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Backroads

by NTH

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

i. under waiting stars

As the night drew on and on, Miklós observed all kinds of people in town who stopped by the bar to drink something: Jan, the mailman, who ordered a beer and laughed a bit with Lara, the daughter of the owner; a group of former classmates of his older brother, who took a seat behind one of the four tables and drank to some achievement he didn’t catch; Mrs. Pahor, the tailor, who asked for some wine but never paid.

Miklós knew everyone by name, or at least he was familiar with their faces, as was normal in a town with less than a thousand residents. He watched people stop by, make conversation with Lara or with her father Nik, and, judging by the glances some of them stole at him before they left, he knew his parents didn’t need to look for him to know where he was.

When, earlier that night, Miklós — Miksa to his friends, and to his family when they weren’t angry at him — had slammed the door shut behind him and left his annoyingly isolated house, the sky had already been dark, stars puncturing it with their fierce light.

The first plan that had come to his mind was to go for a walk in the fields and hide there until he felt better. The flaws of such a plan were threefold: first, it was cold as hell in the countryside at the edge of Slovenia, especially that year, when a premature winter had frozen the earth until the ground was as hard as nails; second, his father knew the fields just as well as he did and could find him in no time; and third, he would never really feel better until he left that hole in the ground they called a town.

The second plan had been the only alternative Miklós’ mind would come up with: go somewhere warm and wait there for a better idea. It had possibly even more faults than the first one, but it had warmth on its side, so Miklós had picked up his bike and taken the shortest route through the annoyingly familiar brown fields, the lights of the town center guiding his trip, until he was at the only place in town that would stay open past ten in the evening, where he planned to stay for as long as he would be allowed to.

Nik’s place was a small bar covered in wood: wooden floor, wooden furniture, wooden panels against the wall, even wooden cups. When Miklós got inside and asked if he could stay for a while, Nik’s daughter, Lara, didn’t ask any questions.

He sat at one of the tables and emptied his pouch onto it — sure, he did have enough money to take a train to the city, but how would he get to the closest station? Where could he go? Could he go to his brother’s place? But what would he do then? As he counted even the smallest coins, one by one, he tried to think of what kind of opportunities were there in the city for a sixteen-year-old boy who could navigate fields and woods, could recognise all the local species of frogs at a first glance, but had never put his nose outside of his stupid little town. He was far from an expert, but even he could tell that such opportunities probably amounted to none.

The cup of warm chocolate seemed to appear so suddenly in front of him, he could have sworn it had materialised. Behind it, Lara offered one of her wide smiles that made her face look even fuller, and shrunk her eyes to brown mites half the size of a 10-stotin coin.

“You seem upset, Miklós,” she said, the thin wrinkles at the sides of her eyes crumpling on each other. “Something happened?”

“Don’t wanna talk about it.”

She exhaled a smile and her shoulders slumped; she gave up at the speed of a seasoned listener, knowing when it was better not to press on. Miklós felt relieved: he knew perfectly well that, in this case, her role was less that of the confidante and more that of a snitch, who would run to tell everything to his parents. He pushed the warm chocolate back towards her with a finger, and went back to counting the remaining coins.

“Fine.” Lara stood up from the bench and stared at him for some moments, then pushed the cup towards him again. “On the house,” she said. “And stay as long as you want.”

***

Closing time approached faster than Miklós would have liked.

He sat on the same bench in the corner of the room, the cup now emptied of its warm chocolate still sitting on the otherwise empty table in front of him. At that hour on a weekday, he was the only client left; however, regardless, his sleepy eyes occasionally darted from one side of the bar to the other, just to make sure he was alone, before he closed them and sank back into his hoodie like a river turtle in its shell.

He still hadn’t made a choice. He didn’t want to go home where everyone was okay with ‘the occasional bruise’ due to his father ‘losing his temper’; he didn’t want to be stuck in that town, grow up a farmer and have a depressing insignificant life no different from everyone else’s. But he wasn’t like his brother Edi, who had left to become a doctor, or like his classmate Maja, who wanted to be a singer. Miklós didn’t know what his alternative was; he didn’t have dreams, talents, or abilities. Deep down, did he really have any choice about his life?

He could already hear Lara’s voice, minutes from then, gently asking him to leave. “Miklós, go home, alright?” she would say, her gaze firm but her smile soft. And he wouldn’t have any choice but to do that, would he? What would the alternative be, after all? Sleeping outside in the cold November night?

But the sound that reached his ears after he formulated those thoughts was completely different from his expectations. It was an unfamiliar baritone voice that he heard, and the words it formed were a simple greeting. Miklós raised his head towards its origin, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from widening upon seeing the stranger.

The fact itself that the man who had just entered the bar wasn’t from town was a rare event in and of itself: Dobrovnik didn’t attract tourists, and when they happened to end up there it was always by mistake. Moreover, the stranger wasn’t the usual middle-aged member of a religious group trip who’d gotten lost on some stupid independent adventure; on the contrary, he looked only slightly older than Edi — in his mid-twenties, maybe more — and surely more handsome. No one in town had hair as fair as that, nor eyes of a blue so bright you could tell the color from the other side of the room.

The stranger sat at the counter after a distracted glance around. Miklós had the impression the gaze had lingered on him, but he might have imagined it. What he doubtlessly didn’t imagine, however, was the finger of the stranger, rising over the beer he had ordered to point at Miklós’ table, and Lara’s frantic whispering in response.

Miklós must have been staring suspiciously when the man stood up and took his half-pint from the counter, but a glare wasn’t enough to keep the stranger from sitting right in front of him, in the same place Lara had briefly occupied a couple of hours before.

“Where are you going?” the man asked, a gesture of his head pointing at the backpack lying on the bench next to Miklós. He seemed to speak the language perfectly, but he had an unusual accent Miklós had never heard before. From this close, Miklós noticed that his short hair looked fluffy and yet stood up on its own, making Miklós wonder if the man was lucky or if he knew some innovative hair technique from the city.

Miklós’ mind was full of questions, but his mouth stayed as far away from them as possible as he looked towards the counter with a sigh. There was no point in asking questions when he already knew all the answers would lead back to his situation, the topic he wanted to talk about the least. Obviously, Lara — who had now turned away from them, and was heading towards the back of the shop — was hoping that the stranger would do what she had failed to do, and convince him to go back home. 

He stood up and started to recover his things from the bench next to him. In his mind, a series of places to crash in popped up, appeared, and then were driven away by all kinds of objections. Maja’s parents would think it was all an excuse to sleep with their precious daughter, to touch her inappropriately; Boris’ place didn’t have enough beds for all of them as it was; Nik would gently tell him to go back to his parents, as would Lara.

As his mind kept on listing people from town and then crossing them out from the list almost immediately, Miklós felt a warm but rough hand closing around his wrist. He turned abruptly, pulling back his arm, only to find the most irresistible pleading expression on the stranger’s face.

“Wait, don’t leave yet. Just allow me a couple of words, would you?”

Miklós stood for a couple of moments. He looked at the counter, but Lara wasn’t back yet. His eyes drifted back towards the table in front of him, and he slowly sat back on the bench, nodding. He would just listen, he told himself: he could always leave if he wasn’t interested.

“My name is Alexej.” The man held a hand toward him. “What’s yours?”

“As if she didn’t tell you,” Miklós muttered, ignoring the hand he was offered. “Just get to the point.”

“As you wish.”

Miklós was almost surprised by the stranger’s reply. It was so pliant, and he neither sighed, nor scoffed, nor showed any kind of reaction to Miklós’ rude attitude. That made the teen much more interested in what the man had to say. Alexej, he rehearsed the name in his mind.

“The point is,” started Alexej, lowering his voice, “that I know you’ve been meaning to run from home, and I can offer you a lift out of here.”

For the second time that night, Miklós felt his heavy-lidded eyes widen against the sleepiness. Surprise shook him even before doubt had reached the edges of his consciousness. It took a moment for him to turn his skepticism into words and formulate a question — a moment during which he couldn’t help but notice that, from up close, the color of Alexej’s eyes looked even brighter than it did from afar, almost unnaturally so.

“Why would you do that?” Miklós asked when he finally found the words.

Alexej brought a hand to his mouth and stared at Miklós with a peculiar warmth in his gaze. Unfamiliar with his mannerisms, Miklós wasn’t sure how to interpret this, but if he had to guess, he’d say the stranger was interested in him for some reason.

“Because,” explained Alexej, “you remind me a bit of myself. We’re both runaways, in a sense.”

For a moment the stranger looked lost in thought, and Miklós tried to imagine him as a farmer in some remote Slovenian village far from there. It was difficult to reconcile that concept with the handsome, kind and well-spoken guy who sat on the opposite side of the table. It was almost unbelievable, and yet so refreshing, so encouraging: if that guy ran away from the countryside, then Miklós, too, could do the same.

On the other hand, Miklós wasn’t sure such a stroke of luck could be realistic — did things like that just happen regularly to people out there in the world? — and he wasn’t sure if he could place confidence in Alexej. However, he couldn’t think of a reason why that situation couldn’t be truthful, or why the man in front of him, with his kind attitude and his understanding smile, couldn’t be trusted. What would the man have to gain from lying to him?

“Of course, it’s not just that,” Alexej added, almost as if he could tell Miklós was uncertain. “I also need the help of someone from around here, and you seem perfect for the job.”

“I do?”

Alexej laughed. It was a faint sound, muffled by his lips and barely escaping in the form of small puffs, and it extended to his face, lifting his cheeks. Alexej nodded through it. “You do. Now,” he added, his tone of voice painting his whisper with complicity, “stop looking so happy. I’m supposed to bring you back home, so try to look… reluctant but convinced.”

Miklós nodded enthusiastically. As he tried to put on a sad expression, he realised that, for once, he felt hopeful about his future.

***

Against the backdrop of a sleeping Dobrovnik, all low buildings with brown pitched roofs, some spare houses with all the lights turned off, Alexej and Miklós walked. As they moved away from the center of the town, the houses stood lonelier and lonelier — lost sheep separated from their flock in the middle of the frozen cornfields — and the ground beneath their feet went from uniform paved road to a dusty gravel road, until they were walking on the irregular dirt of the open fields.

Everything seemed so different to Miklós, almost as if he was looking at the view with a new pair of eyes. As if for the first time, he saw the sprouts of the wheat planted at the start of autumn, and their way of puncturing the icy ground suddenly seemed a brave move, one worthy of his awe, the single act that screamed life in the heart of a ghost town. By day, even the houses of the poorest farmers emanated a certain familiar warmth, but right now they looked like lonely tombstones in the middle of a massive graveyard; and yet, even there, those crops ripened.

He looked away from the familiar view and focused, instead, on his unfamiliar companion. Alexej walked by Miklós’ side in silence. He didn’t ask questions; he didn’t talk or complain; on the contrary, he looked relaxed, like it was just another walk and he was spending it stargazing.

But it wasn’t just that which captivated Miklós’ mind. It wasn’t just Alexej’s charming appearance and attitude, his strange accent — maybe people in the west of Slovenia all spoke like that? — nor the elegant way he talked: it was, for lack of a better term, that faint aura of mystery that seemed to envelop him whole. That, together with Miklós’ curiosity, was the fuel behind each of his steps, even when his hands, steadily holding the handlebars of his bicycle, had grown so pale, knuckles reddened and fingertips numb.

Bringing the bike along with them was Alexej’s idea. Leaving it near the bar would make Nik and Lara suspect of something, he’d said, but it didn’t seem to take into consideration the sharp winter wind that Miklós was only used to hearing through his house’s windows. That same wind that now cut through their clothes and slashed against their cheeks, so much that, at one point, Miklós’ teeth started chattering.

When he looked up at Alexej, no signs that he was suffering from the frigid temperature could be read in his expression, but his cheeks, reddened in some places, and his rosy nose seemed to at least be suffering the wind.

Miklós’ stare, or maybe the rattle of his teeth, must have attracted Alexej’s attention, for it shifted towards Miklós; his eyes traveled from the boy’s head to his toes, before looking away again, and the tense silence that had fallen between them since they’d started walking was broken. 

“It’s freezing, isn’t it?”

Alexej spoke so nonchalantly that, while he nodded in response, Miklós felt stupid for forcing himself to stay quiet all that time. He had thought someone who was already a man — grown-up, mature, independent — wouldn’t be interested in making small talk with him. Instead, the smile Alexej wore, his raised eyebrow and the inquisitive look he threw around, almost looked friendly.

“Would you usually walk this path when returning from the town centre?”

Miklós looked around for a short moment. He recognised the nearby house, where the Pahor family lived, and the edges of the fields dissolving into the thickening woods. He nodded, again, then added a whispered confirmation. 

Alexej took the handlebars from his hands with a firm gesture and, as soon as Miklós let go of it, he pushed the bike to the ground. 

Miklós’ attempted to let his confusion bubble out of his mouth, but before the thought could take form on his tongue, he found his hands wrapped inside Alexej’s warm grip, and all words died on his lips.

“Try to stay warm,” Alexej whispered and, as quick as it had materialised, his grip loosened.

When the fair head of hair turned away from him, Miklós was still staring at his own hands, thinking that, the last time someone tried to warm them like that, his mother’s hair had been far less grey than it was now, and her hands had smelled like baked potatoes.

“We’re going to leave the bike here.”

Miklós shook his head to force himself out of his reverie. He turned towards Alexej, expecting him to be looking around, examining the ground, and he almost jumped back when he met the other’s gaze fixed on him.

In the dim light of the moon, Miklós couldn’t clearly see his face, but he could recognize the brightness of Alexej’s eyes, alert as if they belonged to someone who didn’t need sleep.

“Did you change your mind? Do you want to go home?” asked Alexej.

“No.” He didn’t even think about it. “I’m with you.”

The other nodded, curving his lips upwards as he took a couple of branches from the ground and held one of them out to Miklós.

“Then help me conceal our traces, would you?”

***

The woods were darker than the open fields. Even without their summer leaves, the branches at the top of the canopy were still thick enough to tickle each other, play with the wind, and conceal Miklós and Alexej from the gaze of the moon. They were almost in the dark, but as Miklós’ eyes got used to it, it didn’t seem such a bad compromise: the trunks, young and old alike, and their countless branches, absorbed almost all of the progressively rising fury of the wind.

Miklós had a knot in his chest, halfway between his throat and his stomach. It throbbed at the same rhythm as his heartbeat, and it almost felt as if it grew with every breath he took. Focusing on the howling of the wind only made it worse and, no matter how much he swallowed, he could never gulp it down. 

That sensation had been born as he started concealing his traces in the field, but with Alexej kindly but firmly directing his actions, it had been easier to forget about the weight in his throat, about sleepiness, thoughts, and worries. So easy that, now that they were both resting at the edge of the woods, he wished Alexej would give him something else to do. Instead, that knot throbbed like a second heart, and a crazy one at that, because Miklós couldn’t tell what had quickened its beat like that. 

Sitting next to Miklós and his new useless organ, Alexej leaned against a tree, all bundled up in his clothes, half-lidded eyes staring at something on the ground. He had said he would be resting, but it looked a lot like thinking. Torn between speaking his mind just like Alexej seemed to do, and trying not to disturb him, Miklós found himself once again rehearsing questions in his mind that never managed to reach his lips, never knew breath and never arrived at anyone’s ear. 

It was only because of the urgency that the knot in his throat seemed to be pushing into his system, only because of the strain it put him under, that Miklós took one of the questions bubbling up in his mind and pushed it forcefully onto his tongue.

“You said you needed help. What kind of help?”

Alexej raised his gaze almost instantly. His suddenly alert eyes softened almost as quickly, and he shifted, better settling in his position. He brought his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.

“Can you speak Hungarian?” he asked, resting the side of his head on his knees.

Miklós nodded. “Sure, I do. Almost everyone can, near the border.” As he explained, Miklós realized it was probably not common at all in other places. The knowledge that he had a skill that could prove itself useful instilled a note of enthusiasm in his voice as he continued talking.

”Also, you know, my name’s Hungarian! I took it from–”

“Miklós, correct?” 

Only after several moments of sudden silence did Miklós realize his surprise stemmed from the fact that it was the first time Alexej had pronounced his name. With his accent, the tongue dragged a bit on the final letter.

“Is it your name?” Alexej insisted, and only then did Miklós remember to inhale.

“Yes,” he voiced with a nod. “But my friends call me Miksa.”

Alexej’s head lifted slowly from its position, together with one of his eyebrows, and he repeated the nickname. His face looked like the one Edi made when he was about to taste one of mom’s new recipes, as if preparing for both the worst and the best at the same time.

“You can call me that, too,” offered Miklós.

The wind howled wildly and a blow swept up some of the leaves rotting among the bushes, attracting their attention for a moment, and making Miklós realize that the knot in his throat, at some point, had dissolved.

“Miksa, huh?” he heard Alexej sigh.

Miklós turned to find the other slowly standing up. The cheek that had been resting against the knees was slightly reddened, and pieces of bark and dirt hung onto his jacket here and there until Alexej started to brush them away.

“I don’t have a nickname, however,” he explained, as he checked if there was any dirt left on his clothes. “It would probably be better if–”

“Aleš.”

Alexej looked almost as surprised by the interruption as Miklós was — he didn’t mean to blurt it out so suddenly. He couldn’t deny, however, that seeing that expression on Alexej’s face surely made it worthwhile.

“Can I call you Aleš, then?” rephrased Miklós, still sitting on his crossed legs. In response, he felt Alexej’s hand close its grip around one of his shoulders and then squeeze gently. 

“If you wish so,” he said. 

Only a moment later, the same hand was offered to help Miklós up, and soon they were both standing — not quite exactly face-to-face, since Miklós’ shorter stature placed him more in a face-to-neck position. 

Alexej turned towards the depths of the woods, where they got darker and thicker. “I have to get to Hungary,” he said. “And I need your aid to cross the border, Miksa.”

***

Miklós knew next to nothing about borders, and even less about crossing one. The idea he could leave Slovenia had never even passed through his mind before Alexej had mentioned it, and now it sat on his shoulder, the alien thing, and it whispered into his ears dreams he didn’t understand.

He was about to voice his doubts — about to ask how could he help if he had no idea what to do — but then he stopped, lips froze half-open, and nothing but a puff of breath left his throat. He stopped because he realized that admitting he couldn’t help could mean invalidating their agreement: It could mean that Alexej would go on his way, find someone else to help him, and Miklós would be left to his own devices. That was to be, of course, the natural conclusion of their partnership, but he didn’t want it to happen this soon.

He could tell Alexej had his eyes on him, he could feel the weight of them, and he looked at the dark depths of the woods in search of an idea, of the memory of something he had studied, or maybe heard, about the Hungarian border, something apart from the fact that it was nearby, somewhere east, in the woods.

Alexej pushed a small flashlight into Miklós’ fist and, when Miklós turned, he found the other rummaging through his own backpack, a seemingly spacious bag, one of those favored by campers. Miklós turned the light on and illuminated the inside of the pack where, among the sounds of crumpled paper and between Alexej’s hands moving around, Miklós counted at least six different roadmaps, some apparently untouched, others undoubtedly opened at least once but then tidily put back. He read a couple of names — Hungary, Austria, Romania, Croatia — until Alexej found what he was looking for.

Alexej knelt on the ground, where he proceeded to unfold a thick bundle of paper, the “Extensive Roadmap of Slovenia, 1992 edition”. As he spread out the huge map, Miklós noticed several roads highlighted with markers of various colors; the yellow, green and pink lines ran all over the paper, intersected in places, and followed small roads, forming a complicated web as a result. Finally, Alexej pointed to an area of the map, nodded to himself, folded what he could of the voluminous paper they didn’t need, and then pulled Miklós down with a tug of his coat. 

“This is the street that runs through town, see?” Alexej explained, his finger following a green-highlighted line that twisted and bent itself on the map. “And it leads to the border.” His finger reached a fat red line after which everything on the map was grey. The letters navigating the grey sea read ‘Hungary’, in several languages. Miklós nodded, his eyes briefly running up the other’s dimly lit face, as Alexej leaned forward on the map.

“Now the problem is that this road is closed. A landslide, an accident, I’m not entirely sure; what I understood for certain is that I cannot pass through there tonight. But I cannot wait until tomorrow.”

Miklós examined the map attentively. He leaned closer, identified the roads he knew, mentally traced gravel roads and dirt paths that weren’t marked on the map, and finally pinpointed their approximate position. Woods appeared, on the map, as comparatively empty green zones, and through the one they were in, the fat red line cut the woods grey.

“What happens tomorrow?” Miklós asked, once he had the map memorized and he was standing up once again.

In the cone illuminated by the flashlight, Alexej spread out the map once again and then carefully folded it back, following the lead of the previously formed creases. Miklós waited, silently.

Once the map was back in his backpack, methodically reduced to a bundle, Alexej stood with a sigh.

“Truth is, Miksa,” he said, holding a second flashlight in his right hand, “the people I’m running from can be surprisingly obstinate.”

Alexej sounded bitter; his words stung on the tongue like salted lemon. His fingers tapped against the flashlight a couple of times before turning it on and using it to look back towards the fields.

The wind’s howls had risen so intensely in strength and volume that it was hard to pretend they were just background noise; the air got damp — Miklós felt the biting cold in his joints — and the night was barely past its darkest point. He wasn’t sure even the most obstinate family, or whoever it was looking for Alexej, would go out following people during such a stormy night. The rain clouds couldn’t be very far, and it wasn’t going to be a gentle downpour.

“We need to hurry,” he commented. “It’ll take half an hour to get to the border, and in less than one hour there’s going to be one hell of a storm.”

Alexej’s lips curved up in a kind smile, and it almost looked proud — or it could have been a trick of the light.

“I was so lucky to find you,” he said heartily. “Please, lead the way.”

With a gesture of the hand, Alexej left him the head of their two-man expedition, and Miklós hustled ahead. He followed the easiest route he could find, where the bushes were lower, the branches highest and the moss climbed the left side of the trunks. He switched the flashlight from one hand to the other from time to time, to warm the free hand in the pockets of his coat.

They both walked in silence, but the wind wasn’t the only loud conversationalist: bird wings fluttered and owls shrieked and, for every step they made in the undergrowth, a twig snapped, a root creaked, and the next breath of wind brought along a wet smell of earth and rotting leaves.

Behind him, Alexej didn’t sound like he was having trouble following his lead. On the contrary, his breath was controlled, his pace regular, and when Miklós sometimes glanced back to check, Alexej was always no more than three steps behind him.

They proceeded quicker than anticipated, chased by a restless stormy wind and by the echo of a far-away thunder. Along their trek, a spider crawling up Miklós’ clothes was pinched away by Alexej, and midges seemed to insistently seek refuge in his eyes; otherwise, Miklós didn’t spot many animals — they were probably hurriedly crowding into the depths of their lairs. The two of them, Miklós and Alexej, should have done the same, should have hurried and hidden from the upcoming storm, waited for it to pass. 

That was what he had been taught since he was a child: that storms were dangerous, livid things, and they had it out for him. And yet, there he was, leaving his home as it started to rain, as frogs did. He couldn’t say he wasn’t scared. But, underneath the fear, beyond the concern, there was a flicker of something different, of that part of him which believed, at the peak of his confidence, that everything would turn out fine.

As they got closer and closer to their destination, Miklós started wondering about the border. He wasn’t even sure if they had passed it or not. Was crossing a border supposed to be hard, as the fat red line on the map seemed to imply? Would there be something to signal that Slovenia finished and Hungary began? Would there be a wall, a fence, a trench? Would it feel different once they got to the other side?

Maybe it was like a birthday, when everyone asked him how he felt and he didn’t know how to say he felt every bit as he had the previous day. But if it was like that, how would they know whether they had reached their goal? Was someone waiting for Alexej, on the other side? And once in Hungary, where was he planning to go?

As Miklós’ throat got drier, his clothes felt soggier, and musky-smelling droplets started to wet his coat, he somehow found himself wishing their destination wasn’t so close. He didn’t even realize how heavy his backpack felt, and how his eyelids felt even heavier, how he kept growing more and more tired, until the trees started to thin out in front of him.

As they faded, the woods seemed to swell with anger, the tops of the branches whipping the air, and the promise of the upcoming storm weighing down on the sky itself. Just like the dark grey clouds looming over him, Miklós felt lumbering and tired. His eyes burned and his eyelids fell shut, out of his control, obscuring his vision. With each faltering step forward he asked himself for a little bit more time, he pushed his exhausted legs half a meter onwards, he strained his weary eyes to guide him to the next tree, he drained himself a bit more.

He became aware of his own overpowering tiredness suddenly — or, to be more exact, he only gave in to it at the last possible moment, when the edges of his vision were starting to darken and he wasn’t really sure what was holding his body up anymore. And even then, he felt, more than anything, that he wasn’t ready to stop just yet, he wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

With unfamiliar wheat fields in sight ahead and a raging storm only a couple of steps back, Miklós slid down against a tree and brought his knees to his chest, the weight of more than twenty-two hours suddenly unbearable on his shoulders. He heard Alexej stop next to him, but he didn’t have the strength to look up.

“I knew I could trust you,” he heard the other say. 

He felt Alexej’s hand grip his shoulder. He wanted to thank him, to smile at him, but as his head fell between his knees, the only words Miklós could will out of his mouth were a weak murmur.

“Sorry, Aleš, I’m so sleepy.”

Even muffled through the pillow of his fading consciousness, the thunder that echoed sounded alarmingly close, and yet not quite as alarming as the fading sound of Alexej’s steps.

In the end, Hungary didn’t feel different at all.

———

ii. the storm wailed, the sun spoke

Miklós would have loved to rest under that tree for a whole day. But the storm raging above his head had a whole different idea, and the cold large drops dripping down his neck and sliding under his clothes wouldn’t leave him in sleep’s embrace for more than a few minutes at a time.

He dozed in and out of consciousness, his mind numb and unfocused, and it took every last amount of his strength to will his legs up and his body straight. However, taking his first step, Miklós found that it was easier to walk after that; carried by inertia, he left the meagre shelter of the tree and headed for the open fields. His mind, now slightly more responsive, learned right then the true meaning of the expression “drenched to the bone”.

He held onto a trunk he found in his path, leaned his face against the bark and breathed in the musk. He looked ahead. The dark sky looked livid as if bubbling with rage; the treetops swayed fiercely and the wind sent the rain flying violently, drenching everything. In the middle of the downpour, the fields looked empty of life: no sign of anyone, to the point that it seemed silly to think someone could have just crossed it, or would be willing to.

There was a monster looming behind Miklós. Something big and dark, whose grabbing hands weighed as heavy as disappointment, whose touch was a shiver running down his spine, breaking the rhythm of his already shuddering frame. The monster’s voice sounded like his vague recollection of Alexej saying something as he left, and its body was just as hazy, so much it was hard to tell if that memory-turned-beast was born from reality or from a dream.

Miklós wanted to run from that monster, or ignore its puerile existence and what it stood for. He wished for nothing but to deny what he couldn’t help but know: that he thought he had found a kindred spirit, and it seemed, once again, that he had been mistaken. It wouldn’t have been such an unbearable thought, if it didn’t burn his heart with humiliation, too.

To run from it, he pushed forward.

But the more Miklós walked, the faster the monster got; the more he struggled along towards the shack he had noticed in the field, the louder the thoughts were in his mind — so loud they drowned out the sounds of the storm.

By the time his hands pushed open the door to the shack, it had become impossible to ignore his feelings. He almost muttered to them, asked them to leave while he wiped the rain away from his face and opened his backpack, groping for a change of clothes at least slightly less wet than those he was wearing. Even while he silently found a place to rest and from which he could wait out the storm, his mind was caught in a downpour quite harder to ride out than the one raging outside.

As soon as he was sitting on the ground, a dreamless sleep took him over, so quickly he didn’t even have time to feel lucky for it.

***

The first thing he was aware of was the rain. It still poured and poured over him, his hair stuck to his face and his neck, his clothes almost glued to his body, countless drops hitting on his back. But then — he realised, even before his ears could hear the storm — there was a warmth that wasn’t his own, under his legs, behind his neck, on his side. There was the sound of a breath, heavy but regular, and the smell, musky and also just a little bit sweet, like a forest in spring.

Miklós didn’t try to open his eyes. Instead, he sank his face deeper in the soft fabric that sheltered that pleasant smell; and, like that, he dozed off again. He was barely aware of the storm around him, barely aware of the movements that tossed him right and left, but distinctly aware, instead, of the arms carrying him. 

It was only after their presence had faded for a while that Miklós actually woke up.

He slowly regained awareness of his body, and was surrounded by the muffled sounds of the subsiding storm, by the humming of an engine and by the sound of a familiar song. He found himself rocked by the slow, sluggish crooning of a moving car. On the back seats, which smelled like old leather but felt so pleasantly warm, he lay down enveloped in a coat clearly too big for him.

When he opened his eyes, the unfamiliar car was immersed in the greyish light from the sky outside. There was no way to say what time it was, but it was safe to assume the sun hadn’t set yet. The rain tapped against the windows and dripped down their surface, and the mere fact it didn’t hit him or wet his clothes caused a sudden sense of relief to wash over him. Beyond the glass ran trees, fields and sometimes buildings.

Slowly, Miklós sat up.

Behind the wheel, Alexej hummed a cheerful tune along with the radio. His hair was dripping wet and the clothes he was wearing didn’t seem in better condition; the coat on Miklós’ shoulders seemed to be the driest piece of fabric in the whole cabin.

“Good morning,” greeted Alexej, his eyes meeting Miklós in the rear-view mirror. As if nothing had ever happened. In barely a moment, their sharp gaze was back on the road.

The questions crowding on Miklós’ lips intersected, merged and stumbled on each other until what came out was a stammering tangle of letters.

Finally, he settled on a rasping “morning”.

Alexej snickered, uncharacteristically ungraceful for a short, stunning moment.

“I had quite some trouble finding you,” he said, tone still amused. “Were you trying to disappear on me?”

Miklós shook his head slowly, unsure of what to say, struggling to find the words to express an anguish that now, in hindsight, looked almost ridiculous. “There was a lot of rain, and–”

“I was joking, Miksa. You did well to find some shelter.”

The incessant drumming of the rain seemed to be slowly subsiding, and a little hint of sunlight filtered through the clouds. Miklós tried to put on a smile but could feel his cheeks flushing with blood. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the coat sliding down his shoulders.

“There’s a small hotel down ahead,” Alexej explained, pointing at the seat next to him with a nod. On its worn-out leather sat a roadmap of Hungary, half folded, the paper wet in places. “We’ll take a room and warm up a bit. Is that all right with you?”

At that point, and only then, did Miklós’ brain seem to get comfortable with the idea that maybe his initial impression of Alexej hadn’t been so drastically wrong. He smiled, truthfully this time.

“More than alright, Aleš.”

***

The hotel looked more like a big farm, with stables full of animals chilled to the bones and a young man trying to mop the drying mud out of the patio. The rain had turned the empty parking ground into an expanse of muddy ponds where the wheels of the cars sank, spattering muck all around.

They exited the vehicle — Miklós still had no idea exactly when and how Alexej had come into possession of that run-down car — and grabbed their backpacks. The rain was as thin as air, and it really didn’t make any difference when it poured over the two of them, as drenched as they still were.

Miklós felt tired. Even back in the warm cabin of the car, he had shivered inside his clothes, and his bones and muscles had ached like after a day of helping his father in the fields. Therefore, from his position next to the car, shoes sinking in mud and an oversized coat hanging from his shoulders, the old and not exactly well-tended holiday farm looked like the most comfortable place he had seen in ages.

As he silently followed Alexej inside, Miklós felt as if he had been thrown violently into a world too big for himself. He was worried, almost scared. The building seemed big, at least three or four times the size of the houses he was used to seeing, and in the greyish light of the aftermath of the most violent storm that season had seen, the warm colours of the outside walls looked distinctly off. But Alexej walked confidently, and so Miklós followed.

Inside, a middle-aged woman, who looked like she had never seen a client walk inside the hall before, sat behind a large counter fidgeting with her hands. She was pale and her clothes were shabby and worn, but she had a smile as wide as her face as she stared at the two of them.

The hall was a small room with a rattan sofa in the corner in front of the counter, and, standing next to it, a shelf with newspapers that didn’t all look exactly as new as the name would suggest. The yellow light, a little too dim, and the cloying, intoxicating artificial scent permeating the place made Miklós feel even sleepier.

“Go ask for a room, would you?” Alexej said before he turned towards Miklós. Now that his short hair was wet, it stuck to his forehead and to the sides of his face, making him look a bit younger.

“Me?” Miklós couldn’t help sounding incredulous. “I have no idea how to do that,” he wanted to say, but he only got as far as the first syllable.

“You can speak Hungarian, right?” Alexej lowered his head a bit so they were face to face and gently put a hand on his shoulder. Miklós wished he felt as reassured as Alexej looked confident. He bit his lips and diverted his gaze away from Alexej’s face.

“But,” he muttered, unsure of what he wanted to ask himself, “what do I have to say?” 

“Just explain that we want a room.” Alexej shrugged.

His eyes fixed on the dark green cushions of the sofa, Miklós told himself it couldn’t be that hard, after all. Truth was, Miklós had no intention of disappointing his travel companion over something so simple. There was no way around the fact that he needed guidance and, based on what he had seen of him, Alexej was willing to give it, and Miklós wanted anything but to jeopardize that possibility. At the same time, however, after such a hard day, it was difficult to fight the feeling of discouragement that tended to hit him when he approached an obstacle.

When Miklós looked back towards Alexej, with a hesitating bundle of questions trying to push its way past his lips, Alexej’s expression mellowed into a smile. “Relax, Miksa,” he said. “I’m right here.”

And so, just like that, Miklós nodded through his own doubts. He filled the space between himself and the counter with a couple of steps and, leaning on it, he simply did what Alexej told him to do — although not without a lot of stuttering.

The lady behind the counter smiled enthusiastically, and nodded twice.

“Of course you need a room,” she said, graying hair bobbing up and down at the sides of her head. “Look at you two! The storm must have caught you thoroughly unprepared.”

She spoke with a heavy but familiar accent (Miklós’ own Hungarian relatives had a very similar intonation). Her words bubbled out of her red-tinted mouth energetically, and her smile seemed to be an integral part of her face, and yet he wasn’t sure whether she was scolding him or trying to console him.

In doubt, he smiled tentatively. “Yeah, we got very wet.”

“Well, we can give you our warmest twin room so you can dry off properly, what do you say?”

Miklós wasn’t really sure what a ‘twin room’ entailed, and he glanced back towards Alexej. He was next to the shelf, busy intently browsing through the most recent-looking newspaper on it. He didn’t seem to notice Miklós’ nervous stare.

“Uhm…” Miklós hesitated, turning back towards the woman.

“Oh, maybe you want to sleep in separate rooms?” she asked, tilting her head to one side. “It’s winter, so all our rooms are vacant. We have these two single rooms that we barely ever–”

Miklós raised his hands over the counter surface, trying to stop the flood of words coming from the woman. “No, thanks,” he said, half-mumbling. Somehow, it was effective anyway, and she stopped talking. He cleared his throat. “A twin room will do, I think.”

“Oh, good.” She turned around and started scanning the numbered key shelf on the wall behind her. “I’ll give you room eight,” she announced, grabbing one of the keys. “It has a large bathroom and a good view of the woods that I’m sure you boys will like.” She turned back, laying a series of papers on the counter. “It’s on the first floor, the second door of the right corridor.”

“Thank you.” Miklós nodded, relieved that it hadn’t been as hard as he’d expected, after all. His eyes followed the key in the woman’s hands, his mind already imagining how soft the bed would be and how nice it would feel to finally clean up and enjoy a warm and dry sleep. 

“I just need a document to complete the registration, now,” the woman explained, holding a pen above one of the papers.

“What?”

His anticipation suddenly burst like a bubble, gone as quickly as it had arrived, and turned into panic. He didn’t have an I.D. — no one in town got them before they were eighteen — and what if that was going to get them both in trouble?

The woman’s smile faltered a bit.

“Your I.D. card, if you please,” she said, once again sounding as if she was trying to scold him, even if her tone was kind.

“Ah, yes…” Miklós forced a smile. “Sure. I–”

The familiar hand gently gripping his shoulder was a wave of relief hitting him suddenly, and the emotional rollercoaster left him abruptly drained. He slumped his shoulders forward with a sigh. 

“You’ll have to excuse him, Miss.” Alexej stepped in with a smile that looked charming even though framed by messy hair and dirty clothes. To Miklós’ surprise, his Hungarian was flawless.

The woman’s smile seemed suddenly wider.

Alexej threw an arm around Miklós’ shoulders and pulled him closer; at that distance, the sweet undertones of his musky scent were even stronger.

“You see, my brother left his I.D. in the car,” explained Alexej, so earnestly even Miklós felt like he was saying the truth. “I trust mine would do just as well?”

“Of course!”

Alexej let Miklós out of his hold and started patting his own jeans; after a moment, he took out a black leather wallet and leaned against the counter, apparently glancing at the papers the woman meant to fill out.

“A passport or a driving license would do, as well,” she explained, pointing at something on it with the pen, and Alexej nodded.

When he opened the wallet and took out the paper, the woman placed the key on the counter. Alexej handed it to Miklós.

“Go ahead,” he said, pointing at the stairs at the end of the corridor ahead. “I’ll follow you.”

As he left, Miklós could hear the chatty woman engage Alexej in another enthusiastic conversation. He hoped it wouldn’t take too long.

***

The warm bath washed away not only the dirt and the cold, but the tension from all the emotions that had attacked his senses in the previous hours. Miklós felt them slowly melt away from his muscles, seep away from his brain through every exhale. 

As the water went from clear to cloudy, in his mind the opposite process occurred. And when the reality of what he had done hit him — leaving his town, even his country, and with the help and company of a stranger he had just met — he felt like laughing.

What would everyone say if they knew? What were they thinking at that moment? Did they already know that he hadn’t come home? Were they looking for him? What did Boris say when he found out a ‘coward’ like Miklós had run away? Was Maja worried? What did his father roar, enraged, upon learning his son had escaped his authority? Did his mother finally understand, or did she mindlessly side with her husband yet again? Did Edi know?

Edi would probably understand. Back when he was still living with them, life had been much more bearable, and yet he had been tired. He’d never said so, but Miklós understood anyway. He had been so tired he would have probably done anything to escape that place. 

But Edi had been lucky: Their dad hadn’t wanted him to continue his studies, but the promise of money, which having a doctor in the family would bring, convinced him uncharacteristically fast. Miklós didn’t have the same luck or, to be more exact, the same ability. Edi would see this was Miklós’ only alternative for escaping that place, wouldn’t he?

Miklós blew a bubble out of the soapy water and smiled, exhaling deeply. His mind wandered towards Alexej, who was in the next room waiting for his turn to have a bath.

That man was a mystery, and yet such a fascinating one. His resourcefulness left Miklós speechless; it felt as if he always had everything figured out, as if he could make everything he wanted just appear out of thin air, as if he knew anything he would ever need to know and then some. It was like he could have done anything he wanted, without needing anyone’s help.

Miklós wished he was like that.

He let himself sink, slide down under the water level so that it muffled the world outside. As he slowly let out the air, his hands feeling the bubbles as they reached the surface, he heard the door opening.

He sat up and found Alexej just past the dark wooden door, an expression on his face Miklós didn’t know how to interpret, his pupils dilated and his hand gripping the door frame. He was holding a couple of towels.

“Aleš?” Miklós said, confused, before embarrassment fully reached his brain upon realising the situation. He figured it was stupid, but couldn’t help his ears flushing with blood. “I’m sorry,” he added hurriedly, “I’m almost done!”

Alexej’s face softened, his grip on the door frame loosening, and even his shoulders seemed to slump slightly. He was staring into space, and his hair, still messy and dirty from the storm, hung in front of his face, almost reaching his eyes. “I was beginning to get worried about you,” he said, his gaze refocusing as he pointed it towards Miklós.

“No, I’m fine,” Miklós  replied promptly, his hands grabbing on to the edge of the bathtub.

Alexej looked around in the bathroom. The room was big, as the owner downstairs had promised; it was white-tiled all over, well-lit, and it had a window on the opposite side from the sink. Alexej eyed a stool under the windowsill and set the towels down on it.

“You forgot these,” he commented, and then turned, heading for the door.

“You know Hungarian better than I do.” The words, coming out of Miklós as a whisper, stopped Alexej in his tracks, with his back towards the bathtub.

“I can speak and understand it, yes.” 

With his eyes pointed to the bottom of the tub, Miklós couldn’t see Alexej, but he heard his voice. He couldn’t tell what Alexej’s reaction had been just by its inflection, but he couldn’t find the will to raise his gaze. He felt his heart pump loudly, blood flushing his body red, the thumps echoing in his ears.

After a long moment of silence, he heard Alexej step closer, until he was kneeling in front of the tub. Miklós shifted back in the water, stammering, but when he raised his eyes, Alexej seemed completely indifferent to the fact that he was as naked as a jaybird.

“What troubles you about it?” he said, softly, his eyes narrowing slightly. 

Miklós couldn’t help but return the other’s piercing gaze; but, soon enough, he directed his glance towards the bottom of the tub. “I thought you didn’t know it.”

“But I never said that, did I?” Alexej shrugged, and Miklós shook his head, slowly. No, Alexej had never outright said it, but hadn’t he implied it? Or maybe Miklós had wanted to feel useful so badly that he had misinterpreted the other’s words?

“Is that why you’re so on edge?” Alexej’s voice sounded worried, and that gave Miklós the little push he needed to ask at least one of the questions on his mind. He took a deep breath.

“Are you doing it out of pity?” he asked. Alexej’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed slightly, but Miklós wouldn’t let him talk before he had finished: he was scared he’d lose the momentum and never speak about it again. “Helping me. I thought you were doing it because you needed me, as an exchange of favours, but I’m useless, aren’t I?” Miklós’ grip on the edge of the tub was so tight, his knuckles were as pale as the tub’s varnish. 

Alexej massaged his forehead with one hand, covering his face for a moment. When the hand fell by his side, he was shaking his head. “You helped me cross the border, or have you forgotten?”

“No, but-”

Alexej got even closer. He leaned forward, against the tub, and took Miklós’ chin in his hand, gently lifting his face. When Miklós met his eyes, he couldn’t look away. There was something in them; they sparkled with an energy that made even his own image reflected in them seem different, somehow radiant.

“Miksa,” Alexej whispered. “Truth is, traveling alone is boring. Even just by keeping me company, you’re doing something for me.” He smiled, and only then put some distance back between them; it was as if the air itself had a different thickness, now. “Besides, it’s nice to know someone will have your back, isn’t it?” Alexej added as he stood.

Miklós couldn’t think of a reason to argue against that. He only wished he could fully believe that Alexej didn’t think of him as a useless dead weight.

“I’ll rest a bit more,” Alexej said, from the doorstep. “You take your time, alright?”

***

Miklós was sitting up in his bed. The shift from dream — or, better yet, nightmare — to reality was so abrupt that it took him several moments to separate one from the other.

No, he wasn’t running from his father’s fury, he wasn’t rushing through familiar fields or climbing trees in order to hide, but he could very well have been, judging from his heart-rate and from how much he had been sweating. Instead, the unfamiliar hotel room he had fallen asleep in, minutes after getting out of the bath, stood before his eyes. Its walls were painted in a pastel tone of green that looked closer to yellow, bathed as it was in the first light of the day filtering through the curtains.

As the memories of the nightmare slipped away through his fingers, reduced to flashes that seemed so obviously unreal, the feeling they arose in him lingered desperately into his guts. Miklós glanced at the nightstand between the two beds; according to the electronic clock, it was six in the morning.

The fear and heartache hadn’t yet disappeared when he realised Alexej wasn’t there. 

He wasn’t in his bed, left unmade, sheets crumpled at its bottom, and when Miklós, suddenly lucid and awake, stood up to feel the bed with one hand, it was still warm. Miklós felt as if he’d fallen from the depths of his nightmare right into a pit of solitude, and the bad feelings from his dream reignited in his guts. 

Rubbing sleep out of his eyes, Miklós checked the bathroom. The door stood open, the shy morning sun reflecting against the mirror. Inside, it was colder than the day before, as if a sudden frost had taken over the room. The towels hung by the sink, still soggy, but stiff with the cold air coming from the open window. The woods outside rustled with the cold morning breeze, but told Miklós nothing that he wanted to know.

Back in the room, Alexej’s backpack wasn’t next to the entrance anymore, and most of the things he’d laid out on the lone desk of the room were nowhere to be seen. Both flashlights remained, next to a couple of pencils, and three highlighters: pink, green and yellow, like the lines on the map. A discarded, damp change of clothes sat on the chair.

Miklós sighed, as he returned to the bed, having run out of places to investigate. With a sigh, he forced his mind back to the evening before, to Alexej’s words reassuring him he wanted some company, that he was happy to have a travel companion. He told himself he’d just gone out for a while.

He wondered if convincing himself that he wouldn’t be left behind would ever get easier.

He sat on Alexej’s bed, back against the wooden headboard, and brought his knees to his chest. The warmth of the sheets felt safe like the thick tree branches in his dreams, where he could take shelter and rest. He thought back to when he was little, to when Edi and he visited the botanical gardens. Miklós loved killing time catching frogs near the pond, but Edi, who had many friends, didn’t want him to spend all his time alone. It was sad, he used to say. So he always made sure that Miklós was a part of their games, pretending not to know that his own friends disliked his brother almost as much as Miklós disliked them. 

They played a lot of hide and seek. When they did, Miklós hid so well that no one, except his brother, ever managed to find him. Miklós used to curl up in his place and wait for Edi, and he sometimes even spent a full hour like that. He didn’t mind, however. He didn’t care if no one ever found him, as long as he knew Edi would come for him eventually.

Ironically, he thought, wasn’t that very similar to what he was doing right then? He had been pushed into the game — by his parents; by people in town never believing his words enough to offer him any help, except the advice to go back to his father’s anger; by Alexej, appearing at just the right moment and driving him out of his own will’s slumber — and now he had to play. Now, he ran and hid from everyone, and he didn’t miss them, and he could only hope to escape them.

This time, Edi wouldn’t come for him.

Back when he was little, that would have felt devastating; it would have sent him into a panic, plunged him down the deepest well and filled it with salty tears. Miklós had never thought it was possible, had never thought Edi would leave him behind. Not until he did.

He’d always been sure Edi would come for him; he’d always curled in his place and dutifully waited for the moment when Edi’s face, his short, messy dirty-blond hair, would peek into his hiding place, and they would exchange a wide, complicit smile. Then, one day, Edi left. He had made sure to discuss the matter of his studies always when Miklós was out of earshot, always in secret, away from him. He’d only informed Miklós that he was leaving the night before he did.

That night — Miklós remembered it so clearly, it was as if he was dreaming it — Edi had sat on the edge of Miklós’ bed to tuck him in. He’d kissed his forehead and had whispered against it, without looking Miklós in the eyes.

“Tomorrow, I’m leaving for the city,” he’d said. “I’ll study to become a doctor. Like I said I wanted to, remember?”

Edi’s voice had been kind and sad, and even when Miklós had turned away offering no answer, Edi’s hands had still brushed the hair away from his face, his lips had still murmured goodnight. That, however, didn’t mean Miklós would forgive him.

Now, curled up in his new hiding place, Miklós waited. He realised, right then, that there was one single person he wanted to be found by; there was finally someone else, someone new he cared about. If that used to be Edi, until a year before, that might be the only difference, because now, arms wrapped around himself, the person he was waiting for was Alexej.

***

New clothes, the ones bought in shops, had a distinctive smell. Miklós found out when, later that morning, Alexej came back to their room, his smile as bright as it always seemed to be.

Miklós had been waiting for him since dawn, when he’d first opened his eyes to an empty room. Slipping in and out of sleep, with nothing to do but stare at the canopy of that winter morning, Miklós had patiently remained in their room.

The color of the walls felt like it was impressed indelibly in his mind by then, after how long he had been staring at it. The curtains, with green floral patterns, were slightly yellowed by time and dust, while the simple wooden furniture (a couple of chairs and a table placed under the window) looked as if it had barely ever been used.

By the time Alexej came back, nothing had changed. Nothing, except the sky outside, so clear one would never have guessed there had been a storm just the day before, getting brighter and brighter as the sun rose from the horizon.

And when it got high enough and stood proudly at the zenith of that too-blue expanse, Miklós heard the door open, and Alexej walked in with bags in his hands, a wide smile, and eyes the same color as the sky. He arrived right when Miklós, still sitting on the bed with arms wrapped around himself, had almost started thinking that maybe he should go out to look for him.

Miklos‘ first thought was that, somewhere inside him, he’d known Alexej would come for him. 

“Aleš!” he exclaimed, practically jumping to his feet. The nickname hiccuped out of his mouth, almost as if it didn’t want to leave and expose the nervousness it was born of. “Welcome back,” he added then, the hesitation from a moment before faded in favour of relief — relief that he hadn’t been left behind, once again.

Miklós barely knew Alexej, but right then he felt that this man he’d met by chance was the one who would always find his way back to him, no matter what. That, just like with Edi when they played hide and seek, if he waited long enough Alexej would be back. The thought itself felt ridiculous, sappy and maybe even stupid, and yet Miklós wanted nothing but to indulge in that foolish fantasy, if only for a moment.

Miklós was walking up to Alexej, was hurrying to welcome him properly, even before the door was closed behind him. 

Alexej put down all the things he was carrying: his backpack, a thin plastic bag containing water bottles and stuffed bread, a big paper bag with an unfamiliar logo on it. Miklós waited patiently, shifting from foot to foot, hands behind his back, one clasped in the other. Under the coat Alexej took off, he was wearing a striped shirt and a grey cardigan he had never worn before and that he hadn’t been carrying in his backpack.

Before Miklós could do anything else — he really just wanted to hug him tightly, and Alexej didn’t even have to know why — Alexej handed him the paper bag, distractedly. As he did, his attention was caught by Miklós’ things still scattered all over the room.

“We’re leaving,” he announced.

Miklós stared at the bag in his hands, and at the distance between them he hadn’t found the readiness to fill. “What is this?” he asked.

Alexej didn’t reply right away. He turned towards Miklós, his eyebrows furrowed. He had light circles under his eyes that his fair skin couldn’t hide, and his hair was messier than before. “A bag of clothes,” he explained. 

Miklós opened it, just slightly, and confirmed that they were, in fact, a pair of jeans, a shirt, and an orange sweater. That didn’t really clarify much.

“They’re for you,” Alexej added. He passed a hand through his own hair, brushing it back away from his face. “Wear them, would you?”

It was as if Miklós couldn’t grasp the meaning of the words straight away. His chest swelled as if a hole in it had been suddenly filled too much, but it took the longest moment before the reason for that reaction consciously hit him. However, maybe because of the overwhelming pressure around his lungs, as if his ribcage was threatening to crush on itself, or maybe because he just couldn’t think of anything better to say, Miklós could only whisper his thanks.

He did wear them right after that. Because Alexej had asked, and because he could barely resist the temptation to try on something that had been bought with him in mind, and no one else, something he felt he truly owned. He put the clothes on hurriedly, running into the bathroom to take a deep breath, and to hide his flushed face from Alexej’s calm gaze. He knew his reaction probably looked exaggerated to Alexej, and so he tried to hide it. He didn’t want to come off as annoying, or obnoxious. But in the privacy of the bathroom, he took the time to squeeze the soft clothes, to hold them to his chest and bury his face in them, and to snicker at the way the wool of the sweater lifted the hair on his head with static electricity.

His new pair of jeans, that sweater Alexej had brought him, they weren’t quite as soft as old, worn-out fabric usually was. He realised while touching them, wearing them, that they were in no way like the second-hand clothes his brother had passed down to him. 

New clothes hadn’t yielded to time yet, and they still fiercely preserved their stiffness; they had a certain unkindness to them, as if they didn’t really want to stick to the body that was wearing them. Their smell was the same, an unfriendly, ersatz odor that didn’t belong on people.

But no matter how distasteful the smell might be, no matter how different they were from what he was used to wearing, those clothes would yield to him, would stretch and soften, would model themselves to fit him better. They were his and his alone. There was no trace of someone else on them, no memories in its weft of someone who had left him behind, someone Miklós just wanted to forget.

Miklós wrapped himself into those clothes as if they could protect him from the world, as if they were his new hiding place to curl up into during this new game of hide and seek.

*** 

They left the hotel when the sun was still high and warm. 

The building looked much more welcoming than it had when they first saw it. The same young man from the day before was now cleaning the stables, and the chatty counter woman, who didn’t shrink from waving them farewell, was loudly giving him instructions.

The nearby woods looked cheerful, even with the trees bared by the season. It was almost as if the friendly chirping of birds had changed its colors. Even the fields all around, however naked and empty, looked alive.

The muddy ground from the day before had hardened into a dust road they could walk on without getting their clothes drenched with water and dirt. Alexej, carrying bags in addition to his backpack, led their way to the car with a quick pace — and maybe Miklós could understand his eagerness to leave, when the day was such a nice one.

The light blue chassis of the car was covered in dried mud, especially near the wheels, but the sturdy and reliable vehicle — a long sedan with a streamlined front and spacious interiors — looked otherwise unscathed. The trunk was big, all things considered, even if not as large as the pickup Miklós was used to loading when he helped out his father. Their two backpacks didn’t even come close to filling it.

Miklós automatically headed for the back seats; the leather they were covered in, of which he remembered the smell, was worn out and torn at some points, the foam filling showing here and there. A couple of local newspapers lay in a corner, but Miksa, who wasn’t really practised in reading Hungarian, didn’t manage to make out the headlines.

His hand was already on the handle, when Alexej grabbed his wrist.

“The passenger seat is empty,” he said.

The wind brushed his messy blond locks away from his forehead, and for a moment, that was the only thing that moved. When Alexej loosened the grip on his wrist, a shiver jolted up Miklós’ arm.

“I need your help with the map.”

Once they were both inside, sitting next to each other, Alexej brought the car whirring to life, and before long, its engine was humming through the Hungarian countryside.

The view wasn’t much different from the Slovenian landscapes Miklós was used to, saturated with fields and woods; on the contrary, it felt quite familiar, and if he hadn’t been looking at the map, he wouldn’t have been able to tell most roads apart.

Alexej wanted them to follow only the smallest and most isolated paths they could find; as a result, the car traveled slowly through dirt roads, and they only ever saw people when they passed close enough to a farm. At such a pace it would take hours, if not days, to reach the closest city.

The radio on the dashboard lost its signal frequently in that area, so Miklós had to retune it from time to time. In between the buzzing from the disturbed signal, it played the same popular Russian songs Miklós was used to hearing when he stayed home and kept his mother company.

They reminded him of the peaceful moments, when it was cold outside and he was sick, so he was allowed to stay home, or those days when it snowed plenty and he and his brother couldn’t go out to play, so Edi used to come up with all kinds of games to keep them busy. On those days, the radio was the constant buzzing in the background, and their mother, who seemed to learn each song by heart after only listening to it once, sometimes sang along.

He must have had a distracted expression, or maybe even a sad one, if it reflected the unpleasant swelling sensation in his guts. He thought he did because, right when those thoughts were crossing his mind, Alexej interrupted their comfortable silence.

“You’ve never slept away from home before, have you?” he asked. He only glanced at Miklós for a moment, but he seemed so concerned. Miklós had trouble wrapping his mind around that expression.

“I’ve never been away from home this long, no,” he confessed, sinking deeply in his seat and looking towards Alexej. He had a relaxed posture — one hand on the wheel, the other resting on the gear — and it felt as if he was used to driving for long hours like these. Miklós could see why he would need company.  

“They must be worried about you,” murmured Alexej, so softly Miklós almost missed it.

“My parents?” he laughed bitterly. In the corner of his eye, he caught Alexej turning towards him with raised eyebrows and a question on his lips, but he spoke first. “I don’t think they are.”

His mother’s voice was the sweetest thing about her, and she sang like a morning bird in the heart of spring; his father’s voice was bitter and rough, to the point Miklós used to think it would have ruined his wife’s songs eventually. He could not imagine either of those voices turning into sobs in his absence.

A fork of the road appeared ahead, and Miklós checked the map for the right direction. He only needed a gesture of his hand to pass the information along. Alexej nodded, and for several seconds silence fell again, filling the cabin like a tub of water.

“You don’t believe they’re looking for you?” Alexej glanced at him again, his lips slimming in a straight line as his words bubbled upwards like an exhale underwater.

Miklós hesitated. Never before he had tried to speak his mind about his parents, and he had to take his time, first staring at Alexej’s hand on the wheel and then at his face, before a sigh finally marked his decision. To Alexej, he could disclose all kinds of things, with no reason to fear.

“They may be looking,” he conceded, “but it’s not because they’re worried.”

He looked away as he spoke, but somehow Alexej’s clenched jaw still didn’t escape his sight.

***

“Try it!”

Miklós eyed the tall glass of beer the other had pushed in front of him, but was hesitant even to touch it. Behind it, Alexej, his own glass in hand, smiled as if he was having the time of his life.

The diner they were in — not very popular, judging from the number of people in it — was a lonely building in the middle of a gas station with, according to Alexej, the smallest menu such an establishment could ever be allowed to have. Despite that, an hour before, they had sat down and ordered whatever looked most desirable.

“I don’t know, Aleš.” Miklós hesitated, as the foam of the drink standing before him slowly grew thinner. “I’m too young to drink alcohol,” he added, whispering — unnecessarily, since the waitress on the other side of the room didn’t seem interested in their conversation at all. “What if we get in trouble?”

“Let me be the one to worry about that.” Alexej smirked, the radiant quality of his expression making it twice as hard to say no. “Besides, aren’t you curious?”

Miklós inhaled deeply, looking down at the plastic table that separated the two of them and at the empty plates on it. Of course, he was curious.

No one was looking at them. The only other customer in there was an old man that had been staring stubbornly at the table in front of him since he first sat down, and the waitress was enraptured by whatever they were showing in the small black-and-white TV positioned on the counter.

“I am, but…”

Alexej was slouched on the seat, his gaze fixed on the golden drink swirling inside his glass. His eyes followed the slow circular movement of his hand. When Miklós hesitated, biting back his own words, Alexej glanced up, and their eyes met. “But?” he encouraged.

Miklós glared at the drink as if it could whisper an answer. Truth was, he was half-scared he wouldn’t like it — he would be quite the party pooper, in that case — and half-worried he might end up liking it a bit too much — that couldn’t be good, could it? “I shouldn’t,” he said, settling on the answer that seemed the most harmless, and the simplest.

Alexej shifted in his seat, straightening his back, and gulped down more of his drink. “Who says that?” he asked. He put down his half-empty glass on the surface between them and sighed. Elbows on the table, he leaned forward, resting his head on his hands. “You shouldn’t have run away from home, correct?”

Miklós looked away, back against his seat, and started fidgeting with his hands, behind the glass. Something twisted in his guts as he nodded.

“And I shouldn’t have helped you, and we shouldn’t travel without your I.D.” Alexej’s hand moved the glasses aside before taking Miklós’ chin between his fingers and pushing it up, to look him in the eyes. “We shouldn’t even know each other,” he continued, his hand now leaving the other’s face to clasp Miklós’ restless one. “But we do, and the world hasn’t ended yet, it seems.”

“I’m sorry,” was all Miklós could utter, in the middle of a fight between his inexplicably watering eyes and the gratitude swelling in his throat.

“For what?” Alexej arched an eyebrow. “Meeting me?”

“No,” Miklós replied, hurriedly. Alexej’s hand on his own was relaxed and warm. “No, of course not,” he whispered. He wasn’t sure why he was even sorry, but he felt like saying it again and again, until he had been forgiven for whatever was making him feel that bad.

“Then stop apologising,” said Alexej, kindly. He rubbed his hand through Miklós’ hair, ruffling it, then slid the full glass back in front of him. “And, please, relax.”

Miklós ended up liking how beer tasted. Not too much, but enough to drink as much as Alexej did.

***

The woods were cold and confusing.

His attention continuously wavering, just like the flashlight in his hand, Miklós wasn’t even sure which direction they were walking in, or how long he had been putting foot after foot on the irregular ground that had caused him to stumble way too many times. However, for some reason, he trusted his instincts to guide him towards the place they were looking for.

Behind him, Alexej sometimes suggested a different direction but mostly followed, keeping both of them busy with conversation.

It was the first time, since they had started traveling together, that Alexej had spoken so much, for so long, and if Miklós was unsure about where the conversation had started, or if he didn’t completely understand Alexej’s commentaries on piano sonatas, that didn’t really matter.

His hazy mind felt peacefully empty, and he enjoyed just letting Alexej’s voice fill it with words, with his ideas on how Schumann’s Kinderszenen were ‘incredible works’, ‘undoubtedly some of the best piano pieces ever written’, and on how complex he thought it was to get them just right while playing.

“Play them for me, one day,” Miklós said, mindlessly. It was as if there was no gap between his mind and his mouth, no separation between thinking thoughts and formulating them: It was somehow liberating.

Alexej fell silent for a moment, and stopped. In front of them, not more than one hundred metres from where they stood, the clearing they had been looking for opened between the trees. Despite his drowsiness, Miklós found that he really didn’t want to rest just yet: he would have much prefered listening to Alexej for a bit more.

He halted in his steps as well, turning back towards the other. Alexej was leaning against a tree, flashlight turned off, face hidden behind his arm. “No one’s ever asked me that,” he commented, his tone deadpan, as he started to walk again until he had caught up with Miklós, filling the space between them in a couple of long steps.

“Does that mean you’ll do it?” Miklós offered a wide smile but, underneath it, a foreboding feeling crawled, slithered in his guts, and he suddenly felt aware of time ticking away.

Alexej, eyes indistinguishable in the dim light, didn’t reply right away. He fiddled with his flashlight but didn’t turn it back on. “I’m not sure I’ll get the chance to,” he finally sighed, turning towards the clearing in the woods. His fists, stuffed deep in his pockets, clenched inside his coat when he smirked. “After all, tonight–”

“It would mean a lot to me,” Miklós interrupted, feeling the words bubble out of his mouth before he even realised he was thinking them.

For some reason, that seemed to sound terribly hilarious to Alexej — but his laugh lacked the warmth Miklós was used to hearing in it. He didn’t even try to notice Alexej’s expression as he turned; the sudden coldness he felt surely wasn’t due to the still air of that night. For him, panic usually resulted in a complete paralysis of his thoughts, but that time, his mind brimmed with words as loud as screams.

“You really have no idea, do you?” Alexej said, getting so close Miklós could recognize his scent. Musky and sweet. 

Miklós really didn’t have any idea about many things but, in the space of a moment, the biggest cause for confusion (in that remote corner of his brain that was somehow still lucid) was his own arms wrapping around Alexej’s waist, as his own flashlight touched the ground with a thud. “Thank you, Aleš,” he said, he muttered with his face plunged into Alexej’s soft clothes, with his nose flooded by his scent. He would have felt as if someone else was doing all of that, if his heart hadn’t been beating so fast it roared in his ears. He knew it was his own heartbeat and his own ears and his own body, the one that was moving, and yet it felt alien, as if he was in a dream, as if the drowsiness from minutes before had finally won over his brain.

“What are you doing?”

He heard the question, pronounced with a certain unease, echo in Alexej’s chest, and in his own bones as he clung to Alexej tighter, hands grasping each other. He felt, with clarity, as if it was his last chance to put his gratitude into words.

“I never would have left that town if it weren’t for you,” he whispered, eyes squeezed tight against fabric, barely aware of the words slurring, garbling between his teeth. “I never would have actually run. It might have been a small thing for you, but it changed my life.”

Wasn’t he pitiful, wasn’t he pathetic? Of course Alexej would want to leave him behind, wouldn’t he? And if he had lied when he said he enjoyed Miklós’ company, Miklós’ couldn’t hold that against him; on the contrary, he was grateful for that, too.

“If you want us to go our separate ways, that’s fine,” he lied, “but I wanted to tell you this, first.”

Alexej was motionless, as calm as his controlled breathing and as quiet as that windless night. The stiff muscles of his back, and his arms hanging by his sides, felt so absurdly far away. More than hesitant, Alexej seemed reluctant, as if he wanted nothing but to break free of that grasp — Miklós realised it, was aware of it, and yet couldn’t bring himself to let go.

Slowly, ever so slowly, so much that behind Miklós’ closed eyelids it seemed like an hour had passed, Alexej’s arms returned a soft hug, circling Miklós’ shoulders. He brushed his fingers through Miklós’ hair as his breath changed its rhythm, fluctuated as if disturbed by thoughts. 

The smallest laugh, warmer than before, blossomed from Alexej’s throat. Miklós felt it vibrate through his chest until, Alexej’s hands separated them from each other.

“I didn’t expect you to say that,” Alexej finally said, and even in the pale moonlight, with the flashlight on the ground pointing in the wrong direction, Miklós could recognise the curve of a smile on his features.

“Neither did I,” murmured Miklós, his voice vibrating in a way that could maybe resemble a laugh, but was mostly born of the insatiable ache in his chest.

Alexej was still close, and now that the hug had been broken, the closeness felt excessive — almost intimidating, when Alexej bowed his head so that they were face-to-face.

“Is it really fine?” he asked in a breath still sweetened by alcohol, his eyes wide, his eyebrows raised. His hand gripped the collar of Miklós’ shirt, pushing him one step back against a tree. “If we go our separate ways, would that really be okay with you?”

At the rhythm of his relentless heartbeat, his drowsiness had almost cleared away, and Miklós felt undoubtedly awake, despite still feeling slow, confused as if every thought was taking way too long to cross his mind. But that tiredness, rather than disappearing, seemed to have turned into nausea gripping his guts, an invisible hand whose fingers sank deeper at each word Alexej said. And the man’s eyes, those bright blue twin skies Miklós could barely make out in that light, were so hard to decipher, and impossible to look away from.

“I-If that’s what you want,” he muttered, just hoping that the crease between Alexej’s eyebrows would disappear and the tension in his jaw would fade away.

It didn’t.

Alexej didn’t loosen his grip and, instead, the breath he exhaled was shattered and as sharp as glass as it turned into words. 

“What if I asked you to wait here for me, without moving,” Alexej demanded again,“what if I told you to stay here exactly where you are, no matter how long it takes for me to get back? Would you do it?”

Miklós could imagine himself doing that; he could see his own figure sitting at the base of that tree and watching the sun cruise the sky until it hid behind the horizon once again, and he could already feel the torment, that single question drilling itself into the matter of his thoughts.

“Would you really come back?” he asked then, voicing the question, as he felt tears well up in his eyes, as he swallowed as hard as he could and squeezed his eyelids together in the attempt to make them disappear.

“Don’t you trust me?”

Even with Alexej’s fist keeping him pinned against the hard bark of a spruce, the answer seemed obvious. “I do,” sighed Miklós, opening his eyes again, hoping the night would hide their wetness. “If you say you’ll come back, I know you will.”

It was then, and only then, that Alexej’s grasp loosened and set him free. Miklós kept his balance with less difficulty than he had anticipated, and all that was left for him to do was to stand, back against the tree, and wait.

In front of him, Alexej took a deep breath. He sighed, kneeling down to pick up the flashlight Miklós had let fall earlier, what seemed like hours before. As the light source moved, pointed towards the space between them, Miklós recognised a smile on the other’s face, one of those soft and pensive expressions Alexej was prone to.

“Are you aware of how entertaining you are?” Alexej said, holding out the flashlight.

Miklós accepted it with hesitant hands; his nausea was slowly subsiding and the ache in his chest felt less and less pronounced. “What do you mean?” he asked, his mind still dozing off, thoughts almost inert; they moved as if walking through a marsh.

“It’s not important.” Alexej shook his head and turned on his own flashlight, towards the direction they were coming from. “It’s a bit cold to sleep outside,” he explained. “I think we should head back to the car.”

Miklós’ gaze moved from Alexej — his fair skin looked almost ethereal under the moonlight, and his lips looked wet and reddened, as if he had bitten them too hard — to the quiet, indifferent forest around them, smelling of dry resin and pine needles. “So I don’t have to wait for you here?”

Alexej laughed, wrapping an arm around Miklós’ shoulder. “No, of course, you don’t,” he whispered, breath warm against Miklós’ ear. Miklós felt the arm around his shoulders pull him closer, and Alexej rested his chin on Miklós’ head. “On the contrary, Miksa, I’d prefer if you’d never leave my sight from now on.”

His face buried in the crook of the other’s neck, Miksa smiled widely as he breathed in the smell of sweat, and felt Alexej’s words vibrate in his throat. His memories from that night ended up being as hazy as his brain was, but he didn’t forget those words.

———

iii. freeze us both in time

The days that followed were spent in the car.

The roads rolled quickly past the windows, which were sometimes left open to let the winter air in, and over the humming of the engine, the landscape continuously transformed, only to stay ever the same. They often just sat in silence, or talked about nothing over the sound of classical music cassettes (Alexej seemed to have a budding collection of these hidden somewhere); Alexej smoked his cigarettes, filling the car with the smell of nicotine and ash, and Miklós gave directions and kept an eye on gas stations to stop at. When Alexej wasn’t tired, or was in the right mood, they had long conversations.

From him, Miklós discovered the interesting side of literature he had missed at school; he learned about philosophy and sometimes even science. Alexej explained how Dostoevsky used to be a gambling addict and used his writing to pay off his own debts, told him all kinds of stories about Russian writers persecuted by the government and forced to leave the country, explained the ideas of Hobbes, Marx, Stirner, and occasionally turned out to be very opinionated about politics and the Jugoslavian situation.

Miklós knew next to nothing about all of those things, so their conversations ended up being mostly one-sided. He asked question upon question, fascinated but sometimes also disheartened by the large, seemingly unbridgeable, gap between their knowledge.

Along the road, that grey snake crawling endlessly under the wheels of the car, they stopped several times a day. They ate stuffed sandwiches and Hungarian food Miklós had never tasted before, in roadside diners that always had something different. Some were bright with colours and crowded with people, and some looked so grey and empty it was a surprise the owners themselves were there at all, but all of them had one thing in common, and it was the fact that no one, client or shopkeeper, looked at them twice. Even during their frequent stops at gas stations, where Alexej bought him sweets, from time to time, and sometimes picked out a new cassette or a book, the interactions they had with clerks and attendants were so impersonal that Miklós felt as if the two of them lived on a whole separate layer of reality and could only interact with ghostly impressions of people.

But, instead of feeling alienating, it was as if every cycle of the sun, every town they passed, was a lost shackle, a broken chain of the past he had left behind. And because it was just the two of them, no other restraint was formed to take their place, no one tried to hold them back, to make them stay behind. Miklós felt as if they were only bound to each other and every other relationship, rule, or opinion didn’t matter at all.

At night, when the moon rose high up in the starred sky, and the sluggish yellow lights of the car seemed as sleepy as Miklós’ heavy eyelids, they always stopped. Alexej parked by the side of the road, among the trees or sometimes on a lay-by.

They slept in the car, Miklós curled up on the back seat and Alexej sitting behind the wheel, his seat tilted back only slightly. He kept the cabin light or his own flashlight on until late in the night, illuminating the pages of one of his books. Miklós never saw him fall asleep, nor did he ever wake up before him in the morning, for Alexej always started driving when the morning was grey and foggy and Miklós was still curled up under his coat.

The evening of their fifth day of uninterrupted travel, when the stiff muscles of Miklós’ back whined painfully as he lay on the run-down leather, and he couldn’t seem to fall asleep, he finally asked Alexej what he was reading. 

Miklós could see the other’s blond locks of hair and the handsome profile of his face, only mildly roughed by a light unkempt beard; when he murmured the question, it took Alexej the longest moment to draw his eyes away from the page.

The owls in the surrounding woods hooted at each other loudly, while Alexej, in the dimly-lit cabin that felt like the only piece of humanity left in the middle of that cloudless night, browsed through the worn-out pages, looking for something.

He didn’t offer any explanation, and started reading out loud instead. His voice was full-toned and soothing, and Miklós, tired eyelids resting, simply listened, slowly drifting to sleep.

It was clear that he must not now suffer passively,” Alexej was reading as Miklós’ mind wandered away, “worrying himself over unsolved questions, but that he must do something, do it at once, and do it quickly. Anyway he must decide on something, or else…

‘Or throw up life altogether!’ he cried suddenly, in a frenzy — ‘accept one’s lot humbly as it is, once for all and stifle everything in oneself, giving up all claim to activity, life and love!’

‘Do you understand, sir, do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?’ Marmeladov’s question came suddenly into his mind, ‘for every man must have somewhere to turn.…’

Miklós never heard the continuation, much less the end of the passage, but, as his consciousness floated away, he felt somehow reassured. Maybe it was because of Alexej’s voice, or maybe because the struggle those words expressed didn’t belong to him any longer — or maybe those reasons were one and the same.

That night, he dreamed of indecipherable maps, of tangled yellow, green and pink lines, of thick red walls in the middle of a forest and of sky blue eyes. He woke up when the car was still parked at the side of the road; Alexej leaned against the window of his seat, smoking a cigarette.

It took them another two days before they reached the city highlighted on the map, whose topography Miklós had been peeking at for days now.

After what amounted to more than a week on the road, Alexej didn’t seem to have suffered the hardships of the long drive as much as Miklós had. Except for his unkempt state, he didn’t even look that tired.

Miklós, on the other hand, bore the signs of the exhausting rhythm of their journey in the circles steadily forming under his eyes, in his stiffened back and in the messy state of his hair, everywhere but in that smile he could find no way to hide after seeing the first city lights, on the evening of the eighth day.

Hotels in this town were supposed to be more luxurious than the previous one — that was what Alexej said. As far as Miklós was concerned, he wasn’t sure he would be able to tell the difference; at that point, any bed would have seemed to him the softest ever created.

***

The shops and bars’ neon lights painted the sidewalk with pinks and blues, and people, plenty of them, passed by without even looking twice. The sun had set hours before, when they arrived at the hotel, and the dark sky that now hung over them with the promise of a clear night was far less starry than it should have been.

It was a sudden contrast: it felt all but outside of the realm of possibility that the trees, the fields, and the empty dust roads would lead them to such a place. Miklós had never been in the city, in any city whatsoever, and, as they drove towards that one, the transition of the landscape had been nowhere near subtle. Tall buildings had started sliding past the car window without notice, as the suddenly large and brightly lit streets filled with people and sounds: just as in spring, the tree branches woke up laden with flowers in the space of a night, so did the city bloom in less than one kilometre.

Even then, long after dinnertime, after they had both gotten cleaned up and changed, the streets were crowded and bustling, and the buildings hid the moon behind their high roofs.

Alexej trod the sidewalk, perfectly at ease with the explosion of life around him, and Miklós hurried behind him with sweaty palms. The rolled-down shutters seemed to be a popular gathering place, and small groups sat smoking and chatting on the front steps of each closed shop. The pubs and bars were filled to the brim, to the point it was almost surprising to look up and not see the sun crown the peak of the sky.

With his attention divided between the ever-changing stimuli from the unfamiliar surroundings and his attempt to stay at Alexej’s heels, Miklós stumbled on nothing, only saved by Alexej’s quick reflexes and the warmth of his grasp.

“Be careful,” Alexej said, his gaze focused on something else.

Miklós gripped the edge of Alexej’s coat with one hand, as Alexej continued making his way through the crowded sidewalk. It was, admittedly, not that hard to walk, and perhaps what seemed like an incredible crowd to Miklós — so much he felt his lungs squeezed in his chest, as if there wasn’t enough air — was normal for a city that big.

When they stopped, Miklós almost stepping on Alexej’s heels, Miklós was crumpling a corner of Alexej’s coat, nervously gripping it as if holding on for dear life. Alexej must have noticed, for his fair, smooth hand closed around Miklós’ grip, delicately loosening it until he finally let go.

Miklós looked up and saw the city lights reflected in Alexej’s blue irises, but his gaze was directed somewhere else. He let his arm fall down by his side and looked around, too, trying to see, to understand what had managed to steal those eyes’ attention. Having Alexej’s focus be anything other than himself, Miklós realised, made him feel uneasy, as if something gnawed at his guts, as if the food in his stomach had developed its own will and was running around into his body.

“How do you like it?” Alexej asked with a smile, finally looking at him. “The city.”

The neon lights mirrored in his clear eyes were like purple spots on his irises, and his face looked unnaturally coloured — the greens, the blues and the pinks all mixed upon it, as if he was the canvas for some strange art. 

“It’s… bright.”

Miklós had thought the city would be exciting, mesmerizing; now that he had finally seen it he found himself thinking anything but that, finding it scary, suffocating and cold. However, reflected on Alexej’s face, even the sharp city lights looked comfortable.

Alexej smiled that smile Miklós had only seen directed at himself, and without notice he took Miklós by the hand, his palm soft, warm and familiar, and pulled him along, leading the way.

Surprise seized Miklós’ chest and pleasantly bubbled in his lungs.

***

When they finally left the streets, it was in favour of a slightly less crowded place, with a sign not as colourful as the others, but not muted enough to be anywhere near inconspicuous.

Inside, a large room opened before them, lights and walls all in tones of white, metal tables all around, mostly occupied by well dressed people that didn’t look as young as most of those in the streets outside. In a corner, a man with grey hair and a blue suit played a classical piece on the upright piano. The chatter of the bar’s patrons filled the room like the constant buzzing of the car’s engine had filled the cabin when Miklós and Alexej travelled, and, just like the sound of the engine, it wasn’t anywhere near loud enough to drown out the music.

Alexej led the two of them towards a table in the corner on the far side, not too distant from the piano — in fact, close enough that Miklós could see the old man’s wrinkled but agile hands move across the keyboard — but far enough to be somewhat private.

The table, small and much cleaner than those diner counters Miklós had gotten used to during that past week, was only occupied by a drink menu.

Miklós sat on one of the two chairs, looking around. His colourful sweater and his pair of jeans looked unforgivably out of place, and he didn’t feel like he himself could fit in, either, not even if he were to dress up. He felt the gazes of the people all around them sting his nape, needles pricking at it as if looking to draw blood. These people did not feel like shadows, not at all: they looked at Miklós and Alexej as if they actually saw them, as if they were wondering who they were, why they were there, as if judging their clothes, their hair, the way they moved, talked and acted; and Miklós couldn’t imagine those judgements could be positive, at least when it came to himself.

Without realising, he was sinking his nails into the skin of his palms, as deep as those invisible needles, when Alexej stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and he left, just like that.

As Miklós sat in loneliness, the feeling of being out of place only got stronger.

Of course Miklós waited, against a burning urge telling him to leave, go anywhere else, go be next to Alexej so that the weight in his stomach would be lifted by his presence. Alexej had said Miklós was to never leave his side, and Miklós still remembered how his breath had smelled when he said that, his low tone of voice and the warmth of his hold pulling Miklós close. He wanted it to be like that.

Alexej was walking towards the counter, and he stopped halfway, spoke to a girl: fair-haired, young-faced, her uniform suggested she was a waitress. After what seemed like a discussion — words, mute in the distance, going back and forth between them, Alexej occasionally flashing his best smile at her hesitant expression — they finally separated, and Alexej headed back towards the side of the room where their table was.

The brown jacket he was wearing was maybe a bit too loose (Miklós could see how it hung off his frame) and it almost completely hid the sleeves of the white shirt he had on underneath; yet, seeing how Alexej wore it, one would have said it was a stylistic choice.

Alexej approached the piano right when the last notes of the song that had been playing in the background, a forgettable instrumental piece, resonated in the room. 

He raised his eyes, and it took him just a moment to find Miklós’ and just as long to melt the ice shards in his chest, to wordlessly reassure him, even just a little. It was enough, however, for Miklós to stop obsessing about the gazes he couldn’t help feeling pointed at himself, to acknowledge the waitress from before, serving two tall glasses of beer at his table, and to thank her before she left.

From behind his beer, Miklós saw Alexej lean forward, exchange whispered words with the pianist, put his hands together in a pleading manner, and bow slightly when the old man took his wrinkled hands away from the keyboard and left the stool. The pianist pulled a chair and sat close by, as Alexej took his seat behind the piano, and even without an elegant midnight blue suit, he looked as if he was meant to be right there.

Before Alexej’s hands touched the black and white keys, Miklós realised the tense anticipation discharging through his muscles, down his crossed and then uncrossed legs, to the points of his feet. He felt something warm inside him, at the thought that Alexej had taken his drunken request from more than a week before that seriously. 

Alexej’s blue eyes, half-covered by a lock of hair that had escaped his styling attempts earlier that night, were fixed on the keys. With his head bowed down slightly over the piano, Alexej started playing.

The music began slowly and sweetly, long notes following one another in the soothing melody of a lullaby, with properties almost akin to magic — for it flew as if it had its own life and history, as if Alexej was the one being played and not the one playing it. It evoked peaceful images, of summer nights and warm hugs; Miklós could almost smell the reassuring scent of fresh grass, like when he lay down in the fields to stare at the firmament. Alexej’s eyes seemed closed from that distance, and yet Miklós watched his hands glide nimbly across the white and black keyboard, his fingers pushing down each key with touches that looked as light as feathers but produced a sound that resonated strongly through the bar.

The background chatter was reduced to a whisper, and everyone’s attention seemed to be focused on the new pianist. Miklós was almost enraptured, and his hand was closed around the glass of beer that stood tall on the table, as if paralyzed in a now-forgotten intention to take a sip.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” He heard a gentle, lilting voice coming from his side.

It belonged to a girl — more of a woman, really — with long, unbelievably straight black hair falling on her shoulders, and a pair of bright green eyes nestled on her perfectly symmetrical face. Miklós nodded, and soon turned back to look at Alexej again and caught him returning the gaze, flashing a smile before focusing back on the music.

“Good and handsome,” the girl commented, disrupting Miklós’ attention again. He turned towards her once more, and this time he noticed her dress. It was actually quite discreet, high-necked and of a deep, dark shade of green. She was looking at Alexej with a certain intensity in her gaze. Her eyes were focused and moved slightly as if following the motions of his hands, and yet she also seemed determined to have a conversation with Miklós, in the meantime.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him around,” she commented.

“We’re just passing through,” Miklós explained, a creeping wariness bleaching his voice of its usual friendliness.

“Oh, that’s a pity,” she sighed, and however exaggerated, she seemed totally honest. “He does that in every city you pass through?” she asked, leaning on the table and pointing towards Alexej with a single raised finger. 

“No.”

She had short-cut, unpainted nails atop long, thin fingers, and somehow, despite their elegance, they seemed to be a discordant note in the score of her appearance. That grating feeling was too soon gone when she hid her hand in her hair, scratching the back of her neck.

“Then this is a special occasion,” she continued, and now she was looking at Miklós from her taller position, still standing next to the table. “I feel lucky to be here,” she said, smiling. 

It was a pleasant smile, and Miklós felt himself softening. The music Alexej was playing lulled the whole room, and he felt as if it was a delicate caress soothing his soul. The jarring feeling of dissonance he had felt earlier was soon forgotten.

“You’re celebrating something?” she asked.

Miklós shook his head. “I just wanted to hear him play.”

The woman raised her eyes to look at Alexej again, and Miklós too followed the direction of her gaze, smiled at the focused but relaxed expression on Alexej’s face, one he had never seen on him before.

“He chose a very sweet song,” she whispered, almost as if talking to herself, but not quite softly enough.

“He told me it’s one of his favourites,” Miklós disclosed, his eyes again following the nimble movements of Alexej’s fingers on the black and white keys. He made it seem effortless, as if music just bloomed spontaneously from his fingertips.

“What’s your name?”

The woman’s voice seemed so far away, and Miklós didn’t think too much — still focused on the last, sweet notes of the piece — before introducing himself.

“Evelin, nice to meet you.” He heard her voice chirp from his right. “Can I sit at your table, Miklós?” she asked then. And it was only when she repeated his name that the feeling of strife returned, casting a dissonant tone on the final note of Alexej’s piece. “I want to compliment your friend,” she insisted, as a warm, albeit somehow quiet applause poured down like thin rain.

Miklós hesitated, but she sat down anyway, pulling a chair from a nearby empty table and taking a place between him and Alexej’s empty chair. Miklós’ gaze was lowered, but he could tell, somehow, that Alexej was finally coming back to the table.

“You’re a bit young to drink beer, aren’t you?” the woman observed, again without bothering to wait for an answer before she acted. She slid the glass of beer on the table to position it in front of her, and shifted in her place on the chair. 

His eyes pointed towards the floor, Miklós could see her right foot tick restlessly on the ground.

***

If Alexej was bothered by the girl’s presence, he didn’t show any sign of it.

When he arrived back at the table, her prying presence did not even put a wrinkle between Alexej’s eyebrows. On the contrary, when she promptly stood up to shake his hand and introduce herself, he smiled pleasantly, offering a name of his own — a made up one: László. 

“I expected the hands of a pianist to be softer,” she commented, raking her fingers over the skin of his palm.

Alexej laughed, his voice ringing, clear and refreshing, through the air around him. Miklós’ eyes glued on him, grabbed on to his figure as if it was the only thing that could keep him from sinking in the quicksand of his feelings.

“That’s because I’m not a pianist,” he said.

Miklós noticed every little movement he made: his hand slipping away from hers to close around his glass; the slow movement of his arm as he brought the beer to his mouth, wetting his pale lips in its gold; his slightly raised eyebrows over the eyes that still flashed open as he drank. Most of all, however, Miklós noticed how Alexej seemed to be precisely avoiding looking at him.

Evelin leaned forward — Milkòs caught the movement from the corner of his eye — uncomfortably close to Alexej for his tastes. “And what do you do for a living, to have such strong hands?” she asked, and she was a purring black cat with sharp eyes, her voice mellow and smooth.

Alexej still hadn’t taken his eyes off her. His unfading smile tensed, only a little, at that question. His fingers combed through his hair, his rebel lock once again slipping out of place. “I’ve done all kinds of jobs while studying, but now I’m just travelling around,” he replied, teeth peeking out of his smile. Miklós knew they weren’t just travelling, and yet it bothered him, it ruffled his feathers all the wrong way, that he couldn’t tell if the first part of Alexej’s sentence was a lie or the truth. He didn’t care about his past, it meant nothing whether Alexej was a student like Edi, or a farmer, or a soldier, or the son of a rich musician, as long as he was the same person that offered Miklós help, bought him clothes, asked him to stay by his side. He didn’t care what his past was but, he realised, he wanted to know about it.

“Your friend Miklós is a fellow student? He looks young for that,” she inquired, smile briefly flattening on her face.

Alexej glared at him for barely a second, quickly looking away, but it was enough for Miklós to feel himself plummet down to the center of the Earth, propelled by the sheer force of that look.

“He’s my brother,” Alexej explained, and his voice sounded colder than the night outside. “I had to bring him along; it was a request from my parents.” He shrugged. 

Evelin turned towards Miklós, and seemed to want to add something, but Alexej’s fingers brushed against the hand that she had placed on the table, caressing it and then taking it into his own, stealing back her attention. “What about you? Your hands aren’t all that soft either.”

It stormed and blew inside Miklós’ mind, and he could barely tell apart the words that he heard, for Alexej still wouldn’t look at him, except for that single glare, and he felt lonely and lost, out of place, and he felt the weight of his mistake pushing him down. He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong: maybe it had been the name, maybe letting the girl sit there, maybe uttering no word since Alexej had come back to the table.

His visceral reaction was the impulse to run away from that situation, but if he wanted to get up and leave, right then, where would he go? If Alexej got angry and told him to leave, where would he go? Those were the questions being thrown around in his head, howling in his mind as he tried to control the swelling sensation in his guts that wasn’t really far from making it hard to breathe.

The woman, Evelin, had a beautiful smile. Her skin, smooth and unblemished, had the scent of summer fruit; her slim body looked like it could have been on some fashion magazine and, as far as Miklós could tell, maybe it was.

Maybe he was just jealous that she wasn’t talking to him, that he was being left out of the conversation after being used as an instrument to start it. Or maybe the sense of alarm that her closeness to Alexej triggered inside him spoke of a much more instinctive fear, the fear that he would be replaced.

Evelin put her hand on Alexej’s shoulder, leaning even closer to him, as if, like that, Miklós wouldn’t hear her whispering. “You know, I know a place where they have the best beer in all Hungary. Would you like to go?” she asked. One of her hands casually rested on Alexej’s thigh, and he was staring at her as if trying to learn her face by heart.

Miklós wanted to look away, to stand up and leave, but he felt as if he were floundering about, in search of the force of will that it would take for him to even simply straighten his back, to utter a sound, to take a deep breath. The large room, the small crowd all around, the buzzing of their voices, the waitresses navigating it to serve drinks and salty snacks, the old and grey man playing a melody on the piano that sounded nowhere as sweet or as calming as the one Alexej had played before him, even Alexej and the woman chatting right in front of him, it all seemed so terribly far away. Even the warmth of the room started to feel unbearable. 

His mouth tasted like iron, as if everything around him was covered in rust. His teeth sank into his lower lip desperately, trying to keep his mouth from opening, but the pain he should have felt from it barely even registered. His nails carving half-moons in the soft flesh of his palm were but a stinging sensation.

Miklós barely moved, his muscles still bursting with the tension of that internal fight to stay still, which his brain had just miserably lost against. It was then that Alexej shot him a glance. When his eyes met Miklós’, they widened a little in what could have been surprise, anger, or maybe worry. It was so brief Miklós could have imagined it, and yet that simple look sent his mind racing, wondering if he should have actually gotten up and left for a while, if Alexej actually wanted him out of the way.

The woman’s words, which Miklós wasn’t even trying to follow anymore, were interrupted halfway, her hands ignored as Alexej stood up suddenly. She froze in place too, her eyebrows furrowed slightly, as if the expected surprise hadn’t completely hit her just yet.

Alexej circled the table to stand behind Miklós, clearly shifting the atmosphere around the table. He seemed to be the only one at ease with the new mood.

“I would be delighted to continue this conversation, Evelin,” he said, and Miklós could feel the warmth of Alexej’s body behind his back, and the air itself felt far more breathable. “But my brother is pretty tired, as you can see.”

Miklós craned his neck backwards, to look up towards Alexej. He had a pleasant smile on his face and one hand closed around Miklós’ shoulder. When their gazes met, however, his look was more of a glare, and as quick as it had come, Miklós’ gaze whisked away.

“I see,” Evelin acknowledged, simply. She seemed distraught, more than surprised. “Sorry, Miklós,” she said, “I didn’t realise.” 

She held out her hand, not to Alexej, but to him. Her bright green eyes looked straight into Miklós’, and there was a kindness in them when she spoke again.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” she said. Her gentleness belonged to an old woman talking to a child. It was condescending, in a way, as if she knew so much more than he did, and wanted to offer him her wisdom because he wouldn’t be able to understand certain things otherwise.

Miklós didn’t like it, nor did he like her. He could take care of himself pretty well, all things considered, and Alexej had helped prove it. But Evelin was holding her hand out to him, and Miklós didn’t understand why, but he shook it anyway. “For me, too,” he said, and he was reasonably sure it was a lie.

***

“You told her your actual name?”

Miklós trotted along not unlike a child, following Alexej’s lead inside the corridors of the hotel. The place had felt the westernisation of the recent years more than others, or at least that was the comment Alexej had made when he first saw the colourful posters covering the walls. They were advertisements for products Miklós had never seen before, soft drinks, sweets and clothes, and it was unclear why one would desire such a collection.

They had walked in silence for a long time, after leaving the bar and the company of that woman, so when Alexej finally talked it was both a relief and a punch in the gut. Of course, the silence was broken, but Miklós wished it wasn’t a scolding that had broken it.

“I’m sorry,” murmured Miklós, hurrying up to Alexej’s side. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Miklós wrung his hands together, twisting his fingers, rubbing the palms against one another, his voice thin and hesitating; his eyes darted towards Alexej’s face and then the floor, the wall or any other surrounding surface he could pretend to be interested in.

Alexej’s expression was tensed in a preoccupied grimace, and he snorted audibly at Milkòs’ attempted apologies, before getting back to rummaging in his pockets for the keys.

“I’m not used to this,” insisted Miklós, not without a note of desperation in his voice. The need to be forgiven burned his throat and his windpipe, turning his voice hoarse and making it hard to breathe. Words crowded out of his mouth regardless, the air in his lungs on the brink of not being enough. “I’m not a good liar, she just came up and asked questions and–”

“Spare me the excuses, would you?” Alexej, who had found the key and quickly opened the door of their room, barely looked at Miklós before walking inside.

“I’m sorry.”

For a moment, Miklós almost expected Alexej to close the door behind himself and lock him out. He feared it, and yet did nothing about it, as if some part of himself considered it a rational punishment. After all, it was even kind, if compared to his father’s standards: Alexej wasn’t screaming at him, threatening him or calling him names; he wasn’t yanking him inside a room and locking him there; he had never raised a hand against him at all. In fact, Alexej wasn’t doing anything except for sounding irritated and looking upset.

Alexej was nothing like Miklós’ father, of course. And that was why, standing in the room’s entrance, he was waiting. When Miklós didn’t walk in, he even urged him in with an impatient gesture.

“I’m sorry,” repeated Miklós after the door was closed behind him. One of his hands had somehow ended up grabbing Alexej’s shirt and gripping it, the smooth texture of fabric wrinkling between his trembling fingers. The gestures accompanying Alexej’s exasperated sigh were distorted by the tears welling up in Miklós’ eyes. 

“Are you angry with me, Aleš?”

Alexej seized Miklós’ wrists, forcing his hands away from the now hopelessly crumpled shirt and dragging them up, next to Miklós’ face. “I’m not angry,” he grunted, unconvincingly.

Miklós found himself meeting the other’s eyes, filtered through the tears that turned them into a confused kaleidoscope of blues and whites. The room in the background was equally confused, the white-painted furniture, the colourful bed sheets, all mixed in indistinguishable background shapes. Only the strong, artificial smell of the air freshener remained to identify the place clearly, at least until wet lines started striping Miklós’ face as the tears began falling from his eyes. He made no effort to hide them.

Alexej sighed, loosening his grip on Miklós’ wrists. Through the unstoppable tears, Miklós made out Alexej’s fair face, his expression softening; he saw Alexej get closer and closer, until all he could see was the shirt’s white fabric, until all he could feel was the warmth of the arms wrapped around his shoulders. In that moment, nothing else but the two of them existed — the two of them and the heavy weight of Miklós’ guilt.

“I’m just worried, Miksa,” Alexej whispered against Miklós’ ear. “I’m not angry with you.”

Miklós closed his eyes, squeezed his eyelids together, and kept them stubbornly shut. He breathed in Alexej’s full scent, his face buried in the other’s chest, tears still streaming down his face and into the other’s clothes. He returned the hug fervently, the shirt once again crumpled in his fists.

“Stop crying.” One of Alexej’s hands traveled up Miklós’ nape, brushed through his hair gingerly, tracing imaginary figures on the back of his head, pulling him closer and closer yet. 

Miklós snivelled loudly, shoulders shuddering along. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t cry,” said Alexej, slowly, but firmly.

Miklós could hear the sound of Alexej’s heartbeat, regular, calm, relaxing, and found himself matching the flow of his own breathing to it. Stopping his sobs became easier. “I ruined your evening,” he whimpered, still in the middle of attempting to calm down.

“It’s not your fault.”

Miklós could almost believe it, if not for the nagging voice in the back of his mind that couldn’t really believe Alexej, despite Miklós wanting nothing but to believe him. “It’s my fault, and I’m sorry.”

Alexej’s arms stiffened around him, and his grip on Miklós’ hair tightened. Slightly, so much that Miklós wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t so tense. “Miklós,” murmured Alexej, calling his full name for once. His tongue danced on the final letter in that funny way it always did.

When the hug broke, it was because Alexej pushed him away, both hands gripping his shoulders. 

“Do you like being treated like a child?” Alexej asked, eyes firmly fastened on Miklós’.

“No.” The word felt as if it was ripped from Miklós’ tongue, and it tasted like uncooked cabbage.

“Then stop acting like one.”

Alexej was serious as ever, his shoulders stiff, and his hands gripped Miklós’ shoulders even a bit too tightly. He was also right: Miklós had no doubts about it. He nodded, ashamed of the dried tears that still streaked his face.

Alexej ruffled his hair affectionately, a warm smile back on his face so quickly it seemed as if had never left. “You made a mistake. It’s fine,” he assured him, taking Miklós’ face between his hands and leaving a kiss right in the middle of his forehead, warming him from head to toe.

Miklós knew that the matter was closed — in Alexej’s book, at least — when Alexej turned away with a shrug. “Everyone does, sooner or later,” Alexej said under his breath, sounding more as if he was talking to himself.

———

iv. find your hands in the dark

Miklós didn’t know those woods, but at the same time, they looked familiar enough to make him feel comfortable, even safe.

There were things all woods seemed to share, and it wasn’t simply trees. It was the moist scent of musk, the sound of creaking leaves, branches rasping, birds rustling their wings. Even the wind sounded the same everywhere, a wailing howl that would make one think it held the whole world on its invisible shoulders.

Everyone had taught him — his parents, the teachers at school — that nature had it out for him, that storms were dangerous and that the thick of the woods wanted to gobble him up. They painted these things like dark, ugly monsters you had to avoid, learn to tame or run away from. They told him about dangerous animals and poisonous plants, about how wolves would come for him if he stayed out in the woods during the night, and how he would get hungry and eat the wrong things and die in horrible ways.

Miklós felt as if unlearning all those things took a lot less effort than memorising them.

The woods felt safer than his own house back in Dobrovnik; they felt more familiar than the city. The warm fire crackling in the clearing offered comfort from the cold without asking anything in return, and the grass under their backs was pleasantly dry, if maybe a bit cold. The smoke from the bonfire smelled a little like vinegar and made a thin hissing sound, creating, together with the swaying branches and the night birds, some sort of gentle background melody.

Alexej had left him their only blanket and sat closer to the fire, burning a twig as he stared into it. Miklós still hadn’t mustered the courage to ask what he was thinking about. 

He was staring at Alexej, from behind, back resting against the car, and a tiny smile stood proudly on his face. He felt useful for having found the clearing in the trees himself; for having guided Alexej, with the car, to where they were now; for having lighted the fire himself — with the help of a matchstick of course, but asking nothing else of Alexej, and using broken branches and twigs he’d found himself.

His friend — which Miklós dared call Alexej only in the privacy of his head — seemed satisfied enough about the whole thing. He was obviously in a good mood, at least compared to his usual silence. He was singing to himself, a wordless melody under his breath, and he looked more relaxed, like the first days they’d spent together.

In the last two days, they had covered a lot more ground than planned and Alexej was contemplating the idea of skipping their stops in the next couple of towns, to travel even faster. Miklós was sure his hurry had something to do with what had happened in the bar, with the woman, but couldn’t really put his finger on how exactly. He had also thought the whole thing would make Alexej stressed and difficult to deal with; so far, he had been proven wrong on that, so he wondered if the first speculation wasn’t wrong, too.

The sky over their heads was as clear as it came, and the full moon towered in the middle of it, close to the zenith, bright as a city light. It was late, and Miklós could feel tiredness creeping at the sides of his eyelids.

He crawled towards Alexej, pulling the blanket along with him and then extending it over the other’s shoulders, to share the warmth: it didn’t seem right for him to use it alone. Alexej froze for a second, apparently surprised, but then got back to what he was doing without a word. When he peeked over Alexej’s shoulder, Miklós saw that he was holding what looked like a handmade cigarette between his fingers.

“Light it for me, would you?” Alexej asked, putting the smoke between his lips and handing him the twig he’d been playing with.

Miklós nodded, shoved one end of the stick into the bonfire and then used it to light Alexej’s smoke. His hand shook slightly, when the twig ended up making a flame bigger than he expected. Regardlessly, Miklós managed to successfully do what Alexej had asked, and without him offering any protest or suggestion.

Once one end of the cigarette was burning, Alexej inhaled deeply, eyes closed and a relaxed expression on his face. His messy hair and the fair face it framed looked much livelier now, coloured by the light of the fire and flushed by its warmth. Only after a couple of seconds did Alexej exhale, right into Miklós’ face.

It didn’t smell like cigarettes at all, and Miklós coughed slightly at the unexpected smell.

Alexej smiled, pulling him close. “Would you like a drag?”

Miklós’ eyes drifted from Alexej’s smirk to the smoke burning slowly between his fingers and back. “That’s not a cigarette,” he observed, unsure if it was a question or not.

Alexej snickered. “No, it’s not. Try it!” he insisted, all but pushing the thing between Miklós’s fingers.

The fire crackling almost startled Miklós, as he self-consciously tried to imitate his older friend. He wasn’t sure of what to do, but when Alexej’s gaze rested on him so softly, he didn’t feel so anxious about getting things wrong. Everyone made mistakes sooner or later, after all.

And smoking couldn’t be that hard.

The drag Miklós took left a piney taste on the tongue, and the aroma of something else similar to its smell. It wasn’t unpleasant, and he didn’t even cough as much as Edi had when trying his first cigarette. He must have had a funny face when he exhaled, however, because Alexej’s lips spread in an amused smile.

“Take another if you like it,” he encouraged.

Shoulder against shoulder, they huddled close together under the blanket. The night was clear and unusually warm for the season, but it was still winter. Close as they were, Miklós’s muscles finally started to relax as a reaction to the newfound warmth. He would have loved to sleep like that, instead of inside the car.

After receiving an approving look from Alexej, Miklós took another drag.

The second time, it tasted even better.

He didn’t know if that smoke had anything to do with it, or if it was Alexej pulling him closer as he stole it back, but Miklós hadn’t felt so lighthearted in ages. 

***

There was much Miklós disliked about cities, and even towns.

It was mostly the people in them.

From his position in the passenger seat of Alexej’s car, Miklós imagined how that whole town would look if empty of gazes, of meaningless conversations, of people wearing out the stones under their feet for reasons that, to him, seemed trivial at best. He imagined how it would look if Alexej’s parked car was the only one there, if the two of them had a whole town for themselves.

In his mind, the man in a suit with a leather suitcase in hand walking on the opposite side of the road simply disappeared with all his things, and the shiny black car he’d just parked; the woman selling steamed corn on the street corner found herself somewhere else, where Miklós would never meet her; the mother walking hand in hand with her two children was simply not there anymore, and neither were her loud offspring.

He remembered vaguely some scenes from an old movie he’d seen on TV, one evening at Maja’s place. Scenes of a softly lit, vast, empty space the likes of which he doubted could really exist. It looked much much bigger than any of the town’s fields, and there was no house, no one anywhere, just two solitary figures at the edge of the picture, that looked no bigger than two little pencil strokes at the edge of a huge sheet of paper. That’s how Miklós would have liked to be, a little pencil stroke at the edge of a white page.

He liked loneliness, and he liked Alexej because he felt exactly like loneliness, and his hugs were so light they left no traces, and so big he could lose himself in them.

A tapping sound on the window of the car brought him violently back to reality.

On the other side of the glass, a familiar face returned Miklós’ gaze. Her eyelids fluttered over a keen pair of green eyes, and a long-fingered hand waved a greeting. It was difficult to place her, at first, all bundled up in an oversized sweatshirt, but her voice, however muffled it was from outside the closed boundaries of the car, was unmistakable.

Miklós couldn’t place the feeling that had just coiled around his guts, and he just sat there, unresponsive.

Evelin didn’t seem to think much of that and simply gestured for him to lower the window of the car. For some reason, Miklòs did. 

“Don’t you remember me? Evelin! From the other day, in the city?” She smiled widely at him, and it was then that Miklós recognised the spiralling grip inside him as a particularly alarmed kind of worry; fear, almost.

“What are you doing here?” he muttered, more to himself than to her. He looked around, as casually as possible, instinctively checking for Alexej’s presence. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. 

“It seems we’re travelling in the same direction,” she informed him. “What a lucky coincidence!”

None of the feelings resulting from the other night had been forgotten by Miklós, and the mere memory of them made him wish for nothing but Evelin’s disappearance. She beamed her smile, just as condescending as the other night, hiding that same unwelcome friendliness behind white teeth and under long eyelashes and dark locks of hair. He wished he had the confidence to wipe it all away.

A voice in the back of Miklós’ mind kept telling him to do something, anything, to make her go away before Alexej came back. Unfortunately, intensely wishing for her to leave didn’t seem to work.

“How’s your friend?”

“He’s fine,” Miklós murmured, looking away from her and her unnervingly amicable expression. 

“I would love to see him again. Where is he?” Miklós felt her getting closer even before he turned to see her fingers closing around the edge of the open car window. There was interest shining in her eyes, an inquisitive light in them as they blinked way too near his face. 

“He went to buy some things we need,” he answered, vaguely. She didn’t need to know the truth, did she? Alexej got angry at him when he told her the truth, last time.

“I see.” Her short nails tapped rhythmically against the body of the car, and she looked around.

Silence fell between the two of them, and the thought of Alexej filled it, as wide and cumbersome as his presence would have been.

Miklós wished he knew what to do. Instead, he sat back inside the car that smelled like their trips, and stared at that kind woman who liked Alexej apparently as much as Miklós disliked her. She was looking so attentively all around them one might say she was examining the street, and the way the setting sun plunged it into an orange expanse, if that made any kind of sense.

Then, all of a sudden, she stopped.

“Weren’t you two brothers?” she said, turning back to Miklós. The same inquisitive gaze that inspected their surroundings was now probing Miklós, instead, the light of a hopeful smile relaxing her features.

“Uhm.” He hesitated. “Yes…” 

“You don’t look alike,” she declared. 

She waited just long enough, before continuing, to let the fear that had been stirring at the edges of Miklós’ brain throw itself at him. There was no malice, no ill-intent anywhere on her face, in her posture, and that only made it all the more confusing.

“He’s prettier,” she said, murmured, her face half-shoved inside the car, “and you have a stronger accent.”

Miklós’ feeling of alarm barely left space for anything but the sharpness of fear, its poisonous fangs injecting liquid apprehension into his veins. What would Alexej want him to do, he thought, asked himself as if believing some part of him could own the answer. 

“Are you two really brothers?” Evelin asked, and still her face looked gentle, her hand offered itself to him in nothing but friendliness, the gap between what she said and what quivered behind her big green eyes getting wider and wider. “You can tell me, Miklós.”

The silence that followed spoke with Alexej’s voice, whispered words into Miklós’ ears that he only had to repeat out loud.

“What do you want?” he blurted out, crossing his arms against his chest. The hand she was holding out closed in a fist, lost the impetus keeping it outstretched.

“Why so defensive?” Her expression, right then, reminded Miklós of his mother, of her repeated attempts at tearing down the walls keeping his thoughts inside, of her insistence on prying into things he considered private, things that belonged only to him. It didn’t make Evelin any more likable. 

“Your questions are inappropriate,” he said. “You have no right to ask them. Who are you?” 

“I’m just someone who’s worried about you.”

If she was lying, then her way of doing it was so earnest, so keen and heartfelt he hardly felt like she was. 

“Worried about me?” he echoed, confused. 

She nodded as if she’d just said the most natural, obvious thing. Miklós only wanted her to leave, and the complicated bundle of questions she brought along to follow her. 

“I’m fine,” he told her. “Ale–” he stopped short of saying his name, held it on his tongue and swallowed it back. “He takes good care of me.”

Miklós didn’t care enough about her to wonder if what crossed her face was sadness, anger or worry.

“Miklós, are you sure of that?” she asked. “Don’t you want to go home?”

Her face was too close, and her words hid mysteries behind lies. Miklós didn’t care about any of it, he only wanted the road, empty towns to explore, and a soft bed every once in a while, to dream close enough to Alexej to breathe in his scent. 

“Who are you?” he repeated, louder this time.

“You’re nothing like him, Miklós,” she insisted, but her hand had retreated and her head was outside the cabin of the car now. 

“Leave us alone,” he told her, and it sounded like a warning he didn’t believe in. “Please, just leave!”

Miklós was pretty sure that the fact that Evelin left had nothing to do with him asking nicely, however desperately. He was content enough with her doing it, however — raising her hand in defeat, nodding, murmuring something reassuring, then finally turning her back to him and walking away — and was too absorbed in the effort of forgetting about her to ask himself anything else. 

He just wanted to leave her behind with everyone else.

***

“Do you think I’m unlikeable?” 

The rolling movement of the car running through the countryside and the sweet notes of piano music Alexej had chosen had lulled Miklós into a comfortable sleepiness. Maybe that was why those words left his mouth before he could even realise it, moving straight from his brain to his lips.

He had been thinking about Evelin, about her forehead wrinkled with genuine worry, her intruding hands taking up space that didn’t belong to them, her questions as inappropriate as they were absurd. He had been thinking about how she’d tried to take him away. Then he had been thinking about her in a pretty dress, smiling at Alexej, touching his hands, sitting between him and Miklós, and about Alexej smiling back.

Alexej wasn’t smiling in that moment, but he was humming the melody playing on the radio, his mind apparently far away. He looked tired, and had been silent for a while, leaving Miklós’ thoughts free to wander roads he had promised himself to leave untrodden, letting his half-asleep mind conjure up the thought — large, imposing, inescapable — that ended up rolling down his tongue, somehow.

Alexej reacted slowly. He turned down the music, the gentle melody sliding in the background of their conversation, caressing the back of their thoughts. Then, he let out a sigh, slowing down the car. Outside, the dust from the wheels racing progressively subsided.

“Would I be travelling with you if I thought you to be unlikeable?” Alexej replied, glancing at him for no more than a moment.

Miklós went silent. He had no choice but to let his thoughts run around in their own circles, but he could choose not to let the same words leave his mouth again and again. That would undoubtedly make him unlikeable, after all.

When Alexej’s gaze was too hot on his nape and his ears had gone as red as if the temperature had actually risen, Miklós shook his head weakly.

“No,” he voiced, stealing a look at Alexej. His friend wasn’t looking at the road at all, not anymore. The view around them had stopped moving and the engine’s humming had died down, together with the music playing on the radio, which made the silence growing between them much heavier than before.

“No, but?” Alexej’s voice was kind, and it felt as if it was single-handedly peeling off layer after layer of Miklós’ confused barriers, fences he kept building around his concerns; it felt as if the simple sound of it was clearing the way for his thoughts by vibrating softly through the air.

It took infinitely long moments, a strained effort and all the weight of the night-wood silence to draw the words out of Miklós’ mouth, but when he finally spoke, he felt the huge weight of doubt lift from his chest.

“Wouldn’t you prefer a girl to keep you company?” Miklós simply asked.

And, as soon as he did, another weight took the place of doubt on his chest, constricting his lungs into breaths as short as hiccups.

“A girl?”

Miklós was staring outside, at the thick woods surrounding the dirt road, his mind suspended in a state that was closer to dream than consciousness. He didn’t dare look at Alexej, and the only impression he got was that his voice had quivered strangely.

“Yes,” he insisted, finding that the urge to have an answer was suddenly stronger than the need to keep all his insecurities stubbornly hidden. “A girl. Don’t you like girls?”

The question itself seemed stupid, obvious even. The boys all liked girls, and Miklós had even heard old men like Nik or his father talk about girls in a way that was not much different from his classmates’. And yet, as he allowed himself to peer at Alexej’s perplexed face next to him, he really couldn’t imagine him of all people talking like that.

Alexej talked about music, about books, about things that dead men said a long time ago and that people still repeated hundreds of years later. Alexej talked about all those things Miklós’ classmates and friends thought were boring and useless, but he made them interesting, almost exciting. It seemed to Miklós as if Alexej was above all the other conversation topics he was used to, above gossip, farming, discussion of cattle, wildlife and the weather, and above talking about girls.

“I also like you.”

Miklós didn’t register the meaning of Alexej’s words, not right away. It was as if they hung in the air between them, then circled him, slowly, patiently, closer and closer, waiting to be accepted. 

He felt Alexej’s gaze on his heating face and the warmth of his presence closer than before. His own lips, which had been so quick to move and give form to his unfiltered thoughts until a moment before, timidly mouthed soundless words now. His eyes darted around, each second focused on a different element of the surrounding landscape, as if trees, a dirt road, and a dark starry sky could somehow offer him a solution, or a hiding place.

Alexej’s touch on his shoulder was delicate, his voice low and kind.

“Will you tell me what this is really about, Miksa?” Alexej said — murmured, even, although in the silence of that night, even his soft voice seemed loud.

“Nothing.” Miklós shook his head, lowered it, gaze pointed to the ground. The black carpet under his feet was worn out in places, exposing metal here and there. His old shoes were dirty brown, all mud and dirt, trampled grass and wood resin. He felt stupid for not bringing a spare pair.

Alexej’s hand was still on his shoulder, gentle but firm, keeping his thoughts from wandering away as much as it kept him from exiting the car.

“It doesn’t look like nothing from your face.”

Alexej’s hand felt almost cold against his skin, and Miklós let it turn his face. He let his gaze be drawn, his attention pulled. Expression unperturbed, Alexej held Miklós’ chin firmly, forcing eye contact that Miklós wasn’t sure if he wanted to run from or dive into.

Alexej had a spray of freckles like powder across his cheeks and nose. Miklós counted four light marks near the lips, too, almost invisible. If he kept counting, maybe the stirring in his guts would stop.

Alexej took a moment, staring at him, observing his face attentively. It was difficult for Miklós to understand exactly what was going on behind those blue eyes, especially when all he could think about was that feeling, like he was about to throw up, and the way Alexej’s eyes were somehow a mix of cold and implausibly warm.

“All this travelling has been stressful for you, hasn’t it?” Alexej finally said. It was as if he had just come to a conclusion, a relaxed sense of understanding spreading across his face. His fingers were still holding Miklós’ chin firmly, gently sinking into his cheeks. “My bad,” he added. “I forget you’re not used to it.” Then he let go.

He ruffled Miklós’ hair — muddling his feelings, mixing up the stirring in his guts with the bitterness on his tongue. Miklós wanted to protest, almost raised his hand to push Alexej away. Then he remembered the other’s words. He remembered when Alexej told him not to act like a child, if he didn’t want to be treated like one, so he held back.

Alexej sat back in his seat, facing the road once again. “I’ll bring you somewhere nice next,” he said. He had no particular intonation, no particular expression on his face, as if that was just another simple, inconsequential decision.

“You–you will?”

The engine came back to life, its lonely hum a sudden thunder in the peaceful December night. The radio buzzed quietly for a moment before one of Alexej’s handpicked cassettes resumed playing. Alexej — the strange, kind man who liked Miklós — nodded.

Miklós’ face softened into a smile, and so did his body and mind, everything about him slumping in newfound relief. “Where?” he asked.

“It’s a surprise, of course.” Alexej’s lips curved upwards, too, but slightly, elegantly, without even showing a hint of teeth. “Help me out with the roadmap, would you?”

***

Miklós had never been to the cinema.

In truth, he didn’t even know what a movie theatre was supposed to look like, so when they approached the building, at first, it didn’t spark any kind of recognition in him. It was only when they stopped side by side in front of a movie poster that he realised where they were.

The movie theatre was an absolutely unremarkable building, with a small sign above the front entrance and a single poster next to the ticket office. The poster was black, with just the movie’s title and its logo.

Jurassic Park,” Alexej read aloud. He sighed, seemingly annoyed. “That’s still being screened?”

From deeper inside the theatre came the smell of closed rooms and dust, but also of buttered popcorn and cigarette smoke. It was unfamiliar and had the sweaty sultriness of a crowd, which was everything Miklós preferred to be away from. And yet there was something thrilling about that new experience, and with Alexej, even a crowded room didn’t seem as scary.

“What is the film about?” Miklós asked, his gaze going from the poster to Alexej and then back.

“Dinosaurs.”

Alexej thought about it for a moment, his blue eyes looking in Miklós’ direction but seemingly unfocused. Then the hint of a smile coloured his face, and his hand closed around Miklós’ right wrist. “I have a feeling you’ll love it,” he said, pulling him towards the ticket office.

He bought two tickets from the old lady staring lazily back at them from behind the counter, and then led Miklós further inside the building. The warm, plain corridor ended with a wide double door, in front of which an uninterested boy who looked even younger than Miklós was standing, taking long drags from an half-consumed, gnarled cigarette. He checked their tickets, barely sparing a look at them, and let them inside.

Then the double doors opened and Miklós’ eyes went wide. 

They walked slowly inside the room with the highest ceiling Miklós had ever seen, the echo of their steps stifled by the old-smelling carpeted floor. In the back of the room, a big white screen stood between velvet curtains. The room was filled with several lines of wooden seats, partly occupied. There were a bunch of noisy children with their parents, a whispering group of teenage friends that had taken the seats right in the middle of the room, and an old couple clearly as out of their element as Miklós felt. A thin cloud of smoke, coming mostly from the old man’s pipe, lingered in the room, finding no way out through the heavily curtained exits. 

By the time the lights went off, and the projector started beaming images on the screen, Miklós and Alexej were already seated, in two of the seats furthest away from the screen.

Miklós would have lied if he said he didn’t enjoy the movie, or if he said he wasn’t enraptured by the very feeling of watching it like that, the images on the huge screen seizing his attention and the soundtrack music blasting loudly through the whole room. 

The other people in the room sometimes whispered, kids let out scared or excited exclamations, someone crunched popcorn or slurped soda with their straw. Alexej’s seat squeaked from time to time as he shifted in his place.

Miklós barely noticed all that. But through the whole film, one hundred and twenty-six minutes of it, the awareness of Alexej’s hand on his own never left his mind.

***

After long, tiring days on the road, sharing thoughts over relaxing orchestra music and doing barely anything else in the increasingly claustrophobic space of a car, any hotel would have looked like the most luxurious place to be in. However, that time, the difference was that the place Alexej had chosen was actually quite plush.

It wasn’t in the same town as the movie theatre. They travelled for almost an hour to a bigger, more important city, one that was neatly excluded from all the itineraries Alexej had plotted out on his map. Alexej didn’t offer an explanation and Miklós never asked why, but the awareness that Alexej had planned a detour exclusively for his sake didn’t elude him, and together with the novelty of the cinema experience, put him in an unusual good mood.

Such a good mood it was that even the awkwardness he felt, walking inside the old historical building near the centre of the city, quickly faded to nothing but a background discomfort. The wide, elegant hall of the hotel was almost intimidating, all carpeted floors and decorated wallpapers, with paintings in tasteful gilded frames and a sculpture at each side of the double doors.

The hotel staff wore their elegant, picture-perfect uniforms not without a hint of pride and Miklós didn’t miss the glances directed at his own casual clothes and his dirty pair of hand-me-down boots. But Alexej ignored the looks, walked past them with a smile and led Miklós further into the hall, pulling him along by the hand. Miklós found himself thinking he didn’t care about other people’s opinions, as long as Alexej stood by his side.

Most of all, as Alexej had the customary graceful conversation with the woman behind the front desk, Miklós realised that indifference didn’t really describe his feelings towards these strangers. In fact, it was more that he thought of them as mediocre annoyances he was forced to deal with, like his classmates, like some people in town used to be.

Alexej’s smile creased his cheeks, flushed pink by the winter wind outside. He had a thin stubble covering his chin, and his voice had the hoarse notes of a slight sore throat. 

If only people would stop bothering them, Miklós thought, then they could stop running all the time. If only people stopped being so intrusive, judgemental, arrogant, then they could maybe even settle somewhere, find their own little place in the world.

A thought exploded suddenly like a bubble in the front of his mind. It was a simple thought, and it flowed naturally into his contemplations, yet the bulk of it managed to startle him, like cold water when taking a shower.

Alexej, thought Miklós — timidly at first, then with more and more conviction as the seconds passed — deserved better than the life he was leading.

***

After getting the key, Alexej didn’t make his way further inside the hotel.

On the contrary, he headed back outside with a gentle thank-you directed to the woman at the front desk and a cryptic silence directed at the boy promptly following right behind him.

Miklós walked Alexej’s same path on the red carpeted floor, pushing the rising questions deeper down his throat and further away from his line of thought. His hand gripped Alexej’s even before the thought that he could be left behind had actually taken form.

They went through the revolving door into the sharp cold of the winter night, hand in hand with wind lashing their faces red.

At home, December was the month when the earth grew harsh, icy and barren; it was the worst month of the year, one of struggles and sacrifices. Miklós’ father and his mother argued loudly every night, the bedroom doors the only thing between Miklós and the words they screamed, and far from enough to prevent him from hearing them. When he was eight years old and his father slapped him across the face during dinner, so hard it left a mark and his right eye was swollen for days, he had been told it was because he was laughing and it was not good to laugh. 

Miklós knew exactly what the reason had been. He knew that he was eight years old and still going to school instead of helping his father all the time, that he was eight years old and still his mother hadn’t had another child, that he was eight years old, the second-born, and unlike his five-years-older brother, he did not have the choice to continue school; that he was eight years old and he was already worth nothing, except the fact he was his family’s last chance of not dying of starvation, once his father had gotten too old to work the fields.

Miklós did not miss his parents’ home in December, and as he huddled up inside his slightly oversized jacket, his hand firmly holding Alexej’s, he thought that his house, his village, even his family, were something he’d never miss at all.

Alexej led him along the damp sidewalk, until the first intersection in the road. There were several people all around, but at that time of the evening, they all seemed to be in enough of a hurry to not pay even the smallest attention to the two of them stopping at a corner.

“Where are we going?” Miklós asked, or rather found himself asking, his voice getting ahead of him once again.

Alexej had been about to speak, but he stopped. He closed his lips, his eyebrows furrowed, a thin wrinkle forming between them. Inside that small crease flocked a million different thoughts, worries that assaulted Miklós’ brain, ideas that seemed to be chasing each other behind Alexej’s intense eyes, all condensed into the smallest fold of skin. That expression didn’t last more than a couple of seconds, enough to bear a thousand thoughts, and for Alexej’s hand to run from their shared hold up Miklós’ arm, to sofly grip his shoulder

Finally, Alexej’s lips unfurled into a smile, and once again Miklós felt at peace.

“Aren’t you hungry?” asked Alexej, sounding slightly amused. “We haven’t eaten since midday.”

Miklós felt suddenly aware of the emptiness in his stomach. It was December, after all, and without Alexej reminding him of it, his own body would have ignored hunger out of habit.

A sudden burst of wind whipped hair out of Miklós’ face, and he shivered from its cold fingers reaching under his clothes. Alexej’s tidy locks were blown out of place too, yet still graciously framed his face in an unusual fair crown. He was looking down at his own hands, but Miklós was far too focused on the shoulders shielding him from the wind to pay attention.

If he hadn’t been, maybe Alexej pushing several banknotes and their room key into his hands wouldn’t have felt so sudden. 

The heat of Alexej’s hands was hard to let go of, so much that for a second the wish to keep holding them overshadowed Miklós’ confusion. But then his mind caught up, and tried but then refused to make sense of that act. The question must have been plain on his face, as much as it was ready on the tip of his tongue, because the moment he raised his face Alexej promptly gave it an answer.

“It’s late,” he murmured. “Buy something to eat and then go back to the hotel.” Alexej’s tone was encouraging, his smile kind, his intentions as firm as ever. He wasn’t the type of person people usually refused, and the thought barely even crossed Miklós’ mind. He shook his head, pushing the thought away.

“But–alone?”

Since they’d first had that conversation, the previous night in the car, Alexej had never left his side. Since they’d first left Nik’s bar the night they met, they had never eaten apart.

Alexej’s lips were still relaxed in that slightly crooked smile. He passed a hand through his hair, dishevelled by the wind earlier, to brush it back into its usual order. He took a deep breath, chest visibly going up and down, his eyes darting away and then almost immediately back to Miklós’.

“Miklós,” he called, when the other instinctively looked away.

The contact — the warm, somehow rough skin of Alexej’s palm against the soft, wind-whipped skin of Miklós’ face — lasted longer than Miklós anticipated. Alexej had used his full name, and that alone gave him a sense of alarm whose roots spread from the inner part of his stomach, from the centre of his body, and in a couple of heartbeats had infested almost everything. He could not explain the feeling, not even to himself, but he felt swept away by it.

“There is something I want to get,” Alexej said, brushing a lock of hair away from Miklós’ face, “and it could take a while.”

That whole day, Alexej had kept Miklós close, followed his every step, never wandered around without him. He’d brought Miklós along when he stopped at a service station, let him choose breakfast for the both of them. When, after lunch, he’d stopped for a smoke, he’d shared it with Miklós and told him about an old movie he really liked. 

The whole day, his words had been kinder than usual, his hands warmer and his touches more frequent. The bundle of tiredness and stress Alexej seemed to be carrying before hadn’t vanished, but its shape seemed to have changed, its weight gotten more bearable. The wrinkles that formed between Alexej’s eyebrows when he was deep in thought, which made him seem preoccupied, worried even, had looked less deep.

Of all that, nothing had changed. The whole time, Alexej had given no signs that he disliked Miklós’ presence, and on the contrary had repeated, again and again, and promised and insisted that he wanted to be with Miklós. The whole day and even right then, he’d always been flawlessly gentle, earnestly sweet.

“Can’t I come with you?” Miklós asked, paying next to no attention to the note of desperation in his own voice. His own question echoed in his ears, as if it was pronounced by someone else.

After brushing a lock of brown hair away, Alexej’s hand was resting on his jaw, and Miklós almost leaned into the touch, almost grabbed Alexej’s hand and pulled him close. The whole day had been so enjoyable, and it just didn’t make sense that it now had to stop being like that. It just wasn’t fair.

“It’s going to take me a while, Miksa,” repeated Alexej, still just as gentle as before. “I’d like for you to go on.” His warm hand left Miklós’s face, and his comforting smile couldn’t help its absence. “Eat and stay warm, okay?”

Whatever it was that Alexej was going to do, Miklós knew he would have done anything to help. He wanted to say just that, swear that he would do it all, all that was asked of him, because he didn’t care about anything else, he had never cared about anything else as much as he cared about what he and Alexej had. The words were already in his mouth, almost bubbling out of it, taking on a will of their own and leaping outside as they kept doing here and there sometimes. But his lips kept them inside, trapped them.

He hesitated. 

For one moment, he hesitated, and it was too late. Where there had been a touch now there was nothing, and where there had been a pair of blue eyes now there was thin, cold air. Alexej turned and walked away.

What he left behind was the feeling, ringing sharply in Miklós’ ears, of dull loneliness. 

***

Miklòs was alone in the opulent, surely expensive, big hotel room, with his thoughts, his confusion and his empty stomach as his only company.

All his desperate thoughts from the night before — those he thought had gone and disappeared into nothingness — all came back at once, stronger than before, as if they had just been hidden as they grew bigger and bigger.

The money and the key Alexej had left him lay on the bedside table; his bag had been thrown on the floor in the corner of the room, and Miklós himself was sitting on the edge of one of the beds of the otherwise unused, untouched room.

Miklós was confused about everything: why had Alexej chosen that place? Where did he want to go? What did he want? What did he expect from Miklós, and from the future? What did his words mean? Most of all, one was the question that kept coming and coming: why did Alexej stick by his side? No, why did Alexej like him at all?

He’d taken his shoes off after walking in, let his feet take a deserved break from them on the soft carpet — bright green with a geometric motif, it almost looked like a well-manicured lawn. He was barefoot as he silently paced the floor, wringing his hands as he tried to explain, to justify to himself the emptiness in his chest.

He felt lightheaded, and the echo of his pounding heart resonated in his ears. He trod from one side of the room to the next, sweaty hands squeezing the hem of his shirt. He shook his head to try and drive away the gripping, all-absorbing fear that it was all a lie. His body reacted as if he’d just received a punch in the gut.  It was not that he believed Alexej to be a liar. But how could he be sincere? What was there to like about Miklós?

He looked around, and didn’t find anything to distract himself with, apart from the light yellow wallpaper covering the walls. He missed Alexej’s warmth at his side, the security it gave him, how the simple sound of Alexej’s controlled breathing could drive away all questions and bad thoughts, simply because Miklós enjoyed his presence so much.

The mahogany furniture decorating the room was minimal but comfortable, and it included a mirror, from which Miklós’ own pale face returned an anguished look. He looked away as if stung, his heartbeat growing deafening. It was like something was blocking his airways, constricting his lungs, making it hard to breathe.

He asked himself if Alexej would come back to him once again, or if that whole past day had been his own way of saying goodbye. The thought itself struck him physically, the impact no different from one of his father’s slaps on the face, except affecting his whole body. The pain was dull, pulsating, and all too real. 

Feeling dizzy, he sat back on one of the two large beds, and curled in on himself. The soft, clean-smelling quilt should have been so pleasant to sink into, but the thoughts swirling into his head didn’t allow Miklós to enjoy it. 

If Alexej had left, he thought to himself, there was nothing he really wanted to enjoy. If Alexej had left, what had he left Miklós with? He had nothing, was nothing, could do nothing. He was useless in a city he didn’t know, in a country that wasn’t his own, without Alexej.

However, he didn’t regret running away. Even if Alexej didn’t come back — and Miklós’ rationality kept insisting he would — even then, at least his father wasn’t there. He didn’t regret leaving behind all those people who didn’t really care about him, who didn’t understand him. 

The truth was that he didn’t care where he found himself, not anymore. The whole world was lines on a paper, black roads, red borders, green plains and brown mountains, and in between them were him and Alexej, and that was all that mattered. So if Alexej wasn’t there or if he was, whether he shared Miklós’ feelings, whether he cared about him, that was all that mattered.

Miklós felt the knot of tears in his throat, and the lonely, rational voice in his mind trying to push it back was getting lower and thinner. What he wanted, what he needed, the only authority his heart would accept to slow down its beating was reassurance: Alexej’s voice promising, swearing he’d never leave.

But that voice was nowhere to be heard; that reassurance wasn’t coming anytime soon. The time passed, the digital clock on the bedside table soundlessly marked every minute passing in the silence of that room, broken only by Miklós’ irregular breaths. 

If Alexej had left — but he hadn’t, he couldn’t have — he had left Miklós with the awareness that he was capable of being and doing more than he had ever hoped to, at least when Alexej was there; he had given Miklós the knowledge that the right words from Alexej’s mouth could turn him into someone worthy. 

In the middle of his chest where all the feelings were accumulating, gathering like a small but nasty crowd, Miklós felt a sort of anger building, stewing, filling the void, and finally screaming louder than them all: Alexej would come back, it said. He would because there was no other way it could be, because what he and Miklós had was precious, irreplaceable, and even if Miklós struggled to accept that the feeling was mutual, Alexej had to feel like that too. He’d had so many chances to leave Miklós behind and hadn’t, and he wouldn’t this time either.

But if he did, after all, leave him behind, then Miklós couldn’t do anything but chase the happiness he had known that past day, and with it, chase Alexej himself. That was the thought Miklós held on to in all that emptiness. He did not know how he would do it, but the same impulse inside him, that wanted him to promise Alexej he’d do anything to accompany him, that same voice was there again, and it said he’d find a way; it said he had no choice.

It was in that strange limbo, somewhere between hopefulness and despair, that Miklós waited. He didn’t know how long, because the minutes turned to hours and time became a meaningless figure on the clock’s display as he tossed and turned on the bed, still fully dressed in dirty clothes, while his heart kept threatening to explode inside his aching chest.

It felt as if he was about to die, but it felt like that for hours, and he never did.

There was a knocking on the door, and it was then that it all came to an end. He didn’t die, but that terrible feeling disappeared. The crazed pulsing of blood in his veins, his laboured breathing, the nausea, the burn in the pit of his stomach, it all turned into a warmth spreading throughout his body. It did, when Miklós hurriedly opened the door, without even checking who it was, and there was Alexej, standing on the threshold with a wide grin on his face and the usual kindness in his gaze.

Miklós barely gave Alexej time to step inside before throwing himself into his arms, burying his face against Alexej’s chest and hiding in it. He hugged Alexej tightly, and realised only after his arms were firmly locked around him that none of them had said a word yet.

Alexej was wrapped inside his coat, and his usual scent was smothered by the ice cold from outside, by the traces of snow on his clothes, and it was half-covered by a sweet, dry smell that Miklós couldn’t really place. Miklós shivered a bit from the contact with the outside temperature, but didn’t break the hug. 

Alexej was the one to close the door behind them, and then simply returned the embrace, one arm wrapped around Miklós’ shoulder and his face resting on Miklós’ head. The two of them stood in the room’s entrance for a while.

Miklós hadn’t paid attention to anything but the fact that Alexej was back, and it took him several minutes to clear his thoughts. He clearly felt the waves of relief washing through him as the warmth of Alexej’s breath caressed his forehead and the softness of Alexej’s hug enveloped him. Soon, the other’s clothes lost any trace of the outside winter cold.

“Where were you?” Miklós whispered into Alexej’s chest. The arm wrapped around him moved to loosen the hug and brushed his dishevelled hair into place.

“I told you it would take a while,” Alexej explained vaguely, before parting from Miklós and walking further inside the room. He looked all around, spinning on his heel, and when he faced Miklós again he was wearing a wide smile, seemingly satisfied.

Alexej’s smile was always contagious, and his good mood as rare as it felt invigorating. Miklòs couldn’t help but return the hint of a smile. 

He felt as if he’d just woken up from a dark nightmare right into the brightest of days, but the aftershock was too strong to ignore. He felt the repercussions of his emotions still rippling through his body, the echo of his hurried heartbeat, a tingling in his lungs as they were finally allowed to fully expand and take in air, and the almost imperceptible shaking of his hands. He could now recognise that his fears were nothing but that, fears — but he didn’t feel satisfied at all.

He made a step forward. Hesitantly, he took a deep breath and repeated the question. “It’s almost one in the morning,” he said, voice thin and low, but audible nonetheless. “Where have you been?”

No sooner had he spoken the words than he regretted it. It wasn’t even the right question. He didn’t even really care about where — he only wanted to go along — and yet that was what he’d asked. Now, he somehow expected Alexej to react not unlike his father would have. For a fraction of a second, Miklòs felt his whole body ready to cower before a raised hand, his ears preparing to hear yells of rage, his arms tightening around his body, bracing for violence.

But Alexej, he laughed.

It nearly felt out of place, but Alexej couldn’t really be improper after all. His clear and hearty laugh resonated inside the room, not loud, not mocking, but cheery and almost contagious. His expression was gentle, relaxed, and his whole posture seemed to beam warmth into the room.

Miklós’ lips opened for no other reason than what he could call awe, maybe at Alexej, maybe at his beautiful laugh, at his charming smile, or maybe at the renewed awareness that someone could be gentle with him, that Alexej would be.

In a mute response, Alexej raised his right hand. Only then did Miklós notice it had been occupied all along, holding a device he didn’t recognise. Alexej lowered it again, and walked back towards Miklós, who was still standing in the entrance of the room.

“Did you miss me that much?” Alexej asked then, tilting his head to one side.

Miklós nodded, for if he spoke then he’d have to say no, he’d have to say much more than that. He said nothing, instead, but the flush spreading on his face likely spoke in his stead.

He looked away, and his eyes went back to the device in Alexej’s hand. It looked similar to a camera, but the form was different from the ones Miklós had seen back in town; also, it was visibly bigger than the single-use cameras his teacher took pictures with at the beginning and end of each school year.

“What’s that?” Miklós asked, genuinely curious but also glad to move the conversation away from the horrible evening he’d just spent.

“It’s what I went to get.” Alexej shrugged. He raised the device and pressed a couple of buttons on it, opening the shutter and uncovering the lens behind it. “It’s a video-camera,” he explained as he did all that. “A camcorder, to be exact: It has audio too.” He pointed the thing in Miklòs’ direction, looking into the viewfinder with one eye.

Miklós shook his head, and when that didn’t seem to convince Alexej to put it away, he delicately pushed the device aside, in the opposite direction from him. “What is it for?” he asked, walking towards the bed and sitting on it, more to avoid being in sight of the thing’s lens than because he wanted to rest.

He felt as if there were a third, unwelcome presence in the room.

He’d turned his back to Alexej, and only heard calm steps behind him get closer and closer before he felt a warm hand close on his shoulder. 

“Nothing in particular,” Alexej’s voice said, softly, before he sat next to Miklós. He still hadn’t taken his coat off. “I have never filmed anything before,” he continued, with the same gentle tone, “but you could be a nice subject.”

Alexej was looking around the room, maybe avoiding Miklós’ gaze, maybe deciding whether that was a nice setting to film in. The expression he had was unique, one that had never even passed across his face since that day, three weeks before, when they’d first met. Miklós had noticed it earlier already, but it was becoming more and more evident that his smile reached his eyes, that the vitality behind them had the heat of a child’s happiness.

“M-me?”

“Yes, you,” Alexej confirmed. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked, beaming his smile at Miklós.

In all his uncertainty, all his embarrassment, in the wake of his despairing paranoia from before, that made Miklós happy. It softened his heart, turned all the bad feelings into dust and blew it away.

“Why do you want to take a video of me?” Miklós asked again, but more than embarrassed, more than scared or worried, he was curious now. Curious to know what Alexej actually saw when he looked at him, what he saw that made him talk like that.

Alexej shrugged. “Memories? Fun?” He adjusted the camcorder in his right hand, pressed some buttons. “Do I need a reason?” he asked, turning to Miklós as he raised the camera’s eye to him. He stared at Miklós meaningfully, his smile dimming into a focused expression.

Miklós felt as if he should offer a response, but no answer really came to mind. “I guess you don’t,” he finally conceded.

Alexej flicked a switch on the camera and opened its lens on Miklós, as if he took those last words as permission. A red intermittent light blinked on.

The room’s temperature hadn’t changed at all, and yet Miklós felt the heat on his face rise, as if the gaze of the camera was warming the air itself. His mind was blank, his lips ajar, holding nothing but a breath between them. “But–Aleš,” he stuttered, looking away from the impersonal eye behind which hid Alexej’s familiar face. He felt his cheeks flush. “What should I say?”

Alexej shrugged — Miklós saw the shadow of the movement with the corner of his eye. “Nothing in particular,” he said. When Miklós forced himself to look towards the camera again, Alexej was smiling behind it, gentle as ever. “Just tell the camera about your day.”

“Okay. I can do that,” decided Miklós. He said it out loud, however quietly, more for himself than Alexej or the camera. 

Talking to someone that wasn’t there, someone who he didn’t even know, felt odd. It was something extraneous, alien to his character, his habits. And yet once he’d decided to do it, Miklós found it easy. Much like when he ran away, once he decided that was what he’d do, everything just came naturally to him.

“Today we–we went to see a movie, Jurassic Park,” he started, hesitation slowly melting away.

“And did you like it?”

“I did,” confirmed Miklós. “The dinosaurs were… cool!”

Alexej nodded, white teeth sinking into his lower lip as he operated the camera, and Miklós found himself mirroring the act as his mind worked faster than he could keep up with and words came out of his mouth like a flood. As he described the movie, he lost control of them, of himself, or, better yet, he felt as if he was finally free from hated restraints he kept trapping himself into.

He described some scenes, explained how impressed he was with the special effects: the animals almost seemed real, and it felt as if once outside the cinema they would find one right there ready to devour all of them. It was maybe a bit scary, but most of all it was exciting — it made him feel a rush of emotions that, back in the cinema, culminated with him squeezing Alexej’s hand, and Alexej letting him do that. 

He thought about that, and took a deep breath.

“When I’m with you, Aleš, I feel like…” he began, he tried to explain, but the thought mixed up on his tongue, turned into a muddle sticking to the inside of his mouth. Miklós looked at his hands that he was clenching into fists, and his brow furrowed as he searched for the right words.

“That is one delightful expression.” Alexej’s comment, whispered as he leaned closer to Miklós’s face with the camera, irremediably broke his concentration, wiped his mind clean.

“What?” Miklós stuttered.

A smile was his only response and it only made him more flustered.

“That’s–” Miklós breathed in, opened his lips to speak, then breathed out, getting no closer to resuming his speech. “I mean–what?”

Alexej laughed. He set the camcorder down on the bed in front of them, intermittent light still winking at them.

“Miksa,” he whispered, placing both hands on Miklós’ shoulders, “relax.” He raised both eyebrows and squeezed slightly. His hands were so warm he felt feverish. Miklós supposed it was the coat he still wore, as his cheeks were slightly reddened, too. 

“This is supposed to be fun,” continued Alexej. And he looked like he was having a good time too, even then; like the warmth coming from him was more than just physical.

“It’s for us,” he continued, as his hand left Miklós’ shoulders and gestured at both of them, between their chests. “For you and me. It’s our memories. You have nothing to worry about when it’s just you and me, right?”

Alexej’s hands wrapped Miklós’ ones inside that warmth of his, a heat that travelled up his arms to his heart. Miklós nodded, and squeezed back tightly, to keep those hands just there. Alexej owned all the words and Miklós had none, but that was all it took to communicate.

Understanding flowed between them, and Alexej didn’t reach for the camera again. Instead, its mechanical eye observed them from the bed, unreacting, red light still blinking rhythmically.

“So, what else did we do?” Alexej encouraged.

Miklós felt it again, the feeling that a third person was there, even if he trusted that it would be no one but their future selves. He stiffened a bit, shifted in place on the bed. 

Then, with a deep breath, he started talking again.

“We travelled to the city,” he said, drinking every single hint of a reaction on Alexej’s face as if it were the freshest water to ever be poured. “I don’t really like cities,” he began, and barely a muscle had to move out of place around Alexej’s smile for him to hurry and amend his words. “But the hotel is very nice!”

That muscle still contracted, but it turned the smile into a snicker, a thin vibration in Alexej’s throat. “The staff are all prim and proper, aren’t they?” Alexej gave him a knowing look, one that felt private, reserved just for him. “That’s boring.”

Miklós chuckled, nodding. “But the room has big, comfy beds,” he said, the palm of one hand brushing the quilt under their backs. It was the same shade of green as the carpet. “I bet my brother would be jealous if he saw me.”

Alexej’s hand went slightly stiff.

He was silent for a moment, a long moment during which Miklós’ eyes did not leave the space between the two of them, and his ears listened to the smallest quiver of Alexej’s inhale.

“You wish he was here?” asked Alexej. His voice did not waver, and neither did it freeze. It managed not to give away any emotion at all, in fact.

“My brother?” Miklós considered. He imagined Edi in that room, Edi who was always kind to him, who always had a nice word and a smile for his younger brother: in a sense, Alexej reminded Miklós of him. Despite how similar Alexej was to Edi, however, he was also very different. So different, that everything that passed between Alexej and him could never have happened with Edi. 

So different, Miklós realised, not without resentment, that Edi left him behind but Alexej brought him along.

“No, I wouldn’t want Edi here,” he decided. The firmness in his voice surprised even himself.

“No?” Alexej crooked his head slightly. “Who would you bring here, from the village?”

Miklós wanted to refuse the question at first. He shook his head vehemently, and even gathered the words to say he saw no point in asking that question. But then, then something in Alexej’s gaze made him stop. It was maybe a strange twinkle in his eye, a light in the back of his pupils that resembled his own. Something familiar to Miklós’ own wishes for reassurance.

Miklós’s shoulders hunched and he breathed deeply. He found the spirit, somewhere inside himself, to grab both of Alexej’s hands before he spoke again. Much calmer, he stared at their intertwined fingers. “No one,” he said. “I’m much happier being here with you.”

Only then did he look up.

Alexej’s eyes went wide — slightly, but it didn’t escape Miklós’ attention — and his face softened again into the same smile from before, the one that reached his eyes and twinkled inside them. It had a subtle slyness about it, as if there was yet another secret hiding behind white teeth. “You’re more direct than usual, today,” commented Alexej, looking down at their hands and curling up the edges of that smile. “I like that.”

Alexej seemed to be thinking about it, as if he was deciding what to say. Miklós felt his own heart pounding madly inside his ribcage and words welling up in his closed mouth, cautiously shaping a sentence that seemed to be always one letter short of being formed. 

“You should feel free to say anything that crosses your mind,” said Alexej, playing with their intertwined fingers, gaze shifting from their hands to Miklós’s face. “You should say what you really want.”

Alexej’s gaze was … loud. A strange word to use for a pair of eyes, and yet nothing could better describe how they could smother even the deafening sound of Miklós’ own heart, and of his own voice as it got, once again, ahead of himself.

“What I want is to never leave your side.”

Even the silence that followed wasn’t as loud as Alexej’s blue irises. He looked away for a moment, the smile still on his face, even with its corners getting stiff. He untwined their fingers and loosened his grip. Miklós didn’t let go. “You know, Miksa,” Alexej sighed, “I don’t live what I would call an ideal life.”

“I don’t care.” Before he could continue, Miklós had already replied, and that seemed to surprise Alexej more than anything else. There was an edge of amusement in the wrinkles on his forehead, over his raised eyebrows. Miklós found that he couldn’t stop talking, not right then; he found that he had to let it all out now, that if he didn’t then he’d lose that chance forever. His eyes prickled with tears, his breath stumbled in his throat as if his crazed heartbeat was somehow hindering it. “I don’t care about anyone but you,” Miklós managed, before tears spilled out and he hid his face in Alexej’s coat.

He hid it because he didn’t want to appear as childish as he felt, crying for no other reason than the weight of these feelings he couldn’t even properly express. He hid his face, but he couldn’t hide the sobs shaking his whole body, no matter how hard he gripped Alexej’s coat, no matter how deep his face sank into his chest. He breathed in the same smell from before, dry, acrid, with that sweet undertone he just couldn’t place. But this time Alexej’s hug was warm, and his arms both closing around Miklós’ shoulders made it even warmer, and sweeter, and cozier than any bed could be. Even the thought of the camera lens watching them became so far away as to barely graze his consciousness.

“Is this what has been bothering you, Miksa?” Alexej’s chest vibrated with his voice, which reverberated through Miklós’ bones. It felt so incredibly intimate, and at the same time, not enough.

“I–” Miklòs whispered, once the embrace had soothed his sobs. He hesitated, and when he finally talked it wasn’t because his mouth was getting ahead of him. When he spoke again, his words had been thought out and selected; they’d been carefully chosen. His face pressed against Alexej’s chest, his voice shaky, Miklós said what he’d been meaning to say since the night before on the road — or, better yet, what he’d been meaning to say since they’d left the village together.

“Aleš, I want to know you won’t leave me behind.”

Alexej let out a sigh. It wasn’t a sad one, or a frustrated one. There was tenderness in it, one Miklós had never heard, or felt, not from Alexej, not from anyone else. For the first time he came to know that tenderness, as one of Alexej’s hands softly brushed through his hair, and as his grip tightened around Miklós’ body.

“Why would I leave you behind, Miksa?” Alexej murmured, and it wasn’t enough, not until Alexej buried his face in his hair. It wasn’t enough, not until Miklós felt Alexej’s warm breath and then his soft lips on his own forehead.

It was not enough until Alexej finished the sentence: “We can travel together our whole life, if that is what you wish,” he said.

And, for the moment, it was enough.

———

v. leave what’s heavy

The small shop had way too many racks stuffed in a space much too small for them, each shelf overcrowded with all types of products. The register near the exit was operated by one bored middle-aged woman leafing through a glossy magazine.

In the back of the shop, Miklós was staring at the sweets shelf, his gaze focused on the colourful wrapping of a bar of milk chocolate, printed with a photo of a cow. Chocolate had always been a rare treat for Miklós, mostly enjoyed when Edi brought him one bar as a gift, from time to time. The last time that had happened had been before his brother left for the city.

He felt Alexej’s presence behind him seconds before he felt the hand on his shoulder. His breathing gave him away — perfectly regular, distinctive in its flawless quietness — and the way his measured steps approached with the usual confidence. His scent, Miklós thought, managed to be naturally strong and yet pleasant, alluring almost, especially when their faces were close, like in that moment.

Alexej had bowed his head, so that the warmth of his breath hit the side of Miklós’ neck. From behind his back, Alexej’s hand reached for the bar of chocolate, but stopped short of grabbing it.

“You want it?” Alexej whispered in his ear.

Miklós wished to put some distance between them. At the same time he wished he could pull Alexej even closer. He settled for standing still, staring at the image of a cow on a bright blue expanse, and nodding slowly.

“Then take it,” suggested Alexej. He retreated his hand and walked past Miklós, towards another shelf on which were packs of other types of sweets, of all sizes and form, piled up, rather than lined.

“Take… it?”

Miklòs stumbled on his words, confused both by his pounding heart and by the typically enigmatic way Alexej sometimes spoke.

Alexej, on the other hand, had his back turned to Miklós. His attention was directed at the narrow aisle they were in, air filled with soft piped music. His gaze travelled along the space between jam-packed racks, lingering on Miklós for a couple of seconds before making its way to the end of the aisle. Finally, Alexej took a small pack of cookies from the shelf in front of him and slipped it into the inside pocket of his coat. His movements were quick but casual, his posture relaxed; he looked like he did it all the time.

“What is stopping you?” he said then, whispered only a couple of steps from Miklós, with a smile that showed teeth and had dimples at its sides, candidly innocent. “We are never coming back here, after all.”

Miklós opened his mouth to say something — or at least he was sure he did, but nothing came out. He watched Alexej shrug and move on to the next aisle. Before he turned the corner, however, Alexej turned one last time, with that expression on his face which Miklós couldn’t help but define as playful: curled-up lips, a hint of tongue peeking between his teeth from time to time, full cheeks and focused eyes with that twinkle about them.

“Whatever you decide, wait for me outside, okay? I want to get one last look around,” he said.

Miklós listened to the faint sounds of his steps on the other side of the rack. The chocolate in its wrapper sat still on the shelf, the cow staring him in the eyes with its own lifeless ones.

Miklós tried to answer the question Alexej had asked: what was stopping him?

No one was looking at him; barely anyone was in the shop at that time. It was not someone’s gaze that bothered him. It was the notion of what was wrong and what was right, ingrained in his brain by people he disliked, people he had grown up trying to please even after he’d repeatedly confirmed what an impossible task that would be.

He took the bar of chocolate in both hands, and stared at it a bit more, almost as if he wanted to make sure the cow wouldn’t change its expression.

If Alexej said it was okay, then it was, he concluded. The chocolate bar was in the inside pocket of his jacket before he’d finished a deep exhale.

***

Outside the shop, the road that cut the small town in two was scattered with only a few people, who strolled undisturbed under the dim streetlights. The air was damp and cold with what was left of the rain that had followed Alexej and Miklós for the past week; it still hung in the air, clinging to walls, dripping from roofs and gutter pipes in large drops that drummed against cars and slid down into people’s clothes.

Miklós was standing under a balcony, where he’d sought shelter from the drizzle. There, he ate his chocolate bar with an unperturbed smile behind the crumpled wrapper. The snack melted into sweetness in his mouth and left sticky brown stains on his fingertips. Even as the humidity seeped into his jacket and his hands were cold as ice, nothing could ruin the taste of that chocolate bar, nor the sense of fullness that his stomach had never known before in December.

From where he was, Miklós could see the exit of the shop, and while his mouth was focused on his treat, his eyes were fixed on the door from which Alexej was to walk out soon. He waited with a light heart, and with a sort of gentle anticipation stirring his stomach, a sensation that he’d come to associate with Alexej.

Maybe that was why he didn’t notice the person approaching him until they were right in front of his eyes.

The figure, barely as tall as him, was bundled in a large jacket, with a sweatshirt underneath; its hood was pulled over their head so far it covered the face, too. Despite that, Miklós’ confusion didn’t have time to turn into the appropriate state of alarm, or into anything else, before the person spoke.

“You didn’t pay for that, right?” a feminine voice said, as the figure took another step forward. It didn’t take much digging into his memories for Miklós to recognise who the voice belonged to.

Evelin brought a cigarette to her lips. As she lit it, the flame from her lighter cast intermittent orange light on her face as she attempted three times to ignite the tip. Even in the warm light from the flame and then, dimmer, from the burning stub, she looked pale, tired, with heavy bags under her eyes.

Miklós didn’t reply at first, not until his last bite of chocolate was swallowed, now soured by that look of hers. He crumpled the blue wrapper and stuffed it in the pocket of his jacket.

“How do you know that?” he said. 

Her eyes were hard as rocks; he felt his face flush, and guilt burn at the pit of his stomach. He looked away, but could still feel her gaze pierce through him.

“I was watching you.”

Evelin breathed out the smoke. The smell of it was a bit different from the one Miklós had become used to: sharper, and stronger. She looked around and walked closer to him. The hood was still pulled over her head and her gestures, her gait, looked much different from the previous times. Her posture was bent forward, her head low, and she walked with one hand in her pocket, which gave her stride a slightly irregular pace.

“Miklós,” she whispered, once she was close enough he could feel the acrid burn of her cigarette in his own lungs. “That man is lying to you.”

Miklós felt his muscles go stiff. He almost growled a simple ‘no’ as an answer, instinctively defensive. The sense of guilt from seconds before, the embarrassment, everything disappeared as if it had never been there. In its place was something he wanted to protect.

“He is not lying to me,” he declared, his voice unsteady with irritation.

“Did he tell you that he stole the car you’re travelling in?” she asked. The cigarette burned between her fingers, untouched. “Did he tell you whose money you’re spending to eat, and travel, and stay in hotels? Because it sure isn’t his.”

Evelin’s words should probably have surprised Miklós. He knew, somewhere inside him, that someone else’s eyes would have gone wide, that someone else would have felt anxiety, guilt, or fear, when faced with those accusations. He knew something intense should have hit him, an emotion of any kind. He knew all that from her self-confident expression, from the air of victory about her, and from common sense.

However, he felt next to nothing. Not even surprise.

Miklós knew so little about Alexej, about everything he had done, about who he was outside that dimension they lived in where there was only the two of them. He had no idea where the car, the money, or everything else about Alexej came from, not really. It was not his right to pry. But it seemed that, somewhere inside him, the awareness had always been there.

Miklós kept his gaze low, his eyes darting shortly to the shop’s exit, finding nothing but wet, empty asphalt between it and himself. “What do you want?” he asked. He let his voice waver, he let it sound quivering and insecure, because he didn’t care about it sounding firm.

Evelin straightened her back. She threw the cigarette to the ground and stomped it out with her feet, then in the blink of an eye her hand was gripping Miklós’s forearm, almost yanking his hand out of his pocket. “I want you to come with me, away from that man,” she whispered, vehemently, the whites of her eyes visible even in the dimness. “I’m a private investigator, Miklós. Your brother asked me to bring you home.”

Miklós was absolutely still, his body just as stunned from the news as his mind was. It gave him a certain feeling of happiness, knowing that his brother was looking for him, that despite leaving Miklós behind, he still cared a little. 

“Edi?” he murmured.

“Yes.” Evelin nodded, one too many times to look composed. “He’s worried about you. And your parents are, too.”

Miklós could feel the faint flame of his happiness choked by a grey mist sucking away all the air. “My parents don’t care,” he said, bitterly, and their faces flashed in front of his eyes for the first time since he’d left home.

“They care more than you think,” Evelin said. Miklós pictured his mother’s high cheekbones and firmly tied brown hair, her slim form wrapped in colourless wool. The dark circles under her eyes were the same colour as her irises. He’d always looked a lot like her, they said.

Instead, his father’s wrinkled face was always crumpled in a sneering grimace, even in his memories. “Get to work if you want to eat, you ungrateful brat!” he was saying, as he loved to do all the time. His wife’s voice, trying to soothe, console Miklós, could never get past his croaking tone. Miklós’ weak protests couldn’t, either. Even just their images swept his good mood away and left behind only a wave of discomfort, frustration and bleakness. It still felt familiar, even if he’d pretended to forget all about it ever since the moment he left his bike behind and followed Alexej into the woods.

“Then I don’t care,” he said. “Leave me alone.”

“But Edi–” she retorted, her voice breaking with what sounded like anger, her words quietly mouthed but nearly on the brink of exploding in his face.

“Tell Edi he can have his life and I’ll have my own,” said Miklós, matching her tone, and the words came as a surprise to him almost as much as to the woman in front of him.

Evelin seemed appalled, dismayed, maybe even offended. Her lips pursed in a crooked frown and she clenched her fists. 

She had no right to react like that. She knew nothing. She didn’t know how alike Edi and their father looked, and how strange their difference in personality was. She didn’t know how it had all finally clicked into place, that they were actually much more similar than Miklós had ever thought, when Edi left him behind with nothing more than a shrug.

Sure, Edi had taken care of him better than their parents had ever done, and Miklós loved him. Truly, he did, and he realised how much only after Edi was gone. But Miklós’ love had never been enough for Edi, and Edi’s affection wouldn’t be enough for Miklós, either.

However, through his grated nerves, Miklós realised his firm refusal wasn’t working. Evelin kept getting closer, and the more he pushed back, the more he explained his position, the harder she tried to convince him. It was very similar to his old teacher from middle school, the one who kept pestering him, trying to get him to talk about “his problems at home”. When he did finally tell her, the woman did nothing about it; however, she did stop bothering him.

“Miklós, listen to me,” Evelin called, trying to pull him back from the thoughts he was engrossed in. 

He raised his gaze towards her and met an unyielding, however warm, pair of eyes. It would have been a very similar gaze to Alexej’s, if it weren’t for the fact that they were flooded with a kind of warmth that felt all wrong.

“That man is a wanted criminal,” she explained, her voice rising in tone, anger vibrating in her throat that wasn’t directed at Miklós, but had nowhere else to go. “He is running from the law. He has no remorse, no qualms about hurting people if he can benefit from it, if he can run one day more.”

Miklós looked towards the door of the shop again. He hoped Alexej would be done soon, so that they could do just that, so that they could keep running. 

Until then, he thought, maybe he himself should do something about Evelin.

He probably wasn’t up to the task, but the idea of how proud Alexej would be, how wide he would smile if Miklós managed to be useful like that, when even the smallest task earned him such sweet praises, was all the motivation he would ever need.

He looked at Evelin, standing as tall as him, and made a sad expression. He’d always been good at looking sad. “But…” he murmured, tone disheartened. “How can that be true? He’s never hurt me…”

Surprisingly, it worked like a charm.

Suddenly, her face was much gentler, filled with a sadness that seemed to come from nowhere. “Not yet,” she whispered, and already her voice was but a thin thread filled to the brink with good intentions. “But he’s like a lone wolf, aggressive and dangerous, and your presence is driving him into a corner, Miklós.”

“My presence?” Miklós asked earnestly. Maybe she was lying, trying all she could to convince him to leave with her, but he couldn’t ignore the possibility that she somehow knew something more than he did, that what she said was true. “You mean he could leave me behind anytime soon?”

She hesitated. She looked around, too, briefly, then pulled him as far away as possible from the illuminated cones of the streetlights. The sky rumbled, and thin drizzle started to grow into rain. “He wouldn’t hesitate to seriously hurt you, Miklós,” she sighed. “You slow him down, and the police are looking for you, too.”

“The police?” Darkness hid both their expressions, and Miklós hoped she’d interpret his worried tone as surprise.

“Your parents went to them two days after you disappeared.”

That was hard to imagine, but also somewhat funny — the image of his father, lean muscles on mean bones and that perpetually annoyed expression, turning to the police for help. But there was something else worrying Miklós, a question far more important than that fantasy.

“Then…” he whispered, asking with all the innocence he could muster, “why are you the one following us, and not the police?”

He could feel her go stiff. They weren’t touching anymore, and it was hard to see her clearly in the dimness as the rain started falling harder, wetting clothes, shoes, eyes and words. So, of course, it could have been a mistake impression, a false sense, but Miklós could swear she got nervous, even if that didn’t show at all in her words.

“I’m only helping at your brother’s request,” she said with a shrug. “But I called them, don’t worry.”

Miklós’ uneasiness grew into fear, almost as if to defy that encouragement.

“They’re coming,” Evelin continued, “but they could arrive too late. You need to help me keep him here for a while.”

The very fact that she thought he would play any kind of role in returning home to his parents was a clear sign that she hadn’t been listening.

It wasn’t the first time that Miklós had felt like he was about to lose Alexej, and exactly like all the other times, fear seized his insides in an iron grip, and it felt like his whole consciousness fought against the mere idea. But this time, things weren’t going to get better on their own. This time he couldn’t just wait and do nothing.

“How long?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” 

Miklós hesitated. He was paralysed in a state of panic — induced by the situation, but worsened by his lack of ideas, and lack of skills to deal with it all. Anger bubbled under the surface of his frustration, and it pushed and pulled him in every direction, and his mind was a numbed chaos of thoughts.

“He’s up to no good, Miklós,” said Evelin, her voice reaching through all the layers of confusion in his mind. He slapped it away. “Please, help me bring you home,” she continued. “Your father, your mother, Edi, they’re all waiting for you.”

She seemed earnest in her request, in her promise to return him to his family. Her words almost sounded like a plea, and Miklós could not deny how well-meaning they sounded. He had no intention of helping her, of course, but if things came to worst — if what Miklós wanted was not meant to be — in that case, maybe Evelin could genuinely help him.

Before the here and now further escaped his attention, Miklós’ chain of thought was interrupted by Alexej’s voice. “What’s going on?” it was asking. Even through the rain, it was unmistakable. It could be no one but him, the one always washing all doubts and fears away. His words were all it took to calm Miklós down, to make him feel in control again, to steer his thoughts back on their track.

Alexej opened an umbrella over their heads, and even if the shelter it provided from the rain was quite meagre for three people, it was way better than getting soaked. Water dripped from Miklós’ hair, from his clothes, and he looked at the raindrops outlined against the streetlight in front of him, thin black lines over its yellow glow — he stared at them as an idea consolidated in his mind.

“Oh, hi!” squealed Evelin. Her voice was always irritating, but now that Miklós had heard what he guessed was her honest way of talking, her tone when she spoke to Alexej grated even harder against his ears. “We meet again, huh? I was just catching up with your… brother, while we sheltered from the rain.”

Miklós felt Alexej’s gaze burn the back of his head. It took all he had not to turn, not to look towards Evelin, but he managed to keep still, gaze on the asphalt in front of him. He walked ahead, led by the firm hand closed on his shoulder.

“Oh, yeah?” Alexej said, his voice suddenly closer, for he’d lowered his head between the two of them. “What were you two talking about?”

Miklós stepped into a puddle, the splash soaking his jeans even further. For a fleeting moment, he thought about how dirty his shoes could get before he forgot their actual color. For some reason, it seemed incredibly relevant, as if it was a metaphor about Alexej, about himself, about that whole situation, but one he wasn’t ready to completely grasp just yet.

Away from his wandering mind, the conversation continued. “Oh, we were talking about the places we saw in our travels,” Evelin replied, vaguely. “Right, Miklós?”

Of course, all four eyes were on him then, and they forced him to focus on reality again, on the umbrella dripping thick beads of rain on his head each time he stepped forward too fast, on the right leg of his jeans soaked with dirty rainwater, on his hands, fingers made stiff by the humid bite of the wind, on his hair, glued to his face as it was, sticking to his lips, dripping in his mouth. He licked the water away before he finally spoke.

“We should go,” Miklós said, simply, turning to look Alexej in the eyes, stopping the whole group in its tracks. He hoped his expression was enough, that it conveyed enough, because he knew the second he uttered the first word that Evelin would instantly grow alarmed, and rightly so.

Alexej looked confused. It was a strange expression to see on his face — the unfamiliar way his eyebrows furrowed, and that unique dimple at the side of his forehead that Miklós had never seen before.

“That’s rude, Miksa,” Alexej said, slowly. “Our friend clearly wants to have a chat.”

Miklós’ eyes didn’t follow the gestures Alexej made, clearly pointing at Evelin. He bit his lower lip, hard, as hard as he wished he’d had the readiness to push that woman away, even hit her, if that was what it took. Then, he looked at Alexej’s face for a short moment more, just a little while, to muster his courage.

“Alexej,” he called, pronouncing the name very clearly, “we should go.”

Alexej’s eyes went wide and, in the blink of an eye, they filled with anger. Miklós had never seen him angry before, not even once, for Alexej was always so unrealistically kind, but somehow he knew just what to say so that he would be. Maybe he’d learned from the nervousness he’d felt when he was tiptoeing around it before — when, after they first met Evelin, he’d felt as if he was one wrong move away from unleashing Alexej’s fury, and had to measure his steps and learn how to walk so that he didn’t.

This time however, Miklós did not try to walk around anything; on the contrary, he purposely walked right into what he guessed would make Alexej mad. Alexej couldn’t know the reason why, and maybe that was why his composure broke so noticeably, even if just for the slightest moment.

“Apparently,” Alexej said — his voice flawlessly masking the emotions that he’d let his face express, but his eyes not deigning to give Evelin even the most fleeting stare — “my brother is… very tired. You must excuse him. I’ll be right back, Evelin.”

The umbrella disappeared from over Miklós’ head, shoved firmly into Evelin’s hand by Alexej. His movements betrayed a certain haste, obviously a symptom of the state of outrage that had taken him over. Icy fingers closed unceremoniously around Miklós’ wrist and, with that, Alexej pulled him away from Evelin.

They walked quickly as if they knew where they were going, or at least as if Alexej did, but the road wasn’t familiar at all, and Miklós was pretty sure Alexej didn’t know the town that well either. Their car was in the alley in the opposite direction, and the street they were following — with a hurried pace that was very close to running — was dimly lit, deserted, and led nowhere Miklós could remember from the map.

Miklós struggled along, one badly placed footstep away from slipping and ending up with his face in a puddle. His mind ran as fast as his legs moved, and yet it felt as if it was limping behind Alexej’s, all the same.

When Alexej stopped, his clothes all drenched, his hair dripping and sticking to his face, breath heavy, dishevelled as Miklós had never seen him before, Miklós thought he knew what he had to say.

But then Alexej turned, pushed him against the nearest car, strong grip closed on the scruff of his neck, and their faces were so close, and Miklós forgot every word he had prepared.

“Are you stupid?” Alexej hissed, or maybe yelled over the growls of the budding storm. His face, partially hidden behind blond locks, was traversed by a grimace of anger. Far from being disfiguring, the frown simply drew a map of wrinkles on his forehead. The way he still looked handsome even when he was cross was nothing but unworldly.

“What were you thinking, Miksa?” Alexej continued after a second that seemed to last an eternity. His voice trembled with the same anger which made his eyes look so very alive, burning with something different, akin to thirst and, at the same time, close to an electrifying thrill. “She thinks my name is László, can’t you remember something as simple as that?” Alexej growled, frustration drawing yet another wrinkle on his face, and closed his eyes.

Then, for a moment, he was silent.

Miklós realised he hadn’t moved a muscle since his back had first hit the cold metal surface of the car behind him, and when the silence fell, his own lack of reaction weighed on the two of them like an invisible boulder ready to crush them like insects.

The grip on his clothes loosened enough so that he could breathe properly, and wet air inundated his mouth like he was a drowning man. Water poured down as if it wanted to submerge them, but Miklós was so drenched he barely even felt it. A blow of freezing wind brushed some of Alexej’s wet locks away from his forehead and wrapped Miklós’ wet clothes tighter around his own body. Even that was easy to ignore, right then. 

His brain was focused on something else: on its quest to recover the words he had to say.

It was up to him to do something, to explain. It was his responsibility to warn Alexej against that woman, to make sure that they had a chance, that Alexej had a chance at the better life he deserved, the one Miklós had silently promised he’d get him.

His hand was trembling when it rose, reaching for Alexej’s face. It stopped short of it, resting on his shoulder, instead.

“Don’t start crying now,” sighed Alexej, grating irritation stopping in its tracks when his eyes opened and saw that all the water on Miklós’ face belonged to the sky above, and there was no grief or suffering in his firm gaze, but only sheer trust.

“Aleš, please, listen to me,” Miklós murmured, his voice growing from thin fog to something solid, however shapeless. “She called the police on you,” he said to Alexej’s eyes, growing wide. “On us,” he corrected, then.

“She did what?”

Alexej put some distance between them, and the sudden distance was like a slap in the face. At least Miklós’ hand, the one on Alexej’s shoulder, found its place inside the other’s grip, with a movement that somehow eluded Miklós’ own awareness.

Miklós almost couldn’t find the words. He struggled for a moment before remembering a language, any language, again. “She’s an investigator,” he explained. “My brother sent her.”

He was about to offer his apologies — it was his fault after all; he was only causing more and more trouble, and he knew Alexej didn’t need that, but Miklós would help, he would do anything that was asked of him, to just be there, with Alexej, for as long as fate would allow, so please-

The sound came before Miklós was even aware of the fist closing at Alexej’s side and then being thrown dangerously close to his face. He barely had the time to flinch before shattered glass flew all around, covering everything in a shower of shards so tiny they almost mixed with the rain.

For a long moment, Miklós thought a second punch would be thrown, and that the aim would be true, that time.

Then he saw some kind of tool in Alexej’s grip, maybe a screwdriver, disappearing back into one of his coat’s pockets. Alexej pushed him to the side and worked to open the car door from the inside.

“Get in,” he said. His expression was hard to interpret: a single line ran between his furrowed eyebrows, and his jaw was contracted in a stiff frown.

Miklós looked at Alexej, then at the car, a dark red sedan with shiny leather seats. His mind was still trying to understand whether the crumbs of glass on the ground, on their clothes, and inside the car were the product of a fit of rage. “What?”

Their gazes met, and even the rain felt warmer.

“You were right.” Alexej nodded. “We should go.”

Miklós took the time to quickly brush glass pieces from his clothes, then got inside the car. He took his place on the passenger seat and reached for the safety lock on the other door, to open it for Alexej.

Alexej climbed inside with a rock in one hand and the screwdriver from before in the other, then hammered the tool inside the ignition switch with as much skilful precision one could possibly have in a situation like that. It was almost mesmerising to watch, the rock falling violently on the tool’s handle with a sharp sound, the whole car vibrating with the hit, Alexej’s teeth biting his lower lip, and the thunder outside covering all those sounds like an unforeseen accomplice.

It took at least a couple of minutes before the screwdriver was turning in the ignition like a key, and the engine was groaning to life.

“What about our things?” Miklós asked, as Alexej shrugged off the small backpack he’d been carrying and handed it to him. It was all they had brought along; the rest of their possessions was packed in the car they’d left behind.

“We’ll get new things,” shrugged Alexej, as he pushed on the gas and set off for a place away from there. “You needed some new clothes, anyway.”

Miklós turned to meet Alexej’s expression, and found a smile unfurling on his wet face. They were both drenched to the bone, dirty, and in dire need of a warm shower. They had nothing but a backpack with a roadmap, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a small bundle of banknotes, and enough food to eat that night.

“I also need a new pair of shoes,” he added, half-aloud.

Alexej grinned. “You ask, I shall provide,” he promised, flashing a cheerful look at Miklós.

The storm growled, and they didn’t even have an umbrella, but Miklós laughed. They were alive and free, and they were together, and it was all worth it. Everything else was too heavy, and he left it behind.

***

They did get new clothes, and a new pair of shoes for Miklós, even if it did take some time.

For the warm shower, however, they had to wait much longer.

In fact, it was more than a week before Miklós saw anything but the woods, their campfires, and a number of different cars, some well-kept, most looking like they had been barely rescued from the junk trade. And even when they did sleep in a roadside hotel, it was a small, forgotten one in terrible shape, and Alexej paid a whole lot for it; they stayed one night and then left to spend another week on the run.

Those days on the road, they hid as deep inside the woods as they could. They parked a car somewhere, then left it there and walked in a completely different direction. They chose the most sheltered place they could find to camp for the night, then separated. Alexej headed towards the closest town, got something to eat and drink, and provided them with another car, and Miklós stayed back to light and tend to a small fire, and to do whatever was asked and needed of him, ranging from cooking to “just staying there and waiting”.

Those were lonely hours. Even though Miklós did what Alexej asked without offering any kind of protest, he suffered through that solitude. Even though all their waking hours — and sometimes even Miklós’ dreams — were filled with the urgency of the escape and the fear that they would be found, every moment on his own was a moment Miklós felt lonely. He suffered every second he spent away from Alexej, not just because he was alone, but because he felt like it all confirmed that he was being a nuisance, a dead weight. That Evelin had been right, and he was the one driving Alexej into a corner.

Maybe he should have left with Evelin and let Alexej run without him.

The northern borders of Hungary were embraced by a fierce cold that made the memory of Slovenia’s winters feel like a warm autumn in comparison. It was hostile, but it was quiet, and it felt like the rest of the world would be just as hostile, anyway. The rain soon turned into snow that made everything colourless, and ice that made roads and wood trails equally slippery, but covering their tracks and misdirecting potential pursuers got easier.

Some nights, with their campfire put out to avoid signalling their position, the wet cold froze their fingers as if trying to make them fall off. A tent and two sleeping bags didn’t seem enough protection from the cold anymore, and they huddled together in the backseat of the running car, instead, heating turned on at the maximum setting.

Those nights, it felt as if winter itself was just trying to help, after all. Those nights, Alexej’s arms around him felt the closest Miklós had ever come to happiness.

And yet the warmth melting his guts, cradling him in and out of sleep to the rhythm of Alexej’s breathing, was fake. Not because it wasn’t brought by the summer sun, and not because the closeness of their bodies was only forced by the situation. No, it was tainted because Alexej didn’t whistle a single song, because he went to sleep without reading, didn’t say a single word about any of his favourite conversation topics, fell asleep even before Miklós did, and his expression didn’t look peaceful, not even in his sleep. It was spoiled by the dull edges of Alexej’s smile when he said, “Come closer, it’s warmer here,” the first night, and when he simply opened his arms the nights afterwards, his hug physically there, yet so terribly far away.

The days all bled into each other, equally dull and grey, and in the background was that same scenario of white nature and cold winter. It followed them to the north-east edge of Hungary, near the Slovakian border, which they approached but didn’t dare cross, for everyone would be on alert, and it would be hard to, as Alexej explained. 

Their days weren’t boring, as neither of them really had enough time to be bored, but they weren’t eventful, either. They were neither happy nor tragic. They were nothing, really, and it felt like they were living in this limbo at arm’s length from the consequences of reality. But reality was getting closer, reality was at their heels, and they had no choice but to run from it or yield to it.

When he was alone, Miklós spent hours daydreaming, thinking about what he could do to make things better, coming up with conversation topics he promptly forgot the instant Alexej came back, remembering stories to tell in front of the fire, imagining presents he could get for Alexej once in the city. Sometimes, the thoughts ebbed into dreams and he opened his eyes again to the deep black of the night sky, with Alexej resting silently beside him and the ashes from the fire crackling their last existence.

When one night that didn’t happen — when he woke up to a starry night with the fire, still warm at his feet, shining its soft light on him alone — Miklós felt his lungs close up. The air in them was blocked in the trap of his chest, constricted by a feeling of dread coiling around his abdomen and his neck.

It didn’t last long, for Alexej came out of the woods moments afterwards, broken twigs creaking under his shoes as he got closer. He had a bundle of fabric in his hands. Miklós sat straight, air coming back to his lungs as he realised the sounds Alexej made as he walked closer were the reason why he had woken up in the first place, and that the dimension they were in hadn’t collapsed on their heads just yet.

Alexej stepped towards the fire, stood in front of it, and threw the fabric from his hands into the flames. It was a bundle of clothes, and Miklós’ only just awake mind didn’t process much beside the fact that they were women’s clothes. He could tell from the undergarments, from the bra, and the pair of panties that fell into the fire and disintegrated before he could even be sure of their colour. The jacket and sweatshirt that followed them looked very familiar. They were all stained with a dark colour, which Miklós didn’t get the chance to identify before the clothes were turned into a blackened mess writhing at the heart of the campfire.

Miklós thought about asking, but when his eyes darted up again, Alexej, burning fabric reflected in his gaze, had a content little smile on his face. It made Miklós’ gut squirm in what could very well have been dread, but Miklós chose to interpret as a rush of excitement, as the foretelling sign of a better mood on Alexej’s part. 

However, his embrace that night didn’t feel any warmer.

***

The newspapers in the back of the car had their faces on them.

Miklós saw them when he woke up, the next morning, awoken by a young sunray hitting the right side of his face. Sunrise’s light was pale and cold, and it made the white landscape around them look even more colourless and icy. It made him shiver. The inside of the car wasn’t even that cold, but Alexej’s arms, loosely wrapped around his shoulders, kept him in an uncomfortable position and, in trying to move, he’d caused the sleeping bag they were using as comforter to slide down, exposing one of his shoulders.

He saw the papers at his feet as he shifted in Alexej’s hug — while his fingers caressed Alexej’s hands, which were resting in the middle of his chest; Miklós tried to pull the comforter back up, and as he did, he saw them, all crumpled on the car’s floor, with their faces on the pages. He couldn’t read the titles or the articles, but he was sure of what he had seen. His was an old picture from a couple of years before, taken from a group photo for school. Alexej’s must have been even older. His eyes, his high cheekbones and the sharp line of his jaw were the same, but his hair were darker and his cheeks fuller. He looked much closer in age to Miklós. His expression looked angry, or maybe just annoyed.

Miklós stared at the newspaper page from afar for what seemed like the longest time. He stared right into the eyes of that black-and-white younger version of Alexej, as if asking it questions that he knew would only be answered by mute stares. Even after looking away, after forcing his eyes shut to try and get a little more sleep, the thought of those pictures didn’t leave his mind.

He felt disrespected, violated, at the thought that his face was on a newspaper. It irritated him: what right did they have to do something like that? What did they know about his reasons? Why did no one ever wonder what he had to say about things? It seemed as if no one but Alexej had ever bothered to treat him like a person with his own wishes.

He wondered if Alexej’s past was anything like that. Maybe he shared that same experience. Maybe the papers made him just as angry, just as annoyed. Maybe, in that picture from years before, he was unsatisfied and bubbling with hatred towards the rest of the world, too. That must have been why they fit together so well.

At the same time, the photos on the newspaper answered a question Miklós hadn’t ever meant to ask. It told him why they were staying so far from every inhabited area, and why Miklós always had to stay behind. It explained why Miklós was alone.

Miklós had never asked the question, not even to himself, too worried that the answer would be difficult to accept. And even if this answer reassured him, he hated it all the same.

Hours later, that hatred still hadn’t subsided.

Alexej was about to leave, backpack on his shoulder, ready to be filled with whatever they needed. That day it was food, and, possibly, an extra blanket.

“So, would you prefer canned beans, chicken broth, or pea soup?” Alexej smiled from the other side of the campfire, his good mood not exactly matching Miklós’. 

“Can’t I come with you this time?” Miklós asked, half aloud. He realised the words had come out loudly enough for Alexej to hear only when he saw him move closer, circling the fire, instead of leaving.

“Our next stop isn’t too far away,” sighed Alexej, gripping Miklós’ shoulder delicately. “Just wait some more and we’ll get a hotel room again.”

Miklós looked up, taking in Alexej’s comforting face. He really did want to believe that was the solution, simple, easy and effortless, that sleeping somewhere comfortable and warm would help with his mood — and it probably would. But as long as he couldn’t follow Alexej in his errands, he’d still be alone for hours at a time.

Miklós forced himself to voice those thoughts, to be spontaneous, as Alexej once said he liked him to be.

“I don’t want a hotel room,” he said, shaking his head. “I want to come with you. I want to help you out.” He wanted to point his eyes at Alexej’s — he imagined himself doing that, but couldn’t will himself to put that thought into reality, and stared at the frozen ground instead.

“That is not possible right now.” Alexej’s voice showered him with ice. His grip on Miklós’ shoulder went tighter, then loosened, and the hand fell motionless by Alexej’s side.

Not daring to look up, but still set on going to the heart of the problem, Miklós wondered for a moment whether he wanted to ask about the papers or not. Then he took a deep breath and decided to trust Alexej to give him a good answer, to trust Alexej to be and do exactly what he needed, as it had always been so far. He didn’t know what answer he wanted but, somewhere inside him, he believed Alexej would know.

“Is it because of the photos in the newspapers?” asked Miklós. He raised his gaze, and what he saw was a pair of wide blue eyes, raised eyebrows, and lips drawn in a thin line. In front of him, Alexej nodded, lips curling down.

“It’s just a matter of weeks anyway.” The words Alexej pronounced were heaved out, as if talking about it caused him terrible strain in itself. “They’ll forget.”

Miklós agreed, but the weight hadn’t lifted off his chest yet, and his heart kept drumming with dissatisfaction. “But your picture is on there, too,” he voiced, then once again lowered his gaze, because the coldness in Alexej’s gaze scorched worse than putting his face in the embers of the campfire.

“Why can you go and I can’t?” Miklós finally asked, voice reduced to a whisper.

There was a long moment of silence, filled only by the crackling of the fire and the whistle of the wind over their head. When Alexej finally spoke, his voice was just as hard as his eyes had been a moment before, and yet not an edge of anger touched it. It was hard to say whether he was upset or simply serious. “Because I’m experienced,” he said.

That did nothing but confirm Miklós’ doubts, his fears. “So I am holding you back,” he pondered out loud, feeling suddenly emptied.

Alexej snorted. The mere sound hit Miklós worse than a slap in the face could have, reminded him of how it felt back home, when he’d say something and no one would be willing to listen. “Do you need to start complaining now?” Alexej said, his tone heavy with annoyance. “I’m on a schedule, you know that.”

From the emptiness inside Miklós, deep down, a thick, oppressive sac grew larger and larger, until it was pressing behind his eyes, and burst into a million tears. He was shaken by sobs before even realising that the tears in his eyes had spilled out and his face was wet.

“I’m just a dead weight, aren’t I?” he whispered, or maybe screamed, for his ears seemed deaf to anything but the occasional howl of the wind. He desperately tried to control his whimpers, hiccups less occasional but just as violent as the wind blowing far over his head.

“Miksa.” Alexej bowed his head, so that he stood eye-to-eye with Miklós. “How many times do I have to say that I like your company? Don’t you believe me?” Alexej held him by the shoulders, both hands gently clasped on them on either side of his neck. The ice in his eyes hadn’t melted; even if his voice was gentler, softer, that didn’t hide its edge completely. The words should have reassured Miklós, they should have made him feel better, but they didn’t, and all he could think about was how empty they were when there was absolutely no reason for them to be true.

Maybe there had been something between them, an instinctive feeling of kinship when they met. But was that enough to last?

“But–” he protested, and almost swallowed his words when Alexej’s brow furrowed even more. But then he didn’t say anything, waiting for Miklós to continue, and it felt as if just with that he was prying the words out of Miklós’ mouth, in the form of half-voiced murmurs. “You’ll stop liking me if I’m useless…”

Alexej’s jaws went stiff, his lips exposing a portion of clenched white teeth. “I’ll stop liking you if you keep acting like a brat,” he grunted, voice rumbling inside him more than outside. His hands moved to hold Miklós by the scruff of his neck, almost lifting his feet from the ground. “Listen to me: You’ll go into town when I say you can go into town, and that’s what,” Alexej said, articulating the words carefully, one by one. “I know what’s better for you.”

Then he let Miklós go.

Alexej’s hands settled by his sides, and a shadow of bewilderment passed across his face. Miklós stared at him in a state of mind halfway between emptiness and shock. Those last words echoed in Miklós’ mind, in Alexej’s voice just as many times as they had in his father’s. He took a couple of steps back, stumbling.

That couldn’t be Alexej. He couldn’t mean that. He wasn’t like that, and Miklós refused to accept he could be. He felt tears well up in his eyes even more than before, and he let them out, felt disgusting in his sniffling, sighing, sobbing, all on the verge of bawling like a misbehaved child.

He turned and started walking away, going nowhere, anywhere but there.

“Wait, Miksa.” Alexej’s voice came from behind him, and it had suddenly lost all edge. It wasn’t enough to stop him, not right then. “Where are you going?” it went on, alarmed, and Miklós put foot after foot on the ground he could barely see, fast, as fast as he could. “Miklós, where are you going?”

The voice didn’t seem further away despite his frantic walking, so Miklós hastened his pace. He slammed against a tree, almost lost his balance, felt its bark scratch the side of his cheek, shoved himself away from it and pushed forward.

“You know as well as I do that you can’t do it alone. Miklós!” Alexej continued, and his voice was even closer than before. 

Miklós kept walking, or running, or that clumsy mix of the two he was doing. Then he tripped over something — the roots of a tree, a hole in the ground, a rock, he had no idea — and prepared to feel the impact of the snowy earth on his face.

He never did.

Firmly closed around his wrist, keeping him from falling face-first into mud, was Alexej’s hand. He pulled Miklós close with a swift gesture and supported him with a hand around his waist.

“Miksa,” he called, kind as ever, with that tone that no one but Alexej had ever used with Miklós. A long, deep breath followed. “Don’t leave me. Please.”

Alexej had never sounded like that — raw, vulnerable, almost insecure. His voice quivered as he pleaded like that, and even though Miklós always thought Alexej had all the power, that he could do everything he wanted and always come out on top of every situation, in that moment he felt like that had a limit, and the limit was somewhere inside those words.

“You said you never wanted to leave my side,” murmured Alexej, as Miklós straightened up. “Did you already change your mind?” 

Alexej’s eyes wandered for a moment, briefly, as if simply looking around, then came back to stare right into him. Even though Miklós was standing on his own two feet now, Alexej never withdrew his supporting arm.

“I–” Miklós stuttered, caught completely off guard. The emptiness inside him still ached, but the thought of pushing Alexej away hurt even more. He realised the tense expression that must have been nailed on his face only when it softened. His stiff jaw, his teeth grinding against each other behind closed lips, and his eyebrows stretched in a queasy line, they all opened up, unwinded, loosened. “You scared me,” he said.

“Even if I scare you, you can’t leave, Miksa.”

Alexej took Miklós’ chin between his fingers and pushed it up, making Miklós’ raise his gaze and catching it in the trap of his own. They stared at each other for a time that was so long it went from feeling awkward to almost desirable. Then Alexej broke the contact and walked back towards the camp, pulling him along.

Following behind, more out of inertia than will, Miklós couldn’t seem to silence the voices in his mind; they suggested several different questions, all ready on his tongue, but not strong enough for Miklós to find the will to voice them. That was until the fire of the camp came into sight, and his growing restlessness becoming unbearable, he spoke. “I won’t leave,” Miklós’ said, voice faltering along with his steps. “But… “

Alexej stopped in his tracks. He didn’t turn, but the hand he had wrapped around Miklós’ own squeezed lightly. Miklós stared at his nape, mind filling the gaps of his eyesight, limited in the dimness. Then, he took a deep breath.

“You never tell me why,” he said, returning the squeeze on Alexej’s hand. That gave him the confidence to ask another question, maybe the right one. “Why is staying behind, alone, better for me?”

Alexej took a moment to finally turn. Once he did, he directed a sad gaze toward Miklós, and even the shape of his eyes seemed turned downwards. His gaze, however, was firmly aimed at Miklós’. “I’m trying to protect you,” he murmured.

In that moment Miklós’ emptiness, the void he’d been feeling, felt miraculously filled. It was sudden, but it was as if the void shrank and warmed with every beat of his heart, at the same time as Alexej walked closer and then pulled him into a hug.

Alexej’s arms encircled Miklós and his left hand gingerly brushed his hair, and Miklós listened to the rest of his words with an ear against his chest, seconds marked by the rhythm of Alexej’s quiet breathing and of his strong beating heart.

“So many bad things could happen to you if you came into town,” explained Alexej. “So many things could happen to you if you left me.” There was a pause, in which Alexej sighed, shifting on his feet and holding Miklós tighter. “I can’t allow that,” he murmured, almost too quietly for anyone but himself to hear. “I can’t risk losing you. Do you understand?”

For the longest moment, Miklós had no reaction. Even much later, he had no idea what reaction he should have had, because those words seemed impossible, almost a lie. But Alexej’s voice had quivered in such an unfamiliar way, had sounded so vulnerable and intense — and Miklós would never have believed Alexej wanted to lie to him, anyway.

For a while, they simply stood in the quiet of the sunset woods, unconcerned with the cold, the wind, or the passing time. Miklós burrowed his head into Alexej’s chest and reciprocated the hug, wrapping his arms around him. Alexej kept playing with his hair, lazily, his warm breath occasionally puffing against Miklós’ forehead.

“Do you want to go into town this badly?” Alexej said, after a while, breaking that unreal but comfortable silence.

Miklós thought about it for a moment. “I don’t like being left behind,” he replied, and if his voice trembled, it was with anger, for he thought about how that was exactly what Edi had done. “I want to be useful, to help you.”

Alexej listened. He nodded slowly, and caressed Miklós’ hair some more. The gesture was soothing, relaxing, so much that Miklós thought he could spend the whole night like that. “As soon as possible,” said Alexej, “we’ll get a room in the best hotel I can find.” It sounded like a promise, and Miklós trusted it. 

But it wasn’t everything he wanted to be promised.

Alexej broke the hug, to look Miklós in the eyes. ”We can sleep in the same bed if it makes you feel better,” he said, a big smile widening on his lips.

Miklós felt himself blush, his cheeks burning even against the winter cold. “That–that’s not–” he tried to protest, stuttering.

Alexej chuckled, quiet, low, his mouth covered by one hand. “I’ll solve this,” he promised, “and we’ll spend more time together. You have my word. Or do you still wish to leave?”

Miklós forgot his insecurities, worries and embarrassment. The bad taste in his mouth melted into a smile.

“Your word’s enough, Aleš,” he assured him.

And when Alexej’s lips — soft, warm, and only slightly wet — kissed his forehead, Miklós had no doubt that what he’d just said was absolutely true.

***

Miklós trusted Alexej. He did.

He knew that when Alexej said he was trying to protect him, he wasn’t lying.

If he had to explain how he knew, he could have offered nothing but a shrug of his shoulders, for there was no rational reasoning behind his conviction. But Miklós didn’t need a reason to trust Alexej, and he didn’t need to justify himself, not to anyone.

However, what Alexej had said wouldn’t stop haunting his thoughts. The fact that Alexej wanted to keep him safe made his heart soar with happiness and swell with glee. But at the same time, it meant that Alexej didn’t believe he could keep himself safe; it meant that Miklós was, in fact, being a weight he had to carry, a burden.

He didn’t want to be that. Anything but that.

Therefore, when he followed Alexej into town, the next day, he did it knowing he shouldn’t have. He knew it would make Alexej worried, and then angry, but he also knew that this was a chance to probe himself. If Miklós followed Alexej, did what he wanted to do, and then came back to their camp without getting into trouble, he would have proven he could look out for himself.

And so he did, and it was going well.

The night before, Alexej had fallen asleep before him, and after a time spent staring at the tense line of his lips, the idea had taken shape in Miklós’ mind. He took some money from Alexej’s wallet — he remembered him having a black leather one, but when he searched the pockets of Alexej’s coat and found it, it was made of blue, worn-out fabric. Inside was nothing but a fat bunch of banknotes.

He took some money because he wanted to get Alexej a present; Christmas was close, after all. He thought he’d get a music tape, maybe, since he knew too little about literature to buy a good book, and he thought he’d pay for it because he didn’t want to risk attracting attention to himself, and that seemed like a good way to do that.

He planned on following Alexej, but still memorised the map, just to be safe. He pleasantly smiled a farewell when Alexej left. He waited what seemed like an endless time before following him, until no sound could be heard from where he sat except for the quiet whispering of the wind and the crackling of the fire.

Then, he left.

He half-followed in Alexej’s steps, half-followed his memory of the map in the places where the traces Alexej left behind were faint, or simply concealed. Alexej’s footsteps in the snow were much less clear than Miklós had expected, and the route he had taken through the woods much more convoluted. If the sun hadn’t still been up — however orange its dying light — Miklós would probably have missed the trail completely. 

He followed in Alexej’s steps as much as possible, concealed his traces as best he could where Alexej seemed to have done it, and at some points, even where he hadn’t. The town should have been a half-hour walk from their camp, but with all those deviations, the sun had already set under the horizon when he arrived.

The town was a small cluster of low buildings with fields surrounding it on two sides, while the woods bounded it on the others. A large road ran straight through the middle of it, and the town was built around it, as if it was feeding on the road, the alleys acting as its mouths. Miklós had no idea where Alexej was, and whether he was done with his own errands, but he hoped he wasn’t, so Miklós could be sure to return before him. 

It took some walking aimlessly and a bit of conspicuous asking around to find a place that sold what Miklós was looking for. He was worried that someone would recognise him, or just notice him, but the old woman of whom he asked directions — wrapped in a coat and a large scarf that covered her head — pointed him in the right direction without asking questions, without staring at him or looking suspicious; the music shop she recommended, all varnished dark wood, greeted him inside with a silence interrupted by the door’s loud ting.

The inside of the shop was empty, except for the salesman sitting behind the counter with an electric heater at his feet. Miklós went straight to him, asking for something he believed Alexej would like. It sounded strange on his tongue.

Without moving from his seat, the salesman picked out a tape from a box of dust-covered cassettes that stood right next to the counter — a faded “on sale” sign hanging loose on its corner — and then handed it to Miklós. “You’re from around town, are you?” asked the salesman, greying hair on top of a balding, round head. He looked at the banknote in Miklós’ hand without taking it.

It was then that, through the shop window, Miklós saw Alexej. He had expected to see him around town, of course, and hoped not to be seen himself, but what attracted his attention and tied his stomach in a knot was someone else’s presence at Alexej’s side.

“I am in a hurry, sir, sorry,” he muttered, hurriedly, barely realising what he was saying. “I don’t have much time to chat,” he said, putting the banknote down on the cluttered counter. His head was turned towards the outside of the shop, trying not to lose sight of Alexej, and he didn’t deign to look at the clerk a second time.

The unfamiliar boy his eyes were fixed on was shorter than Alexej. He was very close to Miklós’ own height, actually, and, as far as he could tell from afar, he was very close to Miklós in age too. He had slicked-back brown hair, its tips brushing against his shoulders, and was wrapped in clothes too large for his body, which hung on his frame, making him look smaller than he was.

The boy and Alexej turned a corner, and the salesman was still there, counting the change. Miklós almost left him there. He couldn’t, of course, not if he wanted to appear as a customer like any other, yet he couldn’t help but nervously tap his feet on the parquet floor. At that, however, Alexej eyed him with a strange expression, his lips drawing a slanted line on his face.

The tension building inside Miklós made the details of his plan seem so inconsequential that Miklós decided to ignore that. With half of his change in hand, he rushed out of the shop, the cassette of Schumann’s Kinderszenen in C sitting snugly in his pocket, and then he hurried towards the alley he’d seen Alexej disappear into. To the nagging voice in the back of his head, reminding him how reckless he had been in acting oddly like that, Miklós simply replied that no one had cared about him so far, no matter how strangely he acted, and they wouldn’t start caring now.

The town itself wasn’t deserted per se, but whoever walked around would surely have a hard time trying to hide in a non-existent crowd. It wasn’t easy to guess where the two had gone, but it was hard not to catch loud sounds from the streets around: Once Miklós heard, from afar, the sound of Alexej’s laugh, he knew he was on the right track.

He caught a glimpse of them from behind a corner, four turns and five empty streets away from the music shop. Alexej was talking about something with his usual enthusiasm — which Miklós had frankly missed in the previous weeks — painted on his face and obvious in his gestures.

Miklós held the cassette close, seething with a bubbling feeling that originated from the knot in his guts. He stayed back and looked as Alexej led the boy outside town, walking north on the main road, towards the woods. He only followed behind when he was more than convinced that there would be no risk of Alexej seeing him.

The night was lit by gentle moonlight, and the stars were as bright as in Dobrovnik. The wind howled above the roofs, over the canopy of the woods, and only occasionally lowered its icy breath to the ground. It was a cold night, and a couple of darker clouds sat on the horizon. Judging from the wind and its direction, they would obscure the sky over that town in no more than a couple of hours.

Miklós felt like those swollen grey clouds were but a manifestation of the unspecified, shapeless anguish he felt as he ventured in the woods after Alexej and that boy. The only thing that had made Miklós wait, that had kept him from walking up to Alexej to ask him what was happening, was the thought of how mad Alexej would be: if Miklós approached Alexej now, without notice or explanation, his worry, his rightful annoyance at Miklós’ lies, would easily explode into anger, and that froze Miklós’ legs in place. He purposefully lost sight of them, stayed in place until the two were so far away that all he could do was follow the traces they left behind.

The winter woods were quiet. The season drove all kinds of animals back to their nests, for all the cold months or just for the night. Hooting owls were the only other living beings Miklós could occasionally hear besides himself; foxes, deer, hares were all very quiet, and quick to hide. Miklós would easily be able to hear if Alexej or the boy spoke, even from a distance, for it would be easy to tell the sound of a human voice apart from that of night animals crawling out of their nests. However, he heard nothing.

Their traces, at least, were easy to follow, even for someone inexperienced. The footprints were clear enough: the snow was still soft in most places, and it showed a trail of firm, secure steps, almost invisible in the undergrowth, and an irregular, stumbling trail behind it, which, in the absence of snow, was made up of broken twigs and branches, sometimes pieces of bark. Surely that couldn’t be Alexej, could it?

Miklós tried not to think of anything, not to think of possible explanations of any kind. The hypotheses his brain was producing sat at the edge of his conscious thoughts and stayed there, exiled. He concentrated instead on following the tracks ahead of him. He didn’t realise it right away, but he quickened his pace.

Despite his senses being as alert as possible — he could feel them straining like muscles pushed to their limit — despite his brain being focused on the task at hand, he could feel his throat closing, choking his breath, holding on to the air inside of his body, as desperately as his brain was latching onto even the smallest noise.

For what seemed almost too long, that tension was useless. Like invisible tendrils reaching out desperately, his senses sought anything that could confirm he was following the right tracks, with no result. It frustrated him and brewed fear inside him, fear that he would get lost, or be found — which was worse, it was hard to say. 

And yet that same tension pushed him forward, because he needed to see, because he deserved to know, because whoever that boy was, however unimportant, Miklós wanted to know about him; because Alexej should not leave him alone all the time, lonely and feeling like a piece of him had been violently ripped away. Miklós could not allow it anymore. Alexej had said, once, that from that moment on Miklós should never leave his side. But he had never kept that word, and Miklós wanted him to, more than anything else.

Soon, he caught up with the two; the irregular sound of steps — creaking leaves and rasping snow under unsteady shoes — echoed faintly through the forest path. Without realising, Miklós found himself walking faster still, almost running, until a voice broke the silence.

“Here,” it said. It sounded like Alexej’s voice — Miklós couldn’t be more sure — but there was a vibration in it, like the fangs of a sharp smile, the edge of a feeling of ecstasy. 

Miklós halted in place. The footprints proceeded south, off the trodden path, and this time, following them, Miklós moved slowly, and as silently as possible, heart throbbing in his throat.

“This place looks perfect, don’t you think?” he heard Alexej continue, once again with that strange edge in his voice. He sounded amused, somehow, and satisfied too. However, there was no reply to his question but a muffled sound, nothing more than a grunt.

Miklós almost stumbled on an exposed root, and clearly heard a leaf crunch under his last step. He had to stop completely still, and put a hand on his mouth to help hold his breath; when an instinctive inhale dilated his nostrils, he pushed harder and held his nose to stifle it.

“Oh, come on.” Alexej’s voice seemed to reverberate through him like music, and Miklós took in each word, as he slowly walked closer to their source. “I know you don’t want it, but at least you could appreciate my choice of location.”

There was a thud, a rustle of leaves and a breaking of twigs, closer and closer, and Miklós crouched down, hiding in the thinning vegetation.

“You’re hurting me now,” Alexej said, his voice a low, raspy melody reduced to the volume of a whisper, a purr that sent a shiver down Miklós’ spine, straight to his groin. “I thought you liked me,” continued Alexej, with that same tone, and it was then that, crouched behind a bush, Miklós was hit with the realisation of just how much he liked that voice.

The other person finally spoke. Miklós first heard his breathing, ragged and heavy, and then his voice rang out, the strain in it making it sound shrill and desperate.

“Please,” it begged, “I’ll do anything!”

There was raw, uncontrolled fear in that unfamiliar voice, and a similar feeling coiled around Miklós’ whole being, starting from his feet up to his ears. Then, there was a moment of silence that felt like a punch in the guts that pushed all air out of Miklós’ lungs. He wasn’t visibly shaking, but he felt like he was, the tips of his fingers trembling until he closed his hands into a fist.

“If you put it like that,” murmured Alexej, his mellow voice carried by the wind, “there is something that you can do for me.”

Miklós peeked out of his hiding place, looking into the clearing between the trees. The moon still towered high in the night sky, shedding its pale light on two figures leaning against a tree, on the edge of the small clearing, only metres away from where Miklós was crouched.

The boy, hair now all dishevelled sticking to his bloodied face, stood wide-eyed, his wrists tied behind his back. With hair falling in front of his eyes, his resemblance to Miklós was striking. He had been pushed against the tree by Alexej, whose right hand was holding him by the scruff of the neck, and whose left hand was hidden behind his back, firmly holding a blade that reflected the moon’s gaze.

Miklós’ first reaction was confusion: his mind slowed down, trying to wrap itself around this situation, to merge the image he had of Alexej — one of cozy warm hugs he fell asleep in — with the one right in front of him. 

Reality, however, was faster. Alexej in particular was, because, before Miklós’ mind could catch up, Alexej’s lips were planted on those of the other boy, wet with blood from his nose and tears from his eyes. The kiss was messy and aggressive; it looked like Alexej was trying to devour the boy, more than kiss him.

Then moonlight flashed in Miklós’ eyes, and in the space of a blink, the box cutter Alexej was holding in his left hand sank into the other’s guts. Blood spouted from the boy’s mouth, in the middle of their kiss, gurgling with the choked scream that followed.

With the kiss interrupted, and the blade withdrawn at Alexej’s side, their contact was severed, and the boy stumbled on his feet, hands fruitlessly trying to contain the sea of red quickly staining his shirt.

Alexej stood, gaze enraptured by the boy’s struggle, blood dripping from his hand, from the cutter, and smeared all over his face by the kiss. He watched, with that eerily delighted expression painted on his face, as the boy fell to his knees, as if praying. Then he grabbed the boy’s hair, pulling his head up and drawing their faces close to each other. He spoke in a hushed voice, smiling lips against the boy’s mouth, which was instead distorted by a grimace of pain.

“Look at that face,” he whispered. “You are so, so pretty.”

Miklós blinked, frozen in place by what his eyes had seen but his mind didn’t seem to be able to process yet, and by the sheer power of his reaction: by his absurd, unacceptable instinctive desire to stand, to walk up to Alexej and use that knife himself, to chase that boy away in the most definitive way.

He almost did — he stood, suddenly, not even feeling in control of his body — but he stopped right away, for it was useless to do anything else. After whispering something against the boy’s lips, like a lover, Alexej slit his throat.

The cutter’s sharp blade slashed through the skin and flesh, leaving behind a thin crimson line that soon grew, expanded, until it turned into a cleft, a bloody chasm separating neck from inclined head. Blood spurted out, covered the snowy ground with a curved red spray that glittered under the moonlight. A groan left the boy’s open mouth, and his eyes went wide and then void.

Alexej’s expression, half hidden under fresh blood, was one of enthusiasm, maybe even bliss. He was handsome: terrible, scary, but so incredibly attractive that Miklós felt his insides stir at the mere sight of him.

Then his stomach dropped, because Alexej’s gaze turned away from the warm corpse and those blue eyes, colder than ever, now settled on him.

“Miksa,” Alexej greeted, amiably, the smile on his face white against the red of blood, like a curious negative of the snow around him. “What are you doing here?”

Alexej took one step forward, then another. His hand, the improvised weapon in it, his face, his hair were dripping with blood, warm blood leaving traces alongside his every step. The smell the wind blew into Miklós’ face wasn’t even completely unfamiliar; the sweetness and the dry coppery notes reminded Miklós of Alexej’s good moods, but this time, the smell was overpowering.

“Stay away,” Miklós stuttered, voice as weak as his own knees.

Alexej didn’t listen, and soon he was right in front of Miklós, who found his eyes and tried not to leave them, using them as a guide in the unknown crimson that was Alexej’s face in that moment. 

“You… killed him,” he said, stupidly.

Alexej laughed, throwing his head back, his voice a lonely sound in that muffled night. “I don’t see anyone else,” he said.

Miklós looked around, as if he wanted to check, but really just because he wanted to look away from that face — to pretend the blood didn’t exist, its smell didn’t sting his nostrils, nothing was really there but the warmth one step from him and that mellow voice that made his heart and groin both react as if anything else really didn’t matter. That voice felt human, that warmth friendly, and he could talk to them.

“Why? Why would you–?” he tried asking, his eyes fixed on the point where the blood dripping from the knife was hollowing out a small crater in the snow.

“Don’t you see?” Alexej said, and judging from his tone Miklós was probably missing something absurdly obvious, something staring him right in the face. He shook his head, but kept it low, his gaze trained on the warm drips of blood that fell a palm’s span from Alexej’s shoe. “Come closer, then,” Alexej said, and his hand was grasping Miklós’ shoulder, sending a jolt through his every nerve. “See for yourself.”

Miklós shook his head, but let Alexej lead him closer and closer to that body that had been alive not too long ago, that used to breathe and feel and cry and beg to stay alive, and now was but a broken doll on the icy ground — his throat slashed in two, his guts spilled out, bathed in his own blood, eyes staring at the faraway stars.

The vision made Miklós stop, staring for the longest moment, enraptured, at the gash opening the corpse’s neck and its pink skin, that still looked soft and alive. Then he had to retch: his throat convulsed, his stomach tossed about by his feelings and that vision, so much that it would have spilled its entire contents on the ground if it was full. He covered his mouth, looked away, trying to escape Alexej’s grip, and when he couldn’t, he whimpered something unintelligible in protest.

“Hey,” Alexej whispered, “there’s nothing to worry about.” He pulled Miklós close, turning him again to face the corpse. His hand had left a bloody mark on Miklós’ sweatshirt, and with it that strong, overwhelming smell. Miklós felt his eyes prickle with tears, then fill with them until they spilled over, warping and deforming the image in front of his eyes, turning it into a hazy ball of red.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, Miksa,” murmured Alexej in his ear, and his breath was warm, almost burning, his lips nearly touching Miklós’ cheek.

Miklós started crying, the sobs shaking his whole body despite him trying his best to make them stop. “Why?” he sighed, hiccuped between tears. “Why did you kill him?” he asked, and while weeping, a guilt and fear mixed in his stomach as he reminded himself that it was exactly what he had wanted to do, as well.

Alexej brushed his hand down Miklós’ back, in a delicate, soothing gesture, then he pulled him close. “Don’t you think he looks a bit like you?” he asked. 

Miklós saw him gesturing towards the body, but he closed his eyes and hid his face against Alexej’s warm chest, ignoring the sticky wetness of the blood he was covered in, ignoring even the smell in favour of the warmth of his hug.

“See, Miksa, when they find that body,” explained Alexej, “they’ll probably think it’s you. They’ll need some time to investigate to either prove or disprove that hypothesis, and while they’re focused on that, we’ll get a chance to cross the border and leave Hungary.” Alexej’s voice vibrated in a low murmur. Miklós stayed hidden in the warm darkness of that chest, until Alexej forced him away, making their eyes meet. Browning blood now grown cold covered his face, his neck, sparing only his lips, as if he’d licked them clean.

“Was there no other way?” Miklós murmured, his eyes going back and forth from Alexej’s face to the dead body one step away from them. Fear still made his breath ragged and heavy.

“Miksa, trust me,” Alexej said, his tone appeasing. He took Miklós’ chin between his fingers and raised his face, to look him in the eyes. “You do trust me, don’t you?”

A strange light flashed in his eyes. His breath smelled like blood, a mix of iron, sugar and earth dancing from his tongue to Miklós’ mouth. It made him feel a jolt of alarm through every muscle of his body; no matter how much he wanted to kiss those soft, pink lips right then, he also wanted to run as far as possible from them.

He’d just seen Alexej kiss that boy and then stab him, and the weapon was still firm in that same bloody hand, as if ready to strike again. For one insane moment, Miklós even thought it might be worth it. But then he took a step back.

“I’ll… need some time to think,” he murmured, shrugging Alexej’s hand away.

That left Alexej standing still, as if stunned. It was the first time Miklós had seen surprise on his handsome face, and once again he had to fight the impulse to kiss him, or to cry and beg.

Alexej furrowed his brows. “Are you leaving?” he asked. His tone was flat, not suggesting any kind of emotion.

“I’m…” Miklós hesitated. “I need to–” 

Miklós tried to find the words to explain, but they wouldn’t come. He felt like there were no words to explain his fear and the rest of his feelings, and the way the mixed together and left him paralysed — he didn’t want to leave, but he didn’t want to die either, and it felt like it was one or the other. 

Finally, something moved. But it wasn’t Miklós; Alexej reached for him, took one of his wrists, opened his mouth to say something. The cutter reflected a distorted, red shade of the moonlight, still tight in Alexej’s hand, and Miklós felt himself being shaken by a sudden jolt.

His body moved before he could think, and he shook off Alexej’s grip, again. “Let go of me,” he said, and even he was unsure of whether he was shouting or murmuring. Then he turned away and he ran, as fast as his legs would take him.

Behind him, he felt Alexej laugh coldly, freezing the blood in his veins.

“You can’t leave me, Miklós,” he said, yelled, at his back. “You can’t hide from me, Miklós. I’ll find you, always.”

———

vi. I’ll be your anchor

Miklós woke up staring at an unfamiliar ceiling. 

Right as his eyes opened, his memories were a turmoil in his head, one he fruitlessly tried to make head or tail of. That was rendered far more difficult by the unbearable feeling of cold, embracing him closer than a lover would, chilling him to his very bones. His toes and fingers felt numb and stiff. He breathed slowly, shallowly, into the mountain of blankets he found himself wrapped in, but it didn’t help much with raising the warmth.

What definitely helped, instead, was the burning presence right next to him. He was held in a familiar hug, and at the same time one he had the feeling he should be very far away from. He recognised Alexej’s scent all around him.

He turned slowly, and even in the dimness, his clouded vision recognised Alexej resting beside him — eyes closed, cheeks flushed, face peaceful, and breathing slow and deep. 

When Miklós saw his face, he remembered it, in a sudden flash, covered in dripping crimson and smiling, and then cleaner, but with an upset expression in place of the blood.

The memories surfaced briefly, in no specific order.

Miklós was in Alexej’s arms, shivering violently as the icy air seemed unable to make its way into his lungs, and his eyelids were heavy, so heavy, and his hands trying to reach for Alexej’s face fumbled and then fell weakly. Then he was staring at a dead body, blood dressing it in freshly-drawn crimson drapes, the slash in its neck open like a second mutely screaming mouth, empty eyes looking far away from there. Alexej’s face was the last image etched into them, and over it, in the dullness of those greyed-out pupils, might be the mystery of what came after. Then Miklós was running, and crying, and stumbling in the woods — going anywhere, as far away as he could — and it was raining, and his clothes were wet and he smelled like blood and fear. Then he was watching Alexej kiss a boy, or maybe himself, maybe it was Miklós he was kissing, pushed against that tree — but Alexej stabbed the boy and licked the blood blooming on his lips. Then, Miklós was sitting at the base of a tree, his wet clothes stiff and cold like pieces of ice, his senses numb and his sight becoming blurred, and a figure was approaching him, even as he tried to send it away, slurring his speech.

“Told you I’d find you,” said the figure with Alexej’s voice. “It’s gonna be okay,” it said again, and a pair of strong, warm hands picked Miklós up.

Right now, Miklós’ clothes weren’t wet or cold anymore. He wore layer upon layer of soft, warm clothes that were too big for him, but smelled of detergent, as if recently washed. Alexej’s arms pulled him closer, and the heat from his body surrounded Miklós, a contrast to the cold he felt inside his own chest.

The room around him was as dark as the night, and Miklós couldn’t keep his eyes open. Falling asleep again was as simple as blinking.

Waking up was just as effortless. It felt as if his eyes had rested barely an instant, and yet the room was drowned in light. He was lying on his side, now, and the bedroom he saw, with its light wooden furniture and beige walls, seemed to emanate a certain warmth itself. On the bedside table was a portrait: a man and a woman hugged and smiled behind the glass of the frame. She had incredibly fair skin, and he had a thick black beard.

The TV was on: he could tell by its flashing light, reflected in the glass of the framed picture, and the buzzing sound it made.

Miklós blinked a couple of times, trying to bring the whole room into focus. In front of him, there was a closet with a dent in its door, and an old, ruined carpet on the floor between it and the bed. In the corner of the room, a couple of metres from the foot of the bed, was an armchair, the edges of the armrests almost completely worn out and a tartan blanket covering the seat.

Then his attention was stolen from the sounds of the TV.

“What I want is to never leave your side,” a voice said, and Miklós didn’t recognise it as his own right away. It was only a moment later, when he heard Alexej’s voice — unmistakable, however distorted by the TV’s speakers — that he realised he’d heard those exact words before, coming out of his own mouth.

“You know, Miksa, I don’t live what I would call an ideal life,” said the Alexej in the TV, and that moment, the memory playing on the screen seemed so incredibly far away, as if had happened years ago, instead of just weeks.

“I don’t care,” his own voice said, shaking. “I don’t care about anyone but you.”

A buzz distorted the sound right afterwards, rewinding the scene back to the previous sentence, to Miklós whispering he never wanted to leave. His own heart repeated that sentence at a quickening pace, as he slowly turned towards the flashing screen.

He caught a glimpse of it, Alexej and him sitting on a soft hotel bed, fingers intertwined between them, eyes staring into each other’s. The scene was frozen, Miklós’ own mouth half open, suspended in the act of saying something that filled his eyes with tears. They looked like a pair of lovers.

“Awake?” whispered Alexej’s voice from behind him.

Miklós jolted up weakly, as if surprised, even though he’d felt Alexej’s warm presence beside him since that night. He didn’t seem to have moved at all, didn’t seem to have left the bed. As long as that presence had been silent, Miklós had felt comforted by it, but now that he felt Alexej’s gaze brush against him, he tensed with alarm — not fear, not exactly, but a wary sort of attention.

“What are you, scared?” Alexej giggled, and it didn’t even sound malicious. He felt as warm as ever, maybe even more, when he pulled Miklós into his hold as if nothing had ever happened. The movement, which Miklós was too weak to resist, brought them face to face on the soft bed, their noses almost touching.

Miklós looked away, shaking his head. A shiver ran down his back.

“Are you surprised that I’d save your life? After everything I did for you?” pressed Alexej, and maybe there was some urgency in his voice, but it was buried as carefully as Miklós had been tucked under that mountain of blankets.

Miklós gathered the words, breathed as deeply as he could, but his voice came out as weak as a murmur, slurred and confused. “I’m… not–not scared.”

“Stop lying.” Alexej spoke softly, and his warm hand caressed Miklós’ face. Even the roughness of his palm felt gentle. “We can be completely honest with each other now, can’t we?”

Miklós didn’t feel that he was lying. He had been scared, terrified of Alexej, of the fact he’d murdered a person, of the way he’d made it look casual and easy, of the absolute joy in his eyes as he did. He had been scared, but now, as Alexej held him so close and their breaths mingled together, he wished he had enough strength in his arms to lift one and reciprocate Alexej’s caress. He had been scared, but it was like a nightmare, and now he’d woken up and everything was like before, and he wasn’t ready to give up all that because of a single night of fear.

Maybe Alexej had killed someone — Miklós was almost sure that what he remembered was true and not just a dream — but he’d saved Miklós’ life. Evelin had been wrong: Alexej truly didn’t mean to hurt him, after all.

Miklós didn’t feel that he was lying, and he still felt he could be honest with Alexej, about almost everything. Everything except the growing grip in his guts that wanted their lips to touch and collide and taste each other.

Therefore, he nodded.

Alexej smirked, and his hand was in Miklós’ hair — a matted and tangled bundle on the pillow, in which Alexej’s fingers caught knots and pulled at them. “Imagine that,” Alexej sighed. “You can even stop lying to me when you say you trust me.”

He said that half-aloud, as if murmuring it in the direction of Miklós’ hair. His tone was firmer, with sharp edges stretching its surface, almost breaching it, and in the end his lips curved in a stiff smile as he looked right through Miklós, or maybe into him.

“I wasn’t–” Miklós coughed out, before the air in his lungs ran out and he choked on his own words as he breathed in again, shallowly and desperately. “I wasn’t lying!”

Alexej’s blue eyes were fierce and magnetic as they’d never been before, and they didn’t soften at all. His lips thinned in a straight line. “Then why, Miksa,” Alexej said, speaking slowly, spelling out each word, “did you follow me when I told you to stay put?” His voice progressively hardened, as if those edges were finally piercing through the pretence of his kindness, until the last words he uttered sounded almost like a growl.

“I was lonely…” Miklós breathed, eyes wide and suddenly prickling with tears. He felt so weak, and his mind didn’t seem capable of working properly, and the fervour in Alexej’s voice almost made him sick. “I wanted to get,” he tried again, the wind in his lungs finishing too soon, eating the last of his words, “a gift for you.”

“Oh, the gift, yes.” Alexej sighed, rolled his eyes, but once he looked in Miklós’ direction again he didn’t seem as angry. “You mentioned it.”

There was a moment of silence, and Alexej took one of Miklós’ hands — found it in the sea of blankets somewhere — and pulled it close. Miklós couldn’t feel his fingers: they’d turned pale and felt stiff, hard to bend. When Alexej saw him trying to move them, he pressed them between his own hands, nullifying his efforts.

“Actually, you told me a lot of things while I was trying to prevent you from freezing to death, you know, Miksa?” Alexej smiled like a wolf baring his fangs. Miklós felt a lot like prey, himself.

For a moment, he said nothing, returning Alexej’s stare as he tried to recall something, anything, that would help him understand what Alexej was talking about.

Alexej draw Miklós’ hand closer, rested his cheek on it. “I wish you had been more honest with me from the start,” he whispered, as his eyelids fluttered closed. “I wish that you didn’t need to be delirious from fever for that to happen.” 

Miklós was suddenly hit by a terrible feeling, like something wrapping cold tentacles around his chest and throat. “What- what did I tell you?” he stuttered.

Alexej opened his eyes again, his incredibly warm cheek still brushing against Miklós’ fingers, which were, in all likelihood, superficially frostbitten. He smiled, amusement filling the dimples at the side of his lips. “The truth,” he replied, cryptically.

Then he let go of Miklós’ hand, not before having neatly put it back under the blankets. “You were much more grateful,” he commented, “and pliant. Spontaneous, I’d say.”

Miklós tried to hold Alexej’s gaze, despite the eyebrows drawn in a strict line making him feel uneasy. He kept digging into his own brain, trying to remember exactly what he’d said. However, it felt as if he was digging into nothing but mist, and no matter how much fog he pushed away, more came to take its place.

“What did I say?” Miklós repeated, as his stomach dropped to the ground. He didn’t even try to hide the apprehension, the dread with which his voice dripped, and which was surely obvious on his face, too.

“What, are you scared of what you might have confessed to?” Alexej laughed heartily. Miklós wasn’t sure if he was mocking that question or he was simply amused. Either way, his stomach contracted unpleasantly. “Are you worried I might know one of your dark, dark secrets?” whispered Alexej, and that was mocking, all right.

Maybe Miklós didn’t have dark secrets, and maybe from Alexej’s point of view his worry about having possibly said something embarrassing, something awkward, seemed entirely trivial — but there were thoughts that Miklós had, that he’d always much preferred keeping inside.

Like when he’d kept staring at Boris’ lips, back in school, or at the way his classmates undressed and changed after getting all dirty playing in the fields. Like the way he’d kept staring at Alexej, everything about him, the whole time, since they’d first met. Miklós had learned to keep it all under wraps, conceal it from the world as much as he concealed it from himself. But after what had happened the night before, there was no way to know what had come out of his mouth, unfiltered, if he was as delirious as Alexej said.

The thought sent him into something that resembled a state of panic, except it was so unfocused, confused, that it simply felt as if his mind was bouncing in cloudy mists, as his eyes brimmed with tears and he felt like retching.

“Alexej…” he murmured, begging for an answer, “please…”

Alexej smiled in that comforting way of his — cheeks filling, forehead flat — and shushed him with a gesture of his hands. His left thumb wiped away a tear that had spilled from Miklós’ eye. “Miksa, you’re still weak,” he murmured. He stood up, leaving the warm haven of the bed. Miklós felt the cold air rushing under the covers before they fell back down.

Alexej leaned down on him and brushed a lock of hair away from his eyes. “You need rest, my little star,” he murmured.

Miklós’ heart throbbed violently in his throat, and he almost forgot everything, even the words that were already leaving his lips, asking Alexej once again to tell him something, anything, about what had happened after he’d run away. But then Alexej said that, and all the words died, all the words were lost. Miklós felt as if he could throw up his own beating heart any moment now.

He didn’t get the chance to do that, either, because Alexej’s lips brushed delicately against his own. They burned like fire and were softer than all the blankets in the world, and tasted as sweet as Alexej smelled, if not more.

“Try to relax,” Alexej whispered a couple of seconds later, seconds that lasted much longer than they should have.

The contact left Miklós starved, wanting nothing but to repeat the kiss again, and again, and again. He was too weak, however, to even raise his head, which felt heavier than his whole body. He lay still, pressed his lips together, licked them, as if checking if he had just imagined it. Maybe he was still feverish and delirious.

“It’s going to be okay, Miksa,” said Alexej, with a fond smile as he caressed Miklós’ cheek. “I’m going to take care of you. Okay?” 

The end of that last contact — Alexej’s fingertips on the flushed skin of his face — threatened to make it all feel more surreal, to move it all further away from reality. Miklós nodded anyway, not really thinking about it, his muscles moving out of some sort of habit more than out of will. The freckles on Alexej’s face, the ones near his lips, which Miklós had counted once, were more than before.

Miklós thought Alexej would get up now, and leave, go who-knew-where. Instead, his weight on the mattress right next to Miklós didn’t budge, didn’t move even slightly, didn’t shift in place at all. 

One of Alexej’s arms touched Miklós’ neck, as if feeling for his pulse — then, soon after, the other one. Alexej’s eyes were fixed on his own hands, focused and very hard to read, as if too many different thoughts were passing behind them. His fingers followed the shape of Miklós’ neck, circled it, his light touch slowly getting heavier. The thumbs were pushing against his windpipe when Alexej retracted his hands.

“You feel warmer now,” he murmured, but he was looking somewhere else, and he spoke so faintly, the words didn’t seem to ever have been aimed at Miklós at all.

Then, Alexej seemed to regain his focus. He blinked a couple of times, and took a long, deep breath. He folded his own hands in his lap.

“Just rest, okay?” he said, louder now, glancing at Miklós briefly. “I’ll draw a warm bath for you.”

***

The bath Alexej had drawn for him felt more than warm. It felt as if it was scorching his whole body, burning the tips of his toes and boiling his legs; the whole room was warm, incredibly so, so much that the air felt heavy and hard to breathe.

Miklós endured it, however, because he knew it would help with his reddened, stiff fingers and because — he realised as Alexej carried him to the bathroom, and delicately lowered him into the tub — despite everything, he trusted Alexej. He would always trust him.

Weak as he was, Miklós endured the embarrassment. That tame, ridiculous thing in the back of his mind, something that barely seemed to matter after all, and yet still burned his cheeks with blood stolen from his stinging fingertips. His heart beat furiously in his ribcage as if it was about to burst the whole time, and Miklós wasn’t sure if it was the heat getting his blood circulation going again, awakening his heart from a frozen sleep, or if it was simply the feeling of Alexej’s hands all over his naked body.

Alexej’s movements were firm, detached, practical. They didn’t feel like something Miklós should be embarrassed about, they didn’t feel like the actions of someone who’d called him ‘my little star’ only minutes before, like the actions of someone who’d kissed him. There was only an affectionate gentleness at the edges of Alexej’s light touches, and yet it was enough for Miklós’ whole body to burn with desire, and for him to thank his luck he was feeling sick enough that his lust wouldn’t show.

“You could have lost your fingers, you know?” murmured Alexej, holding Miklós’ pale hands in his own, keeping them underwater, caressing them. His gaze was pointed on what he was doing, on the delicate, attentive movements of his hands, and never rose to meet Miklós’ eyes. He was handsome with his face flushed by the vapour’s heat, breathing through his mouth, lips ajar. He didn’t brush his hair away when it fell across his creased brow, partially hiding it from sight, as if to conceal the focused expression on his face.

And yet, in a way, that expression seemed less real than the one he’d had when he’d stabbed that boy, back in the woods. In that moment, Alexej had looked more genuine than he ever did before — and more handsome, too. Miklós had been scared of him, sure, but now that he was recalling those memories in the safety of his warm bath, he realised just how attracted he was to that side of Alexej, how he wished he could see it again.

“Do you do that often?” he murmured, lowering his eyes to their joined hands. “Killing people, I mean.” His own fingers were still pale and stiff, but Alexej’s were barely even flushed — which made him realise that maybe the bath’s temperature wasn’t as hot as it felt.

A long silence followed Miklós’ question.

Miklós started getting accustomed to the warmth. He sat there, embraced by that silence, until his lungs finally breathed in and out easily, and his fingers and toes had regained their sensation and a more lively colour, even though they were mottled with redder spots amid paler ones. Now he could feel, as well as see, Alexej still gently holding his hands. He only looked away from them when their flush grew more uniform.

“Sometimes,” Alexej replied, so much later that Miklós had almost forgotten the question. “Does it scare you?”

Something flashed in the back of his eyes,as if a glint of red had just passed through them. Even though his touch was still gentle, the way his eyebrows were crooked now, the way his eyes thinned attentively, it all reminded Miklós of that other night. 

He wondered if the way he’d touched that boy had been just as kind.

“A bit,” Miklós admitted.

Alexej smiled — or rather, his lips curved, baring teeth and a hint of tongue before he licked them closed. Then he grabbed a piece of soap and started scrubbing Miklós’ back with it. “I bet you’re curious about how it feels,” Alexej said, half-aloud.

He cleaned Miklós’ whole dirt- and mud-covered body. He soaped his chest, his arms, his armpits, made him stand up to clean his stomach, his lower back, his legs even. Miklós covered his groin with his hands, embarrassed, but Alexej simply moved them out of the way and cleaned him there, too. Miklós wanted to protest, but was too busy trying to keep his balance, fighting against shaking legs and a sense of dizziness.

Alexej let him slide down in the water again, guiding his movements, supporting him by offering him his shoulder. In the process, Alexej got his shirt completely drenched in soapy water, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.

“When you kill someone,” Alexej continued, as he squeezed some shampoo into Miklós’ tangled, soiled hair and started massaging his scalp, “it feels like you’re the most powerful being in the universe.” His voice vibrated with raw enthusiasm, yet emanated a sense of peace. “It feels like you’re in control and no one can ever hurt you.” He tucked a lock of Miklós’ wet hair behind his ear. “It feels like you’re free. It’s liberating, like letting out all the pressure built up inside you.”

Alexej looked Miklós straight in the eyes, and caressed his face, gingerly. His pupils were dilated, and the warmth of his words rested on the bottom of them, squirming as if fighting against being extinguished. His hand traced the edge of Miklós’ jaw, then brushed against his lips; the backs of his fingers grazed Miklós’ cheekbones, as the hint of a smile passed across his face.

Then Alexej put a hand on top of Miklós’ head and pushed him underwater.

For a moment, Miklós was sure Alexej was trying to kill him — and, weak as he was, he was also aware that he couldn’t do anything to stop him, to save himself. For a split second, he even thought he wouldn’t have tried to stop Alexej, anyway.

But once his head was submerged, Alexej let go of him, allowed him to resurface — cough out water and breathe in air — and simply went back to rubbing dirt away from his hair.

Alexej’s face was relaxed, unperturbed, as if nothing consequential had happened, as if both his actions and his words had been nothing but commonplace. They weren’t, because he wasn’t commonplace at all, and Miklós hoped that, by being around him, he’d become less average himself, if only by effect of Alexej’s closeness.

“Don’t you feel guilty?” he asked, even though he could guess that the answer would be a negative.

Alexej’s eyelashes fluttered closed and then open with a sigh, as he stopped for a moment.

“When you kill someone, you’re like their god,” he explained, meeting Miklós’ eyes. “They fear you, they love you, and they respect you. Would a god feel guilt?”

Miklós shook his head, and he thought that he wouldn’t need the threat of death to kneel before Alexej and adore him.

***

For four days, Alexej bandaged Miklós’ blistered fingers and toes.

After they finally warmed up, they started hurting terribly, so much that Miklós woke in the middle of the night, crying in pain. He tried to keep quiet, but Alexej always woke up, and he never once offered a protest. Mostly, he would wake up because of the same loud gasp that had woken Miklós himself, no matter how he bit back his whimpers. His sleep-dimmed eyes would look lazily in Miklós’ direction, then he’d sit up with a yawn and get him pills and a glass of water.

The meds always helped. They made him sleepy, and alleviated the pain enough that Miklós could eat, or walk to the bathroom on his own.

Miklós expected Alexej to be annoyed, to hate being forced to stay there, almost in captivity. And despite how cryptic Alexej could be at times, this once — this once he looked at peace, maybe even gleeful.

Until the fever had passed, until their supply of painkillers had almost run out, until the smell of something rotting despite the deadly cold had reached even the bedroom on the first floor, until Miklós could walk somewhat properly again, they stayed in that house — in that bedroom, specifically. They stayed in bed, watched movies on TV, and ate ready-cooked meals on trays balanced on their legs. Alexej told him about a book he’d found in the house — a story of humanity and monsters, one where the humans were revealed to be the more appalling and evil. Miklós only half-listened to Alexej read it, his mind too numb and his heart only truly interested in the sound of Alexej’s voice.

But when, afterwards, Alexej commented on it, when he said that monsters were but extensions of human desire, escaped tendrils of what truly lay beneath all humans, Miklós couldn’t help but listen, wide-eyed and awake. 

“Everyone has ‘monstrous’ instincts,” Alexej explained. “Everything that deviates from what’s commonly accepted is shunned and hidden,” he said, as if addressing a public, with the book open in front of him on his legs. And maybe one person wasn’t much of an audience, but what Alexej said hit Miklós very close to home.

“Instead of recognising the superior, divine nature of what strays from the designated path, what people do is refuse it and push it away,” Alexej continued, and Miklós found himself on the brink of nodding enthusiastically. It was as if he’d always thought the same thing, deep inside him, under that feeling of shame and self-loathing. Hearing it said by Alexej of all people only made Miklós feel even more convinced, and much less alone.

“The only difference between people who are hated and deemed scary, and everyone else, is that we are actually honest.”

Miklós was left wondering, afterwards, if that ‘we’ included him, too, or was just there because Alexej felt as if he was speaking on behalf of a whole category of people.

He was still wondering that four days later, when they finally left that house, walking through the living room where two bodies lay on the floor — face down, bloating, insects crawling all over them, fluids seeping out of ruptures in the skin of what used to be people. Miklós thought there was something deeply genuine, authentic, about the way dead bodies looked if you managed to look at them for long enough without vomiting.

As he walked — bandaged feet within too-large shoes — past those two, Miklós thought that dead bodies were scary, in a way. Alexej had said, at some point, that they forced people to face their mortality. Miklós looked at them and he felt that fear, but it was much less intense than what he’d felt only days before, staring at the body of a boy like him. Maybe it was because these were the bodies of two old people, or maybe fear was just a consequence of honesty, which arose only when one wasn’t prepared for it.

Alexej seemed indifferent to dead bodies, despite how much he seemed to like creating them. Miklós doubted that he was unaware of his own mortality, or that he was ready to surrender to it anytime. On the contrary, he seemed prepared for it, ready to stare Death right in the eyes and tell her no.

In the car, with the cassette Miklós had bought that day pushed into the radio of the old sedan the couple kept in the garage, Miklós wondered if that determination, that spirit Alexej had, was something you were simply born with — a lottery of the genes, much like beauty — or something life shaped into you.

There was much on his mind, while piano music filled a silence that stretched awkwardly between him and Alexej. His thoughts tickled with ideas of things he could have said that were never actually shaped by his tongue and lips, maybe because a kiss was the one thing he really wanted to exchange with Alexej by then.

They hadn’t kissed any more — or rather, Alexej hadn’t taken the initiative, after that one time, that one touch of lips. Miklós felt as if he’d dreamed it, conjured up a vision out of thin air while his fever ran high. They hadn’t kissed any more, and Miklós couldn’t keep his mind from coming back to that one fantasy, but still he did nothing to make it a reality, except stealing glances at Alexej every time he got the chance.

The silence followed them along the road that unfolded under the wheels of the car. Miklós realised he had no idea where they were, nor where they were going. Alexej didn’t even seem to be following a map.

He was about to ask a question related to that, when the silence was interrupted by Alexej instead.

“You can go your own way, you know that?” Alexej said, gaze focused on the road. “You don’t have to stay with me.”

Miklós was completely puzzled.

The fact that they could go separate ways had, admittedly, crossed his mind — but mostly with the implication that Alexej would be the one leaving. The rare times he thought about the opposite, it was in that hypothetical manner of thinking, a what-if he always knew he’d never see happen.

“But I want to,” he said, simply.

Alexej glanced at him for a moment, his narrowed eyes quickly returning to the gravel road. “Then why are you scared?” he asked.

Miklós’ mouth opened and closed, fruitlessly. No sound left it, for barely a coherent thought had formed in his mind, besides that loud voice which cried about how he didn’t ever want to leave. Miklós didn’t really understand the question. He wasn’t scared of Alexej, not as much as he was scared of losing him. He wondered what his expression looked like, if he’d changed his attitude, if his silent thinking had been interpreted by Alexej as a quiet terror.

“If I wanted to kill you, Miksa,” continued Alexej, unprompted, when Miklós hesitated to offer an answer, “you’d be long dead.” His voice was sharp and hard, and Miklós believed every word. He’d been aware of it for longer than he cared to admit, and he’d started to consider it a reason to be grateful to Alexej, after all — the fact that Alexej didn’t want him dead, and moreover that he wanted him alive.

“I wouldn’t even have to do it myself,” Alexej smirked without looking at him, and his focused gaze seemed strikingly far away. “I could have left you to be found by the police and let your father do the hard work. I could have let you freeze.”

Miklós turned his eyes towards the road too. For once it wasn’t woods that they were driving through, but open fields, which looked somewhat empty, with the view of the sky clear and unimpeded in the darkening night. The only house in sight was the faint light they’d already left behind.

It was cold, and Miklós felt colder at the mention of his father. He massaged his bandaged hand, used the bite from the healing blisters underneath to ground himself, to remember he was safe there, that he felt safer with Alexej than he’d ever felt at home.

But he felt angry, too, that Alexej wanted to send him away, that he said those mean things as if hoping to scare Miklós off. He felt angry enough to raise his voice, to respond in kind.

“Then why didn’t you?” he said. “Why didn’t you kill me?”

He watched Alexej slow down the car, parking on the side of the road, by a snowy, empty field that had probably been planted in spring. “I’m not sure,” Alexej said, returning Miklós’ gaze. His blue eyes stared firmly, and yet they were much less hard than Miklós would have guessed them to be.

Miklós would never leave, not ever, not unless Alexej clearly asked him to — not even in the face of that answer. He didn’t really care what the consequences were for staying, and it was not just because he didn’t have anyone else but Alexej: it was because he’d choose to have no one but Alexej, anyway. And maybe the question Miklós asked next wasn’t the best way to prove that, but it was the question that Alexej’s eyes seemed to beg him to ask.

“Would you really let me leave?” Miklós said, and as soon as the words left his lips, he prayed the answer would be no.

Alexej’s lips opened in an unhappy laugh. “If you want to,” he said, the echo of his chuckle still around his mouth. “Why wouldn’t I?”

For the first time since they’d met, Miklós thought that Alexej looked genuinely sad. His lips drew a thin, straight line through his face. His eyes, wider than usual, returned what Miklós couldn’t help but think of as a bitter look. He kept his hands on the wheel, despite having stopped the car for a while now. Miklós’ hand reached for him, but was stopped in its track by Alexej’s words.

“This is very simple, Miklós,” Alexej said, as he turned away. “If you have to look at me like that, like I’m going to murder you any second, get out.” 

Miklós shook his head, protested even before the feeling of disappointment had sent his guts plummeting and pushed him off balance. But Alexej didn’t heed his words.

“Leave,” he simply repeated, his voice like a growl.

Miklós felt the tears prickling his eyes. He got out of the car, scrambling for something to say but coming up empty-handed, even as he closed the car’s door. He stood, wide-eyed, staring at the inside of the sedan, light brown leather beyond the window’s glass. There must have been something he was missing, something he didn’t understand; there must have been something that explained what Alexej was asking, all of a sudden; there must have been something that would let it all make sense.

He heard the other car door closing with a thump, and as soon as his muscles responded, he raised his gaze.

His own backpack hit him in the chest — and Alexej, who had thrown it, looked at him from the other side of the car, leaning against it, arms on its roof.

“I’ll go my way and you’ll go yours,” he said, calmly. Miklós was sure he must have been waiting for something, a reaction maybe, but he was frozen in place and a knot in his throat blocked his airway to the point he felt like it was choking him. “It’ll be as if we never met,” continued Alexej, and the lump almost burst into tears. “You can go back to your family, keep wandering, stay here, kill yourself, I don’t care.”

Miklós felt the tears wet his face in the exact same moment as a word finally left his lips.

One single word.

“Aleš,” he whimpered, between tears.

“Go.” Alexej gestured with one hand, pointing somewhere ahead of them.

“Please, Aleš,” Miklós cried, sniffled, unashamedly let out all that swollen pain. He circled the car, leaving his backpack behind, until he was next to Alexej, close enough to touch him. He took one of Alexej’s hands into his own.

“Aren’t you scared of me?” Alexej scoffed, with a certain urge running underneath. “Go away.”

Miklós realised that, despite how much he loved Alexej — because he loved him, recklessly, completely, desperately, more intensely than in one of those romantic movies Maya liked — there was at least one thing he couldn’t allow Alexej to do, and it was to send him away.

“Don’t you care about me?” he asked, raising his gaze and staring at Alexej through the tears he was trying futilely to stop.

“I told you I don’t,” Alexej replied, and yet — and yet Miklós could swear he hadn’t imagined the slight, almost imperceptible hesitation in his voice.

“Then why,” Miklós cried again, his head throbbing as if it wanted to explode, “why would you protect me?” He pulled Alexej’s hand, trying to bring him closer.

Alexej did not move. “Maybe I took pity on you,” he said, and where Miklós expected a confident, mocking smile, what he got was a flat expression. Then Alexej bit his lips, and Miklós just thought about how soft they looked, how he could simply not accept that he would never get to kiss them again, how he regretted all the chances he’d had but never taken.

“Why did you kiss me?” he finally spouted, vomited with the last bit of desperation he had in him, emptying himself of words and tears. When he was done, and Alexej still stared at him with that incomprehensible expression that softened his eyes but hardened the rest of his face, jaws stiff under a distressed gaze, Miklós felt nothing but the pain: In his fingers, gripping Alexej’s hand far too firmly for the condition they were in, bandages on the verge of coming undone; in his toes, curled with the tension in his muscles, stinging with reopened wounds; in his head, throbbing along with his overexcited heart; in his every muscle, feeling as if it was too tired to keep going.

Alexej pushed Miklós down on the hood of the car, his expression finally morphing in reaction. He kept Miklós down by gripping the scruff of his neck, and leaned down against him. When he spoke, he showed his teeth.

“This is a dangerous road you’re taking, Miksa,” he said.

Miklós felt his own tears already drying on his face — or, rather, freezing on it. The smile that twisted his lips, under them, didn’t hold a trace of happiness, but instead curled around a bitter taste of victory.

“I don’t care, and neither do you.”

Alexej was silent for a moment — the idea that it was out of surprise made Miklós’ chest swell with pride, fill with something different from that empty pain. It shifted everything inside him, and before he knew it, Miklós’ hands were cupping Alexej’s face. He closed his eyes, and they were kissing — or rather, Miklós was kissing Alexej, that sweet, sweet mouth of his.

Alexej’s lips were a bit chapped and the kiss was salty with Miklós’ own tears, but it was their kiss — the second one — and it couldn’t have been better. It made Miklós’ body react even more than before: his heart raced, his skin prickled, his hands shook, his stomach felt as if it had just been flipped upside-down; the pain in his fingers and toes, the one in his head, it all became nothing but background noise as Alexej deepened the kiss.

Their breaths and saliva mingled, mixed, became one thing, a taste that sent violent shivers down Miklós’ back. Alexej’s grip on the scruff of his neck strengthened, so much it threatened to choke him, and Alexej’s other hand slid up Miklós’ leg, to his waist, slipping under his clothes.

When Alexej broke the kiss, Miklós licked his lips one last time, mourning the lost contact even through his breathlessness. “I’m not leaving, ever,” he said, or tried despite his unsuccessful attempts at catching his breath. And yet this one time, his voice seemed firm, and he felt just as confident when he met Alexej’s eyes again.

He saw himself reflected in Alexej’s dilated pupils for a fraction of a moment. Then, Alexej took his face into one hand, fingers pressing into his cheeks until he’d forced Miklós’ mouth open. He smirked. “I won’t let you,” Alexej said, and then his lips were kissing, licking, but mostly biting their way down Miklós’ neck. Alexej’s bites seemed to want to draw blood each time, stopped right after they started to hurt, drawing moans out of Miklós’ mouth that echoed in the quiet of the night.

Alexej pushed him further on the car’s hood until Miklós’ shoes were no longer touching the gravel road underneath them, his hand digging its own imprint into Miklós’ cheeks as Alexej licked the pain away from a bite on his shoulder. 

“If you are going to stay, you can’t change your mind, Miksa,” Alexej said, as he loosened his hold on Miklós’ face and slid both hands under his clothes — lifting his sweatshirt and leaving his spine pressed against the freezing hood of the car. Miklós shivered, not just from the cold, but from the hands caressing his chest, and from the words whispered a breath away from his lips.

Miklós could not put together enough words to say what he communicated simply by reaching down to open Alexej’s jeans. He could feel his own erection swell inside his pants, desperately throbbing with a desire that Miklós felt as if he’d kept inside for far too long, and he could feel Alexej’s own arousal stir, brush against his leg when their bodies touched.

“I won’t-” he whispered, before his sentence was cut short by Alexej, who was quickly unbuttoning both their pants, letting their erections free. Miklós threw his head back, shut his eyes even though he saw light flashing on his eyelids at each thump of his fast-beating heart. “I won’t change my mind,” he finished, before he opened his eyes again, to Alexej’s hip thrust that made their cocks brush against each other, the simple contact sending unbelievable waves of pleasure up his arched back.

Alexej lowered his head, hands keeping Miklós in place as he kissed his belly, put his face into it as if he wanted to learn its smell. Then Alexej bit the soft skin there, on the left side of his bellybutton — so hard that, for a moment, it seemed as if he wanted to tear the flesh away.

In the blink of an eye they were face to face again, and then kissing, and Miklós didn’t have a chance to look, but he could tell the bite had drawn blood — he knew from the taste in Alexej’s mouth and the sore pain where he had just bitten. The thought made his breath hitch in his throat and made his erection twitch.

Alexej was holding both their cocks together. Miklós felt the rough skin of his palm, a bit cold, but delicate. When Alexej started thrusting, stroking them together, against each other, he couldn’t help but let out a strangled noise — one that made Alexej snicker, face in the hollow of Miklós’ throat.

Alexej stopped again after too few thrusts — Miklós opened his eyes to the starry sky, and took a moment to regain enough focus to lower his gaze and look at Alexej. “If you stay, Miklós, it’s forever. One way or the other,” Alexej said, and then he licked his lips, which were much softer now, and all swollen and pink, and then he kissed Miklós’ neck, sucked at it until Miklós cried out his name.

He was rolling his hips again, then, as Miklós wrapped his legs around his back to pull him close, closer, to get more friction, and arched his back when that was not enough. 

“Do you understand what I mean?” Alexej asked, and for a long moment Miklós didn’t know what he was referring to — nor did he care, because he felt as if he was melting, and even the cold metal surface under his back didn’t make him shiver as much as every single point of skin that had been touched by Alexej. 

Miklós had his arms wrapped around Alexej’s shoulders, and Alexej’s lips were right next to his ear, nibbling at it as if he had no urgency, no building desperation in the back of his loins. And yet Miklós felt as if he was combusting, as he breathlessly rocked his hips against Alexej’s and moaned something that didn’t really make sense, but sounded a lot like a prayer.

“Yes,” he said then, breathed, groaned, yelled maybe — the thought that someone could pass, that someone could hear them and see them, only vaguely scratched the surface of his mind — and he moaned louder, and he thought, let them see. “Yes, I understand,” Miklós said, again. “I want you,” he continued, and Alexej’s hand was moving along with their bodies, and the pressure in his groin was rising and it felt as if his whole body, down to the tips of his toes, was sizzling. His head felt hazy, his thoughts barely there, on the edge of his consciousness, ready to drift away.

“I want to be all yours,” Miklós said again, his voice half-stolen by a moan when Alexej drove his teeth into the soft muscle between his neck and shoulder, and bit hard, again. Miklós ran his fingers through Alexej’s soft hair and grabbed a lock or two, pushing Alexej’s head and his mouth closer still.

He felt Alexej slightly raise his head, before he felt Alexej’s wet lips and his teeth nipping at his ear. “You already are,” Alexej whispered, between bites. 

For a moment, Miklós heard nothing but the sound of blood buzzing in his ears; he felt their hips rutting together, his own thrusting up at a desperate, irregular rhythm, feet finding leverage on the front of the car, sliding down and trying again; he was aware of Alexej’s hands gripping his sides, his fingers sinking into them as if he wanted to reshape them, and of his own lips opening, his vocal cords vibrating in a moan he never truly heard.

Then, that fire erupted, and Miklós’ mind went blank, his body limp, and it he felt like he was dissolving into the pleasure of his orgasm. He felt lost, inside himself and inside Alexej’s arms — and he didn’t care about the stickiness when he weakly pulled Alexej closer in what vaguely resembled a hug.

When Miklós reopened his eyes, he found Alexej staring at him. His face was relaxed — eyebrows stretched in soft arches, the slight curve of his smile hinted at the edge of his mouth, his eyelids blinking lazily over his dilated pupils — and his hands caressed Miklós’ face, travelled down his neck, lingering here and there where Miklós’ skin felt sensitive and itchy. Miklós felt, this time, there was no mystery beyond the blue of his eyes.

Alexej let go of him, broke the contact between them and stood, trapping his unquenched arousal back in his pants.

Miklós slid down, to stand as well. His knees almost buckled under his weight, his toes searing with pain upon impact with the ground, but still he stopped Alexej’s motion by gripping his wrist. The bandage on Miklós’ fingers had partially come off, and the cold winter air bit the healing wounds underneath, but he didn’t care. 

“Wait,” Miklós said, as if to explain. Then he felt his face flush when he realised he’d have to actually explain. He looked up, and Alexej returned him a puzzled gaze. 

“Let me please you,” he said, feeling his ears burn with embarrassment and his heart pump loudly, happily, in his chest. Then, he knelt in front of Alexej — unbothered by the pebbles and small rocks digging into his skin through the fabric of his trousers.

His breath was still heavy from his own climax, and he tried to slow it down as he pulled Alexej’s erection back out of his underwear. His fingers ached and stung, but he held the length still; its head was purple and swollen, and it throbbed slightly in his grip. 

Miklós hesitated — not really sure of what to do, despite talking so big — and he looked up at Alexej. Even from that angle, he was so handsome, and the lewd smile widening on his lips made Miklós’ heart miss a beat, and swell with pride.

Miklós gathered his spirit, and simply kissed the head of Alexej’s cock, wet lips first, then a hint of tongue. It tasted slightly salty, and smelled strong, almost overwhelming. Miklós felt his mind go hazy again, the arousal rekindling in his loins, and let the head pass his lips.

Alexej’s hand brushed through his hair, tightly gripping the locks at the back of his head. He moaned, quietly, and yet the sound went straight to Miklós’ groin, to his already half-hard erection.

“What a good boy you are,” murmured Alexej, softly, as he pushed Miklós down on his cock.

Miklós shivered, and it wasn’t from the cold. He choked on the length as it brushed against the back of his throat; he felt the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes, then falling and wetting his face again. If he hadn’t just come, he thought, he would have right then, just from that praise.

***

Miklós awoke to the feeling of cold metal against his bare throat.

All around him the tent was immersed in dimness, moonlight filtering in through the fabric that was shielding them from the cold. In front of his eyes was nothing but stretched green oilskin, on which the shadows of the trees projected unthinkable figures. 

Against Miklós’ throat was the flat of a pair of scissors that Alexej held as if they were a knife, tip pressing against the soft skin of Miklós’ throat. It made him shiver with the cold, and with the thought of a sea of crimson leaving his body and soaking his sleeping bag with its dry, metallic sweetness. He was wide-eyed and alert in the space of a moment, his muscles already tense with instinctive fear.

Alexej lay beside him, inside the same sleeping bag, and the sweet undertones of his scent embraced Miklós just as well as the sharp notes of sweat that reminded him of the previous night. Alexej’s face, his eyes closed, eyebrows blissfully furrowed, his lips ajar, the sounds of his heavy breathing: it was all still fresh in his memories, almost real in front of his eyes, and not as much in contrast with reality as it might have sounded.

Alexej’s belly was a pooling lake of warmth against Miklós’ back, his right arm pulling Miklós close, holding him by the waist, making sure that every possible part of them touched, and his breath — controlled, but slightly quickened — was hot against Miklós’ ear. He was warm, so warm that Miklós leaned into the contact, his body igniting with the memory of the previous night.

The tip of the scissors pressed against his throat, but he could tell he had nothing to be scared of. He wasn’t sure it was rational, but he knew it was true.

“You don’t want to do that,” Miklós whispered, with a smile on his lips, turning slightly into the embrace. He remembered the hunger in Alexej’s gaze the previous night, he remembered his hands burning hot, and his breath hiccuped in his throat. He remembered closing his eyes and wanting to expose every little square of delicate skin he had.

“You think so?” The instrument in Alexej’s hand turned, metal sliding against Miklós’ skin until the sharp tip of the scissors had slid from the rim of his jaw down to his collarbone. “And what makes you say that?”

Miklós tried to control his breath. He tried not to listen to his own heart beating furiously in his chest in a mix of fear and arousal. He tried to look Alexej in his blue, blue eyes and just tell him what he thought: that he’d always been nothing but vulnerable with Alexej, and Alexej had always been nothing but gentle. Even when Miklós ran away from him. Even the night before. Even right then.

“Because you haven’t done it until now,” he replied, somehow managing to voice a part of his thoughts.

Their eyes met, and Miklós wanted to shy away, to hide his face in the pillow and calm down so that his thoughts could come straight to him — instead of these fragments, making their way through a bundle of emotions he still couldn’t completely make sense of. But he couldn’t move, of course, not only because the scissors kept his head still with the threat of opening a hole in his throat, or his chest, but because Alexej’s eyes enraptured him, stole from him the mere will to move one more muscle or to look away.

“You didn’t know the truth before,” breathed Alexej, as he moved to straddle Miklós. His legs astride Miklós’ hips, Alexej smiled as he loomed down over him. In the dimness of the tent, Miklós could almost see that smile, guess the missing pieces of that face he knew far too well. 

He brushed his palms against Alexej’s thighs in a caress. He breathed slowly, in and out, as the face of that boy who couldn’t breathe anymore flashed on the back of his eyelids.

“You wanted to kill me the moment you saw me, didn’t you?” Miklós asked, and it wasn’t really a question. Miklós had known the answer from the moment he’d first seen the boy in the woods. “It should have been me, slaughtered, not that guy,” he reiterated, as if saying it out loud helped him accept it. “And yet, here I am.”

There he was — and, Miklós realised, he was glad it was him who could still breathe, who was alive and well. He was glad it was him that was alive and not someone else, even if in some way, maybe it was his fault. He did not feel guilty.

Alexej sat back, his hold on the scissors loosening, the pressure against Miklós’ throat decreasing.

“So why didn’t I kill you?” Alexej tilted his head to one side, a snicker crawling under his question. He seemed to be under the impression that it was a difficult question, or simply to find it comical for some reason. Miklós didn’t share that same feeling, and instead gave a most serious answer.

“Because you like me,” he said, and even through the blush he hoped Alexej would not be able to see, his lips curved into a smile. There was no other explanation, and he had to accept it,and he was able to accept it exactly because of all that Alexej had taught him. 

He reached for Alexej’s face, and his fingertips brushed against the other’s amused expression that was on the verge of erupting into laughter.

“You’re such a child, Miksa,” Alexej commented, shaking his head, as if he’d just heard a stupid and yet funny joke. But the scissors were safely away from Miklós’ throat, and Alexej let Miklós caress his face, brush hair away from his eyes, nuzzle the stubble he seemed to want to grow out, and skim rough fingertips down his neck.

As Miklós did all that, Alexej just stared at him, scissors in hand and a pensive wrinkle sitting on his brow.

Then, he grabbed Miklós’ hair in a sudden grasp, strong enough to lift his head from the pillow. Miklós gasped in both surprise and pain. 

“We should cut this,” murmured Alexej, eyes focused on Miklós’ long brown locks. “And maybe dye it, too.”

Miklós’ eyes went wide for a moment, but before he could say anything, Alexej was holding the scissors properly, and cutting away a good chunk of his hair, so that most of the length remained in his hand when Miklós’ head fell back down on the pillow.

He passed a hand through it, feeling the sharp difference between the longer strands and those that had been cut, his head suddenly lighter. He’d always been proud of his hair, and had loved to keep it shoulder-length as long as his parents would allow him to before calling him names and forcing him to cut it.

He combed his hand through the hair, pulling away several stray locks that seemed to have escaped Alexej’s grip after being cut. He looked at them for a moment and then, with a deep sigh, he sat up. He guessed it was necessary, so that they would be harder to recognise, so he simply nodded, closing his eyes. For a while, he simply listened to the sound of hair being snipped away. If this was a test, he wanted to say, it was far too easy.

“You don’t have to worry, Aleš,” he said instead, feeling as if he had nothing he could lose more than he’d already lost himself in those eyes. “You’ll never have to be alone again,” he promised, feeling happy, in his being lost, and never wanting to find himself again.

He opened his eyes when Alexej’s snipping, right next to his left ear, stopped.

He found Alexej staring at him, a wrinkle drawing its upset shape between his crooked eyebrows. His hand gripped Miklós’ face, fingers sinking into the hollows of his cheeks so firmly they could have left a bruise.

“Don’t act like you know what I’m thinking,” Alexej seethed. He took both of Miklós’ wrists into his firm grip and forced them over Miklós’ head. He pushed him back down to lie on his back. He bent down, curved his back over Miklós not unlike the previous night — only this time it wasn’t to kiss, and bite, and lick, but to put their faces so close that even if they’d barely whispered they’d hear each other all the same. His breath was warm, its smell sharp to the point it left an overpowering taste on Miklós’ tongue without their lips even touching.

“You know nothing about me, nothing at all, Miksa.”

The scissors were at his throat again, and that crease on Alexej’s forehead was still there. If his hands had been free, Miklós would have smoothed it away. Maybe it was true, he thought, that he didn’t know enough. “Was I wrong, then?” he whispered, the sharp tip of the scissors nipping at his neck.

Alexej was staring at his lips. Miklós could tell, and yet he smiled away the irresistible desire to kiss him. The last time he’d tasted Alexej’s lips was only the night before, but he felt like the more he kissed him the more he’d want to.

Alexej smiled back, his eyes flashing with that wicked light in them. “If you were right, it was only by chance,” he retorted, whispering against Miklós’ lips. But it felt like a confession. “There’s so much you don’t know.”

Miklós ran his fingers up their bodies until he reached Alexej’s left hand. He closed his own hand around the handle of the scissors, over Alexej’s. He didn’t try to move it away, to free himself, but followed dutifully when Alexej did.

“Then why don’t you teach me?” he whispered.

When Alexej kissed him, Miklós wished he didn’t need to breathe, if only so he could kiss Alexej forever.

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3 thoughts on “Backroads

  1. Imagine my delight when I found this was not only a regional piece but a period piece, as well! Miklós starting in a timeless place and gradually moving into the bleeding-edge now of the early-mid 90s as he accompanied Alexej is an interesting parallel to him beginning the story as a miserable farm kid and gradually ramping up to becoming the main(?) squeeze of a genuinely monstrous person. This feels like a piece that really benefits from that new layer of context on a reread; the portrayal of Alexej as many different things as Miklós spends more time with him plays well into his chameleon nature. That video camera and the constant presence of newspapers new and old also give the story a bit of a found-footage vibe, which given how far Alexej has gone past basic human decency is fitting in its own way…

  2. Your writing style is so compelling and beautiful. The sense of dread in my chest grew heavier with each paragraph, but I couldn’t stop reading.

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