by Saori Kiorimi
“I think we should break up for Valentine’s.”
The paper rustled in Noel’s grip as he turned the page and studied it with a frown of annoyance. Phoenix looked at him in shock.
“You think we should what?” Break up? What for? Why would Noel want to do such a thing? They hadn’t even fought in the last week.
“Break up. For Valentine’s Day.” Noel looked up from the paper, and some of Phoenix’s pained confusion must have been showing on his face, because suddenly there was a little gasp, and Noel put the paper down. “We’d get together again right after!” he said hurriedly. “I just don’t— I don’t like Valentine’s day. It’s so sappy. And complicated. And pointless. I mean, St. Valentine or whatever, I’m pretty sure he didn’t die for paper hearts and badly written love poems written on even worse candy.”
“… So is this another of your subvert the system things?”
“Don’t be stupid, Phoenix, that’s your thing.”
“What?! This from the one who can’t ever give that bartender a break, I saw how he looked at you when you bought for me—” Phoenix was 19, and Noel’s favorite bar slash restaurant was one of the kinds that actually enforced a legal drinking age.
“I’m at war with the system. Little things like getting drinks at other places where you’re allowed to do it and just ignoring Valentine’s Day aren’t enough. They don’t get you anywhere. You have to do better than that.” He looked thoughtful. “We could go do something random. Go to different parties. You could go see Therry, he seemed to like you.” Therry was one of the boys from the Lane, where the male whores lived. And Noel had claimed he wasn’t jealous.
Noel’s eyes were shaded by his messy, dark hair; the paper was a tangled, ripped mess around his feet covering his ugly, patched jeans. He wore a t-shirt over a long-sleeved one, and one of his socks was missing. The stubborn frown was still there, accentuated by the way his brows drew together as he tried to get his thoughts into words. Phoenix thought he was irredeemably adorable. He couldn’t imagine breaking up with him for any reason, particularly not Valentine’s Day. And he really had no interest whatsoever in Therry. He liked girls better anyway, as far as casual sex was concerned.
… Not that he was going to present that reasoning to Noel. Phoenix didn’t do casual sex anymore. That was his ex-girlfriend’s thing. And he had been planning on doing something for Valentine’s Day. It was coming up on the six-month anniversary of their getting together. Maybe go to a movie so they could make out in the back seats. Hop around to a couple of parties where the punks were either secret romantics like Phoenix or so hardcore that they really didn’t give a damn, more like Noel’s style.
Then, of course, have sex all night long.
Phoenix liked his plans. They weren’t ridiculously sappy and girly (though his first impulse had involved presents and that one piece he’d been working on, the picture of the angel with the broken wings soaring up through the turbulent skies when it should be plummeting down with the rain; something like how Noel made him feel, but, well, it wasn’t going to be finished in time and he’d have to turn it in anyway, which meant he’d get it back sometime more around May). They should even be pretty fun. And they didn’t involve getting high on two or three different substances, which was inevitably what happened to Phoenix when he went out alone. He had a history, people who recognized him, and he couldn’t say no. He really couldn’t go anywhere without Noel anymore.
What was more, he was rather afraid he’d find Kyo at any of the places he’d be likely to drift to. She didn’t seem to really care that he had a boyfriend now; she had a new boyfriend and was still picking up random people, high, drunk, deviant, anyone willing for wild, kinky sex. She still visited and helped him with stuff and dragged him out shopping; she’d even left him the rice cooker. But it was like she didn’t understand the theory behind breaking up with someone; they were supposed to be off-limits, but she treated him like any other person she liked. That included big hugs and dancing and sometimes kisses that tasted of beer and weed and sesame oil. But Phoenix always tried to avoid those, and she never went any further, anyway. She just couldn’t seem to keep her hands off people, in general, and he guessed that anyone she liked got special attention as a matter of course, as inevitable as the world turning.
“I don’t want to go to different parties. What’s wrong with being together? What’s wrong with showing that we” (love) “like each other? That we’re together? Even if we get back together after? Why the hell would I want anything else?” Phoenix abandoned his laptop, which looked very sleek and out of place in Noel’s cluttered, battered apartment that smelled of soap and perfumes because he kept letting all his friends use his shower. Phoenix looked out of place, too, in clothes that were black and fitted, the safety pins and patches more of a stylistic statement than any sort of necessity, his blonde hair kept long and his pierced ears and lip mere extravagances compared to the functionality of everything about Noel.
Noel still looked thoughtful, though slightly hurt and confused that Phoenix hadn’t instantly accepted his idea. Well, tough luck. Noel was the one who had taught him not to just go along with things that he didn’t completely agree with.
“Because Valentine’s Day is a farce. There’s no point to putting any extra effort into it. It’s just a waste of energy and a source of stress. It’s all commercialization, and I refuse to conform to its shaping of human wants.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re a bitter, jaded scrap of humanity who doesn’t want to see anything like the good side of things! Ever!”
“Fine then! You want to be a little conformist, I’ll see you later! After Valentine’s Day!”
They were both yelling now; Noel had lost all but one sheet of the paper, which made thin crackling noises as he waved it about like some black-printed flag.
“Sure! I’ll come back once you’ve stopped refusing to see past the worst of humanity!”
Phoenix yanked the plug of his laptop out of the wall and just barely remembered to drag his coat on before he slammed out of the apartment and out into the bitter Chicago cold. It wasn’t the first time Noel had kicked him out of his apartment. Actually, it wasn’t even as if Noel had really kicked him out this time. Phoenix just couldn’t stand staying there, looking at Noel and picturing running out and spending a night drugged and drunkenly dancing with all the other black-clad, anonymously made-up people to some pounding techno beat without him. Fuck Valentine’s. Phoenix didn’t like going out at all without Noel.
He walked all the way back to campus, which took something like nearly forty minutes and left his hands, ears, and nose numb but the rest of him fairly warm inside the coat. He climbed the stairs to his floor in the dorm building, since the elevator was currently jammed somewhere around the second floor and some of the students had taken to using it as an extra room to tell fortunes and sell acid from. He locked himself inside his room and stashed the laptop under the bed.
His picture was on the table, blocky and blotchy with the base colors laid down in watered-down washes. But he could see it in his head, beautiful and finished, with all the feelings like a rush of half-remembered music that went along with it, just the way Kyo used to describe her art to him. He’d never been able to do it back then. He was learning, though. Maybe he’d never be as good as she was, but he put more of his soul into it than she’d ever be willing to.
A quick press of buttons and twiddling of a volume dial sent Muse wailing through the room, and Phoenix sat down at the table with his brushes and colored pencils and started to work.
It was finished in two days.
He just hadn’t wanted to do anything else. And he’d have to turn in a photo of it (you could do that if it was something you couldn’t move at the moment or some kind of wall painting) because it was going to be framed and he’d give it to Noel. Valentine’s Day or not.
Two black shirts were laid out on his bed with its peeled back, unslept-in covers, fabric paint drying slowly. They were the same size, because Phoenix liked his to fit and Noel liked baggy clothes. Tomorrow was February 14. Tomorrow he’d show up again at Noel’s apartment and… well, he never knew what would happen with Noel.
Phoenix went down to the cafeteria in the lobby and bought himself a bakery sandwich and a bottle of chai tea, the first real food he’d had since before spending the night at Noel’s the day before their fight. Since then, he’d had cold rice and milk, with a few carrot sticks hiding in his minifridge for good measure. He watched the boys and girls congregating, the stress and excitement in everyone’s faces as they made plans for tomorrow to be perfect for their significant others.
Then he went back to his room and crashed on the floor with two pillows and a comforter. On the bed, the t-shirts stayed perfectly undisturbed, fabric paint drying in the warm, dry air escaping from the partially-blocked vent on the floor. Phoenix didn’t wake up till nearly noon the next day.
He didn’t realize where he was at first, but it came back to him quickly; he often slept on the floor when some project or another had claimed the bed. His mouth felt all dry and gummy, and his hair was oily when he ran a hand through it to try to tame the bedhead tangles.
His heart gave a jump of alarm when he saw the time, but he really didn’t need to be anywhere till a little past four. He gathered up his toothbrush, hairbrush, and washing stuff and set off down the hallway to the bathroom. It was deserted, due to the late hour and the date (most people were probably off to romantic luncheons in tiny, overcrowded cafés by now).
Phoenix felt like a new person once he was clean. He meandered down the equally deserted hallway with only a towel around his hips; there were at least three people on this floor whom he’d slept with back when he was going out with Kyo, so he figured there was really no reason to be shy. Admittedly, it helped that most people weren’t here at all.
He dressed in a tight-fitting red-and black shirt and red-trimmed black cargo pants, laced up his paint-splattered Converse sneakers, and pulled on his jacket and his coat before he tucked his painting (already photographed) between two pieces of cardboard and squirreled it away in his bag. The two shirts went in the bag as well.
He hit the craft store first, where he spent a good half-hour trying to find a frame that would stand out without looking out of place in Noel’s apartment. Admittedly, almost anything that wasn’t junk or gaudy gifts from the girls who were Noel’s friends looked out of place in there, but Phoenix did the best he could.
Then he stopped by his favorite Thai restaurant and ordered red curry and extra rice in to-go boxes. They looked at him funny, but he was willing to wait the full sit-down time for the food, so they got it for him.
Phoenix usually didn’t bother with the doorbell, but he really couldn’t handle the doorknob with the take-out balanced in his hands, and the look on Noel’s face when he opened the door and found Phoenix instead of whatever he’d expected was worth the deviation from routine.
“I brought food, since lord only knows what you ate last.”
Noel frowned, probably smelling romance, but if there was one thing Noel never scoffed at, it was free food. “For your information, it was two hamburgers and half a plate of macaroni and cheese, but that was day before yesterday.”
“You aren’t here for Valentine’s Day, are you?” Noel asked suspiciously.
“Fuck Valentine’s. I’m here for you.”
The frown deepened, accompanied by a faint blush that was mostly hidden by the way Noel shook his too-long hair into his face.
“I’ve got a mission to save your taste buds while you’ve still got some, since you only seem to murder them more and more with grease and alcohol when I’m not around.”
He set the boxes on the table and his bag next to his chair. Just like that, there was no Valentine’s Day and no fight about stupid romantic scruples or wars against the system.
Later, Phoenix would bring out the shirts and they’d go clubbing. Each one had a shattered half a heart on the front, made to look like they might fit together when Phoenix and Noel stood on the right sides of each other. On the back they both said “Valentine’s Day? Fuck that, I’m single.”
They’d meet Kyo at one of the places they went to, and she’d push glasses of something or other she’d concocted herself at them, and Noel would drink both of them because he didn’t know, as Phoenix did, that Kyo lived on the floor with the jammed elevator and the acid dealers, and then Phoenix would enjoy himself fully as Noel hummed and railed about the things he saw and how the room was crushing in and the music was made of streamers of red and black, bloody velvet being chopped into tiny, lung-clogging pieces. Kyo would get hold of them both and kissed them each deep and wet, leaving Phoenix rather shocked but Noel completely blown away, with a slightly disgusted and thoroughly confused look. Kyo would dance away and Phoenix would later find her in a corner dealing the tabs of acid from the elevator for an even higher price than she’d bought them at.
Then they’d go back and Phoenix would be able to practically taste the drug on Noel’s tongue when they kissed, along with the bitter alcohol taste, and when they stripped down far enough, Noel would produce a tube of flavored lube and say (for once without even blushing, probably due to how hard he was tripping) that it was a present from one of his whore friends. Phoenix would take it and smear it liberally over the wrong parts of himself just to watch Noel lick it off. Both their breathing would become short and Phoenix would be achingly hard.
Then the world would begin to dissolve, and they would argue about who got to be top until Phoenix gave it up and pulled Noel into himself, because otherwise it just felt too much like taking advantage, what with Noel so drunk and still seeing things and thinking the floor was falling like an elevator going fifty miles an hour. He would start out erratic and then slow down, driving Phoenix wild with want while Noel stared into his eyes without really seeing him and worried the nipple piercing that still felt new even though he’d gotten it nearly a year ago. Phoenix would lose it and reach down to stroke his aching hardness; Noel would watch as Phoenix arched and splattered sticky white over them both, then shudder and thrust deep and come himself, his mouth a pouting gasp as he watched whatever shows the chemicals and his orgasm created.
Afterward, Noel would mumble into Phoenix’s chest that he loved him, but Phoenix wouldn’t quite believe it until the day Noel might say it without hallucinatory sex first. Noel would lay there not-quite asleep until Phoenix came back to find him hard again, and they would do it all over in the same rush and tumble of exquisite pleasure, until Noel passed out and Phoenix only had the strength to pull half the covers on top of them.
In the morning, the painting was there on the wall next to the shelf that held all of Noel’s books and CD’s. In the half-light, the undersides of the clouds seemed to glow with the painted web of lightning, and the androgynous figure of the angel, clothed in translucent blue-white clinging wetly to it, would be straining towards some invisible nothing in the clouds. Glowing through its chest, half hidden by the ragged black wings that curled out and around the angel was a heart, black and blue-veined, glowing crystal.
On the back of the frame, where Noel would never look until years later when he and Phoenix finally moved somewhere where they could live together, were the words:
“Happy Valentine’s Day 2008. I love you.
To Noel Travers, from Phoenix Wreith.”