“You think he doesn’t love you.”
Andrew stares at the clock hanging on the wall, letting Bee’s words - a question posed as a statement - hang in the air. The long hand of the clock does a full circle.
Tick, tick, tick.
Andrew counts the seconds in his head and says, “I know he doesn’t.”
Bee places her notepad and pen on the table beside her. She smooths out her skirt, then folds her hands over her lap. Her gaze is unwavering and kind. It reminds Andrew a little of morning light; unyielding, inevitable. Soft.
“How do you know that?” she asks.
The same way he knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The same way he knows that death can be swift and painless or long and torturous.
The same way he knows that in the end, everybody leaves.
“Has he told you this himself?” Bee prompts, patient in the face of Andrew’s apathetic silence.
Andrew keeps his eyes fixed on the clock. Time is an enigmatic thing. It continues in a linear fashion, trampling over everything in its straight, unrelenting path, and yet it feels elastic, stretching and thinning at a whim. Some moments could drag on for eternity; others could snap by in a blink.
“He does not need to,” Andrew says.
“So you’re assuming how he feels,” Bee concludes, not unkindly.
“I am not. It is simply an irrefutable truth.”
Bee looks down at her nails. They are neat and even, right down to her cuticles, save for her thumbnail. A dark line runs down the length of the nail, stark and severe, cleaving it into two.
“What do you think love looks like?”
Andrew freezes. He hadn’t expected Bee to ask him that. Her unswerving patience and genuine kindness aside, her occasional unpredictable actions might be the true reason he has stuck with her for this long.
“It doesn’t look like anything,” he answers, staring at a point above Bee’s shoulder. The animal figurines on her shelf stare unflinchingly back at him.
“Is that what you really think?”
It isn’t. But Andrew isn’t ready for this conversation yet.
Bee checks the clock. They’re a little over time, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
“I think,” she says, “that you should ask him about it. Communication is important, after all, in a relationship.”
“We are not in a relationship,” Andrew says, a reflex, a habit he has yet to fully shave off.
Sometimes, when Neil says stupid things like, you like me - Andrew doesn’t deny it. Sometimes, when Neil says things like that, Andrew thinks to himself, I do.
He thinks to himself, more than words could ever say.
So he never says them.
“In any relationship,” Bee amends, smiling knowingly.
Andrew doesn’t say anything further, and that is the end of it.
He won’t ask Neil about it. He doesn’t need to.
He doesn’t know how to. It is unlike him to be unsure of the words he wants to say. Despite his reticence, he rarely dithers. He speaks his thoughts when he deems them worthy of being spoken, and in them, he spares no mercy and shows no regard for the recipient’s feelings. Like Neil, he knows the power of words, and he wields them like he would his knives. Words can be dangerous. He has learned this lesson the hard way.
So he won’t ask Neil about it.
He thinks he might be afraid of the answer.
It is not a question of whether or not Andrew loves Neil. He has -
Andrew has feelings, for Neil.
He has an abundance of feelings for Neil, and that is what matters in the end. Like the progression of time, it cannot be rewinded or retrieved. It is not a question of whether or not those feelings include something as frivolous as love. Andrew isn’t sure if he even believes in the concept, what shape it has, how it is supposed to feel like.
But if Neil were to tell him he loves him --
“Andrew,” Neil says, one night on the roof.
Andrew slides his gaze from the parking lot to Neil. The tilt of Neil’s head and the wrinkle between his eyebrows suggest that he had been trying to get Andrew’s attention for a while now.
“You okay?” Neil asks, a gust of wind coiling a strand of his hair into a swooping curl. The shape of it reminds Andrew of whipped cream.
Bobbing his head in a semblance of a nod, Andrew brings his cigarette to his mouth. He takes a drag, realizes that it’s died, and tosses it aside. Without missing a beat, Neil passes him his own stick.
Neil examines him, as if he is making sure that Andrew is truly okay. It annoys Andrew to no end, but he doesn’t push Neil’s face away.
“Well,” Neil says, “I was saying that I saw a flyer on campus today, something about the city holding a carnival. Do you want to go?”
He tucks his hair behind an ear as the wind continues blowing dusty air over them. Andrew could have done that for him. He would train his thick, callused fingers to be gentle, careful, and fix Neil’s hair for him, and then maybe Andrew would be less afraid.
“I don’t want anything,” he says, just to be difficult.
“Right, of course,” Neil says dryly. “I forgot about that. My bad.” He rolls his eyes, then he smiles. He is doing that more often. A smile doesn’t look odd on his face nowadays, making itself at home among the scars, crinkling the corner of his pale eyes. It looks soft, even though the rest of his face is sharp and gnarled.
“Let’s go together. The two of us. What do you say?”
The sun had set about fifteen minutes ago. They need to go back inside soon for dinner, or Kevin will be even more insufferable than he already is. Andrew takes a puff of Neil’s cigarette and blows the smoke out for the wind to whisk away as he pretends to consider his answer.
It is not a question of whether or not he wants to go to the carnival, and it is not a question of whether or not he feels a foreign sort of giddy anticipation at the idea of going on what is practically a date with Neil. It is a question of how he had been inclined to say yes the moment Neil asked him, how saying no has become less and less of an occurrence lately, when it comes to Neil.
Maybe he should say no , just to see if the contradiction would feel like turning a knife against himself. He would quietly bleed and hemorrhage, and Neil’s smile would die from his face like an extinguished flame.
“As long as it is just us,” Andrew says, in the end.
Neil’s smile broadens. In the dimness of twilight, it glows like an evening star.
They bump into the rest of the team at the carnival.
Neil looks a little stunned at the coincidence, but ultimately, he looks happy to be spending time with them. In addition to the Foxes, there are also a few Vixens present.
Andrew internally sighs. Refusing to let Neil out of his sight in a crowded place, he stuffs his hands in his pockets and trudges along behind the group.
“I thought it was going to be just the two of us,” Aaron grumbles, staring crankily at his cheerleader. She has her arm looped around Allison’s, who has her arm looped around Renee’s, who has her arm looped around Dan’s, who has her arm looped around Matt’s. It is quite unsightly.
The fact that Aaron is as miserable as he secretly is an acceptable consolation, however.
Neil and the others go on the rides while Andrew waits at the sidelines. He doesn’t mind; most of the rides would probably trigger his fear of heights, and he isn’t very keen on flooding his senses with fear today. Besides, watching Neil laugh with open-mouthed brightness, cheeks flushed and eyes lit with exhilaration - it is not a boring way to pass the time.
This is a morsel of admission he is willing to make and keep to himself. He’ll scrutinize it, break it apart and put it back together, assess it from different angles until it is worn out, until it crumbles and dissolves into something he can live with.
Andrew calls this prudence. Other people might call it something else, but Andrew has accepted long ago that he is not like other people.
Neil staggers towards him after he gets off the Tilt-a-Whirl, hair completely askew. It looks ridiculous, whipped erratically in all directions, burning like a bonfire in the afternoon light. It hurts Andrew’s eyes, but he doesn’t look away. Sometimes, everything about Neil makes him hurt.
Neil nearly trips, steps wobbly like pudding, and Andrew catches his elbow.
“Sorry,” he says. A smile lingers at the corner of his mouth, stuck there like honey. “That ride really made my head spin.”
Andrew glances at Nicky, who is on all fours and retching on the grass.
“Could have been worse,” he remarks simply.
Neil spares Nicky a glance, then breathes out a laugh.
If the others hadn’t joined them, Andrew wonders if he would have gone on some of the rides with Neil. Neil wouldn’t ask him to, he knows. He sees couples around the carnival, hands clutched tight as they squeeze their eyes shut and scream in delight as the rides fling them about like they weigh nothing.
He can’t imagine being like that. He doesn’t want to think about what that says about him, about them.
Andrew drags Neil to a bench and forces him to sit.
“I’m feeling fine already,” Neil insists.
Ignoring this, Andrew stands in front of him to dissuade him from getting up.
Neil sighs. “Alright. I’ll sit for a few minutes.” He pats the spot next to him. “Sit with me?”
After inspecting Neil’s face to make sure he’s not pretending to be compliant, Andrew sits next to him. Their arms graze. A shot of electricity lances through Andrew’s body. Suddenly, he is very aware of how sweaty he is. Their skins didn’t touch, but Andrew’s armbands are soaked with sweat.
As inconspicuously as possible, he inches away from Neil. A hand’s breadth apart, he measures, with all the heightened self-consciousness and illogical nervousness that he thought he left behind in high school.
When he is with Neil, it is impossible to not be aware of him. He is aware of Neil’s hands as much as he is of his own, he is aware of the amount of tension coiled within the frame of Neil’s body, he is aware of the very pattern of Neil’s breathing. The myopic scope of his attention whenever Neil is within his vicinity is juvenile and obnoxious and entirely addicting. Perhaps it is wise that he has cleansed himself of drugs. He doesn’t know if he would be able to juggle it with the enormity of his fixation on Neil.
Behind them, a flying pirate ship creaks and groans as it rears up for another round. A blast of warm wind soars over them. Food wrappers tumble across the grass and skitter by Andrew’s feet like withered leaves.
It’s a hot day. It’s only going to get hotter, once summer formally arrives.
Longer days, shorter nights. He can’t stop thinking about the distance between his knee and Neil’s.
Looking as if she hadn’t just gotten off a nausea-inducing ride, Renee saunters over to them. “Want anything? Nicky, Matt, and I are buying some food.”
Nicky, with a wan smile on his face, approaches them too. “Yeah, I think I’m gonna stick to the food and stay away from the rides for now.”
Neil raises an eyebrow. “You almost threw up. Is eating a good idea right now?”
“I think my mistake was to go on the rides with an empty stomach,” Nicky says weakly. But then he perks up. “So the plan is to stuff my face before I take on the roller coaster.”
“Right,” Neil says, nodding slowly. “I’ll go with you.” Then he turns to Andrew. “Wait here for me?”
Andrew would prefer it if Neil didn’t leave, but he is not Neil’s keeper, nor is Neil his. So he flicks his fingers and waves Neil away and watches him go.
Even this restricts his throat and trips his breathing. He feels like a child sometimes, scared of being abandoned, stubbornly holding on to what he has because it is his and nobody else’s.
Maybe that’s why it hurts so much. Neil isn’t a thing to be owned, but Andrew thinks that if he could have even a sliver of Neil’s heart, he would never want for anything else in life.
So if Neil were to tell him he loves him --
Meaningless chatter burbles into his ear as the others spread out to sit at the nearby tables. Matt, Nicky, Renee, and Neil return with armfuls of snacks and drinks and begin distributing them. Neil, however, brings most of his haul over to Andrew. He passes him a large bag of popcorn and an even larger bag of purple cotton candy that looks like a cloud at dusk. In his own hands, he keeps a stick of corn dog and a plate of deep-fried oreos that he says are mostly for Andrew.
Andrew blinks at the food Neil bought.
“What’s wrong?” Neil asks when Andrew continues to stare at the food in his lap.
Andrew works his jaw, presses his fist against his thigh, swallows the strange thickness in his throat. “Nothing,” he replies eventually, indifferent, tearing open the bag of popcorn.
Meanwhile, Kevin hands out water bottles to all of them like a fastidious mother.
“Make sure you stay hydrated,” he tells Neil and Andrew specifically.
Chewing a mouthful of corndog, Neil rolls his eyes, but doesn’t argue. Andrew is surprised Kevin even came with the rest of them today. He was probably persuaded by the fact that he would have been left alone at the dorms if he didn’t.
Neil and Andrew split the corn dog and popcorn between them. Peals of shrieks erupt from all over the fairground like fireworks. The sun slants further and drenches everything in buttery yellow. Sweat drips down Andrew’s neck, pooling at the back of his black t-shirt. He pinches off some of the cotton candy and rolls it between his fingers before he eats it.
The distance between his knee and Neil’s has shrunk a little, he notes.
When the others have scarfed their food down, they discuss - with unnecessary gravity and in grating volumes - which ride to tackle next.
“You guys go,” Neil tells Dan after they decide on the bumper cars. “I’m going to stay with Andrew.”
Dan cocks an eyebrow, but says, “Okay. Just text me when you want to rejoin us.”
The cotton candy melts in Andrew’s mouth. It coats his tongue in cloying sweetness.
“Bored of the rides?” he asks, wry.
Neil shrugs. “I’ve spent time with them already. Now I want to stay with you. It’s the reason we came here in the first place.” Now it’s his turn to be wry; he says, “I’m apparently - as Allison puts it - a hot commodity. Don’t pretend that you don’t want to spend time with me.”
Andrew thinks to himself, I do.
He thinks to himself, more than words could ever say.
So he never says them.
He pokes a finger into Neil’s cheek and pushes his face away. Neil only huffs in amusement.
Andrew’s throat is dry. He uncaps the bottle Kevin gave and drinks some water. A trace of sweetness remains in his mouth, over his tongue, between his teeth. His fingers are sticky, sugary, the tips smeared in traces of purple. He splashes some water over them, washing the stain away.
It is as if his hands were never dirty in the first place.
Once they’re done eating, they meander through the carnival grounds. Neil suggests they try the haunted house. Andrew can’t find a reason to disagree, so in the haunted house they go.
It is unimpressive. Neither of them flinch or blink at the ghouls and zombies that spring out from the shadows and swing down from the ceiling. They have both witnessed how real monsters look like, after all.
“Well, that was underwhelming,” Neil remarks when they step out under the sun again. He lifts a hand and shields it over his eyes to peer up at the cloudless sky. “Let’s try something else.”
Children run past them like a stampede. The dry grass blades crunch under Andrew’s shoes like eggshells. Rollicking music pours out from the megaphones attached to tall wooden poles. Their elbows bump as they walk next to each other, their knuckles gently brushing. Andrew doesn’t inch away this time.
“What about that one?” Neil asks, pointing to a carousel.
Stonily, Andrew looks at the galloping horses, painted in a host of colors, then at Neil. The line is short. The person manning the ride is yawning, fanning himself with an old folded newspaper as he waits for the current cycle to end.
Neil isn’t smiling, but his eyes are dancing with quiet excitement. Silently, Andrew goes to join the line.
“It’ll be like when we went to the mountains,” Neil jokes as he straddles a golden brown horse. Andrew ignores the comment and climbs the black stallion next to him, realizing that this is the first time he has gone on a merry-go-round. He wonders if it is Neil’s first time too.
When the ride starts and the music plays, Neil hooks his elbow around the pole, glancing at Andrew as if to check his reaction. Andrew doesn’t have one.
A young girl on a white pony in front of Neil glances around in wonder, enraptured by the jaunty music, the bright lights, and the undulating motion of the carousel. A woman standing on the side waves at her, holding up a camera. The slope of Neil’s eyebrows and the curve of his mouth change into something resembling unspeakable wistfulness.
There is a type of tenderness living inside Neil that Andrew can never fully grasp. They are both insensitive people despite their razor-edge perceptiveness, but Neil has retained some semblance of softness, hidden between the flesh of his ribs, feeding off of his raw, complicated heart.
All that’s left of Andrew is frozen, rusted iron.
Neil spends the rest of the ride staring into nothing, and Andrew spends the rest of the ride staring at Neil.
After they hop off their horses, they continue wandering between the vendors and past the heaving rides. Multi-colored pennant streamers flutter and twirl against the wind. Andrew’s fingers twitch. He thinks about taking Neil’s hand, pressing their palms together, intertwining their fingers.
Neil held his hand, once. He made it seem so easy, but then again, he has always been the one with more courage between the two of them.
The sun sinks closer towards the horizon. The air feels warmer, more humid, cupping Andrew’s face like a pair of hands.
“I want to try that,” Neil says. Andrew looks to where he’s pointing. It’s a shooting gallery, rows of stuffed animals hung above it like flowers on a trellis. The main difference is that the animals are an eyesore and an affront to nature.
“It’s your money,” Andrew says.
Neil hands the operator a few tickets and is given a rifle.
“Five shots,” the operator says. He looks more like he belongs in the backroom of a gambling parlor than at a game booth at a funfair, his smile as grimy as his hair.
The moving targets are wooden cutouts of penguins. Neil skims a calculating gaze over the rifle and the targets. He raises the rifle, curls his finger around the trigger, inhales and exhales a steady breath, and shoots.
He hits five penguins in a row. The operator’s eyes nearly bulge out of his head. Neil sets the rifle on the counter, baring his teeth in a sharp grin as he claims his prize.
The arrogance of him. Andrew finds it acutely and vexingly attractive.
With a stuffed panda the size of his torso in his hands, Neil walks away from the shooting gallery a triumphant man.
“Here,” he says, holding the panda out towards Andrew. Its head is disproportionately big for its body, and its black and white fur looks rather coarse. “For you.”
Andrew levels him an even look. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Neil shrugs. “It’s yours. You can do whatever you want with it.”
“And if I don’t want it?”
“Then you can throw it away or give it to somebody else. Like I said, it’s yours.”
Without breaking eye contact, Andrew takes the panda.
The barest curve of Neil’s lips and the slight softening of his eyes tell Andrew that it is the right move to make. He tucks it under an arm and strides towards one of the food stands so he doesn’t have to look at Neil anymore. The panda’s fur is softer than it looks.
Neil comes up beside him as he finishes ordering.
“Funnel cake? I’ve never had one before.”
A thick, oily scent permeates the area. The heat from the deep fryer makes the air around it blister and quiver like the crinkle of cellophane tape. A funnel cake, not yet a funnel cake, pops and sizzles as it is dunked in hot oil, thrashing and frothing before it turns golden brown.
Andrew himself has only had funnel cake once before. He had sneaked out one sweltering summer night while his foster parents were dozing off in front of the television, half-empty beer bottles dangling from their greasy fingers, pizza boxes gaping open on the tattered carpet. Walking aimlessly with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few coins in his pockets, Andrew had been lured by the blinding lights of the local carnival. It had been the first time he had attended one.
He didn’t have enough money for anything, but he had been hungry and entirely enticed by the strange shape of the funnel cakes. He had snooped around the fairground and found some loose change, just enough to buy him a funnel cake with chocolate syrup.
It had been a good night. He didn’t have many of those back then.
“There is a first time for everything,” he says, blander than water.
Neil gives a humorless laugh. “I guess.”
They can’t find any vacant seats, so they eat the funnel cake while standing near a ring toss booth. A spot of chocolate scribbles the side of Neil’s mouth. Andrew stares at it. Neil notices, an eyebrow hitched in question.
“Something on my face?” He rubs his mouth with the back of his hand a few times and manages to wipe the chocolate off. “Did I get it?”
Andrew looks away in lieu of answering. A dark feeling settles at the pit of his stomach, churning and foaming, disturbing the sediment already amassed there.
The more he wants to reach out, the more he hesitates. He doesn’t know what to do with something as agitating as this. He has never been so unsure before.
They wind their way through the carnival once again. Neil tries a balloon-and-dart game and does well enough to win himself a small toy llama that he stows in his pocket. Knowing Neil, he will probably later put it on their dresser or in the cup holder in the Maserati. Knowing Andrew, he will probably let him.
Andrew spots a man trying his hand at a high striker game. It’s old-fashioned, with a hockey puck attached to the tower and a bell sitting on top like a crown.
The puck raises about three quarters up when the man strikes the mallet down, but it falls right back down before it hits the bell. The man looks disappointed, but a girl standing off to the side - presumably his girlfriend - claps and gushes, seemingly impressed with his strength.
Calmly, Andrew makes his way over.
“Andrew?” Neil follows him, and dutifully counts out the tickets to give to the operator when it becomes apparent that Andrew wants to participate in the game.
Andrew passes his panda to Neil and takes the mallet. The handle is rough against his palm, but its weight is well within Andrew’s maneuvering capacity. Done with testing its weight, he hefts it over his right shoulder and brings it plummeting down on its target.
The puck shoots straight up towards the bell. It rings with a clean and unequivocal ding, injecting a rush of satisfaction through Andrew’s veins.
He hears Neil’s intake of breath. He looks at him, and decides that he is glad to be able to witness it: the glitter of astonishment Neil’s blue eyes, the way it morphs into mirth and scrunches his eyes into slits, the cheek-splitting smile that pours and spills happiness like a waterfall.
Sometimes, everything about Neil hurts so much that Andrew’s entire body aches.
The operator announces Andrew’s accomplishment with exaggerated rancor and urges him to choose, as his prize, between a flaccid body pillow in the shape of a winter radish and a giant stuffed chipmunk with a stare so unnerving it could probably invoke a nightmare. He almost doesn’t want to.
In the end, he picks the sad-looking radish and wordlessly offers it to Neil.
Neil laughs, trading the panda for the radish. He hugs it against his chest, and it makes him look younger, pure. Sweet.
“That was amazing,” he says as they start wandering again. “You’re amazing.”
“Shut up,” Andrew says, without any heat. Making Neil laugh feels more satisfying and thrilling than winning any prize does.
When their knuckles graze, Andrew slips his hand into Neil’s, weaves their fingers together like he has imagined doing throughout the day. He stops breathing, but then Neil laughs again, bright and clear as he squeezes Andrew’s hand. Air flows back into Andrew’s lungs like a river going out to sea.
The sun starts to set. Its golden rays ignite Neil’s hair into a blazing wreath and scorches Andrew’s eyes. One of these days, Neil’s indomitable brilliance is going to burn him alive, devour him whole until he is nothing but ashes -- and he is going to let it.
“I still have some tickets left,” Neil says. “Is there anything else you’d like to do? I think you’re probably tall enough for all of the rides here.” He says this with a poker face, but his lips keep twitching, tickled by his own terrible sense of humor.
“Remember when you used to be quiet?”
Neil feigns confusion. “When was that? I don’t think that ever happened.”
Electing to ignore Neil, Andrew scans the carnival. One structure, in particular, catches his eye. He leads Neil towards it, and when they join the queue, Neil gives Andrew a quizzical, concerned look.
“Are you sure?”
Andrew grits his teeth, sucks in a deep breath through his nose, hopes the clamminess growing on his palms doesn’t deter Neil from ever holding his hand again. He nods, brisk and determined.
Neil frowns. “But it’s -”
“I am sure,” Andrew cuts in. He sounds aloof and collected, which is good, since it is the opposite of what his roiling stomach suggests.
Neil’s expression turns neutral, accepting. “Okay,” he says, and that is that.
The ferris wheel ride lasts fifteen minutes for a full rotation. They sit on opposite sides of the carriage, the tip of their shoes touching in the middle of the dirt-crusted floor. The panda rests beside Andrew, and the radish rests beside Neil, limp as a rag.
Andrew glues his eyes to his shoelaces. They have begun to fray. He should buy new ones soon. He feels Neil’s gaze drilling through him, trying to detect and track his discomfort.
The air is still. He can hear the squeak of metal as they float higher. His shoulders and back are taut, as stiff as iron rods.
They won’t fall. He knows this. He knows this, the same way he knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The same way he knows that humans bleed if their skin is torn open. The same way he knows that fear is not the only thing he can rely on to feel nowadays.
“Did you know that carnivals originated from Roman holidays?” Neil says. “Then, during the Middle Ages, they evolved into trade fairs and were tied to religious celebrations.”
Andrew drags his gaze up to meet Neil’s.
“Kevin told me,” Neil adds. “I think they used to include zoos or something. Might have to ask Kevin about that one if you want to know more.”
“Just thought I’d let you know about the options you have.”
Andrew feels his muscles and bones beginning to unclench and relax. “How thoughtful of you.”
“You know me. Always considerate and generous.”
“You must be talking about a different person.”
Neil’s lips stretch into a faint smile. He turns to the side to look out the window, chin on his palm and elbow on the back of the seat. Outlined against the setting sun, he is reduced to a silhouette; a boy burned into the sky.
“Maybe you just need to get to know me better.”
He says it like a joke, a flirtatious banter, an ingredient to what he thinks would help ease some of Andrew’s tension. He isn’t aware of how it also solidifies something within Andrew, molds it into permanence like blown glass.
It is not a question of whether or not Andrew loves Neil.
Indifference is no longer an option, when it comes to Neil. Andrew is attuned to every single thing - even the smallest of details - pertaining to Neil. His favorite ice cream flavor, how long he brushes his teeth, the way his nose scrunches when he sneezes, the songs he used to listen to as he drove a stolen car along unfamiliar winding roads, the obstinate shape of his jaw as anger envelops him, the length of his eyelashes, the way his pupils dilate when he is about to be kissed.
Andrew memorizes them, catalogues them, keeps them close to his chest like a secret. They are small and insignificant, but they feel important somehow.
They feel important to Andrew.
It’s gruelling, and it’s inexplicable, this urgency that he feels when he thinks about collecting these small pieces of Neil. He feels like he might want to get to know Neil for the rest of his life.
It is not a question of whether or not Andrew loves Neil.
It is that he thinks about Neil, that he has intense feelings for Neil, that he has carved a perennial space in himself, singularly occupied by Neil.
He feels it in his breastbone, the irreversibility and ferocity of his feelings to Neil, much like a lightning strike. There is no other path for him in this sense. There is no going back.
He wonders if Neil feels like this. He doesn’t know if Neil loves him, if Neil even understands the concept, but Neil -
Neil understands Andrew on a level that is probably beyond his comprehension. They understand each other, and even when they don’t, they try to. That is what makes them possible in the first place.
This does not mean that Neil operates the same way that Andrew does. Where Andrew sees a great many things in black and white, Neil sees them in various shades of grey.
It is not a question of whether or not Neil cares about Andrew, and it is not a question of whether or not he has feelings for Andrew. Despite his episodes of chronic heartlessness and utter lack of interest in some areas, Neil has intense feelings about a number of things in his life.
Exy, his teammates, his past, his future, Andrew.
Whether or not those feelings include love, Andrew doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t need to know. Love is not relevant to him, not like it used to. Its meaning has been twisted and torn, and it has come to a point where he no longer recognizes its shape.
He doesn’t think Neil recognizes it either. In the end, it is not a question of whether or not Neil cares about Andrew, and it is not a question of whether or not he has feelings for Andrew. Andrew knows he does. He just doesn’t know the extent of those feelings, what the exact terms of those feelings are, how long those feelings will remain.
So he falls back on the most sensible and neat conclusion: Neil doesn’t love him.
Neil doesn’t even understand the concept. He is attached to Andrew, but that, too, will pass.
After all, everybody leaves in the end, and Andrew has always been hard to love. It is not a difficult conclusion to make or understand.
But if Neil really does love him --
“Earlier,” Andrew says.
Then he stops, just as abruptly. His skin still tingles from when he held Neil’s hand.
Neil looks at him, curious.
It feels foolish to bring it up. But communication is important - in any relationship - so he presses forward.
“Earlier, when you bought the food - “ he clamps and unclamps his jaw - “how did you know what to buy?”
“I saw you eyeing them, so I just assumed -” Neil’s shoulders jerk, then droop, as if he just realized something. “Oh. I assumed you wanted them.” He closes his eyes and rubs his forehead. “I’m sorry. I should have asked what you wanted before buying anything.”
Hearing Neil apologize for buying Andrew the food he likes stirs something unpleasant in his chest.
Of course he doesn’t want Neil to assume. But he also wants Neil to know what he likes and what he dislikes, to know who he is and who he isn’t. He wants Neil to pay attention. He wants Neil to care. He wants Neil to tell him he loves him and mean it.
In the end, is it really a question of loving and being loved, of wanting to love and be loved in return? It seems ridiculous, how it boils down to such a simple matter, when everything else in Andrew’s life has been nothing but a series of complications. It seems ridiculous, how it boils down to him wanting more and more things, as if he has not learned a single lesson from the well of disappointment he has accumulated as a result of wanting too much.
Andrew grips the edge of the seat. The cold, hard plastic bites into his palm, erases the sensation of Neil’s hand in his.
“Don’t do things half-heartedly,” he says.
A crease sluices across Neil’s forehead. “What things am I doing half-heartedly?”
Andrew’s hands curl into tight fists, nails piercing through his skin. Later, there will be crescent-shaped marks left on his palms, and he will think, this is what it means to be alive. Hurting others and getting hurt - that is all there is to it.
“If you don’t mean something, don’t do things that would suggest you do.”
The crease between Neil’s eyebrows cuts deeper, more severe. The carriage bucks and sways as a gale of wind slams by. It hums between Andrew’s ears, whistling in through the seam of the windows.
Neil’s expression turns into a portrait of complex emotions; his mouth is pursed with confusion, but his icy blue eyes are piercing, cautiously assessing.
Fifteen minutes. It feels like time is compressed and expanded, compressed and expanded.
Then Neil’s face turns placid and guarded, meant to be unreadable.
“What are you trying to say?” he asks, blunt. Andrew chooses this moment to realize that he doesn’t like it when he can’t read Neil, when he can’t figure out what he’s thinking.
It had been such a good day, too, up to this point.
“Don’t act like you love me if you don’t.”
Neil’s face crumples, just for a split second, but Andrew doesn’t miss it.
“You think I don’t love you?”
There is pain embedded like glass shards in Neil's voice. Something bitter swells in Andrew’s throat at the sound, but he doesn’t let himself waver. “I know you don’t.”
Anger is quick to replace the heartsore expression Neil wore a moment ago, hardening his jaw, his eyes, his dangerous mouth.
“Do you think I don’t have the ability to discern that myself? How much do you underestimate me, exactly?”
“I do not underestimate you.”
“But I’m stupid and therefore I’m incapable of deciding what my own feelings are,” Neil spits, rife with scorn and sarcasm. “And so I need you to tell me how to feel. Is that it?”
“You know it isn’t,” Andrew bites out.
“Then stop making my decisions for me,” Neil says, openly furious now. “Your feelings and thoughts are yours, but you have no right to shit all over mine.”
Andrew averts his eyes. He clenches his jaw until it feels like his teeth would shatter. The setting sun dyes everything in scalding red.
“Do you even understand what love is?”
“Do you?” Neil shoots back.
Andrew’s gaze snaps back towards Neil, a retort on his tongue. But his words die before they make it past his lips. Despite his barbed tone, Neil’s face is brittle, his lips trembling. He blinks in rapid succession, before sharply turning away.
Fifteen minutes. It feels like it could last a century.
“Maybe you’re right,” Neil says, still turned away. The dying light of the day shines into his eyes, turns them into a shade of color that Andrew can’t describe. “Maybe I don’t know what it is. I’ve never really had good points of reference, after all.”
His face is dry and his voice is impenetrable, but his hands are shaking.
“But I want to learn how to - how to understand each other, and accept each other. I want to be with you and make you happy, but if you feel that the way I’m treating you doesn’t reflect my feelings, then -”
Neil’s breath hitches. He pulls his feet away from Andrew’s, his shoulders tense like he’s ready to bolt. The carriage reaches its zenith. The sun dips into the horizon and vanishes from view, stealing the light from the sky.
“You’re the most important person to me. I don’t know if that’s love, but I want it to be.” Neil looks at Andrew then, eyes resolute and unafraid, betrayed only by the frailty around his mouth. “What about you?”
Andrew knows the answer to that question very intimately. He spends a large portion of his time thinking about it, about Neil, about them. Still, it takes every fiber and cell in him to gather up the courage to say, “I want it to be that, too.” He keeps his gaze on Neil steady and unmoving. He needs Neil to know and understand. “You were wrong.”
Neil frowns. The ferris wheel continues to rotate, bringing them closer to the ground.
“Your actions do reflect your feelings,” Andrew says. He compulsively works his throat. The air feels cooler, a balm against his heated skin. “And I hope mine do, too.”
Neil’s cold, steely gaze flickers, thaws, falls down to his lap. Andrew watches the low sweep of his eyelashes as he blinks. “They do,” he says, soft as dewdrops.
Heat surges back into the skin on Andrew’s cheeks, but he doesn’t tear his focus away from Neil. He never wants to tear his focus away from Neil. Andrew calls this a nuisance. Other people might call it something else.
Under the cloak of a darkened sky, the ferris wheel chirrs to a halt. Despite his measured facade, Andrew feels light-headed, his legs unsteady. He has never been more grateful to plant his feet on solid, stable ground once again. The space between him and Neil feels both charged and calm at the same time, as if a lightning storm had just passed.
Neil’s hand slips into his, effortlessly. Andrew can’t even begin to plumb the depths of Neil's courage, and he wonders if courage is a thing that could be borrowed and transferred. He tightens his grip on Neil’s hand.
In a secluded corner, near the grinding machinery of a drop tower, Andrew asks, “Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Neil answers, one hand holding the radish pillow, the other holding Andrew.
Slowly, Andrew leans forward and kisses Neil. He feels like a child again, overwhelmed and enthralled by the swaths of lights and music, the roaring rides, the dizzying smell of peculiar-looking food, the heavy summer air that clings to him like a second skin.
Longer days, shorter nights. Summer will come again soon. The air thrums like electricity, wild with possibilities.