It’s half past whenever in the morning when Steven decides he’s had enough for the night—the dizzyingly calming atmosphere of the foreign bar begins to meld into his blood and wash waves of tranquility over him. He sighs and sinks into the padding of the booth he and Andrew are sharing. If it wasn’t for jet lag’s quiet exhaustion pulling at his mind, Steven could probably convince himself they’d never left Japan.
The gentle golden haze of candles dimly lighting the area envelopes Steven’s vision and urges him to close his eyes. The susurration of conversation like the steady movement of a river works in tandem with the alcohol he’s consumed to put a pleasant buzz under his skin.
“Steven,” the softness of Andrew’s voice reflects the ambience of the bar, stopping Steven from drifting any further from reality. “Time to go?”
“Yeah,” Steven glances across the space at Adam and Annie, who are still combating their jet lag with shots of some sweet alcohol Steven can taste in the back of his mouth.
The pair shift out of the booth and make their way towards the door. Andrew takes his phone from his pocket and sends a text, presumably to Adam, the harsh white lighting of the screen contrasting with the subdued tones Steven’s eyes have grown used to. The bar isn’t particularly crowded, but Steven doesn’t have to ask why Andrew presses himself against Steven’s shoulder so desperately as they walk out into the streets of Tokyo.
They step out onto the street, into the early morning’s dispassionately warm climate. The noise of Japan’s most populated city doesn’t quite compare to New York, but it’s enough to force Steven’s ears to become acquainted with the sound of vehicles and voices which pierce through the thickness of the air.
On the sidewalk, Andrew is illuminated by the neon billboards lining the buildings. If Steven wasn’t so transfixed on the shorter man’s appearance he might muster a complaint about the abrupt change in atmosphere. Andrew’s skin is pink from either the humidity in the air or the alcohol, giving him a slight gleam on his cheeks. Steven thinks he’s gorgeous.
Andrew moves closer to the curb and extends his arm to signal a cab. With his other hand, he reaches back to grab Steven, and the two climb into the car. Andrew points the driver in the direction of their hotel before leaning back comfortably into the seat. Steven rests his head against Andrew’s shoulder. He doesn’t tense, as he did the night they tried cocktails, but instead moves so his head is also slightly against Steven’s. Is it the absence of a camera or the presence of distance that has changed their relationship?
“Do you remember last time we were here?” Steven nearly whispers, not entirely expecting Andrew to answer. Steven knows he does.
“Of course,” Andrew says, lifting his head to look Steven in the eyes.
Things had been awkward when they first arrived in Japan. Andrew had finally kissed Steven for the first time in Australia. The crispness of the ocean air had simultaneously cleared Steven’s lungs, while the warmth of Andrew’s lips against his had made him feel like he was drowning. He’d told Andrew he was moving to New York not long after that, creating a divide between them that didn’t need to exist yet.
In Japan, they’d savoured each other as much as they could. Each kiss Steven pressed against Andrew’s skin was a bittersweet condolence, and each gentle touch of Andrew’s fingers against Steven’s face was a desperate attempt to memorise what he’d taken for granted for too long. They were inseparable until their lives in America separated them. And they left it at that.
Steven clears his throat. “I’m glad we’re okay,” he says, almost decisively.
“Me, too,” Andrew smiles softly, the glazed look he gets in his eyes when he’s tipsy briefly apparent as they pass a particularly bright sign.
The knowledge that long distance doesn’t work is an unspoken gospel between them. It maintains their friendship, sure, and the show’s success hasn’t wavered in the slightest, but it’s an extra layer of stress neither of them would be able to cope with if they were also chasing a relationship.
The more Steven looks at Andrew, the more awake he becomes. If it wasn’t for the lump rising in Steven’s throat, he could probably convince himself they’d never left Japan.
“Hey,” Steven says after a few moments of comfortable silence, turning to face Andrew more directly. “We’re here now.”
His words hang in the air for a moment, noncommittal but inviting, and he knows it’s a mistake. He hasn’t forgotten the way his stomach ached when he arrived in New York, how his heart leapt whenever his phone lit up, and the way he had to count down the days until he was back in Los Angeles knowing that he couldn’t attach himself to Andrew in the way he wanted to.
He knows it’s a mistake when the glazed look in Andrew’s eyes clears as Steven’s words sober him like a cold shower. He definitely knows it’s a mistake when Andrew’s lips are back on his without hesitation. If he closes his eyes, Steven could probably convince himself they’d never left.
They move through the hotel’s lobby in a blur. The dimly lit elevator provides them a sliver of privacy, which they bask in by pressing kisses to each other’s skin urgently—their time already began ticking in the cab. Andrew takes the time between the ground floor and theirs to mark Steven’s neck, a weak extension of the limited hours they’ve been gifted that’ll serve a painful reminded next time Steven looks in the mirror hanging in the living room of his New York apartment.
Andrew’s breath softly hints the strong alcohol he’d been drinking in the bar. Steven’s chest fills and he feels like he’s drowning again as he recalls the pitiful attempts he made to fill the emptiness in his stomach with drinks during his first few nights in New York.
Steven loves New York. It’s the only place he’s been on Earth that can match his level of energy. But it can be overwhelming. It lacks the ability to ground him, the ability that Andrew so thankfully possesses.
But there’s nothing grounding about the way Andrew presses Steven against the door of his hotel room, the lights dim but still fluorescent enough to ensure Steven feels more awake than he has all night. Steven angles his hand backwards to open the door, and the two of them gently step into the room without letting go of each other. Steven doesn’t know if he loves or hates the fragility of it.
If the door makes a sound when it closes, Steven doesn’t notice. It’s one of the beauties of a small hotel room that they don’t have to waste time getting to the bed. Without the light from the hallway, their eager mouths and hands are forced work from memory. Andrew pulls Steven’s jacket and shirt off, and Steven does the same to him. It might be the most intimate act so far.
Not even New York can match the level of elation Steven feels now. Steven is sitting on Andrew’s lap, but it’s Andrew who is pulling Steven down as he kisses him, softly still, as if he might shatter.
Steven cards his fingers through Andrew’s hair, and Andrew grips Steven’s hips tightly, but gently still, fitting his fingerprints into the marks he’d ingrained into the skin months before. It’s a familiar scene, it’s a familiar feeling, but the ease of it all does nothing to quell the excitement Steven feels all over.
That’s why it’s an overdue realisation, not an unexpected shock, when Steven thinks this is love and he draws back from Andrew’s mouth quickly. The skin around Andrew’s mouth is red and his lips are swollen. His hair falls messily over his forehead, and his neck is littered with marks Steven barely remembers making. Steven thinks he’s gorgeous.
“I love—I’m in love with you,” Steven says, equal parts flustered and enamored. He’s told Andrew he loves him before. This is different. This is no longer equivocal in the way it was in Australia, or the last time they were in Japan. Steven feels more exposed than he ever has laid out in front of Andrew.
“I’m in love with you, too,” Andrew replies without a stutter in his voice. The words hang thickly on the precipice of their lips until they’re kissed off.
Steven’s head is swimming, an excuse for imagining the melancholy note within the declaration. It’s too dark for Steven to read his face, so he returns to actions much less open to interpretation.
After that, there’s nothing gentle or fragile about the way they touch each other anymore. Steven decides he likes it better this way.
They stay like that, passionate kisses and bare skin touching until the first rays of sun filter their way through the windows. It’s only then that the faint, unmistakable tear tracks embedded into their flushed cheeks are revealed. Steven wishes he still wasn’t able to read Andrew’s face and its portrayal of quiet despair. Their time is counting down, steadily, unrelentingly.
“Andrew,” Steven says against the older man’s chest, as the two wake up without ever having gone to sleep. “We gotta get up.”
They both hear the words, but choose to ignore them. The longer their bodies stay fitted together amongst the sheets, the more they both drift from the reality of their lives outside the hotel room’s walls. The more violent it will be when they’re forcefully dragged out of their temporary shared delusion.
“I know,” Andrew says. To anyone else, the strain in his voice would seem ordinary for the morning. “Give it another minute.”
They both know they shouldn’t spare another minute like this, becoming more and more entwined. It’ll only hurt more when they’re pulled apart again. Steven doesn’t know if he’ll be able to cope. So he doesn’t think about it. He pulls the soft sheets up over their bodies and buries his head deeper into the crook of Andrew’s shoulder.
Andrew reaches for his phone, which lights up with the same obnoxious fluorescence as it did in the bar. There’s a response from Adam Steven doesn’t quite catch. For a second, the phone is daunting. Steven knows it’ll be their main way of communicating once they leave Japan, once they’re back in America, on their respective sides of the country. So this is what being grounded feels like.
It’s a small blessing there is no filming scheduled on their next day, only travel. It’s a larger curse that it’s their last day away from their real lives. Annie raises her eyebrows at the pair as they enter the hallway from Andrew’s room, whilst Adam gives them a knowing, solemn look that’s almost as familiar as the ones Steven and Andrew shared last night. They walk ahead, talking indistinctly, leaving the two together on the landing. The mocking light of the sun blinds Steven’s tired eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Steven starts, but Andrew shakes his head.
“It’s okay. I love you,” Andrew grabs Steven’s hand and runs his thumb across it. “We’re still here.” Andrew smiles softly. Steven hates the fragility of it.
No, this is what being grounded feels like, Steven thinks as his lungs clear again. Andrew pulls Steven down from the heights of his energy and holds him together when he starts to fall into ruin. “I love you, too.”
Their last moments together, their time on the plane, is spent asleep, Andrew’s arm around Steven’s shoulders. It’s tranquil. Steven’s heart hurts when he wakes up.
It’s a familiar setting, back in Los Angeles. It’s evocative, and at one time it would have been regretful, but now Steven is filled with the bliss of acceptance rather than ignorance.
Last time, they had pretended nothing happened. They pretended that Australia hadn’t been plagued with late confessions and premature separation, and that Japan wasn’t a foolish attempt to wash that away. Now, as Steven climbs into a cab to take him to his flight out to New York, Andrew gently squeezes his hand as a goodbye. They don’t need any words. I’m still here. I love you.
Steven doesn’t feel empty in the way he feared he would, in the way he did when he first moved to New York, when he arrives back home. Eventually, he stops minding the unpleasant glare of his phone screen, too. He feels content, enough that if it wasn’t for the subtle yearning in the pit of his stomach, Steven could probably convince himself he’d never left home.