While the sky cleared up half an hour ago, Andrew can still taste rain on the tip of his tongue.
It’s not the same kind of rain that they get in the city, which is currently seven hundred miles away, waiting for them to come back from the road trip they took for their anniversary - that rain comes in three flavors: oceanic salt, acid from the perpetual smog, or soot from the latest fire to tear through the hills. Regardless of what that rain tastes like, the smell of it hitting the asphalt and the concrete always makes the air reek. It’s a thick smell that becomes almost choking if the humidity is high enough.
This rain, or the remnants of it at least, is nothing like that. It’s crisp and clean, more like desert dew gathering on a cactus. When he takes a deep, cool breath of it, it leaves his lungs feeling purified.
The sky that the rain spilled forth from is also nothing like the one that stretches above Los Angeles. There’s no bizarre ochre glow remaining long after the sun has gone down, no spotlights from the latest movie premiere darting back and forth like restless eyes. Instead, there are stars, millions of them, arranged into constellations and glittering galaxies. The moon is different too, doesn’t look sickly and yellow; rather, it stands proudly overhead, gleaming the way it must have at the beginning of the world, a few days away from being totally full.
They’re surrounded by trees, some bare-branched and others covered in thin needles that give the air a certain tangy smell that makes Andrew think of climbing trees when he was a kid, of going home at the end of the day with pine gum covering his palms and glued to his shirt. A few yards back from where they’re parked, the turnaround and picnic area joins back up with the tarmac, but traffic at this time of night is light - only occasionally do headlights, seeming almost obscenely bright in the otherwise pristine darkness, wash over them before disappearing back down the road. In front of their outstretched legs and the boundary of their blanket, there’s a narrow river slicing through the trees, lapping at the shore. The sound of it mixes together with the gentle breeze rattling the trees and the chirps and hums of the nocturnal animals in the woods that have emerged for the night.
In only a few weeks, in this part of California, it will probably be cold enough for snow to settle on the trees towering around them and dapple the thin skein of ice covering the babbling brook.
They might have to make another ten hour drive just for that.
But that’s a plan to be made in the future. For the time being, Andrew has more important things to focus on.
He’s pressed against Andrew from shoulder to hip, back braced against the front bumper of their car, one of his long legs casually tossed over Andrew’s. In addition to the blanket underneath them (and the crinkly tarp underneath that, to keep the damp ground from soaking through), there’s another blanket wrapped around their shoulders. There’s a thermos in his hands containing peppermint tea that smells stronger than it tastes - the complimentary packages that came with their hotel room aren't exactly high-caliber stuff, and all the grocery stores and coffee shops in the small town they’re staying in closed hours ago - but at the very least, it’s warm, and when Steven passes it over, the sip Andrew takes makes heat seep down to fill the hollow points of his chest.
Or maybe that’s just from Steven being so close to him. It’s hard to tell, sometimes.
“Do you know any of the constellations?” Steven asks, taking the thermos back and setting it in the grass beside their blanket before he drops his head heavily on Andrew’s shoulder.
“Not really.” As their fingers absently twist together in Andrew’s lap, he glances back up at the sky. There’s only one grouping that he can definitively make out - the rest are just meaningless, albeit beautiful, clusters. Pointing up with his free hand, blanket falling away from his shoulder, he says, “Just the Big Dipper.”
“The Little Dipper is right there,” Steven says, leaning over and using his own free hand to nudge Andrew’s a few inches lower. “The North Star is part of the handle.” Andrew’s never noticed it before, but now that Steven has pointed it out, the shrunken ladle shape is painfully clear.
“What else is up there?” he asks. When Steven laughs quietly, the movement of his shoulders reverberates into Andrew’s.
“Sometimes I can find Mars, if it’s bright enough, but that’s all that I know. Kinda hard to see much of anything in the city, unless you’re at the observatory.”
“Yeah.” Andrew pulls the blanket back up around his shoulder. While he isn’t prepared to pack up and leave just yet, his mind does drift to the spacious bed in their hotel room, drifts to how it would feel to be tucked under the covers with the radiator rattling, something quiet playing on the television, with Steven’s head resting on his chest. “We should go there sometime.” Steven hums in agreement and somehow manages to slide even closer to him, until he's practically in Andrew's lap.
For a few moments, the two of them are quiet. The trees rustle in the gentle wind. The brook continues to babble, the steady sound broken only by a splash as something hops into (or out of) the water further upstream. Underneath it all, if Andrew listens hard enough, he can hear Steven’s breathing.
“Can you imagine having this as our backyard?” Steven eventually asks. The words brush against the base of Andrew’s throat, above the collar of his jacket. It’s far from the first time he’s heard Steven describe something as ours, but something still twinges deep in his chest at the sound of it, something like a pinch, as if his body is making sure that the idea of anything being theirs isn’t just a wild figment of his imagination.
“What’s wrong with the backyard we have?” he teases. Steven snorts. It should not be a cute sound, not at all, but Andrew’s long since resigned himself to the fact that he finds most of what Steven does to be cute to some degree or another.
“I don’t think a balcony counts as a backyard, Andrew.”
“But it is on the back of the building, and you’ve got so many plants on it that-”
“You love the plants and you know it,” Steven interrupts. He’s not wrong - keeping them all alive is a pain in the ass, but it is nice having some actual greenery as part of their view - and Andrew knows that Steven knows that he isn’t wrong, because he can feel the smug smile tugging at Steven’s lips when he presses them to the swoop of Andrew’s shoulder for a quick kiss. “But wouldn’t it be nice, being able to fall asleep to that every night?” He waves one hand out into the darkness, at the river.
He’s not wrong about that either. It’s not often that Andrew indulges in flights of fancy, lets himself ponder what-if situations that may never come to pass, but it’s hard not to imagine that kind of future. Going to sleep every night with the forest at their backs and the sound of the river, trickling in summer and rushing in spring after the snow has melted, as background music sounds like a small piece of heaven. They could have a fireplace in the living room and a balcony off the bedroom where they could watch the world go by. They could discover the constellations when the sky is clear and watch lightning rip through the darkness when it isn’t.
The more he thinks about it, the more bittersweet the whole concept becomes. He can picture it so vividly, can so thoroughly imagine spending every morning sitting quietly on the balcony with Steven, drinking tea and basking in each other’s company, that the thought that their future might not actually unfurl in that exact way makes his chest ache.
Frankly, he’s not sure if he trusts himself to tell Steven how wonderful he finds that notion without his voice cracking. Not until he’s had a moment to gather himself, at least.
“You know what the only problem with that would be?” he asks as he turns his head. They’re nose to nose, close enough that Andrew can feel Steven’s breath on the corner of his mouth.
“What?” There’s a hint of wariness in Steven’s voice, and Andrew forges on ahead so that the hint doesn’t have time to grow into anything stronger.
“I don’t think there’s a place within fifty miles of here that sells acai bowls. Do you think you could live without those?”
“You are the worst,” Steven groans, using their intertwined fingers to lightly hit Andrew in the thigh. Andrew doesn’t bother to argue the point; instead, he squeezes Steven’s hand and presses a kiss to the top of his head. Now that he’s removed himself from the thought a little bit, injected some levity into the space between them, he thinks he can talk without worrying about simply spilling over, like the river spilling over its banks.
“One day, we’ll have an actual backyard,” he promises, pulling back just a little, so that Steven’s hair isn’t tickling his nose. “And I’d love if it had trees and a view of the stars. But so long as it’s our backyard, I’ll be happy. Even if it’s the size of a postage stamp and there’s no trees within a hundred miles.”
Steven’s breath catches, and he pulls away from Andrew’s side and slides fully into his lap, until his knees are tucked on either side of Andrew’s hips. When the blanket falls away from his shoulder, Andrew slides his hand free of Steven’s so that he can pull it around his back. It probably won’t stay there for long, but for the time being, they’re cocooned together.
“You mean that?” Steven asks quietly, curving one hand around Andrew’s cheek, thumb brushing over the thin skin just below his eye. Andrew nods.
“I do, Steven. Wherever I end up, so long as you’re with me, I’ll be happy.”
“You’re going to be happy for a long time then,” Steven replies, curling his other hand tightly around Andrew’s shoulder, into the thick fabric of his jacket, “because I’m not going anywhere.”
“Good,” is all Andrew has time to say before Steven kisses him. It’s feather light, like eyelashes brushing against a cheek, but it still warms him better than the tea had, sinks down into the very core of his being. He wraps both of his arms tightly around Steven’s back (and dislodges the blanket in the process, but that was just quickening the inevitable) and pulls him in close, until there’s barely enough room between them for their lungs to expand with breath.
When Steven pulls away, he only moves an inch, just far enough for him to press, “I love you,” to the corner of Andrew’s mouth.
“I love you too,” Andrew answers, the most truthful thing he’s ever said, before he makes up for that inch of lost space and kisses Steven again.
Sooner rather than later, they’re going to have to pack up and leave; the temperature is continuing to drop into goosebump territory, it’s long past late, and the thought of their hotel room, warm and cozy, is growing continually more alluring.
But that can wait a little longer. Andrew’s not ready to let go yet.
(Based on how Steven is sighing into his mouth and dragging both palms down Andrew’s chest to fist in the fabric of his jacket, the feeling is utterly mutual.)