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Gentler Men

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It was a quiet evening: Neil Hatford, nee. Nathaniel Wesninski, sat upon a silken futon and watched his uncle entertain his poorly mother with a game of chess. The woman was so reclusive that she oft’ refused to leave the premises of her room. But on quiet evenings, where the autumnal chill wasn’t so pervasive, she floated down the stairs in her ethereal nightgown to join them in the parlour.

Neil couldn’t blame her: She had been brutally traumatised by her late husband, Nathan Wesninski. But he’d thought it was perhaps more humane to have simply let her pass, rather than nurse her back to this state. She refused to even look at Neil, claiming in hushed whispers to her brother that he looked too much like his father for her to stand the sight of him.

“Checkmate, sister.” Stuart smiled warmly. “Shall I escort you to your room?”

“No need,” She said, voice barely a whisper. “Renee shall settle me.”

The young woman was standing by the door, always ready to attend to Mary’s needs. Renee Walker had been kindly donated to the Hatford household from Lord Wymack, whose estate bordered closely with Stuart’s own. They had grown close over the years: It was what inspired Stuart to let Neil and Mary back within his grounds. Wymack allegedly had a penchant for hiring unfortunate folk out of their misfortunes, and Renee was one of them. She and Neil had, many weeks ago, talked animatedly about their respective pasts. It seemed that they had much in common, and Neil decided she could be trusted with his mother. Her hair was very pale, and she stained the ends with various dyes she liked to gather from a wealthy seamstress in town. Miss Reynolds, Neil recalled.

When Mary had left, Stuart lit a pipe. Neil got to his feet, stoking the smouldering fire.

“I do believe Mr Minyard and his cohort are returning soon.” Stuart said. “Do you recall them? They visit Lord Wymack every once in a while, but I believe it was when you had first returned to my patronage that they stayed here. Strictly business, but I do believe Mr Day and I have many agreeable qualities.”

That they both tended to be rather arrogant? Neil'd suppose they would get along marvellously. Kevin Day was not who Neil retained attention for, however, rather, the strangely intriguing figure of Mr Minyard himself. Andrew, that is. Not Aaron. The physician was rather stoic and unpleasant at times, though he supposed that Andrew entertained those characteristics too.

“When are they arriving?” Neil inquired, not at all attempting to hide his enthusiasm. He had entertained a discourse with Minyard for merely a quarter of an hour, but it was plenty for Neil to wish for it again.

“In a week’s time. I’ll have the estate primed for their arrival: They have spent two weeks, perhaps, at Lord Wymack’s, but it is said that Mr Minyard does get rather easily pre-occupied. I’m sure they won’t be here for more than a week.”

That disappointed Neil greatly. He supposed a week would have to do, should he make the most of his time. He bid his uncle goodnight and climbed the stairs.

His mother’s attendant, Renee, was waiting by the doors to his chambers when he arrived. He nodded to her in passing, but she held out a hand to stop him.

“Is it true, sir?” She asked. “That Minyard will return.”

“Verily so.” He agreed.

She smiled. “How splendid.”

He allowed a small smile, letting her hand squeeze his shoulder. There were few that appreciated Minyard for all that he was, but Neil was glad he had found another. He wondered what their connection was, and if Minyard even remotely knew her, or if she was simply a fan of the man’s character.

Neil settled in his room, unbuttoning the cuffs at his wrists, a small and intangible warmth occurring right where his heart was situated.

Next week would be marvellously pleasant.

*

Andrew Minyard had a large estate in the southerly region of Columbia, on which he housed his brother and their family, his cousin, and his good friend Kevin Day.

Aaron was plentifully busy, what with his duties as a new and prospering physician, and the father of two with Katelyn Minyard. Nicholas Hemmick, and his intimate friend, Reverend Erik Klose, were patrons of the local parish.
That left Kevin, who completed the more social aspects of luxurious living: He courted women and threw grand parties and escorted a fox-hunting party across their lands every season.

Andrew, however, was nothing of the sort. He was alone, in every sense of the word, but never lonely. He was often proceeded by whispers of his violent beginnings: Thrown in prison at the age of twelve for theft, almost carted off to a colony, allegedly involved in the death of his mother and an opiate addiction were some of the tamer responses to the name Andrew Minyard.

He was eccentric. Reclusive. And, in certain circles, known for his dalliances with men.

His most recent venture had turned rather sour: Roland had gone gallivanting off to marry a woman, despite his open displeasure in doing so. In Andrew’s abandoned state, he had turned to business matters instead and found opportunities up north, near Palmetto.

Regardless, Stuart Hatford opened his doors for him, inspired by businesses and politics and the such. These were things that Andrew dealt with, of course, but his money had never come from ambition, but rather, from inheritance. It made his worth more prestigious, shielding his tarnished reputation with a brilliantly gold glow.

Andrew hadn’t liked Hatford at first, but he proved an incredibly useful distraction for Kevin, of whom took him foul-shooting and riding. All the while, Andrew was permitted to explore the intricacies of another seemingly perfect family, only to find fissures larger than his own.

Everyone knew of the Wesninski family and their worth, and the strenuous ties between them and the Hatfords. What Andrew had not been expecting was to find a young man at a drawing board, with hair as vibrant as copper and deft fingers skilfully crafting a beautiful rendition of the Christmas Rose in front of him.

“I do hope there is a good reason for disturbing me,” The man claimed, glancing over his shoulder. At seeing it was Andrew, he stood violently, sending his work sprawling. His eyes were bluer then that of the clearest summer skies.

“Hello,” Andrew said, feigning disinterest, but really: How could this man be anything but intriguing? He had open wounds across his face, skin absolutely littered with bruises.

This was Lord Nathan Wesninski’s son. Nathaniel.

“I apologise.” He said, mildly flustered. “I do believe I have made a great fool of myself. I thought you were my uncle.”

“You greet your patron is such a way?”

The man’s cheeks reddened. “He has fussed rather intensely over me, and it is not appreciated.” Standing a little straighter, Andrew could acknowledge how the man was barely three inches taller than he. “Who are you to show, uninvited, and judge?”

“Andrew Minyard.” He said. “Your uncle has invited me and my fellows to stay and familiarise ourselves with one another. Perhaps it is an unwise decision.”

“Oh, gracious.” Nathaniel murmured. “Mr Hatford will admonish me to all hell if I interfere. You won’t tell him of this encounter, will you?” He stepped closer, out of the shadows. He’d forgone a waistcoat and jacket, simply donning a straight blouse and fitted trousers. Andrew could appreciate the man’s lithe form. “I promise I shan’t tell him of your intrepid curiosity.”

“It seems we have a deal.”

He extended his hand. “Nathaniel Hatford. Please call me Neil.”

Andrew grasped his hand firmly and knew: This man was his next venture.

It was a Sunday morning when he and Kevin took their leave from Palmetto state and its simpering sympathies. Betsy Dobson, his motherly figure, was bedridden for now, but he suspected she would heal sufficiently. Her closest friend, Abigail Wymack, the wife of Lord David Wymack of the Palmetto estate, was secretly trained to be a physician, having snuck into classes in costume and under her husband’s name. They were an eccentric trio, but Andrew enjoyed their company nevertheless.

“I have heard many a thing about these Wesninskis.” Kevin struck up conversation in the carriage as Andrew took of his hat and rested his head against the glass. “They have the most intriguing history. I am glad to hear they have settled, but I do believe neither Junior nor Mary are very well.”

Andrew was planning on ignoring him, but it seemed as though Kevin was beginning to understand how to capture his interest. He arched an eyebrow, so Kevin plundered onwards.

“It’s very unfortunate of Lord Wesninski’s passing, but his son’s ability to carry on his title and prestige is more than lacking.”

“My estimation of your worth drops every day, Day.” Andrew said, flicking his fingers. “You should know better than to assume.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “You’re incorrigible. Perhaps he endured great suffering, but it is unfortunate. He could have been something incredible.”

The drive passed in silence. Andrew did not dwell on Kevin’s estimation, as he never truly dwelled upon anyone’s opinions, but it did wish that the hour-and-a-half journey was to be a little faster. He’d barely seen the multi-faceted man for more than a few moments, but he knew there was much to learn, much to explore. He’d seen it in the scathing words Neil had chanced upon him at their meeting. He wanted to know the unrestrained version of the man.

When they finally arrived at the Hatford estate, Andrew was first out of the carriage. Matthew Boyd, Wymack’s favourite henchman, settled their things to the ground and insisted that they go ahead: He knew some of the staff of Hatford, and would coordinate their things accordingly.

Andrew pulled off his gloves and tapped his cane on the ground as he walked, hopping up the stairs two at a time to arrive at the front door. A glimmer of movement caught his eye as someone slipped away from a window, letting the curtain fall shut.

“Don’t tarnish your image with enthusiasm, Andrew.” Kevin warned.

“Was that a joke? My, you’re in good spirits.”
“As are you.” Kevin looked around. “I forgot how marvellous this place is.”

They were welcomed by an unassuming woman, who guided them into the parlour. Stuart Hatford was waiting by the mantelpiece with a pleased smile, opening his hands.

“Welcome, gentlemen. How was your journey?”

They settled into the room and discussed trivialities over tea, until Andrew could bare the niceties no longer.

“I’m afraid I was working late last night.” He said, without real interest or apology. “I must retire.”

“Of course,” Stuart said, not at all surprised or bothered by Andrew’s retreat. “Robin or Renee will escort you to your rooms.”

Andrew arched his brow delicately before gathering his things and moving towards the door.

Outside, two young women were talking with Matthew: One was obviously apprehensive of the man’s colouring and his conflicting status as a henchman, whilst the other was clearly familiar.

“Miss Walker,” He said. “Would you escort me to my chambers?”

“With pleasure, Mr Minyard.” Renee said, curtsying in dismissal to the others before accompanying Andrew up the stairs. Once they were out of sight, Renee turned to him.

“It is most good to see you, Andrew.” She said, carefully placing her hands upon his shoulders for a light squeeze. He appreciated her caution. “I hope you are well.”

“Perhaps if men weren’t so callous and naive.” He said, offhandedly. “I hope they are treating you well, here?”

“Quite.” She nodded. “I heard of Roland’s engagement. I’m terribly sorry.”

“It was inevitable.” He said, offering his arm to the maidservant. She took his elbow and walked with him down the hall.

“I’ll be attending to you whilst you are here.” She said. “Whatever you require.”

“Thank you, Miss Walker.” He bowed his head. “There is, in fact, one thing I desire from you as of now.”

She hummed in question.

“The young Hatford. Where is he?”

*

Neil sat upon the futon with his hands clasped impatiently in his lap, book abandoned at his side. He was fiddling. His uncle hadn’t wanted him to greet the visitors, as he wasn’t feeling well, but that was merely Stuart’s abridged desire to keep Neil isolated from those who might regard him callously.

Andrew wouldn’t. He knew he wouldn’t, no matter what matters he’d heard.

There was a faint knocking at the door: He glanced up, and saw the blonde man stood at the door’s entrance as he shut it behind him.

“Mr Minyard,” He stood, hands clasped behind his back. “It is good to see you again.”

“Likewise.” He said, his perfunctory gaze looking listlessly around the room. “Why has your uncle shied you away like some feigned prize?”

“Prize?” Neil admonished. “I would rather think of a dozen atrocities than consider myself a prize. How unflattering for the winner.”

“I wouldn’t consider you as unflattering.” Andrew settled onto a loveseat, across from Neil. “I would rather it be quite suited for you to be stood beside me.”

“That,” Neil haltered. He had no clue what that meant. “Regardless. I wish to know everything of your travels.”

“An exchange, perhaps.” He suggested. “What have you spent your time doing?”

Neil told him of his sketches and his work on the garden, refurbishing the beds and the rose garden for his mother. He had an excellent seat and would love to ride with Kevin if the man desired, seeing as his uncle was growing more wearisome with every passing day. He took care of his mother. He did not mention the visits from Riko and Ichirou Moriyama, and Lady Malcom. It seemed too privy for Andrew’s knowledge.

“And you?” He offered.

So Andrew told him. Of Paris, of Copenhagen, of London. All glorious towers and brilliant cathedrals: I visited Oxford, he told Neil, and saw the most bewildering findings by students younger than themselves. The brain, for example. Consciousness, and life, such matters were not to be taken lightly. He listened, absolutely enraptured, by the man’s quiet passion. Neil was sure that he had no clue of how he talked, of how engaging he was: Every spin of his fingers was purposeful and elegant, every thought spun out like gold thread.

He was unlike anyone Neil had ever met before.

Neil could hear the raspiness of his voice, and knew he hadn’t talked to many others of this since his return. Perhaps he didn’t truly talk to anyone.

He glanced at his watch. “Have we truly been talking for so long?”

“Perhaps in that we are similar.” Neil suggested. “Even the most solitude of man requires discussion.”

“Perhaps.” Minyard allowed. “I shall relinquish myself to rest before the evening meal—“

Neil stood, almost dizzy with the speed of it. He held out a hand to bring Andrew to pause, but he was at a loss for what to say when the man turned his brilliant hazel eyes onto Neil. He was a dichotomy between inquisitive and detached, and Neil was confounded.

“Yes, Mr Hatford?” He inquired.

“We were so poorly acquainted last meeting.” Neil said. “Such little time, with such off-footed beginnings. Will you join me on my walk after supper? You should see the grounds.”

“Won’t it be dark?”

Neil flushed. “Perhaps morning, then.”

“No,” Andrew disagreed. “Tonight will do splendidly.” He tipped his hat. “Until then, Mr Hatford.”

“Neil.” He insisted.

Andrew held up his chin and quirked a delicate blonde brow. “Neil, then. Good day.”

“Good day.” He murmured.

*

Chapter Text

Andrew smoked as he walked: The smell of tobacco reminded Neil of his mother, his uncle. His fingers perused the various roses, still thriving despite the cool beginning to settle in. His fingertips were gentle on the leaves, the thorns, the petals, though he seemed to hold zero interest in what he was doing.

“Shall we?” Neil offered.

They continued down the path, curving around the house’s east wing.

“Riddle me something, Hatford.” Andrew said lightly. “I have heard many a thing about you.”

“I highly doubt the correspondences are true.”

“Perhaps.” Andrew said, taking a puff of his pipe. “But according to my findings, you have a lavish estate that you acutely leaving untouched, money to your name that many would beguile you for. What on earth are you doing here? Though, it doesn’t seem like much of a downgrade.”

“I prefer to not discuss the topic of my father.” Neil said, frigid. “Though everyone assumes for the wrong reason.”

“Which is?”

“That I’m sad for his passing.” Neil admitted, coming to a lull in his pace. “I am objectively pleased. My mother’s…frailties are widely known, and it no one’s fault but his own.”

“And your own frailties, Mr Hatford?”

Neil looked at the man. He was entirely serious. Looking back to his feet, he continued marching down the path.

“Too callous, perhaps.” Andrew said as he caught up. “I’ll share one of my own miseries in exchange for one of yours. How is that?”

“Extremely transactional.” Neil murmured. “But alright. What is it you want to tell me?”

“What is it you want to know?”

Neil hummed. “Why come to my uncle? It seems unnecessary, when you have a fortune and excellent ties. What more could you need?”

“At first I came because the opportunity presented itself. Lord Wymack suggested I should acquaint Kevin with your uncle, as they would get along splendidly, and that your uncle has more niche resources that could be of use.” Andrew acknowledged, before glancing to Neil as they walked. “But it seems I have returned for the company of an intriguing young man.”

Neil was more than a little shocked. “No one has ever confessed that I was a motivation before.”

“Merely a prize, Hatford. Don’t get ahead of yourself.” He allowed. Neil grinned.

“It is beginning to grow too cold for my liking. Shall we retire to the drawing room?”

*

Before meeting with Neil once more, Andrew checked his attire: a frill at the neck, tight enough to accentuate his jaw, suit properly fitted to the curve of his shoulders, hair still properly styled. He was sure that Hatford would never even consider the thought of loving a man, but perhaps the urges would become more prevalent with a small amount of effort.

He was there prior to his company, relaxing into the nook of his couch, furthest away from the fire. Then he waited.

When Neil arrived, he had donned an evening coat and pushed his curls out of his eyes. The corner of his mouth ticked up at Andrew’s presence, and he closed the door behind him.

“I am sure that my uncle and Mr Day will join us soon enough.”

Shame, Andrew thought, only acknowledging him with the tilt of his head.

“I—“ He looked to the opposing chairs, then back to the space beside Andrew. When he took his seat by Andrew’s side, he crossed his ankle at the knee and looked at Andrew like he was challenging him to say something.

Of course there was nothing wrong with sitting beside another man in a room full of free chairs.

“I believe you owe me, Mr Hatford.” He said, settling his gaze onto the other man.

Neil returned his look with something of appraisal. “Well, ask away.”

“Ever seen a dead man?”

Neil looked up from under his eyelashes. “Are you sure that is what you want to hear?”

“Of course not.” Andrew leaned forward. “But to assume something more sinister is to place rumour before truth, and that is outside of my small realm of tolerance. Not many know the true source of the Wesninski fortune, do they?”

“How do you?” Neil whispered, accusatory. “You say not many know: It is meant to be that no one knows.”

“I am well acquainted with that aspect of my society, as I’m sure you’re already well aware of. So? Did you?”

Neil looked into the fire.

“Neil.” Andrew said.

“He was going to kill her.” His teeth were gnashing together, jaw grit ferociously. “So I took a glass and smashed it into his head. I cleaned everything up myself and strolled down to the police station to pay off the nearest officer and sign the death certificate. There. Is that enough? Enough to understand why we are both here, rather than on our own property? Enough to understand why my uncle doesn’t let me loose? He thinks I’ve let my nervous impulses control me. That I’m possessed by something otherworldly.” He let out a shaking sigh, unable to look in Andrew’s direction.

“There was a young woman.” Andrew said, after a terse moment of silence. “Relatively young. She was visiting my father to beg for more money to fuel her opiate habit. He couldn’t say no to her: She’d birthed his illegitimate children years ago, and would out him to his pregnant wife. ”

“They were in a carriage together.” He continued. “I pulled a bolt out of the wheel. It flew off and the inheritance fell to me, when the unborn child miscarried and the woman died of grief.” He leaned closer. “I did it to protect my brother. She would hit him and scream at him and drug him to all hell. Do you understand? We are the same.”

Neil looked at him, gaze hollow but regarding him with perfect understanding.

The door was thrown open. “Ah! You’re both here. Excellent. Shall we continue our discourse here, Mr Day?”

Andrew settled back to where he was sat before, keeping his eyes lidded and ignoring the way Neil’s gorgeous gaze nestled right into the curve of his cheekbone.

*

I do fear that this journal I write in is becoming worryingly close to completion, but I have yet to consolidate Mr Hatford and his many inconceivable elements. I saw a recognisable spark of anger in his eye when we discussed the matter of his father. It does not bother me. It would be extremely hypocritical if it did.

I understand that ferocity. Mr Hatford is growing more incomprehensible every passing hour, and I have so many loose ends and no clue how they all started. At least I am correct on something: Jean Moreau’s tidbits on the Wesninski family business have proved true. I do not have to fear the move of Neil, nee. Nathaniel Hatford and his mother to somewhere so close to Wymack and Palmetto: Neil has proven worthy of necessary vigilanteism when it is required.

I will understand him yet. And should he choose to act on his little affectionate gazes, well.

I won’t say no.

*

“I’m afraid Mr Hatford is feeling rather unwell this morning and cannot make it to breakfast.” Renee informed the small party in the dining room.

“Does this often happen?” Kevin inquired. Andrew wanted to kick him.

“Quite.” Stuart nodded. “He is easily overwhelmed by the…elements, shall we say.”

Kevin hummed.

“What are your plans for today, Mr Minyard?”

Andrew levelled him with a careful look. “I shall write.”

“Of course.” Kevin muttered.

“Please use the drawer room.” Stuart offered. “I hope it’ll be most comfortable for you.”

Andrew nodded, standing up from the table as soon as he had finished what small portion was left of his food and folded up his napkin, before bidding the other men good day.

He had the entirety of last night’s encounter recorded, in code, of course. He would have rather slit his own wrists than incriminate the man.

He let Renee guide him to Neil’s chambers, before knocking firmly on the door.

His faint “Come in,” came after Andrew had already opened the door, stepping into the premises.

Neil was sat up in his bed, hair in disarray as he pondered over a pencil and sketch book.

“What is it, Renee?”

“Again, you speak before you look.”

Neil looked up with thinly-veiled horror, snapping his book closed and sitting up from his pillows. He didn’t seem at all unwell, aside from the flush collecting on his cheeks, but perhaps that was just because of his usual modesty: Now he wore a robe that was loosely tied, revealing some discolouration upon his skin. He pulled the robe closed, clambering out of bed hastily.

“Andrew,” He said. “What are you doing here?”

“Coming to ensure it wasn’t what we were discussing last night that put you in such a predicament.” He crossed his hands over the head of his cane. “I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you.”

“Of course not.” Neil assured him. “Discussing it brings—well, it makes sleep a little more fantastical, does it not?”

“I find good air to be refreshing. You didn’t show me the gardens around the west wing of the estate, did you?”

Neil glanced down at himself, wringing his fingers together.

“Alright.” He said. “Give me ten minutes to dress.”

*

Neil followed Andrew out into the pebble-lined courtyard, right beneath the window to his mother’s room. He hoped she was sleeping: Whenever she witnessed him talking to another, she grew inconsolably angry. No one was safer than family. No one could be trusted outside of blood.

“You haven’t offered your condolences for my mother.” Neil said.

“Should I? I thought she was still alive.”

“A mere husk of what she once was. When she passes, it will be a great relief. She is in much pain.”

Andrew simply hummed and continued onwards, hands laced behind his back. “You don’t care for condolences. Pity has no value in a world of communal misery, does it not, Mr Hatford?”

“You’re quite right.” Neil said, walking beside him.

For a few minutes they were simply walking, whilst Neil considered what he spur a conversation upon.

“Do you always dress flamboyantly?” Neil inquired. He was wearing a very loose shirt underneath breaches, with bell cuffs and matching lace at the neck.

“What’s your real question, Hatford?” He challenged.

Neil cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose it’s to spite someone, is it?”

“Quite right. My uncle was rather enthralled when we came into such fortune that he tried to take it from under our noses with some sinister methods. I dress in fashions he aptly despises, the devilishly boring plank of oak wood that he is.”

Neil snorted. “You have a remarkable charm, Mr Minyard.”

“So I’ve been told.” Andrew agreed.

“Here,” Neil said, taking Andrew’s wrist without thinking and pulling him towards the vinery. It was a broad wooden arch, creating a unique little gazebo that was shadowed by the ochre-toned leaves. “One of my favourite places in the garden. In summer I would sit here and—“ He paused. “Draw. I imagine if you wanted to return during summer, you could write here. It is very—“

“Atmospheric.” Andrew said. “Yes.”

Neil realised he was still holding onto the other man’s sleeve and dropped his hand, clinging it to his chest. “Oh—I’m sorry—“

“Quiet.” Andrew stepped close, holding a finger up to Neil’s lips and tilting up his chin to look at him. “Do not apologise. Not to me.”

“I didn’t mean to touch you.” Neil insisted. “It was inappropriate.”

He straightened the lapels of Neil’s coat. “I believe you.”

Neil smiled hesitantly. “You’re a very curious man, Mr Minyard.”

“I believe you’re owed the exact same congratulations.” He said. “Come back to Palmetto with me.”

Neil blinked. “What?”

“Next weekend. I am sure that your uncle will permit you: Some distance from here may do you a world of good, and he trusts my judgement, does he not?”

“I—“ Neil said, hesitant. What would he do amongst strangers? How would they look at him? And how could he leave his mother?

“Yes or no?” He inquired.

Neil felt that strange little hearth within him, warm and ever-present when he was the anchor of Andrew Minyard’s gaze.

He realised how dangerous it could be to trust such a man with his frailties and truths, but it seemed helpless to avoid it. He wanted a moment to himself, without any preexisting attachments restraining him or forcing him into a form he didn’t want to be. He couldn’t be the standard of propriety, the socialite: He had no desire to be a cunning industrialist, nor own and shepherd land. He’d never been granted the chance to simply be.

Perhaps this was his chance.

He bit into his lip and closed his eyes: When he opened them, he was sure.

“Alright.”

Chapter Text

Neil let his uncle fret for only a minute before accepting Andrew’s hand as he stepped into the carriage. Before Andrew closed the door behind Kevin, Stuart wedged a gloved hand in and wrenched it open again.

“Don’t make me despise you, Mr Hatford.” Andrew warned.

Stuart waved him off, looking to Neil. “I expect you home for Sunday dinner. I don’t want Mary to know you have left, alright?”

“Yes, uncle.” Neil said dutifully, ignoring the scathing look Kevin sent him as he slammed the carriage door shut.

“You ought to be more polite to your uncle.” Kevin admonished. “He has done a lot in taking you in. He’s marvellously selfless, and I see no thanks in you.”

“Flatter him all you like,” Neil said. “It won’t make me like you, or him, for that matter, any more.”

Andrew smothered the amused quirk of his lips with the back of his hand.

“Well,” Kevin snapped, affronted. “I’m sure your charming wiles will get you plenty far, Mr Hatford.”

“I’m sure they will.” Neil agreed, ignoring Kevin’s scoff to look out the window. The scenery passed by, bleak and uneventful barring the occasional horse and cart, the endless fields of sheep and cattle, or root vegetables and hopps. Only once during the ride did Andrew attempt for Neil’s attention, tapping his ankle with the foot of his cane. He slid his gaze across to Kevin, who was sleeping with his mouth wide open.

“Don’t suppose you could fit something in there,” Neil suggested.

“You are doubly as troublesome, a mere half-hour away from your uncle.” Andrew acknowledged. “I scarce want to think of how you will be amongst those who haunt Palmetto.”

“I am no good with strangers.” Neil admitted. “But if you insist that they are good folk, then I will extend my hand.”

“Quiet.” Andrew said. “If he wakes, we will have to listen to his drivel.”

Neil grinned out to the window so that Andrew wouldn’t see it.

*

“Andrew, Kevin.” Lady Wymack opened her arms. “I’m glad you’ve decided to stop by once more.”

“Twice in a two-month, it must be a new record.” Said the young girl, stood by the staircase. She was well dressed, as Lady Wymack was, but neither wore ridiculously dysfunctional clothing that others often wore, like those puffed sleeves and the weighted hoops to suspend one’s skirts.

The young girl had dark skin, which was, again, rare. She stood beside a properly dressed man of the same colouring, who had a warm smile. A blonde woman, who looked more akin to Abigail Wymack’s daughter, was halfway up the staircase, leaning over with intrigue. Pearls hung from her neck, and she was dressed in the exact way that Neil thought was ludicrous, though he supposed it proved her worth.

“We’ll be gone by Sunday.” Andrew promised.

“That wasn’t admonishment.” Lady Wymack said scathingly. “Come in, it’s growing to be quite chilly outside. You must be Mr Hatford’s nephew.”

Neil nodded.

“Come through.” She insisted. “Welcome to Palmetto. How should we call you?”

“Mr Hatford is just fine.”

She escorted him into the parlour, where everyone was settling down with boisterous language and actions. They were all thoroughly introduced to Neil: Matthew Boyd, henchman and assistant to Lord Wymack, Danielle Wilds, Wymack’s protege and Allison Reynolds of the Reynolds family, of whom lived in Palmetto and worked as a seamstress.

“There are other staff, working to build us an excellent feast for tomorrow night.” Wymack said as he poured himself some tea. “So, Mr Hatford. How are you liking the Hatford estate thus far? Stuart has written and claimed you have been rather active in refurbishing the gardens.”

Neil spoke little, and quietly, relieved that they were seated on opposite sides of the room and that Andrew was by his side. When Abigail suggested that he rest, he was beyond relieved, and escaped to his room under the guidance of Matthew.

“I hope it’s to your liking.” He said, gesturing to a door. “It’s a pleasure to have you here, Mr Hatford.”

“Thank you,” Neil said, surprised at the genuinely warm shade of Matthew’s tone. “It is a pleasure to be here.”

The room was large, with two bay windows that opened out onto the courtyards below. A writing desk and mirror were installed in one corner, a high-backed chair carved so ornately that Neil was apprehensive to sit upon it. Instead, he pulled back the curtains and opened a window, the crisp scent of autumn wafting into his room.
He did not bring much, and so he left it in its trunk at the end of his bed, taking his place upon the cushion of one of his bay windows to sketch.

A knock resounded upon his door, to which he accepted entry, closing his book.

It was Danielle Wilds. She smiled at Neil.

“Is the rooming alright.”

“Quite suitable, thank you.” He said.

She drew a chair close to where he sat. “I can infer why you are more inclined to be evasive,” She said, tapping her own cheek. “I just wanted to you remember that I hope you don’t feel apprehensive around us here. I just to happened to have overheard from Wymack and your uncle’s correspondence that you enjoy riding.” She smiled. “How on earth did you hide that from Kevin?”

“I’m afraid he quite dislikes me.” Neil admitted. “I do not quite match his standard of propriety.”

Danielle laughed. “That does sound like Kevin. My fiancé, Matthew, he would be thrilled if you went riding with him. I’m afraid it’s not very ladylike, though I try and indulge his wishes.”

“You two are to be wed? What about status?”

“There’s none of that here.” She patted his shoulder. “There are only tasks we must fulfil. I was a beggar myself before I was anointed as Wymack’s protege.”

“I wouldn’t know what that is like.” Neil admitted. “I came into money at birth, and it has accumulated since then without any effort on my behalf.”

“Money does not equate to a life without misery. Allison can assure you of that.” She hesitated. “I hope you are not…uncomfortable with Mr Minyard.”

Neil finally looked up at her from where he’d been gazing at his hands. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Danielle sat forward. “He has a violent and unpredictable temperament. He grievously wounded four men just last year. And I have heard other things, about other men.”

Neil stared. “What does he do, bite them?”

“I cannot answer that for myself.” Danielle admitted. “But I just wanted to ensure that you are cautious—“

“Do you even know the man?” Neil sat up. “Have you ever entertained a prolonged conversation with him? I do not know someone so—“ He was somewhat lost for words. “How is it that judgement is spared from all but him? What did he do to earn scathing remarks and hypocrisy?”

“He has his reasons, I understand.” Danielle stood. “I just oft disapprove of his methods and I wanted to confirm you are well under his care.”

“Incredibly so.” Neil stood.

“Then I’m glad. For both of you.” She said. “Genuinely. Please don’t take offence to my assumptions, Mr Hatford.”

“It isn’t me who should take offence.” He murmured.

She smiled sadly. “He does not care what we think. He never has. You should rest, Mr Hatford.”

He nodded and she took her leave, but it was no matter: He didn’t sleep. He couldn’t.

*

“Did Ms Wilds warn me off you?” Andrew inquired, leaning over in his chair at dinner.

Neil glanced across to him: He’d been aptly ignored all evening, wondering if Andrew had heard the conversation and grew disappointed in Neil for not telling him the things she said himself.

“Perhaps.” He admitted. “It’s as though she hasn’t a clue regarding your character.”

“She knows a different man.” Andrew agreed. “Did you not consider that perhaps you could be the blindsided one?”

“I consider myself a rather apt judgement of character. It was necessary to survive.”

Andrew hummed and returned to his meal. Just as the patrons of Palmetto were about to move into the parlour once more, Andrew took Neil’s wrist and murmured: “Come to my chambers, at the end of your corridor. I have a sitting room.”

“But—how have you already excused yourself?”

Andrew arched a brow. “I’ve never stayed for the stale, post-meal discourse that they insist upon.”

“But how will I excuse myself?” Neil demanded, voice close to a hiss. “It would be fatally impolite!”

“I’ll be waiting.” He said, walking backwards till he’d disappeared from the dining room.

“Hatford,” Kevin called. “Come along.”

Neil sat, good measuredly, for approximately fourteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds before he stifled a yawn behind his hand.

“I do apologise,” He said, feigning mortification. “I simply am not used to travelling. I may retire early tonight.”

“Do stay for the festivities tomorrow night, won’t you?” Danielle inquired. Neil nodded, eliciting a smile, and thus he stood and was bade goodnight. Neil walked briskly, trotting up the stairs to his landing and taking the memorised sharp left as he loosened his collar slightly. The cloth itched where it was bound around his neck. Passing his door, he continued to the end of the corridor, where he accidentally scuffed the running rug as he reached out to knock upon Andrew’s door.

“It’s open,” Andrew said from within. Neil entered, closing it gently behind him.

“Mr Minyard,” He said, pausing by the door.

Andrew had a glassy of liquor by the fire, sitting with relaxed posture upon his futon. As Neil drew closer, he shifted his leg and gestured for him to sit upon the same seat. He offered Neil a glass, who shook his head, lacing his fingers together.

“I assume these are perhaps your extended relatives.” Neil said. “Not by blood, but by choice.”

“If I had no obligation to them, I’d never come back.” Andrew agreed. “But Wymack took me under his wing as a child, as he often does, and I would never have found my brother, nor cousin, nor my fortune, if it weren’t for him.” He narrowed his eyes slightly. “But you are afraid of him. I could tell. You never so much as looked at him, nor stood in his vicinity.”

“I let my nervousness get the better of me.” He admitted. “I don’t like men the age of my father, barring Stuart. It’s instinctual.”

Andrew leaned closer. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“How we learn. How we cling onto things we shouldn’t. You have been so thoroughly taught to keep yourself safe that you cannot bear to allow anything to go wrong: It was never Stuart keeping you away. You isolated yourself.”

“I knew how they talked of me.” Neil insisted. “I knew what they thought of me. I just wanted to be forgotten. Left alone.” He leaned closer. “Intrinsic behaviours get the better of all of us. Danielle spoke of violent tendencies. Who were those four men?”

“Men who were going to kill my cousin.” Andrew said, flippantly. “I dealt with them accordingly.”

“Is that degree necessary? Of course not. Sometimes we cannot restrain ourselves, as much as we’d like to. So I hide myself away: You are right, it is what I have been taught. But I was always less likely to be hit when I hid away than when I was the centre of his attention.”

They looked at each other, glares amounting to something almost explosive. Two men, equally hurt, equally staged.

“Perhaps I am instinctively inclined to damage myself.” Andrew murmured. “I knew better than to do this again.”

“Do what?” Neil inquired, keeping his voice low.

“Have you ever kissed someone, Neil?”

He noticed the golden flecks in Andrew’s eyes, seeing as they were so close.

“I—no—I have not.” He let his eyes roam across the sharp expanses of Andrew’s cheekbones, his jawline. “How did we come to this?”

“Intrinsic behaviours. Is desire not one of them?”

“I suppose.” Neil murmured.

“Have you wanted to?”

“To kiss someone?”

“Yes.”

“I have never felt the need to. It seems—frivolous. But—“ Andrew’s hand came up between them and his fingertips brushed across Neil’s lips. Neil took in a small breath, feeling as though he was gasping for air. “Have you? Wanted to?”

Andrew’s eyes looked up from under his lashes. Gold on gold. “Every time I’ve seen you.”

“Oh,” Neil whispered.

“I am no fool. I know nothing will come from it. You are too afraid to love someone like me.”

Neil blinked at the accusation.

“Perhaps,” Andrew leaned back into his chair, picking up the glass once more. “Perhaps it’d be best if you retired to your room, Mr Hatford.”

Neil nodded quickly, astounded as he got to his feet.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr Hatford.” Andrew called after him, without a care nor a sliver of shame.

“Yes,” Neil agreed. “Tomorrow.”

*

Andrew was relieved to find Neil had retained some form of mental capacity after last night, and had both the decency to meet with him for breakfast and agree to a talk. He seemed far more contemplative, withdrawn into thought rather than apprehension, and Kevin sent Andrew a quizzical look.

“I will go walking with you,” Neil promised. “But I wish to ride with Matthew first. They have a rowdy stallion.”

“And you must always delegate yourself the most strenuous task available, yes, yes.” Andrew waved him off. “Enjoy your gallivanting across fields. I will be in the drawing room if you need me.”

Neil bade him farewell before he left, dressed in tight riding leathers that had the roof of Andrew’s mouth be wither-dry. He could imagine Neil atop of a horse, with windswept hair and childish glee scrawled across his features.

Instead, he focused himself upon his journal.

I have regretfully returned to Palmetto house in my endeavours to uncover the makings of Neil Hatford, and succeeded in outing myself. I have not been hung, nor openly rejected, so perhaps we shall see where the day takes us.

When Neil returned to him, a couple hours later, he was dressed and ready for a stroll. The colour had returned to his cheeks, making the scars perhaps more prominent, but bringing out the striking colour of his eyes.

“Did you enjoy yourself?”

“Immensely so.” Neil admitted. “Shall we?”

Andrew cut and weaved through the gardens, before heaving himself over a thick-log fence and aiding Neil in jumping across. It was there that they walked into the forest, and thus, Andrew offered his elbow. Neil slotted his hand in with some colour a little higher upon his cheeks and they set off.
The path was winding, gutting thickets and shrubbery as they went with the foot of his cane. Held together at the arm presented trouble when Neil tripped over unexpected branches that Andrew knew of but to forgot to warn him against, until a half-hour had passed, and they finally came into the small clearing.

“Oh,” Neil said, fascinated as he let go of Andrew’s arm. “What is it?”

“An incredibly old miller shack.” Andrew said. “I’ve done the inside to be somewhat hospitable. Come.”

Neil followed without qualms, intrigued by the bell at the front and the fogged glass panes. When they entered, he laughed. “Did you come here and set the fire, ready?”

“I had Boyd let you get momentarily lost so that he didn’t lead you here preemptively.”

“You curious man.” Neil insisted, taking off his coat and hat and draping them over the stand by the door. He sat upon the couch at the end of the bed, hands knotted in his trousers. Andrew moved to shift another log into the fire, poking it slightly until the sparks began to flare.

“Andrew—“ Neil said.

He looked back.

“Yesterday,” He mentioned carefully. “When you said you—would like to—kiss me.” He finished.

Andrew moved to kneel in front of him. Neil choked out a small laugh as his own ineptness.

“I’m not afraid.” He said. “Of you.”

Andrew took Neil’s hands and pushed them into his lap. “Can you keep them there?”

“Yes,” Neil whispered.

Andrew took his jaw with gentle fingertips and tilted his head till their noses brushed: He planted his lips upon the corner of Neil’s mouth, then upon his jaw, then under his eye, before finally pressing a bruising kiss where his lips were fullest, most supple. The small gasp was everything; the inclined chin asked for more, as his fingers knotted themselves in the fabric of his trousers.

It was time suspended: Andrew heard nothing, saw nothing, only felt the soft brush of the tip of Neil’s nose upon his cheek, the flutter of his eyelashes, the increasingly enthusiastic press of his lips.

“So that is what the fuss is about,” He said, when Andrew shifted back slightly. “Though I suppose not with a man.”

“I suppose not.” Andrew agreed.

“Kiss me again?” Neil asked, with a tilt to his head. Really, how could Andrew not have indulged him?

*

Dinner had been a rowdy affair, brought to life with food and music and jubilant cheers all around the table. More guests had arrived from in town, of whom Neil knew none of and none knew him. He chewed carefully on his roast vegetable and lamb and smiled carefully and nodded to their prodding and queries.

“My, thats a bit of disfigurement you’ve got there on your face, love.”

“Tragic, truly.” Matthew cut in. “Survived a feral fox. Absolute mongrels, they can be.”

Neil gave him a grateful smile and assumed conversation elsewhere.

Afterwards was a twirling mess of skirts and polished shoes, but Neil had never been to something like this before. Nathan’s house had been cold and frigid, and no one ever came to the Hatford estate. He let Danielle and Allison spin him around, skipping along to a beat too fast for his abilities. All the while a steady gaze watched: Whenever Neil glanced over to him, Andrew was there to hold his gaze.

Neil grew tired quickly, and let himself wander off into the eternal maze that seemed to be the Palmetto manor, the flickering candlelight of chandeliers dancing off the marble floors. It was exuberant but never un-homely.

A hand caught him by the wrist and pulled him to the left. Neil found himself in a dark sitting room, Andrew holding onto his wrist.

“Thought I’d go find some quiet.” Neil offered. “Stay?”

Andrew walked him back till his weight closed the door behind him: He leaned against Neil, who was pressed against the wood with his hair standing on end.

He took Neil’s hands and guided them to his hair. Neil curled his fingers into his blond mass: It was soft and feather-light.

“Just here.” He warned

“Just there.” Neil promised.

There was no denying a power in kisses like these: Neil understood why his mother was so insistent upon isolating oneself from others: It were the people that endangered each other, not the world itself. Andrew kissed him like there was no God, no lore, no rules but one: to never part.

He pulled him closer with a firm grip in his hair until Andrew pulled him by the waist till they tumbled onto a loveseat, Andrew’s hand firm on Neil’s waist as Neil pulled him down, over, and over, and over—

The heel of his hand pressed at the buttons of his trousers which caused the instinctive arch in his back as a gasp tore from his throat. Andrew huffed into his mouth with vague amusement.

“I’ve never—“

“I assumed that.” Andrew muttered against his jaw, fumbling at the buttons as he pressed his palm again once more: Neil let out a choked sound he’d never heard his voice create before, and flushed at the headiness of his tone.

The sound of the doorknob turning jerked back to comprehension: Andrew was off him in a second, and he was just checking his buttons were all still clasped shut as Kevin Day walked in.

“Have you seen—“

He looked from one to the other before closing his eyes.

“I wasn’t feeling well,” Neil tried. “Mr Minyard was simply looking after me—“

Kevin shook his head, vehement as he pointed at Andrew. “You are playing with fire.” His nostrils flared, clearly infuriated. “The both of you!”

The door slammed shut: Neil burst out laughing.

“Gracious,” He said. “How ludicrous.”

Andrew was simply looking at him, baffled.

He checked himself but realised there would be absolutely no point, if the evening was to continue as planned. He smiled lazily at Andrew and offered his hand. “Shall we take this upstairs.”

The man’s eyes flashed, and then they were running.

Down the corridor, up the stairs, to the right, to the second left, across the balcony, careful not to fall over the balustrade as they careened to the left and ran straight for the end of the hall, where Andrew was sure to lock the door whence they had made it inside.

He pressed Neil into the door, he pulled Neil to the couch, he lifted Neil over the couch and up onto his bed: It was there that Andrew pulled off his breeches and yanked Neil’s shirt out from where it was tucker, but still trapped by his waistcoat. The first brush of skin to skin was electrifying, but it reminded Neil of an all too real truth.

“Andrew,” He let out, pained. Andrew stopped his ministrations, still knelt over him.

“I…” He closed his eyes. “I was betrothed, once. To a woman. Lady Malcom. I didn’t lie to you when I said I’ve never been kissed, but she liked to…” His eyes opened again. “Hurt me.” He swallowed, casting his gaze aside.

Andrew pinched his chin between his forefinger and thumb. “Tell me.”

Neil took an agonising breath. “It’s not pretty.”
Andrew’s fingers deftly undid the buttons of his waistcoat, letting it fall open as he went for the collar. He was slow, and careful, and his bottom lip became more pronounced as he went further, as more skin was revealed.

He pulled the shirt open, aiding Neil as he sat up to pull it off completely. Neil knew exactly what he saw: A ruined landscape. Utterly destroyed by sadism and psychopathic complexes that Neil just couldn’t fathom. He’d been a child, or an adolescent, but that did matter: A spare patch of skin did. Somewhere whole and clean couldn’t be left untarnished.

There was something distant in Andrew’s gaze. Neil slowly lifted his hand to caress his cheek.

“It’s hideous,” He whispered. “I know.”

“Don’t.” Andrew said, harsher than necessary. “It is proof.”

“That?”

“That you’ve survived.”

Neil looked up at him, utterly speechless, before yanking him down to kiss him. Andrew didn’t shed the shirt but Neil managed a few buttons, kissing down his jaw and across his neck. It made him still for a moment, until Neil was afraid he’d overstepped and drew back, but a gravelly ”Don’t stop.” had him grinning. He lost himself to the sheets and Andrew’s hands and mouth until it was inevitable that he fell off the edge.

After the fact, Neil had taken one of Andrew’s cotton night shirts and was languidly draped beside him. Andrew had foregone his shoes, facing Neil with his head upon a pillow.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Andrew pointed a finger into Neil’s cheek, turning his head away.

“Blunt as ever.” Neil remarked, too busy watching the finger that’d poked him trail down his neck, down his shoulder, across his ribs to the dip at his hip. Andrew’s hand slipped under his shirt once more, cupping his hip where a particularly nasty gash curved neatly against his palm.

“Is she dead?” He whispered.

Neil shook his head. There was that look again. Neil once thought it was anger. Now he knew it as purpose. “I can’t bear the thought of seeing her again.”

Andrew leaned over and took Neil’s bottom lip between his teeth before kissing down to his earlobe. He paused, thoughtful.

Neil turned to face him once more, nose to nose. “What will you do to her?”

Andrew closed his eyes. Neil thought he’d asked the wrong question, until he realised Andrew was just making a decision.

All he said, though, was: “I’m not sure.”

Chapter Text

six months later

“Andrew,” Nicky scolded. “You simply cannot continue to present yourself so commonly in the Hatford estate. It is untimely!”

Andrew ignored him, folding his clothes.

“Is writing not enough?” He insisted, coming to his cousin’s side. “If he is such a good friend, he will understand that you have responsibilities! An estate to man, a title to wear. It is putting a world of panic upon myself and your brother, of whom especially has zero time to pick up your slack!”

“It has been almost six weeks since my last departure.” Andrew said in a low voice. “My intervals of arrival and departure are none of your concern.”

“They are when your sister in law is heavily pregnant, again, and Erik is absolutely smothered by his work! None of us are apt enough at the management of this hall, and it has been falling to the wayside ever since your preoccupations up at Hatford.” Nicky stepped into his line of sight, once more cutting off his trajectory. “Andrew, please listen to me.”

“I hate that word.” He snarled.

“You have no place with a Wesninski.” Nicky insisted. “Why is it that after you have defeated every possible hurdle, you create another? After Tilda we stood by you—“

Andrew whipped around and threw his cousin against the wall. A knife appeared, clenched in his fist, as he leaned up into Nicky’s face.

“Keep her name out of my house.” He hissed.

“If it’s truly your house, you’d stay.” Nicky pleaded. “I worry for you, Andrew. I truly do.”

“Keep your miseries to yourself. I’ll sell the place and give you the profits if you so truly hate caring for such an estate. You know the Minyard name has no value for me.”

“Stop it.” Nicky whispered. “Fine. Go. I just don’t want to see you hurt all over again, Andrew. That’s all. I promise.”

Andrew paced back and turned around. Nicky hesitated, but only for a moment. When he was gone, Andrew resumed packing, only slightly more agitated and a little more hurried.

*

Betsy was propped up in bed when Andrew walked through the door into her chambers. She smiled warmly at him and patted her bedside.

“Ring for Matthew, won’t you?” She asked. “We’ll have some hot cocoa. Like old times.”

Andrew relaxed into the soft pillows beneath him, waiting until someone brought the tray in. When they both had a steaming cup between their hands, Betsy nudged his shoulder.

“What is it, love.” She smiled at him. “I’ve never seen you so torn.”

She could always read him better than anyone else. Except Neil, perhaps.

“I do believe,” He took another sip and cleared his throat. “I do believe I have perhaps found a companion.”

Betsy narrowed her eyes.

“Someone who I will ask to live with me.” Andrew murmured. “Someone who I will most happily share my fortune with, and someone who understands me with perfect censure.”

“That’s marvellous, Andrew.” She said, genuine. “But—is it a man?”

“Of course.”

“Andrew,” She admonished. “The risks are too great. Two women, just last week were hanged for their…queerness.” She slid a hand atop of his. “I can’t bear to see you so ruined again, not by another man who will marry someone else eventually, and marry a woman at that. I can’t bear the thought of death snatching you before it does me.”

“It is worth it, is it not?” Andrew scolded her. “To be myself with someone who accepts the whole truth, every garish detail. Is that not something I should keep, to hold and to cherish, until death do us part?”

“The convention of marriage was wholly unattractive to you, just last summer.” Betsy reminded him. “He must truly be someone to inspire such a change in you, young man.”

Andrew took a careful sip of his hot cocoa. “That he is, Betsy. That he truly is.”

*

Neil and Stuart dug the grave together: The doctor had pronounced Mary Hatford dead at seven o’clock in the morning, her skin yellow with jaundice and eyes glassy, sunken into his skull.

Neil couldn’t bring himself to feel upset, not when he had mourned his mother a long while ago. He knew Stuart felt the same when the man knelt by her bedside and prayed, thanking God for releasing her from misery and asking him to keep she and Nathan separate.

Renee stood by them as they lowered the coffin, shovelling the dirt back in until it was merely an unmarked grave with a white cross atop of it. Neil was covered in dirt, dirt and sweat, feeling aptly hollow.

“I’m going to run a bath.” He murmured.

Stuart nodded, gesturing for him to do as he pleased as he stood by his sister’s grave. Renee knelt down in the dirt, tarnishing her white apron, and prayed.

Neil prayed too, but it was different. He washed himself clean before letting his head submerge: Unable to hear, he spoke, for his mother’s peaceful transition to the afterlife, for his father’s eternal damnation, for his own damnation, knowing he well and truly deserved it but inquired after redemption nevertheless.

It was moments like these that had Neil thinking there was truly no one other there to watch over them, no one who cared and nurtured their souls. The life within them died when the brain was damaged, when the flesh could no longer sustain a conscious.

He ached for Andrew’s presence, who always lulled him out of these dreary lows with gentleness and vibrancy, though neither of those words were truly helpful in describing the man himself.

He stepped out of the bath, dried himself and dressed in loose clothing.

“Uncle,” He startled. “What are you doing here?”

He must have spent a long while in the bathroom, as Stuart was looking refreshed and clean.

His uncle looked to him and traversed the soft carpet, until he could put his hands atop of Neil’s shoulders.

“I’m sending you away.” He said, sorrowful. “Away from this place. It will always be your home, but you have been growing more poorly by the week. I fear that you will never find yourself at peace should you remain here.”

“But—“ Neil tried.

“I, too, require some time to myself.” He cupped his nephew’s jaw. “We will reconvene in the autumn. Spend the summer further south, nephew. Enjoy the sunlight. Regain some colour. Write to me if you need, but I don’t require you to.”

“I must write to Andrew,” Neil began. “I must pack—“

“Everything will be taken care of at your new residence.” Stuart assured him. “Your escort is already here to relieve you of these memories. Renee will come with you: I know the two of you have grown close.”

Neil dressed slowly, recalling the fond memories he experienced within this room: Intimate moments with Andrew, drawing, refurbishing, tea with Renee, waking next to Andrew, bare skinned but for an unbuttoned long-sleeve.

He hastened down the stairs, pushing his hair out of his eyes as he readied himself for departure. He didn’t wish to leave, but perhaps Stuart was right. He had so much enjoyed his weekends at Palmetto, away from the hauntings of his father and the sallow cheeks of his mother. Perhaps that was where he would be spending the summer. Perhaps Andrew could join him, and—

“Lola,” He whispered.

*

After two nights in Palmetto, Andrew took his leave and continued upon his well-trodden path to the Hatford estate. As it was just him sitting up at the reigns, his belongings secure inside, he went quicker than he perhaps should have and made it in almost seventy minutes. The estate was always quiet from the outside but there were no lights to welcome his visit. He slid off the carriage and moved to the door, knocking loudly.

He knocked twice. After another five minutes, the door creaked open, and a servant peered out, apprehensive.

When she saw who it was, she relaxed. “Hello, Mr Minyard.” She bowed her head. “We weren’t expecting your visit.”

“Hello, Robin.” He greeted her cordially. “I’m here for the younger Mr Hatford.”

“I’m afraid they have both taken leave for the summer.” Robin advised him. “They left two days ago, in the evening. We’re just sealing the house for their absence: It’s our last day.”

“That is extremely unorthodox, to leave without sending correspondence.”

“Perhaps, but it was reasonable, Mr Minyard. Ms Hatford passed on, and it was rather sudden. Shall I take a message?”

“No need. Where is Mr Hatford residing currently?”

It was evening when Andrew returned, unlatching his horse from the carriage.

“Andrew,” Matthew called out, reasonably confused. “What on earth are you doing back so early?”

“There has been a slight altercation in plans.” Andrew said. “I’m off to London. Have Kevin pass it on to Nicky—Nicholas, won’t you? My cousin will throw a fit.”

“This seems rather ill-advised, don’t you think?” Matthew helped Andrew saddle the horse regardless. “You could simply wait until morning and catch a train. You would be there by the next day.”

“Should I continue all night as I plan to, I shall be there by morning.”

“Good Lord, Andrew, what has gotten into you as of late? Do the Hatfords truly mean that much?” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to believe what Kevin had shared with Dan was true, but—“

“So you can marry a woman who once sold her body to the highest paying rat-bag on a London white-hall corner, and you, as a addict and drug ferry-man, can resume a wholesome and unbridled life with the woman you love. But as soon as someone fancies the same sex, a man of respectable grounding and fortune, it is suddenly punishable by death and scolding from on high? Pray, do tell. What does our good lord say to that?”

Matthew stared at him as he swung up onto the saddle.

“Give Danielle and Kevin my best wishes, and pass on that I think they should go off themselves. Splendid seeing you, Mr Boyd.”

“Christ alive,” Matt whispered, as he cantered away.

*

Andrew crashed at an inn in god-knows-where and resumed the same pace at dawn. He arrived at London’s outer perimeter at approximately noon and immediately continued towards the inner city, slowing to a careful trot. He was sore and the horse was exhausted, thus, he carried himself to another inn, paid for a stall to house his ride and caught a carriage towards the river Thames. From there he strolled, unable to appreciate the smog and scenery in favour of a brisk walk to the Midland Grand Hotel.

“I believe there is a Mr Hatford residing upon these premises, currently.” Andrew stood at the desk, impatient enough to let his tone lapse from its usual disinterest to allow for a hint of urgency.

“Who is inquiring?”

“Mr Minyard.”

“I shall send up—“

“Not necessary.” Andrew took off his leather gloves and perused the lodgings book, finding the Hatford name and easily remembering the contents. The attendant blinked as he waltzed away, careening towards the stairwell.

East-wing, room 108. Andrew rapped upon the door rather animatedly, waiting for a response.

“My goodness, boy.” Stuart Hatford answered. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Is your nephew here?” Andrew inquired. “I have happened upon information I must deliver to him.”

“I am his overseer, am I not?” The man answered. “You can relay it to me, I’m sure.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t the case.” Andrew said, peering around the Hatford man.

“Well it will simply have to wait.” Stuart insisted. “Neil is taking some necessary time to recover from the shock of his mother’s death, where I insist that you simply leave him be.”

“With all due respect, Mr Hatford, I am not sure you have ever been successful in evaluating Neil’s wants and needs. Where is he?”

“I truly don’t know.” Stuart murmured. “I have rescinded my care of him to another, of whom has agreed with me that to avoid startling or overwhelming Neil, it would be best to remove him from all possible contact. He will return when he is ready.”

“That is nonsense.” Andrew insisted, feeling his fingers curl to fists. “Absolute bollocks. Neil thrives with those he trusts, those he chooses to spend time with, you cannot remove him from society and expect—“

“Goodbye, Mr Minyard.” He said, retreating into his room. “I hope we’ll see each other again, next autumn, when all of this passes and Neil is rational once more.”

The door was slammed in Andrew’s face. He reached out once more to knock again, but his hand fell.

*

Neil clasped onto Renee’s arm, letting her help him sit up.

“Neil,” She whispered, horrified.

“It’s alright.” He felt the wounds in his back pulling, the scabs tearing open once more, and winced. “I’m alright.”

“Gracious,” Renee whispered, seeing the blood stains upon his cotton night shirt and the sheets beneath. “Gracious. Good Lord. I simply cannot bear to hear another of your screams, Mr Hatford.”

“She has forbade me from writing.” He said. “We must cling onto hope that someone will relinquish us.”

“She hasn’t forbidden me,” Renee insisted. “We have been here upwards of a month. Soon, she will relax, and I will be able to snatch a pen and paper.”

Neil clasped onto her hand. “Do not put yourself in harm’s way for me.”

“I will do as I see fit.” She looked over his wiry form once more and shook her head. “This, Neil, is not fit. This cannot last.”
“Alright.” Neil whispered, writhing in discomfort as he laid back down upon the mattress. “I give you my blessing. Do what you must.”

*

“Come, sit with us for breakfast.” Nicky insisted. “It has been almost six weeks since you have returned and you have retreated into the grimy confines of that den for almost all of your time. When was the last time you chanced upon sunlight, cousin?”

“Through the window,” Andrew groused, rolling his head as he looked towards the door. He was still in bed.

“I’ve asked the cook to prepare you toffee cakes, but she’ll only permit you to eat them if you come downstairs.” Nicky sounded like he was smiling. “Come on, now.”

Andrew rolled himself out of bed and shuffled down to the dining room.

“You look marvellously hideous.” Aaron commented. “Mr Day should have stayed longer, if it meant I would see his reaction to your impropriety.”

“Aaron,” Nicky scolded, before smiling at Andrew. “Come sit, cousin. Did I mention Aaron was here for breakfast?”

“Conveniently, no.” Andrew muttered, sliding into his chair at the head of the table as the cook nestled warm toffee cakes in front of him, pouring coffee and fresh juice from the orchard into two glasses.

“Here, there is mail for you this morning.” Erik filtered through the letters.

“I’ll read it later,” Andrew mumbled.

Erik bolstered on regardless. “One from Kevin, another from Kevin, one from what I assume is an investor, and another from Miss Walker. Is she not the one you fancied a little while ago?”

Andrew looked up, rigid. “When was it dated?”

“She sent it—about a week ago. It only arrived this morning—“

“Give it. Give it here.”

“Andrew,” Aaron admonished.

Andrew stood, snatching the letting from Nicky’s extended hand. He tore it open, hands quivering.

Dearest Andrew,

I would write more, but my writing is still very poorly, and I am afraid I am in an unfortunate predicament. Mr Hatford’s uncle has relegated his care into the Lady Lola Malcom, and has been prevented from writing to you for the past month, though he has been desperate to. I will not say more, in fear this letter may be intercepted.

We are close to Manchester, next to the roman-walled city of Chester. I am sure this is the Lady of the house’s estate, so I am sure you will be able to locate us with that information alone.

Do be quick. It is impervious that you see to Mr Hatford at the most immediate junction.

“What is it, Andrew?” Nicky inquired. “You have gone awfully pale, cousin.”

“He was sickly pale to begin with.” Aaron snorted.

“I must go.” Andrew said. “I must leave immediately. There are urgent matters up north that I must commence my journey towards.”

Nicky sighed tirelessly. “I suppose whatever gets you out of your room.”

By mid-afternoon, he was aboard a train to Manchester with a knife up his sleeve and a nervous jitter to his knee.

He’s seen the wreckage upon Neil’s skin. He could only assume the worst, and closed his eyes as the train began to roll away from the station.

*

Neil grit his teeth as Lola entered the room, the rustle of her obnoxious skirts like nails upon a chalkboard, the toxicity of her grin permeating the air around her.

He ignored her, refusing to give her any ground to stand upon and thus throw him off.

“I just so happened to procure from your dainty little peasant some intriguing details.”

Neil refused to flinch, staring out the window.

“Of course, I didn’t elicit them from her. You’re the only one I’m interested in carving up, sweetheart. But my staff are simply so loyal to me that one intercepted her message before it even left the servant’s quarters, let alone let it sift into the mail stream.”

Neil was going to be sick.

“Andrew Minyard. Such an interesting name.”

“Keep it out of your mouth.”

“What was that, Junior?” She leaned over his shoulder with her blood-red smile. “Did you say something?”

He turned to her, eyes blazing. “I said: Keep his name out of your mouth, you garish whore.”

“My, my. Still a little bit of spine left, even when I have all but sliced at every joint. How your father would laugh at the man you have become, Junior.” She combed her fingers through his hair. “I let your pathetic attempt go on as planned, Nathaniel. Andrew will journeying here as we speak. But, alas, I’d forgotten I had already invited another guest!” She gasped theatrically. “How unfortunate.”

“What did you do.” Neil whispered.

“Nothing.” She grinned. “It is merely an act of fate. Of God, if you will. There is a young man, a soldier, by the name of Drake Spear. His mother was kind enough to begin an orphanage after the death of her husband. Did you know that Andrew was abandoned at birth? Such a tragic tale. He grew up with the Spears. He and Drake became incredibly close, but Drake isn’t so…well, in the head, per say. Much like you, in a way.”

Neil closed his eyes.

“Do you know what kind of feral monster Drake turned Andrew into? Andrew was only a child, whilst this man was a good half-a-dozen years older than him. Do you want to know what he did to Andrew? He turned him against God. He laid with him. They were to be brothers, best friends, and then Drake infected him. Corrupted him.” She leaned close to his ear. “Now he has infected you, hasn’t he? Laid with you, like Drake laid with him? At least Andrew fought against it, at first. You must have wanted it, loved it, thirsted for it. Disgusting freak that you are.” She cackled. “Mr Spear will intercept Mr Minyard as he reaches my property. You’re welcome to watch.”

“You sicken me.” Neil whispered. “You truly sicken me.”

“Music to my ears, sweetheart.” She crooned. “This will be great fun.”

*

Andrew saw nothing to suggest that Neil was here, nor any threat. The house was quiet from afar, perhaps one glimpse of movement in a window, but seeing as it was early evening this struck Andrew was odd. Lights should be coming on, servants should be coming and going.

He paid the carriage man he’d rented another tenner, holding out his hand. “Stay. I will be back with two others.”

“Yes, sir,” The man grumbled, in his thick, far-north garble. Andrew stalked away, cane in one hand, knife concealed in the other.

There was indeed, a guardsman at the door: He had the brim of his hat pulled down low, leaning against the stone archway. Andrew’s intention was to breeze past, but nothing was ever that smooth.

“It’s been too long,” Andrew would recognise that voice anywhere. “AJ.”

*

“Let me go.” Neil begged, pulling against the restraints she’d clasped onto him, trapping him to the bed-head. “Lola, let me go. For the love of God, please, just let me go—“

“God has long since abandoned you, Junior.” Lola laughed, spinning a knife between her fingers. “Ever since you let his hands sully you, God has not cared. He does not watch over sinners.”

Neil let out a ragged scream as she cut up his chest, from his stomach to his neck. When she balanced the blade on his jugular, he remained silent: He didn’t swallow. He didn’t even breathe.

“I’d love to,” She said, climbing off his body. “But I won’t. Not yet. Mr Spear will be here soon, I assume. I’ll leave the three of you to your fun, shall I?” A knock resounded upon the door. “Ah! That must be him. Do come in, love.”

The door swung open and Neil let out a resounding cry of relief.

Bloodied, five-foot and seemingly soulless, Andrew was a spiffing presence when he wore an enormous man across his shoulders like a scarf. He threw the man to the ground, ripping off his sodden cloak to reveal a shirt, rolled up to the elbows. His forearms were rippled by thin red lines, and in his hands he brandished his cane, and his knife.

It is proof. Proof you have survived.

“Andrew,” Neil whispered.

“This is rather incriminating, don’t you agree?” Andrew said, levelling a gaze upon Lola. “It’s intriguing how much blood a body holds.”

“How—“ Lola choked.

“You forget. I have aged fifteen years since such things took place. I am not easily rattled.” He took a step forward. “Perhaps I owe you congratulations, then. He may not have disturbed me, but—you. You have rattled me. It is my own mistake, letting myself become intimate with another who could be used against me. But it is your mistake, thinking I wouldn’t fight for him.”

“I’ll slit his throat,” She warned. “Then there will be two bodies with your name written all over them. Everyone knows about you, Andrew Minyard. Everyone knows what kind of man you are.”

“And yet,” He said, as though he were bored out of his skull. “I couldn’t care less. Goodbye, Miss Malcom. I’ll see you in hell.”

He threw the knife: It lodged itself in Lola’s throat. She collapsed onto her knees, gasping for breath as her eyes blew wide, her fingers scrambling for purchase as she collapsed onto the floor.

Andrew arranged their two bodies, yanking the knife out of Lola’s throat to shove into Drake’s hand. Satisfied, he looked to the bed.

Neil’s chest was heaving but he had his eyes jammed closed, wrists bound and fists curled. As Andrew drew closer, he shrunk away.

“Neil,” He said. “It’s me. You’re safe.”

He slowly peeled his eyes open, one at a time. He managed a weak “Andrew,” before his eyes rolled back into his head. Andrew freed him from his ties and helped him off the bed, pulling new clothes onto both Neil and himself before helping Neil out of the room.

“Renee,” He called. “Renee! Miss Walker!”

“Here,” Renee panted, running out from under the servant quarter’s stairs. “Here! Oh, Andrew, thank goodness—“

“Are you alright?” He demanded. “Where on earth have you been?”

“I just escaped the cellar.” She claimed. “They locked me down there, but I have my ways. Oh, Neil,” She murmured, cupping his jaw. Neil was still incoherent. “Oh, gracious.”

They hauled him outside to where the henchman was still waiting.

“We’re headed down to the Palmetto-Columbia region.” Andrew told the cabbie. “I’ll give you five-hundred quid for the whole set, or you get a thousand quid if you get us down there quick enough.”

“Good lord and spirit,” The man claimed. “I’ll ‘ake you down ‘o Palme’o alrigh’. Hop in.”

Andrew lifted Neil into his arms and clambered into the carriage. He sat down and let the man lie on his stomach, head nestled on the pillows.

“The worst of it is his back,” She whispered through her fingertips. Andrew dusted light fingertips across his loose clothing and prayed that he would make it to Palmetto.

He kept his fingers to the rhythm, still thrumming at Neil’s neck. So long as his heart soldiered on, the rest of him followed.

He pressed his lips to the crown of Neil’s hair: He was covered in sweat, grime, blood and rose perfume, but he was alive.

“He truly admires you,” Renee murmured. “I’ve seen you charm and beguile, in your own way, but I’ve never see someone so thoroughly enamoured.”

“I want to marry him.” Andrew responded. “Do you think he will say yes?”

“Whatever it takes to stay by your side,” Renee suggested. “Is the route he will follow.”

Andrew brushed his curled back away from his face: Eventually, he withdrew his journal to write.

A familiar hollowness has settled within me, a vessel that carried such feral anger within it not an hour ago. Neil is safe within my reach once more, and another two corpses shall be added to the needlessly growing list.

I would do it again. To save him. To get him back. I’d do it all again for him.

For Neil Hatford.

*

Neil awoke in dry sheets, sleeping upon his stomach. He was warm and comfortable: He also bore no new injuries, no bruises or cuts or grazes or burns. The ones amidst of healing stung, but it brought clarity to his mind, letting him finally open his eyes.

He pushed himself up onto his elbows, knowing his wrists would be too raw to sustain much weight, and looked around.

He recognised the room. It was his own, at Palmetto.

A figure shifted in the corner: Abigail Wymack settled down her book with a pleased smile, standing up carefully.

“Thank goodness you’re awake.” She said, coming closer. “I was afraid you might simply slid away from us, but I knew you were stronger than that.”

“I don’t understand,” He said. “Yesterday I was in—Chester. Wasn’t I?”

“It has been a long week.” Abigail insisted. “I must apply salve to your wounds. Oh, yes—“ She smiled. “I’m your physician. Andrew insisted that no one would see you barring someone you are somewhat familiar with, and I just so happen to be that candidate.”

“You’ve trained?”

“Rather extensively. Under David—Mr Wymack’s name, of course. They shan’t let a woman into medicine until the century turns, I assume. Let me help you up.”

Slowly he sat up and let her unlace his shirt, removing cloth and cleaning sage salves and peppermint soothers before reapplying and checking the stitching work upon the worst of his pleasant gifts.

“Andrew explained to us the truth, but you shan’t worry about being in trouble.” Abigail assured him. “The police concluded that both of those hideous scoundrels killed each other. Quite unfortunate, is it not?”

“Quite,” Neil agreed.

“Right, all done.” She said, helping him back into his garment. “You should rest: I will wake you when your meal arrives.”

The ‘thank you’ was lost when the door opened, but Neil wasn’t able to see who it was. Abigail stood up with a frown. “You should give him time.”

“Is it Andrew—Mr Minyard?” Neil insisted, giving the woman’s sleeve a small tug.

She gazed down at him before letting out an exasperated sigh. “Alright, but Andrew, you must promise he rests before he is served lunch, and that he does not get out of bed.”

She waltzed out of the door: From behind her skirts Andrew Minyard emerged, carefully locking the door behind him.

Neil was there when he arrived at Neil’s bedside, kneeling up to reach for him.

“Careful,” Andrew reminded him, pushing him back till he was sitting once more. Neil grabbed for anything, his sleeves, his neckerchief, his hair, desperate to assure himself that Andrew was alive, was here, was alright.

“Hello,” He whispered against Andrew’s lips.

“Hello,” Andrew returned.

“I never wanted to leave,” Neil burst out, sitting back with his hands curled into fists. “It’s true: I would have written to you, should I had been granted the time or choice. I would have stayed by you. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.”

“Neil,” He settled next to him on the bed, uncurling his tight fingers. “It’s alright. I understand.”

“I lead you directly to your childhood nightmare.” He nestled his face into the crook of Andrew’s shoulder, letting out a quivering sigh. “I put you in harm’s way.”

“You did nothing but be hurt by Malcom’s cruel game. There was no escaping her methods, her insanity. You are alive now.” He held Neil’s jaw. “You are alive, and you will never have to part from me.”

“All I want is the autonomy to choose you.” Neil whispered, chest aching. “All I want is to stand by you by my own free-will.”

“Marry me.”

Neil blinked. “What?”

Andrew seemed rather affronted by his own question, his own forwardness, sitting back a little. He shook his head. “No, I shan’t ask now. It is a question for another time. When you have healed: healed and settled. I will ask you then. Upon one knee, with a ring.”

Neil scoffed. “It will still be a yes.”

Andrew pinched his lips closed. “Quiet. I cannot believe that even after brushing by death, you still haven’t learned to control your tongue.”

Neil smiled gently, hesitantly, so Andrew let his hand fall to let him see the proper curl of Neil’s lips. Their fingers interlocked as Andrew cautiously pressed his lips to the corner of Neil’s smiling mouth, an uncharacteristically soft kiss.

Andrew threw off his shoes, settling into the cushions and pulling Neil to rest against him. And if the kitchen-hand saw something too intimate due to Andrew’s quietly rushed attempt to lock Neil’s door, they would say nothing at all.