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L'amour parle en fleurs

Chapter Text

Stage III – Bargaining  

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk

and grows until it has reached its height

all of us begin in darkness.

- Rachel Carson, After Silence

 

*

Je vous parle d'un temps… la la les moins de vingt ans…” 

The next morning arrived with Neil singing more loudly and more torturously than ever.

Andrew stood in the half-light of dawn, pale planes of his shoulders stark against a black tank, a pair of storm-dark cotton shorts doing everything for his ass. He'd slipped his lip ring back into place for the first time since his bruises faded too, rolled it between his teeth and tongue with old familiarity. Okay, so he’d put some effort in. Andrew wasn’t about to be out done by a farmer with no fashion sense just because he had the aesthetic of a renaissance painting: lean as a corn spear, bones sharp enough to cut, hair so red the roses would struggle to compete - everything a little too much. Except his height. If yesterday revealed anything, it was that Neil was nearly as short as Andrew.

Neil noticed him almost immediately as he ambled along the back path at the bottom of the garden. There was no wheelbarrow, but Andrew could hear the arrhythmic clink of keys as Neil threw them up in the air – once, twice, and again – higher and higher each time. His grin was a wicked thing even at a distance, knifelike and bright.

“La bohème-uhhhhh, laaaa bohème-uhhhh.” 

Andrew stared, smoked, torn between disgust and amusement – Neil truly was one of the worst singers he’d ever heard.

Grinning wider as Andrew dangled his morning cigarette between his lips and offered a mock salute, Neil raised his own and disappeared out the gate.

Follow him, whined a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Nicky.

Coffee, reasoned his morning brain, and easily won the battle.

Andrew went about his usual routine – he drank his coffee, thickened with cream and sugar; he walked to the boulangerie and used his rudimentary French to request two more croissant, six pain au chocolat, and a baguette, which the woman behind the counter gave him with a grudging response in English; he ate on the terrace with a second coffee before heading down to the pool.

The pool had become a refuge. Sunk into the garden, it felt separate from the house and the fields, a space away from time and memory. Azure water in a basin of yellow stone, it was grotto-like and surrounded by greenery. At one end, there was a hut built of roughly hewn rocks, large enough to comfortably fit a dining table but holding nothing except two sunbeds (which Andrew had taken many a nap on) and an assortment of floatation devices (which he had yet to inflate). At only twelve metres, Andrew could swim the full length twice without having to come up for air, granting him whole minutes where all he could hear was water in his ears and his pulse in his head. He found a satisfying focus to the back and forth – with every stroke he could feel every muscle in his body, the power, the connectivity, the strain. And once exhausted, he could bob on his back, stare up at the clear blue sky and feel like the last leaf still clinging on a branch, waiting to fall. Waiting for the wind to sweep him up into the sky.

Only on that morning the sky wasn’t clear, it was full of scalloping clouds, and the wind was colder than the day previous. Was this the storm Neil mentioned in his note? Annoyance bloomed in Andrew’s chest, chills tracing along his bare arms, through his veins, across soft and exposed wrists. That meant Andrew might not be alone in the house tonight – a thought that didn’t sit well. Other than the occasional trip with Nicky or Aaron, he hadn’t shared a house with anyone since Columbia – he never invited men back to his apartment in Denver, and he wouldn’t have let them spend the night if he had.

Aaron, the name swum around his head like a dragon gliding through the depths and Andrew’s whole body seized as if in fear. The feeling was like slipping on seaweed, sliding beneath the water too deep too fast, any semblance of balance thrown off, everything off-kilter and dangerous and strange.

Aaron.  

How could Andrew have gone so long without thinking about Aaron? How could this be the first time he’d thought of his brother that day? His goddamned dead twin. Andrew scrolled back through the day; realised this was the first morning in months his waking thought hadn’t been Aaron's name. He’d been too distracted by the cats and thoughts of Neil – King woke him by kneading his chest, Sir purring at his feet, their gentleness nudging at his thoughts. He’d reached out to scratch their ears, enjoyed the feel of their long fur and the butt of their heads against his fingers. Going through the motions of wakefulness as he dressed, he replaced his lip ring, went downstairs, made coffee without so much as blinking at his reflection. He’d made it to the boulangerie and back without imagining Aaron’s scowl at the amount of sugar he was buying, too consumed with thoughts of Nathaniel Abram Hatford with his gages full of lavender stems and eyes like shadows on a glacier.

Aaron.

Andrew was in Provence because Aaron was dead.

Floating on his back, Andrew let the cold wind lick at his bare skin, at his scars, the silvery ridges of various thickness and depth. For so long, they’d been a testament to what he survived, what he’d done to live. Andrew fought the war and somehow the war hadn’t won. But now they weighed him down. They were layer upon layer of questions so heavy he could drown. Every overlapping mark made Andrew wonder what he did to deserve the continued ability to breathe when Aaron didn’t any more. Why did his lungs still resolutely suck in air, even when Aaron was gone? 

Aaron.  

What if Andrew had been there? If he’d never gone to Denver? If he’d never pursued exy? Criminology could have opened up other avenues, ones that kept him closer to Aaron and didn’t put whole states between them most of the year. He could have moved to Chicago with them. Found a house a few blocks over. Found a job that gave him evenings and weekends off. 

The idea niggled away in his brain, relentless as the northerly chill blowing in from the mountains. 

What if he’d chosen Aaron over Kevin? What if he hadn’t released Aaron, made him give up Katelyn, made him stick to Andrew’s side like they should have done from birth? Sometimes Andrew thought he’d give anything to the universe to go back – there had to be some small change he could have made, something he could have done.

He could have killed Drake himself, made sure Aaron was never a murderer. Joined the Ravens, so that Aaron never met Katelyn. Let Riko win, so that Aaron never felt like he had to compete with a fucking stickball addict like Kevin for Andrew’s attention.

Except no, he stopped himself. No, he couldn’t have done any of those things. His promise to Aaron and his promise to Kevin weren’t comparable. He couldn’t save one by sacrificing the other – that would be to undo everything that Andrew stood for. He made deals. He kept them. He couldn’t weigh them against each other… plus, there was nothing to prove that any of these things would have spared Aaron’s life in the end.

So maybe if he went even further back – to before the Foxes, before South Carolina. The wind hissed over the water, gelid and raw, and Andrew accepted the numbness seeping into his bones. Maybe if he’d found Aaron some proper help getting clean, rather than locking him in a room to cold turkey… Andrew’s mind filled with images of Aaron, sweaty and gaunt, his eyes spitting hate whilst his mouth dribbled bile into a bucket. Andrew had spent days with him – coaxing Aaron through the anxiety and the vomiting and delirium. Aaron had hit him, cursed at him, tried to jump him when he brought fresh towels and clothes. Aaron barely remembered any of it afterwards. Andrew remembered it all – all the foul things Aaron said, all the horrifying things Aaron thought he was, all the times he curled in on himself weeping like a baby and begging for Tilda to please, please mom, please, I won’t do it again, please.  

Andrew really, really, hated that word.

Addiction did strange things to people – robbed them of themselves, shifted their priorities, muted their core values. Addiction was a drought, insidious, persistent, withering away a person bit by bit. First, taking the flowers, the buds and blossoms, stealing the colour and the passion and the promise. Next: sucking at the grass, the leaves, turning them brown, strangling them of life. Finally: gnawing away at any reserves, forcing trees to rely on what little resources they had left. Addiction left people brittle. Left them dry as kindling and just as easy to burn.

Aaron took nearly six days to sweat out Tilda’s drugs. Two weeks to so much as look at Andrew. Over a month, before they risked going out and less than half an hour for Aaron to cave to temptation and try to find somewhere to score.

Andrew had been there then. He’d stopped Aaron from relapsing. Not just that first trip to the mall. Over and over until Palmetto, and even after. Over and over without Aaron even realising. Cracker dust aside, Aaron was fine as long as triggers and temptation didn't mix.

What if Andrew had been there this time too? He would have seen the signs. Aaron tried to be stoic, but he had a terrible poker face. There was a reason why Katelyn was the worst kept secret in the Minyard-Hemmick house. Aaron couldn’t lie to save his life.

But he did, nudged the voice in his head. He lied and lied and you didn’t even notice. He’s dead because you didn’t notice.

Another frigid gust had Andrew folding himself in half, letting himself sink down, down, down under water. For a moment he hung in the cool, watery silence: eyes open, limbs placid, pale hair drifting about his face. He was aware of the tattoo of his heart and the constriction in his chest. He knew the tension was from more than just holding his breath. Pain was in his throat, behind his stinging eyes, in the ache of his clenched jaw. Above him the surface shimmered, a prism of blue and black and grey, beautiful and suffocating.

If Andrew hadn’t been flying around the world for a stupid sport that only Kevin Day really cared about then maybe he would have seen the glassiness of Aaron’s eyes, the thin shine of sweat on his upper lip, the nervous ticks that Aaron always got when he was trying to hide something. Katelyn had missed it. Aaron’s colleagues at the hospital had missed it. Andrew wouldn’t have missed it. If he’d been there.

Andrew’s lungs burned, skull growing small and tight. He launched up towards the surface, breaking through with a huge gasp that could have been his brother’s name.

Aaron.

Bee would want him to confront the thoughts racing beneath his skin. Would ask him to face the questions churning in his chest. All these ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ – all these alternative universes where Andrew could have saved his brother again, differently, better.

The problem was, Andrew didn’t know how to confront them. He wasn’t a ‘what if’ kind of guy. He didn’t waste time on ‘if onlys’. Never had, never would. He didn’t chase pipe dreams. He didn’t dwell on regrets. He worked in deals. In absolutes. In truths. Wrangling with such half-tones of the soul wasn’t something Andrew let himself experience – what was the point? Longing for the impossible never worked. Nostalgia didn’t apply to him, not with his memory or his past. Fretting over the ‘almosts’, over missed opportunities, only led to further futile hurts. And remorse? Well remorse applied to other people; Andrew wouldn’t take back anything – not his actions, not his scars, not his promises. 

Or he wouldn’t have. Before.

But for Aaron?

Andrew would burn the world for him.

Wading himself to the edge of the pool, Andrew dragged himself out and immediately felt the coolness of the day, the heaviness of the clouds. He pulled on his armbands before he was properly dry, ignored the itch and pull against his damp skin. Somewhere beyond the garden, over the snickering fields, Andrew could hear off-key whistling.

For fucks sake. The whistling was growing louder. Neil was coming closer.

Through simmering irritation and every dud note against his ears, Andrew heard the garden gate open and the sound of feet crunching over the grass and gravel. In a minute, Neil would turn the corner and Andrew would be in full view, sitting on the edge of the pool, dripping in the sun that poked its yellow head through the cloud and cast warm rays over his skin. He ran his hands through his hair, pushing it back into a semblance of its usual style. His whole body tensed as the whistling grew closer, closer.

“Oh there you are mon chou,” cooed Neil’s voice.

What the fuck? Andrew froze, refusing to turn to look. Neil could not be talking to him, right?

Oui, salut, salut, you pretty thing. Yes, you are such a pretty thing aren’t you?”

Neil couldn’t be more than a handful of feet away and all the dips and rolls in his accent slid down Andrew’s spine. Andrew’s shoulder grew tighter and tighter as he listened – and then he heard the clear, pitching wail that was so distinctly Sir.

“Oh, you slag, do you roll over like this for les étrangers aussie? I bet you do. Pretty, pretty slag.”

Andrew’s neck turned. He found himself looking at Neil crouched in a squat, windswept and impossible, fussing over the ginger fluffbucket that had flopped over at his feet. Sir batted at Neil’s hands as they stroked the thick fur of his sides and belly, twisted to rub his little face against Neil’s shoes. There was a soft tilt to Neil’s mouth, guileless, affectionate. Andrew’s mouth felt dry, his stomach swooping like a gravity had been pulled away.

A few minutes passed, Neil scritching the little beast wherever it begged to be scratched, Andrew watching like a creep.

Ah ma petite boule de poils,” Neil said and stood, unfurling in a languorous stretch that exposed the tiniest bit of pale skin at his waist. Andrew’s hands gripped the side of the pool, told himself to look away but didn’t. Sir mewled, the sound so plaintive and pathetic that Andrew actually snorted.

Slowly, so slowly, Neil’s gaze dragged over to Andrew, sitting on the side of the pool in his black shorts and black armbands, beads of water still dripping down his skin, hair darkened, eyes glinting gold. Neil’s smile lost its softness, whetting as if Andrew were the lamb.

“Heading out in about twenty minutes, if you want to join." It wasn’t a question. It was barely an offer. But something about the way Neil spoke, the cadence, made it sound like a dare, a challenge.

And fuck if Andrew was going to turn down a decent distraction.

Andrew rose to his feet, taking the moment to gather himself with his back to Neil, rolling his shoulders, straightening his spine. Andrew bent to where he’d left his towel and flipped it across his neck. When he turned around, it was his time to find himself scrutinised: Neil’s stare was sphinxian, but undeniably fixed on Andrew – the clear, unspoiled blue of his eyes like the horizon beyond the Alps, the crispness of their shadows on a clear morning.

Maybe, Andrew thought, I put on more of a show than intended.

Meeting Neil’s relentless gaze, Andrew stalked forwards until they were barely arm’s length apart. The silence hung between them, thick as the clouds overhead. Neil swallowed.

“I’ll meet you at the barns,” Andrew said.

“Oh.” Neil jolted back to life, all his restless energy seeming to return at once. “Uh, oh oui.”

Neil gestured slightly hopelessly in the direction of the barns and took off, swift-footed as Apollo.

Andrew watched him go. Or perhaps, the show had been just enough.

He let himself feel smug. Making Neil lose a little of that cocky composure felt good. Just because the guy was pretty didn’t mean he had to be infuriating about it.

*

In years to come, Andrew would realise the decision to go with Neil on that blustery afternoon was one that changed the course of his life. Like choosing Aaron over Cass, or Palmetto over Edgar Allen, and every other choice that never really felt like choosing – pulling himself onto the tractor with Neil fell into a category of druthers that with hindsight could be called fate.

However, trundling downhill with his leg jouncing against Neil’s thigh to the rhythm of the engine, Andrew did not sense the meddling hand of destiny – he was too busy listening.

Insects ground out metallic, clicking sounds. The cicadas wove a mesh of noise over everything. Gulls hammered sharp, shiny nails into the air. It was like walking onto court – a cacophony of screams and shouts, a thousand sounds striking off each other. And there was Neil too – jabbering about the farm like he hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. Every time Andrew shifted attention, Neil noticed and started to explain what they were seeing – the lonely trees scattered through the fields to help nutrients in the soil, the small huts that Neil built by hand from local stone, the lines upon lines of lavender passing in a blur of blue-grey buds and pale leaves that Neil promised would be blooming by the end of the month.

Neil was easy to listen to with his accent and wry humour – a lot of what he said came across as borderline scathing, mocking himself, rolling his eyes at the birds, teasing when it came to stories of the team he employed to help with the land. Andrew might have hated it, the self-deprecation and doleful over-sharing, if not for Neil’s obvious passion for the farm and fondness for the land and his workers. Neil inexplicably offered details of himself – his favourite colour was the ash of dried lavender; he was learning Romanian to help one of his suppliers; and he was a complete sucker for strays. Turned out that Neil had adopted Sir and King after they’d been dumped in a cardboard box near the Grasse market where Neil supplied lavender honey. His tone grew sweet just talking about them.

Paying attention to Neil also meant Andrew’s memory could stop drifting back to thoughts of Aaron. When Neil started giving him jobs to do – laying the matting, ensuring good drainage, digging out weeds, it helped even more. The work was repetitious, and Andrew could feel muscles he’d almost forgotten burning in his legs and back.

“Farms are run on care,” Neil said, poking holes into the ground around one particularly sad looking bush with his fingers. “If the care is good, the yield is good. This buissonet will be catch up to his friends in no time.”

There was something adorable (or maybe tragic) about Neil talking about his crops like they were people. But Andrew was only half paying attention. Distracting him was Neil’s right hand. He wondered how he hadn’t noticed before how the ring finger was missing a knuckle, how the whole of his hand was kinked and scarred by a looping s-shaped line. Pulling his attention away – hell, if he didn’t know how uncomfortable it was to have your scars scrutinised – Andrew eyed the plant in front of him. He’d been instructed to remove thick, twiggy branches from it centre. The dead ones.

But once again Neil had spotted where Andrew’s eyes drifted. “Incident with a cleaver,” he said. “But sometimes I’ll tell people it was run in with the gendarme. Or a shark. Or a ninja. Depends on the mood.”

“I didn’t ask.”

“I know. But I’ve often found it’s easier to offer your own story before people try to solve you like some kind of maths problem.” 

Andrew snapped off another branch and put it into the sack at his side before moving to the next, closer to Neil. “You don’t want to be solved?”

Neil chuckled, gave a lazy shrug even as the shadows in his expression grew long. “People are like gardens. We cultivate our lives to look a certain way, to show off a version of ourselves we think people want to see. Visitors will appreciate the effort and think they know that garden well – but they will never really know the work that has gone into it. To kill the weeds, to feed the soil, to make sure the garden survives. They cannot fathom the work that goes on beneath the surface.” Neil offered Andrew a crooked smile from beneath his horrible straw hat. “I don’t think anyone is so simple to understand as an equation.”

Andrew didn’t say that he thought Neil’s loose ends didn’t add up. Nor did he mention that the more Neil talked the more Andrew wanted to know. Neil was a conundrum and Andrew needed a new toy to play with, something to distract him from the ache of his memories. He hummed in response and snapped off another branch. Andrew heard cloth rustle as Neil shuffled closer, a crunch of Neil’s knee as he knelt beside Andrew.

“If you do it like this, you do less damage to the main plant.” Neil reached out to the woody branch Andrew was just about to target, taking the shears when Andrew offered them. He gentled the stem, finding a knot about a third down and carefully snapping through with the blades. A wick of green became visible. Neil’s mouth curled. “We’ll see a new growth here.”

He sounded so pleased.

This close, Andrew felt like all his sense were filled with Neil – he could feel the heat of Neil’s hands so close to his own in the lavender, see pale scars and dark freckles scattered over tanned skin, smell the heady musk of earth and sweat from a day tilling in the sun – and all he could hear was his own pulse, roaring in his ears because apparently his heart wanted to jackrabbit right out of his chest. Andrew kept very still, waiting for Neil to return the shears and back out of his personal space before letting himself breathe.

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t.” But do you have to smell so good as well as everything else?

Neil ignored Andrew’s glower and started moving further down the line of lavender. They were alone on this stretch of field, although the shadows of other workers were spottable at various intervals along the hills. The sun was beginning to dip in the sky, the fields rippling with late afternoon light, gold and warm and illuminating the lavender in shades of palest perse. The day was on the cusp of evening and with the sinking sun, the clouds took on a crepuscular haze, reminding Andrew of the warning in Neil’s note: the approaching storm.

“How about you?” Neil asked. “I’ve been wittering away. How have you found France so far?”

Andrew glanced out of the corner of his eye. Having found the place through Allison, he didn’t know if Neil knew anything about who he was or what had happened with Aaron. Magazines had written numerous articles about Aaron’s death – Exy World ran a three page spread about players who’d lost family members; Court commissioned a series of photo stories capturing Andrew going to and from practice in the run up to the funeral; Men’s Health asked for an interview and when he turned them down, dedicated a whole issue to male mental health and commenting extensively on the difference between players who talked about their headspace versus those that dared refuse. Andrew hadn’t seen anything to suggest that Neil followed exy and Europe hadn’t picked it up like the US, but given who Neil knew, who had rented from him in the past, there was a chance that he heard about Aaron.

“Your house is nice,” he said. “And the pastries are delicious.”

“Glowing praise,” replied Neil. “Anita is the best baker for miles, she’ll be glad.”

“Your tart was good too.” It was the closest to a thank you that Andrew was willing to give, but Neil’s face lit up and for a second Andrew couldn’t breathe. No one should be able to smile like that – a cat’s smile, a smile like the sun. What an asshole.

A few minutes ticked by, the two of them moving between plants, never too close to each other, always just near enough to keep the conversation going. Neil asked Andrew what he thought about the lavender honey, Andrew grudgingly said he liked it. Andrew asked Neil how he started keeping bees, Neil explained that bumblebees love lavender so the two kind of went hand in hand. Neil asked if Andrew had been into town yet, Andrew admitted he had not. Andrew asked where Neil thought he should start if he was to visit somewhere nearby, Neil waxed lyrical about Valbonne’s markets and the boat trips possible from Antibes.

“I can take you, if you like?” Neil offered. “The market is open to tomorrow. I usually use the morning to go and check on things, buy some fresh fruit.”

“Is that your question?”

“It’s a question,” said Neil.

Andrew thought about it for a moment or two, taking time to cut away a few more old branches before reply. “Okay.”

Magnifique, we go around nine? That’s not too early for you? Same question, by the way.”

“I’ve been up at five thirty every morning because of your relentless singing. I’ll appreciate the lie in.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “As if you can hear me all the way up there. I’m confident, not belting.”

“I’ve heard people scream who are more tuneful than you.”

Neil did not look offended. “Mon ami, you are too surly. Live a little.”

Live a little.

Andrew’s gut twisted. He covered up his reaction with his next question. “What made you do this? Start a lavender farm?”

“I actually grew up around here,” Neil said. “Well, here and lots of other places.”

Andrew recognised that phrasing and he wanted to see how honest Neil really was. “Military? Foster care?”

Neil tensed, his brow furrowing in surprise before smoothing out. It could almost have been a wince. Andrew felt an odd sensation in his belly, like he’d swallowed a handful of hornets.

“Good guesses,” Neil said. “Foster care.”

The hornet sensation grew worse. “I was in the system,” Andrew admitted, hoping to stop the buzz beneath his ribs. He wanted Neil to look at him, to show him that they understood each other, the way only people who’d spent their childhood being shunted from home to home could. He wanted to lash out and let loose the stinging in his chest, prove to Neil that he was untouchable, dangerous, something to be scared of, the way he’d learnt to do under the roofs of a dozen strangers. He wanted –

“You’ll get it then,” Neil said, slicing through Andrew’s internal panic. Neil’s fingers were still digging, attention not really on Andrew. “I was nine. In Marseilles. My mom… I ended up in the third arrondissement of this giant city where I only barely spoke the language. I was too old really for there to be much chance for me, so I just bounced around but then when I was, hm, just eleven-ish, they placed me with this lady, Madame Babèu, just along the coast from Bandol, Sanary-sur-Mer. I’d never been anywhere like it… so blue and green and open… anyway,” Neil cut himself off, ducking his head as if just realising how much of himself he was giving away. “She ran a florist. I enjoyed helping her with the gardens. She changed my life, by letting me help.”

There was more to the story, Andrew knew it. He knew because there was always more with kids like Neil – the small ones, the scarred ones, the too pretty to be in the system ones. Plus, every so often, the cat’s tail of Andrew’s memory twitched. Neil was familiar – something about his face, the sharpness of his jaw, the knife of his mouth – yet try as he might, Andrew couldn’t pinpoint what it was. For a man with a flawless memory, it bothered him, not being able to recognise Neil, not being able to say where and when and how he knew that face. It wasn’t normal.

“My turn, right?” Neil asked and his question only quivered if you listened very, very closely.

Andrew nodded. He didn’t know when they’d started taking turns, but the rhythm of truth for truth felt natural, if not easy.

“So… do you mind me asking what brought you to my humble farm?”

The hornets in his stomach froze. Cold seeped over Andrew, starting as a chill around his heart, like cold fingers stroking around the vena cava to his pulmonary vein, but when he spoke, his voice was deep and steady as ever. “Aaron. My brother. He heard of this place a few years back. It was highly recommended.”

“A few years, huh.”

“Six years. Roughly.” More like six years and four months. “Aaron was fascinated by the medicinal uses of herbs. It was part of his thesis at med school. I imagine Kevin told him about the place.”

“Ah, Kevin, of course.” Neil turned to stare at the lavender. “There wouldn’t have been much to see then. None of this existed seven years ago.”

“It didn’t?”

Neil shook his head. “I travelled when I was younger. Spent a couple years wondering around the globe.  Came back when I was…” He paused and made a so-so motion with his hand. “Twenty-two. Ish. This place was a ruin. The owner before left it to his children who wanted nothing to do with the farm. I bought it.”

Another loose end, Andrew felt his eyebrow twitch. For a foster kid, Neil must have had a fuck load of money somewhere to buy a farm in his early twenties. It didn’t make sense. And for someone to want to settle down somewhere like this – picturesque enough to be a dream, remote enough to be lonely – that made even less sense. Everything inside Andrew, every warning bell and cautionary siren, told him that Nathaniel Hatford was more than a boy who’d been abandoned and grew up loving flowers. Between the darkness in his eyes and the scars on his skin, Andrew knew they were dealing in half-truths, kind lies.

Above them the sun was breaking over of the mountains, hot and orange as egg yolk. Over the distant treetops, a flock of birds unspooled into a black wavering thread, pulling across the sky.

My brother died. Andrew imagined saying, imagined letting the words free to follow those beating wings skyward. My brother is dead.

The shears in his hand snapped off another dead branch.

“We should call it a day.” Neil lifted his face to the sky, mirroring what he’d done the day before. “It’s going to rain.” 

Andrew lifted his attention Neil. He was looking out towards the sunset, across the watercolour fields. His skin glowed. The pale sprigs of lavender in his ears poked between curls of candle-wick hair. What kind of idiot stares into the sun? Andrew carefully packed away the shears. He hated to look at Neil a second longer – if he did he might carve the skin from Neil’s body and hang the remains out as a warning to every other fool that tried to crash into Andrew’s carefully constructed world.

Clouds rolled overhead and the wind twined its cold fingers along the skin of Andrew’s throat. He swallowed and followed Neil back to the tractor without another word.

*

The rain was coming.

Standing on his bedroom balcony with a beer, Andrew could smell it in the air – crisp and metallic, as though it had been seared by the lightning buried in the clouds. The scent reminded him of South Carolina, of nights spent on the roof of Fox Tower – and of Aaron storming up to find him one night in the middle of a tempest. Aaron spared no time in dragging Andrew inside by his shirtsleeves.

“Do you want to fucking die?” Aaron asked, eyes hard and cold as bullet casings. “Because standing on the top of a tall building in the middle of that is begging for a tragedy.”

Andrew stood, sodden in the stairwell, blank-faced and staring at his brother because there wasn’t a reply that would satisfy either of them – and Andrew didn’t have energy to fight, or know how to be honest. How could he put into words that actually, yes, he’d been thinking about dying, about how easy it would have been for people to put his death down to stupidity rather than suicide? It was barely three months since Aaron had killed Drake, the foster brother who’d raped Andrew for years but who he endured because he so desperately wanted Cass to love him. It was only a few days since he’d left Easthaven and Proust’s ‘therapeutic re-enactments’, the doctor who filled his veins with quicksilver drugs and somehow knew every dirty secret, every horrible nickname, every stolen prayer behind his scars.

Andrew was exhausted. Even spite wasn’t enough. He was hollowed out. Empty. Blank. The storm was the closest thing he’d come to feeling in weeks. For the first time since being sober, he felt: longing, a yearning for annihilation, a nothingness so deep that he could almost taste freedom.

Aaron, for the first time in his life, seemed to know what Andrew’s silence meant. “Andrew, you don’t mean that,” he said. “Please, say that’s not what you wanted.”

The acid heat of Andrew’s anger heaved and cracked inside him – how dare Aaron ask that of him – and helpless and out of control and furious, Andrew lashed out, shoving Aaron away at the same time that Aaron reached for him. They ended up in a scrabbling embrace, Aaron gripping Andrew’s elbows, Andrew’s hands fisting his shirt, both of them snarling out words that neither would really remember afterwards.

What Andrew did remember was the two of them in the stairwell, hours or minutes or seconds later, with Aaron’s hands still tangled in Andrew’s shirt and Andrew’s fists bunched around his brother’s neck, their foreheads to each other’s shoulders. Mirror images panting into each other’s skin.

“You killed him,” Andrew said.

“You killed her,” replied Aaron.

Their words weren’t confessions, weren’t accusations, weren’t apologies. They were understanding. They were hope.

It was funny how one stupid fight could change so much.

A week later, he and Aaron started joint therapy sessions. Sessions they maintained with Betsy almost until the end, using skype when separated by game travel or residency rotas. Their relationship never became easy, never typified. They’d spent too much of their lives scowling identical scowls, being annoyed, being angry. Yet those last few years their history hadn’t eaten away at them both – like Neil’s farm, their anger and pain and promises and hope flowed like rain down the mountainside towards the fields, ready to nurture whatever they seeded at the bottom.

What if I never let him close? What if I pushed him away that night? Would he be alive, if I was dead?

Andrew inhaled the stormy Provence air, listened to the gust rolling and rattling the trees. He lit a cigarette and appraised the bengy clouds looming low and dark. The world felt tight, everything a little too heavy, too close – he could almost see the sheets of rain approaching. He could certainly smell the first hints of petrichor wafting up on the wind.

It wasn’t like I was the one that needed protecting. Never was. Andrew should have pushed him away. Should have, should have, should have. Yet after the fight, something in Aaron changed too – like he’d suddenly decided that playing backliner was a role he could transpose into life as well as the exy court. He was the defender, defending. The fool.

That changed perspective killed him. Their conversation killed him. What if Andrew could take it back?

What if. What if. Why. Why. Why. Andrew grit his teeth. Why couldn’t you just ask for help? The question pricked at his gut, needled in his chest. Andrew had thought they’d reached a point where they could do that. Reach out to each other.

Aaron had begun by calling Andrew just to talk. Added in evenings where they chose the same shows in different states and commented on what they were watching. Andrew had learnt that he could reach out without pulling Aaron suffocating-close.  And sometimes, though they never talked about it, one might call the other just to sit and listen to the other’s breathing against a background of hospital noises, or exy chatter, or to fill a hotel room with something familiar, something safe. He wanted to call Aaron now. Knew exactly what he’d say if he could.

He exhaled, savoured the sting in his nostrils, let the billow of smoke distract him. Breathed in. L’espirit de l’escalier, he’d heard the feeling called. The spirit of the staircase. The moment after leaving a conversation when you think of all the things you should have said.

No one ever mentioned how all-encompassing that feeling was when the conversation cut off in the middle of a sentence.

There were so many things he’d tell Aaron, if he could.

How angry he was. How much he wished they’d never met. How much easier living was before he barged into the visitor’s room at the juvenile centre. How he was glad they broke their deal because that meant all of this was Aaron’s fault, not his. How Katelyn cried even though Aaron hated it when she cried. How Andrew hated him. Hated how stupid he was.

So goddamned, fucking stupid.

“You’d like it here,” Andrew said. He stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and stuffed his hands in to his pockets. The wind howled like a wild thing and he could hear the rain now, a tremble in the air like the ocean pushing at the shore. “It’s quiet.”

He thought of the days past: the cats, the pool, the light first thing in the morning when all the world was hazy and soft-edged, smudged by some painter’s thumb. He breathed in and out, relished the olfactory feast around him: jasmine, lavender, wisteria, the roses in bloom and clouds of Mexican fleabane bursting out of the terrace steps and sun-warmed stone.

“Neil would drive you insane.”

He let the wind rush around him a little longer and wondered about Neil. Was he down in his barn, wrapped up in blankets, waiting for the rain? Had he crept into the house already? Andrew couldn’t see any light coming from the direction of the barns beyond the trees but it was almost midnight so that wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Still his head filled with ideas of Neil – sleep-mussed, hair tangled, flowers spilling from his gages, all that sharpness taken away from his face.

Pivoting, Andrew swung back into his bedroom. He left the balcony open, letting the wind whirl in, relentless and cold. He sat on the edge of the bed. Remembered the chill of Aaron’s breathing against his rain-damp skin, the matching tattoos of their hearts.

“You’d fucking love it, Aaron,” he murmured into the dark.

Lightning convulsed over the mountains. The rain rushed in a minute later, blurring the night.

*

Valbonne, it turned out, was the epitome of every French cliché that Andrew had ever encountered.

Cobbled streets, an arcaded main square, stalls and shops spilling over with fresh and organic produce, people shouting their greetings and haggling over the price of flat peaches and plump aubergines, grumpy men gossiping over coffee and gesticulating with their croissant, whilst slim-waisted women in sheer kaftans stroked their hands through the dresses, shirts, skirts, and sarongs on offer in the market. There were jewellery stands, swimwear, greengrocers, cheesemongers, butchers and bakers. There were chic shops selling Stetsons and silks mixed in amongst arts and crafts stores, glassblowers and perfumeries.

Flowers were everywhere, hanging from baskets, lining doorways, tumbling over walls and climbing around windows, they were in bunches, and in pots, in the food, and apparently in some of the spirits and wines.

It was noisy and bustling and full of a thousand smells. Tourists and locals brushed shoulders with easy familiarity as they discussed pastries and honeys and whether the road closures were still necessary. There were more salts on offer than Andrew previously knew existed, dozens of different mixes made with basil and rosemary and maple and chilli flakes and lavender. Sweat mingled with floral scents, earth melded with cotton-clean clothes and the hot-damp stink of bricks and paint cooled by last night’s rain.

Neil kept his hand a careful inch from Andrew’s elbow as he guided them through the rumpus, weaving an expert way through the crowds and offering casual greetings to the dozens of people who recognised him. One woman stopped to squeeze his scarred hand, speaking rapidly in a language that Andrew suspected was Dutch, and to which Neil (not so surprisingly) responded in kind. She offered Neil a fresh baguette from her stall and he grinned when he accepted it, his tone clearly suggesting gratitude.

“I helped with her daughter’s wedding in April,” Neil explained as they continued to wend between the crowds. “I think I’ll be getting free bread until I die.”

“Not a bad way to go.”

“Definitely a good way to go, Mvr. Meer is a great baker.”

“Better than Anita?”

“No one is better than Anita.” Neil grinned over his shoulder before nudging them both down a curling street shadowed by a bridge between buildings. Andrew loathed that grin. That wicked way it stretched Neil’s mouth until it was all teeth, how every so often he’d spot the glint of metal in his tongue.

They took another left and the street filled with table upon table of food. “This is the main street for local famers,” said Neil. “Expect some friendly rivalry. Oh! Ah ha! There he is.”

Neil’s attention was immediately snatched from Andrew as he pointed at a stand slightly uphill of a corner store. It was lined with pots of honey, small pouches of purple, and what looked like a variety of olive oils.

“Bonjour, Nathaniel,” said the man behind the stall as they approached. The stranger was tall and striking with a wave of dark hair flopping over his forehead and a smile too wide for his face. He couldn’t be more than nineteen. Andrew did not miss how Neil’s expression brightened.

“Bonjour, Eduard!” Neil said, launching into conversation. “Comment est la stalle aujourd'hui ? Beaucoup d'acheteurs?”

Eduard’s voice was a deep bass, warm and rich as chocolate caramel. As he spoke, his attention skimmed over Andrew, noticeably frowning when Neil’s hand absently brushed Andrew’s when he introduced them.

“Andrew is visiting from America,” Neil said in English. “He’s a friend of Kevin and Allison.”

Eduard’s nose twitched but he held out a hand. “Ravi de te rencontrer.”

Andrew eyed his hand, only taking it when the corners of Neil’s mouth drooped in worry. “Le plaisir est pour moi.”

The pleasure was definitely not Andrew’s and he knew his accent was wooden as the beams above his bed back at the bastide. But the delighted laugh startled out of Neil was enough to make it worth it.

“You’re learning French,” Neil stated the obvious.

Andrew shrugged. Wasn't like he hadn't had too much time on his hands the last few weeks. 

Eduard did not like losing Neil’s attention. He said something in French, something so fast that all Andrew could do was try to catch the odd word. When Neil replied, slower, Andrew managed to pick up enough to follow that they were discussing when Neil’s farm would be opening for lavender picking, possibly something else about money, maybe the honey too, but he simply didn’t know enough yet to track what was happening. Whatever it was, Eduard spoke like it was urgent and the quick shift in mood it created in Neil indicated that it was business, not social. 

Tapping Neil once on the elbow, Andrew indicated that he was going to take a look at the next few stalls before slipping away without waiting for an answer. He didn’t miss the torn look on Neil’s face as they parted, but then Eduard was shoving a small book in Neil’s face and Neil was biting his lip in concentration and when Andrew glanced back a few minutes later, the two of them had their heads pressed together over the pages with a peculiar studiousness between them. Or Neil looked studious – Eduard’s eyes lifted and met Andrew’s gaze. His look was amused, smug, victorious.

Asshole, Andrew thought. His fingers skimmed his armbands and he wished, not for the first time, that throwing knives at someone’s face wasn’t considered impolite. Or illegal.

The next few stalls didn’t really interest him – there was fine pottery painted in shades of blue, a woman with a knot of blond dreads selling kikoi towels, and then, at the end, Andrew found Mecca. 

Bonbons. Yellow. Pink. Green. Blue. Rainbow. Grey. Strawberry. Lemon. Apple. Blueberry. Raspberry. Violet. Yuzo. Salted caramel. Black sesame and passionfruit. Praline. Vanilla. Custard. Green tea. Rhubard. There were macaroons in every shade of pastel from coral to aqua, peach to ivory, rose to teal. There were hard sweets in shades of gold and brown. Icing laden cookies in the shapes of leaves overflowed their plates, line after line of caneles and sweet pastries, tartes and nougat. There were samples on the counter and Andrew tasted pieces of delicate meringue that melted on his tongue, savoured the flavours of chocolate truffles, almost moaned when the woman behind the stall passed him a thin slice of something lemony, biscuity, syrupy and sharp and divine.

Not even thoughts of how horrified Aaron would be could stop him from selecting half a dozen different sweets, a selection of pastries and a chocolate whorl. Sugar, Andrew decided, was exactly what the doctor ordered.

“You like sugar.”

Neil’s voice startled Andrew out of his reverie but didn’t stop Andrew from trying another tidbit of macaroon. He offered the plate to Neil, who declined.

“I’m not much of a sweet person.”

Andrew had known something had to be something wrong with Neil, he was too much good otherwise. But here it was: the hideous truth. He bet Neil took his coffee black too, like a psychopath.

“Shall we grab lunch?” Neil looked up at the sky. “Or brunch, I guess?”

Andrew acquiesced; his brain hooked on the idea of coffee.

Walking down one cobbled street and then another, Andrew noticed three things that were off. Firstly, Neil’s hand no longer hovered by Andrew’s elbow, it was curled into a fist at his side. Secondly, there was a stiffness to his shoulders, a jerk to his gait, like he was desperately holding himself back from breaking into a run. Lastly, there was something curiously blank about Neil’s expression, a light seemed to have gone out behind his eyes and the corners of his mouth were down turned. It was a sad, pensive expression. It didn’t suit him.

“What did Eduard want?” Andrew asked.

Something of a smile flickered over Neil’s face. “Are you starting a new round of Truth or Truth?”

“If that what it takes for you to answer a simple question,” Andrew drawled.

Neil sighed, his humour thinning and fading like the edges of a cloud. “Eduard is a complicated man. His brother was – is – someone you might know. He is friends with Kevin too. Jean Moreau?”

Andrew’s jaw ticked. “I know of him.” He didn’t see much of Moreau off court, nor did he want to, but Kevin had some kind of throuple going on with him and Jeremy Knox that Andrew tried very, very hard not to learn to much about. No matter that they were three obscenely attractive men, they were also some of the most intolerable and obnoxious people he had the displeasure of sitting next to at banquets and ceremonies and the occasional Thanksgiving.

“Well, his family knew mine, back in the day. Most of the time, Eduard is just a neighbour who helps with the lavender sales. Sometimes, he tries to pull favours, like today. But I’m not in that game and never will be.”

Something about the phrasing, about the rueful way Neil chose his words – his family, mine, favours, that game – set the hairs on Andrew’s arms prickling. He knew that tone. Neil was being honest, but there was something deceptive in the gaps, the purposeful omissions in the story. A buzz behind his ear made him pause. Calling Neil out didn’t feel right. Neither did letting the whole thing go. Andrew took the moment and stored it alongside the other tropes and figures that didn’t quite fit in Neil’s narrative – like the familiarity of his face, the jaggedness of his edges, the accent that was French and English and maybe a hint of something else.

I will solve you, he promised himself that.

They found seats outside a small café called L’Ouragon and a woman came by to take their orders and Andrew eyed Neil with distaste when he predictably ordered a tall black compared to his own mocha with extra cream and sugar.

“You have a sweet tooth.” Neil commented, but it sounded like a question. Andrew pointed out as much. “Oui, okay,” said Neil. “Why the sweet tooth?”

Lighting two cigarettes and passing one to Neil, Andrew took a slow inhale and relished the prickle and burn. He noted that Neil lifted the end to his cheek, instead of breathing it in. Memories of Palmetto and the long nights atop Fox Tower crackled in his head. “Food wasn’t always easy to come by in some of the homes I lived in. Sugar was a sure way to get energy fast. Plus, it’s delicious.”

Their coffees arrived and Neil made an appreciative hum as he sipped at his dark, bitter drink. “I always chose fruit for that,” Neil said. “But French sweets are often fruit so maybe this is why.”

Sipping at their coffees, Andrew offered Neil another cigarette and contemplated the question that had been bugging him since they saw Eduard.  

“So how come he’s allowed to call you Nathaniel?”

Neil looked puzzled. “Who? Eduard?” At Andrew’s nod Neil’s brow creased even further. “Well it’s because he doesn’t say like that.” 

“Say it like what? It’s your fucking name isn’t it?” Andrew could feel heat in his gut, a churning anger that he didn’t fully understand.

“Well… like an American,” said Neil, like it explained everything.  

And it did, like a fire hissing out in the rain, Andrew felt his shoulders relax, his ire cool. “That’s it?” He thought about how Eduard said Neil’s name – shorter on the first two syllables and eliding the third with the fourth – and compared it to how he pronounced it. “So you’re saying if I said it: Nat-anne-yal…?”

The name came out mangled, the sounds too heavy in his mouth, but when Neil blinked once and burst into peels of laughter, Andrew couldn’t bring himself to care.

Mon dieu, non. Quelle horreur!” Neil stuttered out words between giggles. Dear god he was giggling. “Mon dieu, Andrew. You need to learn French before your accent kills me.”

Andrew reached out without thinking, pushed one of the loose curls from Neil’s forehead. “Quoi? Cet accent?”

Neil laughed again, his fingers reaching up to touch where Andrew’s ghosted his skin. “Yes, that accent.” He grinned. “I know you can improve though.” 

Realisation sank into Andrew, stared at his hand and the corners of reality seemed to warp, like those fingers weren’t his own and that motion hadn’t belonged to him.

“Andrew,” Neil said, coaxing attention back to their conversation. “Don’t think so hard, okay. Live a little.”

There was that phrase again, punching through Andrew’s chest. Fool, idiot. Living was the problem.

“Don’t you want to be happy?”

Looking up and meeting Neil’s eyes felt like swimming against the current. Exhausting. Futile. And even though Andrew knew, that one day, he’d have to give up and let the river drag him down – today he was still fighting. Because no Andrew did not want to be happy. Sometimes he caught himself praying that if he suffered enough, if he hurt deeply enough, if he hated and burned and cut himself to the wick, maybe if he worked and ran and swam and fought – then maybe, maybe, maybe he could forget what was real. He couldn’t bring Aaron back, but perhaps he could move on as if none of this happened.

“My brother died.” The words slipped free, harsh as the mistral and just as cold. It was a voice Andrew barely recognised, rough with truth and smoke.

Neil didn’t flinch. The merriment had faded but otherwise the warmth of his expression didn’t change, didn’t sharpen, didn’t fold. His tongue swiped across his lips, a glint of silver sliding over pink. “And you don’t feel like you deserve to be happy.”

Andrew expected to rage to boil and bubble and burst inside him, expected to feel the rush of fury, the scouring blitz of detestation.

He felt none of that.

He felt nothing.

Numbness crawled through Andrew’s skin, permeated his muscles, dug itself into his bones. He held Neil’s unwavering stare. Goddamnit he needed to stop looking at Andrew like that, drinking him in like he was something worth looking at, like he saw Andrew for everything Andrew was and still wanted to know more.

“Aaron died.” And what if it was avoidable? What if it was my fault? What if I could have done something? “Deserving has nothing to do with it.”

Deserve was such a merciless word, sowing either accusations or approval, as if it wasn’t just a skewed scale for assigning arbitrary value to human beings. And how many times had Andrew been judged and found lacking? No one deserved anything. Deserving was just another way to pretend that the randomness of the universe made sense. Another way for people to sugar-coat the absolute pointlessness of living.  

 “I think, perhaps, that isn’t quite true.” Neil reached across the table, laying his hand next to Andrew’s but not touching. For a moment, Neil’s otherness was profound and his gaze seemed to see straight into Andrew’s soul. “It is okay to do more than survive, you know. France is about living.”

Andrew drew a shaking breath, covered it by raising his cigarette to his lips. He sucked in the smoke, tip burning orange, exhaled back to embers. Neil leaned into the smoke as it spilled from Andrew’s mouth, his eyes fluttering closed as if he craved its comfort, its acrid familiarity.

“Shall I tell you a story, Andrew? You might know some of it already but I think, perhaps, it would be good for you to hear.” Neil glanced skywards. “Although we should have wine for this. How do you feel about sharing lunch with me?”

Too numb to say yes, too curious to say no, Andrew merely watched as Neil hailed the garçon and order a carafe of the Château d'Esclans, which turned out to be a rosé of palest pink, like the peaks of the Alps as the sun rose each morning.

“Santé.” Neil kept their eyes locked as glasses clinked.

Andrew took a slow, testing sip. The wine was dry and fresh, minerally. It was good.  

A little of the tension in Neil’s shoulders eased at Andrew's hum of approval and a smile pinched his mouth upwards before falling into seriousness. 

“I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to sit out here with the weather. Seems appropriate.” He swirled his drink, took a sip, another, and sat back in his chair, crossing those impossibly long legs for his height and ignoring the breeze that plucked at his curls with invisible fingers.  

“After all, it was raining the day I was scheduled to die too.”