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A Wondrous State

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Everything in the world is dull gray, with a jagged red thread of anger running underneath, but sessions with Betsy are a little less gray than the rest of it.

Today she is wearing a little broach with a cat made out of green and pink enamel squares, and the figurines on her window catch the light and reflect it so that it illuminates the tips of her hair. Her carpet is a burnt orange that clashes with the cat broach, and her walls are a purple so pale it almost isn't there at all. Andrew used to hate how much he noticed during their sessions, how much he took in. But lately it's been all right.

Today, again, they are talking about Neil. This is Andrew's third least favorite subject, his first two being Aaron and himself, because it makes him feel things. He can only come at it like a cat, sidling up to sniff it and skipping away if it sniffs back. Betsy is used to his cat-ness, and she sits quietly while he gathers his words. Andrew says, "I told him to take my shirt off the other day, and touch my chest."

Aaron, when they had sessions together, would have been baffled and disgusted by him telling Betsy about this. Aaron didn't understand anything. Don't think about Aaron right now.

Betsy sits with this, and then asks, "And how did that go?"

The question makes Andrew angry, like all her questions make him angry. Why ask him to describe something that is too big for words? Why ask him anything at all? He struggles with himself for a minute, and as always, Betsy waits.

When he is ready, Andrew says, "I had to kick him out after." He hasn't done that in months, not since the last time kissing Neil felt so astonishing that he didn't know what to do with himself. This is what Betsy would call a 'minor setback.'

Betsy just looks at him.

Andrew chews on the next thing he wants to say, and Betsy lets him. There is enough space in the room for Andrew, and Betsy, and the figurines, and Andrew's wild thoughts. There is enough room for, "I wanted him to keep touching me. I wanted him to touch me all over." The room is big enough for, "I hated it."

Betsy opens her mouth, and then closes it again. She nods. The words settle on the floor at his feet, where they nibble his toes. That's all right. They aren't clawing at his chest anymore, so he can ignore them.

Betsy says, "You know I don't believe in evolutionary psychology."

Andrew parrots, "'Too much cultural bias and not enough scientific rigor.'"

Betsy nods, and smiles. She likes when Andrew shows that he listens to her, even when he insists that doesn't mean he cares. Betsy says, "But if there is a grain of truth, it is that the things we needed for survival, millennia ago, are now in our bones. Our needs and our psyches are the way they are for a reason, and when we ignore the importance of that, we tend to do great damage to ourselves."

Andrew has heard this before, too. He waits.

Betsy hesitates, and then says, "I say this because humans are social creatures. We had to be. Studies have shown that interpersonal connection is intrinsic to our physical health and emotional well-being. Studies have shown," and this is the part she wants to make sure doesn't hurt him. He can tell by the carefully-blank look on her face. "That babies who do not receive touch are often less resilient, have more health problems and have more emotional problems than babies who do receive touch. Touch, like water, is vital to our survival, and it always has been."

"Not touch like I had," Andrew reminds her. A whole life of hands like knives, slicing him all over. Truth can never hurt as much as that. Betsy is worried for nothing.

Betsy says, "I think that's why it affects you so strongly."

Andrew would be offended if he had the energy. "It doesn't affect me strongly."

Betsy gives him a look. It's the look that made him decide to keep working with her, the look that says she sees through his bullshit, and to please come up with something better. Andrew doesn't respond.

After a moment, Betsy leaves it. She says, "It think it is good for you, as a person, to be experiencing more safe, healthy, intimate touch with another person. I think it's good for you as Andrew that you're doing it your own way, at your own pace. I bet Neil thinks so too."

Andrew says, "Neil is so broken he doesn't know healthy intimacy from a hole in his face."

Betsy smiles. "Well, then, it's a good thing he has you to teach him." She's been saying things like that more lately, sneaking praise in where he doesn't see it coming. It's infuriating, even more because he can never find the lie.

There are twenty minutes left in their session, but Andrew is so angry that he doesn't say a single thing before it's time to get up and leave.


Neil is in Fox Tower when he gets back, hunched on a beanbag, watching a video of a Bearcats game with Kevin on Kevin's laptop. The sight makes Andrew, impossibly, even angrier. There is an itch under his skin, and he wants to rip at his flesh until he's pulled it all away. Neil looks up when Andrew storms in, eyebrows raised in inquiry. Andrew doesn't know what his face looks like, and doesn't care. He flicks a hand at their bedroom, and Neil scrambles to his feet.

Kevin looks up, frowning. "We're not done, Neil."

"You are," Andrew says. He keeps walking. "Exy can go fuck itself."

Behind him, he hears Kevin whisper something angrily in French. He slams the door to his bedroom before he hears Neil's reply. Whatever it was, it worked, because a moment later the bedroom door eases open and Neil steps through. He watches Andrew through his bangs, calm and accepting. Although nearly everything about the way Neil looks has changed -- his hair, the way he holds himself, the burn marks on his face, and the sense that he is actually home behind his eyes instead of merely visiting -- he is just as beautiful now as he was the very first time Andrew saw him.

If sessions with Betsy are a little less gray, being with Neil isn't gray at all. It's the pulsing dark red of anger and desire, clouds of blue calm, a possessiveness that's brown so dark it's almost black, and a bright, clear green that is nothing like Andrew has ever felt before. He ignores the green, as always. He ignores the way his anger is shrinking away in Neil's presence. He says, "I want to try something."

Neil says, "Yes," because he has all the survival instinct of a praying mantis husband. Andrew would roll his eyes if he had the energy.

He says, "Get on the bed with your back to me."

Neil doesn't hurry and he doesn't hesitate. He doesn't question and he doesn't judge. He gets on the bed and lies on his side with his back to Andrew. The green glows brighter. Andrew ignores it.

Andrew doesn't exactly know what he wants, except he does, he does. Before he can talk himself out of it, he lies down behind Neil and slings an arm across Neil's chest. Neil holds still, waiting. Andrew asks, "Yes or no?"

Neil says, "Yes."

Andrew says, "Don't touch me. Stop me if you feel trapped. Don't talk to me."

Neil doesn't respond. His back is warm against Andrew's chest, and the smell of his hair and his clothing is familiar. Andrew finds himself gripping Neil close without knowing when he decided to do it, his knees tucked against the backs of Neil's knees, his hand fisted in Neil's shirt.

This close, they have to breathe together in time. This close, Andrew can feel the pulse of Neil's heartbeat in his chest and arm. This close, the smell of Neil's body overwhelms him. He closes his eyes and breaths in, and suddenly he feels a desperate, clawing thing under his breastbone, a nasty, greedy, disgusting vulnerability. He wants to rub his cheek over every inch of Neil's body, the scars and the melted skin, the places where Neil bent but didn't break. He wants to move Neil's fingers so he can watch the slide of muscle and ligament and bone. He wants to press his face to Neil's groin, where the delicious musty smell is strongest, and just rest there. He wants to press himself so close to Neil that their skin merges together. He wants blood. He wants, he wants, he wants.

It feels wretched. Andrew shakes, and he grips tight, and he lets the waves of desire and contentment and misery roll over him, one after another. He doesn't know how long it lasts, but he comes out the other side of it feeling wrung like a towel and calmer than he has in weeks. Neil hasn't tensed one single muscle since they both lay down, and Andrew would feel grateful if he had the energy. He might feel a lot of things.

He still wants, but the wanting is inside his flesh, not trying to flay it off. Just for right now, the wanting is a thing about himself that he can live with.

He loosens his arm and presses his forehead to the back of Neil's neck.

Neil twitches, adjusting arms and legs after so long without moving. Andrew wants to be the stretch in Neil's muscles and the pop of Neil's spine. He moves his arm so that it's no longer hemming Neil in, and rests it in Neil's wiry hair.

Neil makes a faint, pleased humming sound, the way he does just after he comes. It sends a little zing up Andrew's spine. After a minute of them just lying there, Neil asks, "Should I go or stay?"

Andrew thinks about it. He puts his arm back around Neil's chest, grabs Neil's hand and twists their fingers together. "Stay," he says.