Chapter : 1 Like A Clock
Sometimes it strikes him as so fucking clichéd that he laughs aloud. He knows it's a boy he's watching, although it took him a while to work it out, and the strange feeling that had scrabbled up the back of his neck the first time he saw him climb back out of the woman's car into the pyramid of streetlight is still with him.
Axel knows it's a boy down there, across the street, alone on the wet sidewalk under the lamp post, almost every night. He's taken to standing by his window, watching, and can stay there for hours, until a car pulls up to the kerb or someone saunters down the street, switches sides just a little too soon, stops just a little too casually to ask the time or for a light for a cigarette. And the flare of the match against the rain-darkened brick throws the faces into sharp relief, and Axel closes his eyes and turns away, wondering why the hell he does this to himself.
Sometimes, once the liaison has been made, Axel leaves his room. Sometimes he can't stay by the window, watching the rain falling through the empty cone of light, listening to his heartbeat measure out the time until a car pulls back up to the kerb, or the slight figure comes shambling back down the street, hands jammed in pockets, shoulders up collars up, hunched against the night. Sometimes he has to get out, and he walks the same streets; feels the same rain against different skin, the same chill numbing different lips; aimlessly wandering through the night. Not looking for him.
Night after night, like a single reel from an old B movie, played over and over until Axel can almost see the dust and scratches on the decaying print, the ghosts and gaps in the emulsion. He doesn't know what he's waiting for, or can't admit it if he does.
It doesn't start straight away. The boy isn't there when Axel rents the apartment. All he remembers is driving home one night, later than usual, after a worse than usual day, and noticing the figure slouching under the street light across from his block straighten up and glance in his direction as he slows to turn onto the ramp to the parking lot. He remembers thinking a whore – that's just great and worrying about his car; about pimps in the stairwell; syringes in the mailbox. He remembers glancing down into the street from his window and seeing the figure under the street light talking into a cell phone; remembers twitching the curtains shut.
Axel stands by the window, staring with empty eyes at the empty puddle of light under the street lamp. He's been looking into it for a while, trying not to see the dark shape humped just beyond its edge, against the wall. Trying to forget the ugly drunken laughter; the squeal of the over-revved van pulling away; the thud of the body hitting the asphalt. Trying not to worry in case they come back. His hands are shaking so he jams them into his armpits.
Somehow he's in the street, looking up at his own apartment window, half expecting to see himself silhouetted there against the glimmer. But nobody is watching as he squats down on the edge of the circle of light.
"Got a cigarette?"
The voice is hoarse, and Axel winces to hear it, but he can tell that the boy is younger than him, if only by a year or two. He tugs a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and sends it skimming across the sidewalk, out of the light.
"Thanks," the boy grunts, and then "Can you take it out for me? I think they broke my fingers."
"Shit." Axel stands up slowly, as if the air has congealed, and takes the three paces that separate him from the figure on the ground, following the cigarettes into the darkness. Just for a moment he stands over the boy, wonders what the fuck he's doing, and drops back onto his haunches, groping for the cellophane-wrapped packet glinting softly in the darkness. His hand knocks against something and there's a sharp intake of breath.
"Sorry. Here." He lights the cigarette, holds it out. The faint flare of the inhale illuminates a curve of lip; a jut of nose, cheek and chin.
"Can you stand?" He hears the shrug of the boy's jacket against the wall, the ragged whistle of his breathing.
"I'm okay, don't sweat it."
Axel closes his eyes, wanting this to be easy, wanting this to not be happening, wanting to grab onto the lamp post because he feels like he's falling.
"Come and get cleaned up, at least," he says flatly. "I live there." He nods towards the dark apartment building across the street, and in the darkness he can feel the boy smiling, I spite of the pain.
"I know where you live," Axel hears him mutter, and reaches out a hand.
Axel sleeps on the couch, or rather doesn't, but lies awake listening to the knocks and taps of the faulty air conditioning unit; to the indistinguishable drone of a million lonely TV sets; to the perfunctory few minutes of headboard banging as the couple in the apartment above him have their otherwise silent fortnightly fuck. When it's over he opens his eyes and looks at the boy asleep on his narrow bed, sheet tangled around his knees; at the shadows that cling to every bony hollow of him; at the skin stretched like waxed paper over his protruding skeleton, purple where the bruises are starting, almost transparently pale everywhere else. Shit, that's beautiful, Axel thinks, and immediately hates himself.
Later, Roxas – awake in a strange room, panic starting – sees the scarecrow silhouette against the dawn-dark window staring down into the street, and falls back to sleep.
Axel never asks, and Roxas never tells.
Axel still leaves for work in the mornings, but it's getting harder, and he's starting to feel the boy tangled up in nightmares like a physical drag. He feels as if he's wandered too close to a collapsing sun, and wonders how something so small, so fragile and incandescent can be so powerful; so inescapable. He moves through his days at the plant like an automaton, the Bud-boobs-hey-how-'bout-that-Ramirez-
Back at his apartment, Roxas is never there waiting, and he stands by the window until a car pulls back up to the kerb, or the slight figure comes shambling back down the street, bandaged hands jammed in pockets, shoulders up collars up, bruised and broken ribs hunching him against the night.
While Roxas mends, Axel sleeps on the couch. Or rather doesn't. Roxas, looking up into the bottle-green eyes dulled with exhaustion, says "You and me need to go out."
Axel sits at his kitchen table, striking matches with his thumbnail, lost in the dancing cobalt, emerald and orange, trying to understand what Roxas means, trying to remember how to breathe.
"Yeah," Roxas says. "I've been wanting to show you some things. Are you fit to drive?"
The match sputters out as Axel exhales.
They take a cab. Axel has no idea where they are going, but Roxas leans in to the driver and mutters something into his ear, passes a fistful of crumpled bills through the glass, and slides back against Axel's shoulder.
Axel sits motionless with his hands splayed against the fake leather seat, feeling the sweat grow chill between his fingers, feeling Roxas shift against him, feeling every one of the boy's vertebrae pressing into him from armpit to hip as Roxas settles against him. Axel is on fire, blazing, burnt through in an instant, and every jolt, every bump in the road, every breath filled with the smell of Roxas' hair threatens to crumble him to a pile of smouldering ash.
"Where are you taking me?" he finally manages to ask.
"There," Roxas points out of the window.
Axel stands on the beach on the edge of the city where the grey boxy factories peter out and the sprawling railroad yard unravels into a wilderness of scrub and sand running down to the lakeshore. He watches Roxas picking his way through the line of debris at the water's edge, sees him stoop to pick something from the litter, stares back into the slate grey water merging imperceptibly with the ash grey sky, and walks slowly back to where he left his boots and socks on the edge of the broken foundation behind him. Roxas had insisted that they paddle, and now there's coarse grit and sand jammed into the spaces between his toes. It's painful, but he leaves it, relishing the caustic grind of it against his skin. A horn sounds, and he turns to where the cab is waiting a hundred yards back, where the concrete service road runs out, under the skeleton of a dead tree.
Roxas wanders up to him and hands him the thing he's found in the litter. It's a torn photograph, with edges charred and surface melted and obscured by smoke. "Time to be getting back," he says cheerfully.
It's dark by the time the cab pulls up outside Axel's apartment, and Roxas has fallen asleep against him, goosefleshing the side of his neck with his breath. Axel pays the fare and half carries Roxas up the stairs, feeling the boy's ribs grind beneath his hand.
"Is everything mended now?" he asks, as Roxas sits on the end of the bed, pulling off his boots.
Roxas nods. "Everything's back where it belongs," he says as he unbuttons his shirt and slips it off his bony shoulders. Fading purple and yellow blooms blotch his jutting ribs. Axel stares at him, thinking of the painted candy skeleton someone had brought him once from some Mexican death carnival. He looks up and meets Roxas' gaze. "Except for you," Roxas says, and drops his eyes.
Axel pushes a hand into his hair and kisses him, hard.
"Who did you think I was waiting for?" Roxas murmurs.
Axel never asks, and Roxas never tells.
Chapter : 2 Picnic On A Frozen River
Axel stands by the window, staring down at the empty puddle of light beneath the street lamp. Roxas isn't there, but still Axel watches, night after night, remembering. Remembering when the slight figure bleached by the lamp's flicker had pulled on him like dark matter, vague, unknown, possibly not even real. Remembering how much it had hurt to stand here, invisible and silent, seeing the chauffeurs take him away to be pawed over by bored society matrons, or by their fat husbands. Remembering how his fingers would jump and his shoulders hunch when the collar-turned-up, cap-pulled-low construction workers would stoop to tie their boot laces and – straightening up – notice him under the light; sidle over; lead him away. Remembering how it felt to sleep.
That first night, afterwards, while Roxas lay curled and sleeping, his slow breath making the fine hairs on Axel's midriff dance, Axel had lain propped against the headboard, gazing into the middle distance, feeling the last tingling ghosts of what had just happened evaporate. He had been hesitant, a little reluctant, not wanting to be another of the demands under the streetlight, but Roxas had called him stupid, and had wordlessly, imperatively, irresistibly, let him know just how different this was.
Propped against the headboard; Roxas asleep against him. In his sleep, the hard lines of his face relaxed; his pinched brow softened; and his eyes became pools rather than stones. The first time he'd seen it, Axel's heart had been in his throat, hammering madly, oh shit he's dead, oh Christ don't let him be dead, but the second time he'd realised that when he wasn't dreaming, Roxas slept with his eyes open. It was disconcerting, seeing those great dark eyes swimming in the sleeping face, staring at nothing, or more often at him.
"What do you see?" Axel wondered. "Can you see me?" But Roxas was asleep, and in the morning laughingly refused to believe him. Axel – unable to sleep while this was still so new, and fragile, and transient - stayed awake, watching Roxas asleep against him, marvelling at the fragility of him, measuring the passing of time by the fading blooms of the bruises on his ribs. And when his eyes closed, and the pinched-up look came back, and he stirred and cried out softly, Axel would murmur secrets into his ear, and settle him under his gentle hand.
Outwardly, Axel's life settled back into routine. Almost, it was his old life, the only difference being that the hooker who had worked the street under his window had moved into his apartment. In the mornings Axel would stumble and curse and not come alive until he was halfway to the plant, singing off-key to the rock music blaring from the dash, still drawing looks – even after all this time – as he manoeuvred the red '68 Z28 convertible through the rush hour traffic. Almost like always, except that now there was something more valuable than his car.
Still he would move through his days at the plant like an automaton, the clock-on grumbling and sore-head grimaces of his workmates slowly giving way to the Bud-boobs-hey-how-'bout-that-Ramirez-
Almost the old routine. Axel wakes up in the morning and goes to work and comes home and there's Roxas. Only now he knows his name, and can smell the odd dry scent of him like pencil shavings, and he doesn't have to imagine their conversations anymore, or what it feels like to be kissed by him.
"So what does it feel like?" Roxas asks him one day.
Sharp-tongued Axel is floored, momentarily. "It feels like…. Like…" Standing by the window, staring down into the street at the figure under the light, Axel had taken a kiss from him a thousand times, in a hundred different ways. But in the end, when Roxas had half-fearfully invited him back into his own bed and he'd just grabbed hold of the back of his head and felt their teeth click together in their shared urgency, it had felt like…
"…like the time is out of joint." The only thing they'd ever tried to teach him in sixteen years of school that had stuck, and it turned out to be a fucking play from a million years ago. It had got inside him somehow, and gnawed at him, and for a while he had thought himself Hamlet. "Like… at first… it felt like sand falling through an hourglass." Axel grins shyly and glances at the floor; at Roxas; at the floor. "Like one of those clocks that only has an hour hand. And when you watch them they never move, but if you look away and back, time has passed." Axel breaks off, blushing.
Roxas is sitting on the stool by the bathroom mirror, his back to Axel, applying mascara. The wand is poised halfway to his eye, and there's a smudge of black on his cheek. His hand is shaking. "Go on," he breathes, transfixed by the laughing, sardonic, blazing man behind him who cannot be saying these things.
"It feels like honey. It feels like the seasons changing. Like… like… dirt working its way under your finger nails. It feels like…. What?" Axel falls silent as he catches sight of Roxas' reflection. He's staring at him, lips parted, his breath clouding the glass ever so slightly. The flush on his cheeks and his darkened eyelashes heighten his pallor and make him look like a photograph of a silent film star, hand-tinted colour over black and white.
"Did you have any plans?" Roxas asks.
Axel laughs, almost the old knowing smirk back again, but now the laughter's not cruel. Now the laughter is shared with someone.
There is a biting wind blowing off the lake and the sky is a dirty leaden grey. At the plant the clock-on grumbling is about frozen fuel tanks and transformers exploding, but Axel is worrying about Roxas. Axel never asks, and Roxas never tells, but neither of them is stupid, and Axel knows well enough that Roxas doesn't just sit around the apartment all day while he's at work. He imagines the fragile figure standing on a corner in the freezing air, wearing the same thin t-shirt and jacket as always. He imagines him stamping his feet and blowing on his fingers, face pinched and red in the sub-zero morning; imagines him climbing into the front of someone's car, thawing in the heat of the dash blowers, little grin of thanks from under his frozen fringe.
There's a pawnbroker's that Axel passes every day on the drive home from work. Before, when it was just him, and he spent hours wandering the streets, he would look through the grimy window at the rows of obsolete TV sets and locked cases of tarnished wedding rings, and every so often he'd venture in to laugh at the boys pretending to be old enough to buy the throwing stars and knives that lined the walls behind the cash register. There's a headless mannequin wearing a huge shabby fur coat, and Axel buys it, his car suddenly full of the smell of lipstick-filtered Turkish cigarettes, illicit encounters in hotel lobbies, telephone numbers scrawled on fifty dollar bills.
Outside his apartment he waits under the streetlight in the cold, smoking cigarettes, lighting the next off the butt of the last, every fifteen seconds glancing from his window to the corner, the corner to his window. When finally Roxas appears, shuffling along the sidewalk, hands jammed in his pockets, he's wearing a tatty green sweater that he doesn't own. Axel throws the smouldering cigarette away and holds out the coat, fur beginning to rime with frost in the evening chill, and Roxas silently slips into it, blue lips curling into a grin.
"Don't go to work tomorrow," he breathes into Axel's chest.
"Okay. If you don't."
Roxas squints up into Axel's face. "I think I just quit," he murmurs.
A horn sounds in the street, and Roxas peers out of the window, naked from the waist up. "The cab's here," he calls, pulling the fur over his bare arms. Axel watches the narrow shoulders and jutting planes of his back vanish into the heavy folds of the fabric. The bruises have gone now, and the skin of Roxas' torso is as translucent as alabaster, smudged with shadows under the angles. Sometimes, looking at Roxas, Axel wants to hold him in his hands and squeeze; wants to crush him into himself until their bones grind together. He closes his eyes. "Why won't you let me drive?" he asks, for the thirteenth time.
"Because you've got your eyes shut," Roxas laughs. "And because the cab's already here."
Downstairs, in the street, Roxas has Axel wait while he talks with the driver. Axel has no idea where they are going, but Roxas tells him not to worry, it's a surprise, and settles back against his shoulder. He picks one of Axel's hands up in both of his, playing idly with the long fingers.
Axel leans back into the seat, feeling Roxas shift against him. Roxas drops his hand, bends into his lap, and Axel is on fire, taut and blazing, gripping the handle of the door with one hand, so tightly that his fingernails pierce the fake leather. His other hand is buried in Roxas' hair and he doesn't know whether he's holding him down or pulling him away or just desperately trying to keep hold of something real before the whole world flashes into a heap of shimmering cinders, and every jolt, every bump in the road, every ragged gasping breath that Roxas drags out of him threatens to crumble him to a pile of smouldering ash.
When Roxas sits up all of his teeth are tumbling out of his grin, and there are little sparks dancing in his eyes. "I've done that a million times, you know," he says, looking at Axel sidelong. "Only never with you. Expect… always with you."
Axel sits silently for a moment, waiting for his heart to still, waiting to understand what Roxas is saying. Neither is happening, so he shrugs and lights a cigarette, holding out the packet to Roxas, who pulls one free with his lips. The driver glances at them from his mirror; glances away.
"I know you're never going to ask me about it," Roxas says finally, exhaling a stream of smoke through the cracked window. "And I don't know if it's because you don't want to pry or don't want to know, but…." He holds up a hand to stifle Axel's protest before he can make it. "But I want you to understand. I don't want you to think I'm just some kid who's using you for what he can get."
Axel looks down into the blue eyes and suddenly realises what an idiot he is; that he probably knows already. There's a look there that he's only ever seen in the mirror, in the bottle green eyes that stare back at him. A look filled with longing, and desire, and tinged with the weariness that comes from holding on to both for too long, and growing accustomed to the idea of never having them fulfilled. Suddenly, Axel remembers all of the unanswered questions that they had asked each other over the past weeks. The carefully worded, half-joking, just-being-silly questions that people ask when they are in love with someone who can't possibly love them back. The not rhetorical, walking along the knife edge, take-this-the-right-way-and-you'll-
Axel opens his mouth to speak, but Roxas kisses him before he can. His mouth tastes of toothpaste, and cinnamon, and ever so slightly bitter, like the faintest trace of wormwood.
The asphalt had run out and the cab had lurched to a stop over the pitted concrete. Snow lay in banks and dazzling drifts around them, iridescent in the low morning sunlight, and Roxas runs laughing into the glare, shouting inarticulately at Axel to follow. The lake has frozen in the night, only a strip of brilliant blue water way out where the thinnest ice has already melted. Roxas seizes Axel by the hand and drags him out onto the frozen surface; jumps up and down to prove it's safe.
"Come on, scaredy-cat," he mocks. "Even you aren't hot enough to melt this." Crossing his fingers in the fur's deep pockets against the lie. He lies down on the ice where the snow is deepest and starts to move his legs from side to side, his arms up and down, straight out from his sides. Axel frowns at him.
"What are you doing?" There are three completely different images of Roxas alive inside his mind. In one, he's curled up against rain-slicked brick, bruised and broken, trying to smoke a cigarette through swollen lips, trying not to let the shaking redhead squatting beside him see how much pain he's in. This one breaks Axel's heart, but owns it as well. In another, he's curled up against sweat-slicked skin, naked and sated, staring silently with liquid eyes at the trembling redhead pressed against him, while Axel watches, trying to spot the moment that he falls asleep, always failing. This one takes a hold of his heart and twists, filling him with the horrible empty feeling that somehow, suddenly, like he found himself here, he will wake one morning to finding it gone again. But this one owns his heart as well, even while it breaks it. And the third is here before him now, laughing and happy, making snow angels on the frozen lake, and it seems so innocent and childlike that Axel can't make the three go back together and he just smiles and lies down next to Roxas, a second angel beside the first.