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Garden Privileges

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Like so many things in Andrew’s life, the gardening had been Renee’s fault. She’d started small, the way she always does, sneaking up on you like a tiger in tall grass. It had been the tomato plants first. They’re practical, she’d said. You have a perfect spot for them, she said. Trojan horse tomatoes more like, as they were followed by a parade of vegetable plants that took up the entire western edge of his stone fence by the end of that summer: courgettes and peppers, okra and carrots, and a cavalcade of herbs too numerous to mention. 

Andrew still refers to the tomato plants as Patient Zero. 

The next summer, she’d upped her game, and the veritable rainbow of marigolds and lilies, foxgloves and phlox currently taking over the eastern edge of his backyard was the result. 

So, the gardening was Renee’s fault, but Andrew takes full credit for the lushness of the little patch of land afforded to him by his shitty flat. If he likes to post up on his stoop just before twilight, a cigarette in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, content to watch drunk bumble bees tumble off his zinnias, well, that is no one’s business but his own. 

Andrew’s flat is one of two in the converted house; what would normally be the back door is his front door, while the upstairs neighbors use the proper entrance. Andrew always feels a little like he’s sneaking in after curfew when he slips in through the garden gate. It works for him, though, the garden. It’s all he’s ever wanted: a place that’s all his own, with a sturdy lock and all the peace and quiet you could ask for, tucked in between his door and three moss covered stone walls. The older couple that lives upstairs have always respected his privacy, never lingering on their balcony or trying to peer down at him during his sacred sitting and staring at nothing time. Well, lived being the more fitting term here; Sandy and John will be moving out in just under a week, leaving Andrew at the mercy of his landlord’s notoriously capricious whims. She’d chosen Andrew, after all. 

Andrew cuts Sandy’s hair for her one last time before they move, in the usual chair, placed in the center of the garden. At Fox he gets £50 for a haircut - plus tip - but he’s been doing hers for free for a couple of years now, and he sometimes finds silvery curls twined around the stems and roots of his plants like ethereal candy floss. In late spring too, Andrew will see threads of silver woven here and there in wren’s nests, glinting gossamer in the sun. He knows there are people who would think it gross, random hair popping up in their garden, but Andrew spends all day with his hands full of the stuff. It’s nice to see it put to some use, repurposed by industrious birds or adorning his hostas, instead of swept into a bin at the end of the day. 

That’s about the extent of their neighborly intimacy, though, so there’s nothing buzzing around in Andrew’s head other than curiosity about who he’ll be hearing walking around above him from now on. There’s a week of silence before small noises start filtering down from Andrew’s ceiling again, rather surprising considering there’d been no sign of someone actually moving in. He supposed they could have done it all while he was at work, but there is usually detritus. Paraphernalia. Broken-down boxes at least. Instead, a delicate four-beat tapping unceremoniously starts playing on a delayed loop from above; taptaptaptap, taptaptaptap, flomp, followed by an indeterminate quiet, and then taptaptaptap, taptaptaptap, flomp all over again.

Eventually, Andrew figures it out: it’s a dog—a dog living alone, apparently, since Andrew has yet to hear a single human-like sound from above.  Andrew is, himself, decidedly more of a cat person. If there was a cat living alone upstairs, they could both spend glorious chains of days in total silence. It is also more feasible for a cat to live alone upstairs; they are independent, self-sufficient. Dogs, on the other hand, are insufferably needy - just like their people.

It doesn’t bode well for the new upstairs neighbor. 

It’s another week before Andrew lays eyes on the cryptid living above him. It is a Saturday, which means Andrew spent ten hours on his feet clipping undercuts and feathering fringes and dying hip enby hair lavender, and he has just eased himself onto his stoop, barefoot and exhausted, when the prettiest man he’s ever seen walks through his garden gate, a lanky black greyhound at his side. It’s a striking difference in coloring. The guy has the typical British pallor, which sits in attractive contest to his dark red hair. Andrew could count the number of people he’s seen with that coloring naturally on one hand—and he knows enough about hair to know it’s home-grown.  

Andrew scans the man slowly as he approaches: ratty old running shoes, ratty old jeans that barely skim the lines of his legs, and a ratty old hoodie that lets Andrew know immediately that the guy is single. No self-respecting person would let their partner leave the house looking like that. His cursory survey complete, Andrew takes another drag off his cigarette, holding and releasing the breath in a long stream of smoke as the guy approaches. 

He isn’t ashamed to admit that open hostility is often his first move in a courtship—if you can apply the weight of that term to any of his half-assed emotional fumblings. 

“You must be Andrew,” the man says, unflinching in the face full of smoke, his high-brow British accent making something clench in the back of Andrew’s throat. You’d think he’d be used to it by now. 

“Depends,” Andrew says. “What do you want?”

The man grins, which does something to his cheekbones that should be illegal. At his side, the dog sits neatly, responding to some invisible command to tuck all those gangly legs into a prim, contained package. “I’m Neil. This is Kevin. We’re here to negotiate garden privileges.”

Andrew rolls his cigarette towards Neil in a ‘go on’ gesture. Second move in a courtship: disrespect. 

“Kevin is retired,” Neil explains. He looks down, like he expects Kevin to pick up the thread of the conversation, but all Kevin does is stare back up at him. Neil gives Kevin a speaking kind of look, but with no result. Finally, he nudges the dog’s side with his calf, and Kevin reluctantly gets his feet under him. Once he’s up, he poses, his stance majestic, the lift of his head regal. 

Andrew lifts one eyebrow. “I’m sure this pose brings all the girlies a-running, but I’m still not clear what it has to do with my garden.”

Neil looks down at the dog again. They seem to come to some kind of silent agreement. Neil meets Andrew’s eyes steadily and says, “The park isn’t close. Kevin’s hips are not what they used to be. He needs somewhere to have a shit.”

Andrew blinks. Surveys his late summer flowers and vegetables and herbs in full bloom and glorious with it, the grass trimmed and verdant and lush between. His gaze comes to rest on Neil again, who is really just unfairly pretty. “Well,” Andrew drawls, “when does the negotiating begin?”

That seems to give Neil some pause. His mouth opens and then closes again. Andrew had already been dreaming about tracing those cheekbones with his fingertips, but the mouth brings a whole new dimension to the fantasy—a lush, pillowy dimension. “Uh,” Neil says with his pretty, pretty mouth. “I was rather hoping you’d take one look at Kevin and be smitten and thus, helpless to resist?”

“See above re: girlies a runnin’,” Andrew all but drawls. He leans forward to prop elbows on knees; he is not unaware that this move shows his biceps off to an advantage. 

“Okay,” Neil agrees. Something sharp clicks on in his eyes. Andrew quite likes it. It’s surrender, but not. Missiles engaged. Full speed ahead. He’ll do what Andrew asks. “What do you want?”

Andrew doesn’t smile in triumph, but it’s a close thing. He lights another cigarette to buy some time and leans back again. “Could use an extra set of hands,” he says, with a head tilt towards the bustling flower beds. 

“Weeding?” Neil asks skeptically. “Hoeing?”

“For a start,” Andrew says with a straight face.

“I see,” Neil says, his accent caressing the vowels. “I’ve never done any gardening.”

“No experience necessary,” Andrew says. 

Neil considers this with a tilt of his head and a twist of his mouth before nodding decisively and dropping a hand to scratch behind Kevin’s ears. “It’s a deal then.”

Andrew slips back inside after they leave, in time to hear the front door open and close on the other side of his bedroom wall. He listens closely. The taptaptaptap has a different cadence going up the stairs, but it’s still the only thing he hears. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t hear so much as a scuff of Neil’s shoe against the tread. 

 

***

 

Neil and Kevin’s visits to Andrew’s garden run like clockwork. Andrew throws a salute to them on his way to the salon in the morning, but in the evening the two tend to slip in the garden gate just as Andrew is propping up with his first cup of tea. Or, perhaps, Andrew happens to be propping up with his first cup of tea when he hears the taptaptaptap of paws against wood.

On day three, Andrew brings out a second cup and wordlessly holds it up until Neil (and Kevin) perch beside him on the stoop. So far, it hasn’t been a hardship at all. Kevin is quiet and doesn’t destroy anything. Neil scrupulously picks up after him. 

“Was he good?” Andrew asks one day. 

“At racing?”

“At bank robbery,” Andrew answers drily.

Neil flashes him a quick grin, as silky and intoxicating as any whiskey Andrew has ever had. “He was okay.”

Kevin has taken to stretching out between them, legs stretched long like superman. Scars litter his left front and patches of fur are muddled and missing around them; Andrew catches himself tracing the edge of his arm band with one fingertip and forces himself to stop. “Odd name for a dog,” he says. Kevin rests his head on Andrew’s thigh, and when Andrew doesn’t shove him off he sighs and closes his eyes. 

“Human Kevin thinks so too,” Neil says. 

“And what did human Kevin do to earn the honor of his namesake?”

“Annoy me,” Neil admits. “And be my only friend.”

“Ah” Andrew says. He has one of those, too. “Is that why you dress like this?”

Neil looks down reflexively, seeming to have only just now noticed that he was wearing clothes. They’re as bad as they have been since Neil walked into his garden that first time. Andrew is pretty sure he’s wearing authentic mom jeans from the 1980s. Light rinse. Probably Andrew should thank some higher power that they aren’t acid wash. 

“Oh,” Neil says sheepishly. He turns his wrist over carefully, hiding the worn-through cuffs of his sweater. “No, human Kevin has given me a number of stern talking-tos about my wardrobe.”

“Not very persuasive is he,” Andrew observes. 

Neil hides a small smile in his tea cup. 

 

***

 

Sunday is Andrew’s next day off and Neil’s first day of servitude in the garden. The south wall is limned in perennials, and the summer annuals on the east wall are only starting their descent into droopiness, so it is the tired vegetables that Andrew has his eye on. Renee had swung by earlier in the week unannounced, dropping off palettes of tiny cabbages and winter lettuces, and leaving with only the gentlest of inquiring side-eye at Andrew’s new stoop-sitting mates. 

Neil and Kevin show up in the flush of mid-morning, at the agreed-upon time. It takes Andrew a second to remember who Neil is, because the man walking into his garden is attired in new-looking everything: jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a puffy vest that looks like it comes with its own pedigree. 

“What are you wearing?” Andrew asks bluntly. 

“Um,” Neil says. He looks down at himself with what Andrew might think was self-consciousness, if he’d ever gotten a whiff of anything other than frank self-acceptance from Neil. “Clothes?”

“Yes, but whose clothes? Did you rob the landed gentry?”

Neil does that head tilt thing he does and says, “Well, actually, sort of. I mentioned I would be taking up gardening and Jeremy just, gave them to me.”

“You said you only had one friend.”

Neil shrugs. “Jeremy belongs to Kevin. A matched set. Only counts as one, really.”

“I don’t think that is how that works,” Andrew says mildly. 

“What’s the matter with my clothes?” Neil asks. “Do you hate these too?”

Andrew looks him over, from the tip of his unruly little man-bun to the brand new wellies on his feet. The jeans are perfectly distressed and snugger than Neil normally wears, and the vest is teal, which highlights Neil’s blue eyes to the point of otherworldliness. Jeremy, Andrew thinks, is an asshole. “Yes,” he says. “Loathe them.” 

Neil narrows his eyes at him, a considering look stalled on his face for a long moment before he grins and says, “Liar.”

“Shut up,” Andrew mutters, and shoves a trowel at Neil’s chest. 

 

***

 

The next time they come down, Neil is not the only one with new clothes. Kevin is sporting a new sweater, an argyle thing that makes his legs look frail and spindly. 

“Jeremy go shopping again?” Andrew asks. His tone is maybe sharper than usual, and his mug holds whiskey instead of tea. He’d had his shitty monthly call with Aaron this morning. Andrew had been precisely on time. Aaron had been one minute late—that’s nothing new, but there’s a small, childish part of him that sours as each second counts by. 

Neil and Kevin both ignore his tone and settle down next to him in their spots, Kevin between them, his head on Andrew’s knee. It’s calming. (Goddamnit it.) “No, this one’s on me,” Neil says. “Kevin has a rather extensive wardrobe actually. Got another one of those?” he asks with a glance at Andrew’s mug.

Andrew twists to grab the insulated mug he’d put Neil’s tea in earlier, careful not to dislodge Kevin’s head. He unscrews the lid, takes a sniff of the citrus chamomile he’d made for Neil earlier, a fragrant blend that Neil seems to like, and then tosses its contents into the grass. Another twist nets him the bottle of whiskey, which he unscrews and pours into the mug for a generous count of one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. He hands it over wordlessly.

“Thanks,” Neil says. He takes a sip and leans into the doorframe, eyes on Andrew and free hand resting on Kevin’s back. They sit in companionable silence while Andrew watches an interesting play of expressions dance across Neil’s face out of the corner of his eye before Neil finally scrunches up his nose and asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Andrew frowns. “No,” he says, and then without planning to - in fact very much planning not to - he says, “I talked to my brother today.”

Neil makes a meal of that information. Andrew is almost impatient for him to blurt out something, some kind of polite question that people ask about siblings, but Neil takes his time. Andrew counts the stroke of Neil’s hand down Kevin’s back while he waits. He gets to eleven before Neil asks, “Where does he live?”

It’s a neutral question. An exit ramp if Andrew wants it; an invitation if not. “Chicago,” he says. He considers the exit ramp. Sips his whiskey. “He went to med school. I followed Renee here.”

This time, Neil takes a sip of his own drink before replying—it’s a bit of an aperitif to the emotional depths they’re standing on the shore of. Andrew can almost feel the water lapping at his toes, the tides reaching for him, but all Neil says when he finally speaks is, “How are you at tossing tennis balls?”

There’s not a lot of lawn space, but Kevin’s version of fetch is nothing that can be described as exuberant. Neil and Andrew stand shoulder to shoulder, soft tossing a scruffy tennis ball, careful not to throw it far enough to hit the heucheras. Kevin hops and scrabbles awkwardly, missing more than he catches, a look of delirious joy painted on his normally stoic face. 

The sun has almost disappeared entirely and Kevin has flopped belly to the grass and panting when Neil says, “My father was American.” 

“Was?”

“Dead,” Neil says. “We’re not mad about it.”

Andrew nods. He feels much the same about Tilda. They make their way back to the stoop under Kevin’s watchful eye, and Andrew tops up their mugs. It’s too late in the season for fireflies, but a few of them make an appearance anyway, and they watch them in silence until the whiskey is gone.

 

***

 

Andrew’s hands are gummy with grated zucchini when the knock on the door comes. He moves to wipe his hands off on his apron, realizes at the last second he’s not wearing an apron, and grabs for a dish towel instead. When he pokes his head out of his kitchen he recognizes the person-shaped thing visible through the glass of his door: Neil. 

Three things surprise him when he reaches the door and opens it. The first: Neil is alone. Andrew doesn’t think he’s ever seen Neil without a Kevin shadow. The second: Neil is carrying the most pathetic potted plant Andrew has had the misfortune to look upon; he’s curled it surreptitiously close to his chest. The third: Neil is wearing incredibly gay shorts. There’s nothing rainbow or sparkly or pride-themed about them. They are just quite short. And snug. And they make Andrew feel extremely, painfully gay. 

His brain glitches. Neil stands, waiting. When Andrew opens his mouth, hoping for the best, what comes out is, “What is that thing?”

“Not quite sure,” Neil says cagily. “I just rescued it.”

“This is a habit for you, isn’t it?

“No,” Neil says. Frowns. “Maybe. Can you help?”

Andrew rolls his eyes and moves out of the doorway to nod Neil inside. Indoor plants aren’t really his area of expertise, but it’s pretty clear someone has drowned this pothos in its own pot. It is potentially a solvable problem. “Put it on the table and wash your hands.”

Neil sets the sad thing on Andrew’s kitchen-dining-desk table carefully. “I need clean hands to save the plant?”

“No. You need clean hands to help me finish the zucchini bread.”

Neil doesn’t move, but his eyes start to gleam. 

Andrew is getting way too into that look.

“If I recall,” Neil says slowly, “we agreed upon yard work for access. This is not yard work, so perhaps we need to enter into a new negotiation.”

Andrew crosses his arms. “You’re right. I am about to feed you delicious zucchini bread fresh from the oven, made from the last of my perfect courgettes, after which I am going to save the life of Kevin Junior there, and you are offering me...what exactly?”

He can tell the exact moment he loses control of this conversation; Neil breaks into a slow, dazzling smile, something unfettered and a little wild. Neil says, “Kevin Junior?”

“Oh?” Andrew says, turning to pull eggs from the fridge and to surreptitiously stick his face into the cool air for a moment. He could blame the heat in his cheeks and ears on the baking, but the oven hasn’t pre-heated yet and he’d have to be pretty lacking in upper body strength for the grating to get him sweating. “Don’t tell me you were going to exercise some creativity this time.”

“Perhaps I would have named it after you.”

Is that flirting? Is Andrew being flirted with in his own kitchen? Right in front of his zucchini bread?

He turns to face Neil and does the only thing he can do in the face of such terrifying possibility. He deflects. “Crack four of those,” he says, handing the carton off to Neil, “and tell me more about human Kevin and why you have no friends.”

“Do you have to ask?” Neil’s smile turns wry. Mission accomplished, Andrew supposes. Pretty man distracted. “I’m sure you’ve noticed…” He gestures towards himself vaguely as his voice trails off. 

Andrew hums, and hands him a bowl for the eggs. He sifts flour, and waits, and eventually, haltingly, Neil starts talking. About Kevin and Jeremy’s work with homeless queer youth. About how Neil had started volunteering with them - sporadically at first, and then going full time when their shelter coordinator quit. About how human Kevin had been Neil’s only friend for a very long time, at least until his parents had died. 

“I was homeless, once,” Neil says, quietly. “For a bit, anyway. Until my uncle found me.”

Andrew nods, acknowledging it. He doesn’t try to break the mood by making a joke about the way Neil dresses. He doesn’t ask the questions this confession sends ricocheting around his mind—how did you stay alive, what did you have to do, did the same things happen to you that happened to me?

“He got me out,” Neil says. “If I can do that for someone else…” He shrugs awkwardly. 

For a very brief, very awful moment, Andrew hates him. Hates that he is hearing this, hates the way his lungs squeeze, hates that he wants to offer comfort that is not being asked for, hates that Neil is so much more than a pretty, pretty face. 

Andrew doesn’t say anything. Steps around Neil to reach the honey, the cinnamon. He finishes off the batter and pours it into two prepared tins, tucks them into the oven. 

“Hey, I’m-” Neil starts

“I was in foster care,” Andrew says, cutting him off. “It’s not homeless, but it wasn’t a good thing.” He dusts his hands off on his jeans, uncaring that he is still without an apron. “What you are doing is a good thing, Neil.” 

Neil is standing close - too close, searching Andrew’s face for something Andrew is not ready to let him find. Instead he wraps one finger in the hem of Neil’s shirt and tugs him towards the table. “Let’s see about this plant.”

 

***

 

“What’s this?” Neil asks, pulling a curl from around a withered snapdragon plant. The first frost has taken out the last of the stubborn annuals, and Andrew and Neil had been on hands and knees all morning prepping the western flower bed for pansies and mums and snowdrops. 

“Sandy,” Andrew says. “Lived above me before you. I used to cut her hair in the garden.”

Neil considers the silver between his fingers, and Andrew knows him well enough now not to expect him to be squeamish over a little hair. Neil lets go of it, watches the strands drift to land on the grass. Kevin stretches forward to nose at them curiously. “Would you cut mine?”

Andrew holds in a breath and sits back on his heels. Neil’s hair is the color of good ceylon cinnamon, thick and wavy and wild, and always, always tucked into a haphazard bun at the back of his head. Andrew would be lying if he said he hadn’t been itching to get his hands on it. 

Neil reaches up and tugs the bun loose, running his hand through his hair just once before stretching the hair tie over his wrist with a snap. Except it isn’t a hair tie. 

“Is that a fucking rubber band?”

“Yes?” Neil says, brow furrowed. 

“Fuck, Neil.” Andrew looks at him. His hair is a poofy cloud down to his shoulders, finishing off in uneven, jagged split ends and snarls. It hurts to look at. “Do you even own conditioner?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

Andrew’s sigh is long-suffering and dramatic. “I’d need to cut at least three inches off to get it healthy,” he says. 

“Cut it all off,” Neil says with a careless shrug.

Andrew drags out the chair he hasn’t used since Sandy and gets his good scissors, Kevin pacing by his side as he sets up. Clippers would be better for what Andrew has planned, but he doesn’t have a cordless set and he can do it just as well with scissors - it just takes longer. Andrew doesn’t mind it taking longer.  Besides, he wants to do this in the garden; he likes the idea of spying russet curls in nests next spring and finding strands of copper spiraled around sunflower stalks.

Neil goes still as a statue at the first slip of Andrew’s fingers into his hair. At the first snick of Andrew’s scissors, Neil stops breathing. 

“Neil?”

“It’s fine.”

Andrew circles the chair and tilts Neil’s face up with one finger. “When’s the last time you had a hair cut?”

“I haven’t,” Neil says.

Andrew processes this, thinks about all the things it means, and doesn’t ask. “I won’t hurt you,” he says instead. 

“I know.” Neil smiles, and his eyes are clear and soft, and Andrew sees the scarcest scattering of pale freckles, highlighted in the autumn sun. 

Andrew takes his time, his hand a guide for his scissors so Neil knows where he’s cutting, each snip preceded by touch. He takes the sides and back short into an undercut, leaving enough length to be soft. The top, he leaves long and falling over Neil’s brow; with the weight gone, the thick waves tighten into heavy curls. 

When he’s done, he brushes rogue hair from Neil’s shoulders and steps in front of him. “Finished,” he says. “Do you want to see?” 

Neil blinks his eyes open and looks up at him. “No.” He looks sleepy and sun-kissed. 

Andrew reaches up, runs his fingertips along the side of Neil’s head, against the soft grain of the shorn hair. “It suits you,” Andrew says, and steps away. 

 

***

 

“Kevin wants to meet you,” Neil says.

Andrew looks down at the greyhound half sprawled in his lap and then back at Neil with one eyebrow raised.

“Human Kevin,” Neil clarifies. “It’s the haircut. You’ve really brought this on yourself.”

Andrew hums and scratches Kevin behind one ear. 

“A few beers in the garden? Saturday evening?” Neil suggests. 

“I’m not sure parties are included in your negotiated privileges.”

Neil turns the full power of those arctic blues on him. “No?” 

Andrew sighs. “I’ll have to invite Renee, too.”

Inviting human Kevin for a few beers in the garden means Jeremy comes too, and Renee of course brings Jean. And then there is a proper gathering in Andrew’s garden—the very same garden that had been forced upon him by Renee, who’d thought he was too isolated, too much at loose ends, too wallowing in the cosmic twist of cruel fate that ensured the hardest person for Andrew to relate to was the one who looked like his reflection. 

What Andrew hadn’t planned for was the ‘couples dinner party’ vibe that the evening inevitably settles into: Kevin and Jeremy, attached at the hip; Renee and Jean, with their easy chemistry; and… Andrew and Neil. Andrew and… Neil, who never seems to be more than an arm’s length away. Neil, whose knuckles feel like fire when they so much as brush the back of Andrew’s hand. Neil, who laughs at Andrew’s jokes. Neil, who saves things because he’s driven to do it: Kevin, queer youth, Kevin Junior, and Kevin the third, a sapling Neil had dug out of the ground and hauled back to their house because he was sure it had been forgotten about. 

Andrew thinks about Neil so often that he’s probably burning the name permanently into some part of his brain. At the market, buying tea: Neil might like this one. At work, cutting hair: how long until Neil will need a trim? At the gym, lifting weights: surely it’s getting too cold for Neil to keep wearing the tiny shorts. Will he start running inside soon? Does he have a gym? Andrew should bring him to his. 

Somehow, Neil has seeped into every nook and cranny of Andrew’s life. It’s an impressive feat for a man who’s so good at going unseen that Andrew has still never heard a single human footstep from above. He thinks, if he ever hears one, he’ll probably go charging up the stairs, assuming that something has gone terribly wrong. 

When Neil elbows him gently in the ribs, Andrew realizes that he’s lost long moments daydreaming about the man sitting literally right next to him and looking at him with fond amusement. 

“What?” Andrew asks. 

“Kevin asked you a question.”

“Good for Kevin,” Andrew says, off-balance, disliking having lost the thread of the conversation. 

“He was thinking about the economy,” Neil tells the group. “He’s been very concerned.”

“Uh huh,” Kevin says. His accent is all lilting, lyrical Irish, pleasant and musical. “Do you like exy, Andrew?”

“Does anyone?” Andrew asks in response. 

“Kevin does,” Neil says, hiding his amusement behind his mug. 

“Yes,” Kevin agrees drily. “Me and only me. I am the lone exy fan. Neil thinks there’s a hoop involved.”

“Isn’t there?” Neil asks. “And a broom?”

“That’s curling,” Jeremy chimes in helpfully. “An underrated sport, actually.”

“As it happens, Andrew and I met playing exy in high school,” Renee says.

“Judas,” Andrew accuses her. She smiles at him, completely unapologetic, one hand wrapped around a can of cider, the market lights strung above them turning the bright pink of her pixie cut into an orange tinged sunset. 

Kevin’s whole face lights up and he scoots his chair closer to Andrew. Neil had, over the course of the week, come home with six mismatched lawn chairs and two sets of string market lights that were only missing ten bulbs between them—which yielded one actual working set of lights when they pilfered working bulbs from one strand to fill in the gaps in the other. Andrew had been quietly exasperated, had asked Neil, “What, did you rescue these too?” Neil had just grinned, and Andrew had fixed them and hung them at Neil’s direction. 

“Andrew?” Neil says, the amusement not so quiet in his tone.

“Hmm?”

“Kevin asked you what position you played in sportsball,” Neil prods. His smile is brighter than the market lights. 

“Exy,” Kevin corrects.

“He asked you twice,” Neil says. He’s laughing. Andrew likes it, even if it is at his expense. 

“Goalkeep,” Andrew says. 

And with that, Andrew finds himself swept up in a vigorous conversation about exy of all things, something that normally would be at the top of a very long list of things he does not want to do, yet somehow he doesn’t mind. It becomes clear pretty quickly that they’ve all played at some point in school or university - all except for Neil. 

“You weren’t into sports?” Jean asks him with polite interest. 

Andrew catches the shift in Kevin’s face just before Neil says, with a carefully controlled tone, “I wasn’t allowed out much.” 

With the practiced ease of a politician, Jeremy stands up to grab everyone a new round of beer and cider, and launches into a story about an ill-fated yet hilarious field trip they’d taken their organization’s youth on to Oxford - not one but three of the kids had fallen into the Thames while punting. With only a slightly worried look in Neil’s direction, Kevin lets him change the subject, and Jeremy is so smooth, so charming, Andrew doubts Jean even realizes what happened. He steals a glance at Neil, but Neil is unbothered, a warm look on his face as he nurses his own cider and watches Jeremy. 

The evening dwindles, and then ends with Kevin and Jeremy off first, Kevin pausing to wrap Neil in a tight hug and whisper something in his ear, and then Renee is kissing Andrew’s cheek and walking hand and hand with Jean out the garden gate. Neil and Andrew gather bottles and stack chairs - as best as the mismatched chairs can stack - and flop companionably on the stoop, the four-footed Kevin, as usual, between them. Andrew drops a hand to Kevin’s back, smoothing the silky black hair between his shoulder blades. 

“That went well,” Neil says. 

Andrew has to agree that it did, so he hums quietly. Kevin’s head is resting against Neil’s thigh, and Andrew watches as Neil runs a gentle hand down Kevin’s nose, between his ears, down his neck, until he stops with his fingertips just next to Andrew’s. For the length of an exhale, his hand hovers there, unmoving. 

“Human Kevin thinks we should have kissed by now.” Neil says this as he slides his hand under Andrew’s, and Andrew turns his hand over to capture his. It is both thrilling and the most natural thing in the world when they entwine fingers and are suddenly palm to palm, holding hands. 

“Human Kevin has a lot of opinions,” Andrew says, his heart beating wildly in his ears. 

Neil strokes his thumb softly over Andrew’s skin. It’s mesmerizing. “Do you want to kiss me?” he asks. 

“Every day since the day you walked into my garden,” Andrew says, throwing any idea of playing it cool out the window.

“Oh,” Neil says softly, finally looking up at Andrew. His eyes are pools of midnight in the low light, and his two ciders have left a warm flush across his cheeks. “Then why haven’t you?” 

“Because this,” Andrew says, squeezing his hand, “is too important to throw away on whimsy.”

“Whimsy,” Neil says, and snags a bit of Andrew’s shirt, and pulls him closer and kisses him. 

 

***

 

Technically, Neil has a cell phone, but he forgets to charge it so often that it might as well be useless. When Andrew needs him—for gardening, for baking, for dinner, for aimless making out on the couch—he just bangs the end of a broomstick against the ceiling a few times. Tap, tap, tap of the broomstick. Taptaptaptap of Kevin’s paws, the absolute silence of Neil’s footsteps, the chime of the bell on the garden gate, and then Neil. 

Everything has been kind of fucking perfect. Andrew had never bought into the idea that having a romantic partner would somehow fix his life or make the sun shine brighter or anything, but maybe there’s something to it. Or maybe it’s not the romantic part—maybe it’s just finding someone you can be completely still with. Someone who will laugh when you tell them about your nightmare clients. Someone who will sit and watch you rage without flinching. Someone with perfectly sculpted thighs. 

So, of course, a bomb lands in the middle of it. The bomb comes in the form of a typed letter, a single page of ordinary words, signed at the bottom in a spidery scrawl. 

Andrew reads the letter. He sets it down carefully, resisting the urge to crumple it in frustration. 

And then he gets the broom out and bangs on the ceiling. 

Moments later, the gate bell rings; Neil slips through the back door with Kevin on his heels and a baggie of baby carrots in his hand. 

“Hey,” Neil says. He shuffles over to Andrew and kisses him on the corner of the mouth quickly. “What’s wrong?”

“Landlord,” Andrew grunts. “Did you get a letter?”

“From the landlord? I haven’t checked.”

“She wants to sell.” Sell the house. Sell Andrew’s garden. Sell the delicate, fledgling thing he and Neil have been building. Andrew stupidly went and made this place home, forgetting that he had no ownership, that it didn’t really belong to him. And now, like every other place he’s ever tried to hold onto, it will be taken from him for no better reason than that someone else doesn’t want it anymore. 

“The house?” Neil asks. He doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation. 

Andrew scowls at him. “Yes, Neil, the house. She’s selling the house.”

Neil and Kevin both cock their heads at him. It’s so synchronized it’s almost creepy. “Your garden,” Neil says slowly. It sounds like a guess.

“Among other things.”

“How much does she want?” Neil asks. 

“You know, she didn’t say,” Andrew tells him flatly. “I imagine it did not seem relevant. She would like us to know that she is engaging a realtor and would we please prepare the property for showings.” 

“Hmmm,” Neil hums. He pulls out another baby carrot and takes a bite on it, chewing thoughtfully. He looks around while his jaw works, then swallows and says, “I don’t think I want to move.”

Andrew shrugs dismissively. He needs a whiskey. He’s getting emotional. “You got house buying money?”

“Actually, yes,” Neil says. 

Andrew gives him a skeptical once-over. The hems of his sweatpants are frayed. His socks are mismatched, the kind of cheap fuzzy shit you buy from the dollar bin at the grocery store. 

Neil digs out another carrot and points it at Andrew sternly. “These clothes are very comfortable.”

“So, what, you took all the money normal people would have spent on presentable clothing and hoarded it?”

“Nah,” Neil says. He grins at Andrew, his teeth white and straight, his eyes soft. “I’m just rich.”

“You,” Andrew says. “Rich.”

“Uh huh.”

“Shut up,” Andrew says firmly. “Stop talking. I need a drink.” 

A drink, and to process the influx of new information. He’d been well on his way to resigned despair in the aftermath of the letter. And then in comes Neil, casually announcing he’s rich and can buy the house. Their house. Andrew is inclined to believe most of the things that come out of Neil’s mouth. Especially the blithe ones—Neil is almost flippant about the worst of his history. Stories about hot irons and butcher’s cleavers slip from his tongue easily. Smooth distance is Neil’s modus operandi for telling his deepest truths. 

No, he doesn’t think Neil is lying to him. It feels impossible in some weird way, like they’re so tangled up together already that Neil would be breathing lies into Andrew’s lungs using Andrew’s own breath. The other option is that Neil is exaggerating, but Andrew doubts that. The only remaining possibility is that Neil actually is rich. Rich enough to buy this house, at least, which is all the rich he needs to be. 

Andrew’s hands are steady when he pours himself his drink into his usual mug. 

“If you do have money,” Andrew asks Neil, “why are you living here?”

“Why wouldn’t I be living here?” Neil asks. 

Because it’s cheap. The rent is low. Andrew looks around his flat for obvious signs of its shittiness. He’s surprised to find that he finds nothing, really. It is small, but the floors have a deep, rich, honey-colored history to them, and the crown moulding is complicated and clean, and the kitchen is generous and warm and has a good view of the garden. Even the water pressure is good. Andrew starts thinking about the possibilities. The implications. 

“Would you want the first floor?” Andrew asks. “For Kevin.”

Neil hesitates. Andrew finds this interesting. Neil is only ever hesitant about hope. He hesitates before he tells Andrew things that matter to him—not out of fear of rejection, Andrew thinks, but out of a fragile hope of acceptance. 

Neil had hesitated the first night they’d kissed. 

“Well,” Neil says quietly, “this house never made sense as two flats.”

Andrew’s pulse leaps, then freezes. His lungs still, pressed between an inhale and an exhale. He waits, because he is powerless to do anything else. 

Cautiously, Neil says, “It could be one house again.”

“One house that we both live in?” Andrew asks. 

“All three of us,” Neil corrects. “But yes.”

Andrew looks instinctually towards Kevin, who’s sat politely beside Neil on the floor. He meets the dog’s dark, liquid eyes for a long  moment before Kevin roos at him encouragingly. Andrew is taking encouragement from a dog. Andrew is moving in with a man. Andrew is considering home renovation. 

“The garden should be the main entrance,” Andrew says.

Neil’s smile is incandescent. “It will be.”

“We’ll need a bigger kitchen.”

“We’ll have one,” Neil says. He steps within grabbing distance. Andrew sets his whiskey aside and captures Neil’s wrists to pull them both onto the couch. Neil lands in his lap, and Kevin follows joyfully, with a rare bark, tumbling into them both. Andrew has Neil’s ratty jumper rucked halfway up his back, hands roving and conversation all but abandoned for kissing when Neil pulls back to place a steadying palm on either side of Andrew’s face. “That’s a yes then?” he asks.

“That’s a yes,” Andrew confirms, a tentative, thrilling hope unfurling in his heart.

 

***

 

Construction doesn’t start until winter has loosened her grip and the first buds of spring have started to appear on bare tree limbs. They’d decided together on a careful overhaul of the house - freshening the bathrooms, refinishing the floors, expanding the kitchen, adding a stairwell wide enough for a greyhound to easily navigate. 

The builders are particularly noisy today, taking down a wall with sledgehammers and power saws, so Neil and Andrew retreat to the garden and their assigned seats on the stoop, cups of tea in hand and Kevin at their feet. Neil leans against Andrew’s side, and they survey the garden. It will soon be time to turn the annual beds and plant spring vegetables.

“Probably won’t freeze again,” Andrew says. 

“No,” Neil agrees. “I quite like poppies, you know.”

“I think they’ll grow here,” Andrew says with a slow nod, and Neil hums happily, dropping his head to Andrew’s shoulder. 

They sit that way until the cacophony behind them quiets, Kevin’s head pillowed on Andrew’s foot and a garden full of possibilities laid out in front of them.