wind’s childish fingers, Andrew followed the sharp lines of his collarbones, the smattering of freckles, strangely warped and wefted flesh.

Before he could frown, Nathaniel shifted on his toes and Andrew realised he’d been staring too long, that he was making this pretty idiot uncomfortable. He didn’t care. He was more occupied with the gages in Nathaniel’s ears; they were stuffed full of early sprigs of lavender and the curls of his hair caught in the tiny purple whorls.

“You are Andrew right? I thought I saw you on the terrace?” Nathaniel’s expression was somewhere between a smile and curiosity. He waved his hand in the rough direction of the house. “Mais si vous ne l'êtes pas, je suis désolé… êtes-vous un visiteur de Grasse? Les champs de lavande ne sont pas ouverts aux visiteurs. Ce n'est pas la saison. Mais...

Andrew tuned him out – the lilting French meant nothing to him. He was more occupied by Nathaniel’s piercings: the flowers in his lobes, the metal in his tragus and auricle. Andrew hated Nathaniel on sight.

“Did you know you can’t sing?” Andrew said, interrupting the flow of Nathaniel’s jabbering.

Nathaniel’s mouth snapped closed. “What?”

“You. Cannot. Sing.” Andrew said, stepping forward and into Nathaniel’s space. The fool didn’t take a step back, his eyes only narrowed.

“Yes, I can. I mean, I’m not good at it, but that’s not going to stop me. Is there a reason you’re being so rude?” Nathaniel’s half smile had vanished, face becoming carefully neutral.

Andrew glared. Nathaniel’s accent was mostly British, though the rhythm was French. Andrew probably should have expected as much from a surname like ‘Hatford’, but still, he found Nathaniel’s voice entirely too distracting.

“Well? Are you just going to stare?” Nathaniel said. Then after a beat, one perfectly shaped eyebrow quirked upwards. “If you’re not doing anything useful, then come along, I could use an extra pair of hands.”

Wait. What? Andrew had been spoiling for an argument. He wanted to fight.

But Nathaniel was darting around him and heading up the hill before Andrew could turn his thought into a fully realised question. As he swept by, Andrew caught the heady scent of sweat and camphor. A beat passed before Andrew’s feet gave pursuit. Nathaniel’s long legs strode up the slope like it was nothing.

A brush of memory slid over the foreground of Andrew’s mind – Aaron hiking ahead of Andrew on a woodland trail in Germany, sweat glistening on the back of his neck, sticking his shirt to his back. It was the first holiday they’d all taken: the newly married Minyards, Katelyn and Aaron; the soon-to-be-Kloses, Erik and Nicky; Andrew, the wolf bringing up the back of the pack. None of them had been dressed appropriately for Erik’s favourite trail along the Goethe Way. They sweated and panted their way up the hills, stumbled and sweated down them. Nicky was almost crying because of his blisters. And somewhere in the midst of the chaos, Aaron had glanced back, just once, taken off his hat, and plopped it on Andrew’s head.

“You’re burning,” Aaron had said, and Andrew just glared – but later that evening, when his nose was an unattractive shade of pink, he’d given the hat back with grudging thanks.

The Mediterranean sun beating down on Andrew’s face as he followed Nathaniel evaporated the rest of the memory. He blinked, felt the prickling anger under his skin. What the hell was he doing?

“Nathaniel,” said Andrew.

Nathaniel turned to look back at him, a shadow flitting through his expression. “I prefer Neil.”

Andrew felt his irritation crest and fall. “Neil,” he said. “Where are we going?”

“Up to the barns.”

Andrew’s eyebrow twitched. “Why?”

“To get the spare irrigation pipes – going to need it when the storm rolls in.” Neil said and Andrew eyed the blue sky with scepticism. “Don’t worry,” added Neil. “I’m not luring you to my lair to kill you, promise.”

Andrew merely huffed. He’d like to see Neil try to take him on – Andrew knew how to hold his own, with and without a weapon. Between exy, Renee, and the cages, no one was going to make Andrew feel vulnerable again.

Aaron probably thought the same, whispered a voice in his head. He was fit, healthy, a doctor. He probably thought he could handle it.

Skin taut, muscles tight, fingers curled into fists – Andrew was about to turn back down the hill when the path took a turn he hadn’t noticed before and the landscape opened up to reveal a long and low barn made of the same sandy stone as the house. The doors were double-sized and thrown open, revealing a world of stuff that Andrew only vaguely recognised. He followed Neil inside, looking around at this cave of wonders. Or, as it turned out, farming equipment and hanging baskets and a thousand open tool boxes and sacks upon sacks of fertiliser and fiberglass stakes and rolls of netting and two dozen machines that Andrew couldn’t name but thought wouldn’t go amiss in a BDSM dungeon.  

Neil was watching him when Andrew looked up, amusement lingering around his mouth but gaze inscrutable. He nodded at one of the machines Andrew had been examining.

“That’s a mechanical dibble,” Neil said. “To create planting holes.”

Ignoring the explanation, Andrew’s attention swept around the barn, taking in the exits and entrances, the higgledy-piggledy organisation of it all, one side was all skylight and filled with an abundance of plants in pots and baskets that laid a sweet aroma over the stink of oil and damp stone. Andrew walked towards them, lifting a hand to touch one of the hanging baskets where fine stems seemed to reach back like long awaiting arms.

“Fuck.” Andrew snatched back his fingers. The evil little thing was prickly.

“That is a cactus,” Neil said, offering an explanation like Andrew hadn’t figured that out already. “Best not to touch. I nurture the cuttings here before they graduate to the greenhouse.”

But though Neil’s tone was flippant, there was something off about the way he spoke. When Andrew glanced at him, he noted how Neil held himself, the wariness winnowed into his posture – legs shifting like they wanted to run, arms crossed over his stomach like that was the only thing stopping him.

Andrew realised why a moment later.

Beyond the hanging baskets lay a wardrobe; beside that sat a desk bearing stacks of black binders and a handful of books; it looked like Neil worked here – by candlelight if the large, old fashioned lanterns were anything to go by – and above it all, a small looking hay loft that Andrew guessed could be used for a bed.

“This is where you sleep,” Andrew said.

“Only in the summer,” Neil said, tone more than a little prickly. For all that Neil wanted to brush Andrew off, letting him into this space was clearly not a small deal.

So why had he done it? Andrew thought. There was no need to drag him here. Just as surely there was no need for him to move out of his own home because of one guest. 

As if sensing Andrew’s need for clarification or qualification, Neil offered instead an innocent smile that Andrew didn’t believe for a second. He was right not to.

Irrigation pipes, it so happened, were not light. Negotiating the coil onto his shoulder, Andrew felt the heft of the length Neil gave him and hoped that they weren’t going far. The fact that Neil made it look easy, slinging a second line onto his shoulder like it was nothing, made Andrew’s grip tighten. Spite had kept him alive this long, he could carry a fucking pipe down a hill.

Neil stood to one side, watching Andrew. A stab of hatred lanced through Andrew’s stomach, white-hot, easy. Sweat rolled down the centre of his back, a sour coating filled the back of his throat. He licked his lips and swallowed, once, twice, adjusted the placement on his shoulders.

“Not too heavy?” Neil asked.

“Nope.” Andrew replied, popping the ‘p’ like an eyeball under a thumb.

“Great. Allons-y!”

Neil ambled out ahead, Andrew staggering behind like a wounded animal under the unusual load. Balance came to him a few steps down the path, he found a pace next to Neil a little after that. They strode down the hill in silence, once again passing the house, Andrew forcing himself to ignore the call of the cool blue pool and the chill of a beer. If Neil hadn’t glanced over to him then, Andrew suspected he would have dropped the pipes for Neil to retrieve later, offering nothing but a mock salute as he went back to his mind-numbing routine. But Neil did look at him, mouth a line of sharp curiosity and Andrew could see questions being weighed up behind vivid blue eyes. Andrew dragged his gaze away. He was not going to give Neil the satisfaction of seeing him cave.

They walked in silence, no sounds between them but the crunch of feet and whispering wind wending through the crops and the chirruping cicadas that ceaselessly shared the song. It wasn’t awkward exactly, but it wasn’t easy either, Andrew was far too conscious of Neil for that. And it seemed like Neil was aware of Andrew too. For all the easy pace and loping strides, Andrew noticed how Neil maintained careful space between them, always at arm’s length, never close enough that they might accidentally touch. It was the wariness of someone who could look at anyone's arms and judge the safe distance from them in a heartbeat. It was frustratingly familiar.

It reminds you of Aaron, hissed that all-knowing voice in his head.

But Andrew suspected it was more than that – the familiarity lay beyond mannerisms. Perhaps it was something about Neil's face? He couldn’t put his finger on it.

They reached the bottom of the hill and Neil guided him across a small track before gesturing up the hill again.

“It’s not far now,” Neil said. “Just up this hill.”

“Joy,” he drawled. A drop of sweat beaded down Andrew’s temple, his undercut prickling with heat.

Neil laughed. “I probably should have warned you.”

It was not an apology and Andrew wouldn’t have wanted one. He was the idiot who hadn’t questioned Neil once since they met, who’d let himself be roped into this without argument, who’d followed Neil into a barn and been loaded up with pipes and accepted the task as if he had nothing else to do. Which he didn’t really (and therefore made him hate the situation even more). For the first time in years, however, Andrew was glad of all those marathons Wymack forced him into during his second and third years at Palmetto. Compared to them, one decently sized hill was nothing.

And really, it was nothing. They crested the hill and before them sprawled the rest of the Hatford lavender farm – long lines of plants dancing in the breeze now buffeting against their skin. It was refreshing, smelling deeply green and herbal.

“It smells of rosemary,” Andrew said.

“That’s the unflowered lavender,” said Neil; he took a deep breath and his whole face seemed to soften. Andrew hadn’t realised how sharp Neil’s edges were until they were smoothed away, even if just for a second.

“Come on.” Neil pointed down to where the shapes of a half dozen men could be seen, toiling away in the heat. “That’s where we’re going.” 

Other than the women at the boulangerie, it was the first time Andrew had seen anyone since his arrival in France, and he took the farmhands in with irritation. He’d liked the isolation, the bubble of the life he kept in the house. To think these strangers were so close almost felt like an intrusion.

Yet, now that Andrew was paying attention, he could see other signs of life as well – there were scattered barns throughout the fields, small stone huts for storing equipment and fertiliser, perhaps for taking time out of the sun on blistering summer days; there were pin-prick people on the distant hills, some working, some walking, some – it appeared – cycling along one of the public paths that Neil had left marked in his book of maps. There was a grumbling sound, an engine, somewhere that Andrew couldn’t quite figure out and he guessed they were near an invisible road. Becoming aware of the vitality all around them, set something alight in Andrew’s stomach.

Alive, alive, alive. The wind seemed to be sighing the word into Andrew’s ear. This is life. Life. Life. Life.

And for a burning moment, Andrew felt something in his chest. Something like euphoria. Something that made him want to lift his face to the sky and breath in like Neil had just done. Something that felt so fucking wrong when Aaron would never feel this, never see this.

Because Katelyn had made the call – and Andrew hated her for letting Aaron do this to himself.

Because the sheet had been lifted – and Andrew hated his brother for being so fucking weak.

Because Andrew had stood over Aaron’s corpse – and Andrew hated himself for not knowing. Surely he should have known?

Because they were twins - but Andrew couldn’t breathe for Aaron.

And the world – this beautiful, tragic, brutal world – just kept turning and Andrew despised it, wanted to fucking rage at it until there was nothing but scorched earth and withered ground.

“Andrew?” Neil’s voice broke through the moment, severing Andrew from the unspooling thread of feeling, dowsing his fury as quickly as summer rain.   

Andrew let his eyes meet Neil’s – felt the clash of blue against gold, his anger surging and simmering at the surface of his thoughts. There was a darkness in Neil’s eyes too, shadows where the light couldn’t touch. What right did Neil have to look at him like that though? What right did he have to meet Andrew’s gaze as if he understood, as if he’d seen the worst of humanity too?

“We’ll take the piping down to Alphonse,” Neil said. His tone hadn’t changed, not exactly. “Then head back to the house – have you ever driven a tracteur? Sorry, tractor.”

Andrew shook his head. His fingers itched for a cigarette.

Neil’s mouth curved, his tongue darting out to wet his lips and was that a fucking tongue piercing? Andrew wrenched back, forcing his feet to head in the direction Neil had indicated and definitely not paying attention to the light chuckle at his back or the crunching of footsteps catching up alongside him.

Fortunately, Neil left Andrew to his own devices once they found Alphonse. Andrew stood in the shade, fingers tracing over the shape of the knives in his armbands, not listening as Neil dropped into rapid French and passed their lines of piping to the older man with what sounded like instructions. Alphonse was greying, soft-eyed, marionette lines in his jaw left by laughter and sunshine. He listened to Neil attentively, quietly, and accepted the guidance without qualms. Andrew wondered at how someone as young as Neil came to direct a farm like this – possibly it had been in the family but, if the house with its library of books from the four-corners of the globe was anything to go by, Neil was well-educated and well-travelled. Plus, there was no doubt that Neil had some British blood in him, some Celtic genetics that gave him that hair and those eyes and the rounded vowels that made his accent oddly lyrical.

Their conversation gave Andrew enough time to pull the edges of his control back into place, like landscape fabric smothering the weeds before they could grow. He drew a cigarette and lit up, smoking it down to the filter before Neil returned to him, gesturing with his head further down the field.

Andrew knew Neil saw how he’d withdrawn, dragged up all the bridges and taken refuge behind his walls, yet Neil didn’t enquire, didn’t press. He nattered briefly about the tractor, a machine he’d apparently imported from India and when they reached the bright orange monster of a machine, he clambered up into the driver’s seat before offering Andrew a hand that wasn’t accepted. Neil didn’t seem offended. He took his hand back and pulled the tractor into gear.

Roaring into life, shaking so hard beneath them that Andrew threw out an arm to steady himself, the tractor began its slow rumble back towards the house. It was too loud to talk, for which Andrew was thankful. Instead, he allowed himself the moment to sink away from everything, to let his mind go blank, let his body move with every jolt and jerk of the land whilst his thoughts grew slippery and distant.

Apathy, his brain supplied, the opposite of anger, the inverse of hate. The hollowness that kept him alive through Drake. That Bee spent years trying to save him from. That Aaron learnt to penetrate as if Andrew lay beneath the clearest river and he could tell exactly how the light bent so he could pull Andrew back to the surface. Mostly by being an irritating asshole.

Andrew’s hands clenched. He stared out across the fields, watched as a flock of birds rose upwards upon a warm gyre, circling wider and wider until they were a pencil scribble high above.

“Thanks for your help today,” Neil said when they came to a stop, back at the gate of the house.

Andrew grunted in response, hands already lighting another cigarette. He inhaled, jumped down and glanced back up at Neil, exhaled a stream of smoke through his nose. Perched on that machine, Neil looked tiny, like a teenager whose father had put him in charge, rather than a grown ass man. With the flowers in his ears, however, Andrew couldn’t maintain his scorn – the sun was beginning to sink, the day’s light turning gold, and catching in the wild auburn curls, turning them into a candle flame. Ethereal, he thought, pipe dream.

And Neil was leaning forward, plucking the cigarette from Andrew’s fingers and taking a drag, smoke spilling between his teeth when he grinned a grin like a knife blade. Andrew felt it in his gut.

“You’re welcome to join tomorrow if you like. Or any day really. This time of year, we can always use another pair of hands.” Neil made the offer like it was a challenge and Andrew glowered.

Neil didn’t give the cigarette back, he placed it between his lips and revved the engine.

“À demain,” Neil said.

Andrew refused to watch him go. But when he was back on the terrace, in the quiet bubble of the bastide, haze lifting with every swig of chilled water, he still found himself listening for the rumble of the tractor, for offkey singing or the crunch of boots. He didn’t hear anything. Just the birds and the wind, the cicadas and the trees.

Andrew fell asleep early that night, exhausted in a way that wasn’t purely physical.

For the first time in months, Andrew dreamt of something other than a white sheet on a silver table, of shaking hands, and sobs down the telephone.

He dreamt of lavender whorls tangled in red hair, eyes brighter than any sky, a silver stud licking dry lips. He dreamt of golds and blues. 

He dreamt of impossibilities.