Stage IV – Guilt
“I must have flowers, always, and always.” ― Claude Monet
A day passed.
A third morning crested the mountains and the wind rose with the sun. Across the fields, the sky drooped low to the earth, looping round the trees and leaving a haze over the grass. The clouds were ripe with rain and a breeze was riling the leaves in the trees. Like a hedgehog preparing for hibernation, Andrew found himself longing to hunker in on himself, to stop thinking. Anything that would stop his mind from replaying Neil’s confession over and over and over in his head.
It wasn’t working.
For the first time since arriving in France, Andrew felt the isolation like a weight on his back, loneliness like a hand forcing his spine to bend.
He blamed Neil for it entirely.
“I’ll leave you to your space,” Neil had said as they parked below the bastide on Friday evening, parting with a bittersweet smile that Andrew now thought might have meant goodbye.
The idea of choking Neil the next time he spotted him was more than tempting.
Because Andrew hadn’t so much as glimpse Neil since they returned. Hadn’t heard his caterwauling in the morning or his footsteps crunching around the gardens. Hadn’t spied a stupid straw hat bobbing along behind a hedge or caught a whiff of that addictive, earthy musk that was lavender and farmwork and sun-kissed skin.
Because Neil was The Butcher’s son and Andrew should have put it together himself. Andrew had recognised Neil. Since the beginning, he’d noticed the familiarity of his face, the chimerical smile. From the moment he first laid eyes on Neil, there had been that niggling knowledge that this was a face he knew. Andrew just hadn’t expected the truth – the whole truth – to hit like a stiletto between the third and fourth ribs.
Because Andrew was furious with Neil. For persuading him out of his self-imposed seclusion, for giving Andrew a story that made so much sense, only to disappear like dew in the morning sun. Neil had burst into Andrew’s holiday, his escape, his grief, and brought with him a riot of colour and sensation and feelings that Andrew had been so desperately trying to ignore.
Because Neil was so much give, when Andrew needed to take.
And the sudden absence stung.
Neil shouldn’t be allowed to just vanish.
Then again, Andrew shouldn’t have lashed out, sneered at Neil’s story and spat on his honesty. Not when Neil inadvertently filled up the emptiness in Andrew’s chest – true, Neil also stoked the fury and danced his fingers through the flames of Andrew’s loathing too – but between the hand-written notes and home-baked desserts, the mornings punctured by wailing song, and the casual afternoons of unfiltered chatter, Neil hit Andrew like the first coffee of the day: full-strength and searing hot, and filling the cracks in his weary, broken heart.
Dropping his eyes to the brew in his hand, Andrew took a shuddering sip. It scalded his tongue and he drew back with a hiss.
The kitchen doors were heavy against the wind when he stepped out into the bluster onto the terrace. He moved one of the oversized candles to keep them open. The next gust slapped at his skin, chastising and full of censure. It pushed at him, tugged at his clothes as if to indicate that Andrew was no longer welcome outside in the gardens, in Neil’s world of flowers and grass and sunlight spilling between the trees. Andrew bowed his head against the mistral’s unwelcoming force and pressed himself forward, outward, finding refuge at the patio table where he could light up and drink his coffee and try to make the cacophony in his head quieten. He looked out across the countryside. Everything the eye could see remained jewel-bright. Yet everything was heavier – smells turned sultry, colours deep, the air thick as syrup.
The problem was not even the countryside provided enough distraction. Andrew’s mind was on a loop, cycling and recycling over that afternoon in the café with pinpoint clarity.
Like the way Neil smiled when Andrew said the tarte tatin was good.
Like the way Neil laughed at Andrew’s French accent: with his head thrown back, loud and stupid and shameless.
Like the way realisation dawned over Andrew, when he saw where the story was going and the clouds overhead cast them both in shadow, all of Neil’s edges sharpening and Andrew had known – with all the irrefutable truth of sunrise, death, the clink of a wedding ring against cold stone – who Neil was.
“You recognise me,” Neil had said, so softly that the breeze nearly made off with his words.
Andrew had stared, all the pieces falling into place. “You’re the Butcher’s son.”
Sure, the tan was deeper, the red curls licked through with strawberry blond by the sun, but the sharp jaw, the straight nose, the permafrost ice of those eyes – that was the Butcher of Baltimore. This was Nathaniel Wesninski. The son whose disappearance was never investigated; whose existence was only acknowledged when the FBI found him brutalised in a basement when he was seventeen years old; whose case had been included in Andrew’s criminology class as a study in police corruption, whistleblowing, and the limitations of witness protection.
Andrew winced now, remembering how Neil had flinched at the callousness, his broken hand flying to his shoulder.
“I’m not his son.” Neil had said and Andrew felt like he was watching Nathaniel scrabble for the pieces of himself, for the pretty lie that was Nathaniel Abram Hatford. It was despicable. It was desperate. It was something Andrew hated because he’d performed the same act in the mirror so many times after he reclaimed the name Minyard.
But that moment wasn’t the only one to come back to Andrew in kaleidoscopic flashes. His hateful, perfect memory wanted to pick apart every inch of Neil’s story. Pausing, rewinding, replaying. He would find himself dissecting, analysing, questioning.
Understanding? A ghostly voice mocked in his head.
Andrew scowled, shook himself, felt his teeth fill with grit from the poorly pressed coffee as he drained the mug. No. Not understanding.
The denial refused to stick, just like it had every day and every hour and every minute since he last saw Neil. No matter what he read, what he ate, what he drank; no matter how long he swam, or how deliberately he ignored the path wending through the trees to Neil’s barn – Andrew couldn’t stop the echoes of Neil’s story. It was as if Neil’s voice was buried in his head, a siren song chanting each of painful, polished truth over and over and over. Andrew couldn’t let it go.
Worse, Andrew couldn’t stop hearing his own cold, cruel words cutting Neil off, slicing through the quiet companionship they’d shared thus far. He’d been so angry – so furious with Neil for offering himself up like some kind of martyr, like the truth was nothing, like he could share secrets as easily as cigarettes and ask nothing in return. Andrew had needed to shut that stupid mouth. Had wanted to hurt Neil.
And he had. He had hurt him.
No amount of gainsaying could change how Andrew took advantage of Neil’s vulnerabilities, using words and new knowledge to wail down on him, striking as maliciously as his fists ever could.
Nor could he pretend that it had been self-defence. There had been nothing about what Andrew did that could be put down to retaliation-in-kind. He may not understand why Neil had decided to reveal so much of himself, to share himself with such candour, but that didn’t justify Andrew’s violent response.
A man can only have so many issues, the ghost drawled into his ear.
Andrew dropped his head to his hands, one palm pressing up against his mouth until his teeth stung the inside of his lips. Blood, sharp and metallic, leaked across his tongue. He should have known better. He was an adult now. He should have learnt his lesson about misplaced anger from Aaron.
And yet, here we are, Andrew. You lashed out and made him feel small. You made him feel like his truths were currency, his survival fraudulent. Aaron’s spectre had been speaking in Andrew’s head these past few days, deep and drawling in that hideous South Carolina accent. He was the voice of expectation and disappointment, Andrew’s personal Elpis trapped in the pithos of his skull. Andrew never lived up to what Aaron hoped for in a brother, and now he never would.
But you could make it up to Neil. Aaron’s voice urged. He’s down there. Somewhere. In the garden. In the fields.
“Fuck you, sasquatch.” Andrew reached for his cigarettes and pretended that he was only struggling to make it light because of the wind, rather than his shaking hands.
Oh no you don’t, Andrew. You need to confront this, Aaron insisted. And because he was a ghost, he grabbed hold of the rawest threads in Andrew’s memory and tugged.
“It was raining the day that I was scheduled to die.” Neil’s opening words floated to the surface of Andrew’s mind, like a body dragged to the surface in a fisherman’s net.
Andrew closed his eyes, shoulders bunching up until his shadow twisted into a gargoyle cast across the yellow stone, brutish and waiting to break free of its stone prison, to wing away on the wind. “Don’t do this again.”
But since when had ghosts ever listened to the living? That wasn’t how hauntings worked.
“And I wasn’t lying about being in the system in France.”
Andrew’s memory twisted in on itself and he was there: back outside the café in Valbonne, surrounded by the yellow painted houses with their overflowing flower boxes, coffee cold on the table and wine chilled in his hand. Andrew had thought to himself that there had always been a sense that Neil was holding back, that he was dealing in half-truths, hiding the hardest parts of himself. There had never been a moment that Andrew thought he was out-right lying though, and he found himself suspending disbelief as the story began.
“Everything I’ve told you so far is true. There’s just a few pieces missing.”
Giving Neil time to find his words, Andrew had lit one cigarette and then another which he offered to Neil with a gesture to tell him to keep going. For a long while Neil hesitated, smoke tracing over his face in the gentlest of caresses; Andrew wanted to follow its path with his fingers.
When Neil spoke, it was in a slow, steady voice. He took them all the way back to the night Nathaniel and his mother, Mary Wesninski, fled their home in Baltimore. Mary had come for him around two in the morning – Nathaniel had not slept. All night the rain had thundered down, and he had been too scared to sleep with the water lashing at the windows and storm howling like the men and women from his father’s basement.
Mary dressed him in a hurry, told him to leave everything, and to follow her quietly, quickly. He nearly disobeyed, nearly picked up his Bunky Bunny, but he left the threadbare rabbit on his bed when she glared.
Outside, a car idled. It was not one he knew, and they drove off into the maelstrom. She’d packed nothing but essentials: medications, a couple changes of clothes, some box dyes for their hair. For years, afterwards, Neil’s hair would be browns and blacks and blonds – never close to red, never auburn.
“Always hideous,” Neil had said and rolled his eyes. “Seriously. Mousey doesn’t suit me at all.”
Andrew had tried to imagine it and failed; Neil was far too full of colour to be made plain. Dark hair with those bright blue eyes though? Now that could make his gut tighten.
Mary and Nathaniel fled from The Butcher’s house, but Mary couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder – not as they put Baltimore behind them, not as they wended their way across to New York, not when they swapped cars, not when they boarded the plane to England.
“He couldn’t sell you,” Mary hissed when Nathaniel asked why they were leaving. “You failed, Nathaniel.”
Nathaniel wouldn’t understand that line until he was fifteen years old and his skin carried a vicious tableau of scars from years on the run followed by more years suffering unkind hands at foster homes. And by then it would be too late. A chain reaction had begun before they so much as stepped foot on the first plane.
“What did she mean?” Andrew had asked, his wine forgotten on the table, gaze fixed on the downturn of Neil’s mouth. “That you had failed?”
Neil huffed and twisted his cigarette between his fingers. “Could you… hold your questions to the end? I know you’ll have plenty.”
(Days later, Andrew still had questions, though only some of them were directed at Neil.)
Nathaniel remembered they took off from a tiny private airfield outside of Newark. He held onto the memory because the strip was by a beach and he’d never seen anywhere like it before – with so much yellow sand and endless water. Later, when they flew over Britain, he fell in love with the white cliffs and fields flung like a huge green quilt below the plane.
“That was when I knew we were far, far, from home and were never going back. I thought we were going to make a new home there. In England.”
And Nathaniel and Mary had stayed, at first. They took up with Stuart Hatford. An uncle with a house just outside of London in a town called Marlow. Neil figured they were there for maybe a month or two. It was green there. It was nice, calm. No one shouted at Nathaniel. No one shook him or hit him or forced knives into his tiny hands and told him to cut. Stuart wanted to send Neil to a boarding school, promised both him and Mary protection. But as Nathaniel found out later, the Hatfords were descended from the Marylebone gang, and Mary didn’t want to be part of that. She said she didn’t trust their protection either. Maybe she was too proud to admit she failed in America; maybe it was because she knew Nathan too well. Not even the Family could protect her from the Butcher, he had backing after all.
“She made me memorise Stuart’s number all the same,” Neil said. He topped up their glasses of rosé and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, drawing Andrew’s attention to the new blooms tucked into his gages. Today’s flower was yellow mimosas, their fluffy starburst-petals like pompoms. There was also a sprig of thyme and the customary lavender whorl. A little pollen had smeared itself on the edge of Neil’s jaw and Andrew itched to reach out and brush it away.
“Then one night she woke me up again. We fled the Hatfords.”
Taking a ferry from Newcastle across to the Netherlands, mother and son trekked across to Dusseldorf and Cologne and Bonn before taking a train to Aachen and then Liege, into Rochefort and finally into France. But Mary must have known something Nathaniel didn’t because after six months crossing the country, they made it to Marseille and Mary was ready to say goodbye. She dropped Nathaniel off at a fire station with a note telling them to put him into the system. She wasn’t coming back for him.
Her parting words were fierce. “Your current ID is Nathaniel Abrams. Keep it,” she said. “But keep moving too – never settle too long in one place, make sure to move from home to home. Don’t look back. Don’t look for me. Don’t trust anyone. And keep moving. The paperwork will do the job of hiding you, Nathaniel.”
She was right. There was nothing quite like French bureaucracy to conceal a child that didn’t want to be found.
Andrew had smoked whilst Neil spoke, watching every twitch of Neil’s expressions, noting how the breeze teased at red curls, how the afternoon sun broke through the cairies and gentled the angles of Neil’s face, smoothing away the impossible likeness he held to his father. When offered another cigarette, Neil cupped it close to his cheek as if to simply breath in the smell that unfurled like the lines of his story.
“But then I was attacked in one of my homes. You know how it can go.” Neil hadn’t said it with any bitterness or inflection to say he was angry at the system, only a modicum of resignation. “There were always people visiting who were not looking for a foster kid out of kindness. I could usually spot the type. People like my father. Like his men. I used to be rude, mouthy, make myself ugly and sneering just so they’d leave me alone. But I didn’t see it coming this time… I was taken home by a man and his wife.”
Closing his eyes against his own flashbacks, Andrew had tried to push away the surge of images: he was seven years old and staring at the door to his bedroom as footsteps climbed the stairs; he was fourteen, face down on a twin bed with his wrists pinned and Drake whispering into his ear about how much he wanted to fuck twins; he was twenty, with glass in his eyes and Aaron standing over him with a bloodied racquet in his hands.
“Three days later I was hospitalised.” Neil had said, so bloody nonchalantly, and pushed up his sleeves, exposing the fine bones of his wrists and the mutilated skin where cigar-sized burns dotted his forearms. His scars were the noughts to Andrew’s crosses.
This time, Andrew did reach forward, sliding his hands underneath Neil’s fists and rubbing over Neil’s knuckles. The skin was rough under Andrew’s thumbs, but Neil’s hands slowly loosened, uncurled. There were crescent shaped dents in his palms where his nails had worried the skin. Andrew hadn’t withdrawn even when the moment came that he should – he held on, distracted by the coolness of Neil’s fingers, the strength in these worker’s hands.
“That was the second time I was sent to Madame Babèu. And despite every warning my mother gave me, I stayed with her. For months longer than I shouldn’t have. I was in the garden again, back near the sea. I felt like I was home…”
Andrew understood that feeling far too well – the desperate urge to have someone care, to be taken care of, even for a little while. Cass had offered that once. She’d been everything Andrew ever wanted. Someone who always cut the crusts off his sandwiches for lunch, who fed him homemade soup when he was sick, who took him shopping and told him that dark green was a good colour on him yet only smiled when he said he preferred black. She never yelled at Andrew, she always explained why something was wrong when he made a mistake – and she never told Andrew that he was the mistake either. Not even at Aaron’s trial, when she’d sat through the proceedings with silent tears streaming down her face, all in black as if her son, Andrew’s rapist, was worth mourning. There was always going to be a fracture in Andrew where Cass had been.
However, in Neil’s story, being beaten by an angry foster parent who’d somehow fallen through the cracks of every due diligence check, was the least of his troubles.
“My father’s men found me.” Neil’s voice grew dry and cracked, like the earth after too long a spell without rain. Andrew poured some more wine with one hand and used the other to link their fingers together. Neil’s grip briefly tightened, as if to check it was real. “I wasn’t hard to find once the papers were processed. Lola turned up.”
Lola was the Butcher’s favourite. His killer queen. Andrew realised he remembered her from criminology. There had been photos from her trial: a slim woman with golden hair and lips a shade of magenta. She might have been beautiful once, but her face was always split apart by a rictus grin, wild and cruel, and her eyes were dead, blank and black and unblinking as a shark’s. Her brother, Romero, was often pictured with her, wheelchair-bound since the shootout but clearly someone who once could have pulled a man into pieces with his hands – and still might try with his teeth.
When they found him, Neil had fled – he ran from Sanury-Sur-Mer and the safe haven of Babèu’s gardens. He ran from Provence and then from France entirely. He crossed into Italy, slept in alleys and behind bins, hid himself in tunnels where slums had built up over time, vanished into the underworld and prayed they wouldn’t follow.
They followed. Of course, they did. Romero and Lola were bred to be hunters and Neil born to be prey.
“They caught me in the end. Eighteen months on the run and they caught me because of a bad fish that made me sick. Absurd, non? They took me back to Baltimore. You probably know your fair share of what happened next,” said Neil.
Andrew did. When the story first broke, Andrew had better things to think about, such as getting Aaron clean and making sure no one asked difficult questions about Tilda’s timely demise. But by the time Andrew was studying the story in class, his life had changed. He was a first year at Palmetto and he’d been just as fascinated with ‘The Butcher Boy Evidence’ as everyone else.
For a small moment in time, seventeen-year-old Nathaniel Wesninski had been a minor celebrity and the news stories returned to Andrew easily – headline after headline, pap-shot after pap-shot. Gossip rags compared him to Hot Felon and debated if he’d be offered a modelling contract. The New Yorker ran an opinion piece on women who love dangerous men. Memes flew around the internet, some teasing, some lusting, most quoting Nathaniel’s spitfire remarks from the few times the press came close enough for a comment.
Rewinding through his memory, Andrew perfectly recalled Neil as a washed-out teenager on a TV screen, being herded between courthouse and patrol cars. Andrew had sat in class, trying to listen to the professor through a cocktail of court-prescribed drugs whilst his peers debated whether genetics could predispose someone to violence. Most of the PSU class looked at Nathaniel Wesninski and saw a thug: his hair had been shorn short, buzzed down to a number two; his cheek bones had been so sharp they could cut someone; his stare the mirror to his father’s. Yet no one seemed to notice how carefully blank the boy’s expression was, how those eyes were sunken deep into his face, how he tried to conceal the limp in his right leg and the bandages around his hands. Neil had been so gaunt and looked so young – no wonder Andrew hadn’t recognised him – there was so little of the Butcher in his expressions now, even less of that scared and sharp teenage with the too smart mouth.
Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Andrew had vivid memories of Nathaniel’s wicked tongue – the way he ricocheted from brittle and haunted, to angry eyes and the perfect comeback. Thing was, Neil was fiery where Nathaniel had been nothing but dry kindling; Neil’s words were a honed blade, where Nathaniel had never quite known how deep he was cutting. The resemblance was there, just about, if you squinted.
Andrew had said as much to Neil, before adding: “They say you’re the one who brought down your father’s empire. Rumours were you were part of his inner circle but you gave evidence in return for immunity. You absolutely laid into every reporter that tried to speak to you without representation present.”
Neil laughed. “Ha! Merde, the FBI were furious about that. Wanted to put me into WitPro. I didn’t want that though. I wanted to leave America as soon as possible. Come home.” He waved an arm around Valbonne.
“But this is the point,” Neil had said, warmth in his words, in his eyes, in the smile on his lips and the fingers still laced with Andrew’s own. “I spent so many years just surviving. It was all I knew how to do – to run, to hide, to go, to never dream of more. When I was free, I couldn’t shut those instincts off. I ran. I called it seeing the world but I was just using the Hatford’s guilt and the Moriyama’s blessing to do the same I’d always done: run, hide, survive…”
Andrew hadn't hear the rest of what Neil said.
In his head, he was falling, the horizon was pitching and everything became mere noise. There was nothing but memory that turned his bones to ice, to electricity, to a roar jolting all the way from his skull to his fingertips. The world was tilting, tilting, tilting. He felt himself pull his hand back from Neil before he’d consciously chosen to do so, needing it to steady himself. His anger burned behind his ribs, sent bile up his throat, scorching down his arteries and scouring his veins. His head felt stuffed with too many days spent in a Perspex box because of a deal, too many nights with Kevin Day drinking himself into oblivion, and the countless nightmares full of Drake, and the Hemmicks, Proust’s exposure therapy and quicksilver drugs trapping Andrew inside his own mind. Briefly, he thought of Eduard Moreau, his smug grin, and yet more pieces dropped into place.
“Hatford guilt,” Andrew repeated. He had to be sure of this.
“Oui, pardon, I guess that part of the story was never in the papers. Someone had the bright idea to try and ransom me back to the Hatfords.” Neil raised his right hand, the one with the missing fourth finger and waggled it.
Andrew drained his wine. Incident with a cleaver. Lying by omission.
The next words felt like glass in Andrew’s throat. “Moriyama blessing?”
He lifted his gaze from the table cloth, knowing his eyes would be glinting like bullets right as they were loaded, the way Aaron’s once had.
Neil’s smile faded with worry and his tone became unsure. “Ah I shouldn’t have said that… my uncle bought my life for the small price of a trade agreement. All I had to do was testify against my father.”
A cavern opened up in Andrew’s chest. It was like Neil had been lighting a thousand tiny candles and the flames were finally flickering high enough to reveal the gaping maw beyond. He could read between the lines here. The omissions were perfectly obvious when you spent year after year trying to stop the likes of Kevin from becoming a full-time alcoholic. “The Mori-fucking-yamas.”
Neil’s nod was so small and he pulled his scarred arms away, hiding them beneath the table.
“So what you’re owned by them? And all this is what? A front? Do you help with their trade agreement, Nathaniel?” Andrew said.
“No. I’m not part—”
“Do you know what they trade? Drugs, guns, people?”
“I didn’t… I don’t…” Neil stumbled.
“Eduard’s brother was one such trade. Did you know that? Jean Moreau. Backliner. A boy bought and sold for Tetsuji Moriyama. Are you part of it? Is that how a foster kid can afford a whole fucking farm?”
“Non, that wasn’t how it happened…”
But Andrew wasn’t done. “Did you even once think about not being the fucking rabbit?”
Neil recoiled. His gaze shuttering. It was an expression that Andrew knew would haunt him for the rest of his life – that closed in and boarded up look he recognised all too well. How many times had he withdrawn like that, seeking refuge in his head when someone stirred up the worst memories and nothing could stop them from replaying over and over? .
Still, Andrew didn’t stop – because if Neil had spoken up about the Moriyamas then Andrew wouldn’t have been needed to protect Kevin. He could have been there in Chicago. He could have chosen Aaron. Andrew could have saved him.
“All this bullshit about survival and living. You’re an idiot.”
When Neil waved at the waiter for the bill, Andrew had barely restrained himself from reaching across the table and grabbing Neil’s hair, slamming him down and twisting until Neil’s fingers scrabbled to pry him off. He could imagine it. He could feel his entire body filling with lethal intent, and he could picture Neil trying to wrench away, Andrew yanking him back.
“You’re an idiot,” Andrew repeated, barely holding himself in check. “Did you take me for one as well? Because I can promise you, I’ve dealt with more dangerous men than you, Butcher Boy.”
Neil’s face didn’t change. It looked like he’d been bled of life, colours fading until he became a negative of himself or an older version of the hollow-eyed teenager from the newspapers all those years ago. Andrew hated that look – hated the way Neil just withdrew.
Fight back, goddammit. Give me a reason to punch your liar’s mouth.
They left the café, dropping several euro notes on the plate as they went. Andrew had seethed. The whole way back to the bastide, he sulked. When Neil said he’d leave him to his space, Andrew had all but slammed the car door in Neil’s face.
And you’ve been wallowing ever since, remarked the spectre of his dead twin, sounding bitter as ever and decidedly irked. It’s not like you were ever going to choose me.
Perched on the terrace, Andrew dragged his attention from the sky to the horizon, over the trees and the pool. Narrowing his eyes, he could almost overlay snippets of memory over the landscape, picture Aaron on the pool edge, golden haired, golden skinned, the way he had been when they took swimming lessons together in the summer before their final year at Palmetto. He blinked and the mirage broke. There was nothing but empty space and the rain stained stones, the rippling blue water and the long grass right below the terrace. Andrew decided it probably wasn’t far enough down to die if he fell over the ledge. Maybe if he went head first.
See, there you go again. You really think if Neil had dobbed in the Moriyamas at 17, you’d have stuck with me, the twin you could barely stand? You know that’s not how it worked. If you didn’t have to protect Kevin, you would be dead.
“That’s not true. I thought we were over this,” Andrew said. Over and over it in therapy with Bee.
The phantom scoffed. Even if you’d chosen to keep living beyond first year, which was doubtful until you struck that deal with Day, I would have chosen Katelyn and Nicky would have finally tired of trying with you and gone back to Germany. You barely intended to live until graduation, let alone see twenty-eight. I didn’t change that. Kevin did.
“That’s not true,” Andrew said again, half expecting Aaron to be standing there when he spun round. He’d stand there, arms folded over his chest, chin lifted in that jaunty way he thought made him look taller. (It didn’t).
There was no one there. Of course, there wasn’t. Not even King and Sir had approached Andrew since the argument with Neil. Andrew was alone. Andrew was alone and Aaron was dead and – by god – he was hallucinating his dead brother. Was he finally going mad? Had he finally fallen too deep into his memory to resurface?
“You changed things too and you fucking know it,” he muttered to the vacant space where his brother should have been and kicked his foot into the ground. He didn’t want to look at the wide, open kitchen windows, creaking on their hinges. If he did, he would see his own reflection in the glass, lip ring eroding at the illusion of company.
Maybe by third year. But before that? That was all Kevin Day. I was another obligation.
The chasm that had opened in Andrew’s chest that day in Valbonne grew wider, deeper.
Over the years with Bee, Aaron and Andrew had never expressed remorse – not for what they’d done to their respective abusers, nor their early actions towards each other. Neither of them were built for guilt.
But Andrew thought they’d moved on from blame – blaming each other for every ill in their lives, blaming themselves for what they saw as the other’s failings. Things like Andrew blaming Aaron for Cass, Aaron blaming Andrew for Tilda. Aaron hating Andrew for keeping them isolated at school, Andrew resenting Aaron for trying to renege on their promise at every opportunity. Aaron refusing to listen, Andrew refusing to speak. In his mind’s eye rose the vision of Aaron’s face – shocked and furious, a pale mirror to Andrew’s rage – that had been the day they first spoke about Katelyn and Andrew refused to accept her in Aaron’s life, the week before the invite to the Hemmicks’ for Thanksgiving, months before they started to repair their relationship. Andrew scrubbed at his eyes. Apparently, between his subconscious and his confusion over Neil, he wasn’t quite as over the blame game as he thought.
And now you have Neil, distracting you in exactly the same way Day did, right Andrew? He’s your new toy. You’ll play with him the way you did with every other one of your pet monsters, only to ditch them when you find something shinier.
“No.” That wasn’t true either. “Aaron, you know you weren’t a game to me.”
Did I though? So sure I didn’t go to my grave thinking that you barely tolerated my existence?
“You couldn’t have. We spoke about this…”
Doesn’t mean I thought it was true. You call yourself an honest man, but you practice dishonesty just enough to keep us all guessing.
Andrew didn’t know what to say to that, how to rebut this mental phantom, conjured from the darkest parts of his thoughts. Things would be so much easier if they could talk about this properly – Aaron had become Andrew’s audience, the person who cared most about what he did, who thought Andrew actually mattered just by being Andrew. Nicky wanted Andrew to be happy, of course, but Aaron encouraged Andrew to figure out what that even meant. When Andrew spoke Aaron would listen, or more often tell him off, be annoyed and disapproving and sometimes a little disgusted. Then on days like this, when Andrew ended up on loops so deep inside his own head, Aaron would don that doctor’s voice – the one that was low and soothing and deliberately pitched like ‘yes, I went to school and studied medicine for this accent’ – and he’d point out what Andrew needed to do to make things better. How he could escape, break the cycle, move forward.
Closing his eyes, he tried to make the spectre speak. “Come on. Come on.”
He imagined Aaron’s voice shifting, softening. Tried to hear the words beyond the avaricious wind, the chittering trees. And then, there, between one gust and another there was a spool of silence and his heart caught, snagged on one of his ribs and made him forget how to breathe.
Aaron’s voice was audible, speaking: You know what else you don’t know is true? Everything you said to Neil. Your accusations against him. Think Andrew. Remember what he said about not knowing what his mom meant when she said he had failed? That his father couldn’t sell him?
The rib ripping a hole in Andrew’s heart stabbed deeper. He did remember. He’d wanted to know what Neil meant but now it was all too obvious.
“You think Neil was going to be sold like Jean Moreau.”
Come on genius, you’re getting warmer.
“But he didn’t understand because he was a child.”
Stating the obvious. Why did people think you were the smart one?
“He probably didn’t know about the Moriyamas until he was taken into custody.”
Ding ding! You’re on fire. Well done, you absolute turnip. You really couldn’t do this one your own?
Andrew blinked, Aaron’s old nickname springing him off-guard the way a wasp did as it buzzed into his peripheral vision.
“I need to talk to Neil,” Andrew said. And even though he knew Aaron wasn’t really there, that this entire conversation only happened in his imagination, Andrew lifted his eyes once more to the sky and tried to smile. Wetness slapped his cheek, trickled down and dripped off his jaw. “Thank you.”
There was no one to hear so the wind stole Andrew’s gratitude, devouring it as fast as the words left his lips. The rain began to fall once more.
Speaking to Neil turned out to be more of a saga than Andrew anticipated.
Despite Andrew being a man who liked a plan, it turned out that Neil was not. He didn’t adhere to any predictable laws of time or place. There was no sign of him when Andrew searched the fields and there was no trace of him having been to the house. Andrew visited the barns and they were locked up tight against the rain, with no one answering the door when he rattled them. The hives were just as lonely, the bees sadly humming as they scurried around their homes and tried to avoid the torrential weather.
Andrew checked the garage and the car was still there. He loitered by the gate for an hour, until he was soaked enough that he could have just stepped out of the pool fully dressed. He went through the motions of swimming but kept stopping to check if any sounds might indicate Neil was home. He tussled with the wind as he raised an umbrella over the patio table, trying to stay outside and dry whilst he watched for signs of life from the barn. He wrestled the same umbrella down when it nearly wrenched itself free of its fixing, giving Andrew visions of being decapitated by the spokes as they flailed in the hunch-weather. When he finally caved into the chill of the evening and grabbed a soft, old hoodie, he did it at a run so he could get back to his vigil, watching the garden from the window of the library.
There was nothing, no sign of Neil.
Not when twilight came, rushed in by the swollen clouds.
Not when the wind began to scream and wail.
Not when lightning filled the sky, sheets of it rolling in the night’s distemper.
No one, Andrew thought, did a tantrum like mother nature.
That didn’t solve the problem of where the hell Neil was though. He’d hoped, with the storm, that it might drive Neil inside. Hadn’t his first note said that he slept in the locked room behind the kitchen during bad weather? But when Andrew knocked, just to check, there was no reply and even if Neil was mad, Andrew doubted he would flat out ignore the man renting his house.
Two minutes after midnight, Andrew couldn’t take it any longer. He didn’t want to face the arguments in his head, nor the memories. He’d tried to sleep, telling himself that he could find Neil in the morning, but then he closed his eyes and there he was on a cobbled street hearing the words: it was raining on the day I was scheduled to die.
He was out of bed before the self-loathing could seep into his bones once more, before his brother’s ghost could come back to haunt him and hate him and tell him how stupid he was being.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he made it to the kitchen and to Neil’s room in record time. He jimmied the lock and discovered the room empty, the bed untouched. He left the door yawning open behind him and flew out of the backdoor, across the terrace, down the rain slicked steps to the garden.
The wind wasn’t just wind anymore, it was a gale, a maelstrom – wrenching at his skin, tearing at his hair, forcing him to be bend double just to move against it. Andrew was a raw nerve – eyes stinging with sea-salted rain, cold cracking and growing over his skin, his ears full of the wind’s terrible roaring and bellowing down from the mountains. He wove through the clawing trees, his bare feet sinking into mud that squeezed between his toes – next time he was wearing shoes – battering back the low branches with his bare arms. The light from the house behind him was hardly enough to light his path and water was in his eyes, his mouth, his ears – perhaps that was what made the trees seem too loom and leer, like lecherous old men outside a playground; perhaps that was what metamorphosed the garden into an underworld, full of wild sounds and whimpering, and flashing eyes in the dark.
“Neil!” Andrew could barely hear himself as he reached the barns, knocking on the doors three times with his open palm. He tried to keep his thoughts steady, but the storm felt like it was inside him, blowing into the cracks and spaces of his soul. His heart thundered. His body shook with adrenalin.
The storm howled and—Andrew’s ears pricked on a whimpering, keening sound. Had it come from outside or in?
There was no response. He tried knocking once more. This time the hinges gave a huge groaning rasp and the door slammed open, cracking against the wall behind.
The wretched whining noise was clearer now. Andrew stumbled in the dark, tripping over rope or tarp, tangling in it as he went down. He scrambled to his feet, determined to close out the weather once more but closing the doors made little difference. Even inside it felt like the storm was everywhere, twisting between the cracks in the stone to gush-swirl-rattle through machinery, rakes, sack cloth, hay, the hanging baskets that clinked and chimed and thwacked against one another. Had Neil really been sleeping down here in all this clamour? Was he here, in this frigid building that was more holes than home, because of Andrew’s angry words?
Andrew took a second to catch his breath, to find his sight in the gloom, to pinpoint the direction of the unhappy noise.
Using memory more than vision, he picked his way around the tables and stacks, ducking under plants, feeling their leaves pinch and pluck at his hair. From the top of the wardrobe at the back of the barn, two yellow eyes glared. As he came closer, he could make out a small orange face.
The cat hissed. But he reached out nonetheless, let her tiny nose sniff his fingers and he cooed at her until she slowly calmed down. She was terrified, he realised. Her whiskers trembling and tail puffed in fear.
“Where’s Neil, Sir?” asked Andrew.
Andrew froze. Had he heard that?
Andrew approached the lofted bed, hesitating before climbing. He knew he was intruding. He knew he should turn around and leave. But the sounds of ragged breathing rose from the shadows of Neil’s lofted nook and Andrew could only guess what could make a man like Neil panic.
Tentatively, he climbed the few first few steps so he could see into the gloom of Neil’s sleeping place – bed was too grand a word. It reminded Andrew of the illustrated interiors of an old ship, a kind of cross between a bunk bed and a hay loft. There was bedding, blankets and pillows, like a nest, but also clearly exposed wood and tattered sackcloth tucked into the edges.
“An-dr-drew?” Neil sounded puzzled, voice little more than a rasp from the shadows. Andrew’s name staggered out between Neil’s teeth, and his breathing came out noisy, painful – all rattling and rasping – as he tried to suck in air only to choke on what was clearly anxiety.
Lightning flashed and bleached through the stone and wood, the light putting stars where Neil’s eyes should be. His sharp face was gaunt, unrecognisable, with the savage glassy beauty seen in film noir – it was like looking at someone else’s version of Neil’s face, an e-fit. His hair looked dark; skin smudged.
And then Andrew was blinking against the black again, unable to see anything but the photo-negative of Neil burnt against his retinas.
There was a hitch of breath in the dark. “What are you doing here?” Neil was still struggling to speak, and Andrew clambered up onto the loft.
What was Andrew doing there? He didn’t know exactly. He wanted to talk to Neil. He wanted to hear his voice, let him know that they’d both had to make awful decisions to survive. He wanted to keep his brother’s ghost at bay, he wanted to lay his loneliness to rest – if even for a moment.
“You disappeared,” Andrew said. I was worried.
He thought he saw Neil’s head drop to his knees, thought he could make out the narrow shoulders bunching close as Neil curled around his legs. “You wanted space.”
“I never asked for space.” I’m sorry.
Thunder snarled around them, the whole barn seeming to quake. Neil let out the tiniest, most pitiful sound Andrew thought he’d ever heard.
It was raining the day I was scheduled to die.
“Stop,” Andrew said, as if it was that simple. He knew better than to believe it was, but what had Betsy taught him about panic attacks? Clearly rolling with the sensations wasn’t working but Neil managed to respond to Andrew when he entered – could Andrew give him an anchor? “Neil, can I approach you?”
The thunder snapped again, a low growl and Neil’s huddled shadow seemed to shrink even further. “Approach?” Came the muffled response.
“Let me help you.” Andrew asked again, wanting to be absolutely clear about his intentions. ”Yes or no, Neil?”
Neil didn’t reply immediately but when the next flash of lightning came, his face was tilted towards Andrew and a minuscule nod was followed by an even smaller, “Yes.”
Edging over slowly, allowing that Neil could revoke permission at any time, Andrew drew close, “Do you know about anchoring, Neil?”
Neil made a scoffing, snorting, fractured sound that could have meant ‘what do you think I’m trying to do, you idiot’, or ‘just get on with whatever you’re doing, asshole’, or anything in between.
Andrew lifted a hand in front of Neil’s face, making sure he was aware and tracking it as he moved passed Neil’s jaw, his ear, to tap two fingers against the back of Neil’s neck. “I’m going to press my hand just here. You’re going to focus on the feeling – focus on my hand – yes, see – now breathe, rabbit. In for one, hold for one, out for one. You can do that, can’t you? In for one, hold for one, out for one. Now try breathing in for two…”
Around them the storm swelled and bayed, Andrew doing his best to draw Neil back down from his panic – but Neil was a kite caught in a hurricane, bucking and fighting against Andrew’s pull whenever the thunder rumbled through. Starting the count again, Andrew kept the pressure on the back of Neil’s neck, tapped his thumbs against Neil's throat in time to Neil's pulse. Aaron had done this for him sometimes – let his hands become a grounding force, holding Andrew together.
“In for three, hold, two, three, out for three. You with me, rabbit?”
“Why the hell,” Neil grumbled. “Are you calling me rabbit again?”
Andrew squeezed Neil’s nape, ignoring the shiver in his chest when Neil seemed to press back into his hand – testing him perhaps, though for what Andrew couldn’t be sure. Neil’s carotid continued to jump under his fingers, but Neil’s breathing was quieter now and trembling less pronounced. He kept his hand in place, stopped counting. “Steady?”
Neil nodded. “Thanks,” he said and shivered.
Reflexively, the hand on Neil’s nape scrubbed upwards to tangle fingers in the back of his hair. He could pretend the movement was to reassure Neil, but Andrew simply wasn’t ready to leg go yet.
The draught stroked dank hands over them both, even huddled together their body heat was nothing against the storm. All at once, Andrew became aware of how wet and cold he was. His sodden t-shirt stuck to his back. His trackpants squelched uncomfortably in the creases of his knees and ankles. The warmth of the bastide almost felt like a dream – something he couldn’t picture in his mind, the mistral’s bite too cold to even let him imagine.
“Come to the house.” Andrew heard himself say. “We can make hot chocolate.”
He felt more than saw Neil’s face twist in disgust.
“Or coffee. Something warm.” He could have kicked himself for the way he capitulated without being asked. Whatever effect Neil had on him, Andrew hated it as much as he craved it.
“Coffee,” Neil said thoughtfully. “Sounds good.”
Andrew climbed down from the loft first, releasing Neil long enough to clamber down the ladder and shove his mess of sheets back onto his bed.
“Do you have a light in here?”
“The wind knocked the power out yesterday.”
Andrew didn’t mention the candle lanterns he spotted that first day, deciding there was probably a reason Neil wasn’t lighting them.
As Neil shuffled around, apparently looking for shoes and a jumper, Andrew remembered Sir. He coaxed the little fluff monster down from her perch, gathering her close to his chest. She buried her face in the crook of his elbow. Andrew wondered aloud where King was.
"She’s usually by the door. She tends to stand guard when I’m like this.”
Sure enough, the white ragdoll cat was perched on a worktable near the front entrance. All fluff and sarcasm. Eyes glinting in the dim light. Andrew must have walked straight past her in the dark.
“Don’t try to pick her up. She’ll follow us,” Neil said. “Come on, mon chou. Tu as été un très bon gardien, mais viens avec nous.”
As if the storm meant nothing, the cat gave a languorous stretch, leapt down and went to stand by the door. The way she moved was as if every soft word from Neil’s mouth had been understood. Perhaps it had, if this happened at all regularly.
The hush-quiet of the moment shattered with a flash and a bang so close together that Andrew knew the storm must be right overhead. He soothed Sir with a kiss to her tiny head, jostling her into one shoulder, reaching for Neil’s wrist with his free arm. His touch was only fleeting, a reminder that Neil that wasn’t alone, wasn’t in whatever nightmare that plagued him. Still, Neil’s eyes were smudgy-dark and blown wide when they met his. Andrew’s memory flickered with the times he and Kevin were caught by fans in the street, the way Kevin looked at him, hauty and desperate but with no small amount of accusation. The dark didn’t hide the differences between Kevin and Neil – Neil didn’t look at Andrew and see duty, he didn’t assume anything.
“Allons-y?” Andrew said.
A ghost of a smile twitched Neil’s mouth. “Cet accent.”
“Come on,” Andrew said and pushed through the door back into the downpour.
They ran back to the house, reaching it just in time for the next explosion in the sky. Standing side by side, Andrew’s muddy feet staining the kitchen floor, the lightning flickered through the night, strobing the garden with unnatural light, illuminating the trees like spirits passing between worlds. Dark fell again, fast and violent, full of thunder, and the rain thrashed against the doors, savaged at the windows. Neil shrank from it, into Andrew, and Andrew tried to remember to breathe. Their eyes caught in the gloom. The garden, the house, the space between the two of them, all rose up as a song hidden in the static.
“Your feet are bare,” Neil said.
“Shoes are overrated,” said Andrew. “I’ll put the hot water on.”
The summer’s warmth meant the house was cosy once the weather was shut out and Neil lit the table lamps whilst Andrew to bring the kettle to boil. The coffee machine grumbled into life and the kitchen to fill with the bitter, decadent aroma of arabica beans and dark chocolate. Neil slipped away briefly to slip into something dry, came back with his arms full of a mournful looking King and an oversized hoodie that nearly had Andrew coughing – it was Palmetto orange, decorated with fox paws, printed with a number 10 and the name “Hatford”.
“Kevin?” Andrew asked.
Neil nodded. “He had it customised for me.”
Andrew acknowledged this with curiosity, not having realised that Kevin and Neil were quite so close. It made his earlier fury towards Neil even more ridiculous too. There was no way that Kevin would have visited Neil and given a gift like that if the Moriyamas had even the slightest foothold in Neil’s life. Realisation was a chill in his blood, and he excused himself to clean himself off and grab new clothes as well.
As he changed, Andrew’s heart rattled behind his ribcage, the snag tugging and tugging as he shucked one pair of sweats for another. He considered the old Foxes t-shirt with Aaron’s number packed at the bottom of his bag. His fingers dug for it, brushed the soft and worn fabric. The white was a little off now, the orange a little dull. He pulled it out and slipped it on, not looking in the mirror before hiding the number Five beneath a thick black jumper. It would show all the cat hair but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
He sauntered back to the kitchen, hands in pockets. Now and again the noise of the rain on the windows shifted as the wind changed, only to pick up a few seconds later, the erratic rhythm seeming to match Andrew’s pulse.
Neil had poured their drinks and was fussing over King, his hands stroking over the ginger’s damp fur, hushing the pitiful mewls whenever they came. Sir sat nearby, proud and aloof.
Gathering the mugs, they moved silently to the library – cats trailing in their wake.
Andrew had left one of the books cracked open on his preferred armchair. Neil smiled when he saw what he was reading.
“How are you finding Dickens?”
Andrew shrugged. “Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies.”
“Quoting the book isn’t really an answer, you know.”
“Your comments in Hard Times were more entertaining. These are a bit less cutting.”
“Ha! I forgot about those. Well, Great Expectations never really resonated with me quite the same way – the infatuation with Estella just never made sense.” Neil rolled his mug between his hands. “Thank you, by the way, for earlier.”
“Don’t.” Andrew didn’t want gratitude. Not when he was undeserved. Not when if they hadn’t argued, Neil would likely have been in the house, safe and warm and away from the storm. “Panic attacks can be rough.” It was almost a confession. He hoped Neil would hear what he was not saying.
“They are. But I’m fine,” Neil said. At Andrew’s look, he amended, “It was just another bad dream. The rain made it worse, and when you woke me with the doors – I thought it was real.”
Andrew didn’t flinch but his stomach pitted out like someone had opened a trap door to the abyss and he felt that bristle-sharp rage scouring his insides once more. “You get them often?”
“It’s why I mostly don’t sleep in the house with guests. You would think the house was haunted.” Neil’s fingers were white against his mug.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
The question came from nowhere and there was a beat where Andrew was sure Neil was going to tell him to bugger off. Neil frowned into the coffee and sighed. There were dark rings under his eyes, almost purple.
“They’re always the same. I’m on the run. Or I’m with my father. Mostly with him, really.” Neil picked over the words slowly, a hint of apprehension in his tone. It reminded Andrew of Valbonne, the way Neil gathered himself and tested the story like a child trying to work out if a river was too deep, too cold, too powerful.
Andrew longed to take his hands again, to stroke over the truth of Neil’s scarred knuckles and his hand with its missing fingers. But he figured that Neil wouldn’t want that – not from him, not anymore. He buried his hand in Sir’s ruff instead, rubbing at the gold and ginger ears as distraction.
“When I was in Baltimore, I escaped into the gardens.” Neil tapped his temples with his free hand. “Up here, you know? Have you ever just… gone somewhere else in your head?”
"Yes." Andrew knew exactly what Neil meant. The way a human mind could slip its container, just for a while, just long enough to escape the pain for a while. It was like flying, like becoming the stone skipping over the water, touching down just to lift off again.
Neil's throat bobbed. “It was like that. It was… just nothing I’d ever been taught by my mother was going to help me, not down there in the dark. She taught me to run and hide, but the time for that was over. I needed another way to stay alive.”
After witnessing the shaking, shivering wreck that was Neil in the barns, Andrew had no problem imagining how Neil must have looked as his father’s prisoner. Bird-boned and pale, more scars than skin, a lost boy with no thoughts deeper than running, surviving.
“I used to just… slip into Madame Babèu’s garden. In my head, I would walk down the slate paths, adding to the pebbled borders to keep away weeds, tying the sunflowers so they could climb up the backwalls or pruning the wisteria arches. All the odd jobs she used to let me help with. And everywhere, the scent of lavender, the hum of bees.” Neil’s mouth curled in a small, sad smile. “I promised myself, if I survived, if I got out, I’d grow my own lavender. I’d come back to Provence and build this farm. I imagined what it would look like over and over, from the way the light would fall over the fields to the type of mulch I’d use…”
Neil sighed. “I was bargaining. I knew I was fucked but I kept making these promises, hoping for a miracle.”
“You got it,” Andrew said. “Your miracle.”
“I suppose I did.” Neil’s expression softened when he glanced at Andrew next, the ice in his eyes melting and smoothing away the jagged edges of his memory. “But in my dreams, I never know that.”
Andrew drank his hot chocolate, thought of Betsy and Palmetto, thought of Wednesday afternoons with Aaron, thought about telling Neil about the hundred what ifs he carried in the grey matter of his brain. The litany of if onlys that Andrew ran through at night like the world’s most depressing prayer: if only Andrew had been there; if only he’d stuck with his brother as they promised; if only it had been him that day, gazing down that barrel, then Aaron wouldn’t have relapsed.
He thought about his dreams, the way he woke every morning with a gnawing ache in his stomach, the emptiness in his chest where Aaron had been wrenched away – the name he woke up with, the ghost that he lived with, the weight of his dead twin that felt heavier than any of the memories Drake left behind.
The words, however, wouldn’t come. They were stuck behind his teeth, clogging his throat, choking him.
“Andrew, it’s okay,” Neil said. “You don’t have to say anything.”
Andrew hadn’t realised that Neil was observing him. Felt strange knowing that Neil had been watching closely enough to see where his mask cracked, where feeling lurked. All the people who knew him well enough to understand that Andrew wasn’t just a cold, unfeeling monster were meant to be far away, across an ocean. Or in a grave.
“You’ve given me too many truths.” Andrew settled on trying to explain his unease. He didn’t like to feel in anyone’s debt.
“I wasn’t telling you because of a game,” Neil said. “If you want me know something, you’ll tell me when you’re ready. If you don’t, that’s fine too. You can say no.”
Goosebumps prickled over Andrew’s skin. No was a wall. No was a boundary. No didn’t look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and a child might turn it into a contest. No in a conversation was like a gap, a line, an idea of stop, keep out, stay back. But to Andrew, the idea was real. It was essential. His entire life there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall, than that word.
Neither of them said anything for a long time. It was companionable. It was comfortable. It was the kind of quiet that made the rest of the world feel far away, distant. At some point Andrew ended up with a lap full of Sir and when he looked at Neil it was to see a tender, exhausted smile directed solely at him. Neil’s eyes were clear and devoid of accusation. They rose to Andrew’s with all the ease of the dawn – and then they dipped, fell on Andrew’s lips. A lazy, hazy, easy awareness stirred in Andrew, knocking the sense right out him – all that was left was a notion: of security and safety. And a vision: of being the one whose bones Neil curled up to on cold and windy nights, of being allowed to slip his feet underneath Neil’s legs on the couch with the cats between them, of drowsily kissing Neil's mouth as they warmed one another, half asleep, half awake, tangled and at ease.
“I should go,” Andrew said. The only thing he moved was his fingers, which teased through Sir’s coat.
“Stay,” Neil said.
Andrew didn’t say no.
Despite the cricks in their necks the next morning, a fresh warmth grew between Andrew and Neil over the following week.
Neil slept in the house until the mistral blew itself out and Andrew met him in the kitchen for coffee and cocoa more than once. When the skies turned blue again and the sun beamed out over the landscape, Andrew started to join Neil in the mornings whilst he worked, helping to carry the heavier boxes and bags, enjoying the way Neil’s eyes lingered on his arms and traced over his shoulders (the way Neil blushed when Andrew caught him staring). Andrew kept swimming – newly appreciating how it had developed his lats even further, maintained the bulk of his shoulders despite the lack of a ring or weights – and he was fairly certain one of these days he’d persuade Neil to join him.
Water still dripped from the branches and leaves for the first few days after the storm passed, and with it bloomed the smells. Heavy with damp and warming with the sun, every flower in the garden seemed to be lifting its brightly coloured head to the sky, releasing their perfume to coax in the bees. It was a rich mix of sultry herbs and teasing blossoms, the roses waxing wide and the peach trees dropping their white petals, the wisteria burst into palest purple and pink, the yellow broom and mimosas strutted between them all, bobbing like Neil in his straw hat. A thousand memories were beginning to take root amongst the flower beds and the hedgerows, starting to imprint into the ashlar and slate.
The days passed, June turning into July. Neil moved back to the barns full-time.
They took long walks through the fields and along the mountain paths, navigating the rocky terrain of Andrew’s grief and Neil’s jagged history that came so painfully close to intertwining with Andrew’s own.
Sometimes when their stories crossed, it seemed like fate had been playing games – it was almost nonsense that Neil hadn’t ended up crossing paths with Andrew earlier, particularly given the connection to Kevin and Evermore. Turned out that the Foxes’ Number 2 had met Neil as a child but Tetsuji had disliked Nathaniel's sharp tongue and told his father that he would never be a Raven.
“I have a bit of an attitude problem,” Neil said, flippant and grinning.
But Andrew still felt anger towards the Raven’s Master, who had so easily signed the death warrant of a seven-year-old, simply by saying he’d never play a bastard sport like exy.
New routines began to form: waking, making coffee, waiting for Neil to find him (and always hearing him coming because of his endless propensity to destroy every half-decent song in the French language), helping with the farm in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, taking a late lunch together by the barns, or having a glass of rose as the sunset, talking and sharing and swapping truths until nightfall, parting reluctantly as two magnets and rising only to collide together again.
As they moved through the days, there were too many small touches for them to be an accident – sitting in silence with pinky fingers brushing, thighs and knees knocking as they drove in the tractor, Neil guiding Andrew through a motion to look after his plants, Andrew placing a hand on Neil’s arm when he asked him to move aside. There were yeses and nos between some of these, a general respect of personal space at all times. But Neil seemed to crave touch too, seemed to lean into every brush of his shoulder or hand on his hip. Andrew wondered how often Neil let people come close to him.
Aaron’s ghost was curiously absent. The gnawing in Andrew’s chest felt a little less like it might devour him. There were fewer moments where he felt stuck in time, stuck in space, life far away and untouchable. He woke up and heard his heart beating and didn’t hate it. There was a new buzz under his skin: thrumming and wild and giddy. He felt… purposeful. Like something extraordinary was about to happen.
And he knew that he shouldn’t feel that way. Aaron was still dead. Aaron was always going to be dead.
But something was changing. And Andrew, for the first time in months, didn’t want to prevent it. Or resist it as the case maybe.
Because Andrew was beginning to realise there was little to no defence against Neil. Which was why, on what might have been just another normal morning - when singing at the top of his lungs, Neil whirled into the kitchen in a blue t-shirt and cotton dungarees - Andrew nearly choked on his coffee.
“You’re in an intolerable mood. Why are you so happy?” Andrew asked as Neil spun towards the cafetière, one dungaree straps drooping down his shoulder.
“Any day now,” Neil crooned. “The lavender is going to bloom. It’s the best part of the summer. The rain has been so good for it.”
Lavender, Neil had explained, grew in the toughest terrain – in gravel, in the dry and sandy soil that looked like it shouldn’t take anything, should suffocate and kill any plant that tried to live there. Lavender thrived because of the roughness, the inhospitable earth. Thrived and bloomed and brought with it the scent and colour of l’été de Provence.
“Andrew, it’s coming,” Neil said, stepping into Andrew’s space and taking a bite of Andrew’s croissant, straight from Andrew’s hand. “La lavande fleurit.”
Plucking a peach from the bowl, Neil bit into it and beamed – it was that smile again – the one that made Andrew’s heart stutter and his whole body catch in a storm of fight or flight or fuck.
They spoke at the same time:
“I’ll see you later, non? In the fields?" “Do you want to have dinner with me tonight?”
“Quoi?” asked Neil.
“Have dinner. With me. Tonight,” Andrew repeated, words pepper-hot and ground out over his tongue.
Neil was half way through another bite of his peach and he licked his lips as he swallowed, that indecent tongue piercing catching Andrew’s eye as it always did.
“You want to go out?” Neil asked.
“I could cook,” said Andrew.
“Then we’ll need groceries. I’ve seen that fridge, it is emptier than an exy stadium after a home loss.”
“One day I’ll work out how much you know about exy.”
“Only un petit peu,” Neil said, smirking. “Come, we’ll go shopping and you can quiz me on my excellent knowledge of stickball.”
Andrew huffed. “And you’ve seen my interviews." Fucking perfect.
“You’re terrible on camera, mon ami.” And Neil had the audacity to wink.
"Weren't you off to do some farmery, flowery bullshit?”
“Mais non, the fields can wait. Let’s go to Valbonne.”
Andrew didn’t really know how he lost control of the conversation so easily. But as they readied themselves to leave the house, Andrew realised his fists were clenched. He loosened them and looked at his empty palms. If the weak flutter in Andrew’s heart was anything to go by, he was doomed.
Utterly, totally, completely fucked.
He caught his reflection in the mirror and saw only himself.
Am I allowed to move on? He asked, the question swirling in his head.
Aaron's ghost didn’t reply.
Hope was a dangerous and disquieting thing, and Andrew had never quite acclimatised to the sensation.
He wondered if this time it might actually kill him.