Andrew Doe learned from a young age that not everyone could hear what he heard. Not everyone felt the fire like he did. Not everyone cared enough to believe him. He also learned that no one was as nice as they first seemed, and that he could sometimes trust the voices that whispered softly in his ear.
Andrew Doe learned something else in those years with nothing to call his own, but that’s a secret kept between him and the fire.
“Andrew, who are you talking to?”
“You were talking just now, I heard you!”
“I’m gonna tell Sophie! She says we’re big kids and that imaginary friends don’t exist!”
“It’s not an imaginary friend. I wasn’t talking to anybody.”
“Yes, you were!”
“I was talking to myself.”
“Only crazy people talk to themselves. Crazy, crazy!”
“I’m not crazy!”
“Only crazy people say they’re not crazy.”
“ You’re crazy.”
“I’m not crazy!”
“Only crazy people say they’re not crazy.”
“I’m gonna tell Sophie you said I was crazy! You’re not gonna get dinner!”
He didn’t get any dinner that night, but Jessie forgot to tell Sophie Andrew had been apparently talking to himself. Small mercies.
Andrew didn’t last much longer in that house after that. He was more careful in future houses when talking to the voices only he was able to hear.
When Andrew was seven, he found a lighter jammed between the wall and a sofa. He was hiding in a corner trying to be quiet. The voices had told him to keep away from Steven, to put a chair beneath his room’s doorknob, to never be alone with him. He wasn’t sure why they were so insistent, but he acquiesced, albeit reluctantly. Steven was nice to Andrew, gave him chocolate ice cream and patted his head when he was sad. He always said Andrew was a smart kid and had pretty hair. Andrew didn’t think he had pretty hair, but adults always knew better (they didn’t, but Andrew didn’t know that yet).
The lighter’s plastic case was scratched on one side, the logo scraped off carelessly. He remembered Sophie saying that kids were not allowed near fire when she found him standing in front of the stove one day, transfixed by the ring of tiny flames that licked at the pan, blue at the base and orange at the tips. Andrew thought those were the loveliest colors to ever exist, and he felt the fire was trying to tell him something. A fire is a fire is a fire, no matter how domesticated or contained, and it spoke to Andrew about things unknown. Sophie had dragged him back by the arm when she saw him, muttering under her breath about how she wanted Andrew to be more like Jessie.
Sophie wasn’t there anymore, and neither was tattle-tale Jessie.
Andrew held the lighter between his hands, fingers fiddling with the metal fittings on top. He had seen people use lighters before –he knew how they worked. He wanted to know if all fires had stories to tell, if a fire could keep him company at night, if a fire could be a better friend than Steven.
Before he knew it, there was a small, wobbly flame chirruping animatedly at him. Moving this way and that, as if trying to escape the confines of the lighter. Close to burning his fingertips, but not close enough. It said something about being bored because it had nothing to burn. It said something about being happy to meet Andrew, if only for a little while. Andrew was surprised. The only person who had ever been happy to meet Andrew was Steven, and he was starting to doubt even that.
The talkative flame tried to cajole him into letting it out of the lighter and aren’t we friends and don’t friends help each other
Andrew looked at the couch beside him, toyed with one of the tassels dangling close to his head. The top of it was mildly damp with something, so he thought it wouldn’t be much of a problem to let the stubborn flame climb up the tassel. After all, everyone knew water put out fire. It would be fine.
(What Andrew didn’t know was that it wasn’t damp with water. What Andrew didn’t know was that that stinging in his nose when he leaned in close to smell it meant that it most definitely wasn’t water. What Andrew didn’t know was that someone had left nail polish remover unattended, ready to pop open and spill over all its noxious fumes and contents. What Andrew didn’t know was that it would be better to start a fire than to spend another night under Steven’s roof.)
He raised the hand that was clutching the lighter and let the flame play with the tassel. He bumped the side of the sofa on his way up and suddenly the flame was roaring, roaring, it was hot, it was saying thank you, thank you, thank you.
No one had ever thanked Andrew before. It made something feel funny in his chest.
He looked down at the lighter and pocketed it, running to the backyard with the fire’s voice singing him praises.
THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, GOLDEN BOY, KIND BOY, FIERCE BOY, THANK YOU .
“Him again? It hasn’t been a fortnight!”
“He set fire to the living room, apparently.”
“How would he even manage that?”
“Something about a lighter? We didn’t find it on him, though. It didn’t make sense.”
“…Do you think–”
“Look, I don’t wanna think about it, okay? For all I know, the kid had nothing to do with it. It was probably an accident and now they’re trying to cover it up to still be eligible for fostering. Keep getting their money and all that. What kind of seven-year-old starts a fire?”
“Phil, you don’t really know him–”
“And neither do you. Keep it off the kid’s records, for fuck’s sake. It’s shitty enough that he doesn’t even have a last name. Leave the kid be.”
“If this happens again–”
“I’m sure it won’t. We’ll deal with it if it does.”
Another thing Andrew Doe learned was that maybe some people were nice even when they looked grumpy and scary.
He also learned that the fire could keep him safe and have him destroyed in one fell swoop.
There was something odd about this house, Andrew thought. It seemed as if everyone was easily spooked. Every little noise would make them jump a little, every flash of something would make them clutch at their crosses in fright. A whisper told him the owners of the house were afraid of the voices they couldn’t hear. Andrew thought maybe he could help them understand what the voices were saying, but then remembered what had happened last time with Sophie and bit his tongue.
The Andersons thought he was a quiet child, and that even if they wanted him to be more playful and join the other kids, it was better than an unruly child. Andrew knew what troublesome children got –he’d had his fair share of it. The Andersons were nice if a bit weird. Andrew liked it.
“They don’t ever yell at me,” he said, locked inside the bathroom and cupping that one half-scraped lighter in his hands. “I get to eat three times a day, too.”
that’s nice, that’s nice, won’t you let me out
“I did that already. They kicked me out.”
but now you’re here and isn’t that nice
“Yes, but I don’t want them to kick me out of here, too. Aren’t you listening? I said I like it here.”
“Andrew? Are you there?”
Andrew almost dropped the lighter in surprise, the firm knocks on the bathroom door making him jump to stick it back inside his pocket, singeing his fingertips in the process.
He rushed to unlock the door and found Mrs. Anderson clutching at her cross once again. Her smile fit uncomfortably on her face.
“Do you like it here, Andrew?”
He nodded fervently. He hoped Mrs. Anderson knew how much he liked living in this house. He hoped she hadn’t overheard everything. She fiddled with her cross some more and nodded to herself once as if she’d decided on an important matter.
“Won’t you come with me?” she asked, holding out a hand to him. He looked at it for a moment before his eyes darted back to her face. Her hand was about to drop when he stretched out his in a swift movement and grabbed at her fingers. They were cold. He was nervous.
Andrew thought he heard someone laughing.
“ Again? I thought he’d stay with the Andersons for sure! I even saw him at mass with them every other week.”
“Yeah, they’re a nice enough bunch. He did stay for longer than usual.”
“So, what happened now?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, really. They’re just moving. Had to sell the house to pay some debts and now they’re renting an apartment. They have no space.”
“That’s a shame. No one had fostered him for so long before them.”
“They did say…Well.”
“What? What did they say?”
“No, I don’t know. They said something about the house. Something about having to sell it. Something about Andrew making it worse. Lord knows what they meant.”
“Making it worse? Making what worse? We never had any complaints about his behavior from them.”
“Like I said, I don’t know. They seemed eager to wash their hands of him and kept muttering about the house. And I mean, have you been to their house?”
“No. Is there something weird about it?”
“It’s…It just gives you the creeps, to be honest. I thought maybe that’s why they had so many crucifixes lying around.”
“It still doesn’t explain how Andrew could make that worse.”
“Look, I don’t know, and I didn’t ask. The point is that he’s without a home once again.”
In the year and a half he spent with the Andersons, Andrew Doe learned all there was to know about a big book with a cross on its cover, and he learned how long a flame lighter could stay before warping the material around it (ten minutes). He also learned that sometimes the voices he heard did not mean to help, and that sometimes the voices stayed in a certain house for a reason. That some voices had been people before, and that people could be angry about dying. Especially so when they were killed. And even more especially so if their killer kept on living in the same house.
Andrew Doe learned that most of the time, he was better off not listening.
There was a boy in his dreams.
He was an open flame, wild and bright. There was something about him that called to Andrew just as much as the fire did. He wondered if he had a name, if he was a lonely boy like him. He wondered if he could talk to the fire as well –or if he was the fire itself. Andrew wanted to ask him many things, but the boy disappeared in a lingering plume of smoke when Andrew opened his mouth, enveloping him lovingly with its heavy smell. He was a spark before a fire, the smell of only just struck matches, the heat of a flame dancing near his thumb. He felt like the dangerous company of his lighter flame and the softness of a thank you.
Andrew wondered and wondered and wondered, and he called him Wildfire . An unreachable friend he wanted to cup his hands around and bring close to his chest.
Safe. He wanted them to be safe, together.
The Spears had a nice house. The garden was tidy and bursting with flowers. The inside of the house was welcoming, almost cozy. He had a room all to himself, but the door didn’t lock.
The Spears had a nice house, but his room was so noisy he avoided it like the plague. It was rife with whispering and mumbling, crying and screaming. Someone even sang a nursery song a bit off tune in a warbling voice, as if holding back tears.
Andrew didn’t like his room, and he couldn’t tell Cass the real reason why. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t listen to the voices ever again after what had happened with the Andersons years ago, keeping a tight grip on his expressions and stilling his tongue. These voices were making him reconsider.
His first night in the house was spent with a pillow over his ears, nose scrunched up in annoyance. The voices had been trying his patience for the last few hours, and not even one of them made the slightest amount of sense (That was a lie. They were awfully familiar words.) All he heard was no and please and it hurts and stop.
Andrew stroked the almost completely empty lighter inside his pajama pants. He had stopped using it as frequently after the Andersons, and only ever sparked the flame back to life when he was feeling particularly lonely. He would sometimes escape to a forgotten, out-of-the-way place and gather junk that would make good kindling, letting the fire out of the lighter for as long as it’d burn. It would always thank him and tease him about the boy Andrew kept admitting to seeing in his dreams, his Wildfire.
firemates, it would say, meant to burn together forever, no ashes left behind.
Once, he swiped a cheap lighter from a supermarket and hid it where no one could see. He lit a fire as soon as he was alone, but it just wasn’t the same. This one greeted him sullenly and in a droning voice. A ready-made transaction, nothing behind but soulless utility. Hello, what can I burn for you?
Andrew tossed the lighter in the next corner. He never mentioned it to his first fire. He knew it would mock him.
With his hand clenched around his lighter, he clambered down from his bed and snuck downstairs to get a glass of water. Or that’s what he’d tell Cass if she asked. Richard had told him he could get anything he needed from the fridge or the pantry, and he wasn’t one to let these kinds of chances slip from his hands.
He crept back to the base of the stairs and peeked at their bedroom door. It was still closed, no light streaming from beneath.
Andrew nabbed a packet of crackers from the lower pantry and squinted at the gas stove’s dials in the dark. He managed to click it on, and a steady ring of flame came to life before him. He scrambled on top of the island’s countertop in front of the stove and munched on his crackers steadily. He enjoyed talking to kitchen fires almost as much as his own lighter flame. They were often sarcastic and witty, quick to anger and burn people’s food to spite them. He liked them.
you’re new and you’re different
“Yes,” he replied.
you can hear, you can hear
“Yes,” he repeated.
He heard some shuffling from upstairs and jumped down from the countertop, stashing his cracker leftovers next to his lighter and approaching the stove.
“We’ll talk more later. I promise.”
good boy it crooned before he clicked the gas off again, going to fill a glass with water to have something to gulp down when someone inevitably came down.
“Andrew, what are you doing up?” It was Cass, hands tightening her robe around her waist.
Andrew showed her his glass of water and shrugged. “I was thirsty.”
She smiled at him and yawned, turning her head into her shoulder. She filled her own glass of water and came up beside him, nudging him back to the stairs. “Up we go. It’s late and growing boys need sleep to grow bigger.” She winked at him.
don’t trust her, someone said.
she knows, she knows, she knows.
Andrew wonders if Cass knows about the memories left behind to rot in his room. He wonders if she can really know what went on, when he himself isn’t sure of what exactly had happened.
(He would know soon enough.)
Drake Spear was a monster. There really wasn’t any other name that fit him best. A monster with the face of a smiling, pious son. A monster with a silver tongue and insidious hands. A monster Andrew wanted to burn and burn and burn .
He was almost out of candles and lighter fluid; he only had the kitchen fire as company on really bad days. Not even his Wildfire, untamable and unreachable, could pry him out of this nightmare. He started wearing long-sleeved shirts and speaking less. He started avoiding touch more than before and couldn’t muster the barest hint of a smile for Cass ( she knows, she knows, she knows ) who chalked it up to puberty. His forearms itched and his head hurt, and he wanted something to burn .
A letter came in the mail. It was from someone called Aaron Minyard. It was addressed to someone called Andrew Minyard. He stared at the envelope for a while, then stared at the letter inside some more. He turned abruptly and walked decisively towards the kitchen, the stove fire the only thing in his mind.
burn it, burn it, burn it, don’t let him see
For the first time in years, he agreed.
“What’s that you’ve got there, AJ? A love letter?” Drake was there at his back, firm hand locked around Andrew’s wrist just as he was about to feed the letter to the fire. He couldn’t avoid the flinch, or the noise buried in the back of his throat.
GIVE IT TO ME, GIVE IT TO ME
Andrew tried to rip it out of his hands to no avail. He was still ridiculously small, and all Drake had to do was raise his arm above his head, leering at him from below his lashes.
“Oh? You want this back?” He wiggled the letter contemptuously. “What are you going to give me for it?”
NOW, NOW, NOW
Drake’s eyes scanned the letter and did a double-take, an oily grin stretching across his gleeful face.
“No way. There’s no way. The Spears were going to adopt him!”
“ Were being the important word in that sentence.”
“What happened this time?”
“The Spears have to deal with too many expenses now that their son is in the hospital. Not enough money, not enough time. They just can’t provide for Andrew anymore.”
“An injury during his service or something?”
“…it was a freak gas leak, apparently. He was burned pretty badly –almost died. Who would’ve thought home would be more dangerous than the actual military?”
“Man, what rotten luck. Did they lose their house, too?”
“When I said freak gas leak, I really meant the freak part of it. It was as if he had been doused in fuel. No real damage to the house, just him and the kitchen stove. Andrew was there. He was the one who called 911.”
“He was there?!”
“Look, I know what you’re about to say. But there wasn’t any fuel, accelerant, or anything even remotely like it. So, we’re going with ‘freak gas leak’, all right?”
“Phil, come on! This is the second time–”
“Do you really believe he could burn someone alive? That he could stand there in the kitchen while his foster brother burned right in front of him? That he would call 911 instead of hiding in his room afterwards?”
“You gotta know it’s suspicious as fuck. What the hell. Tiny arsonist.”
“Don’t start with me. There’s work to do. His family popped up out of nowhere.”
Andrew Doe learned he no longer had to be a Doe, and that he never really wanted to be a Spear in the first place. He learned that fire could be greedy and petty when denied things, and that it sometimes worked in his favor. He learned that disposable lighters could be refilled and that even if the fire had saved him and Aaron in the most round-about of ways, he still couldn’t trust it not to burn him, as well.
Doe Minyard also learned that fire could be his friend when the mood was right just as much as it could use him when it was bored enough. A friend or his end. A beginning or his unmaking. He wondered about Wildfire, wondered if he’d still think the same when they met.
If they ever meet.
If he was real.
Andrew had his doubts.
He was there again.
His back was to Andrew, running, running away. It was all he did, these days. Andrew stretched his hand out, trying to get his fingertips near his warmth. He seemed to flicker in and out of existence, once looking back as if someone was chasing him away from Andrew. He wanted to make that someone disappear, and he wanted his Wildfire to be near him again.
Andrew worried, even if he told himself he didn’t care. Wildfire could keep running all his life if he wanted.
He had a brother now, and maybe even a family.
This time, Andrew was the one to turn around, not waiting for him to vanish once again.
He didn’t see Wildfire again for years after that day.
As it turns out, Aaron Minyard was not as well-off in the shitty parent department as Andrew had first thought. He knew those mannerisms, that way of making yourself small, of averting your eyes and hoping for the best. He knew those eyes because he saw them in the mirror every day. He knew that need because he had once felt it deep in his bones. He knew Aaron Minyard.
And he knew what Aaron wanted more than anything.
A friend. A brother. Someone that understood.
Andrew ran his fingertips lightly over the biggest scratch on his lighter, the one it had gained when he had dropped it with shaking hands near the Spears’ house, his fingers trembling too much to spark a flame, his knees unsteady and his stomach rebelling. He took a brief look at it to remind himself, even when it was unnecessary, and made a decision.
He would stay –for Aaron. He would try. He would help. Because no one had helped him. Because Aaron had no fire to call his own.
He would keep him safe.
“No, that would be too obvious.”
“I really can’t get kicked out this time. At least, not until I help Aaron.”
“I can’t burn the place down –where would Aaron live?
“Don’t be a little shit. You’re just not being helpful right now.”
“So now you’re not talking to me?”
“See if I refill you this weekend.”
“...Are you seriously not going to talk to me again?”
“I don’t even need you.”
“It’s not like I miss you.”
“ Fine . Just a little arson.”
(It wasn’t just a little arson, but that wouldn’t be until much later, and it wouldn’t be Andrew’s fault.)
For all the damage that Tilda Minyard had doled out like the pills she liked to pop in and swallow with a gulp of alcohol in an unending chase towards oblivion, and for all the damage she had taken before the crippling addiction that erased her, she was not very damaged in death. You could barely even tell she wasn’t her own brand of alive anymore, considering how deep her drugs could take her most of the time.
Her cause of death could have been ironic in any other moment, and downright ridiculous if seen in a certain light, but Andrew guessed he could spare a modicum of belief in cosmic balance if not a petty god. Because Tilda Minyard, for once sober and desperate not to be, had stolen the bottle of pills she had given Aaron to keep him quiet when she felt he was being too whiny (when he was nursing a black-eye and bruised ribs she had been gracious enough to have him remember her by) right out of his hands. Aaron had chugged one pill after another trying to numb the pain, while Andrew watched from his own side of the couch with attentive eyes.
The truth was that Andrew had flushed all of the pills down the toilet and replaced them with sugar pills when Aaron hadn’t been looking. He once had read about placebos and what the mind could do, and once he’d realized what went on in the Minyard house, he procured some materials and got down to business. He knew a moment would come in which Aaron would reach for them, and Andrew would be there to avoid it.
Tilda was not aware of Andrew’s ploy, quite obviously, and unknowingly gave Andrew a helping hand in trying to be rid of her.
“Give it here,” she hissed while snatching the bottle, scratching Aaron in her haste. It would be the last time.
“But mom, I’m —”
“Would you shut up and stop whining for one fucking second? I —”
She choked. Tilda Minyard choked on sugar pills and there was nothing on the planet Andrew found as funny as her face when she realized she was about to die. Because of sugar pills.
“Call 911,” Andrew said while he approached a flustered, crying Aaron. He had been trying to have her cough the pills back up, but they wouldn’t budge. Aaron had been slowly but surely losing his bearings the longer he saw Tilda flailing and gaping like a fish. Andrew touched his shoulder softly and nudged him towards the phone down the hall. “I’ll try to help. Go.”
Aaron clambered to his feet and rushed to the phone, slipping twice on his way over. Once Andrew could hear Aaron frantically punching the three digits in, he sat down placidly next to the kneeling, almost crumpled form of Tilda Minyard and looked her in the eye.
“I told you to never touch him again. You didn’t listen.”
Andrew jabbed her harshly on her side until she toppled over, eyes wide open and unbelieving. Let her die believing the son she had abandoned had been her end. Let her die with only that same son for company. Let her die and set Aaron free. Let her die.
Andrew could say and think that he didn’t have a hand in Tilda Minyard’s death all he wanted, but the voices that whispered well done good job nice touch would never let him believe the same. He knew what he had done. He, better than anyone else, knew the power the mind could hold.
And he had wanted Tilda Minyard dead.
“You’re awfully quiet today.”
“Just –tell me there wasn’t any kind of fire involved this time. Please.”
“There wasn’t. It just was a stupid accident.”
“So, what you’re telling me is that it’s a coincidence that his mother, the one that dumped him into the system but kept his twin brother, suddenly died after taking him in? Just a few months later? Are you even hearing yourself?”
“You tell me how you can kill someone by having them choke on a pill and then we’ll talk. If anything, the kid just has the worst luck following him around.”
“Do you remember the Andersons? What if they were actually right about that mumbo-jumbo spiritual stuff they kept jabbering about?”
“You think Andrew’s some kind of demon child and you’re calling me ridiculous? For fuck’s sake.”
“I’m just saying –”
“I don’t care about what you’re saying. Now we have the complete set. Their uncle is coming to get them by the end of the week.”
“Hopefully, this uncle stays alive longer than their mother.”
“I never really pegged you as the morbid kind.”
“Some things you gotta learn when dealing with Andrew fucking Minyard.”
Andrew Minyard learned something in the short time he had to bear with Tilda Minyard’s continued existence. He learned how to make realistic sugar pills, that he could care about people and have them care about him as well, that family might mean something only if you let it, and that some dreams will always be out of his reach.
He also learned that with enough determination and power of will, he could make things happen. That if he wanted enough, he could will things to go his way. And that wanting was a dangerous thing.
(Andrew knew not to ask himself where that want had been all those years before. He knew. He knew it had come in the shape of an unexpected letter in the mail. He knew.)
Some days, he allowed himself to think about orange and blue and a spark that set him alight from beneath his eyelids.
But only some days.
(That was also a lie.)
Wildfire had been absent from his dreams for half a year.
Andrew was not worried.
He just kept catching himself wondering if whatever he had been running from had finally caught up to him. If maybe his fire had been snuffed out once and for all. Andrew could admit to himself that even the thought of it stung in ways he had no power to soothe. He reminded himself that everything could very possibly be a dream –a nightmare.
Firemates, meant to burn together.
Or not. Who was he to tell.
No ashes left behind.
He was not worried.
Luther Hemmick turned out to be just another breed of religious-pandering buffoon, and luckily enough, Andrew had lots of practice in dealing with that sort while living with the Andersons. He knew when to nod along or bow his head, how to best pretend to be speaking to a god he didn’t believe in or be respectful of his supposed grace. It didn’t really matter to him personally what Luther or Maria made of him and his surliness, but they were now the adults in charge of both him and Aaron, and as Andrew had learned over the years, sometimes it was easier to let things go, no matter how irksome.
The important thing was that Aaron kept looking terribly wilted with grief, only shriveling further by the hour, and although Andrew could not summon enough care to pretend to be affected by Tilda’s death, he supposed being completely indifferent in close proximity to his brother would not be the greatest of ideas, no matter what the fire thought about how human affection actually worked.
It was his consideration of this unavoidable fact that had him eluding Aaron when his face crumpled, that had him at his back rather than at his side, that had him tapping a nonsensical rhythm onto his trusty lighter when he felt powerless enough in the face of Aaron’s all-consuming sadness. It wasn’t that Andrew didn’t understand sadness, however detached he felt from it; it was that he didn’t understand mourning a woman that had been the farthest from a caring mother he could reasonably imagine. He wouldn’t push Aaron when he saw him staring at the open faucet in the kitchen, nor when he saw him standing in the backyard with a vacant look on his face, sprinklers on and determined on getting him soaked. He wouldn’t push Aaron, but he found himself admitting to the fire –he wanted to.
you can burn something for him
“That only makes you happy, dumbass.”
burning things makes everyone happy
Andrew gave it a skeptical look.
you promised arson
“Now is not the time for that,” he said, pursing his lips at the reminder.
it’s always a good time for arson and you promised and you always keep your promises
Andrew had no answer for that. He always kept his promises.
“What now? I don’t know what to do.”
talk to him
“I think he hates me.”
he can’t hate you, you haven’t even talked much
“He’s really weird.”
weird like you, or the just the usual weird
“No, not weird, weird. Just –you know what I mean.”
no, because sometimes you lie when you talk
“What do you –oh…”
yes, your headwater hurts you and then you lie about it
“Mom’s…Mom’s not here anymore, it’s no trouble.”
is your headwater really gone or are you lying again
“We can talk now, it’s okay.”
“I’m not lying!”
“I’m not this time! I swear!”
you swear this time, you will have to keep your promise now
“Do you think…He can speak , too?”
“I’m not asking him! What if he thinks I’m crazy?!”
you’re not crazy, just weird
“I mean…I guess it would be cool if he could, too.”
“Maybe I should ask him, after all.”
“Yeah, we are twins. It will be okay. Probably.”
“Thanks. I’ll tell you about it later.”
(Aaron wasn’t very good at listening to water’s advice. He never did ask.)
In the following days, Andrew noticed a…pattern of sorts emerge. He would often find Aaron with a deer in the headlights look on his face whenever Andrew came into the kitchen with dirty dishes to hand over to wash, or when he wrangled his way to their shared sink to wash his teeth, and even one time near the washing machine.
It was a quirky puzzle to solve, something other than their bleak day-to-day to occupy his mind with, and who was he to deny himself the joy of solving one as entertaining as this one? One where he could see Aaron visibly swallow down his unease and wipe his hands on his pants while furtively looking away from Andrew’s assessing eyes? It was amusing in the monotony of the god-fearing household, and he had nothing better to spend his time on.
what about your firemate
…He had nothing better to spend his time on, and spooking Aaron gave him something else to think about.
“Do you think he knows?”
he is suspicious
“No shit, he keeps appearing out of nowhere.”
he is always looking at you
“He would’ve said something by now if he knew, right?”
are you scared of asking him
“I’m not scared of him. I just…want him to like me, I guess.”
we like you
“Of course you like me –I’m the only one you can talk to.”
of course not
“What? Are you saying I’m not the only one you can talk to? Were you ever gonna tell me?!”
you didn't ask, did you think you were special
“Oh, fuck off. I didn’t think I was special.”
but we like you, so you are
“…So, does he speak, then?”
“Just tell me!”
“Fine, okay, be that way.”
Aaron told Andrew about their cousin, and how Nicky kept on living in Germany after he got kicked out of his house when he first returned.
“I mean, I’m not supposed to know. I just overheard them talking once. Do they think I wouldn’t put two and two together?”
Andrew regarded him levelly and weighed his options. Make him sweat some more? Give in to his obvious attempts at bridging the abysmal gap between them?
“Adults tend to think we’re idiots. It’s better to not let them know who the actual idiots in that equation are.”
Aaron turned to look at him, incredulous. Andrew could almost feel the stars being born in his eyes, the tiniest of hopeful kernels bright and snug under his eyelashes. Aaron huffed out a surprised laugh that led to a cough he tried to hide in his elbow. He seemed radiant in his relief.
“Yeah, that’s true. It’s easier for us that way.”
It didn’t escape Andrew how Aaron had also used the first-person plural in his sentence. We, us. A unit, now. Andrew and Aaron against the world. How it was supposed to have been from the very beginning. How it could be, if only Andrew allowed it.
He was tired of being alone. He was tired of having only the fire and a faraway dream for company. He was tired.
He raised his fist slowly and side-eyed Aaron expectantly. Waiting.
Aaron looked at his fist in fascination and puzzlement in equal measures. As if it were something alien and precious. A contradiction within a contradiction. It seemed as if he had stopped breathing.
“Fuck them,” he breathed out, bumping Andrew’s fist reverently. A revelation.
“Fuck them,” Andrew agreed, lips quirking in an almost involuntary show of amusement.
fuck them fuck them fuck them
Andrew and Aaron played Exy because there was nothing else they could feasibly get away with doing outside of school hours that would get them out of the Hemmick household long enough to escape Luther’s suffocating presence. Aaron was the one who came up with the idea, as he had implemented it early on when Tilda had started tumbling down the steep incline that led her to become what she was before her death.
“You know, we could try Exy. Our school has a decent team, apparently.”
Aaron had looked at Andrew just so , hands fiddling with an uneven string on his hoodie. He seemed half-resigned to a resounding no . The fact that they were now speaking did not make Andrew all that approachable in Aaron’s eyes, and Andrew wasn’t sure he wanted to be.
Andrew also disliked being predictable or taken for granted. He’d keep Aaron on his toes.
Aaron peeked at him from under his fringe, his fiddling stopping for a second before coming back with barely concealed excitement.
“Yeah, Exy. Nicky used to play, so I’m sure Uncle Luther won’t put up much of a fuss. It’s a popular sport in many colleges, too.”
That last part had been mumbled, almost jumbled on its way out. A hasty thought, short-lived in its bravery. It was as if Aaron was bracing for something with the way his hand convulsed shortly after. It was as if he wasn’t used to talking about what he wanted, however indirectly he expressed himself. It was as if he’d only known disappointment, but had never really gotten accustomed to it.
It was as if Andrew held the one true answer that would validate all the harshly unforgiving letdowns he’d experienced until then. As if one measly okay would give him back the zest to ask for more .
It was as if Aaron had given him permission to stomp on his half broken, half mended will to reach for what lay beyond.
Andrew had never seen anything quite so fragile as Aaron’s quivering hope. He had never been entrusted with something of this magnitude. He didn’t really know what to do with it, with himself.
say yes , he heard one voice quietly whisper, say yes say yes and give him a chance he’s a good boy give him a chance
And even with all that Andrew had learned about the voices he sometimes heard, or perhaps because of it, he listened. And listened. And listened.
Aaron’s answering grin made something within himself snap unexpectedly back into a recognizable shape. Something Andrew had thought he had finally managed to purge from his mind, to wash his hands from.
family family family
“We’ll be okay.”
did you ask
“I don’t care anymore. He’s my brother , he doesn’t need to speak to be cool.”
but do you want to know
“Oh, so now you want to tell me?”
“I’m not listening, stop!”
he is —
“I said I don’t wanna know! He’ll tell me if he wants to.”
he has a spark-smell
“What do you even mean ?”
he is a fire-speaker
“ Fire ?! He can talk to fire?!”
Four years was more than enough time to doubt himself even further. His doubts had become a tangible thing. Sharp, scorching edges of he’s never been real.
It’s a shame he can’t extract his memories of a long-held dream from his mind. A shame he can’t douse the blazing flame that used to haunt his dreams and shed light on his nightmares.
(It’s not. He would never.)
Just when he’s thinking of giving up on his longed-for Wildfire, dismissing the encroaching feeling of wrongness at the thought of letting his warmth slip from his fingers, he comes back.
It had been a grueling day of practice and ignoring Luther’s sharp barbs and mounting frustration at his lack of interest in well-to-do girls and mass, another day of staring at his lighter flame in a futile search for answers and the disquieting thought that perhaps he already had them but refused to accept them.
It had been another day of thinking about what Drake had done to him and whatever had twisted inside him because of it. Another day of hating how his eyes followed boys and remembering how he had felt when Drake had done the same to him. Another day of stilling his hand poised on a razor kissing his skin.
Those days had been admittedly few and far between in the past few years, but they tended to crop up again once in a while. Those days, reminding himself it was not the same, and that he would never, and that it wasn’t wrong, did nothing for his darkening mood. Aaron had learned how to read him. He knew to give him space. Knew to turn the conversation around and talk about Exy when they sat at the table. Talk about Andrew’s unsurmountable skill, about recruiters and college.
It was the night after one such endless day that he saw his muted silhouette from afar. The smell was what reached him first. It was gasoline.
This was the first time Andrew could make out their surroundings. An unbelievably detailed rendering of a beach, sand coarse beneath his hands, air briny and whipping wildly at his hair, waves unrelenting at his feet.
Wildfire was sitting next to a burning heap of rubble, the carcass of a dream lying in a smoldering pile of metal.
FIREBOY, RUNAWAY, LONELY FLAME
ABRAM, ABRAM, ABRAM
The roaring fire was entangled with the voice of a moaning woman. There was desperation in her wailing, an angry plea shouted at the sky. The fire was a benediction, a chanting mess of devotion and grief.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE, YOU’RE NOT ALONE
As Andrew neared the crumpled form of Wildfire his outline became clearer next to the rising heat waves that caressed his face. There were dried tear-tracks on his cheeks, and he held a phone tightly between his hands, pushed to his chest like he wanted to meld it into his heart. He looked fragile and burned-out.
Andrew had never really wanted to believe Wildfire could be a real person. He had been a childish fantasy, a friend he wanted to keep close and protect. He had been an ideal, never to conform to his harsh reality of being unwanted and unloved. He had been everything Andrew could wish for and nothing like what he could ever have.
At that moment, he couldn’t have been more real if he tried, weak knees no longer able to hold him, shoulders hunched inwards and eyes vacant. He was real.
firemate, look for your firemate, you’re not alone
Andrew could hear him letting out a reedy breath and then another. And another. He heard him breathe and he could stay there, listening to that marvelous sound until both were ashes in the wind.
Wildfire tipped his head forward and took a fortifying gulp of air. He looked at his phone one more time and then disassembled it, chucking it into the sea.
“Okay,” he whispered. He sounded small, afraid.
Wildfire turned to look at the pyre he had devised and seemed to startle when he saw Andrew standing there.
FIREMATES, FIREMATES, BURN TOGETHER
Whatever it was he meant to say, it was a soundless thing that lost substance when traveling the space between them. His eyes were round and blood-shot, his hair a tangled mess. From beneath the dull, unpolished browns, all Andrew could see was orange and blue and a glow from within.
Everything had been a dream.
(Until it wasn’t)
“Oh, it’s a no-talking day today, huh.”
“Do you need help?”
“Come on, don’t give me that look. We’re past that.”
“Hmn, I get it. Bad day, bad night. Sucks ass.”
“Don’t think I didn’t see that laugh. Can’t fool me.”
“Here. I snuck some in from the vending machine. Chocolate is always good.”
“Goddamn gremlin with a sweet tooth. I will never understand how you don’t get cavities.”
“That’s good. I’ll be around if you want to talk.”
“Yeah, yeah –you don’t want anything. Whatever. I’ll be here.”
Palmetto was not a difficult choice to make, all things considered. Yes, their Exy team was crap and last of the league. Yes, their players’ reputation was less than stellar. Yes, that meant being under scrutiny and being expected to perform well.
But also: yes, they had the best pre-med course in all of South Carolina. Yes, they needed Andrew’s talent to try and get themselves out of the gutter. Yes, they’d pay for all their expenses like a package deal, no take backs.
So yes, it was easy.
Away from Luther and no longer kept hostage by his rules to keep a roof over their heads, Andrew and Aaron had room to stretch and be , with no one breathing down their necks. They had contacted Nicky years before and he had been delighted to know he now had two tiny cousins instead of just the one. He’d had countless tips on how to handle Luther, had even offered to head back to the States to step up as their guardian if they so wished. He knew what it was to live in that house, under the thumb of a tyrant.
(Andrew was well aware. The first time he heard Nicky’s voice he realized it hadn’t actually been the first time he’d heard it. There were traces of him everywhere in the Hemmick household. All sorts of fragments lying around waiting to be picked up and held gently. A soft voice nudging him to give Aaron a chance.)
College life seemed like an extension of high school to Andrew, with a regrettable increase in Exy. The only thing that had changed was the amount of time he spent with Aaron during the day. Where before they shared class and practice, now they saw the most of each other at the court and dorms. Even then, Aaron had taken his role as pre-med student pretty seriously and all but ditched Andrew whenever he could to study at the library. Andrew could almost say he was getting a bit antsy with his brother out of sight for so long.
It was nearing the field of the frankly ridiculous.
he is still your spark-brother
he is still here
fire always makes things better
“I am not setting anything on fire. Stop being greedy.”
“Yes. Arson. I remember. Some other time.”
Andrew really needed to stop trying to get his lighter flame to reassure him.
“He’s been distant lately. I don’t know if I should be worried.”
you are the one who is not here
“ I’ve been the one being distant? Of course not!”
“I go to class, have lunch at the cafeteria. We don’t have the same free periods, though. Then it’s the court and after that I go study at the –oh. I see what you mean. Fuck.”
“I should talk to him.”
(Aaron was not very good at talking to his brother when he needed to, either)
Trying to mask his growing, vaguely aimless concern with Aaron-oriented concern was not working the way he expected it to. That is to say, it wasn’t working at all. Some months had passed since he’d heard the fire sing at a lost boy from a hastily made funeral pyre. It had been loud and raucous, brimming with the death it was burning away and reaching its insatiable fingers for more, more . It had been the moment Andrew had realized perhaps he had miscalculated something along the way. At some point, he’d stopped believing anything like Wildfire could be real, much less something to call his . It had been after that last dream that his thoughts on the matter had cemented to a singular point in his mind. He remembered the need he had felt as a child to keep Wildfire close to his chest and safe, burning all of his worries to nothing more than ash.
The same feeling he’d thought he’d grown out of, disillusioned by the truth that was his life. The same feeling that had resurfaced from the depths of an ocean of neglect only to take a leap and latch its wickedly sharp talons into his heart. A knot of tension in the middle of his chest that wouldn’t go away no matter how much his hands rubbed at it. A thread of uncertainty woven into his daily routine. An almost invisible shard of hope that glinted in the sun. A flash of orange and blue and nights spent looking at the fire dance at his fingertips.
It was too much.
It was just enough.
It was his, and Andrew wanted—
Renee Walker had something around the eyes that reminded Andrew of himself. If pressed, he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly what it was, but he knew Renee saw it in him, too.
Saw it in Aaron, even.
It was different with Andrew than with Aaron. There was an added layer of something else between the both of them, the local protector and the incoming one. A tacit understanding that went deeper than the usual recognition of the other. The three of them shared the base that was what, according to Renee, some called affinities , but there was something undoubtedly darker that brought Andrew and Renee together, that drove them to spar in the basement and shake hands after. Andrew was glad it wasn’t something he had in common with Aaron. It was better that way.
He wondered how many people with affinities went about their lives not meeting anyone like them, believing it was something you could ignore to inexistence. Aaron had shrugged and said he wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care either way, just as Andrew knew he would. Just as Andrew usually would.
There was someone that made the usual unusual in Andrew’s mind. Someone that changed his perspective and tweaked at his motivations. Someone that made him ask himself the sorts of questions he wouldn’t give the time of the day to on a regular basis. Someone that made him stray from his well-trodden path that marked him as a creature of habit. Someone he told himself he didn’t desperately want to have within arms’ reach. Someone he had, until not too long ago, convinced himself was nothing more than a pipe dream .
Andrew could no longer bury what had become blatantly obvious in the months since he last saw him. Perhaps it wasn’t even a matter of ability but rather of what he wanted .
Wanting was still such a novel thing to Andrew that his first thought was to hold it up to his eyes to examine in detail, see if it lost its polish. He was sure that the fancy varnish that was novelty would wear away, peeling off like the many coatings shiny things in his life tended to have, baring what lay within in a nest of dull, broken dreams.
(If he were one to make wishes, he’d fervently wish for it to stay.)
Lately, Andrew’s fingertips tingled to the point of becoming a nuisance. They felt warmer than usual to the touch and he often found himself fiddling with his lighter in an unconscious bid to rid himself of the jittery, sticky feeling that wouldn’t go away. He pressed them to his chest to alleviate the gaping emptiness that caught him unawares every time he woke up from a dream that had no fire in sight. With every day that went by after that night when he saw Wildfire at the beach, he felt a chaotic potluck of urges simmering closer to a boiling point. The need to seek and bring close, the pull towards something faraway, the ache in his bones –it was all coming together and guiding his feet towards the road to look for what was calling. It made him uneasy, the thought of something having this sort of hold over his drive and impulses. It felt too external and out of his ironclad control. It felt as if he had no choice in the matter.
He didn’t like it.
One afternoon, after a long practice of a nonsense sport he still couldn’t quite rid himself of, Andrew found himself with his hands on the steering wheel of his GS, fingers tap-tap-tapping away while his thoughts gathered as stormy clouds between his eyebrows. He felt compelled to drive away until his mind and cravings for fire settled, until he forgot to count the time since he last shared a meal with his brother, since he last dreamed of something warm and inviting. Driving off to the distance seemed too much like running away, like the fire that slipped through his fingertips – back always turned away from Andrew. Unreachable and unknown, but never forgotten.
He clamped his fist around the seedling idea of you aren’t running away, you are running towards– before the thought of taking root and invading his brain ever crossed its mind. His energy was stagnant, no outlet and no purpose. No perfect end possible because Andrew didn’t get perfect ends. His frustration at his inaction was eating at his patience, and the longer he sat in his car with no distinct destination in mind, the more his teeth felt closer to being grinded to dust. What his sweet indulgences couldn’t accomplish with his lack of cavities would become a certain thing in a matter of weeks if this kept up.
Andrew let out an exasperated breath through his nose in the privacy of his empty car and rested his head on his crossed fingers on top of the steering wheel. He wasn’t going anywhere. He wouldn’t chase the impossible when the reality of its impossibility was in question. When he’d already gotten the impossible and willed a brother into existence. When he already held the impossible in his hands in the shape of a flickering flame sprouting from an old, beat-up plastic lighter. He wasn’t known for his greed, and the fact that he had this much was already something he wouldn’t have ever imagined. A testament to his self-restraint would be getting out of his car and walking away from what he had labeled as a childhood fever dream, the company of a lonely child crying for help in his sleep.
He should get out of the car.
He should call Aaron and ask to talk.
(He does neither.)
“Andrew, what were you thinking?!”
“Oh, so now you don’t want to talk?”
“You were gone for a whole day! You weren’t picking up your phone! You sent a text saying we needed to talk and then dropped off the face of the Earth! What the fuck, Andrew!”
“Look, I know I’ve been busy and maybe even a shitty brother lately. That doesn’t mean you get to pull a disappearing act when you feel like lashing out!”
“Don’t make that face at me. I know. I’m sorry, okay? I’ve been meaning to talk to you as well. Things just got. Out of hand, I guess.”
“Just. Next time you feel like driving until you run out of fuel for no apparent– fine , for very valid reasons, let me know. Or hell, I don’t know –let Renee know. Even Coach, I don’t care.”
“Yes, I’ll even make you a deal. I know you like those. I’ll keep up our daily meals and bitching sessions and tell you when I’m too stressed out with school, and you’ll tell me when you feel like going missing for a whole goddamn day.”
Sometimes, Minyards could be very stupid. Most of the time, things found their way back to normalcy, oftentimes after a particularly dramatic stand-off.
(They were okay.)
Andrew had mostly settled in and wrapped his new routines around him like an invisible shield of order and manageable pieces, burying his unsettling itch to look for what wasn’t lost to the deepest recesses of his labyrinthine mind when Kevin Day decided to pop in for an unexpectedly permanent visit.
Most people weren’t aware of the reason why Kevin Day, renown Exy star (Son of Exy, even) had decided to drop the Ravens, the top collegiate Exy team for the last decade, like a hot potato and join the team that most considered to be in shambles and nearing its extinction.
Andrew was not most people, however.
After staring at the steadily more anxious and shiftier striker with a flash of his armband knives, Andrew was now one of the few people in the know. He wouldn’t have pegged haughty, holier-than-thou Kevin Day as a pushover, but maybe he was tired of being an untouchable public persona, or maybe it hadn’t been his day. Maybe he saw something in Andrew that made him rethink his choices, or maybe he felt the need to start trying to be more honest. Maybe Kevin was tired of secrets and realized Andrew wouldn’t care. Maybe Andrew reminded him of someone, or maybe Kevin thought it would be a good way to start surrounding himself with people that wouldn’t take his bullshit. Whatever had gone through Kevin’s brain when Andrew stood in front of him, an unmovable object to Kevin’s unstoppable force, it was enough to let Andrew know he wouldn’t bring chaos to his tiny group of people, and that perhaps he could even be one of them . That perhaps he stared too long at the earth and Andrew often caught his fingernails stained with soil.
he’s not nice and he stinks of earth and let’s keep him and look at his eyes
No matter how, the fact remained that Kevin Day was now a Fox under Andrew’s indirect care. He might need to think about looking up strategies for dealing with taking in strays.
“Kevin Day is a motherfucking beanpole , I’m telling you.”
“You complain too much.”
“Yeah, because you only sit on your ass in front of the goal waiting for him to come. I have to block the motherfucker.”
“Then block him. He’s only an anxious bean, dearest brother.”
“Shut up. He isn’t just a bean . Stop calling him a bean.”
“You started with the bean analogies. Is the water being mean to you?”
“As if I can’t see your eyebrow twitching from across the table. I bet fire is more annoying than water anytime.”
“...you might be correct.”
When Kevin came to them, starry-eyed and bushy-tailed with a story to tell about talent scouting and recruiting, Andrew tuned him out for the sake of his sanity. Living with an Exy-obsessed moron has proven to be detrimental to his continued tolerance for Exy as a sport, and morons as a whole.
He and Aaron shared a look and he huffed at the annoyance he could see Aaron trying to hide behind an indifferent expression. He wasn’t as good at it as Andrew was. Yet.
Kevin nattered on about his expectations for the team and their chances this year, tireless and unrelenting. Andrew wondered if he noticed no one was really paying him any attention, or if he noticed and didn’t care enough to stop.
Suddenly, Kevin went quiet. It was jarring enough that Andrew’s eyes flickered back to him, intrigued despite himself by the unexpected halt in his speech. The look on his face was thoughtful, almost wistful. It was unusual, and Andrew’s curiosity only grew the longer Kevin kept it up.
“There was this one boy…,”
After a minute of silence, Aaron prodded Kevin with his foot impatiently, asking him to continue.
“His skills are rough at best, less than mediocre at worst,” he said, right hand rubbing at his left knuckles. “But there is something about him that tells me I would regret not having him on our team.”
Kevin had come a long way from when he had first arrived at Palmetto, his attitude sour from looking down his nose at the Exy the Foxes played and feeling like there was nothing he could teach them that they would be able to learn. A pompous asshole with an Exy stick up his ass. For him to be able to refer to the Foxes as our team without even the hint of a sneer was beyond their understanding of that initial Kevin-the-Raven. Wymack and Dan would probably be proud, the sentimental fools.
“There is a fire to him that I haven’t seen before in my life,” he added. An uncertain expression crosses his face before he quietly murmurs, “...or that I thought I’d never see again.”
Andrew is immediately alert. He knows about Kevin’s earth-affinity, how he was forced to suppress it while at the Nest, as if it were as easy as flipping a switch. He knew that some people with affinities were able to detect something slightly off or different when they saw others like them, just like Renee had with Andrew and Aaron. Kevin mentioning fire of all things had Andrew’s alarms blaring all at once.
“Fire?” Aaron asked cautiously, quickly sparing Andrew a look.
“Yes. It’s just…,” Kevin combed his hand through his hair, gripping at the strands tightly as if to ground him. “He’s like a fire that can’t be put out. Like a bonfire someone forgot to extinguish and became a –”
Kevin’s eyes jumped and snagged on Andrew’s stare, startled from his ramblings.
“Yes. A wildfire,” Kevin answered, giving Andrew a considering look. “A wildfire that we can unleash on others to burn them down to the ground. Let them know we’re not to be messed with.”
“Sounds more like it could bite you in the ass,” Aaron mumbled under his breath.
“Where is he?”
FIREMATES FIREMATES FIREMATES
After years of pretending not to chase after Wildfire, Andrew finally gave in and admitted to himself that the childish urge he’d buried next to all his dreams and aspirations was poking out of the barren soil of his mind like a beanstalk, fragile and prone to breaking, but unhesitatingly rising towards the sun. The craving to hold close and protect was still there, and it had never left him. He could be honest and say he’d always worried, and that his only wish over all those years of nothing was for Wildfire to be safe.
Andrew gathered his resolve around him like a cloak and braved the personal hell that were airports and flights. He wouldn’t be persuaded by his considerable fear of heights, and he wouldn’t disabuse Kevin of the notion that he cared – he was too high strung to speak from between his gritted teeth. It would also be a clear waste of time and oxygen that he sorely needed to remain calm in the face of a possibility that was (against all his expectations) becoming a reality.
He would meet Wildfire and he would see him and –
Andrew wasn’t sure about what he’d do. He needed to think, but the buzzing inside his head only got louder the closer they came to where his dreams stopped being only dreams.
He would figure it out.
(He didn’t really figure it out. He probably never would.)
Neil Josten was–
Neil Josten is–
Neil Josten was the name of a boy that didn’t know how to be real. It was the name of a boy that clutched at ashes between clenched fingers, afraid to let go and have the wind snatch his memories away. It was the name of a boy that had forgotten the core of his being, the molten thing that roared and consumed all of his fears without him even noticing.
Neil Josten was the name of a boy that had been a fiery thing deprived of oxygen until it forgot to burn. It was a wildfire grasping at straws, close to running out of things to turn to a crisp and leaving only whimpering embers behind.
Neil Josten was fire even when trying not to be. He was Andrew’s Wildfire, singing of loss and grief and deadends. Andrew wanted to make a cradle with his fingers and cup his flickering flame close to his ear, hoarding all his whispers to himself. The truths that crackled and popped, the tickle of a friend sharing secrets in licks of heat against the shell of his ear and the apple of his cheek.
His want was overwhelming in the manner that most things were when it came to Wildfire. If there had ever been any doubt on how much Andrew had actually clung to the idea of a fireboy trying his best somewhere in the world, maybe lonely like he was, maybe craving a friend like he did, maybe seeing Andrew for what he was – any and all misgivings disintegrated when Andrew’s eyes met Neil’s for the first time since that time at the beach, now undeniably real and panting in front of him, eyes wide.
“We meet again,” Andrew commented flippantly, gaze piercing despite the lightness of his voice.
Neil seemed to startle when he heard Andrew speak, eyes darting between Kevin and Wymack, coming back to settle on Andrew’s with a hunted expression of panic twisting his features. The simmering heat that had Andrew’s blood almost bubbling was enough to set his heart hammering an incoherent beat in his chest.
After a tense minute, Neil closed his eyes with a slow breath, tilting his head downward in a show of resignation, or perhaps even acceptance. It sparked a memory in Andrew’s brain; the Andersons grabbing at his hair and shoving his head down in front of the altar when he wasn’t quick enough to offer his obeisance to a piece of wood with a dead man hanging from his wrists and feet nailed to a cross. It was uncomfortably close to asking for forgiveness from a god that had none to give, and no care to spare. A little too close to asking to be forgiven when you had done nothing wrong. Andrew had never really gotten used to it, and had broken out of the habit just as he’d broken free of the Spears’ house. No one would make him beg for anything ever again for as long as he lived.
Maybe Neil was used to ducking his head and trudging on as best as he could, or maybe he had finally given up. Maybe all his fire had been an illusion, and Andrew had only filled in all the blank spaces. He felt a chilling coldness spreading from somewhere in the middle of his chest and his stomach swooping just like it did when he got too close to the edge of the roof back at Fox Tower. The buzzing returned, climbing from the back of his neck and sinking its claws into his frazzled brain. His palms felt damp and his mouth dry. He had been so sure –
“It was about time,” Neil suddenly said, the corners of his lips lifting into a wry thing that could qualify as a smile if you didn’t look at it too closely. He let out the tailend of a huff masquerading as a laugh and pushed his messy hair out of his face.
Wymack and Kevin seemed confused by their interaction, but given that Andrew rarely reached out to talk to possible new recruits and that nothing too out of the ordinary had happened yet, they let them be.
Andrew felt his heartbeat pounding a tattoo of yearning into his now smoldering ribcage. The harsh slowing down in his heart rate was the only thing that kept him grounded and present. It was unsettling but unsurprising.
When Andrew was calm enough to get a handle on his tumultuous emotions, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back to give Neil an assessing look from beneath his eyelashes. After his initial bout of vulnerable weariness, Neil seemed to have bounced back with some sort of challenge boiling over in his eyes. Whatever decision he had made while seemingly giving up on running was enough to let Andrew see all the orange and blue he had been so mesmerized by when he was just a kid standing on his tiptoes to get a look at the stove’s open fire. Before Andrew could answer with a quip of his own, Neil took a step forward, keeping his eyes on Andrew at all times and said:
“Where do I sign?”
“I found him.”
you would always find him
“The world isn’t some kind of fucked up fairytale. ‘Always’ doesn’t exist.”
but you found him
“Yes. He’s coming to Palmetto.”
you found your firemate
“His name is Neil.”
now you burn together
“...you’re still not getting any arson.”
arson arson arson
“I haven’t forgotten.”
The boy that once was a tiny flame born from a bigger one told him a story of firewomen and cruel men. He traced the air between them and Andrew could swear he saw the bright afterimage of light trailing after his fingertips. This boy told Andrew about the stories his mother would sing to him as a kindling fire, how she would blow on him and feed him her favorite kind of smoking wood. She told him about their family in England, about fire creatures dying out and wanting to try her luck in a new place. She told him about a man with fire in his hair and ice in his eyes, and taught him you could never trust people that appeared to you in dreams, because not even firemates could be a guaranteed safe haven.
She told him about elemental creatures, told him about an earthwoman with a boy his age that loved rolling around in gardens and tracking mud inside the house, green eyes and grubby fingers gently prodding at the earth the way his mother taught him to. She told him about speakers and affinities, and made him promise to never look for his firemate.
The boy that forgot how to be a fire told Andrew about years running from his father, about the fear that became their everyday bread. He told Andrew about Germany and Austria and France. He told Andrew about Canada and Seattle, and softly whispered about a California beach. He confessed he had been afraid of the idea of Andrew, that he had pretended not to see even when he warmed Andrew’s nights as best as he could, and even as he lied to his mother about not having a firemate of his own.
When asked about his father, his hands dropped to his lap heavily and he stilled before hunching his back almost imperceptibly.
“I’m tired of being nothing. I’m tired of running. I’m just so tired, Andrew.”
“Then stop running,” Andrew licked his lips, shaking a cigarette out of a packet. “Stay.”
The boy that was trying to remember how to be a fire snatched at his cigarette and pinched the end of it between his thumb and index. When he handed it back to Andrew, the glowing cherry was alive and cheery, a thing of wonder.
(Neil was trying not to lie anymore, but as Andrew knew very well, some habits were harder to break than others.)
It had been months since Neil had joined the Foxes. Months of shared truths under the cover of the barely twinkling stars on top of the Fox Tower. Months of Neil growing into his once sleepy fire, now a force to be reckoned with. Months of Renee smiling at them and Kevin brushing his hands over Neil’s shoulders whenever he got the chance. Months of Aaron’s initial bafflement and now smug contentment. Months of Exy practice and games. Months of team camaraderie, ruffled hair, and booming back claps. Months of defrosting and rebuilding.
Then, one day:
“Thank you. You were amazing.”
When the promised arson came. Andrew wasn’t ready.
For one thing, he wasn’t the one to start the fire. And for another, it came as a diversion tactic for something he should have expected weeks ago but quite honestly would have never been prepared for. Neil had scarcely told Andrew about his father, but Andrew knew enough to read between lines.
RUN RUN RUN
YOUR SPARK-BROTHER IS FINE THE AIR NUN IS FINE THE EARTH BEAN IS FINE
YOUR FIREMATE YOUR FIREMATE
GO GO GO
He knew his lighter had been in his hoodie pocket when he settled down for a catnap that afternoon. He saw his hoodie on the floor where he’d left it, but no lighter inside. He felt a chill gripping at his spine the longer he heard the wailing fire alarm and the fire roaring at him to go. Neil had always liked his crappy lighter, was fascinated by what it meant in Andrew’s hand. He kept looking at it and tracing all the scratches Andrew wouldn’t tell him the origin of. Once, Andrew had bitingly told him to keep it if he was so obsessed with it.
“It’s yours,” he said, a strange look on his face.
“I don’t care,” Andrew had answered, hand flicking dismissively at the implications Neil was hinting towards.
(At the thought of having Neil hold something of his so carefully and dearly. At the thought of Neil knowing how important it was to him. At the thought that maybe it would be enough to convince Neil to stay .)
The lighter was gone, the fire from the lighter was all around him, urging him to move and chase after his Wildfire, his firemate.
The lighter was gone, just like Neil, and all Andrew could think about was thank you, you were amazing and a spark being snuffed by the cruel winds of the north in the shape of a swinging butcher knife.
The lighter was gone, and Andrew felt something inside him go up in flames. It would be nothing but ash soon, and he had nothing to quench it with. Every thought, every memory was gasoline to the silent fire that was eating at his heart and his bones with no mercy left for his soul.
The lighter was gone.
If one were to ask Andrew what had happened between zooming out of his dorm like a man possessed and sitting in Abby's living room with Neil’s phone having almost melded into his palm, he wouldn’t be able to give you a straight answer.
All he knew was that he had Neil’s phone, but that Neil was gone. All he knew was that Wildfire might have finally been caught, and that he had no way of breaking him out. All he knew was that Neil’s mother might have been right, after all.
Firemates were not guaranteed safe havens.
Something needed to burn.
(That something might as well be Andrew.)
Andrew’s phone was ringing, an unknown number flashing across his screen. It had been a day since he’d last seen Wildfire, and he was close to the point of no return, close to the edge of smoking embers and whispered encouragements calling tenderly for him.
He took the call, pressing his phone close to his ear.
The lump of cold coal that had settled in his heart caught fire in the most violent way imaginable, leaving him feeling like he was made of ash, and that even the gentlest of breezes could scatter him to the winds, taking him to where Wildfire was.
“Everything’s okay now,” a shuddering breath. “I’m coming home, if you’ll have me.”
“Don’t say stupid things,” he said, prodding at his bruised sense of calm and safety. “I told you to stay.”
A huffed, wobbly laugh.
The fireboy that had found a home told Andrew one more story once he was securely nestled between Andrew’s crossed legs, his head heavy on Andrew’s collarbone and his hands leaving sparkling trails of warmth on Andrew’s hands and forearms. He told Andrew about a High Council that punished those who killed elemental creatures and those involved in the active hunting of elementals. He told Andrew about his Uncle Stuart and how he had been gathering information to have a solid case against his father and utterly decimate him and his men. The boy that was now a roaring fire that kept his home warm told Andrew about his lighter and how they’d blown his childhood home to smithereens. How, by the time Stuart arrived, only clean-up duty remained.
Andrew felt a fierce pride fill his lungs and whispered a story of his own to the boy he finally held close to his chest, the one he had vowed to protect, even if he needed no protection. It was a long story about lonely boys, fire and water, lost chances and new opportunities.
Finally, Andrew swiped his thumb over his Wildfire’s knuckles and shared one last secret – the one only he and the fire knew about. It was a fragile thing that escaped from between his lips to seek refuge between unruly curls that tickled at Andrew’s chin.
He said –
(What, you didn’t think he’d tell us, did you?)