The compromise is that she paints you into a butterfly, which isn't much of a compromise considering he pays for both.
"So, did the monks really teach or were they used as intimidation?" you ask when you're far enough into the woods that the smell of the underbrush takes you back to the sound of neighing horses.
"They taught most of the classes actually."
"What was your favourite."
"I did well in Visual Arts."
You don't correct him and say, 'that's not what I asked,' instead you let the quiet engulf you once more. "I didn't finish my A-levels there, but a sculpture I left behind was bought by this American...I don't know...Wallstreet-dude-slash-art-dealer," he shakes his head, incredulous, "and apparently it's displayed in some wealthy guy's summer villa in Malaga."
"Did you get paid?"
He chuckles. "I did not. But I did meet him, the American."
"And he told me," suddenly he grows sheepish, rubbing the back of his neck like he was doing earlier when he was complaining about mosquito bites, only now he's also avoiding looking at you, "he wanted me to keep making things."
"...making things?" It's clicking in your mind, but the process is incredibly slow. "Sculpting?"
"Yeah, sculpting, designing, but...I can't just...I'm not like Foy. They get trained for rejection, you know. I don't know the specifics, but she told me something about it once. A course where they broke down the psychology of it. It's also one of those things that you inherently know when you're going into the arts. I guess you would know, but I don't imagine you get rejected a lot. I went to an engineering university, I know fuck shit about the art or what even makes something artistic."
"So, you're an engineer?"
That makes him scoff. "Hardly. A designer. I design the sort of chairs you find in IKEA—I mean, not really, but that's the elevator pitch. I don't like it though. The IKEA-chair place, which I know is pretty shitty to admit. A lot of my uni mates would kill for that kind of portfolio, but... It was my father's idea. He has a low tolerance for artistic bullshit. He wouldn't let another one of us 'gamble away' our future. It was easier for Foy because she was born an attention seeker. Billie and I had to do something respectable. Something that won't, using his words, 'end us up in a halfway-house.' I'm not much of a rebel." He glances at you. "Shocking, I know."
"I kinda agree," you say, stepping over a felled tree. "What you said about artists. My flamenco teacher, my very first one, this no-nonsense abuela who would look you up and down and be brutally honest with you, I used to ask: can I do this? Am I good enough? Do you think I could be on the same level as these dancers who have the staccato in their spine, who are born with these rhythms?" You glance at him, smiling from the memory. "She used to say, to be successful you can't ever have an emergency exit door. As soon as your mind knows it could be comfortable doing something else, you're doomed. She really gave it to me straight. She said: listen, the competition is cutthroat, each level is more competitive, and if you don't feel like your life will cease if you stop dancing—in Foy's case, stop or acting. In your case, sculpting—then...I mean, I'm sure it's not like that for everyone, especially if you're from money, but it was for me. The only way you can take that many rejections is because there's no other option but to keep getting rejected in the hope of someday hearing a yes."
"I guess I must not want it as much." You hate that what you've said might have contributed to his self-deprecating tone. Maybe he thinks you think of him as privileged, which he is, and thinks you're brushing him off, but you don't know what else to say that won't sound like a lie.
"Are your parents supportive?"
"Yes." You tell yourself it's not a lie. That technically your adoptive parents are.
"You know, I thought you'd be different, too," he says after a while. The light finds its way through the dense trees and beams kaleidoscopic patterns across his face. He squints looking at you. "Yeah," he nods, his smile stretching. "Not as lovely, definitely. I thought you'd be this, like," he gestures as if asking you to finish his thought. "Okay. I know these are two contradicting ideas, but, like: really silly and also really serious. Silly in that you take who everyone projects you to be very seriously, almost to the point of becoming a caricature and not someone real. I mean," he gestures again at loss for words, "you know, the accent, the clothes, the haircut, and also you danced flamenco for so many years and now doing what, ballet? Like what real-life person does that? And then, suddenly you're dropped into the cesspool that's London where everyone is utterly vapid, and I say that with love. It makes for some very silly people. And then, on the other end, serious. Because you wouldn't smile, at all, when I met you. And had I known you suffered from short-term memory loss—" you start laughing "—I wouldn't have kept introducing myself like an idiot, but now I know."
For the first time in a long time, you feel your body temperature rising as the blood wooshes to your face. "What's wrong with my accent and clothes?" You find yourself absentmindedly touching the frills on your self-made crop top. Your hair needs a trim and you hate that someone has seen you in ways you cannot control. You don't want to touch it, much less exist in your body when he looks at you like that. And he is looking at you. Inside him, a child is doing something that generates a lot of glee and makes the air around you smell like motes of dust and old books. He steps closer and the stuffy library air gets thicker. He grabs hold of one of your frills. Tugs on it until you're too distracted to notice that he's taken another step.
"Nothing." It's a whisper and barely even that above the sounds of a distant car horn that's only getting louder. Your heart is accelerating and for a fraction of a second it feels too real, too fast, but then you take a step back and the spell between you snaps. He lets go of your crop top and you watch the shadows pulse in and out of him, growing stronger and then fainter. He's looking everywhere but at you.
You start walking in the direction of the lake, heart deaccelerating, asking yourself what the fuck just happened. Telling yourself you were not just about to kiss. Berating yourself for being desperate enough for a second to actually want to. You're so consumed by the still lingering feeling of almost getting hit by a honking car that you miss the sign announcing the lake until you feel his hand on your body. You swerve out of his grip so fast you catch the shock on his face before he schools it again. Thankfully, the sound of nearby people is enough to distract you.
The short walk to the waterfront is quiet, suffocatingly so. You don't know what to say to each other, so you ignore the silence by people watching. Some have made their tents on the far edges of the woods, near the shade and dragged their towels to the clearing. Some are sunbathing in colourful, glittery bikinis while others are rope-swinging from a nearby tree into the lake. There are a lot more people than you were expecting.
"I know a place." You follow him around the edge. He dips back into the woods again. "This place's quieter." For a second you want to say, 'you sure you want to be alone with me in the quiet?' but you're too afraid of what the answer might be. He takes you to the other side of the lake. It's a long walk before you can see the lake's surface again, clearly reflecting the cloudless sky, serene and untouched. You dump your rucksack on a patch of tall grass next to the water's edge and look back at where he's taken a seat on the craggy rocks.
"So?" he asks.
"You're allowed to wash the paint off your face if you want to."
"And if I don't want to?" Is he angry? He sounds angry but you can't tell when he drains all emotion from his face like that. "Maybe I want to feel courageous and stop caring what others think of me."
"Do you have a towel?"
"Are you going in?"
You tug the crop top over your head and throw it next to your rucksack. "Do you have a towel? Yes or no? I don't want to dry myself on my tees."
"Uhm," his eyes are glued to your chest, "no." You unbutton your shorts and decide at that moment to stop caring what's going on in the underdeveloped brain of a twenty-something-year-old.
You feel stupid for even attempting to figure him out. Babysitting him isn't what you signed up for. You came to this festival to live out the fantasy the pictures promised. You came because the last time you swam in a lake was your twentieth birthday, three weeks before you relocated to Spain for six years.
Taking momentum, you give a big whoop as you break the surface.
"Be careful of the worms," he calls out.
"I knew a mate who had tapeworms enter through his pisshole. Ended up with eggs in his bladder." You brush your dripping hair behind your ears to take a good look at his shit-eating grin.
"Ha ha." You turn on your back and swim out counter-current to the gentle lapping at the shore.
"You should be a comedian," you call out.
"Fear of rejection, remember."
"Fuck fear!" You throw your head back. "Fuck. Fear," you yell at the top of your lungs, liberated by the fact no one can hear you for miles.
You dive, touching the sandy bottom. When you resurface, he's closer. Standing at the edge of the water.
"I don't have a change of clothes," he says. He wades closer, stopping just short of wetting his shorts. You don't know what his eyes are asking permission for: to join you fully clothed or naked? Maybe it's true that he's been coddled all his life and needs a bit of handholding, but the faster he learns that you won't do either, the better. Not for the first time you think what a shame it is to die before reaching one's full maturity. Before he has had the chance to say fuck it to everything. He still cares. It's so evident he still cares about what you think. You, of all people.
"Your make-up is all ruined." He wades closer and closer. Wetting more and more fabric.
You touch your face self-consciously. The paint stains your fingers.
"Wait." He mumbles, reaching into his pocket. He pulls out a clear plastic something and grabs it with his lips before submerging his shorts completely. "Fuuuuck," he breathes, "it's cold."
"What's that?" You nod to his hand.
"MDMA. It's Matt's." He touches your cheekbone gently, wiping away something.
"Why do you have it?"
"Why do you think? Maybe you should wash your face completely. It's looking more Halloween than fairy queen."
"Don't change the subject." You take the plastic ziplock bag from him and inspect the pink pills. Four of them lined in a row. "Is this what you were taking earlier?"
"No," he yanks the bag back. "And stop giving me that look. It was sumatriptan for my migraine. The only reason I have this is because Matt looks habitually stoned and he's afraid of getting frisked. He doesn't think I'll touch them. I definitely should, though."
"Why? I thought we were saying 'fuck fear.'" You don't like the look of his grin.
"I also said you should be a comedian."
"You're a walking contradiction, you know that?" But he's grinning wider, the material of his canvas button-up ballooning before him as he kicks off from the ground, throwing himself backwards into the water. His face-paint streaks in a million directions the moment he re-emerges. "I was fully prepared for today to suck," he wipes away most of it with a sweep, "I mean, suck royal ballsack. Crowds. Music. People's faces going in and out, smudging. The sounds. They say you should never meet your childhood heroes. I sort of get that now. You should never revisit your magical place as an adult. Yet..." He holds the tiny plastic bag between his thumb and forefinger, admiring it against the sun.
"And?" You ask when he doesn't continue. He looks at you and you can already tell he's made up his mind.
"I didn't feel crippled once, being with you." He opens the ziplock bag. Something in you crumbles, breaking off from your flesh and making the water ripple, but it's just your fingers dragging across the surface as you wade to him. Fighting him for the plastic. He turns away from you, pulling it into his chest. There's a pill in his hand and then on his tongue.
"Are you dumb?" you can't believe he's actually swallowed it.
"Yes." He doesn't look the tiniest bit remorseful. You watch him for what feels an eternity, your chest rising and falling and nothing besides that changing. He closes his eyes, head tilting back, arms extended. You grab his hand and yank the plastic from him.
"You're a fucking moron." He laughs, happily, freely, lowering himself back into the water. You open the zip, peering inside at the three remaining pills. Before you can think twice about it, you grab one and put it in your mouth.
"FUCK FEAR!" he howls into the air and laughs, watching you chase down the dry, grainy pill with just your saliva.
"If I die, I'm coming back to haunt you. I swear." He grabs your hand, strong enough to pull you into him in a circular motion.
"If you die I would never forgive myself."
"And what if you die?" You pull yourself free from him.
"Nine lives baby. And molly isn't touching one of them."
"You know this isn't what I meant by fuck your fears."
"I know. I'm working myself up to the bigger stuff."
His feelings are so transparent you don't know whether to laugh or gag. You splash him with water trying to wipe the stupid grin off his mien. He ducks. Splashes you back. And then you're in a full-blown fight. He holds you underwater, the weight of him pushing you down. You fight out of his grip, sputtering and coughing. He's so much stronger than you, but pride stops you from admitting it. You grab his leg. He quickly escapes. You try doing the same manoeuvre, pushing him down by jumping on him. It works until he slithers away from you, grabbing you by the waist in return and laughing in triumph. His wet clothes feel coarse against your skin as he hugs you like a koala, sinking you faster than a two-tonne truck. You fight to reach the shimmering light at the surface. When he lets go, it's a big show of mercy.
"Are you trying to kill me?" You bob up and down the surface, fighting to regain your breath.
"Sorry, I didn't—" his grin is all boyish, "you're a lot thinner than you look. I didn't think your body would feel like that."
"Feel like what? You know what, I don't want to know." You start swimming away until you're out shallow enough to stand.
"Like an eel," he calls. "Like a ballerina."