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L'amour parle en fleurs

Chapter Text

Prologue: non, je ne regrette rien

“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in--what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.”

― Victor Hugo  

On a blue hill perched below the Alps, there once lived a man who used to be the son of a crime lord. Not many people would have known he was there, but Andrew did. He had cut himself free of the roots of his past and planted new ones, blooming in a country that should never have belonged to him, yet matched the varying shades of his soul. Andrew was nineteen when he first heard of that man. He was nearly thirty before he ever took the long flight across the Atlantic and met him.

He never apologised to Andrew for what had happened to him, never tried to comfort him. Not on that sun-drenched afternoon when they first met, nor on any day since. What good would it have done? An apology was never going to bring Aaron back to Andrew. Commiserations could not raise the dead. No words would heal such loss.

And the man understood that in a way no other person did.

Twenty-two years later, Andrew paused at the garden gate, staring up the sloping drive towards the old Provençal bastide with its sun-shadowed arches and warm ashlar-stone. All around it the wild flowers tangled and swayed in the breeze, perfuming the air with a thousand memories made stronger by recently fallen rain.

Andrew tucked the urn under his arm more securely and started to climb, the scents carrying him further back in time with every step, like a stream bearing away petals fallen in a summer storm.

 

Chapter Text

*

Stage I - Denial

“Every flower is a soul blossoming in nature.” – Gerard De Nerval

 Twenty-two years ago

When Andrew woke that first morning in France, bruises had stiffened his face into a mask.

It was late May and outside the dawn had broken hours ago, giving way to a warm morning full of damp, earthy smells left behind by the storm he’d landed in the night before. He came to consciousness slowly, his eyes cracking open and taking in the white washed walls, the exposed wooden beams, the yellow light spilling between lulling chiffon curtains. He wasn’t in America anymore, that was for sure. It took him a minute to remember he was in France, in the Riviera, in an old farm house close to Chateauneuf-de-grasse.

Rolling onto his back, he lay there for a moment, just staring at the ceiling, at the fan he hadn’t bothered to turn on, at the cracks in the old wood. He could feel a prickle of sweat on his bare chest, a clawing emptiness in his stomach.

What am I doing here? He asked himself. It was not the first time he’d thought such a thing since taking off from Denver only to touchdown in the middle of a storm that shook his plane so hard he’d nearly bitten clean through his lower lip. 

Stupid question, he knew why he was there.

His brother was dead.

His twin.

Gone.

And fuck, Andrew didn’t want to deal with that.

He closed his eyes against the daylight, threw an arm over his eyes and urged himself back to sleep but it wouldn’t come. The ache of his bruises made it impossible to drift away. Shadows in his mind nudged at the moment that he’d found out Aaron existed, how he’d wanted to erase the knowledge from his brain then too.

Still he lay there.

Lay there and lay there.

Thoughts came and left his head like fish swimming below the surface of a dark pond – he knew they existed, but couldn’t catch the details, couldn’t take hold of them. He was separated from it all, staring into the depths but failing to see beyond glancing light upon the surface. That was okay, though, he didn’t want to see below anyway.

Drawing himself upright, Andrew forced himself out of bed. His head felt full and dazed, his chest emptier than he could ever remember. Even those nights in California – battered and used and left to recover alone in the dark – hadn’t ever felt so hollow as this. He’d always been able to see an end back then, a time when the pain would stop.

He couldn’t see that now. There would be no end.

How could there be?

This was grief. Abstract, self-conscious. This was the fourth-wall being broken and the world peering into his soul as he tried, furiously, to remember how to play his part.

Shut up, shut up, Andrew begged his brain. It never listened.

He dragged himself to the ensuite, grimaced at his reflection in the mirror. His face was mottled browns and blues, his left shoulder bore the clear imprint of fists, his ribs were blackened where his opponent landed several sharp kicks. He poked his lower lip. It was still too swollen and sore to replace his piercings. 

“You should see the other guy,” he’d said to Kevin over the phone. But that hadn’t stopped his former teammate’s sigh of frustration.

“You can’t keep on like this, Andrew. Cage fighting. For god’s sake, it’s just another way for you to hurt yourself.”

“Fuck you. I’m self-destructive, not stupid.” He knew what he was doing as much as he also knew that Kevin was right. That didn’t mean he wanted to hear it.

“But your contract…”

“Fuck my contract.” Andrew had said, and he meant it. His brother was fucking dead. He was done with stickball. He was done with Denver. He was done with all of it. Done with this stupid life he’d held onto for no reason for so long. At least the fights gave him something to feel other than nothing. Adrenalin. Focus. No pressure. Just violence. The cage was the cage and he was awake in it.

“You promised –”

“Oh yes, my promises. Look where they’ve got us, hm?”

Look where they’ve got us.

Andrew stared at his reflection. He was here, alive, in France. His arms quivered with the urge to lash out at his likeness, at his double in the mirror that shouldn’t – couldn’t – be there anymore. Clenching his fists, he pushed the thought away. He wasn’t going to think about Aaron. He wasn’t going to think about all those years spent keeping his twin close, safe, sober.

In the end he didn’t bother with a shower, but he did brush his teeth, keeping his eyes averted from the mirror in a way that allowed him to avoid reminders about a matching scowl and matching eyes and a voice he’d never hear again.

Padding downstairs, he took in the house he’d barely glanced at the night before when he’d arrived, too determined to fall face first into the next soft surface he saw.

In the light of day, he could see the communal area was mostly open plan. His staircase led down to a large living room with a fireplace and several sofas that looked comfortable enough for a midday doze. Off to the left ran through to a cosily furnished space lined with books in at least five different languages, whilst the right opened into the kitchen and pantry – all of them were full of light thanks to the ceiling-to-floor French windows, pale blue-grey shutters having been left open overnight. Through them, lay a terrace and the top of the steps that would lead down to the pool. He knew there were four more bedrooms, two downstairs and three up, and he noted the doors to them, tucked into alcoves and a second staircase on the other side of the front door. Maybe he’d make it a challenge to sleep in all of them.

Unlikely, said a voice in his head, the one you’re in is the only one that’s high up and separate. Secure, defensible.

Walking towards the kitchen, Andrew realised that the furniture came from all over the world. There was an old English table with a set of Japanese teacups. Art lined the walls: European abstracts and line drawings in Indian ink, calligraphic poems and dream-pale watercolours. Little statuettes sat on shelves and lined the patio steps: old gods, lucky lions and fat Buddhas, two small kitsune bearing candles. This was the home of someone who cared about space, who understood light and shadow. Yet, Andrew noticed there was something missing – like a horimono tattoo with a space left empty. It took him a moment to realise what it was. A lack of photos, of personal intrusions. For all that it felt warm, it also felt incomplete, unfinished. Homely without being a home.

A cloud passed over the sun, casting the room into momentary gloom. Andrew’s eye was drawn out to the impossible brightness of the hills outside – the distant greens and blues, gold stone and warm skies – he wanted to swim beneath them.

But first, coffee.

He needed coffee.

The machine in the kitchen required beans, which he found and ground before setting the water to heat. It was when he looked for a mug that he found the letter, propped against the ceramics. 

Dear Guest, read the envelope.

Andrew assumed it would be the usual “wifi code here, emergency phone numbers there” kind of note often found at other short-term lets, but when he opened it, there were far too many words on the page. With a huff of annoyance, he folded it back up and tucked it under his arm to read outside.

The coffee machine grumbled to life and soon enough a bitter aroma filled the room. Fortunately, there was full-fat milk ready and waiting in the fridge and plenty of sugar in the cupboards. Andrew added enough of both that he could imagine Kevin’s teeth hurting from across the Atlantic.

He took the coffee and letter onto the terrace, letting the warm morning wind ruffle his hair. The air was clean and full of grass, as if it had only ever been breathed by wild things. After the gritty stink of Denver and the clammy heat of South Carolina, the change was welcome. It let him pretend that the rest of the world didn’t exist.

Ignoring the table, Andrew went instead to the edge of the terrace, looking out over the expanse of countryside. The bastide perched on the slope of a hill, and it felt like standing on the edge of a dream – everything too bright in the early summer sun to be real. Below the terrace lay a pool surrounded by pale green bushes, and for half an acre beyond that lay hedges and trees that outlined the boundary of the garden and to Andrew resembled the waves of the ocean surging to shore. Further down the hill, he could make out the line of a stone wall, rippling with overgrown vines and guessed this was the edge of the property, though he remembered from the booking description that the surrounding fields also belonged to the house, that the estate was known for growing award-winning lavender right here on the slopes of the prealpes d’azur. Everything was full of shades of greens, some so deep they were almost black, others so bright they were emeralds glinting in the sun. The horizon, however, was all blues and whites where the Alps were still tipped by the last of the spring’s snow.

Andrew felt small, alone, unreal.

Yet this time the isolation was different - whilst Andrew was used to feeling severed from the world, like it was out of arm’s reach – here, he could sense there was a shadow beneath his feet. He knew he could move through this landscape that was at once unfamiliar but achingly recognisable. He could. That didn't mean he would.

Blond hair ruffling in the wind, he chose a spot in the sun and opened the letter.

The writing was cursive, sloping but precise, and Andrew knew whoever wrote it had enjoyed putting pen to paper, had wanted to share these thoughts. Humming to himself, he settled in to read:

Bonjour! 

If you’re reading this then I’ve guessed right, and you’ve been drawn to the coffee machine first. Good life choice – a bit like your decision to stay here. Bienvenue à Chateauneuf-grasse – I hope you enjoy your time!

This letter is really just some general house-keeping notes. You can also call if you have any questions.

Firstly, the whole place is yours for however long you choose to stay – the only rooms that aren’t part of the contract are the other side of the kitchen (it’s where I stay when there’s stormy weather but it has its own entrance etc so don’t worry, I won’t intrude on your holiday)…

Andrew glanced back inside and spotted the alcove on the left of the wooden island, guessed that was the owner’s room and frowned. It didn’t sound like he’d see much of them, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about a stranger having access to the house, especially if he was asleep. He’d have to see if there were locks he could use on the doors.

… Also you can’t really see them from the house, but there are sheds beyond the trees (do feel free to pop your head in if you fancy, it’s only the storage barns and where we make the lavender honey). Oh and there are hives around the far side of those too – if you don’t like bees, maybe stay your side.   

Admin:

Cleaner comes twice a week, they’ll do bins on Monday and any laundry on Thursday (returned Saturday).

If you want to borrow a car (or a boat), let me know. Number is on the bottom with the wifi codes, as well as the lower gates. Sometimes the power goes out in storms, there are manual override keys, torches and candles in the utility room.

Groceries are up to you but I’ve left basics (milk, cheeses, butter in the fridge; coffee, a baguette, croissants and pastries in the pantry etc) for your arrival. Boulangerie is about a five minute walk down the road towards Opio.

He might scoff at the idea of a house having a literal pantry, but Andrew’s stomach gave a rumble at the mention of French breads and he knew that would be his next point of call. It was thoughtful, he decided, and not unwelcome. The coffee had certainly improved his mood.

Things to do, places to see:

There’s the historic town of Grasse – famous for its perfumes and the cathedral. You can just see it on the hill beyond the swimming pool. If you’re here in August, there’s La Jasminade (the jasmine festival).

Or if you go the other direction, Valbonne is very close – it’s the best place to go shopping, with a huge fresh fruit and veg market, as well as meats and cheeses, honeys and wines. You can walk (half hour) or drive (10mins).

Also la plage! If nothing else, take a day to go to the beach – you’re about twenty minutes from Antibes, the walled city by the sea, from which it’s easy to go to a beach club or go to some of the hidden coves or les Îles de Lérins (there's a ferry from Cannes). If you want a day trip, let me know, I can help with any bookings if you don’t speak French.

In the library there are also some maps of the local area, I’ve bookmarked some pages with the best walking and running trails from the house (green are the flattest, yellow give you great sunrises, orange for sunsets and pink for uphill hikes). I really recommend them – some of the views will make your heart soar.

I think this is all for now – you might run into me around the property though I’ll try to stay out of your hair.

Bien à vous,

Nathaniel Abram Hatford

Andrew really did snort this time. Who signed off with all their names?

Then his eyes caught the post-script and he almost – but not quite – felt amused.

Nathaniel had cats.

p.s. there are two (très moelleux) cats roaming around, the vocal ginger is Sir and the bitchy white/grey one is King. They are both terrible sluts for affection and absolute beggars but if you don’t want them in the house, just lock the cat flat and they’ll leave you alone. Please don’t feed them! Merci beaucoup!  

Andrew folded the letter, finished his coffee and as he made a second mug, helped himself to a croissant left by Nathaniel. It was buttery soft and flaked perfectly. He took another one with him down to the pool.

So began his first week – quickly falling into a routine of waking late, walking to the boulangerie and gorging on the fresh baguettes and sweet pastries he could buy there, swimming and napping in the sun, drinking too much coffee in the morning and too much beer at night, sleeping early and deeply, doing his best not to think, not to feel, not to touch the edges of the memories haunting him.

Andrew let Renee know he was alive on the sixth day.

He'd charged his phone sufficiently to discover a blow up of messages from Nicky and Kevin and the handful of former Foxes that suddenly cared because his brother was dead. Andrew deleted every message without reading them. He couldn’t deal with anymore saccharine sympathy, had had enough of everyone and their false concern. Enough of casseroles that he would never eat, enough of lectures on how time heals, enough of thinly veiled pity shining in everyone’s eyes – his family, his team, his coach, his PR manager, the fucking fans that hounded him – all of them speculating on his loss, why he didn’t grieve openly, why he didn’t grieve properly (as if there fucking was a right way). Enough of journalists and sports writers asking whether it would affect his game, whether he needed re-medicating, and if his team would keep him on the starting line (like that even fucking mattered now). Enough of everyone making Aaron’s death about Andrew (he wasn’t the one that was six fucking feet deep in a shitty graveyard outside Columbia).

How could Aaron be gone? Andrew’s chest grew tight, his breath sticking in his throat.

How wasn’t this all some grand prank?

A windup from a rival team?

Hell, he could have believed that. People were all pricks after all. He could have believed it if some former Raven fan was trying to unnerve him around the anniversary of the Fox’s infamous win and Riko’s peculiar disappearance shortly thereafter. He might have believed it all just being some sick joke on the internet.

He couldn’t believe this… that Aaron wasn’t just working too hard at the hospital, that he hadn’t just skipped their Skype calls because Andrew had been an asshole again.

Andrew couldn’t accept that Aaron was never going to text again, never insult him again. That they would never fight again, their stupid, angry, therapy-perfected arguments. That they would never gripe and snipe down the telephone, about books stolen at Christmas, or sweaters loaned and never returned. That they would never again lull into silence on the line, never again listen to each other’s breathing as if that was enough for conversation.  Aaron would call. He had to call.

Andrew snorted. God, Aaron would be so bloody mad that Andrew was in Provence, where he’d always wanted to take Katelyn. He’d be so furious.

Andrew’s fist clenched around his phone and he was tempted to throw it against the wall. He was so tired of it all, of everything.

Unplugging his phone again, he pushed all thoughts of his real life away once more.

He slept, he ate, he drank, he swam, repeat.

Bee would have called it denial, and she would have been right. But Andrew didn’t care enough to think about changing it. They’d all told him to take some time, even Betsy, and that was exactly what he’d done. Fuck them, for wanting him to do so on their terms. Fuck them all, for being surprised when he packed his bags and disappeared, like he hadn’t told them, like he hadn’t had the recommendation of the place from Kevin and organised the rental through Allison and Renee.

Still, he supposed as he lapped the pool once more, Bee would be happy he kept up with his fitness, even if he was using it as yet another way to stop facing reality.

Swimming brought with it a surprising freedom. He liked the monotony. Early summer Provence was mild, warm enough during the day for shorts and t-shirts and sitting out in the sun but cool enough at night to sleep comfortably without air-con. Even so, the pool was heated to make sure it was perfectly possible to stay in it for hours at a time – so he did. Andrew went back and forth, back and forth, a pendulum swinging, uncaring of time. Underwater was silence, nothing but the sounds of his heart in his head and the rush of water by his ears.

Back and forth, back and forth.

Unthinking.

Untethered.

Uncaring.

Body growing stronger. Bruises fading. Mind blissfully blank.

A few days later, it rained hard enough for him to forego the pool, choosing instead to read one of the books from the library, Hard Times by Charles Dickens. It was one Andrew read repeatedly at university and it looked well-loved by Nathaniel too. There were notes in the margins in multi-colour pen, something that might have upset anyone else but which Andrew entirely related to. He found the notes mostly amusing – stupid exclamations over the characters and half-arsed critiques on descriptions – but occasionally there were doodles in the corners too.

Une fleur pour Sissy, reads one comment next to a fine-lined scribble of a lily. It was crude and oddly endearing and Andrew figured Nathanial must be kind of pathetic, to write to the characters in books like that.

It was just after the forced marriage between Louisa and Bounderby, that Andrew met King and Sir for the first time.

They were rain-damp and unhappy, immediately as needy as their coats were soaked. Then again, they were cats.

Sir appeared first, stalking inside with a loud mewl and flopping onto their back as soon as Andrew lifted his head from his book. They looked like a tiny lion, all terracotta colouring patched with shades of bronze. King on the other hand, slid in like a ghost, white except for a tabby grey splotch along their tail. Both watched Andrew with absolutely no wariness, gazes telling him in no uncertain terms that this was their domain and he was only welcome because they allowed it.

Placing the book down, he held out his hands to them, let them come to him first. Sir had no qualms, nudging their head against Andrew’s palm, rubbing and nuzzling when Andrew didn’t pet the places they wanted. King watched for a while, before jumping up beside Andrew on the sofa and curling up for sleep.

Later that night, Andrew fed them tidbits from his plate, let them lick at the slather of butter he’d left on the side.

Don’t feed them, the letter had asked, but Andrew just didn’t care. He liked the rumbling purr of these long-haired beasts. Liked how steady and quiet King was, how Sir vocalised every time they wanted something.

With them both sprawled out next to him, reading with a beer in his hand, he could almost pretend this was real life. That this was all there was and would ever be. He pushed his glasses back up his nose and curled down into the sofa, reading on, letting his fingers run through soft fur.

Like anything in Andrew’s life though, it didn’t last.

No matter how he pretended, the good things never did.  

Chapter Text

Stage II - Anger

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Andrew, like an idiot, kept them all.

Not that he could explain why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dahhh, dahh, daaaaeeeeeh, oublié.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hateful, Andrew thought. Loathsome. Shuddersome. Tragic.

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

Eat. Drink. Swim. Repeat.

Eat. Swim. Drink. Repeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stopped.

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

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

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

No, he thought, he would not go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” said a voice. “Andrew?”

Andrew jerked to a halt, head snapping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nathaniel’s mouth snapped closed. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nathaniel,” said Andrew.

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

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

“Up to the barns.”

Andrew’s eyebrow twitched. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew realised why a moment later.

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

“This is where you sleep,” Andrew said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not too heavy?” Neil asked.

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

“Great. Allons-y!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It smells of rosemary,” Andrew said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“À demain,” Neil said.

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

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

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

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

He dreamt of impossibilities.

Chapter Text

Stage III – Bargaining  

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk

and grows until it has reached its height

all of us begin in darkness.

- Rachel Carson, After Silence

 

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron.  

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

Aaron.

Andrew was in Provence because Aaron was dead.

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

Aaron.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew really, really, hated that word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron.

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

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

Or he wouldn’t have. Before.

But for Aaron?

Andrew would burn the world for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t ask.”

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

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

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

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

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

He sounded so pleased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that your question?”

“It’s a question,” said Neil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A few years, huh.”

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

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

“It didn’t?”

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

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

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

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

The shears in his hand snapped off another dead branch.

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

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

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

*

The rain was coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You killed him,” Andrew said.

“You killed her,” replied Aaron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So goddamned, fucking stupid.

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

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

“Neil would drive you insane.”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a bad way to go.”

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

“Better than Anita?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You like sugar.”

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

“I’m not much of a sweet person.”

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

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

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

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

“What did Eduard want?” Andrew asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will solve you, he promised himself that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you want to be happy?”

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

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

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

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

He felt none of that.

He felt nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Stage IV – Guilt

“I must have flowers, always, and always.”  ― Claude Monet

 *

A day passed.

Then two.

A third morning crested the mountains and the wind rose with the sun. Across the fields, the sky drooped low to the earth, looping round the trees and leaving a haze over the grass. The clouds were ripe with rain and a breeze was riling the leaves in the trees. Like a hedgehog preparing for hibernation, Andrew found himself longing to hunker in on himself, to stop thinking. Anything that would stop his mind from replaying Neil’s confession over and over and over in his head.

It wasn’t working.

For the first time since arriving in France, Andrew felt the isolation like a weight on his back, loneliness like a hand forcing his spine to bend.

He blamed Neil for it entirely.

“I’ll leave you to your space,” Neil had said as they parked below the bastide on Friday evening, parting with a bittersweet smile that Andrew now thought might have meant goodbye. 

The idea of choking Neil the next time he spotted him was more than tempting.

Because Andrew hadn’t so much as glimpse Neil since they returned. Hadn’t heard his caterwauling in the morning or his footsteps crunching around the gardens. Hadn’t spied a stupid straw hat bobbing along behind a hedge or caught a whiff of that addictive, earthy musk that was lavender and farmwork and sun-kissed skin.

Because Neil was The Butcher’s son and Andrew should have put it together himself. Andrew had recognised Neil. Since the beginning, he’d noticed the familiarity of his face, the chimerical smile. From the moment he first laid eyes on Neil, there had been that niggling knowledge that this was a face he knew. Andrew just hadn’t expected the truth – the whole truth – to hit like a stiletto between the third and fourth ribs.

Because Andrew was furious with Neil. For persuading him out of his self-imposed seclusion, for giving Andrew a story that made so much sense, only to disappear like dew in the morning sun. Neil had burst into Andrew’s holiday, his escape, his grief, and brought with him a riot of colour and sensation and feelings that Andrew had been so desperately trying to ignore.

Because Neil was so much give, when Andrew needed to take.

And the sudden absence stung.

Neil shouldn’t be allowed to just vanish.

Then again, Andrew shouldn’t have lashed out, sneered at Neil’s story and spat on his honesty. Not when Neil inadvertently filled up the emptiness in Andrew’s chest – true, Neil also stoked the fury and danced his fingers through the flames of Andrew’s loathing too – but between the hand-written notes and home-baked desserts, the mornings punctured by wailing song, and the casual afternoons of unfiltered chatter, Neil hit Andrew like the first coffee of the day: full-strength and searing hot, and filling the cracks in his weary, broken heart.

Dropping his eyes to the brew in his hand, Andrew took a shuddering sip. It scalded his tongue and he drew back with a hiss.

The kitchen doors were heavy against the wind when he stepped out into the bluster onto the terrace. He moved one of the oversized candles to keep them open. The next gust slapped at his skin, chastising and full of censure. It pushed at him, tugged at his clothes as if to indicate that Andrew was no longer welcome outside in the gardens, in Neil’s world of flowers and grass and sunlight spilling between the trees. Andrew bowed his head against the mistral’s unwelcoming force and pressed himself forward, outward, finding refuge at the patio table where he could light up and drink his coffee and try to make the cacophony in his head quieten. He looked out across the countryside. Everything the eye could see remained jewel-bright. Yet everything was heavier – smells turned sultry, colours deep, the air thick as syrup.

The problem was not even the countryside provided enough distraction. Andrew’s mind was on a loop, cycling and recycling over that afternoon in the café with pinpoint clarity.

Like the way Neil smiled when Andrew said the tarte tatin was good.

Like the way Neil laughed at Andrew’s French accent: with his head thrown back, loud and stupid and shameless.    

Like the way realisation dawned over Andrew, when he saw where the story was going and the clouds overhead cast them both in shadow, all of Neil’s edges sharpening and Andrew had known – with all the irrefutable truth of sunrise, death, the clink of a wedding ring against cold stone – who Neil was.

“You recognise me,” Neil had said, so softly that the breeze nearly made off with his words.

Andrew had stared, all the pieces falling into place. “You’re the Butcher’s son.”

Sure, the tan was deeper, the red curls licked through with strawberry blond by the sun, but the sharp jaw, the straight nose, the permafrost ice of those eyes – that was the Butcher of Baltimore. This was Nathaniel Wesninski. The son whose disappearance was never investigated; whose existence was only acknowledged when the FBI found him brutalised in a basement when he was seventeen years old; whose case had been included in Andrew’s criminology class as a study in police corruption, whistleblowing, and the limitations of witness protection.

Andrew winced now, remembering how Neil had flinched at the callousness, his broken hand flying to his shoulder.

“I’m not his son.” Neil had said and Andrew felt like he was watching Nathaniel scrabble for the pieces of himself, for the pretty lie that was Nathaniel Abram Hatford. It was despicable. It was desperate. It was something Andrew hated because he’d performed the same act in the mirror so many times after he reclaimed the name Minyard.

But that moment wasn’t the only one to come back to Andrew in kaleidoscopic flashes. His hateful, perfect memory wanted to pick apart every inch of Neil’s story. Pausing, rewinding, replaying. He would find himself dissecting, analysing, questioning.

Understanding? A ghostly voice mocked in his head.

Andrew scowled, shook himself, felt his teeth fill with grit from the poorly pressed coffee as he drained the mug. No. Not understanding.

The denial refused to stick, just like it had every day and every hour and every minute since he last saw Neil. No matter what he read, what he ate, what he drank; no matter how long he swam, or how deliberately he ignored the path wending through the trees to Neil’s barn – Andrew couldn’t stop the echoes of Neil’s story. It was as if Neil’s voice was buried in his head, a siren song chanting each of painful, polished truth over and over and over. Andrew couldn’t let it go.

Worse, Andrew couldn’t stop hearing his own cold, cruel words cutting Neil off, slicing through the quiet companionship they’d shared thus far. He’d been so angry – so furious with Neil for offering himself up like some kind of martyr, like the truth was nothing, like he could share secrets as easily as cigarettes and ask nothing in return. Andrew had needed to shut that stupid mouth. Had wanted to hurt Neil.

And he had. He had hurt him.

No amount of gainsaying could change how Andrew took advantage of Neil’s vulnerabilities, using words and new knowledge to wail down on him, striking as maliciously as his fists ever could.

Nor could he pretend that it had been self-defence. There had been nothing about what Andrew did that could be put down to retaliation-in-kind. He may not understand why Neil had decided to reveal so much of himself, to share himself with such candour, but that didn’t justify Andrew’s violent response.

A man can only have so many issues, the ghost drawled into his ear.  

Andrew dropped his head to his hands, one palm pressing up against his mouth until his teeth stung the inside of his lips. Blood, sharp and metallic, leaked across his tongue. He should have known better. He was an adult now. He should have learnt his lesson about misplaced anger from Aaron.

And yet, here we are, Andrew. You lashed out and made him feel small. You made him feel like his truths were currency, his survival fraudulent. Aaron’s spectre had been speaking in Andrew’s head these past few days, deep and drawling in that hideous South Carolina accent. He was the voice of expectation and disappointment, Andrew’s personal Elpis trapped in the pithos of his skull. Andrew never lived up to what Aaron hoped for in a brother, and now he never would.

But you could make it up to Neil. Aaron’s voice urged. He’s down there. Somewhere. In the garden. In the fields.

“Fuck you, sasquatch.” Andrew reached for his cigarettes and pretended that he was only struggling to make it light because of the wind, rather than his shaking hands.

Oh no you don’t, Andrew. You need to confront this, Aaron insisted. And because he was a ghost, he grabbed hold of the rawest threads in Andrew’s memory and tugged.

“It was raining the day that I was scheduled to die.”  Neil’s opening words floated to the surface of Andrew’s mind, like a body dragged to the surface in a fisherman’s net.

Andrew closed his eyes, shoulders bunching up until his shadow twisted into a gargoyle cast across the yellow stone, brutish and waiting to break free of its stone prison, to wing away on the wind. “Don’t do this again.”

But since when had ghosts ever listened to the living? That wasn’t how hauntings worked.

“And I wasn’t lying about being in the system in France.”

Andrew’s memory twisted in on itself and he was there: back outside the café in Valbonne, surrounded by the yellow painted houses with their overflowing flower boxes, coffee cold on the table and wine chilled in his hand. Andrew had thought to himself that there had always been a sense that Neil was holding back, that he was dealing in half-truths, hiding the hardest parts of himself. There had never been a moment that Andrew thought he was out-right lying though, and he found himself suspending disbelief as the story began.

“Everything I’ve told you so far is true. There’s just a few pieces missing.”

Giving Neil time to find his words, Andrew had lit one cigarette and then another which he offered to Neil with a gesture to tell him to keep going. For a long while Neil hesitated, smoke tracing over his face in the gentlest of caresses; Andrew wanted to follow its path with his fingers.

When Neil spoke, it was in a slow, steady voice. He took them all the way back to the night Nathaniel and his mother, Mary Wesninski, fled their home in Baltimore. Mary had come for him around two in the morning – Nathaniel had not slept. All night the rain had thundered down, and he had been too scared to sleep with the water lashing at the windows and storm howling like the men and women from his father’s basement.

Mary dressed him in a hurry, told him to leave everything, and to follow her quietly, quickly. He nearly disobeyed, nearly picked up his Bunky Bunny, but he left the threadbare rabbit on his bed when she glared.

Outside, a car idled. It was not one he knew, and they drove off into the maelstrom. She’d packed nothing but essentials: medications, a couple changes of clothes, some box dyes for their hair. For years, afterwards, Neil’s hair would be browns and blacks and blonds – never close to red, never auburn.

“Always hideous,” Neil had said and rolled his eyes. “Seriously. Mousey doesn’t suit me at all.”

Andrew had tried to imagine it and failed; Neil was far too full of colour to be made plain. Dark hair with those bright blue eyes though? Now that could make his gut tighten.

Mary and Nathaniel fled from The Butcher’s house, but Mary couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder – not as they put Baltimore behind them, not as they wended their way across to New York, not when they swapped cars, not when they boarded the plane to England.

“He couldn’t sell you,” Mary hissed when Nathaniel asked why they were leaving. “You failed, Nathaniel.”

Nathaniel wouldn’t understand that line until he was fifteen years old and his skin carried a vicious tableau of scars from years on the run followed by more years suffering unkind hands at foster homes. And by then it would be too late. A chain reaction had begun before they so much as stepped foot on the first plane.

“What did she mean?” Andrew had asked, his wine forgotten on the table, gaze fixed on the downturn of Neil’s mouth. “That you had failed?”

Neil huffed and twisted his cigarette between his fingers. “Could you… hold your questions to the end? I know you’ll have plenty.”

(Days later, Andrew still had questions, though only some of them were directed at Neil.)

Nathaniel remembered they took off from a tiny private airfield outside of Newark. He held onto the memory because the strip was by a beach and he’d never seen anywhere like it before – with so much yellow sand and endless water. Later, when they flew over Britain, he fell in love with the white cliffs and fields flung like a huge green quilt below the plane.

“That was when I knew we were far, far, from home and were never going back. I thought we were going to make a new home there. In England.”

And Nathaniel and Mary had stayed, at first. They took up with Stuart Hatford. An uncle with a house just outside of London in a town called Marlow. Neil figured they were there for maybe a month or two. It was green there. It was nice, calm. No one shouted at Nathaniel. No one shook him or hit him or forced knives into his tiny hands and told him to cut. Stuart wanted to send Neil to a boarding school, promised both him and Mary protection. But as Nathaniel found out later, the Hatfords were descended from the Marylebone gang, and Mary didn’t want to be part of that. She said she didn’t trust their protection either. Maybe she was too proud to admit she failed in America; maybe it was because she knew Nathan too well. Not even the Family could protect her from the Butcher, he had backing after all.

“She made me memorise Stuart’s number all the same,” Neil said. He topped up their glasses of rosé and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, drawing Andrew’s attention to the new blooms tucked into his gages. Today’s flower was yellow mimosas, their fluffy starburst-petals like pompoms. There was also a sprig of thyme and the customary lavender whorl. A little pollen had smeared itself on the edge of Neil’s jaw and Andrew itched to reach out and brush it away. 

“Then one night she woke me up again. We fled the Hatfords.”

Taking a ferry from Newcastle across to the Netherlands, mother and son trekked across to Dusseldorf and Cologne and Bonn before taking a train to Aachen and then Liege, into Rochefort and finally into France. But Mary must have known something Nathaniel didn’t because after six months crossing the country, they made it to Marseille and Mary was ready to say goodbye. She dropped Nathaniel off at a fire station with a note telling them to put him into the system. She wasn’t coming back for him.

Her parting words were fierce. “Your current ID is Nathaniel Abrams. Keep it,” she said. “But keep moving too – never settle too long in one place, make sure to move from home to home. Don’t look back. Don’t look for me. Don’t trust anyone. And keep moving. The paperwork will do the job of hiding you, Nathaniel.”

She was right. There was nothing quite like French bureaucracy to conceal a child that didn’t want to be found.

Andrew had smoked whilst Neil spoke, watching every twitch of Neil’s expressions, noting how the breeze teased at red curls, how the afternoon sun broke through the cairies and gentled the angles of Neil’s face, smoothing away the impossible likeness he held to his father. When offered another cigarette, Neil cupped it close to his cheek as if to simply breath in the smell that unfurled like the lines of his story.

“But then I was attacked in one of my homes. You know how it can go.” Neil hadn’t said it with any bitterness or inflection to say he was angry at the system, only a modicum of resignation. “There were always people visiting who were not looking for a foster kid out of kindness. I could usually spot the type. People like my father. Like his men. I used to be rude, mouthy, make myself ugly and sneering just so they’d leave me alone. But I didn’t see it coming this time… I was taken home by a man and his wife.”

Closing his eyes against his own flashbacks, Andrew had tried to push away the surge of images: he was seven years old and staring at the door to his bedroom as footsteps climbed the stairs; he was fourteen, face down on a twin bed with his wrists pinned and Drake whispering into his ear about how much he wanted to fuck twins; he was twenty, with glass in his eyes and Aaron standing over him with a bloodied racquet in his hands.

“Three days later I was hospitalised.” Neil had said, so bloody nonchalantly, and pushed up his sleeves, exposing the fine bones of his wrists and the mutilated skin where cigar-sized burns dotted his forearms. His scars were the noughts to Andrew’s crosses.  

This time, Andrew did reach forward, sliding his hands underneath Neil’s fists and rubbing over Neil’s knuckles. The skin was rough under Andrew’s thumbs, but Neil’s hands slowly loosened, uncurled. There were crescent shaped dents in his palms where his nails had worried the skin. Andrew hadn’t withdrawn even when the moment came that he should – he held on, distracted by the coolness of Neil’s fingers, the strength in these worker’s hands.

“That was the second time I was sent to Madame Babèu. And despite every warning my mother gave me, I stayed with her. For months longer than I shouldn’t have. I was in the garden again, back near the sea. I felt like I was home…”

Andrew understood that feeling far too well – the desperate urge to have someone care, to be taken care of, even for a little while. Cass had offered that once. She’d been everything Andrew ever wanted. Someone who always cut the crusts off his sandwiches for lunch, who fed him homemade soup when he was sick, who took him shopping and told him that dark green was a good colour on him yet only smiled when he said he preferred black. She never yelled at Andrew, she always explained why something was wrong when he made a mistake – and she never told Andrew that he was the mistake either. Not even at Aaron’s trial, when she’d sat through the proceedings with silent tears streaming down her face, all in black as if her son, Andrew’s rapist, was worth mourning. There was always going to be a fracture in Andrew where Cass had been.

However, in Neil’s story, being beaten by an angry foster parent who’d somehow fallen through the cracks of every due diligence check, was the least of his troubles.

“My father’s men found me.” Neil’s voice grew dry and cracked, like the earth after too long a spell without rain. Andrew poured some more wine with one hand and used the other to link their fingers together. Neil’s grip briefly tightened, as if to check it was real. “I wasn’t hard to find once the papers were processed. Lola turned up.”

Lola was the Butcher’s favourite. His killer queen. Andrew realised he remembered her from criminology. There had been photos from her trial: a slim woman with golden hair and lips a shade of magenta. She might have been beautiful once, but her face was always split apart by a rictus grin, wild and cruel, and her eyes were dead, blank and black and unblinking as a shark’s. Her brother, Romero, was often pictured with her, wheelchair-bound since the shootout but clearly someone who once could have pulled a man into pieces with his hands – and still might try with his teeth. 

When they found him, Neil had fled – he ran from Sanury-Sur-Mer and the safe haven of Babèu’s gardens. He ran from Provence and then from France entirely. He crossed into Italy, slept in alleys and behind bins, hid himself in tunnels where slums had built up over time, vanished into the underworld and prayed they wouldn’t follow.

They followed. Of course, they did. Romero and Lola were bred to be hunters and Neil born to be prey.

“They caught me in the end. Eighteen months on the run and they caught me because of a bad fish that made me sick. Absurd, non? They took me back to Baltimore. You probably know your fair share of what happened next,” said Neil.

Andrew did. When the story first broke, Andrew had better things to think about, such as getting Aaron clean and making sure no one asked difficult questions about Tilda’s timely demise. But by the time Andrew was studying the story in class, his life had changed. He was a first year at Palmetto and he’d been just as fascinated with ‘The Butcher Boy Evidence’ as everyone else.

For a small moment in time, seventeen-year-old Nathaniel Wesninski had been a minor celebrity and the news stories returned to Andrew easily – headline after headline, pap-shot after pap-shot.  Gossip rags compared him to Hot Felon and debated if he’d be offered a modelling contract. The New Yorker ran an opinion piece on women who love dangerous men. Memes flew around the internet, some teasing, some lusting, most quoting Nathaniel’s spitfire remarks from the few times the press came close enough for a comment.

Rewinding through his memory, Andrew perfectly recalled Neil as a washed-out teenager on a TV screen, being herded between courthouse and patrol cars. Andrew had sat in class, trying to listen to the professor through a cocktail of court-prescribed drugs whilst his peers debated whether genetics could predispose someone to violence. Most of the PSU class looked at Nathaniel Wesninski and saw a thug: his hair had been shorn short, buzzed down to a number two; his cheek bones had been so sharp they could cut someone; his stare the mirror to his father’s. Yet no one seemed to notice how carefully blank the boy’s expression was, how those eyes were sunken deep into his face, how he tried to conceal the limp in his right leg and the bandages around his hands. Neil had been so gaunt and looked so young – no wonder Andrew hadn’t recognised him – there was so little of the Butcher in his expressions now, even less of that scared and sharp teenage with the too smart mouth.

Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Andrew had vivid memories of Nathaniel’s wicked tongue – the way he ricocheted from brittle and haunted, to angry eyes and the perfect comeback. Thing was, Neil was fiery where Nathaniel had been nothing but dry kindling; Neil’s words were a honed blade, where Nathaniel had never quite known how deep he was cutting. The resemblance was there, just about, if you squinted.

Andrew had said as much to Neil, before adding: “They say you’re the one who brought down your father’s empire. Rumours were you were part of his inner circle but you gave evidence in return for immunity. You absolutely laid into every reporter that tried to speak to you without representation present.”

Neil laughed. “Ha! Merde, the FBI were furious about that. Wanted to put me into WitPro. I didn’t want that though. I wanted to leave America as soon as possible. Come home.” He waved an arm around Valbonne.  

“But this is the point,” Neil had said, warmth in his words, in his eyes, in the smile on his lips and the fingers still laced with Andrew’s own. “I spent so many years just surviving. It was all I knew how to do – to run, to hide, to go, to never dream of more. When I was free, I couldn’t shut those instincts off. I ran. I called it seeing the world but I was just using the Hatford’s guilt and the Moriyama’s blessing to do the same I’d always done: run, hide, survive…”

Andrew hadn't hear the rest of what Neil said.

In his head, he was falling, the horizon was pitching and everything became mere noise. There was nothing but memory that turned his bones to ice, to electricity, to a roar jolting all the way from his skull to his fingertips. The world was tilting, tilting, tilting. He felt himself pull his hand back from Neil before he’d consciously chosen to do so, needing it to steady himself. His anger burned behind his ribs, sent bile up his throat, scorching down his arteries and scouring his veins. His head felt stuffed with too many days spent in a Perspex box because of a deal, too many nights with Kevin Day drinking himself into oblivion, and the countless nightmares full of Drake, and the Hemmicks, Proust’s exposure therapy and quicksilver drugs trapping Andrew inside his own mind. Briefly, he thought of Eduard Moreau, his smug grin, and yet more pieces dropped into place.    

“Hatford guilt,” Andrew repeated. He had to be sure of this.

Oui, pardon, I guess that part of the story was never in the papers. Someone had the bright idea to try and ransom me back to the Hatfords.” Neil raised his right hand, the one with the missing fourth finger and waggled it.

Andrew drained his wine. Incident with a cleaver. Lying by omission.

The next words felt like glass in Andrew’s throat. “Moriyama blessing?”

He lifted his gaze from the table cloth, knowing his eyes would be glinting like bullets right as they were loaded, the way Aaron’s once had.

Neil’s smile faded with worry and his tone became unsure. “Ah I shouldn’t have said that… my uncle bought my life for the small price of a trade agreement. All I had to do was testify against my father.”

A cavern opened up in Andrew’s chest. It was like Neil had been lighting a thousand tiny candles and the flames were finally flickering high enough to reveal the gaping maw beyond. He could read between the lines here. The omissions were perfectly obvious when you spent year after year trying to stop the likes of Kevin from becoming a full-time alcoholic. “The Mori-fucking-yamas.”

Neil’s nod was so small and he pulled his scarred arms away, hiding them beneath the table.

“So what you’re owned by them? And all this is what? A front? Do you help with their trade agreement, Nathaniel?” Andrew said.

“No. I’m not part—”

“Do you know what they trade? Drugs, guns, people?”

“I didn’t… I don’t…” Neil stumbled.

“Eduard’s brother was one such trade. Did you know that? Jean Moreau. Backliner. A boy bought and sold for Tetsuji Moriyama. Are you part of it? Is that how a foster kid can afford a whole fucking farm?”

Non, that wasn’t how it happened…”

But Andrew wasn’t done. “Did you even once think about not being the fucking rabbit?”

Neil recoiled. His gaze shuttering. It was an expression that Andrew knew would haunt him for the rest of his life – that closed in and boarded up look he recognised all too well. How many times had he withdrawn like that, seeking refuge in his head when someone stirred up the worst memories and nothing could stop them from replaying over and over? .  

Still, Andrew didn’t stop – because if Neil had spoken up about the Moriyamas then Andrew wouldn’t have been needed to protect Kevin. He could have been there in Chicago. He could have chosen Aaron. Andrew could have saved him.

“All this bullshit about survival and living. You’re an idiot.”

When Neil waved at the waiter for the bill, Andrew had barely restrained himself from reaching across the table and grabbing Neil’s hair, slamming him down and twisting until Neil’s fingers scrabbled to pry him off. He could imagine it. He could feel his entire body filling with lethal intent, and he could picture Neil trying to wrench away, Andrew yanking him back.

“You’re an idiot,” Andrew repeated, barely holding himself in check. “Did you take me for one as well? Because I can promise you, I’ve dealt with more dangerous men than you, Butcher Boy.”

Neil’s face didn’t change. It looked like he’d been bled of life, colours fading until he became a negative of himself or an older version of the hollow-eyed teenager from the newspapers all those years ago. Andrew hated that look – hated the way Neil just withdrew.

Fight back, goddammit. Give me a reason to punch your liar’s mouth.

They left the café, dropping several euro notes on the plate as they went. Andrew had seethed. The whole way back to the bastide, he sulked. When Neil said he’d leave him to his space, Andrew had all but slammed the car door in Neil’s face.

And you’ve been wallowing ever since, remarked the spectre of his dead twin, sounding bitter as ever and decidedly irked. It’s not like you were ever going to choose me.

Perched on the terrace, Andrew dragged his attention from the sky to the horizon, over the trees and the pool. Narrowing his eyes, he could almost overlay snippets of memory over the landscape, picture Aaron on the pool edge, golden haired, golden skinned, the way he had been when they took swimming lessons together in the summer before their final year at Palmetto. He blinked and the mirage broke. There was nothing but empty space and the rain stained stones, the rippling blue water and the long grass right below the terrace. Andrew decided it probably wasn’t far enough down to die if he fell over the ledge. Maybe if he went head first.

See, there you go again. You really think if Neil had dobbed in the Moriyamas at 17, you’d have stuck with me, the twin you could barely stand? You know that’s not how it worked. If you didn’t have to protect Kevin, you would be dead.

“That’s not true. I thought we were over this,” Andrew said. Over and over it in therapy with Bee.

The phantom scoffed. Even if you’d chosen to keep living beyond first year, which was doubtful until you struck that deal with Day, I would have chosen Katelyn and Nicky would have finally tired of trying with you and gone back to Germany. You barely intended to live until graduation, let alone see twenty-eight. I didn’t change that. Kevin did.

“That’s not true,” Andrew said again, half expecting Aaron to be standing there when he spun round. He’d stand there, arms folded over his chest, chin lifted in that jaunty way he thought made him look taller. (It didn’t).

There was no one there. Of course, there wasn’t. Not even King and Sir had approached Andrew since the argument with Neil. Andrew was alone. Andrew was alone and Aaron was dead and – by god – he was hallucinating his dead brother. Was he finally going mad? Had he finally fallen too deep into his memory to resurface?

“You changed things too and you fucking know it,” he muttered to the vacant space where his brother should have been and kicked his foot into the ground. He didn’t want to look at the wide, open kitchen windows, creaking on their hinges. If he did, he would see his own reflection in the glass, lip ring eroding at the illusion of company.

Maybe by third year. But before that? That was all Kevin Day. I was another obligation.

The chasm that had opened in Andrew’s chest that day in Valbonne grew wider, deeper.

Over the years with Bee, Aaron and Andrew had never expressed remorse – not for what they’d done to their respective abusers, nor their early actions towards each other. Neither of them were built for guilt.

But Andrew thought they’d moved on from blame – blaming each other for every ill in their lives, blaming themselves for what they saw as the other’s failings. Things like Andrew blaming Aaron for Cass, Aaron blaming Andrew for Tilda. Aaron hating Andrew for keeping them isolated at school, Andrew resenting Aaron for trying to renege on their promise at every opportunity. Aaron refusing to listen, Andrew refusing to speak. In his mind’s eye rose the vision of Aaron’s face – shocked and furious, a pale mirror to Andrew’s rage – that had been the day they first spoke about Katelyn and Andrew refused to accept her in Aaron’s life, the week before the invite to the Hemmicks’ for Thanksgiving, months before they started to repair their relationship. Andrew scrubbed at his eyes. Apparently, between his subconscious and his confusion over Neil, he wasn’t quite as over the blame game as he thought.

And now you have Neil, distracting you in exactly the same way Day did, right Andrew? He’s your new toy. You’ll play with him the way you did with every other one of your pet monsters, only to ditch them when you find something shinier.

“No.” That wasn’t true either. “Aaron, you know you weren’t a game to me.”

Did I though? So sure I didn’t go to my grave thinking that you barely tolerated my existence?

“You couldn’t have. We spoke about this…”

Doesn’t mean I thought it was true. You call yourself an honest man, but you practice dishonesty just enough to keep us all guessing.

Andrew didn’t know what to say to that, how to rebut this mental phantom, conjured from the darkest parts of his thoughts. Things would be so much easier if they could talk about this properly – Aaron had become Andrew’s audience, the person who cared most about what he did, who thought Andrew actually mattered just by being Andrew. Nicky wanted Andrew to be happy, of course, but Aaron encouraged Andrew to figure out what that even meant. When Andrew spoke Aaron would listen, or more often tell him off, be annoyed and disapproving and sometimes a little disgusted. Then on days like this, when Andrew ended up on loops so deep inside his own head, Aaron would don that doctor’s voice – the one that was low and soothing and deliberately pitched like ‘yes, I went to school and studied medicine for this accent’ – and he’d point out what Andrew needed to do to make things better. How he could escape, break the cycle, move forward.

Closing his eyes, he tried to make the spectre speak. “Come on. Come on.”

He imagined Aaron’s voice shifting, softening. Tried to hear the words beyond the avaricious wind, the chittering trees. And then, there, between one gust and another there was a spool of silence and his heart caught, snagged on one of his ribs and made him forget how to breathe.

Aaron’s voice was audible, speaking: You know what else you don’t know is true? Everything you said to Neil. Your accusations against him. Think Andrew. Remember what he said about not knowing what his mom meant when she said he had failed? That his father couldn’t sell him?

The rib ripping a hole in Andrew’s heart stabbed deeper. He did remember. He’d wanted to know what Neil meant but now it was all too obvious.

“You think Neil was going to be sold like Jean Moreau.”

Come on genius, you’re getting warmer.

“But he didn’t understand because he was a child.”

Stating the obvious. Why did people think you were the smart one?

“He probably didn’t know about the Moriyamas until he was taken into custody.”   

Ding ding! You’re on fire. Well done, you absolute turnip. You really couldn’t do this one your own?

Andrew blinked, Aaron’s old nickname springing him off-guard the way a wasp did as it buzzed into his peripheral vision.

“I need to talk to Neil,” Andrew said. And even though he knew Aaron wasn’t really there, that this entire conversation only happened in his imagination, Andrew lifted his eyes once more to the sky and tried to smile. Wetness slapped his cheek, trickled down and dripped off his jaw. “Thank you.”

There was no one to hear so the wind stole Andrew’s gratitude, devouring it as fast as the words left his lips. The rain began to fall once more.

***

Speaking to Neil turned out to be more of a saga than Andrew anticipated.

Despite Andrew being a man who liked a plan, it turned out that Neil was not. He didn’t adhere to any predictable laws of time or place. There was no sign of him when Andrew searched the fields and there was no trace of him having been to the house. Andrew visited the barns and they were locked up tight against the rain, with no one answering the door when he rattled them. The hives were just as lonely, the bees sadly humming as they scurried around their homes and tried to avoid the torrential weather.

Andrew checked the garage and the car was still there. He loitered by the gate for an hour, until he was soaked enough that he could have just stepped out of the pool fully dressed. He went through the motions of swimming but kept stopping to check if any sounds might indicate Neil was home. He tussled with the wind as he raised an umbrella over the patio table, trying to stay outside and dry whilst he watched for signs of life from the barn. He wrestled the same umbrella down when it nearly wrenched itself free of its fixing, giving Andrew visions of being decapitated by the spokes as they flailed in the hunch-weather. When he finally caved into the chill of the evening and grabbed a soft, old hoodie, he did it at a run so he could get back to his vigil, watching the garden from the window of the library.

There was nothing, no sign of Neil.

Not when twilight came, rushed in by the swollen clouds.

Not when the wind began to scream and wail.

Not when lightning filled the sky, sheets of it rolling in the night’s distemper.

No one, Andrew thought, did a tantrum like mother nature.

That didn’t solve the problem of where the hell Neil was though. He’d hoped, with the storm, that it might drive Neil inside. Hadn’t his first note said that he slept in the locked room behind the kitchen during bad weather? But when Andrew knocked, just to check, there was no reply and even if Neil was mad, Andrew doubted he would flat out ignore the man renting his house.

Two minutes after midnight, Andrew couldn’t take it any longer. He didn’t want to face the arguments in his head, nor the memories. He’d tried to sleep, telling himself that he could find Neil in the morning, but then he closed his eyes and there he was on a cobbled street hearing the words: it was raining on the day I was scheduled to die.

He was out of bed before the self-loathing could seep into his bones once more, before his brother’s ghost could come back to haunt him and hate him and tell him how stupid he was being.

Taking the stairs two at a time, he made it to the kitchen and to Neil’s room in record time. He jimmied the lock and discovered the room empty, the bed untouched. He left the door yawning open behind him and flew out of the backdoor, across the terrace, down the rain slicked steps to the garden.

The wind wasn’t just wind anymore, it was a gale, a maelstrom – wrenching at his skin, tearing at his hair, forcing him to be bend double just to move against it. Andrew was a raw nerve – eyes stinging with sea-salted rain, cold cracking and growing over his skin, his ears full of the wind’s terrible roaring and bellowing down from the mountains. He wove through the clawing trees, his bare feet sinking into mud that squeezed between his toes – next time he was wearing shoes – battering back the low branches with his bare arms. The light from the house behind him was hardly enough to light his path and water was in his eyes, his mouth, his ears – perhaps that was what made the trees seem too loom and leer, like lecherous old men outside a playground; perhaps that was what metamorphosed the garden into an underworld, full of wild sounds and whimpering, and flashing eyes in the dark.

“Neil!” Andrew could barely hear himself as he reached the barns, knocking on the doors three times with his open palm. He tried to keep his thoughts steady, but the storm felt like it was inside him, blowing into the cracks and spaces of his soul. His heart thundered. His body shook with adrenalin.

The storm howled and—Andrew’s ears pricked on a whimpering, keening sound. Had it come from outside or in?

“Neil!”  

There was no response. He tried knocking once more. This time the hinges gave a huge groaning rasp and the door slammed open, cracking against the wall behind.

The wretched whining noise was clearer now. Andrew stumbled in the dark, tripping over rope or tarp, tangling in it as he went down. He scrambled to his feet, determined to close out the weather once more but closing the doors made little difference. Even inside it felt like the storm was everywhere, twisting between the cracks in the stone to gush-swirl-rattle through machinery, rakes, sack cloth, hay, the hanging baskets that clinked and chimed and thwacked against one another. Had Neil really been sleeping down here in all this clamour? Was he here, in this frigid building that was more holes than home, because of Andrew’s angry words?

Andrew took a second to catch his breath, to find his sight in the gloom, to pinpoint the direction of the unhappy noise.

Using memory more than vision, he picked his way around the tables and stacks, ducking under plants, feeling their leaves pinch and pluck at his hair. From the top of the wardrobe at the back of the barn, two yellow eyes glared. As he came closer, he could make out a small orange face.

Sir.

The cat hissed. But he reached out nonetheless, let her tiny nose sniff his fingers and he cooed at her until she slowly calmed down. She was terrified, he realised. Her whiskers trembling and tail puffed in fear.

“Where’s Neil, Sir?” asked Andrew.

Here.

Andrew froze. Had he heard that?

“I’m here.”

Andrew approached the lofted bed, hesitating before climbing. He knew he was intruding. He knew he should turn around and leave. But the sounds of ragged breathing rose from the shadows of Neil’s lofted nook and Andrew could only guess what could make a man like Neil panic.

Tentatively, he climbed the few first few steps so he could see into the gloom of Neil’s sleeping place – bed was too grand a word. It reminded Andrew of the illustrated interiors of an old ship, a kind of cross between a bunk bed and a hay loft. There was bedding, blankets and pillows, like a nest, but also clearly exposed wood and tattered sackcloth tucked into the edges.

“An-dr-drew?” Neil sounded puzzled, voice little more than a rasp from the shadows. Andrew’s name staggered out between Neil’s teeth, and his breathing came out noisy, painful – all rattling and rasping – as he tried to suck in air only to choke on what was clearly anxiety.

Lightning flashed and bleached through the stone and wood, the light putting stars where Neil’s eyes should be. His sharp face was gaunt, unrecognisable, with the savage glassy beauty seen in film noir – it was like looking at someone else’s version of Neil’s face, an e-fit. His hair looked dark; skin smudged.

And then Andrew was blinking against the black again, unable to see anything but the photo-negative of Neil burnt against his retinas.

There was a hitch of breath in the dark. “What are you doing here?” Neil was still struggling to speak, and Andrew clambered up onto the loft.

What was Andrew doing there? He didn’t know exactly. He wanted to talk to Neil. He wanted to hear his voice, let him know that they’d both had to make awful decisions to survive. He wanted to keep his brother’s ghost at bay, he wanted to lay his loneliness to rest – if even for a moment.

“You disappeared,” Andrew said. I was worried.

He thought he saw Neil’s head drop to his knees, thought he could make out the narrow shoulders bunching close as Neil curled around his legs. “You wanted space.”

“I never asked for space.” I’m sorry.

Thunder snarled around them, the whole barn seeming to quake. Neil let out the tiniest, most pitiful sound Andrew thought he’d ever heard.

It was raining the day I was scheduled to die.

 “Stop,” Andrew said, as if it was that simple. He knew better than to believe it was, but what had Betsy taught him about panic attacks? Clearly rolling with the sensations wasn’t working but Neil managed to respond to Andrew when he entered – could Andrew give him an anchor? “Neil, can I approach you?”

The thunder snapped again, a low growl and Neil’s huddled shadow seemed to shrink even further. “Approach?” Came the muffled response.

“Let me help you.” Andrew asked again, wanting to be absolutely clear about his intentions. ”Yes or no, Neil?”  

Neil didn’t reply immediately but when the next flash of lightning came, his face was tilted towards Andrew and a minuscule nod was followed by an even smaller, “Yes.”

Edging over slowly, allowing that Neil could revoke permission at any time, Andrew drew close, “Do you know about anchoring, Neil?”

Neil made a scoffing, snorting, fractured sound that could have meant ‘what do you think I’m trying to do, you idiot’, or ‘just get on with whatever you’re doing, asshole’, or anything in between.

Andrew lifted a hand in front of Neil’s face, making sure he was aware and tracking it as he moved passed Neil’s jaw, his ear, to tap two fingers against the back of Neil’s neck. “I’m going to press my hand just here. You’re going to focus on the feeling – focus on my hand – yes, see – now breathe, rabbit. In for one, hold for one, out for one. You can do that, can’t you? In for one, hold for one, out for one. Now try breathing in for two…”

Around them the storm swelled and bayed, Andrew doing his best to draw Neil back down from his panic – but Neil was a kite caught in a hurricane, bucking and fighting against Andrew’s pull whenever the thunder rumbled through. Starting the count again, Andrew kept the pressure on the back of Neil’s neck, tapped his thumbs against Neil's throat in time to Neil's pulse. Aaron had done this for him sometimes – let his hands become a grounding force, holding Andrew together.

“In for three, hold, two, three, out for three. You with me, rabbit?”

“Why the hell,” Neil grumbled. “Are you calling me rabbit again?”

Andrew squeezed Neil’s nape, ignoring the shiver in his chest when Neil seemed to press back into his hand – testing him perhaps, though for what Andrew couldn’t be sure. Neil’s carotid continued to jump under his fingers, but Neil’s breathing was quieter now and trembling less pronounced. He kept his hand in place, stopped counting. “Steady?”

Neil nodded. “Thanks,” he said and shivered.

Reflexively, the hand on Neil’s nape scrubbed upwards to tangle fingers in the back of his hair. He could pretend the movement was to reassure Neil, but Andrew simply wasn’t ready to leg go yet.

The draught stroked dank hands over them both, even huddled together their body heat was nothing against the storm. All at once, Andrew became aware of how wet and cold he was. His sodden t-shirt stuck to his back. His trackpants squelched uncomfortably in the creases of his knees and ankles. The warmth of the bastide almost felt like a dream – something he couldn’t picture in his mind, the mistral’s bite too cold to even let him imagine.

“Come to the house.” Andrew heard himself say. “We can make hot chocolate.”

He felt more than saw Neil’s face twist in disgust.

“Or coffee. Something warm.” He could have kicked himself for the way he capitulated without being asked. Whatever effect Neil had on him, Andrew hated it as much as he craved it.

“Coffee,” Neil said thoughtfully. “Sounds good.”

Andrew climbed down from the loft first, releasing Neil long enough to clamber down the ladder and shove his mess of sheets back onto his bed.

“Do you have a light in here?”

“The wind knocked the power out yesterday.”

Andrew didn’t mention the candle lanterns he spotted that first day, deciding there was probably a reason Neil wasn’t lighting them.

As Neil shuffled around, apparently looking for shoes and a jumper, Andrew remembered Sir. He coaxed the little fluff monster down from her perch, gathering her close to his chest. She buried her face in the crook of his elbow. Andrew wondered aloud where King was.

"She’s usually by the door. She tends to stand guard when I’m like this.”

Sure enough, the white ragdoll cat was perched on a worktable near the front entrance. All fluff and sarcasm. Eyes glinting in the dim light. Andrew must have walked straight past her in the dark.

“Don’t try to pick her up. She’ll follow us,” Neil said. “Come on, mon chou. Tu as été un très bon gardien, mais viens avec nous.”

As if the storm meant nothing, the cat gave a languorous stretch, leapt down and went to stand by the door. The way she moved was as if every soft word from Neil’s mouth had been understood. Perhaps it had, if this happened at all regularly.

The hush-quiet of the moment shattered with a flash and a bang so close together that Andrew knew the storm must be right overhead. He soothed Sir with a kiss to her tiny head, jostling her into one shoulder, reaching for Neil’s wrist with his free arm. His touch was only fleeting, a reminder that Neil that wasn’t alone, wasn’t in whatever nightmare that plagued him. Still, Neil’s eyes were smudgy-dark and blown wide when they met his. Andrew’s memory flickered with the times he and Kevin were caught by fans in the street, the way Kevin looked at him, hauty and desperate but with no small amount of accusation. The dark didn’t hide the differences between Kevin and Neil – Neil didn’t look at Andrew and see duty, he didn’t assume anything.

“Allons-y?” Andrew said.

A ghost of a smile twitched Neil’s mouth. “Cet accent.”

“Come on,” Andrew said and pushed through the door back into the downpour.

They ran back to the house, reaching it just in time for the next explosion in the sky. Standing side by side, Andrew’s muddy feet staining the kitchen floor, the lightning flickered through the night, strobing the garden with unnatural light, illuminating the trees like spirits passing between worlds. Dark fell again, fast and violent, full of thunder, and the rain thrashed against the doors, savaged at the windows. Neil shrank from it, into Andrew, and Andrew tried to remember to breathe. Their eyes caught in the gloom. The garden, the house, the space between the two of them, all rose up as a song hidden in the static.

“Your feet are bare,” Neil said.

“Shoes are overrated,” said Andrew. “I’ll put the hot water on.”

The summer’s warmth meant the house was cosy once the weather was shut out and Neil lit the table lamps whilst Andrew to bring the kettle to boil. The coffee machine grumbled into life and the kitchen to fill with the bitter, decadent aroma of arabica beans and dark chocolate. Neil slipped away briefly to slip into something dry, came back with his arms full of a mournful looking King and an oversized hoodie that nearly had Andrew coughing – it was Palmetto orange, decorated with fox paws, printed with a number 10 and the name “Hatford”.

“Kevin?” Andrew asked.

Neil nodded. “He had it customised for me.”

Andrew acknowledged this with curiosity, not having realised that Kevin and Neil were quite so close. It made his earlier fury towards Neil even more ridiculous too. There was no way that Kevin would have visited Neil and given a gift like that if the Moriyamas had even the slightest foothold in Neil’s life. Realisation was a chill in his blood, and he excused himself to clean himself off and grab new clothes as well.

As he changed, Andrew’s heart rattled behind his ribcage, the snag tugging and tugging as he shucked one pair of sweats for another. He considered the old Foxes t-shirt with Aaron’s number packed at the bottom of his bag. His fingers dug for it, brushed the soft and worn fabric. The white was a little off now, the orange a little dull. He pulled it out and slipped it on, not looking in the mirror before hiding the number Five beneath a thick black jumper. It would show all the cat hair but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

He sauntered back to the kitchen, hands in pockets. Now and again the noise of the rain on the windows shifted as the wind changed, only to pick up a few seconds later, the erratic rhythm seeming to match Andrew’s pulse.  

Neil had poured their drinks and was fussing over King, his hands stroking over the ginger’s damp fur, hushing the pitiful mewls whenever they came. Sir sat nearby, proud and aloof.

Gathering the mugs, they moved silently to the library – cats trailing in their wake.

Andrew had left one of the books cracked open on his preferred armchair. Neil smiled when he saw what he was reading.

“How are you finding Dickens?”

Andrew shrugged. “Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies.”

“Quoting the book isn’t really an answer, you know.”

 “Your comments in Hard Times were more entertaining. These are a bit less cutting.”

“Ha! I forgot about those. Well, Great Expectations never really resonated with me quite the same way – the infatuation with Estella just never made sense.” Neil rolled his mug between his hands. “Thank you, by the way, for earlier.”

“Don’t.” Andrew didn’t want gratitude. Not when he was undeserved. Not when if they hadn’t argued, Neil would likely have been in the house, safe and warm and away from the storm. “Panic attacks can be rough.” It was almost a confession. He hoped Neil would hear what he was not saying.

“They are. But I’m fine,” Neil said. At Andrew’s look, he amended, “It was just another bad dream. The rain made it worse, and when you woke me with the doors – I thought it was real.”

Andrew didn’t flinch but his stomach pitted out like someone had opened a trap door to the abyss and he felt that bristle-sharp rage scouring his insides once more. “You get them often?”

“It’s why I mostly don’t sleep in the house with guests. You would think the house was haunted.” Neil’s fingers were white against his mug.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

The question came from nowhere and there was a beat where Andrew was sure Neil was going to tell him to bugger off. Neil frowned into the coffee and sighed. There were dark rings under his eyes, almost purple. 

“They’re always the same. I’m on the run. Or I’m with my father. Mostly with him, really.” Neil picked over the words slowly, a hint of apprehension in his tone. It reminded Andrew of Valbonne, the way Neil gathered himself and tested the story like a child trying to work out if a river was too deep, too cold, too powerful.

Andrew longed to take his hands again, to stroke over the truth of Neil’s scarred knuckles and his hand with its missing fingers. But he figured that Neil wouldn’t want that – not from him, not anymore. He buried his hand in Sir’s ruff instead, rubbing at the gold and ginger ears as distraction.

“When I was in Baltimore, I escaped into the gardens.” Neil tapped his temples with his free hand. “Up here, you know? Have you ever just… gone somewhere else in your head?”

"Yes." Andrew knew exactly what Neil meant. The way a human mind could slip its container, just for a while, just long enough to escape the pain for a while. It was like flying, like becoming the stone skipping over the water, touching down just to lift off again.

Neil's throat bobbed. “It was like that. It was… just nothing I’d ever been taught by my mother was going to help me, not down there in the dark. She taught me to run and hide, but the time for that was over. I needed another way to stay alive.”

After witnessing the shaking, shivering wreck that was Neil in the barns, Andrew had no problem imagining how Neil must have looked as his father’s prisoner. Bird-boned and pale, more scars than skin, a lost boy with no thoughts deeper than running, surviving.

“I used to just… slip into Madame Babèu’s garden. In my head, I would walk down the slate paths, adding to the pebbled borders to keep away weeds, tying the sunflowers so they could climb up the backwalls or pruning the wisteria arches. All the odd jobs she used to let me help with. And everywhere, the scent of lavender, the hum of bees.” Neil’s mouth curled in a small, sad smile. “I promised myself, if I survived, if I got out, I’d grow my own lavender. I’d come back to Provence and build this farm. I imagined what it would look like over and over, from the way the light would fall over the fields to the type of mulch I’d use…”

Neil sighed. “I was bargaining. I knew I was fucked but I kept making these promises, hoping for a miracle.”

“You got it,” Andrew said. “Your miracle.”

“I suppose I did.” Neil’s expression softened when he glanced at Andrew next, the ice in his eyes melting and smoothing away the jagged edges of his memory. “But in my dreams, I never know that.”

Andrew drank his hot chocolate, thought of Betsy and Palmetto, thought of Wednesday afternoons with Aaron, thought about telling Neil about the hundred what ifs he carried in the grey matter of his brain. The litany of if onlys that Andrew ran through at night like the world’s most depressing prayer:  if only Andrew had been there; if only he’d stuck with his brother as they promised; if only it had been him that day, gazing down that barrel, then Aaron wouldn’t have relapsed.

He thought about his dreams, the way he woke every morning with a gnawing ache in his stomach, the emptiness in his chest where Aaron had been wrenched away – the name he woke up with, the ghost that he lived with, the weight of his dead twin that felt heavier than any of the memories Drake left behind.   

The words, however, wouldn’t come. They were stuck behind his teeth, clogging his throat, choking him.

“Andrew, it’s okay,” Neil said. “You don’t have to say anything.”

Andrew hadn’t realised that Neil was observing him. Felt strange knowing that Neil had been watching closely enough to see where his mask cracked, where feeling lurked. All the people who knew him well enough to understand that Andrew wasn’t just a cold, unfeeling monster were meant to be far away, across an ocean. Or in a grave.

“You’ve given me too many truths.” Andrew settled on trying to explain his unease. He didn’t like to feel in anyone’s debt.

“I wasn’t telling you because of a game,” Neil said. “If you want me know something, you’ll tell me when you’re ready. If you don’t, that’s fine too. You can say no.”

Goosebumps prickled over Andrew’s skin. No was a wall. No was a boundary. No didn’t look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and a child might turn it into a contest. No in a conversation was like a gap, a line, an idea of stop, keep out, stay back. But to Andrew, the idea was real. It was essential. His entire life there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall, than that word.

Neither of them said anything for a long time. It was companionable. It was comfortable. It was the kind of quiet that made the rest of the world feel far away, distant. At some point Andrew ended up with a lap full of Sir and when he looked at Neil it was to see a tender, exhausted smile directed solely at him. Neil’s eyes were clear and devoid of accusation. They rose to Andrew’s with all the ease of the dawn – and then they dipped, fell on Andrew’s lips. A lazy, hazy, easy awareness stirred in Andrew, knocking the sense right out him – all that was left was a notion: of security and safety. And a vision: of being the one whose bones Neil curled up to on cold and windy nights, of being allowed to slip his feet underneath Neil’s legs on the couch with the cats between them, of drowsily kissing Neil's mouth as they warmed one another, half asleep, half awake, tangled and at ease.

“I should go,” Andrew said. The only thing he moved was his fingers, which teased through Sir’s coat.

“Stay,” Neil said.

Andrew didn’t say no.  

***

Despite the cricks in their necks the next morning, a fresh warmth grew between Andrew and Neil over the following week.

Neil slept in the house until the mistral blew itself out and Andrew met him in the kitchen for coffee and cocoa more than once. When the skies turned blue again and the sun beamed out over the landscape, Andrew started to join Neil in the mornings whilst he worked, helping to carry the heavier boxes and bags, enjoying the way Neil’s eyes lingered on his arms and traced over his shoulders (the way Neil blushed when Andrew caught him staring). Andrew kept swimming – newly appreciating how it had developed his lats even further, maintained the bulk of his shoulders despite the lack of a ring or weights – and he was fairly certain one of these days he’d persuade Neil to join him.

Water still dripped from the branches and leaves for the first few days after the storm passed, and with it bloomed the smells. Heavy with damp and warming with the sun, every flower in the garden seemed to be lifting its brightly coloured head to the sky, releasing their perfume to coax in the bees. It was a rich mix of sultry herbs and teasing blossoms, the roses waxing wide and the peach trees dropping their white petals, the wisteria burst into palest purple and pink, the yellow broom and mimosas strutted between them all, bobbing like Neil in his straw hat. A thousand memories were beginning to take root amongst the flower beds and the hedgerows, starting to imprint into the ashlar and slate.

The days passed, June turning into July. Neil moved back to the barns full-time.

They took long walks through the fields and along the mountain paths, navigating the rocky terrain of Andrew’s grief and Neil’s jagged history that came so painfully close to intertwining with Andrew’s own.

Sometimes when their stories crossed, it seemed like fate had been playing games – it was almost nonsense that Neil hadn’t ended up crossing paths with Andrew earlier, particularly given the connection to Kevin and Evermore. Turned out that the Foxes’ Number 2 had met Neil as a child but Tetsuji had disliked Nathaniel's sharp tongue and told his father that he would never be a Raven.

“I have a bit of an attitude problem,” Neil said, flippant and grinning.

But Andrew still felt anger towards the Raven’s Master, who had so easily signed the death warrant of a seven-year-old, simply by saying he’d never play a bastard sport like exy.

New routines began to form: waking, making coffee, waiting for Neil to find him (and always hearing him coming because of his endless propensity to destroy every half-decent song in the French language), helping with the farm in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, taking a late lunch together by the barns, or having a glass of rose as the sunset, talking and sharing and swapping truths until nightfall, parting reluctantly as two magnets and rising only to collide together again.

As they moved through the days, there were too many small touches for them to be an accident – sitting in silence with pinky fingers brushing, thighs and knees knocking as they drove in the tractor, Neil guiding Andrew through a motion to look after his plants, Andrew placing a hand on Neil’s arm when he asked him to move aside. There were yeses and nos between some of these, a general respect of personal space at all times. But Neil seemed to crave touch too, seemed to lean into every brush of his shoulder or hand on his hip. Andrew wondered how often Neil let people come close to him.

Aaron’s ghost was curiously absent. The gnawing in Andrew’s chest felt a little less like it might devour him. There were fewer moments where he felt stuck in time, stuck in space, life far away and untouchable. He woke up and heard his heart beating and didn’t hate it. There was a new buzz under his skin: thrumming and wild and giddy. He felt… purposeful. Like something extraordinary was about to happen.

And he knew that he shouldn’t feel that way. Aaron was still dead. Aaron was always going to be dead.

But something was changing. And Andrew, for the first time in months, didn’t want to prevent it. Or resist it as the case maybe.

Because Andrew was beginning to realise there was little to no defence against Neil. Which was why, on what might have been just another normal morning - when singing at the top of his lungs, Neil whirled into the kitchen in a blue t-shirt and cotton dungarees - Andrew nearly choked on his coffee.

“You’re in an intolerable mood. Why are you so happy?” Andrew asked as Neil spun towards the cafetière, one dungaree straps drooping down his shoulder.

“Any day now,” Neil crooned. “The lavender is going to bloom. It’s the best part of the summer. The rain has been so good for it.”

Lavender, Neil had explained, grew in the toughest terrain – in gravel, in the dry and sandy soil that looked like it shouldn’t take anything, should suffocate and kill any plant that tried to live there. Lavender thrived because of the roughness, the inhospitable earth. Thrived and bloomed and brought with it the scent and colour of l’été de Provence.

“Andrew, it’s coming,” Neil said, stepping into Andrew’s space and taking a bite of Andrew’s croissant, straight from Andrew’s hand. “La lavande fleurit.” 

Plucking a peach from the bowl, Neil bit into it and beamed – it was that smile again – the one that made Andrew’s heart stutter and his whole body catch in a storm of fight or flight or fuck.

They spoke at the same time:

“I’ll see you later, non? In the fields?" “Do you want to have dinner with me tonight?”

Quoi?” asked Neil.

“Have dinner. With me. Tonight,” Andrew repeated, words pepper-hot and ground out over his tongue.

Neil was half way through another bite of his peach and he licked his lips as he swallowed, that indecent tongue piercing catching Andrew’s eye as it always did.

“You want to go out?” Neil asked.

“I could cook,” said Andrew.

“Then we’ll need groceries. I’ve seen that fridge, it is emptier than an exy stadium after a home loss.”

“One day I’ll work out how much you know about exy.”

“Only un petit peu,” Neil said, smirking. “Come, we’ll go shopping and you can quiz me on my excellent knowledge of stickball.”

Andrew huffed. “And you’ve seen my interviews." Fucking perfect.

“You’re terrible on camera, mon ami.” And Neil had the audacity to wink.

"Weren't you off to do some farmery, flowery bullshit?”  

Mais non, the fields can wait. Let’s go to Valbonne.”

Andrew didn’t really know how he lost control of the conversation so easily. But as they readied themselves to leave the house, Andrew realised his fists were clenched. He loosened them and looked at his empty palms. If the weak flutter in Andrew’s heart was anything to go by, he was doomed.

Utterly, totally, completely fucked.

He caught his reflection in the mirror and saw only himself.

Am I allowed to move on? He asked, the question swirling in his head.

Aaron's ghost didn’t reply.

Hope was a dangerous and disquieting thing, and Andrew had never quite acclimatised to the sensation.

He wondered if this time it might actually kill him.

 

Chapter Text

Stage V - The Upward Turn

“Eventually, my eyes were opened, and I really understood nature. I learned to love at the same time.”  – Claude Monet

 *** 

There were very few moments in Andrew’s life where things just felt good.

Yet, walking next to Neil, he felt like a man whose entire existence was spent with his face lifted to the sun.

Valbonne was much calmer without Friday’s market but that didn’t mean it wasn’t busy. Tourist season had well and truly arrived in the small town and there were enough people around to make Andrew’s shoulders bristle at the proximity, but Neil must have noticed because he asked a silent question to which Andrew gave quiet consent. Neil looped their arms together and gentled their way through the buzz and chatter. 

They hit the poissonnier first, with Neil selecting some fresh white fish that the shopkeep promised was fresh caught that day, before heading towards a shop called La Gastronomia. Neil wound his fingers around Andrew’s wrist.

“It’ll be busy inside, mais they sell everything. Les fromages, foie gras, charcuterie – plenty of ingredients so we can make a tarte tropezienne, if you wish.”

As Neil continued to speak, Andrew tried not to focus on his mouth – sinfully bowed, wrapping around language like a savoury snack.  

A group of people shouldered their way in front of them, pushing Neil into Andrew. Andrew accepted his weight, putting a hand on Neil’s hip to steady him. Neil’s hair brushed his nose with the spice of sun and sage, lavender and soap. Neil shifted, glanced over his shoulder with a bright smile but didn’t pull away, letting Andrew hold him firm. Such a small motion, but Andrew felt solid, trusted.

Andrew swallowed, grip tightening minutely over toned muscles. He could feel the heat of Neil’s skin through the thin cotton dungarees.

He breathed in, out. Inhaling Neil.

He sensed it again: how Neil was something wild and fierce and alive, always in motion. Knew Neil was only allowing Andrew to keep up with him, to catch him, to hold him up. Andrew had never known someone to trust him so openly, so freely.

Everything he’d ever had before, everyone, had been conditional – Aaron, Renee, Kevin, even Bee – at least to start.

But with Neil…

This trust was terrifying and liberating all at once.

That terror forced Andrew’s hands to let Neil go. Letting Neil Hatford nee Wesninski see the vulnerabilities in his armour, to offer Neil the power to use them against him (like so many before) was not an option.

The choice ached in his chest.

He should not – could not – do this.

Or could he? 

Neil found them a selection of vegetables. Plump purple aubergine, round red tomatoes, courgettes so green they could have cut up as emeralds. Salts came next – herbaceous and colourful – then cheeses with names so complex they sounded like the blurb on the back of a book cover. Neil ushered Andrew around the store, filling Andrew’s arms with produce. 

“Much better than a basket,” said Neil, appraisingly. “Perhaps this is your true calling.”

“My true calling is desserts.”

“Then you are in the right country, monsieur.”

Andrew knew when Neil laughed that the chances of taking a step back from these feelings was unlikely. 

Paying, they ambled out into the day and Andrew’s attention danced from Neil’s stupid red curls to his stupid knife-curve smile to the taut lines of his body, the beautiful slope of his throat. Andrew hated him, his blind trust, his miraculous determination to go beyond survival and live.

Driving back, they sat side by side in the car, Neil’s hand dangerously close to Andrew’s thigh on the gear stick. Andrew remembered how those hands stole his cigarettes. How they so patiently worked the earth around the lavender as if he could coax the plant into bloom. How Andrew’s mind went jagged at the sensation of their palms twining into one fist.

Arriving home, they unlocked the house together and put away their groceries. Andrew unloading the bags whilst Neil hummed tunelessly and arranged the food in the fridge.

They didn’t speak. It was comfortable, natural.

They moved around each other as if they’d been doing it for years, a careful, well-worn dance. Every once and again their arms or fingertips brushed.

With every exchange of vegetable from hand to hand, every step closer or away, a rhythm between them built. Each breath, each brush, lodged itself in the shining corners of Andrew’s mind. When Neil took the Peyrassol rosé from Andrew, he found he couldn’t turn away.

He was so beautiful. Everything was so beautiful.

It hurt.

Neil flashed his crooked grin. “Staring,” he said. But there was an invitation in his tone.

For a heartbeat, all Andrew’s senses came untethered, unspooled by the light falling on Neil’s face. 

Andrew saw the myriad blues like a stained-glass ocean in Neil’s eyes.

He heard Neil’s hitch of breath.

He scented the promise of what was blooming between them, as sweet as the lavender unfolding beneath the French sun.

He felt himself being tugged forward, the red strings of fate lifting his hands and threading his fingers through hair of auburn and strawberry gold.

He tasted Neil’s mouth against his.

The kiss was embarrassingly clumsy. Andrew had to lean across the island and up to Neil’s mouth and there was a moment where he nearly put his hand through a punnet of berries to stabilise himself after nearly falling. Still their lips met, noses colliding and chins knocking in the process – but really, that didn’t matter. Not in the slightest.

Not when Neil was kissing Andrew back - warm and rough and eager at the same time. Not when Neil’s mouth was parting, and that thrice-damned piercing was rolling against Andrew’s tongue. Not when Andrew was able to tangle one hand in the back of Neil’s hair and draw him down, kissing deep, kissing thoughtlessly, kissing like this was their final act and there was nothing to lose.

Fingers grazing his hand on the island pulled Andrew back to himself, away from Neil. The space between them was small but enough, a breath, enough for Neil to sigh into. So quietly. So contently. It was a sound that slipped into Andrew’s chest and pooled there, warm and bright and delicate as a freshly bloomed flower.

They were still in their slightly awkward position, Andrew pushing himself over the corner of the island, one hand buried in Neil’s hair, the other trapped under one of Neil’s. 

He thought of a time when he would have shoved Neil away, done anything to make Neil back off, to reconsider, to doubt what they had just done. He would have asked Neil to tell him no, demanded it. Back at Palmetto he would have wanted to escape immediately or for Neil to flee. He would have needed space, needed time to gather himself again.  

Bee had done a good job, Andrew supposed, of helping him kiss men without his skin instantly feeling like it needed to be scoured from his body.

He watched as Neil’s eyes fluttered open. As a lazy smile lifted his kiss puffed lips. 

“I was wondering if you’d kiss me,” Neil said. “Cheeky of you to do so before our date tonight, though.”

Date? Andrew wasn’t sure if he said the word out loud.

Neil huffed out another breathy laugh and released Andrew’s hand. “Mon ami, I’m teasing you. This doesn’t have to be anything.”

Didn’t have to be anything?

“This is nothing,” Andrew said, though as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew they were all wrong. 

Neil’s eyes grew impossibly soft. “Of course, nothing.” Yet.

Andrew heard the end of Neil’s sentence as clearly as if it had been spoken. 

He lifted his hand from the counter, pressed his thumb against Neil’s lips, rubbed against the swollen pink of them.

“You’re not my answer,” he said.

“And you are not mine.”

Neil’s words were hot against his thumb.

For months Andrew’s mind was a jagged thing, not knowing what he wanted or what he needed. The world had kicked his feet out from under him yet again and Andrew had yet to find his footing. His ears kept pricking, listening for Aaron’s voice to whisper that this was wrong and unfair and breaking their deal. He kept waiting for the swell of guilt to drag him down.

But it didn’t come.

Here he stood, having kissed Neil, and for once his head was quiet, his senses safely coiled back together, and it didn’t matter than he couldn’t touch the bottom, that he was out of his depth. Because now he was swimming and his head was above water.

To say this thing with Neil was nothing, he realised, was a lie.

Perhaps some past version of Andrew would have been able to pretend that he didn’t feel anything; that this was nothing and Neil was nothing and that Andrew wanted nothing.

But Andrew was older now. He had learnt to live in increments, through therapy sessions and cookery lessons, through a dumb sport and a family of misfits. He was a survivor. And he tried not to lie to himself anymore.

Andrew slid his hand from Neil’s mouth to his cheek, traced up the freckles under his eyes, pushed a loose curl behind his ear. He leant in slowly, giving Neil time to pull away. Neil didn’t. Andrew’s lips brushed the corner of Neil’s mouth. 

Nothing yet, he thought.

And the ‘yet’ didn’t terrify him like it should. 

*** 

Dinner with Neil was an abundant thing.

Odd choice of word, but it was the only way Andrew could describe it.

They’d parted briefly to change (Andrew had donned a grey t-shirt that showed off his biceps and his best black jeans, the ones with the artful rips and once made him subject of a Mail article called “Is this the best male ass in sport” – and he preened under Neil’s thrilled attention), and when he returned to the kitchen, Neil (now in a loose cotton shirt so thin Andrew could almost see through it) was in the process of creating a spread that could easily have fed Andrew’s entire exy team.

There was sliced up baguette, unsalted butter, olive oil and balsamic. There were garlicky olives and stuffed pimento peppers that Neil brought up from his own stores in the barns. There was a salad and tomatoes with burrata. Beetroots with feta. Neil had rubbed herbs into the skin of the fish and the smell of it cooking in the oven popped over Andrew’s senses: oregano, rosemary, basil and pepper, spicy and savoury, something cool like menthol or sage underneath it all and lavender, as always, a deep and delicious bass note. His mouth salivated.

“You know, I thought I was the one who asked you to dinner.”

“You can open the wine,” Neil replied. “Bottom shelf in the fridge.”

Andrew pulled the cork and poured two glasses. They clinked santé, drank. It was another minerally fresh wine, dry and light. Andrew supposed the region probably favoured it as a contrast to their decadent cuisine.

Plates were passed and taken outside onto the terrace. Candles were lit. Wine glasses were drained and refilled.

Neil insisted on Andrew trying a little of everything, even the green and leafy things that he’d usually avoid unless a diet plan demanded it. Everything just tasted better here – the tomatoes were sweet and tangy, the burrata like biting into a dream; the beetroot and feta balanced salt and sweet like they were the scales of justice, and when Neil ripped up some mint to scatter over the top, Andrew closed his eyes to savour the flavour; the fish emerged from the kitchen crisp-skinned and just translucent at the bone.

“Try it with the watercress and pickled fennel, it’s parfait.” Neil passed his suggestions as he made them. The combination was charred and sharp and pert and wonderful and Andrew wasn’t ever going to fight Neil's offers to cook again.

It was like tasting food for the first time. Like everything he’d ever put in his mouth before was ash and this was real food.

“Good, huh?” Neil said. He almost looked smug but the warmth in his eyes gave away his pleasure at seeing Andrew tucking in like an animal.

“I’ve never eaten like this before,” admitted Andrew. He shamelessly helped himself to a third helping of fish, noting the way Neil followed his fork from plate to mouth and lingered. 

“No home cooking in America?”

Andrew shrugged. “Even when I do it’s bland.” 

“That’s so sad.” And Neil really did look appalled.

“It is what it is. And bland is better than most of what I had in college.” Andrew took another bite of fish, swallowed.  “Nicky – my cousin – cooked for us a lot, but his answer to everything was to add spice – mostly pure chilli. Aaron and I ended up eating ice cream for a week one time he made cochinita pibil. We were too scared to eat any of the ‘left overs’ he kept trying to feed us.” 

“And you cared too much to tell the truth.”

It wasn’t a question, but Andrew nodded – Nicky really had tried his best with them; even when they were little shits. He said, “That recipe is a whole day affair – you marinate the pork for six hours - we weren’t going to tell him it could blow up a small country.”

Laughing, Neil pilfered a bite of the fish from Andrew’s plate and gave a satisfied grin. “This is good. So, your poor cousin scarred you for life? You never wanted to learn to do it yourself?”

“More that most of what I eat comes from a team dietician.”

“Ah for your stickball sport.”

“That’s the one.”

“And their diets are not for fun.”

“Nope, it’s all protein and good fats and slow-burn calories. It’s not this.”

Neil’s grin grew wider. “Food for the sake of food you mean?”

“It’s not food that’s designed to be enjoyed, no.” Andrew licked his fork clean. And okay, he might have run his tongue up the side just a little more overtly than necessary, but the way Neil swallowed made it worth doing again. “When did you learn to cook?”

Neil looked thoughtful. “Most of what I know now is only from the last few years. I picked up a bit in Sanury but the homes I had in Marseilles were more about feeding as many mouths as possible for as little money. Lots of cassoulet and pistou, coq au vin on Sundays if we were lucky after church.”

“Church?” Andrew tried to imagine Neil sitting next to Renee, deferential and lips murmuring in prayer.

Shrugging, Neil sipped at his wine. “Religion wasn’t for me. You know what the final straw was though? They asked me not to sing the hymns, to let the church sing for me. I purposefully sang louder after that and the family I was with decided I was irredeemable. Still, for a brief and magical moment in time, their discomfort was the highlight of my week.”

Andrew’s lip twitched. “You were a menace.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m a delight.” Neil grinned. “Don’t quirk your eyebrow at me, m’sieur, I just wanted to show my passion for the good lord.”

This time Andrew laughed, really laughed, a rough and crinkly-eyed thing that started with a snort. He couldn’t remember the last time he laughed like this and that made him chuckle even harder. He almost lifted his hand to hide his mouth – he’d had too many months of smiling and laughing back at Palmetto and mostly at his own pain – but Neil stopped him with a hand hovering over Andrew’s own. Andrew laced their fingers together.

Something rose within Andrew, like sunshine trapped behind his ribcage, trying escape with every brag of his heart. It was a sense of being able to do anything – that the worst was over and that he was not just happy but was allowed to be happy.

The feeling was so horrendous and overwhelming that all laughter guttered and died. 

Andrew stared at Neil, his mouth hanging open and his heart pounding. “Fuck,” he said. “Fucking fuck.”

“Yeah,” replied Neil. “I know.”

Neil didn’t say something asinine like ‘he would want you to be happy’. He didn’t say ‘it’s okay to laugh’. He didn’t offer an encouraging smile. Neil wasn’t the kind of man who dealt in platitudes and Andrew’s skin shivered with the relief of that realisation; one of the many reasons he’d needed to leave America was the relentless kindness with which everyone bombarded him. But Neil wasn’t kind. He didn’t offer sympathy as empty as their licked-clean plates. 

Neil simply let Andrew feel and held his hand. And yes, darkness lurked in Neil’s blue eyes, candlelight doing everything to raise the ghosts below his skin, but there was no judgement, no gall, just perfect understanding. Like Andrew, Neil knew rock bottom. He knew what it was to lose, to break – he’d stitched himself back together, over and over, always alone. He’d survived, just like Andrew had. 

Although I had Aaron, in the end. Andrew thought. And Wymack and Bee and the Foxes.

He didn’t know how Neil did it all by himself. Out here. Rebuilding a farm. Finding the strength to stop running. Figuring out how to live.

Part of him – a part that wasn’t quite ready – wanted to learn how to do that too. Enter the world again. Remember how to breathe.

He lifted their joined hands and pressed his lips to Neil’s knuckles. He heard the tiny gust of a sigh. It sounded like his name.

“Thank you,” he said. “For dinner.”

“I think you mean for the gastronomic journey that I just took you on, but I’ll accept this expression of gratitude if you do the dishes.”

“Deal,” Andrew said.

He tried not to think too hard about how Neil’s accent wrapped around the word gastronomic. He tried even harder to ignore his brain which was rattling off all the other things he wanted to tell Neil he appreciated – the quiet and the patience, the acceptance of his grief; for letting him help with the farm, for teaching him about lavender.

Maybe he wasn’t running away by coming to France. Maybe he was stopping.

They cleared the dishes, wrapping what little was left and storing it in the fridge. They went back out to the terrace, and Neil blew out the candles so they could see the stars better. Cigarette smoke trickled upwards towards the sky and Neil tucked himself into Andrew’s side, their edges fitting together like two sides of a splintered geode.

Above them the planets moved. Around them the night flowers exhaled their perfume. The moon grinned down as if it knew a joke they didn’t.

Eventually Neil drew away. He touched Andrew’s cheek once, lightly. Andrew caught his fingers, pulled Neil close again and kissed him.

In silence, they wrapped themselves around each other, heat mingling, breaths becoming nothing more than clouds burned away by the light of the stars.

*** 

When Andrew went to bed that night and was once again alone with himself, he experienced the most peculiar and ineluctable peace. He felt collected, tranquil, adoring, the serenity of his heart comparing with the serenity of the skies he could still see through his open windows.

He could not put into words what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him.

He sank into slumber remembering the weight of Neil’s lips. 

***

That night Andrew dreamt of green fields and golden hours, of picking tomatoes fresh from the vines and turning to Aaron to tell him, “You have to try this. It’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.”

Aaron wasn’t behind him though. 

Squinting up the fields, Andrew thought that maybe he could see the outline of Aaron in the distance, at the top of the hill. 

“Hey, asshole, wait up,” Andrew called.

Aaron didn’t stop.

Andrew started to run; tomatoes forgotten. He had to catch up.

Aaron couldn’t leave without Andrew. Wait for me. Wait for me.  

But when Andrew arrived at the top of the hill, the sun blazed in his eyes, blinded him.

Aaron was gone.

Andrew woke up with his pillow damp and his eyes glued together by loss. 

***

The next few days were a blur. Andrew couldn’t remember ever feeling this high, this happy, this powerful – at least not since he came off those agonising drugs in his second year at Palmetto. 

The routine was still there but it was made to be broken now: he woke, he made coffee, he met Neil, he kissed Neil and kept kissing Neil – in the house, in the fields, by the pool with Neil kneeling so their lips could meet when Andrew reached the far end – he packed them lunches, helped on the farm, watched the lavender as the pinprick silver heads began to bruise into purple; they ate and Neil taught Andrew how to make pissaladière, a French onion tarte with olives and a base like a pizza, and he only burnt it a little. Andrew found his lips twitching upwards more often and sometimes when he licked the laughter from Neil’s mouth, he wondered if joy could be contagious. 

On yet another bright morning, he rose in the usual fashion, his eyes sticky with dreams he could barely recall and carrying a cat under each arm back down to the kitchen.

“You two will be the death of me,” he told King once they’re downstairs.

The cat only fixed him with a Look, the one all cats seemed to be born with and stalked away to clean her whiskers. Sir gave it a second, pressed once against Andrew’s ankles and followed her sister.

Andrew was just finishing the coffee, taking a tentative sip and thinking about the croissants left from yesterday, when he heard fleet-footed footsteps unaccompanied by song. Frowning, Andrew turned towards the balcony doors.

“ANDREW!”

Neil ran into the kitchen in another pair of dungarees, eyes bright, hair wild, gauges full of lavender. He ignored the coffee Andrew left for him on the side and instead took the mug from Andrew’s hands, putting it on the side and leaning in for Andrew to kiss him. Andrew closed the gap and felt the happiness radiating from Neil. His whole body sang of it. Andrew dropped his hands to Neil’s waist and was about to pull their bodies closer when Neil tugged back.

Mere days since their first kiss and Andrew couldn’t help frowning when he couldn’t chase Neil’s mouth the way he so desperately wanted. 

Neil, however, was grinning. Ear to ear. A grin bigger and brighter than even his sunshine smile. This one was mischievous and delighted. Ecstatic.

“What’s going on?” asked Andrew.

Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Neil offered his hand. “Come on. Come on. Come and see.”

With a last glance at the coffee, Andrew accepted Neil’s grasp and let himself be dragged out of the house and into the early morning light. The sky was palest morning blue, the alps still tinged the colour of dry roses from the sunrise. The trees shading the path hummed with cicadas, their shivery song like tuning forks struck again and again. The air was cotton soft and already warm. It was going to be a blistering day; Andrew could feel it.

Arriving at the gate, Neil pushed it open with the air of magician performing his greatest trick, tipping his head to say Andrew should go through. Deciding to amuse whatever Neil was so excited about, Andrew slid past and into the silver-green fields.

Only they weren’t green anymore.

The whole world had bloomed purple.

“Lavender,” Andrew said, quiet, soft.

Row upon row of it.

Perfect and purple and perfume sweetening the air. 

The wind stirred the stems and the light caught the flowers in a myriad of shadows and lights – an ocean of purple, deep and bright, such that when they tilted one way they collided and darkened into Phoenician tones, then rocked the other way to be almost veronica blue. Where the hills rolled and tipped and the lavender bobbed on the horizon, the light filtered in pearly and thistle-like. Andrew stared and stared. It was unreal. An artist’s reverie.

Coming up behind him, Neil touched the small of Andrew’s back in question and Andrew nodded. Neil propped his chin on Andrew’s shoulder.

C’est magnifique, non?”

“It’s...” Andrew couldn’t find the words. Actually, he was fairly certain he could have eaten a dictionary and even then language wouldn’t suffice to describe what he was experiencing.

Because it wasn’t just the panorama – the endless vistas of lavender – nor even the redolent warmth of the morning. It was the fact that Neil created this. That somehow, Neil turned rocky soil into a blanket of life.

“We’ll open the farm on Friday,” Neil said. Andrew looked at him, felt his mouth go dry. Neil was glowing in the morning light, his delight making him radiant and impossible. 

“It’s Wednesday.”

“Good of you to notice,” said Neil. “But this is why I have an idea to run by you.”

“I hope you didn’t hurt yourself.”

“Pfft. You think you’re funny.” Neil pivoted so he stood toe to toe with Andrew. His grin was feral. “Would you like to come sailing with me, M’sieur Minyard?

Andrew blinked. “Sailing.”

“I have a boat in Antibes. It’s small but we can sail out to the islands or one of the coves.” Neil cocked his head to one side and shuffled an inch closer. Andrew could smell him. Earthy, intoxicating and warm. “I mentioned it in my first letter.”

Andrew remembered it like he remembered everything. He knew absolutely nothing about sailing though. The one time he’d been on a boat – fine, it was a ferry – he’d been so violent seasick Nicky spent a whole week apologising for making the suggestion.

“So? Do you want to come? We can go for the day.”

“You don’t need to do anything here?”

“I employee people for this reason, and most of us break on Wednesday afternoons anyway. Alphonse will take care of what needs to be done today.”

“I see.”

Neil leant forward into Andrew’s space, looking up through his lashes. “Well yes? Or no?”

Andrew’s heart stuttered. Refusal was on the tip of his tongue, but Neil’s eyes were stupidly large and ridiculously pretty and the words that came out instead were, “Sure. Why not?”

If it was possible, Neil seemed to become even more radiant. And this time when Andrew closed the gap to kiss him, Neil didn’t pull back. For a moment there was nothing but the quiet rush of their lips, the feathery lightness of eyelashes brushing cheeks and noses, the rough rasp of stubble and chins. Neil’s mouth was warm and sure and inviting and something to which Andrew was sure he could become dangerously addicted.

Neil offered the car keys to Andrew and when he declined, passed across a basket that felt worrisomely light.

“We’ll pick up some lunch in town before we set off,” Neil explained, putting the car into gear and reversing them down the drive. He stuck the tip of his tongue out as he concentrated. Ridiculous man. “But there’s coffee in the thermos, if you need some now.”

Andrew did need some now. He drank almost the whole thing before they reached the old walled town of Antibes.

Unlike Valbonne, Antibes was a higgledy-piggledy mess of tiny streets that hatched and cross-hatched like an Albrecht Dürer print. The town felt small but sprawled along the coast, as if everyone had tried to press themselves as close to the craggy coastline as possible. Medieval ramparts contrasted against cobble-stoned streets festooned with flowers, and Andrew pressed every lane and shady square between the pages of his memory.

They parked close to the harbour – marina, corrected Neil – and headed to the Marché Provençal first. As soon as they stepped beneath the cast-iron roof, Andrew knew this was the beating heart of the town. The sting of tapenades hit his nose, the shine of vegetables drawing his eye like gemstones and when he sniffed a bite of cheese, he let himself nibble along the countertops whilst Neil haggled for this and that and the other. They loaded up in record time and were turning back towards the port Vauban, when familiar dulcet tones called Neil’s name:

“Nathaniel,” said Eduard. “Que fais-tu ici?”

Trying not to bristle, Andrew turned as Neil did. Neil’s smile didn’t drop but there was a new edge to Neil’s expression, one Andrew didn’t remember from last time they saw the Frenchman.

“Bonjour Eduard,” Neil replied.

Definitely stilted.  

Eduard said something rapid and confusing, his young and handsome face as guileless as a muse ready to be painted. He was all dark hair and dark eyes, a sun-kissed mini-me to the Moreau that Andrew knew from the exy court. There was something spoilt to his mouth though; Andrew didn’t trust him or the way his eyes wouldn’t stop staring at Andrew in challenge.

“Let’s talk in English,” Neil responded. “You remember Andrew? We’re taking out Le Parles En Fleurs for the day.”

A look of affront passed over Moreau’s face. “You are taking him sailing? Today?”

“We’re taking each other,” Neil said.

“But…” Eduard Moreau was everything like his brother but nothing like him at the same time. Every expression was easy to read, every inch of his disdain and his annoyance visible. Jean was a closed book. “Excuse me, I am simply surprised. You are usually so dedicated to your work.”

C’est vrai. Yet today I feel inspired to live a little. Will you be coming to the farm for opening day? We’ll send word out tomorrow with the details.”

“I’ll be there.” Eduard hovered, not reading (or ignoring) the dismissal. His frown bordered on a scowl.

Sliding two fingers over Neil’s wrist, Andrew silently asked if they were ready to leave. Neil smiled, still slightly ruffled and turned away from the young Moreau.

Eduard did not like that at all. He reached forward, snatching at Neil’s hand, “Nathaniel!”

Andrew moved with the same unthinking need to protect and defend that made him the number one goalkeeper in international exy. He batted away Eduard’s grasping reach with a thwack on the back of his wrist.

Merde! Putain de connard!” Eduard snatched his arm back, swearing and glaring and spitting fire from his eyes. Looking at Neil, words flew from Eduard’s mouth too fast for Andrew to follow.

Neil raised an eyebrow. “I don’t let him do anything. Andrew does not need my permission to act. Let’s talk later, okay?”

Andrew said nothing, accepting Neil’s fingers when he offered them and walking away from the young man whose mouth was agape, furious and most definitely shocked.

“I’m not sure what’s got into him,” Neil muttered as they dropped down from the market, heading back towards the marina.

“He’s jealous.”

“Really? But it’s just so unlike him. I mean, I can see why he wants you, look at you. Like of course he would want you.”

Was Neil really this oblivious? “He’s not jealous of you, Neil. He’s jealous of me. He wants you.

Neil almost tripped over a cobblestone and only Andrew’s hand in his kept him upright. “What? No. He’s never been this way before.”

“Have you been with other men in front of him before? Yeah, see that expression tells me you haven’t. How old is he? Nineteen? Twenty?”

“Eighteen last April.”

“Well there you go. Eduard’s a baby gay and he fancies you. You might even be one of his first crushes. He’s feeling possessive.”

Andrew had listened to Nicky wax lyrical about his gay awakening enough times to understand it was probably nothing personal – it sounded like Eduard had pretty much grown up with Neil. What kind of teenager wouldn’t fantasise about a young farmer with a face like Neil Hatford’s?

Worry was flickering over Neil’s face, realisation and understanding not far behind. “I never knew. I don’t… it’s not even just that I’m demi… I’ve known him since he was thirteen. That’s just weird to think about.”

Demi. Andrew filed that away. He’d only known one other person who identified as demisexual. There was a vague recollection of a conversation about what it meant – but he’d been high and drunk at the time, the memory was fuzzy and too hard to reach. Anyway, he was far more relieved to hear that Neil had no interest in the young, lithe, strikingly good-looking Frenchman who so obviously wanted Neil for himself. 

Reaching the marina resurged Neil’s good mood; he all but skipped down the pontoons, graceful as ever as he hopped over looped warps and lines left sprawling over the jetty. Andrew tried not to feel uneasy as he realised the dock was floating, moving under his feet.

“Voila!” Neil said, hopping onto a boat that made Andrew’s heart stop.

A sleek classic yacht with teak decking and a navy hull; clearly a single hander and labour of love because everything gleamed – the cleats and the carefully flaked sails and the polished wood. Along the side curled her name: Parle En Fleurs.

“I bought her as a wreck,” Neil said. “Isn’t she beautiful now?”

Another broken thing you’ve brought back to life, Andrew thought, watching Neil as he unlocked the hatches and began to prep the boat.

“Stunning,” he said.

Leaving port was an easy thing, Neil did most of it – slipping the lines and taking them out into the wide blue ocean beyond the marina walls. Andrew watched, mouth dry, unsure if it was nerves or Neil making his stomach flipflop.

Did he really have to look so edible all the damn time?

The waves were small and happy. Andrew was relieved when his stomach didn’t revolt. But how could it? When the wind was in his hair and the horizon was a perfect turquoise line and the water shifted between shades of amethyst and indigo, teal and capri. As the sails went up, he felt nerves and excitement, a thrill so unlike him that it took a moment for him to realise that it was a good feeling.

“Here we go,” Neil said, mischief-mode clearly engaged.

And off they went, cutting upwind on an angle that Andrew quickly found himself enjoying. Neil wooped and laughed as the wind caught and drove them faster and harder. Andrew found himself grinning wide and wild.

The wind rushed past them.

The water rushed under them.

And Andrew’s blood rushed through his heart, thundering alive, alive, alive in his chest. Euphoric. Jubilant. Spine-tinglingly good.

This was better than doing ninety down an empty highway. Better than a cage and the promise of a fight. Better than any exy game he’d ever played.

“How the hell did you learn how to sail?” Andrew asked when they tacked and rounded the headland towards Cannes. There was a lull in the wind here, making it easier to speak.

Neil shrugged. “It’s not such a posh sport when you live here. A lot of people have boats and if you can get a job on one, they pay good money. I spent a lot of summers working on the yachts.”

Andrew could accept that. “Your turn,” he said.

“Hmmm, what shall I ask?” Neil mused. “Perhaps something similar – what do you do for fun when you’re not on court?”

“Fight,” Andrew said, not really thinking before answering. “Cage fighting.”

It was probably the first answer Andrew had given where Neil looked properly surprised. “What? I didn’t expect that.”

“Not many people know. It goes against my contract with the Outlaws,” Andrew admitted. “But I enjoy it. I used to spar with Renee –”

“Allison’s girlfriend?”

“Yup.”

“I knew there was something off about her.”

“She’s ruthless but a great teacher.” Andrew lifted his face to the breeze, thought of those nights in a basement in Palmetto, learning how to defend himself with knives and fists. She took him to his first fight. He’d never seen anything like that violence – so practiced, so deliberate. “I knew I wanted to own the cage almost as soon as I saw it.”

“But you didn’t want to make a career out of it?”

“That’s a sly second question.”

“I’ll owe you a free one.”

Andrew accepted the promise, then nearly rocked out of his seat when they cut through another wave. He ignored Neil’s laugh and steadied himself, thinking about his answer. “Fighting is a release for me,” he said. “If it was a job, that would disappear.”

Nodding, Neil nosed the boat a little higher into the wind and for the second time Andrew felt the starboard bow lift and they were flying again – zipping through the spray and towards the islands that loomed ever closer ahead of them.

The islands were the Iles de Lerins, verdant and full of history. Kevin once enthused to Andrew about how the islands were used in various wars as strategic defences to protect Cannes; not to mention how Sainte-Maguerite’s ruined fortress was where the Man in the Iron Mask purportedly lived out his days. Seeing these places now – the lush greenery, the crystal-clear water – to imagine them as places of war wasn’t easy. They were too idyllic, full of tiny boats bobbing on their anchors. The wind carried the faintest traces of laughter and shrieking and splashing. This was a holiday place now. Peaceful. Joyful.

They passed through the middle of the islands, not stopping as Andrew expected. 

“We’ll head up the coast a little further. There’s a cove I like. Quieter.” Neil said as they gybed away from the wind and picked up speed.

Going further sounded good. Andrew didn’t want to stop.

Sailing, he decided as the boat took life and knifed across the sea, was like taking a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart.

Eventually they did slow. Their momentum stopped stealing Andrew’s breath away, the keel evened out and Andrew was able to focus on the landscape laying ahead. He could certainly see why it was called the cap d’Azur, why this coastline lured the rich and famous, why painters and artists felt drawn to the light and the colours – it was an impressionist’s dream, an expressionist’s opportunity for exultation.

Neil loosened the mainsheet, spilling the wind until they luffed and the sails folded back down. The jib rolled in slowly, curbing their speed bit by bit to bring the Parles En Fleurs into anchor in the lee of the land.

Neil's cove was a perfect horseshoe, with a pebbly beach surrounded by limestone cliffs that looked perfect for climbing. The water was also deep and clear all the way down to the sandy bottom. Something about it reminded Andrew of the photos he’d seen of the fjords, as if the cove had been riven by millennia of tiny inlets. Best of all, unlike the busy anchorage they passed between the islands, only two other boats were anchored here - a small fishing dinghy and a motor cruiser whose sole occupant looked to be lost in a book. 

It was very quiet and very peaceful.

Inhaling, Andrew could smell aloe and fig trees and seaweed and salt.

“It’s a little early for lunch,” Neil said, glancing at the sky. “Do you fancy a swim?” 

“Yes.” Andrew did.

The sea glittered and shimmered, hypnotic and lapping at the hull. He was halfway through pulling off his shirt when he remembered his armbands and that this would mean Neil seeing his scars properly, deliberately. Most were paled by time, but his arms were still a battleground and though years had passed since he last worried about people looking at them or judging him for them, exposing himself felt different with Neil.

Because Neil revealed his already, shared them with apparent ease – and Andrew knew that Neil understood. He just wasn’t sure if he was ready for more of Neil’s understanding.

The decision, however, was made for him. With a flash of lost clothes and a whooping, crowing, delighted cry, Neil took three quick steps to the edge of the deck and dived over the side. He vanished into the water, the bronzed shape of him shattering beneath the waves like the pieces of a puzzle refusing to be solved. Andrew took no more time, stripping off his t-shirt and armbands and launching himself after Neil.

The sea felt different to the pool – it was colder, heavier, the salt-tang sharp against his lips, a light current tugged at him and he struck up an angle to make sure he wasn’t carried away. He stayed under until his lungs burned. Bursting upwards, Andrew broke the surface with a gasp and Neil swum up next to him with a smile. Andrew’s eyes travelled over the exposed skin – golden butterscotch, scars stretching from his collarbone down his chest.

Fury twinged in Andrew’s gut, knowing that Neil’s father must have done this to him, but when Neil dipped beneath the surface only to pop up and spit a mouthful of seawater at Andrew’s face, all anger vanished.

“You child,” Andrew hissed and he splashed his hand against the waves, sending a spray of water in Neil’s direction. 

Neil only giggled and dived again, strokes taking him away from Andrew, who gave chase. Catching up with Neil was not easy – he was fast – but when Andrew caught an ankle, he quickly tugged and dragged Neil backwards into his chest, dunking Neil for the instigator that he was. Spluttering, Neil emerged on the surface. His eyes were still bright, the mirror of the water. He looped his arms over Andrew’s shoulders, pressed a kiss against his jaw, let go and swimming back towards the boat.

“I’m going to dive off again,” Neil said. 

So Andrew followed.

It was when they were climbing back onboard, slipping between the rigging, that Andrew saw the extent of Neil’s scars – but if horror twinged at the sight of the perfectly defined iron brand on his shoulder, nothing could have prepared him for the bullet wound just below his ribcage.

“You were shot,” Andrew said. His mind filled with images of Aaron in a hospital bed, bandaged and sleeping. Machines bleeping. Katelyn quiet at Aaron’s side, holding his hand. 

“Romero Malcolm,” said Neil.

Andrew frowned, reached out to touch the shiny, pink scar. It was old. Neil hadn’t even been eighteen when this happened. He stopped before making contact – not sure if he had permission. Neil took a single step forward so Andrew’s palm splayed across the healed wound.

Swallowing, Andrew felt the warmth of Neil’s skin beneath his touch and made a decision. He rotated his arms to flash the pale, scarred flesh of his forearms.

Neil didn’t recoil, didn’t gasp or say sorry like so many people before. He simply met Andrew’s eyes and said, “I always knew the rumours about you having a botched tattoo was wrong."

It was such a ridiculous thing to say that Andrew huffed, corners of his mouth doing that annoying thing where they tipped up without his permission. "You read the rumours about me."

"Is that a question?" 

"It is now. What do you know about me, Hatford?" 

"Okay so small confession..." 

"I'm on tenterhooks."

“I probably know too much about you,” Neil said. “I was obsessed with exy as a kid. I remember reading an article about you when you joined PSU. The Foxes Deadliest Investment.”

Lifting one hand, Andrew stroked fingers along Neil’s throat, feeling the steady pulse beneath Neil’s skin.

“What did you think?” he asked.

Neil hummed. “I thought you were short.”

Andrew slid his hand around Neil’s throat and held it there. Not quite pressing down but enough to be a threat. “And now?”

Neil looked at him, lifted his hand and lazily laid it over the top of Andrew’s. A smile curled his mouth, a knife-blade with a blunted edge. “I think you’re beautiful.”

Andrew didn’t know what to say to that, so he did what he did best and acted instead. He slotted his mouth against Neil’s, squeezing him close. Then he grabbed Neil’s waist, picked him up, and threw him over the side of the boat. 

Spluttering to the surface, Neil shook his head and swiped water from his eyes. 

"You better be coming in here too." 

Oh Andrew was. He canon-balled straight next to Neil, making Neil shriek and laugh and try to speed away before Andrew could catch him and do something else. Andrew pursued him - chasing the pipedream that seemed increasingly like a reality.

***

After lunch was eaten – another feast that Neil somehow whipped together in the tiny galley below deck – they sprawled in the sun, Neil’s head on Andrew’s stomach and Andrew ran his hand over the bullet wound. 

“Aaron was shot,” he told Neil. “It took nearly eight months, but the bullet killed him in the end.”

And Andrew began to confess, telling the whole sorry tale with Neil listening quietly against him.

He told him about Pig Higgins mistaking Aaron for Andrew on a trip to South Carolina. He told him about Cass and Richard and Drake with his predilection for small boys - Andrew included – and how Andrew had to make a choice between the family he longed for and the family that gave him up. How he chose to protect the brother he’d never met. The twin he definitely didn’t want.

He explained how they met for the first time in the visiting area of one of California’s finest juvenile facilities – Aaron appearing one day at Andrew’s empty table. It was the first visitor he had since been sent inside (other than the Pig) and he’d been furious at Aaron for coming. 

Aaron was identical to Andrew in every way – the flax-blond of his hair, the hazel-gold of his eyes, the scowl that thinned his mouth and the way he held distance between himself and any adults – it was the first thing that Andrew noticed that was off.  He’d seen enough abuse in other foster kids and juvie inmates, suffered enough himself, that something about Aaron seemed wrong.

“He tried to pass it off as exy bruises but either he was practicing without padding or he was lying. He wasn’t okay. So I organised to be placed with him and Tilda upon my release. Tilda was a whole other monster.”

Tilda was never meant to be a mother, that much was certain. She had no idea how to take care of a teenage boy, let alone two, and from what Andrew gleaned from Aaron in those first few weeks, she had always been incapable. Too selfish to care for a child, even her own.

Aaron was thirteen when Tilda got him addicted to sleeping pills. Fourteen when he developed a habit around adderall. Uppers in the morning, downers in the evening. He was a mess. It was just before Andrew arrived that Aaron first got introduced to dilaudid.

From the outset, it was clear that Andrew was going to lose Aaron to the drugs if he didn’t help. So he took out Tilda – 

“You killed her?” Neil asked.

“Yes.”

Neil hummed and Andrew continued. 

“So I took out Tilda, got Aaron clean, got us into school with a lot of help from Nicky.”

 “Your cousin.”

 "Yeah, Nicky was a rock through everything. One we definitely didn’t appreciate enough at the time.”  

And it wasn’t just the relationship with Nicky that struggled. Aaron and Andrew’s relationship was fraught and anxious; Aaron resented Andrew. Mostly for killing Tilda (their deal was just a pinkie sweat to Aaron but it was an unbreakable vow to Andrew), but at least some of it was for cleaning out his system when all Aaron wanted was to get high and stop feeling the way he did.

It wasn’t until the drama of their second year – when Aaron killed Drake and the truth came out about what happened to Andrew as a ward of the state that Aaron started to rethink his resentment towards Andrew.

They started therapy. They learnt to talk.

“We started doing things together. Sharing stuff. Secrets.” Andrew carded his hands through Neil’s hair.

“We would go for ice cream just the two of us. We’d talk and talk about nothing or sit and play games for hours in silence. When we graduated and he married Katelyn, I was his best man – I actually had to persuade him to get the hell out there and stop panicking. We all knew they were going to be stupidly happy together.”  

Aaron and Katelyn moved to Charleston, finished their medical degrees, moved to Chicago, became interns at Northwestern, bought a pug called Popo and an obscenely large aquarium, named all their fish even though no one could tell any of them apart.

“We’d call each other all the time. Bad days. Good news. There were TV shows we’d watch together in different states, texting each other our live stream reactions. Every third Thursday of the month we had a joint therapy session via Skype.” Andrew's throat closed painfully. He missed Aaron. So much. All the time. “He came to every one of my games in Chicago.”

And then Aaron was shot.

Aaron was finishing his rounds for the day, heading towards paediatrics when the first shots went off – popping twice in quick succession, sounding more like firecrackers than a gun. But you don’t grow up in Carolina without knowing what a gun sounds like. All he could think about was his wife. This was her floor, her patients. Aaron flew into action, running towards the noise instead of away from it. If there was even a chance Katelyn was at risk, he was going to protect her.

“Plus, it’s what he was trained to do, I guess. First as a defender. Then as doctor. First responder.” 

The shooter was a bereaved father, whose eleven-year-old died weeks before, yellow-eyed and yellow-skinned, after complications with his liver transplant. The man had already lost his wife during his son’s birth, and there was no stopping his grief.

Andrew understood that rage in a whole new way.

Like an idiot, Aaron tried to take the gunman down – snuck up and tried to wrestle the gun away. But the gun went off. Aaron received a bullet in the shoulder, point blank range. The foolishness gave security enough time to move in but Aaron spent weeks in hospital with the doctors trying to fix his arm. Everything was fucked: the bones, the ligaments, the tendons. Aaron was training as a neurosurgeon and suddenly he didn’t have both his hands.

“Aaron was angry,” Andrew said. “At himself mostly. There was a chance he’d never operate again.”

But the injury wasn’t really the problem. It was the pain. The hospital didn’t know Aaron was an addict because Andrew got him clean in a locked bathroom without a single medical professional present. The doctor gave him a form of fentanyl after his various surgeries and sent him home with a prescription for the stuff and soon Aaron was popping it like candy, just like he had as a child.

“We all thought it was a miracle because he seemed to be doing so well – going to physical therapy, working through the exercises to strengthen his arm again, getting rid of the shakes. But he was lying to me and to Katelyn. He never told us about the drugs.”

Addiction was a thief that stole a person bit by bit until you suddenly realised there was nothing left. That was how Andrew lost his twin - in slow motion, at a pace so incremental that he didn’t notice what was being lifted from under his nose.

“I should have seen that something was wrong,” Andrew said. “I promised to protect him, and I failed.”

“You didn’t fail, Andrew,” Neil said.

“It wasn’t Aaron’s fault,” Andrew insisted.

“It wasn’t yours either,” replied Neil. He rubbed crooked knuckles over Andrew’s chin, drawing Andrew’s attention down so their eyes could meet. “It wasn’t.”

Andrew realised that for months he had waited for someone to tell him that he wasn’t to blame. When the Foxes found out about Aaron’s death there had been so much shock, so many questions. How didn’t we know? Why did this happen? We thought he was fine. Didn’t Andrew know? Even Katelyn had met him with reproach.  

We wouldn’t be here if you’d kept your promise, she’d hissed before the funeral, snatching her coat from Andrew’s hands. It was the first time he’d ever seen her in black and it didn’t suit her. Nor did her splotchy, tear-stained cheeks or miserable line of her mouth. She was a cheerleader. Mourning undid her.

Andrew took Neil’s hand and kissed the palm as was becoming his habit. “I needed to hear that.”

Neil’s expression was serious as he said it again, “Aaron’s death is not your fault, Andrew.”

Andrew believed him. The weight on his chest was so much lighter, it had to be true.  

The rest of their time was spent sunning and swimming and exploring the cliffs. The afternoon drained into evening as Neil and Andrew drained their bottle of rose, and it was with reluctance that Neil peeled himself from Andrew’s embrace to up anchor.

Their journey home was more sedate. The wind had turned they were able to set a course almost directly back with just one tack as they reached the islands. Twilight had settled over the Lerins, like a trawlers net sinking slowly to deeper waters, the sun folding up its colours and the night throwing out its stars. Tiny headlights at the top of the masts of other boats could be seen rocking merrily in various coves.

 “People sleep on these,” remarked Andrew as they slipped through the anchorage, silent on their white sails. “That must be peaceful.” 

“It is,” Neil agreed. “We can sleep on here if you ever want to.”

Sat against one another at the helm, with Neil’s arm around Andrew’s shoulder and Andrew’s fingers tracing patterns on Neil’s thigh, there was that peculiar sense of contentment in Andrew’s chest again, as if a piece of the summer had made its home below his breastbone. Sleeping next to Neil, on a boat bobbing on a quiet sea, feeling like this… it was an idea Andrew liked. More than liked.

He saw his life branching out before him, filled with days like today, with boats and flowers and Neil. He wanted that future. This present was the best he had ever had. Everything felt infinitely possible here. Like he could do anything, be anyone.

Before they said goodbye to the Parles En Fleurs for the night, Andrew stroked along the helm and realised that maybe, just maybe, he could choose this world for himself. It would be the first true thing he would ever choose for himself and no one else.

Neil was looping a figure-eight with the lines, loose shirt billowing, hair tousled where the sun had dried it into a wisteria-wild mess.

I could choose you. Andrew thought. Would you choose me?

They arrived home in the dark and there was a silent yes or no that ended with Andrew following Neil down to the barns rather than the main house. Neil held his hand as they nudged through the equipment. Neil held Andrew’s face when he kissed him.

No one touched Andrew like this. Like he was something precious, something to hold onto with care. He was so used to being handled like a vicious animal, more monster than man – and most of the time they were right, he was dangerous – but this. This tenderness was unexpected and not unpleasant and --

Neil kissed the tender skin of Andrew’s neck, on the little dip below his earlobe, making him shiver. Kissed down Andrew’s jugular, tongue flicking against his pulse point. Kissed along Andrew’s clavicle, pausing for consent before stripping away the t-shirt and pushing Andrew back against the ladder to Neil’s hayloft bed. 

Neil dropped to his knees. 

Andrew’s hands gripped onto the rungs behind him.  

Neil’s mouth turned sinful, breath warm and teasing against Andrew’s thighs. His tongue licked from Andrew’s knee to the edge of his shorts.

“Let’s take these off.”

Once Andrew was naked, Neil nuzzled into Andrew’s hips, pressed his face into Andrew’s pelvis and gave a tiny nip before pulling back, meeting Andrew’s eyes and dropping his mouth open, impish and wicked and welcoming. He eased Andrew’s cock into his mouth and then deeper into his throat, swallowing him down so that Neil’s nose pressed against Andrew’s skin.

Heat. So much heat and wetness. And then Neil hummed with satisfaction and Andrew nearly came undone right there – staring down at Neil with his mouth stretched and beautiful and warm and wet and his eyes half-lidded and watching Andrew’s reactions as he started to move.

Neil’s mouth was a revelation. His tongue with that piercing pulling Andrew apart little by little by little.

Andrew’s head fell back against the ladder, hands spasming on the rungs, desperate to reach for Neil and his sea-salt curls.

Sliding up, Neil flicked his tongue over the head, dragged his tongue up the shaft. Andrew groaned and closed his eyes.  Sucking down, Neil took Andrew’s thick weight into his throat and hollowed his cheeks in a way that had Andrew shuddering and panting and losing all rational thought.

No one had ever done this to Andrew – stroking and soothing and stoking the heat in his gut with such tenderness. No one had ever taken the time to make him unravel and moan and shake and come apart.

Because he was coming apart. He was shattering into pieces of pleasure and desperation and losing control and he couldn’t care less. It didn’t matter. Because it was Neil’s hands on his hips. Neil’s mouth making him fall. Neil’s eager, beautiful, mouth.

“Neil.” Andrew panted out Neil’s name and it flew out like a prayer. “Neil. Neil. God.”

And when Neil sent Andrew over the edge, Andrew’s brain whited out, his legs gave way -but his heart flew upwards, crashing out of his body and soaring. All feelings of guilt and anger and loneliness and loss, all images of the morgue and the funeral and the meanness of existence were left behind. Andrew climbed towards the future. The future held only promise and summer and Neil.

Dizzy with burnt-out need, Andrew slow blinked back to the present. Neil eased away with a satisfied lick of his lips and grinned. They were crumpled together on the floor, Neil’s lips swollen and his cheeks pinked. Andrew felt drugged, sensual, sleepy and strokeable – like a cat in a particularly fine spot of sunshine.

“Come here.” Andrew reached for Neil. He wanted to kiss him. Kiss him and kiss him. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” said Neil.

So Andrew kissed him. Kissed him like time didn’t exist and their lives were infinite. Kissed and inhaled the delicious scent of him. Kissed and wished it was possible to breath a person in, to lick, to drink, to eat. Neil’s lips tasted of Andrew and he burnt the taste away with his tongue. Neil’s stubble rasped against Andrew’s chin. When he nipped at Neil’s ear, he relished how Neil keened and pushed closer. Their legs twined. Hands tangled in hair. Andrew stripped Neil of his clothes and later, as Neil came over Andrew’s hand and stomach, Andrew kissed Neil’s eyelids and soothed a thumb against the old bullet scar and he felt invincible.   

“Thank you,” Andrew murmured across Neil’s freckles. “You are amazing.”

Chapter Text

 

Stage VI – Depression

“Love was like lavender,

delicate and melancholy.”

― Laura Chouette

 *

Friday arrived and brought with it a flurry of activity on the farm.

Whilst behind the garden walls, the house retained its magical peace, outside was another story.

In the fields it was time for the harvest; from the Friday when Neil sent out notice to the surrounding towns that the fields would be open to visitors who wanted to visit for tours and lavender picking, the swarms descended. Locals came to chat; honey producers arranged for deliveries; essential oil makers and perfumers inspected and smiled and left cards for Neil; elderly travelling groups used their hiking sticks to climb the hills; couples arrived, giggling and taking a thousand photos of themselves kissing in the lavender; Instagram idiots who spent hours tilting their heads this way and that trying to look sultry, to look sexy, to look innocent, mostly just looking like nitwits as they placed products around them in “artistic” arrangements as if this was actually their life and not Neil’s goodwill. But worst, in Andrew’s opinion, were the families – scores of happy and unhappy parents with their lolly-gagging children, who shrieked and cried and whined when the bees flew at them and whose siblings laughed and mocked them.

A small but significant part of Andrew’s psyche was frustrated by the amount of strangers suddenly surging through the farm. Even though Neil kept a cap on how many could enter and for how long, there were still far more people than Andrew could handle.

Saying that, he probably wouldn’t have minded so much though, if it hadn’t been for the twins – two identical boys with dark and fathomless eyes, no more than seven years old. At the time, Andrew couldn’t look at them. He politely excused himself from Neil’s side, went back to the house, downed a pint of water that did nothing to calm his shaking hands, and decided to throw himself in the pool instead. Days later, they still haunted him, appearing in his dreams and sending him off running. Seeing them reminded him too much of Aaron – the childhood they both lost, the adulthood they worked so hard for, the life they would never have, never live.

Neil seemed to understand instinctively. Andrew hated and loved him for that – loathing to be understood when he wanted so badly to be able to retreat, but also relishing that he never had to explain, not to Neil.

Still, as Andrew spent more and more time behind the garden walls and Neil spent increasingly long hours working, a familiar cold crept into Andrew’s bones. He began to sleep longer, yet still woke exhausted. His stomach would scream at him, ravenous, but when he came to eat, it suddenly would clench into a painful ball. Loneliness, hollowing and demanding, tried to take hold of him once more. Sometimes it was only the efforts of the cats that really kept Andrew from sinking under. And Neil, of course. Somehow, just a look from Neil could bring Andrew back to the present.

Waking up tangled together, morning coffees and morning kisses, shared cigarettes and dinners as the sun set, Neil’s head on Andrew’s legs as they read or chatted, Andrew pinning Neil down and taking him apart with his tongue, sleeping with his hand under Neil’s pillow… those moments anchored Andrew in a way that he was fairly certain he never had before. No one – Nicky or Aaron or Kevin, certainly no fuckbuddy – ever made him feel quite so real, so whole.

The problem was Andrew was not whole. He was broken. Had always been broken. And Neil filled the empty spaces in his soul, like sunshine spilling through a canopy of trees, warming him from the inside out.

And yes, Andrew knew Neil was attracted him. The feeling was mutual. There was no doubt that they both wanted whatever the other was willing to offer.

But he couldn’t help but wonder if he was using Neil – if he should have waited to make sure this wasn’t grief or despair making him reach out and give back so freely. The last few weeks were so unlike him in every way – the happiness, the contentment, the easily reciprocated desire. The feelings.

Andrew didn’t feel easily. Never had. Even after years acclimating to the world post-medication, he didn’t react or express himself like others did. He didn’t brim with emotions. Apathy was a staple part of his existence. Apathy and depression. The numbness that left him barely functioning on a bad day. The spikes of madness that left him craving a fight. The crippling nothingness that saw him leaning over the edge of rooftops, begging the world to let him feel anything, even if it was just the unholy terror of falling.

Doubt crowded around him now – niggling and poking at him, more visceral with every second he spent alone. It was a soft-toothed puppy gnawing at his guts, only trying to play but still causing pain.

Was Andrew doing this to drown out the anger? To silence the voices, to exorcise his memories if only for a while? Was he using Neil to stave away his demons, to keep Aaron’s ghost at bay? Was he trying to fill the space where Aaron used to be with Neil?

And what if he was?

Befriending Neil was one thing, not quite inevitable as Andrew would easily have stayed inside the bastide from the start of his trip to the end without so much as thinking about Neil if it weren’t for that dreadful racket he called singing each morning. And kissing Neil wasn’t even so unthinkable; Andrew could have dealt with that – a little bit of casual but consensual sex where both of them left satisfied at the end, no strings attached. All this though? The quiet intimacy and the give and take, the talk that flowed between them as easily as the dry Provence rose that Neil favoured, the way they woke up curled together like two question marks that had finally found their answer... 

Andrew had meant to toe a line. He hadn’t meant to invite Neil over it.

Did he cross over the line or did you, Andrew? Aaron’s spectral whisper was back, unimpressed as ever. Does it matter either way?

Reluctantly, Andrew had to admit the ghost was right, but then the chasm in his chest would yawn and he couldn’t stop the spiralling thoughts that insisted everything he was doing was out of character, false, a lie, lie, lie.

He couldn’t blame it on drugs. He couldn’t claim Neil was a hallucination, even though there were mornings where the light would stroke the angles of his face and Andrew was sure he couldn’t be real. So was this grief or release? Was it survival or living?

The questions continued to build until they throbbed behind Andrew’s eyes. Andrew needed to escape the house.

He left without thinking to invite Neil. Left without thinking of much at all. Grabbing his phone from its drawer, Andrew passed the cats sunbathing in the kitchen and closed the balcony doors behind him, heading off up the hill towards Grasse and one of Neil’s hilly walks, all on automatic.

As he went, he turned on his phone. It was the first time since June and the influx of messages indicated as much.

The messages came from everyone and in every format. There were texts upon texts from the Foxes – from Renee, from Kevin, from Wymack. There were voice notes from Allison that he didn’t dare listen to and a few voice mails from a Palmetto number Andrew recognised as Bee’s. The idea of calling her back, of hearing her voice, was so tempting. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to listen to her. He wanted her to tell him to find a little French café somewhere, order a chocolat chaud and share everything with her. His thumb paused over the call back button, but he couldn’t press down. His hand trembled. He flicked passed the voicemails and went into emails, choosing to scroll through the messages from his manager, from his team, from his PR rep and the coach. They all wanted to know when he would be back.

We understand that you’re on compassionate leave, but it would be good to know when you’re coming back. Lots of people want to talk to you. Assuming you won’t be around for pre-season but let us know if you’re not going to make it for the fall so we can manage expectations with the press and investors.

And there it was. Reality.

When you’re coming back.

Andrew hadn’t thought of returning to the real world once since he touched down in Nice airport. Going back to America meant going back to exy and cage fights and a country that felt empty without his brother. Going back meant bland food and protein shakes and giving up cigarettes again and putting up with Kevin’s constant barrage of criticisms on Andrew’s continued consumption of ice cream (honestly after ten years you’d think the guy would learn). Going back would also mean leaving Provence, leaving the bastide and King and Sir and the pool and the lavender fields. It would mean leaving Neil.

Andrew shoved his phone back into his pocket and took a deep breath. It was mid-morning and the heat of the day made the air thick and warped and heady. Olive trees and umbrella pines shaded the road, dappling Andrew’s path. He walked between the light and dark; sometimes stepping into the sun and savouring the burst of heat, other times treasuring the cool shadows and relief.

He walked, turning over and over the idea of going home to his apartment in Denver, to more matches and press junkets, to photo shoots and interviews… every rotation fed his doubts, every repetition like fresh fodder on a fire. Because of course he’d always been going home eventually. All things had to end. Unlike Aaron, Andrew still had to live.

Despair clutched his throat and he stopped in the shade, pressing himself to the hedgerow as a car flashed by too fast.

What am I doing? Andrew asked himself. What had he been doing with Neil the last few weeks? What had he been ignoring? How could he just move on from Aaron and the life his twin would never have?

The branches of the bushes pushed at his back, prickling through his t-shirt. His cheeks were too hot to be from the sun. He closed his eyes. Tried not to think of Neil. Tried even harder not to think of the people he left behind in America.

It couldn’t have been long – maybe a handful of minutes – before his pocket vibrated. The feeling was so alien after so long that for a second he thought some kind of giant insect had crawled onto his skin. He drew out his phone with a mix of fear and relief.

In his hand, the screen kept lighting up with messages, all of them from Nicky.

:u know I can see that uve turned up on read right? Nicky’s first whatsapp read.

:Can u at least tell me ur alive and not like just waking up from a coma in a foreign country or something?

:I mean Im sure they would have contacted us, like an embassy or something if u were in a coma I think like u know as ur next of kin

: omg omg

: would u even have changed it to 

: ignore me

: I didn’t mean that…

[Nicky is typing]

Andrew sighed. “Stop,” he said, typing it out as he spoke. “I’m alive.”

Nicky’s response was immediate. He tried to call.

Andrew watched it ring. And ring.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to speak to his cousin. It was that he didn’t want to speak to anyone just then. The wind stirred the trees around him; Nicky’s ringtone (Dancing Queen by ABBA) rang through them. The phone rang and rang but Andrew didn’t pick up. He could imagine Nicky’s face. The rejection. The hurt. God knows he’d seen it enough times during those first couple years in Palmetto when Nicky still tried to contact Maria; or when family holiday’s rolled around and no matter what Aaron or Andrew did, nothing would quite take the sting out of not hearing from the Hemmicks. 

Not wanting to put that expression onto his cousin’s face, Andrew quickly typed out. Can’t pick up.

It was a half lie.

He followed it up with: I’m alive. I’m in France.

Nicky’s response was swift: Kk kl Andrew can we talk soon its been months and Im worried.

Don’t be worried, Andrew thumbed the answer more slowly than Nicky. Will send you some pics.

He took a photo right then – of the long green alleyway of trees, the country path, the sun-speckled light. He sent it.

Replacing the phone in his pocket, he started to walk again. The small interaction had him off-kilter. Unsure in a different way to before.

Nicky was part of Andrew’s life. He would always be part of Andrew’s life. He was real in a way that France wasn’t. A lodestone where this strange and wonderful country was a dream, cresting like a wave and rolling onto shore, too gentle and too easy to accept as familiar.

Andrew couldn’t imagine telling Nicky about the last few weeks – about swimming and discovering pain au chocolat and the cats roaming the farm and the way the wind carried the lavender’s thick perfume over the entire landscape. He couldn’t imagine trying to put into words why he left the USA without a word, or how he sometimes spoke with Aaron’s ghost. He couldn’t imagine explaining Neil. Not to Nicky. Not to anyone. 

Walking numbed his mind. Thoughts ebbed and flowed, whole conversations playing in his skull as he played out scenarios. He could conjure the image of Nicky’s horror and repugnance, his acceptance and obsession, his confusion and betrayal – so many ways that Nicky might react to the news that Andrew had found someone in France who would fuck him.

Don’t, said a small voice in his brain. Don’t pretend that this is nothing, that this is just fucking to you when you know that it’s not – have always known that it’s so much more than nothing.

But so what if he did accept this thing with Neil? What happened if he decided all of this mattered – all of the smiles, the touches, the way Neil’s presence filled up the hollows in Andrew’s chest? If he accepted what did it change? Andrew still had a contact with an exy team in America. He still had obligations. Agreements. Deals he couldn’t – and wouldn’t back out of.

A noise slipped through Andrew’s teeth – somewhere between a groan and a sigh. He was driving himself in circles, making arguments that he couldn’t win. This was anxiety. It was every worst-case scenario playing out in his head, over and over in a thousand ways. None of this was helping.

Nicky’s messaged were still flooding his screen. Andrew pulled it out but didn’t reply any more. Reading over Nicky’s messages, he knew pictures could tell a thousand words far faster than anything else.

Turning around, Andrew headed back towards the house, this time with his phone out. As he passed a particularly pretty vista, he snapped a photo and sent it to Nicky. He took another as he found a good view of the lavender fields, spread out as a purple patchwork over the hills, the dark shadows of strangers milling through. Andrew imagined he could see a flash of a hideous straw hat bobbing through the rows. More photos were taken as he returned home, climbing up the short slope to the bastide and taking a shot of the mimosa trees with their fluffy yellow boughs, of the house with its gold ashlar stone, of the sleeping shape of Sir by the rose bushes, white stomach exposed to the sky. A small part of him accepted that all of these photos would end up on a group message somewhere – certainly in the Foxes chat but possibly in the Minyard-Hemmick-Klose one too. If it still existed, if Katelyn hadn’t left.

By the time Andrew reached the kitchen, he felt more settled. Every step over the boundary of Neil’s farm, left him feeling more at home, more stable.

You have no right to feel this way, came that niggling voice. This isn’t your home. You’re a guest. A demanding, anti-social, undeserving guest, easily replaced once you’ve gone.

Andrew grit his teeth and stepped through to the terrace. These were old thoughts, negative thoughts, based on memories of being shunted from carehome to foster parent to carehome to foster parent and back in an endless cycle of wanting and wishing and rejection and pain. He closed his eyes, inhaled, counted, exhaled, lit a cigarette with steady hands and turned his face out to the garden. Every flower was drooping today, the heat heavy and oppressive, the wind barely stirring them as it blew in from the other direction.

Yet, when Andrew listened carefully, he was sure he could hear a truly terrible song emanating from the bottom of the garden. The corner of his mouth lifted.  

He won’t want you there. You’re a burden, as you always have been. You’re a distraction from his job.

But Andrew ignored the voices. Stubbing out his cigarette, he followed the discordant thread of Neil’s voice to the barns, finding the doors wide and the singing jubilant and horrendous. Lavender hung everywhere now. Bundles and bundles of it. Andrew pushed by them, swinging them aside like a curtain, moving through until he was almost on top of Neil.

Neil was swaying to his off-key, off-beat rendition of Rina Ketty’s J'attendrai.

“You have the music taste of a sixty-year-old woman,” Andrew said as he stepped to the very border of Neil’s personal space.

“Blame the foster system,” Neil replied, grin on his face as he turned. He closed the small gap between them, bringing his body flush against Andrew’s. “Missed you.”

Andrew lent in and licked the smile from Neil’s mouth, dragged his tongue down to Neil’s throat and let himself come to rest in the crook of Neil’s shoulder, inhaling, exhaling, feeling real.

Andrew mumbled a quiet, “You saw me this morning,” as Neil wrapped one arm around his waist and kissed the tip of his left ear.

“Still missed you,” said Neil. “Miss having you to myself.”

Andrew’s gut clenched. Because wasn’t that exactly what he’d been thinking earlier – that he disliked sharing Neil with the tourists and their cameras and their baskets of fresh cut lavender, that Eduard and the tradesmen who came with their orders were a nuisance, that things were easier before the long days of summer reached their apex and the evenings started to draw down faster every night?

Nuzzling into Neil’s neck, Andrew brushed his mouth over the carotid vein, felt the steady pulse there, tasted the musk of sweat and earth, let himself relax into Neil’s body. Like this he could feel every one of those lean muscles – the strength in Neil’s forearms, the power in his shoulders and back. For lithe guy, Neil was far from brittle and Andrew relished having him in his arms. They shifted ever so slightly as Neil ducked his head to lick the shell of Andrew’s ear; Andrew tipped his head to the side to expose his throat and Neil didn’t need to be asked twice. His mouth traced from Andrew's ears down his neck, small kisses and tinier nips, gentle and pinching and teasing. Shivers raced over Andrew’s skin like the wind through the fields.

“Your neck fetish,” Andrew started to say.

Our neck fetish, I think,” corrected Neil, pulling away just far enough so that the marks Andrew left yesterday were visible.

Our. As if they were already an us, a we, a single thing made up of both of them. Andrew didn’t pull away, but he did still under Neil’s touch. Immediately, Neil was stepping back, not quite letting go but clearly sensing the non-verbal negation of consent.

“Drew?”

Huffing, Andrew shook his head. “Bad head day.”

Neil understood immediately, as he always did. He took another step back, dropping his hands so he could take both of Andrew’s in his own and steer him away from the loft and the bed they’d spent so many nights not sleeping in, so many hours together pretending that the rest of the world didn’t exist. Instead, he guided them out of the barns, away from the overwhelming smells and into the sunlight.

“Shall we take a swim?” Neil asked, touch dipping in question to the hem of Andrew’s t-shirt in question. “We can just relax.”

Andrew’s stare was blank when it met Neil’s, there was still no judgement. If Andrew said no, he knew that Neil would withdraw. He wouldn’t push, wouldn’t press. He would respect the boundary for what it was and wait to be invited back over the threshold.

There was still that niggling voice in his head, telling him that he was being a burden, that he was making Neil lose time on his work. He ignored it as best he could, drawing up every memory he could of Bee in her office, recalling the taste of hot chocolate and timbre of her voice coaxing him into trying to believe that he was not disposable, not replaceable. That it didn’t matter how many potential families rejected him: he still had value. He was still worthy of the good that the world offered, not just the bad. She had also tried to explain that he didn’t need to broker deals to have relationships and that he didn’t have to protect people that the expense of his own self. He was still working on those.

Blinking, Andrew realised that Neil hadn’t moved. He was waiting, ever patient and unassuming, whilst Andrew tethered himself back in the present.

“Okay,” said Andrew

And it was okay. Really. Andrew was fine. Swimming with Neil was always good.

So, when they went out to the pool, he didn’t think twice about shirking his armbands, didn’t doubt his hands when they reached out to help Neil out of his shirt or his trousers, didn’t hesitate when they were both nude and slipping into the pool.

Skin brushed skin and Andrew let his fingers dance over sinuous muscles and sharp angles, skimming over the familiar scars, that tapered waist, the swell of those worker’s thighs. Neil hummed under Andrew’s touch. With the water up to their collarbone, there was a certain new simplicity – their skin was smoothed, their edges blunted. Andrew sank beneath the surface and pushed off, taking the whole length in one breath; Neil followed behind him, sleek and golden and effortless. They swam side by side, back and forth, dipping under and surfacing in silence; every so often coming together.

Swimming was exactly what Andrew needed – slipping from time, slipping from his thoughts, quiet settling into the grey matter of his brain.

After a while, Neil pulled himself out of the shallows, choosing to lay with his back against the warm yellow stone, legs dangling over the edge, toes just touching the surface. Water glistened on his skin, glittered where droplets caught on the fine hair of his legs. It wasn’t long before Andrew couldn’t resist them – he tapped a finger against Neil’s ankle. Yes or no?

Neil lifted his head from the ground, peering through his knees at where Andrew bobbed in the water. He nodded, interest sparking in his eyes. Andrew slid his hands up Neil’s calves, pressed his mouth against his knees, first on the cap then sliding down to lick the taste from the crook of them. He pushed Neil’s legs apart, drew himself out of the water and between them. He suckled the skin of Neil’s thighs, squeezing the muscles beneath his hands, admiring the way Neil threw his head back, going breathless and loose-limbed at Andrew’s ministrations.

Andrew grazed up to Neil’s hip bone, stroked across to tease at the other thigh, biding his time – waiting for those quivering breaths to deepen into pants, into the neediness he found so fascinating and delicious. Neil was one of the most responsive men Andrew had ever known – he was vocal and wanton and pushed into Andrew’s every touch like he craved it, needed it. It was unsurprising then, that when Andrew slipped lower, when Andrew asked a quiet yes or no with his nose brushing down Neil’s cock and his mouth grazing over the sensitive skin below it, Neil’s reaction was to whine and shiver and babble something that was unmistakably consent in French.

Incoherent Neil was delightful, Andrew thought, as Neil’s spine arched at the first slip of his tongue, which dipped low, flicking and circling and tasting. All of Neil was so goddamn good. Intoxicating, really.

Pressing closer, Andrew knelt in the shallows and stroked sure fingers over Neil’s skin, keeping the sharp hips from twitching too erratically. He tongued Neil’s hole, lapped until Neil was all gasps and moans, pushing back against his face, shaking so hard it felt like Andrew was the only thing holding him together. Andrew lost himself in it – reducing his senses to anything but the taste of Neil on his tongue, the heat of the sun on his skin, the absolute filth spilling from Neil’s mouth. That fucking mouth.

Come undone for me, Andrew urged. And Neil did. He submitted to Andrew like a ship beneath a helmsman’s touch, obeying without a word being spoken, rising and soaring and then coming apart.

And when Neil shuddered his release, crying out and hands scrabbling at stone, Andrew’s heart jolted. He’s so pretty, he thought. Skin flushed and glistening with sweat, lips still moving silently as if in prayer. The twist of Andrew’s gut was pride and horror and desire and a thousand soft and terrifying feelings that Andrew refused to name.   

Neil stirred, reached. “Andrew, can I…?”

“No,” said Andrew. He pulled himself fully out of the water, soothing Neil’s still shaking legs with his palms as he went. Andrew wasn’t even hard. This was all for Neil. “Not now.”

Neil frowned but didn’t question, didn’t push. Andrew tipped his head into Neil’s chest, buried his nose in the crook of his throat and let his tongue just flick at the salt-stained skin there. His heart twitched at the little rumble in Neil’s chest.

Together, they lay on the warm stone, sweat prickling in the heat of the afternoon, and Andrew rolled his shoulders into Neil’s touch as absent fingers drew patterns across his skin. He breathed and it felt like the air after a storm, like the pressure had been lifted from his chest and his head, the anxiousness in his bone eased to a vague restlessness.

Neil fit with Andrew in a way that he’d never known or expected to know. Everything felt pleasant, like there was a low-level hum of contentment. Somewhere beyond it, somewhere below, Andrew still felt the shadows from earlier – but he could ignore them, for now.

But not forever, promised his ghosts. You can’t pretend Aaron’s not dead just because you got your dick wet.

Andrew closed his eyes and told himself the ache in his chest was breathlessness.

***

The rest of the afternoon passed by in a haze, dreamlike and easy.

As did the next morning and the next.

Neil would leave Andrew in bed in the dawn light with a kiss on his temple, coming back briefly for coffee around eight, and sometimes that would be it for them until evening. Andrew received a couple of Neil’s little notes: one when Neil had been gifted a new tart made with lavender honey that he thought Andrew would enjoy, another telling Andrew he’d be late home that evening due to a delivery he was making into town with some of the harvested lavender. That absence was something Andrew felt keenly.

The time passed quietly but the quiet was no long reassuring. Andrew spent his time trying to stave off what he knew was coming: a Really Bad Day, with capital letters.

He could feel its approach, recognised the early warning signs – the building pain like wire cotton in his skull, the numbness sinking into his bones. Soon it would be in his throat, clawing at his chest. His body would become a prison, a solid, shifting island with barely a thread connecting him to the rest of the world. He would become a sealed chamber carrying all the memories of his life and letting nothing out, nothing in.

So he walked. Hours vanished in a haze of lonely treks away from the farm. Climbing the hills and exploring the tiny villages he came across. He drank coffee in Opio, discovered a golf course near Le Piol, ran into a group of ponies coming down from a mountain path that he later found himself wandering. Time vanished beneath his feet, hours passing by without notice as thoughts slipped out of his grasp. 

He was sinking back beneath the surface of his grief, he knew that, but he didn’t know how to stop himself from going under. He didn’t know if he wanted to stop – shouldn’t he feel this way, after all? Aaron was still dead. Still buried in a box in a state he’d tried to leave behind.

When the sun began to droop, Andrew would always turn home. He’d head back to the farm, check his phone for the increasingly enthusiastic texts from Nicky, and cherish the moments with Neil that were so sweet Andrew’s blood slid honey-thick with the pleasure. He’d fall asleep with Neil carefully tucked into the lee of his body, safe and sated. He’d slip his hand beneath Neil’s pillow, knowing that if one startled awake, the other would roll over and sooth them both back into sleep. Then, in the summer light, the sequence would start again.

Only on that morning, it didn’t. Andrew’s Bad Day had arrived.

Andrew woke up still halfway inside a nightmare, with the world collapsed onto his chest and his brother’s name thudding in his head, matching the beat with his heart – Aaron, Aaron, Aaron.

Neil was still curled against him, nose pressed into Andrew’s collarbone, his mouth leasing little puffs of air over Andrew’s skin – making it crawl and itch and he wanted to recoil but terror had stiffened his muscles.

“Neil,” Andrew croaked. “Move.”

“Nnnghuh?” Neil stirred but didn’t wake.

This was too much. Andrew needed to be away. Andrew tried to tug his arm free, but his body was so heavy, his torso almost numb. Panic surged and broke in his chest. “Move, Neil. Neil. Move.” Oh fuck, oh god, Aaron, Aaron, fuck. 

Shoving his body backwards, Andrew tumbled off the side of the bed, sheets dragging with him. He still felt trapped, pinioned, his limbs like lead. He struggled free, used the bed to pull himself onto his feet.

“Wuh? ‘ndrew?” Neil was awake now, hair tousled and eyes squinting.

But Andrew barely spared him a glance. His eyes were fixed on a ghost. Aaron stared back at him, his face pale and worn, his mouth trembling because Andrew was in another bedroom, in another house, and there was blood in the air, blood on his skin, the stink of whisky and sweat. Bile stung in his throat and before he knew it, he was kneeling, retching, choking on air.

At least this time he wasn’t laughing. Would this have been considered an ‘appropriate’ reaction?

“Hey, hey, hey, mon chou, you’re okay, you’re safe. Let me get you water.”

Andrew was vaguely aware of Neil scrambling from the bed, disappearing, but most of his world was narrowed down to his hands twisted in the covers, his breathing that wouldn’t come. There was burning in his throat and chest. His eyes scanned for the ghost but this time he saw it was the mirror from the bathroom glaring back at him. A sound broke away from him – a laugh, a sob, a scream aborted halfway to his mouth – and then Neil by his side, carefully not touching, offering a glass that Andrew’s shaking hands could barely hold.

There weren’t platitudes. Neil knew this wasn’t just a dream. Andrew’s mind was looping, looping, looping, laying image over image: white sheets, the silver table, the clinking wedding ring, Aaron’s rattling lungs, the bullet scar, the arguments, the night sweats, the rooftop at PSU, the rain, the sun, the fields with Aaron vanishing over the horizon, the swish of a racquet and the weight wrenched away from Andrew’s body.

He let out a groan and buried his face against the mattress. He hated that Neil was here. He hated that he was seeing him fall apart.

“How about a shower?” said Neil. “Wash away the sleep.”

Andrew didn’t move. How could he wash any of this away? Aaron was dead. Aaron was dead and Andrew’s memory wouldn’t let a single stinging moment lose its edge. Static filled his body and he sipped at the water. He stayed in his heap on the floor, hiding his face, trying to inhale without air snagging on his ribs, trying to exhale without it ripping open every scar and releasing the buried pieces of grief he’d been stowing away for the last few months.

Andrew’s ears were ringing. His vision fuzzy and grey around the edges. The world tilted dangerously, and only Neil’s hands stopped him from slipping right off the edge.

Words left Neil’s mouth, but Andrew couldn’t take them in. He let himself be guided upwards and back onto the bed, where he sprawled and shuddered. He could feel it happening as his body decided to shut down. As the nightmare receded and reality came back into focus, everything just felt like too much – too bright, too loud, too full. He closed his eyes against the world and sank like a stone.

Dimly, he realised Neil had left the room at some point because now he came back with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bowl of what smelt to be dried lavender in the other. The strong scents lifted Andrew minutely out of his head, interrupting the congress of ghosts playing tag in his skull. It didn’t fill the horrible emptiness, didn’t allay the black dog gnawing at his innards, but raised him just enough to be cognisant.

Neil waited until Andrew was upright before passing him the coffee. It was sweetened to perfection, full of sugar and cream, exactly how he liked it.

“I’ve called Alphonse and Eduard. They’ll take care of the farm and the tours today.”

Andrew blinked at Neil. He didn’t need to be watched over.

“I won't hover, but I’ll be around today. Here, try inhaling this.” Neil rubbed his hands in the lavender and held them up now so that Andrew could take a deep breath of calm. “The linalool should help.”

Yet as fear ebbed and the too muchness of the world waned, all that was left was Andrew and the hollow, cracking emptiness that he’d been so desperately trying to keep at bay. And whilst some logical part of himself still tried insist that this was a Really Bad Day and not forever, he still felt like he’d sunk so deeply underwater that even Neil, his sun, couldn’t reach him.

The last few weeks were good. You’re getting better. said the rational part of him. You’ll get that back.

It was impossible to grab onto the reassurance though – it slipped through his fingers like fishing line being dragged away by a shark, burning his hands where he tried to catch hold. All he could do was sit there. It was exhausting to breathe. It took all his energy to lift the coffee to his mouth and track Neil with his eyes.

Time passed, though Andrew only knew that because of the shifting shadows on the walls. Neil came and went. He spoke only a little, occasionally bringing ice cold water or sweet berries that Andrew accepted from nimble fingers.

He felt… he felt… but he didn’t know what he felt. Absence. Numbness. A bubble around his body, three inches off his skin, which put everything at an uncanny distance.

His gaze slid to the mirror and hated it for only showing his own face – tanned skin, bruised eyes, nose a little burnt from the sun.  

Aaron. Aaron. Aaron. His heart continued to beat. He continued to exist. Aaron would have rolled his eyes and shoved him downstairs onto the sofa and put on a film by now – some cheesy action flick with plenty of bad jokes. He’d have pushed ice cream into his hands and told Andrew that if he ended up with type two diabetes, he wasn’t writing the prescription. He’d never do those things now. He’d never mock Andrew again. Never call. Never spoil the punchline or steal half the vanilla as if Andrew wasn’t going to notice. He’d never take that trip of a lifetime across Europe. Never see the Alps as the sun melted over the top turning the world pink and gold. Never come to Provence as he always planned.

Aaron was gone. Just gone.

It should have made him feel better, allowing himself to think this way, but it didn’t. It was a wound that kept bleeding with nothing to cauterise it. He was once again severed from the world, existing without a shadow beneath his feet. Part of him, he was sure, had been buried with Aaron. He would never have that piece back.

Eventually Andrew had to pee, he rolled off the bed and kept his eyes lowered to avoid the glass of the mirror. He relieved himself and came back to the room, realising it was empty. Neil had been in and out all day, he doubted he had long.

His phone was on the side table, where he’d left it. There were new messages from Nicky. He didn’t read them. He went to contacts. He ought to talk to Betsy. She would listen.

The phone felt heavy in his hand, his fingers awkward and cumbersome.

For a moment, Andrew’s thumb hovered over Bee’s number. He should call her. He would call her. But… he scrolled up and there was another number he wanted to call more. He pressed down on the name: Aaron.

He lifted the phone to his ear.

He just wanted to hear the familiar voice message. The cool, dry drawl of his brother’s voice. He could call and pretend that one day Aaron would call him back.

It went straight to message:

“We’re sorry. You have reached a number that is disconnected or that is no longer in service.”

No. He tried again.

“We’re sorry. You have reached a number that is disconnected or that is no longer in service.”

Andrew’s throat squeezed tight, his lungs forgot how to breathe. “Please, no.”

The phone was hot against his ear as he clutched it painfully to his skull.

“We’re sorry. You have reached a number that is disconnected or that is no longer in service.”

“Aaron,” he said anyway, wishing, wishing, wishing things were different. “You fucking asshole. You fucking useless asshole. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”

Every word was cracked and horribly distorted, but there was so much he wanted to talk about.

How Aaron was meant to be here in this house with Katelyn. “Your tenth anniversary would be next year, you prick.”

How Neil would annoy the hell out of him after two days. “You’d have bought earplugs and complained endlessly about the cats.”

How he’d love the walks and the lavender. “You’d probably find the whole place disgustingly romantic.”

How much he hated Aaron for being so fucking weak. “How fucking dare you do this. Why did you do this? Why didn’t you tell me? I couldn’t help you because I didn’t know and you didn’t tell me and I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me.” 

How terrified he was that it was his fault. “Why? Was it something I did? Why weren’t we enough, Aaron?”

Despair was a funny thing. Every time Andrew thought he was used to living with it, somehow it only grew deeper. As if it were a muscle that grew in strength over time.

“I fucking miss you, you stupid turnip.”

He closed his eyes and heat trickled from his eyes. Two quick, silent tears. The first he’d shed in decades.

In his head, Andrew stood by a freshly covered grave. He was alone because Katelyn had left to host the funeral reception and the March sky was heavy and grey with unshed rain. Other than the Foxes, none of the mourners had spoken to him. Some found it hard to even look at him, the man who looked so much like Aaron but wasn’t him. He’d seen the accusation in the eyes of former Vixens, who no doubt remembered Aaron as the one who set them up with random exy players for banquets and Andrew as the one who refused to drive anyone outside his group of Monsters.

It should have been me. Aaron wasn’t the one who was meant to die young. Andrew had been counting the days since he was born, surviving on borrowed time and dubious luck.

Drawing a shaky breath, the phone slipped from his fingers and thudded against the rug on the floor. He moved on autopilot, apathy rising up to protect him once more.

He was halfway down the stairs when he heard what sounded like a knock on one of the windows. It was followed by shuffling from the library and then the creak of the doors being pushed open.

“What are you doing here?” Neil sounded confused. “Has something happened?”

“Why are you speaking English?” Eduard’s distinctive voice replied. He switched into French but fortunately Andrew knew enough by now to translate. “Everything on the farm is okay, you’ve just never taken a day off in the summer before, I wanted to make sure you were not ill.”

Andrew paused where he was, knowing neither of the men downstairs would be able to see him here but not wanting to drag himself upstairs when Eduard, who he did not trust, was in the building. He wished he had his knives, but he hadn’t worn his arm bands in days.

“You didn’t need to do that, I’m fine.”

“Then why,” said Eduard, pout audible in his voice. “Why aren’t you out there?”

“Do I answer to you now? Could it not be that I simply want a day off after fifteen days of tours?”

“But you never—”

“Eduard. It is none of your business.”

“But—”

“No, stop. You have always been a very dear friend to me, Eduard. That doesn’t give you any right to come into my home and demand my reasons for wanting a holiday. It is the summer. I have a guest. Make up whatever reason you want. I don’t owe you an explanation.”

There was a beat of tense silence and then a gusting sigh. “It’s him, isn’t it? You’re leaving us because of him.”

“Leaving you?” Fury, ice cold and deadly, stole into Neil’s words. “I’m taking a goddamn day off.”

“You’re fucking that guy. The American.” Eduard didn’t seem to hear the danger. “What are you going to do when he’s gone, huh? Come crawling back, heartbroken? You’ll be used goods—”

The sound of a body hitting the wooden door was unmistakable. Neil must have thrown Eduard up against it because there was a shuffling, scrabbling sound and then Neil began to speak in a low, sneering tone. Eduard pushed too far. Andrew shuffled to the edge of the steps where he could see every lean inch of Neil’s compact body pinning Eduard against a door frame. The teenager was pale, shaking under the frigid stare.

“Used goods? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Nat-Nathan-ni-el…”

“Shut. Up.” But Neil let Eduard go with a rough push against the doorframe. “You know what, I get it, you’re stuck in the 18th century. It must have been so terribly hard for you to know that you were an accidental but beloved second child when your parents had to sell your brother. So impossibly sad for you to realise this provincial life is the only one you’ll ever have instead of stardom on an exy court. Right? You feel entitled? You think people owe you something? Tell me? Because let me make one thing clear: pettiness and jealousy are a child’s emotions and I have no time for them. Your moral judgements mean nothing to me. I have built this life from nothing. Nothing you do or say will take it away from me.”

“I’m sorry…” Eduard stayed crumpled, half sitting, half slumped against the door. “I don’t know why…”

“Yes, you do.” Neil scowled and took a step back. “You know precisely why.”

Eduard let out a tiny, pathetic whine. “I just don’t know why you’d pick him.”

Nor did Andrew, if he was honest.

A sigh huffed through Neil’s teeth. “I don’t own you an explanation.”

Eduard nodded. When Neil offered him a hand up, he accepted it but didn’t let the touch linger. “I really am sorry.”

“You should be,” Neil said, brutal as ever. “So learn from it, okay? And please, please, don’t be late for the three o’clock tour, they’re always the rowdiest.”

There were more words after that, but Andrew didn’t listen – he slipped back up the stairs to his room and from there onto the balcony. He could see Eduard’s dark head disappearing down the lawn and relief filtered into his bones. Still, Eduard raised a valid point: Andrew was going to leave eventually.

A light knock alerted him to Neil’s presence. “I come bearing tarte.”

It was such a small thing, but Andrew found himself sinking to the warm tiled floor, boneless once more. Neil came and sat opposite him, tarte on his knees, grim understanding lining his face. The darkness was subtle in Neil – sometimes it was hard to spot between the warmth of his smile and flowers in his gauges; but then there were looks like this where a darkling glint entered his eyes and his expression shifted into something infinitely more real and recognisable to Andrew.

Neil cut a slice of the tarte and offered it to Andrew, who took it and savoured the unapologetic sugar hit on his tongue. He ate in silence. 

There was only one thought on his mind. Aaron was dead.

“He’s dead,” Andrew's tongue was thick, mouth sticky around the words.

Slowly, so slowly as for his movements to become a question, Nathaniel shuffled forward, moving the rest of the tarte from his lap and taking Andrew in his arms. He wrapped his hands around the back of Andrew’s head and tucked him safe against his body. “Yes, Andrew. Aaron’s gone.”

“I didn’t expect it to hurt like this.”

“It’s not the kind of pain that can be quantified,” Neil said. “And it will still hurt in a year, in five, in ten.”

The words weren’t supposed to be comforting but somehow they woke Andrew up in a way nothing else had. He reached out and pulled himself closer into Neil’s chest, feeling the beat of Neil’s heart below his ribs and the strength in his shoulders beneath his hands.

“You know what hits the most?” Andrew said. “The idea that I didn’t really know him. That I missed some crucial part of him. And I will never know that part. He’s gone. I’ll never know…”

Neil took a moment before speaking.

“I… don’t think anyone ever knows anyone perfectly. No matter how much you love them.” Neil stroked along Andrew’s back, the unevenness of his fingers reading over Andrew’s spine like braille, though what he learnt was uncertain. “Do you remember I told you once how people are like gardens? Well, I think… the same thing applies here. No matter how long we tend to a garden, no matter what we do, how much we fight the weeds or sow our own flowers, we can never know it perfectly. There is always something wild beneath us, in the earth. We can try to learn it, try to listen to it, try to love it all we can – the earth will always have her secrets. And so do people.”

Maybe Neil was right.

Andrew felt the minutes sliding by, gelatinous and slow. He let himself be held. And he let himself miss Aaron with every aching bone of his body. 

***

Dinner that night was subdued. Andrew’s appetite was non-existent so Neil had made a light gazpacho with roasted red peppers, cucumber, tomatoes and goat’s cheese. They ate on the terrace, their ankles brushing under the table, and watched the sun’s slow descent over the mountains.

Twilight turned the landscape blue and Andrew felt like a pearl diver on the ocean floor, looking at the soundless waves pounding the rocky shoreline far above him.

“Do you want to sleep alone tonight?” Neil asked. The question wasn’t unusual, they both had their issues when it came to the demons beneath their skin.

“No,” Andrew said.

The first stars of the evening were just appearing, cheeky and even brighter tonight thanks to the absent moon. A nightjar called out, stopped, resumed, stopped again, its crepuscular song adding a rhythm section to the rustling bushes and trees.

Andrew tipped his head backwards. He was exhausted despite having done nothing more strenuous than walk downstairs and eat soup. He glanced at Neil and saw the pensive way he was watching the sky.

Above the highest peaks, the last of the day evaporated.

The nightjar picked up its song once more.

Movement high above caught their attention. At the same time, they both turned their faces to the east and Neil’s mouth dropped into a perfect ‘o’ of delight.

“Andrew, the stars.”

Streaks of light were dropping from the sky – a storm of meteors, dozens of small arrows of light shot from the far side of the universe, igniting and burning up as they fell, flaring their brightest just before they vanished.

The back of Andrew’s knuckles found Neil’s; their pinkies curled together. Standing side by side, throats and faces craning towards the ancient starlight, Andrew almost forgot where he was, what he had gone through, what he had lost. Almost. Even as the shower began to fade, the sky held onto that fresh luminance, as if it was mourning the lost planets that just burnt themselves out on the earth’s atmospheric shield. It felt like a sign, though of what, he wasn’t sure.

The stars still hung there, sparkling, careless. Neil still stood beside him, leaning into him lightly, with his little finger clasped around Andrew’s.

And there it was: the little flutter, the tiny spark, the pinprick of warmth that could wriggle itself through Andrew’s protective layers and set him on fire. Some of the day’s hurt eased. Not all of it. Never all of it. 

“Neil,” he said. But didn’t continue. 

Blue eyes met gold, Neil's mouth dark and tipped just slightly in a smile.  

They were the same, him and Neil, both abandoned, both broken, both survivors trying to go on with their lives, both unable to fully forget.

He wanted to say something to explain how much it all meant: the truths and the trust and the kisses, for the time and the food and the flowers, for the world that he’d forgotten could be so beautiful and the ache he’d forgotten could be soothed.

He wanted to tell Neil that this thing between them wasn’t nothing, never had been, and he didn’t want to leave, he wanted to call this home. He wanted to call Neil home.

He said nothing. Neil’s expression remained inscrutable. Their pinkies remained locked in a silent promise.

He took a moment to memorise every angle of Neil’s face, the way the lights of dying stars caught in his eyes. He wanted this Neil and every Neil – the one who couldn’t sing and the one who brought him tarte and the one who watched stars like a child and the one who all-but-purred in bed like he’d never touched before. He wanted to learn as many versions of this man as he was willing to show. Andrew kissed Neil, once, a hard press of lips and gone.

“Staring,” Andrew said.

“Pot, kettle,” replied Neil. 

The corner of Andrew’s mouth twitched.

A chill ran down his back and a voice whispered into his ear, dry and drawling and familiar. He’s not a side effect of the grief, Andrew, you're not using him.

He’s not my answer either, Andrew reasoned.

No, he’s not. But in a world of excuses, he’s reason to try, right?

Andrew didn’t turn to look. He knew his brother’s ghost wasn’t there, but he could feel the spirit at his back, reliable as he had been on the court at Palmetto, solid as the very first day that they met in a penitentiary for juvenile delinquents.

He still felt wrong. His skin still felt too tight and the world a fraction too far away.

But yes, Andrew thought. Neil was reason to try. Hell, he might just be a reason to stay.

 

Chapter Text

 

Stage VII – Acceptance  

“I am in awe of flowers.

Not because of their colours,

but because even though they

have dirt in their roots,

they still grow.

They still bloom.”

― D. Antoinette Foy

 

*

Predictably, the Really Bad Day turned into a Fairly Bad Week.

Andrew slept fitfully and often found time slipping away from him. There was a day where all he did was move from bedroom to pool side, and it took all he had to just keep on breathing.

Neil felt the strain too – his own nightmares were back. Andrew would often wake to find Neil huddled on the edge of the bed, his eyes raw and shattered, barely able to talk. They spent more nights in the kitchen drinking coffee or curled up on the sofas than in their bed, staying close enough to know the other was there without broaching their boundaries. It was funny how Andrew wanted Neil nearby so constantly – he’d never been that person before, never felt an urge to have someone in his eyeline like this, within his reach like this. But he liked knowing when he reached out, he could brush a finger over the arch of Neil’s foot or he could twist to lay his weight over Neil’s knees just for a minute until the contact became too much again.

Yet like all storms, this one passed in its own time. The tumult eased, the pressure faded, the world-ending numbness slowly, slowly cleared like mist burnt away by the sun. It would never be fully gone – Andrew had fought with depression for nearly twenty years – but he recognised the shift and the way his thoughts became more and more his own, his body less a prison and instead filled once more with energy.

“Do you want to come out to the fields today?” Neil asked as he brushed his teeth, popping his head out the bathroom as he did.

“Maybe this afternoon,” said Andrew. “There’s a call I need to make.”

Neil hummed. “D’accord, it’s quieter out there now, so come find me if you want to grab lunch together.”

Still it didn’t escape Andrew’s attention that there was something unhappy about Neil’s mouth when he came out, dressed and ready for the day. Something was bothering him. Andrew had a suspicion of what it could be but didn’t yet have the words to bring it up.

Andrew took hold of one belt-loop and tugged Neil close, tasting mint on his lips as they kissed.

“I’ll be there,” he said against Neil’s mouth and he felt the ebb of tension out of Neil’s body.

He waited until Neil was gone, singing something so tuneless as to be unrecognisable and Andrew’s mouth quirked. Whatever was going on in Neil’s head, as long as he was still belting out that godawful sound, Andrew knew he was alright.

His phone was on charge and he scrolled through the contacts. Finally, after an entire summer of silence, he called Bee.

Hearing her greeting on the other end of the line was like having a knot pressed out of Andrew’s spine – he immediately relaxed, felt the cords of his muscles easing.

“Hello Bee,” he said.

“Andrew, it’s lovely to hear from you. I understand you’re in France.”

“I am,” he said. “It’s… really good here.”

“Why don’t you tell me all about it.”

So he did.

Andrew told her about arriving and the house, those early weeks in the sun wondering why old memories so constantly drifted to the surface in this unfamiliar country. He explained his new interest in swimming and walking and the sailing trip with its rush and thrill. He talked about seeing Neil for the first time, a riot of impossibilities and vivacity, how they’d struck up something that he couldn’t call nothing. He paused before sharing how he kept hearing Aaron’s ghost, catching glimpses of him in mirrors. He delved into the ups and downs of the last few months – the anger and the what ifs and the hours wishing that he was the one who died.

Aaron was gone. Andrew felt his twin’s absence acutely, like someone reached inside him and carved out the space where Aaron used to be and now only the echoes were left – the memories and the ghosts.

“I know he’s gone…” Andrew said. “I know because I can feel this empty, Aaron-shaped space where he used to be and I keep wanting to share things with him and then cursing him for being dead and then wishing I’d done more and… this cycle… does it ever end?”

Of all the injuries he’d ever born, of all the pain he’d ever experienced, this hurt the worst. He couldn’t imagine it ever being over.

“It won’t necessarily end,” Betsy said. “It’ll change. Can you envision how it might change over time?”

So much had already changed – from the hospital rooms to the mortuary to the funeral to France, the fields, Neil, and now. “Yes,” said Andrew.

“A lot of grief is about having to reorganise your life, reassigning the roles that were once filled by the person we have lost. You can’t maintain the past anymore but letting yourself find new connections, like you have with Mr Hatford, that’s good, Andrew. You’ve done very well, even if I wish you’d spoken to me before now.”

“I feel like I’m betraying him every time I laugh. I don't want to forget him. How can I just ignore that he’s gone and be happy?”

“Do you feel like you’re forgetting him?”

Andrew’s response was almost angry. “No."

"Do you feel like you're replacing him?"

"I couldn’t.”

“Do you wish that you could?”

“No. That's not it...” Andrew paused. “When I realised his phone was disconnected, it felt like the day he died all over again. I don’t want another Aaron, another brother. I want him back. And I know that’s never going to happen.”

Andrew paced outside and sat with his face in the sun, his eyes tracing the blue mountains and the rolling hills and the swaying purple fields. He breathed in, breathed out.

“I don’t want to accept this, Bee.”

“Acceptance is an odd phrase when applied to grief,” she said. “It’s not like you’re saying you’re okay with this loss or that you’re back to being who you were before. It’s about finding a new normal. Do you think you’ve done that, Andrew?”

Andrew thought of the routines – coffees, kisses and cut lavender – and bit his tongue hard to stop from saying yes. “It doesn’t feel right. I feel like I failed him.”

The thing about talking to Betsy was that she knew him so well – they discussed guilt and fault and failure. They ran through his relationship with Aaron, from their first deal to their last days, with Andrew making every bargain with every god to save his brother. As usual, none of them were listening to him.  

“Neil said something about how people are like gardens. How we’re all crafting our appearances to show what we want to show, and it looks effortless to an outsider but all of us are working hard underneath to create that ideal image.  I know that Aaron was only showing me what he wanted to show me. But I still can’t help thinking that we were made of the same soil, I should have known that something was eating away at him.”

Betsy said, “That’s a fitting metaphor.”

“Sometimes it helps. Sometimes nothing does.”

“Talk to me about that more. Why does it help?”

Andrew didn’t know where to start. In drips and drabs he tried to put into words how watched the lavender grow under Neil’s care – how he saw the love and time that Neil put into his farm and the flowers; how he could tell that it started because Neil didn’t know how to fix himself so he repaired and rebuilt the farm instead; how the bastide still didn’t feel like a home with all its empty rooms and trinkets instead of photos, but then the gardens blossomed with life and colour, and Andrew knew it was only a matter of time because Neil was here. Neil was here, raising his head like flower that had been stepped on too many times but bloomed regardless.

“It works because I’ve seen him do it – he’s a survivor too.”

“It sounds like quite the life out there.”

“As unpredictable as it is unreal.”

“Andrew,” Bee’s tone turned cautious and Andrew’s stomach sunk. “Have you given thought to what you’re doing next? If you’re coming home?”

His gut dropped even lower, twisting as it went. Ignoring the calls from his managers and the team coach had become second nature since he turned on his phone. He didn’t want to think about the countdown to when he inevitably had to leave Provence and this dream that didn’t belong to him.

“I’ve been trying not to,” he admitted. He had until the end of August to figure out what he was going to do. He couldn’t stay. He didn’t want to leave.

“You’ve not spoken about it with Mr Hatford.”

“Neil,” Andrew corrected, absently. “No, we haven’t.”

“Do you think perhaps you should?”

Yes, of course Andrew did. He also didn’t know how to broach it. “I have a contract and obligations. There’s Kevin to consider. And—” He cut himself off.

“Okay, unpacking that. You have a contract but your current one is up in a year. Kevin is happily settled with Jeremy and Jean and has been for years. What’s really bothering you?”

Andrew closed his eyes against the sun, watched the red and purple dance across his lids in a pattern of the farm. “If I don’t leave here now, I don’t know that I ever will.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to leave. I won’t ever know that I can.” Andrew struggled to explain. “Even though the seasons are so obvious here, this place is still a world outside of time. It’s dreamlike. I need to leave, Bee, because if I don’t I won’t ever know if what I’m feeling is real.”

“I see. And you don’t think Neil deserves to know that you intend to leave?”

“He knows.” Andrew opened his eyes again and the blaze of light struck his retinas like a clenched fist. “I was only ever renting this place for the summer. I was always going to go come September.”

But he knew she was right. Neil did deserve better than this, deserved a lot more than Andrew was giving or could give. He wasn’t good at this, wasn’t made for domesticity. His dreams weren’t the sort that anyone wanted to come true. Still, didn't he tell Aaron's ghost he would try?

“Andrew, that silence doesn’t sound healthy to me. What are you thinking?”

She knew him too well. “I’ll talk to him and…” Andrew ground his teeth. “It was good to talk to you too. I won’t leave it as long again.” It was all he would offer as an apology, but Betsy understood.

They spent a little longer saying goodbye – catching up on Betsy’s summer and the new recruits at Palmetto. Wymack had been asking after Andrew too, apparently, and sent his regards.

“We all miss him, Andrew,” Betsy said before hanging up. “We all would happily talk about him with you, when you’re ready.”

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Andrew hung up. He took a moment to resettle himself in the silence. To take in the sounds of France – the cicadas and the buzzing bees, the gossiping trees and the softly exhaling flowers. Even from so high up, the heat heavied the air with lavender. The sun blazed above him, so strong and glaring like it wanted to smash him off the balcony and see him shatter on the terrace below. 

Somewhere out in the fields, Neil toiled under this same sun – all butterscotch skin and red-gold curls, lithe and strong and gorgeous.

But they did need to talk. In fact, Andrew suspected it was why Neil was anxious too. Andrew rubbed his hands over his face, looked at the phone in his hand and wondered what Aaron would do. Surely, he’d have had some inane advice having listened to so many years of cheerleaders complaining about whatever jock they were fucking back in the day.

Andrew listened for Aaron’s voice – it didn’t come, hadn’t since the night of the meteor shower.

Andrew would speak to Neil at lunch. He’d make coffee, swim, and head out.

It was time to stop pretending that this summer could last forever.  

***

Apples, check. Wine, check. Charcuterie, check. More cheese than Andrew usually saw in a year, check. Andrew rummaged through the hamper he’d made for lunch, picking out some of their favourite flavours and textures.

The idea to take a picnic out to the fields came to him mid-length of the pool. The preparation was swift thanks to Neil’s recommendations over the last few weeks – and after a quick trip to the boulangerie, he couldn’t help but feel pleased at what he put together. It was enough to give him a false sense of confidence.

This talk would be okay, he figured. He would pour the wine, explain over good food. He could do this.

Just after midday, Andrew ventured down the garden, passing two basking cats who barely stirred as he went by, and out into the fields. He headed downhill, knowing this was where most of the tours and work happened. Neil was mostly likely there rather than with the higher crops, which were being harvested for honey, essential oils, soaps and so on.

The walk was so familiar – Andrew felt sure-footed and at ease. This place had welcomed him at every stage, these paths freed him from denial and accepted him in his anger, they bore witness to his bargaining and waited with him through the exuberant highs and devastating lows. He would miss them, when he left. Miss them and the sea of soft purple, the pink-tipped mountains beyond and too blue sky above. His hand clenched on the handle of his basket. His innards churned, heart galloping at a rate it had no right to go at such a sedate stroll. Beads of sweat licked down the back of his neck.

Maybe the picnic wasn’t such a good idea, he thought. But it was too late for turning back.

Neil was standing with a group of tourists at the far end of the field, his overly bright orange shirt like a beacon through the lavender. Striding through the rows, Andrew spotted the moment that Neil noticed he was there, the way he turned and bounced on his feet before clearly excusing himself from the people he was showing around.

Andrew was halfway across the field when his heart skipped a beat, two, and plummeted into his guts.

The sun’s heat ratcheted upwards.

Andrew's head throbbed, whoozing with disbelief. This had to be a mirage. 

A woman was standing in the middle of a path with her back to him. Her long blond hair hung in a loose braid from beneath a wide-brimmed hat, and her green dress was a light linen material that billowed in the summer breeze. She held herself straight, the practiced posture of a dancer or a gymnast and everything about her – from the slope of her shoulders to the curve of her waist was familiar to Andrew.

Katelyn.

Andrew felt like his feet had taken root, like even if he wanted to turn, to flee, to hide, he couldn’t. But nor could he rage up to her and demand her reasons for being here, here, in place he’d come to think of as safe. 

He stuck fixed to the spot, basket heavy in his hand, waiting until his brother’s widow finally turned and saw him.

For a second her expression was all shock and hope, then it crumpled into pain. Her dark brown eyes were glossy and she looked at him, the wrong name almost slipping from her lips. Her muscles unlocked, one by one, her shoulders dropping and expression smoothing out. Andrew noted that she looked good, compared to when he last saw her – face less sunken, her body more rounded and full. He watched as she gathered herself, conjuring a smile.

“Andrew,” Katelyn said. “It’s good to see you.”

He knew he ought to say something, do something but he couldn’t move. His memory chased him back in time to a graveyard and Katelyn’s furious accusations, her absolute conviction that Andrew had killed his brother through inaction and apathy. He could hear her words. He could remember how she told him to take his time at the graveside, not because he needed it – what was a casket full of bones to him? – but because she didn’t want to look at him a minute longer.

“You look well,” she said. “I’m sorry for just appearing like this – I thought to call ahead but chickened out. After everything I said to you, I didn’t know if you’d pick up and then I heard there were lavender fields here.” Katelyn’s smile faded once more. “Aaron always talked about visiting.”

Andrew didn’t nod or acknowledge her words. He didn’t tell her that he knew all about Aaron’s obsession with lavender or his goal to bring her here one day. He didn’t say that was why he’d come – to feel like he was finishing off one of Aaron’s dreams, to escape to a place that ached with all the possibilities Aaron gave up by overdosing. A furious flood of memories scoured through his mind instead: all of Aaron’s married life, dying in front of his eyes – the empty vase on the windowsill, the date nights that never happened, Katelyn’s tears down the phone, Aaron recoiling from his wife, the romance that rotted, the friendship that turned cold and dry.

Trying to ignore the sun’s heat, Andrew moved the basket to his other hand, opened his mouth but nothing croaked out. He tried again. Why couldn’t he speak?

“Salut madam,” Neil said as he approached. “Everything alright?” This was asked more to Andrew who looked at Neil with dark and shuttered eyes. In an instant, Neil was beside him, checking him over without stepping too close, looking for injuries that were purely in Andrew’s mind. “What’s wrong?” He said in French. “Who is she? Let me take that from you.”

“This is Katelyn,” Andrew replied in English. Her name was broken glass in his throat. “Neil, this is my sister-in-law.”

Without removing his eyes from Katelyn, Andrew released his death grip and passed the basket to Neil, glad their fingers brushed and that second of warmth could quiet his jangling nerves. She didn’t miss anything, one eyebrow quirking.

“Lovely to meet you,” she said, stepping forward to Neil with her hand outstretched. “I’m Katelyn.”

“Nathaniel Hatford,” said Neil. “Andrew didn’t mention he was expecting family. It’s great to meet you.”

“Oh, I’m afraid I didn’t warn him. I was going to call properly tomorrow as I’m staying in Opio, but then I saw the sign for lavender picking… Wait did you say Nathaniel Hatford? So you’re the owner of the farm here? You’ve done a wonderful job.”

“Merci beaucoup,” Neil said, charming as ever, though Andrew could detect his wariness. “It’s nice that you were able to come.”

Katelyn smiled. She must have heard that undertone of caution, her ears trained by years on a paediatric ward, surrounded by parents who didn’t trust her or really understand what was happening to their child.

“I didn’t mean to intrude.”

Neil looked at Andrew, realised he still wasn’t making words and took control. “Not at all. We were just about to have lunch. Would you like to join us?”

Numbly, Andrew trailed behind Neil and Katelyn as they moved towards the shade of a small barn and flopped down as soon as he was able. Neil put himself between them, a mediator not a protector, and exclaimed at the feast Andrew pulled together.

Magnifique. You’ve learnt well, young padawan.”

Andrew grumbled and tore up the fresh baguette into three parts, mind reeling too hard for a comeback. Curiosity was plain on Katelyn’s face, concern more than obvious on Neil’s. He knew that one word would have Neil hoisting the cheerleader up and frogmarching her off the farm – but was that what Andrew wanted? He shared out the bread and Katelyn thanked him with another smile.

Chatter was part of Neil’s job when visitors came to the farm, and he slipped into the role with Katelyn – talking animatedly about the area and the types of flowers, about growing the farm from scratch, and how they also made a myriad of products that were shipped around the world.

“Farming is all about multiple income streams,” Neil explained. “It’s not enough to have just one focus, because that could become less popular or you could have a bad harvest. It’s good to have short and long-terms plans, you see.”

“It’s incredible. And Andrew’s been helping too?”

Neil’s smile sharpened. “He has.”

“That’s amazing,” she said. “When Nicky said you were out here Andrew, I didn’t realise you’d chosen somewhere that was so immersive.”

Andrew shrugged.

Neil looked at him, looked like he wanted to reach out reassure him but refrained. “Actually,” Neil said. “Andrew is the first person to ever help me with the farm. Some previous visitors have obviously done tours or done one of the harvesting sessions that we do for tourists but Andrew’s done everything – helped with planting and keeping the fields irrigated, trimming, harvesting – no one else has ever done what Andrew’s done for me.”

Something about the way Neil spoke made the ball of anxiety in Andrew’s chest unravel – like his words pulled on a thread, gently untangling and easing the tension. He liked the idea that he was the only person who ever played this role in Neil’s life – that he was part of the garden and the farm and the new story Neil was writing for himself.  He also liked knowing not even Allison and Renee, or Kevin and his thruple, had strayed further than the role of guest – that it was him and only him that Neil had accosted in the fields and lassoed into helping. For a second, he breathed in the sun, and recalled that first proper meeting with Neil, where his hair had been wisteria-wild and his skin all gold, and all Andrew had been able to think was how truly fucked he was: to be faced with someone so pretty in circumstances like this.

When Andrew looked up, however, he wished he hadn’t. Katelyn’s face had crumpled – she’d dropped her eyes, her lower lip was sucked inwards.

Was she really so upset that Andrew found a slither of happiness? Was she right to be upset? Hadn’t he had the same thought? That he didn’t deserve Neil or any of the small joys that he found in France – the food, the sunshine, the swimming and pace of life.

“I’m sorry,” Katelyn said, unable to stop her eyes from spilling over. “Please excuse me for a moment.”

She stood and wandered away – disappearing around the corner of the barn. Andrew waited a beat before dropping his head, chin hitting his chest and fists clenching, unclenching, clenching again in his lap.  

Silently, Neil offered his arms and Andrew shifted into them, folding himself into Neil’s side. He breathed in his smell – the camphor and lavender and sunshine. He never would have known he could like this kind of tactile affection, if he hadn't met Neil.

Home, Andrew thought. Living without this everyday was going to hurt.

“Do you want me to tell her to leave?” Neil asked, murmuring into his ear.

“No,” said Andrew.

“Do you want to talk to her alone?”

Andrew shook his head. “Not today.”

“Okay,” Neil said. “If you want to go home, I’ll excuse us and be back in half an hour.”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“I know, but you don’t need to put yourself through this right now either.”

Perhaps once Andrew would have fought him. If this had been ten years ago he would have bickered, pointed out that he didn’t need protecting, that Neil wasn’t part of this and wasn’t welcome in his corner. Hell, he’d probably have done that ten week ago.

But it was Neil.

And this was why he fit so easily at Andrew’s side. This was why Andrew could let Neil in where no one else came close. Neil didn’t just accept his boundaries, he understood that they could shift day-to-day, that yes meant yes until it was no.

Andrew pressed himself more firmly into Neil’s chest, appreciating the hard lines of his body, the warmth of his embrace. His heart ached with how full it felt. Neil tipped his face into Andrew’s neck, brushed his lips over the junction.

Huffing, Andrew dragged himself away, leaving Neil before Katelyn could come back, though he heard her exclamation through the usual sounds of the fields as he climbed the hill towards the house.

Tomorrow he’d talk to her. He just needed to clear his head. Speaking to Bee, coming out here to Katelyn, knowing another ending was on the horizon with Neil… he just needed a bit more time.

***

Time, of course, always vanished fastest when you wanted more of it. Like fishing line freewheeling into the ocean with nothing to catch hold, the evening passed, the night slid by, and morning arrived with Neil kissing Andrew’s palm ahead of untangling himself from the sheets.

Before Neil could leave for the day, Andrew pulled him back down on top of him, wrapped his arms around Neil’s back and held him there. The weight on his chest was a comfort, swaddling and soft. Neil let himself be held, nuzzling into Andrew’s throat, legs finding their usual place, tangled between his own. He never wanted to let go.

“Take the car, Andrew. Talk to her,” Neil said when they finally drew apart, leaning up with his elbows on either side of Andrew’s head, fingers still playing with blond waves of hair. Then he slid into French with a smirk, enunciating like a Dickensian villain. “And if she’s a bitch, leave her in town. I can arrange a taxi from here.”

Andrew wanted to kiss Neil. He wanted to slide his hands into the backpocket of his horrendous dungarees and drag him close. But he knew if they started now, neither would be where they needed to be anytime soon. Instead, he shoved Neil back. “I won’t be late.”

“Take your time. Show her Valbonne, perhaps.”

Andrew was absolutely not going to show Katelyn Valbonne. That was his and Neil’s place – their town, their cobbled streets and heaving markets and coffee shops full of new, sun-drenched memories.

But he did take the car.

And he did pick Katelyn up outside of her hotel.

And he did drive them through the winding green roads and down, down, down from the mountains towards the coast. Passing La Bouillide and Les Clausonnes, he took them into the town of Antibes, figuring they could walk along the garlanded promenade, find a café near the sea and have whatever conversation that Katelyn needed to have.

She didn’t say much until they were parked. But as they stepped out into the sea-scented morning, her mouth was all smiles and sighs of wonderment. She enthused over the street art, asked Andrew to take a photo of her by a yellow house wreathed in bouganvillea and climbing roses. She looked happy, only the wrinkles in the corner of her eyes giving away any sense of strain.

“Send that one to Nicky,” she said. “He’d love to know we’re together.”

Andrew frowned, sent the photo and waited for Nicky’s exuberant replies to fill the screen. They came fast and flustered: delighted that Katelyn found him, pouting that he wasn’t there as well.

: But hey I cd come in a cple weeks if u r still thr?

Wincing, Andrew powered down his phone and buried it in a pocket. He did not want to think about his cousin being here as well. Katelyn was bad enough.

She watched him thoughtfully as he directed her through the market, showing her the stands and pointing out the ones that Neil worked with – the honey produces and the bakers and local essential oil producers. She plucked a bag of dried lavender from one stall and lifted it to her face, inhaling the intense smell like it was something addictive.

“It reminds me of him,” she said, not needing to specify who. “He had this dreadful artificial lavender stuff that he put in the bath for me after games at Palmetto.”

“He kept a showergel version in Columbia too,” said Andrew. "It was horrible."

Her laugh was sad but still a laugh. “You know, I’m sorry about yesterday, Andrew. I didn’t mean to just appear here when you’re trying to heal too.”

She paid for the lavender bag and rolled it between her hands, feeling the grains between her fingers. They began to walk again, this time with Andrew guiding them towards somewhere they could find a drink. It might be barely midday but if France taught him anything, it was that it was never too early for rosé.    

Le Café des Chineurs buzzed with holidaymakers as the waiter sat them down. Andrew ordered, selecting one of the names that he recognised from Neil’s fridge.

“Not for me, thank you,” Katelyn said. “Just a lemonade would be lovely.”

“Une carafe, pas une bouteille, s'il vous plaît,” Andrew asked the waiter.  

When the drinks came, he poured and when he raised his glass to cheers, she looked at him almost stunned.

“You’re so different,” she said, and there was no malice in her voice. “You seem... It suits you.”

Andrew didn’t know what she meant, wasn’t entirely sure that he cared except that Aaron would have wanted him to listen. He waited for her to sip her lemonade and start talking.

“When Nicky said where you were… I almost felt like it was a sign from Aaron. He talked about Provence and coming here all the time.”

“He was planning to bring you here, next year,” Andrew told her.

“Yes, I found one of his work calendars – he’d already booked our days off for the trip. I pretended not to know of course but he was always useless at keeping secrets.”

“Or so we thought.”

Katelyn lowered her eyes, lashes long against her cheek. “I still don’t know how I missed it. I’m a doctor. I should have seen what was happening… I was right there next to him, every day. And I know that I was angry at you too – you didn’t deserve that.”

Andrew stopped her. “I blamed myself. It’s… hard not to think about what you could have done differently. What you would change.”

“Yeah,” Katelyn said, rubbing her eyes. “Sorry, I don’t mean to cry. I didn’t for weeks and now it’s like I can’t turn them off again. Everything makes me think of him. And looking at you, god you’ve always seemed world’s apart from him to me. You’re so so different. But now, without him, it’s just… I hated how you weren't enough like him. I took a lot out on you as things fell apart, and when he died. I’m so sorry, Andrew. I don’t expect you to forgive me but I wanted to tell you because I don’t want to stop being in your family. Not now.”

Andrew looked at her. Really looked at her. Noticed how her face was fuller. Her figure too, even in her loose linen dress.

Oh shit. “You’re pregnant.”

Her smile was watery. “Explains all the crying, right?”

“How far along?” Andrew didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to say. He stared at the table, almost as if he could see through it to her rounding stomach. “Five months? Six?”

“Just over five months, yes. It must have been right before…” she drew a breath and rested a hand against her side. “She’s small, which is why I didn’t notice at first. I thought it was grief making my cycle all weird but turns out it was something just as big.”

“She?”

“Yes, it’s a girl. I’m thinking of calling her Erin.”

“Erin.” Andrew tried to process this new information, thought about his decisions, the choices lying in front of him: exy, Neil, Erin.

“I told Nicky. I’m going to move to Germany, I think. Find a job in a hospital near him and Erik. My family aren’t really around anyway and you know Nicky, he’d uproot himself again in an instant.”  

“He hella would.”

She laughed. “You sound just like Aaron when you say that.”

Andrew shrugged. “The non-ironic curse of growing up in California.”

After that, they spoke more gently – Katelyn went through her plans for the move, talked about how she was applying for the international programmes attached to her hospital. They discussed grants and she waved him off when he mentioned giving her the money.

“Let me see if I can do this myself first, okay.”

Andrew agreed and they talked about how Nicky and Erik would spoil her rotten, how Andrew would have to visit when he could.

“You’re going back to America, then?” Katelyn asked.

“I have a contract to finish.”

“And Nathaniel Hatford?”

“I need to talk to him.”

“You know,” Katelyn said. “Aaron’s not going to hold it against you for moving on. It’s ok to go after what you want, even though he’s gone.”  

Andrew felt the hole in his chest fill just a little bit more. “He’d find Neil the most irritating person on the planet.”

“Oh probably,” said Katelyn. “But he also wanted you to be happy. We talked about it all the time. He wanted you to find someone, if that’s what you wanted. Or to find something that gave your life real meaning, he knew exy wasn’t quite enough.”

“It did the job.”

“Yes it did, Mr Front Cover of Exy World.”

“Again?”

“Twice this summer. Although once in a group shot with Court. Everyone wants to know where you are. Your PR team must have been screaming.”

“They’re paid enough to deal with it.”

“I’m sure they are.” Katelyn took a long slurp of lemonade. “Wow this stuff is so good.”

Andrew smirked. “Everything here is good. Like tasting food for the first time.”

“It really is.”

And they devolved into food and wine and how much Katelyn wished she could try the rosé because looked so pretty and would go so well with the fish she kept eating in Opio. They talked about Aaron, the things he’d like about Provence, the things he’d hate. How he’d have wanted to spend as much time on the water as possible. How he’d have judged Andrew for all the ice cream he was eating but also would have quickly become addicted to trying all the myriad flavours in every gelato store. Aaron would have documented everything – taking a hundred photos of Katelyn and failing dismally to take a selfie that fit them both in the frame.

“He would have hated the midday heat, this is so intense.”

“He would have loved the pool though.”

“Spend his whole afternoon there reading.”

Andrew found himself actually smiling, not the wide grin he sometimes shared with Neil, but his mouth lifted and as he shared stories from his summer, he found himself relaxing as well.

Because there he was – his brother. In Katelyn’s eyes, and the warmth of her smile.

Not a ghost, but a memory, alive. They’d keep Aaron alive, like this, between them.

Kevin, too, and the Foxes when he saw them. And Erin. His tiny, unborn niece.

It wasn’t down to Andrew, not alone. His twin was gone, but he wasn’t alone.

Katelyn watched Andrew, her gaze dark and patient, velvet-soft. “I’m glad we did this. I wasn’t ready to see you yesterday. I shouldn’t have done that to either of us. But this has been good.”

“We wouldn’t have ever spoken if we needed to be ready for this conversation.” Andrew pointed out. “But I’m glad too.”

When he drove her home, the afternoon was late and he invited her round for dinner the next night.

“Are you going to talk to Neil?”

“Yes,” Andrew said.

“Be gentle with him. He really cares about you.”

Andrew didn’t need to be told. “It’s mutual.”

Katelyn opened her arms and he let her hug him, just lightly, for a second or two, before he climbed back in the car and departed.

What was one more life-changing conversation on a beautiful, sunny afternoon? Andrew thought as he drove.

There were a few things he needed to do first, but his heart beat a steady rhythm and it was carrying him home.

***

Neil seemed to know the second Andrew entered the barns what was happening.

He lifted his pretty blues eyes from the plants he was trimming and his shoulders sagged. “You’re leaving.”

“Yes.”

“When?”

Andrew wasn’t sure what Neil was seeing – maybe it was the tip of his head, the resolution in his jaw, but he knew he had to stop this train of thought. “Don’t look at me like that. Listen for a second.”

Standing and rubbing his hands to rid them of dirt, Neil gathered himself. But he still held himself like a man expecting a blow, or a foster child terrified to lose their latest home. Like the end was inevitable.

“Listen to me.” Andrew stepped forward. “Yes or no?” he asked, hand hovering over Neil’s cheek. Neil moved instead of answered, pressing his face against Andrew’s palm and closing his eyes. Andrew rubbed his thumb over his temple. “This isn’t a pipedream, Neil. This isn’t nothing.”

The tremble that went through Neil was enough for Andrew to step even closer. Neil reached out, clutched onto Andrew’s t-shirt. “But you’re leaving.”  

“Because I want to come back.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have a season left on my contract in Denver. I have obligations I want to see through. I need to know that I can live out there.” What he felt for Neil was the realest thing Andrew had ever known. But the rest? This new life. This energy. This sense of moving forwards and doing more than just existing to breathe and eat and sleep. Andrew wanted to know that it wasn’t just some strange French magic at work. “And I don’t expect you to wait but if you want to make this work, so do I.”

Neil was the picture of wonderment and hope and fear. “You’re coming back.”

“I want to. If you say yes.”

“Of course, it’s yes. It’s always yes with you.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Until it’s no.” He reached to his back pocket and pulled something out that he enclosed in Neil’s fist.

“Is this a key?”

“To my apartment in Denver, yes. I’m not suggesting you move. I want you to have that because I want you to visit me.” If he had time. If he could face the country in which he was tortured, nearly killed, and torn to pieces in the press.

But even if Neil couldn’t come, Andrew wanted him to know this went both ways.

This wasn’t nothing to Andrew. This was endgame.

“I’ll visit. Maybe we can do Thanksgiving.” Neil sounded almost shy until he added. “I’ll cook.”

Andrew kissed him then. Licked the smugness from his mouth. Swallowed the gasp that escaped his lips. Kissed him until they were both panting.

He didn’t have words to describe what Neil did to him.

Sometimes, being with him was like a lovely shade of déjà vu, that they had been here before, that their souls had done this dance a thousand times before they even set foot in France.

Sometimes in the drowsy moments before sleep, it knocked the breath right out of him - being with Neil, being alive with him. How he’d survived until now barely made sense.

Sometimes - almost always - it was the bone-deep realisation that Neil made a universe of Andrew, he proved it was possible to have everything you ever wanted out of life all at once. And Andrew wanted him, this life, their life.

There were three small words that he could barely think, let alone say. So he kissed them into Neil’s skin instead, stroked them into his bones.

And Neil in turn pressed his lips to Andrew’s throat in a silent I want you, curled his hands in Andrew’s hair to mean I need you, pressed his body so close that yes, always, yes, rang clear as any words ever could.  

Andrew took Neil apart that afternoon in the barn, surrounded by the hanging plants, their bodies dappled by the sun through the skylights and the slats in the barn walls.

Neil’s skin was warm and gold and lovely; Andrew worked his way over his scars, whispered words across their ridges that made Neil keen and cry. They were still opposites: all exes and ohs. Yet what made them so different, also made them a matching set.

And when Neil rolled them over – sitting astride Andrew’s waist, thighs strong under Andrew’s hands – they found their pace with ease.

Andrew leant upwards to kiss Neil, and Neil kissed him back and the angle was awkward but perfect, and he groaned at Andrew’s thrust when it hit just there.

“Fuck, fucking fuck, Andrew, so good, Andrew, fuck.” Neil devolved into curses as Andrew moved faster, harder, pounding with a beat that reminded him of sailing, of flying through the waves in perfect control but so close to tipping.

Like no one before, Andrew found Neil breath-taking. 

There were hands and hips and the curve of Neil’s spine and the dew-damp arch of Neil’s neck. There was the pink-gold flush over his clavicle and Andrew’s hands steadying him, keeping momentum. There was the pull and push and Neil grinning down with his wicked, kiss-swollen mouth as he drew out sounds Andrew didn’t even know he could make, making sure he was as equally wrecked, as equally undone.

There was the rush of it all - the rhythm and crescendo. There was the way they bloomed together - blinding as dawn-light, heady as the fields full of flowers.

With every bruise left by Andrew's fingers was a truth they had yet to share, and with every nip of Neil's teeth was a question they didn’t need to ask. Between the slide of their bodies was a promise – not to stay, but to always come back. There was the knowledge that for some home was a place, but for them it could be each other. 

Andrew’s eyes met Neil’s, and the shiver that ran between them was summer storms and sun-swept skies, wild smiles tasting of wine and cosy bodies gravitating towards each other at night.

“Neil, Neil,” Andrew chanted. “Nathaniel.”

And Neil’s hand reached for Andrew’s shoulders, dragging him in closer, deeper, his eyes blown and so, so bright as he let out a cry and came undone, with Andrew following him over the edge moments later.

Time blurred.

Time passed.

Time let them have this moment, leaving them to sink back into their bodies and slowly put each other back together again... Andrew had the sense that they’d each tucked a piece of themselves somewhere behind the other’s ribs - listening, he was sure he could hear the thrumming ba-bump of Neil’s heart, needlessly strong, steadily slowing, and perfectly in time with his own.

Andrew followed the arm sprawled over his chest, turned his head towards Neil beside him and smiled. Neil’s other hand had found its way to Andrew’s key again, and he was staring at it in awe.

Summer was drawing to its close, but it didn’t feel like an ending.

This felt like the beginning.

***

That night when the pool became a blanket of stars and frogs croaked in time to the nightjars, Andrew and Neil started to make plans. They sat once more on the terrace, candles unable to cast a shadow between them.

They talked about having Katelyn for lunch tomorrow and Thanksgiving in Denver and Christmas in Germany with the new baby. They talked about inviting the Foxes out to France and putting them up in the house. Andrew explained their fractured little team – the Monsters, who were finally accepted once Seth graduated, the grudging respect Matt Boyd had for Aaron’s Mario Kart skills and the way Randy used to always make sure to give Aaron a hug after the games she came to; how Renee stole Allison’s heart, and Dan Wilds took zero shit from anyone; and Kevin…

“He’s an asshole,” Andrew said.

“But he’s your friend.”

Andrew nodded.

“Invite them,” Neil said. “Bring them all here. We can have a party of sorts, celebrating life and memory and your brother.”

Andrew looked at him, the gold light of the candles playing over his skin. He lifted his hand, knuckles brushing a strand of hair out of Neil’s eyes, cupped his chin.

I love you, he almost said.  

But a breath of wind said it for him, carrying the scent of lavender up the hills and wrapping it around them, like an old god placing a ribbon around their hands and pulling tight.   

 

Chapter Text

Epilogue: la vie en lavande

“Sometimes since I've been in the garden I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”

― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

*

Present Day

Beneath the blue hills, Andrew climbed the steps to the terrace and found himself emerging out of his memory, finding himself back in the present.

He glanced down the garden. Everything was touched by a lilac hue, the morning sun burning away the night and the wildflowers swaying their colourful faces up to the sky. The air was fresh and filled with easy warmth and petrichor. A filmy veil of soft, spectral mist was siphoning away slowly, slowly, so the sun could catch on the trees and the path and the pool tucked into the greenery.

Andrew breathed in the silence, breathed out. This was the life he’d lived for twenty years – sun and flowers, bright mornings, furious storms. The curious pushing and drawing of the garden and its wild magic in his chest. The deep awareness of the turning year, the knowledge that the drawing down of summer heralded another ending – but that like the lavender they planted and harvested each year, people also wilted, fell, rooted and rose. All so one day they would again bloom.

The urn in his arms felt heavier than it ought – the weight of it nothing to do with metrics and everything to do with memory. Andrew sighed. He found a patch of sun and placed the vessel down. Brass clinked on stone and the sound chimed through Andrew’s skull, vivid as twenty-two years ago when Aaron wasn’t yet buried.

“That’s a big sigh,” said Neil from behind him. His voice was hoarse and when Andrew turned, Neil didn’t hesitate to come to meet him, to step into Andrew’s space so that his arms could loop around him, strong and protective and secure as ever. “I would have come with you, you know.” Neil mumbled into Andrew’s shoulder.

“You needed to sleep,” Andrew said.

Neil looked better today, but it had been a tough summer and a good night’s rest was the least of what would help.

In May, they’d realised a drought was coming and had to work hard to find extra ways to irrigate and nurture the fields as they struggled under the uncommonly hot sun.

In June, they received a missive from London, Mary Hatford was dead. She had sent a final message to her family but not to the son she abandoned in France. They still wanted to let Neil know, though the news had shaken him badly – until then, he’d still harboured some hope of maybe seeing her again, not to reconcile but to fully finish that chapter of his life. But such closure was denied Neil – there was no final reunion or a personal letter or even a postscript. He’d burrowed into Andrew’s embrace that night and shaken apart with pent-up loss, the long-harboured and forever-denied hope.

In July, more concern came from London as television screens filled with the news that Ichirou Moriyama was dead at 56 and suddenly the deal that once rescued Nathaniel and empowered the Hatfords was in jeopardy whilst America figured out who was next in line as the new ruler of the East Coast yakuza. There had been tense nights, with both of them wondering if one day a gun would be pointed at Neil’s temple, Andrew left to pick up the pieces of their life together without him. Jittery and frustrated, Neil’s nightmares recurred for the first time in years and Andrew found himself loathing to let him out of his sight.  Fortunately, the call came. Turned out the USA had no interest in French flower farmers and the rest of the Hatfords were happy to continue their trade agreement with Noriko Moriyama, Ichirou’s eldest daughter and heir.

Then the lavender shimmered from green-silver to flushed purple. August had arrived. The harvest season was upon them with all the work that entailed. At fifty years old, Neil did a little less on the farm than he had when they met, but not much, and Andrew was out there to help wherever necessary.

But on one beautiful day – when the sky was blue as Neil’s stare – an ancient white and grey tabby lay herself down in a puddle of sunshine by the pool, closed her gold eyes and slipped out of this world. King died quietly and peacefully, having outlived Sir by three years. When Neil found her, he cradled her still body to his chest, buried his face in her sun-warmed fur and cried. He cried because his mother was dead and his life wasn’t over and the farm was still thriving and because this cat had seen him through all of those things – was there when Nathaniel Hatford was a nobody with nothing but a plot of dying land, a ruinous house, and a history carved out of pain and fear and loss. He cried because he needed to cry and because, like so many times before, it felt like King was looking out for him, watching over him like all those nights in the barn, creating a deliberate space for Neil to mourn.

Andrew felt it too – the grief – vivid as the world, abstract as art, familiar and uncanny all at once.

Loss was funny like that. No two times were the same and what looked the smallest, least significant thing was often the one that caused the biggest hurt, the deepest fissures. Broken hearts never fully healed, the cracks never totally sealed up – and from time to time they split open again like broken knuckles on a clenched fist. Because of a song that came on the radio or a smell carried on a stranger’s shadow or a birthday that should have been celebrated or an anniversary that never happened.

But that was also how the dead kept living, carried in the chests of those still breathing. Andrew knew it. Neil knew it. That didn’t stop it from hurting.

In the morning sun, Andrew wrapped his arms around Neil, kissed his forehead, kissed his nose and his cheeks, stroked a hand down his arm from shoulder to wrist and tucked him close.  He cradled Neil’s skull, tangled his fingers in Neil’s curls – paler with age, rose gold and brass rather than vivid red, yet still so painfully beautiful.

“Shall we take her down to the flowers?” Andrew asked, mouth close to Neil’s ears, words low.

Neil nodded into his shoulder but didn’t draw away. His hands were loose on Andrew’s hips – tips of his thumbs soothing small circles over the bone and muscle.

“Je t’aime,” Neil’s lips whispered against Andrew’s throat.

But Andrew heard them.

He loved Neil too, told him so with gestures and actions and yes sometimes with words. Familiarity didn’t stop them from leaving a quicksilver trickle of heat under his skin.

They took their time pulling apart, Andrew keeping a light grip on the back of Neil’s neck, letting Neil take what comfort he needed before stepping away but not out of reach. There was a breath when Neil’s fingers looked ready to find their way back to Andrew’s skin, but he resisted and they collected King in her urn, taking her down the steps, down the path and left into the little sunken garden that Neil and Andrew built over two decades ago when Andrew returned from America to stay.

The idea had been Neil’s – to create a space for Aaron in the garden – but it was Andrew who extended the path and found a place surrounded by trees, digging five feet into the ground and creating a circular stone garden, lined by an abundance of flowers that blossomed throughout the year: there was summer’s gladioli for strength and integrity, spring’s pink carnations for remembrance, autumn’s periwinkle and forget-me-nots, and always the lush, heady scent of rosemary and lavender. On one side sat a low, curved bench, on the other, a wall with a shrine-line groove cut into its side. Into the stone were carved the small words: semper memoria, and an urn of glossy terracotta sat inscribed with Aaron’s name.

Aaron wasn’t inside though.

Not anymore.

When Katelyn and Andrew decided to disinter Aaron’s body and cremate him, they also chose to bring him to France, to scatter him over the lavender fields that he'd yearned to visit once upon a time.

Still, the urn remained, safe and loved in a place designed purely for remembering – and the family slowly refilled it with mementoes to the legacy Aaron left behind. There was a ring and a dried flower, a half dozen crayon pictures scrawled by a child’s hand, and a photo of Katelyn and Erin together, grinning, with a mouth half emptied of teeth. Actually, there were quite a few photos from everyone – from Nicky and Erik, whose adopted son wanted to be a doctor; from the Foxes, who ran marathons for addiction awareness and campaigned for better regulation of opioids; and from Neil and Andrew, who knew they’d have never met if not for Aaron.

Today, however, they carried King, queen of the bastide, towards her final resting place – a little nook that she had loved in the sunken garden because it caught sunlight all day long (and because Sir was there already).

They lingered at the memorial, shoulders brushing and silent. After a while, Andrew lit a cigarette and offered another to Neil. Neil lent into him, a familiar weight that Andrew was only too happy to hold up.

“King,” Andrew said when his cigarette was finished and Neil’s burnt down to the filter. “She was a good cat and she never let me sleep in when she thought she needed to be fed.”

A small smile lifted the corners of Neil’s mouth. “She always knew how to ask for attention and pretend it wasn’t for her, but for us. She was a champion mouser. She gave the best hugs and made the best of all nine lives.”

“She lost at least three of them trying to eat a cheeseboard.”

“And the rest of them putting up with Sir.”

“She was a purr-fect friend.”

“Did you really just make a pun at a funeral?”

“Got to add the fun, don’t we?”

Neil laughed and rested his head on Andrew’s shoulder, arm coming around his waist. “She was perfect.”

Andrew carded his fingers through Neil’s hair. It had been a tough summer, but they’d weathered better and worse, just like they’d promised in front of friends and family twenty years ago.

“I’m glad she’ll be here for the party, that she’s home now.” Neil said. He tilted his chin in an obvious invitation for a kiss, to which Andrew obliged. It was brief, almost chaste. Neil sighed and Andrew could feel how his shoulders eased, his spine loosening. Saying goodbye hurt and was freeing in its own way.

“Honestly, I’m just glad she won’t be able to vomit up blue cheese this time. Now come on, I want a croissant before we hang up the lights.”

“You mean before I hang up the lights.”

“Well you did decide to brag about being taller.”

“Fifteen years ago, Drew.”

“The punishment has to fit the crime.”

“But it’s also true!”

“And for that, another five years will be added to your sentence. Come on.” Andrew tugged on Neil’s belt loops. “Croissants. Coffee. And if you’re nice, I’ll come supervise the ladder whilst you climb it.”

***

The moon was ripening in the sky.

Twilight hung like a blanket, draping the world in deepest blue.

The evening was warm and full of chatter, laughter, a myriad of jokes and clinking glasses, gentle mockery and sly asides.

Neil had outdone himself, and Andrew didn’t think it was bragging to tell everyone as much. The garden glittered with a thousand fairy lights around the trees, large glass lanterns flickered along the path, and the underwater lights left the pool glowing deep blue. Inside the little grotto, a multicoloured feast had been laid out full of delicacies and home-fare – thin, crispy socca; salads full of tomatoes that popped in your mouth and peppers so sweet they sang; parma ham and melon and olives and tuna tartar and an abundance of fresh fish baked to perfection;  courgette flower fritters and petits farcis overspilling their fillings;  crusty bread with tapenade; pissaladière and a and tarte tatin made with Hatford Honey. Pride prickled in Andrew’s stomach, seeing everyone drinking and eating, the smells of the garden and the cuisine in fragrant harmony.

Coming down from the house with more wine for the ice buckets, he let his eyes wander over the mismatched group of people – it shouldn’t work, yet somehow Neil drew them all in, made them welcome, fed them and teased them and ensured everyone was included. These days, their summer party included three generations of Foxes and farmhands, ranging from Erin who was just starting her second year at Palmetto, all the way through to Wymack, who may have passed the baton to Dan but still kept a careful watch over his team of misfits and misfortunates. Andrew placed one bottle down and popped the other, offering refills to those nearby before seeking glimpse of Neil.

He didn’t have to look far.

Lit up by the water lights, Neil chattered away with Allison and Erin, wine glass tipping dangerously as he gesticulated and laughed. The three of them together were menaces. They had braided flowers into everyone’s hair when they arrived – even making flower crowns for those whose hair was too short. Matt now sported a garland of asparagus fern and alstroemeria; Kevin’s hair was woven through with bellflowers and Jeremy’s curls twisted around a crown of dark lisianthus. Jean and Eduard matched with bright spider flowers that contrasted against their hair, even now peppered through with grey.

Only Neil, he thought. Only Neil could make all of us, including Kevin bloody Day’s terrible thruple, wear a bouquet in their hair. Ridiculous flower boy.

From across the pool, Erin caught his eye and grinned. She was all Katelyn except for her smile. Andrew’s hand flicked to his own coronal – a wreath of lavender and olive leaves and brightly coloured aster that paired with the plaits worn by Katelyn and Erin – then gave her a thumbs up. She raised her rose and laughed before being recaptured by whatever anecdote Allison was telling.

“So, twenty years, huh?” Wymack held out his glass and Andrew refilled it. “Happy anniversary.”

“Isn’t this above your paygrade?” Andrew said in a drawl. His tone was blank, his face expressionless.

“Eh, cut that shit out, everyone here knows you know how to smile like an actual human being.” Wymack followed Andrew’s gaze back across the pool. “I’m glad you found that one, god knows you deserve each other.”

Andrew let the corners of his mouth twitch up. “You say that every year.”

“And every year it’s still true – you really trying to call me out on this?”

“No,” Andrew said. How could he when he woke up to Neil and thought the same thing every day?  

He turned his attention fully to Wymack. When Neil had suggested a party that first summer before Andrew returned to finish his contract in Denver, the first call he’d made had been to Wymack.

Not Bee. Not Kevin. Not Renee.

Wymack.

Because Palmetto was the first second chance Andrew had ever had and Wymack had gifted him those five years – to pull his life and his family together, to learn that he was worth something, to realise that there was a reason for survival – even though Andrew was kicking and screaming (metaphorically because on the outside he was all stabby knives and silence). There was no one who deserved to know that Andrew was moving to France than the coach who’d taken a punt on a nightmare like him in the first place. Who’d believed in him. Who’d never given up on him, despite the stolen whiskey and shattered windows and a team that never quite knew if the Monsters were in or out.

The man was old now – hair white, face weathered by time, body stooped where his bad hip necessitated the use of a stick – yet nothing about him was any less fearsome than when Andrew first met him. His eyes were still sharp. His arms still thick with muscle. His heart still loyal to every lost cause that crossed his path.

Andrew raised his wine. “We did good, didn’t we?”

Wymack clinked his glass against Andrew’s. “We did. You did. Never would have thought when I met you that this was where we’d be and don’t tell Kevin I said it, but I’m fucking glad you chose this over exy.”

“How many times did he complain on the flight over?”

“Oh, just a couple dozen. It’s down from last year though, so that’s a blessing. Still thinks you should be trying to spearhead the sport in France, yada yada, you know Kevin.”

“You’d think coaching Court would be enough for him without worrying about me.”

“But think of the international tours, Minyard. Think of the tours.”

Conspiratorial smiles were shared. They drank. The wine was refreshingly cold. Andrew lit a cigarette and Wymack accepted a light for the cigar that had become another tradition at these parties. Comfortable silence descended as the two of them watched their friends and family, content to be happy next to them rather than mingle into the mix.

This was their family. The one Wymack started. That Andrew chose.

All of them were engrossed in that certain type of conversation only heard when slightly drunk, when every word spoken became surreal and loud, full of humour and threat and significance, deep significance.

Abby and Bee sat heads together with their feet in the pool – since Betsy married Neil’s steward, Alphonse, the two women had stayed in touch as much as possible but it was nothing like being together on night’s like this.

Renee wore a dress so rainbow bright it dazzled and Nicky was fawning over it for the umpteenth time whilst Erik smiled benignly at his side. Dan was catching up with Katelyn and her new partner, a German anaesthesiologist and young widower with a child a few years younger than Erin. Matt and Jeremy were comparing notes on their teams, whilst Jean and Kevin were talking to Eduard and his current beau – it was something of a running joke now how the younger Moreau brought a different boyfriend every year.

Several of the younger kids (who were really almost adults at this point but what did that matter, they were kids) hovered around the food table – Kevin’s boy looked as besotted as ever with Allison’s daughter and Andrew absently wondered what the odds were these days on Tobias and Ashleigh finally hooking up.

The garden felt full as the night’s sky – and yet the warmth of the summer and the brightness of the chatter couldn’t stop Andrew from feeling the weight of the empty spaces, the absent friends.

Blowing a series of smoke rings one after the other, Wymack let out a gruff sigh. “Nights like tonight, I’m sorry we didn’t all make it.”

“Night’s like tonight, I don’t know if I am,” Andrew began, swallowed, didn’t say anything for a moment. Every day there was a hole in the world that he found himself walking around. But nights like tonight, it felt like Aaron was so close, just out of sight, like if Andrew turned fast enough he’d be there stealing feta from the beetroot or snaffling the last of the socca. “But I miss him like hell every day.”

Eventually Wymack went to join Abby with a bottle of wine to top up in hand.

Spotting that Andrew was alone, Neil came to join him. He was light on his feet, the weight of the last few weeks lifted for now. His eyes were luminous in the half light and Andrew tipped his face to meet Neil’s mouth as soon as he was within kissing distance.  

“Wymack thinks you lucked out having me around for twenty years,” said Andrew.

“Hm, did he now?” Neil said, smiling against his mouth.

“More or less.”

Neil’s lips parted beneath his with a sigh like the sea: welcoming, soft, hinting at danger. Andrew’s thumb found Neil’s pulse in his throat, felt it skip. Neil’s tongue piercing rolled over Andrew’s lower lip, made him hiss and pull away.

“You know if you do that again I’ll have to take you to the barns right now and deal with this.”

Neil’s mouth quirked. “Ooo the barns, that’s an upgrade from last year.”

“Last year Erin nearly caught me fucking you into a tree.”

Kissing him quiet, Neil shifted to nip at Andrew’s chin, the juncture of his jaw and his throat. Andrew’s fists clenched in Neil’s collar. It was thin linen, loose and almost sheer. It made him look like something out of a romance novel – billowing shirt, those legs Andrew would never tire of watching, his stupidly pretty face.

Sometimes Andrew still hated how something so simple, something that should be so ordinary, twisted the inside of his chest and snatched away his breath the way kissing Neil did. Sometimes he wanted to deny any of it was real because he was certain it would one day be snatched away; others he bargained with every god from every pantheon to let him keep this. On occasion, he sank back into the dark, cold, numb exhaustion of depression and he would open his eyes to see Neil and barely be able to respond. Mostly, however, he woke to find Neil softened by sleep on the pillow beside him, his hand beneath it – during the night the sheets would have pooled around Neil’s waist, leaving the curve of his back exposed, the dimples above his ass just visible. A sight that would ruin anyone. 

And always, Andrew knew that this was it – his everything – his wildest fever dream come true.

“Happy china anniversary, mon coeur,” Neil said. His knuckles brushed along Andrew’s cheek, their fingers twining, gold bands clinking on ring fingers. He dragged their joined hands to his mouth, pressed a kiss to Andrew’s palm.

Andrew’s breath hitched in his throat. The man was a fucking menace and Andrew couldn’t believe he called him husband.

Wymack’s knowing eyes followed them as Andrew led Neil away from the party on the pretence of more wine even though they had two in the bucket, already waiting.

Yet as Andrew led, something caught in his peripheral vision – a shimmer at the corner of his eye.

Instinctively, he turned towards it, squinting.

For a second, he thought he imagined it – the shape flickering between the trees, the shadows and lights that looked so much like a person.

“Love?” Neil said in question.

Andrew tugged him close so their bodies were pressed close and warm. He pointed.

The sounds of the party receded.

The fairy lights danced through the trees.

The night beyond lay dark as pitch.

And a figure walked between the trees, leaving dewy prints in the grass. Moonlight shone straight through him, through his body and face and smile. For he was smiling – there was the unmistakable curve to the ghostly lips.

Aaron.

For the span of a heartbeat - as the party swelled and sighed behind them, as a wave of lavender glissaded through on the breeze, as Andrew and Neil breathed in and out - memory was in the moonlight. Memory became a resurrection.

Neil’s fingers tightened around Andrew’s as the ghost turned, smile widening, hand raising just like it had on the day the twins graduated. 

A cloud passed over the moon. Darkness swallowed them. The spirit vanished.

Andrew waited for loss to devour him, for the shame of surviving sorrow.

But only the shadows and soft focus of the evening settled back across his eyes - the lavender wind whispering over the hills and the sound of happy voices bubbling in the air. Neil’s hand was solid in his, his body lean and slotted against him.

Andrew smiled. 

He knew he was home - and so was Aaron.