Michael felt soothed by the smoothness of it as it passed over the back of his head. He felt the cold metal caress the ridges of his skull. There was something reassuring about it, like being touched by a kind stranger.
He had a lot of hair, but it didn't take him long. It never did. Months or years to grow it long, but only a few minutes to cut it short again. He hadn't shaved his head for some time now, but it was amazing how familiar it felt.
He sighed and began sweeping up the hair from the tiles of the bathroom floor, but it was too quiet without the trimmer whirring away, and he changed his mind.
Instead, he went to the bay window and gazed out at the London skyline. He was not very high up—the higher flats were bigger and cost twice as much, and he could never have afforded one, even if Nick had paid his half of the rent consistently—but that didn't matter, not tonight.
Tonight, the whole world was lit up with red and green and gold. Explosions scintillated and bloomed in every direction he looked. It seemed as if the whole world was celebrating.
Everyone but me.
Michael reached down and heaved one of the large glass panes open, and at once the noise of the New Year rushed in to engulf him. It was like an actual, physical force, winding its way around his legs and sliding cool fingers up his bare chest. He shivered, but the cold air felt good.
It felt like freedom.
The last few days had gone by in a blur. He had been so busy at work, so desperate to get everything finished so that he and Nick could get away as they had planned. Only now ...
Only now Nick was out there somewhere, out in that mass of hot, writhing humanity, drunk and wild and full of life.
And Michael was here, alone in the apartment they had shared for the last ten months.
When the first grief was on him, when the argument had come to its abrupt, shattering conclusion and he could still hear Nick's footsteps echoing up the stairwell, Michael had rushed around the apartment in a daze. He couldn't even remember everything he'd done. He'd snatched up a plastic bin-liner, and filled it up with things, of that much he was sure. But the actual items he'd grabbed and tipped in there ... He had no memory of getting rid of the photograph that had sat on the dressing table, for example, but he must have taken that and shoved it into the bag, because it wasn't there now, and neither were any of the other photographs, the ones they had been so proud of, the ones they had laughed and joked about, and chosen in secret and surprised one another with. It had become one of their little games, one of the ways they had of loving each other.
Now they were all gone, and Michael couldn't even remember getting rid of them.
The first wave of explosions was beginning to die down, and a surge of cheers rushed up to replace them. That was it. The year was done. The book was closed, the story told.
Michael suddenly felt too weary to stand.
He sunk down to his knees and felt the cold wind lick at his face. He thought about the picture.
It had been their favourite, the only one they had both agreed was mutually flattering.
It had been taken by his sister, the first time they had all gone out together, when Michael had been introducing them. They had been in a Greek restaurant—cheap, but not too cheap—and their faces were glowing in the warm light of candles that had been placed on the table. Michael was looking at the camera, a faint, dry smile playing on his lips; Nick was looking at Michael, the first traces of crow's feet showing at the corners of his eyes, the very tip of his tongue just poking out from behind his perfect white teeth.
They had been so happy that day.
Michael felt something lurch inside of him.
He couldn't stand this.
He thought he had been able to, he thought he was still strong enough.
For God's sake, he had been alone for two years before he'd met Nick! Two whole years!
He had got through that, hadn't he?
If he could get through two years of hoping and worrying and going to bed alone, surely he could get through this?
But he couldn't.
Not now, not after having felt the warmth, not after that beautiful, binding closeness.
He couldn't. He just couldn't.
Moving quickly, worried he would change his mind, Michael staggered back to his feet.
Then he lifted one leg up, and stepped through the window and out onto the narrow ledge beyond.
The street was black below, and the wind was very cold.
He shivered, and for a moment he thought he would stop.
But he didn't stop. Instead, he ducked his head and moved his body through.
There. That was easy.
Now all he had to do was bring his other leg through, and it would be done. He wouldn't even have to jump, he was sure. The ledge was narrow and the wind was strong and he couldn't believe he was doing this.
He had always thought of himself as steady, firm, reliable. There was nothing histrionic in him, nothing melodramatic. He would never have dreamt of doing this if he had an audience. He had spoken to his sister earlier, on the phone. She had been worried about him; he had played things down, reassured her, even managed to make a joke or two.
He had put a brave face on.
I'll be fine. It's just a blip. We'll make up, we'll be okay.
She had asked him if he wanted to come with her and her friends, but he knew that deep down she had been relieved when he'd told her he couldn't face the noise and the crowds. Michael loved his sister, and he knew she loved him ... but she was younger, less serious. Right now she would be completely off her face on booze—or something stronger—and she wouldn't have wanted to spend her new years eve babysitting her heartbroken older brother.
Michael lifted his other leg. It pressed against the inside of the window as he raised it up, and he leant further out into the night. He wobbled precariously.
A noise came form within the apartment.
The noise came again, soft but insistent. It was coming from the door that led out into the landing, a strange metallic clicking noise.
Michael lowered his foot back to the floor. He felt exposed now, an animal caught in the midst of some terrible act. He was frozen, undecided.
It was Nick. It must be.
He had changed his mind. He had come back. He would open the door, and they would look at each other, and Nick would realise in an instant what was about to happen, what he had stopped from happening at the last possible moment.
He would come rushing in, grasp the elastic waist of Michael's linen trousers, pull him back in, kiss him with hard, angry lips. His mouth would taste of salt and wine and love. Michael could already taste it.
There was another soft noise, and the door swung open.
A man walked in. It wasn't Nick.
At first, the intruder did not see Michael. He walked in cautiously, head tilted to one side, listening. He was silhouetted in the light from the outside hallway, a small, compact man, wearing a dark jacket and with a woollen hat pulled down over his ears.
He moved further into Michael's apartment.
It was a burglar. He was being robbed.
The man crept towards the wall, and reached a hand out.
I could just jump.
If Michael just slid his leg back through the window and let himself fall, the intruder might not even notice he had been there.
It was an absurd thought: I could still get away with it, as if he were the one in the wrong, as if he were the one who should be afraid of getting caught.
The intruder found the switch, and suddenly the apartment was flooded in yellow light. The robber glanced around the apartment with quick, furtive eyes. It seemed like Michael had a silent age in which he could observe the intruder before he was spotted himself, time to take in the man's face: he was younger than Michael had thought, clean-shaven, certainly no older than twenty or twenty two. His eyes were dark, the colour of water at night, and a slender, pale scar stood out against his brown skin, running from his left temple down to the line of his jaw.
The intruder's eyes darted across the room, taking in the computer, the collection of DVDs, the chest of drawers, the open window with Michael hanging half-out into the night ...
Their eyes met. The intruder froze.
Then the man gave a cry, sprang forward and grabbed hold of Michael's leg.
It all happened so fast, Michael didn't have time to move. He could have let himself fall, but that would have required an instant decision, a commitment to not living that had suddenly vanished from him.
He let his leg go loose, ducked his head, and allowed himself to be pulled back inside his apartment. The man was small, but he was strong.
Once he had pulled Michael inside, the man let him fall. He turned quickly to the window, pulled it shut, and latched it, shutting out the world.
The apartment was very quiet.
Michael lay on the floor, staring up at the intruder.
The young man looked upset.
"What the hell were you doing out there?" the intruder demanded. He sounded shocked.
Michael opened his mouth, but his tongue felt very dry. He couldn't make any words come out.
They stared at each other.
Then the intruder abruptly dropped his eyes, as if remembering suddenly where he was.
He looked at the door, back to Michael, back to the door.
"I ..." he began, let the word hang for a moment, then turned around on his heel and strode towards the door.
This was too strange. Suddenly, Michael didn't want the intruder to leave. A minute ago, he had been ready to let himself fall out of the window and kill himself. Now a burglar had attempted to burgle his flat, and had ended up saving his life. He didn't want the man to go.
"Wait," called Michael, and to his surprise, the man stopped, hesitating, one hand on the doorknob. He glanced back over his shoulder. The corner of his woolly hat had started to ride up, and Michael caught a glimpse of thick dark hair underneath.
"What?" said the man. His voice was strange and soft. He sounded very young, uncertain.
"Come back," said Michael. "Don't go. Not yet. Please. If you go, I'll jump."
The moment he said it, he knew it wasn't true. If he had ever been able to kill himself, that moment had passed. But he was desperate for the man to stay. He wasn't sure why, but the thought of being alone in the apartment again filled him with ... what? Not dread, not exactly. It was something greyer than that, less stark, more cloying. The thought of the man leaving made him feel empty.
"I can't stay," the man said, but he didn't move, and his hand slid away from the door.
"Just stay for a few minutes," Michael said, slowly tucking his knees under his chin. "Just let me get my thoughts together. Please. I wont call the police or anything, I promise."
The intruder hesitated. Then he took a few steps back into the room.
"I didn't think anyone was here," the intruder said. His accent was difficult to place. He didn't sound like he was from London. "I couldn't hear anything, there was no light on. I wouldn't have hurt you."
He sounded sincere, like it was important to him that Michael believed what he was saying. But it was absurd: the intruder was worried that Michael not think he was a thug, violent, dangerous; and yet, this was the same man who had just heaved him back inside his apartment, who had just saved his life.
The moment he thought it, Michael knew it was true.
This man had saved his life. However Michael felt now, however unlikely the thought of suicide seemed to him now, a few moments earlier it had been very real. What if the intruder had come in a few minutes later? What if it had taken him longer to pick the lock?
"I owe you something," Michael said. "You stopped me doing something stupid. Very stupid. I owe you my life."
The man looked dubious. "Your life? Don't be silly. We're only a few floors up. You wouldn't have died, not unless you'd landed on your head."
Michael felt a surge of anger flare in him.
"I was going to kill myself," he snapped, more harshly than he had intended. "Of course I would have landed on my bloody head! You think I'd go to all the trouble of throwing myself out of my window, and then been satisfied with breaking both my legs?"
The intruder looked unmoved. "It's not as easy as that," he told Michael. "It's instinct or evolution or something. People try to land on their head, they try to do it all the time. Suicides, I mean. But they can't do it. They just can't. They twist themselves at the last moment, most of them end up surviving, but with broken backs and things, paralysed. I saw a TV program about it," he added, as if this made it irrefutable.
"Then I would have pretended I was diving into a bloody swimming pool," Michael told the intruder. "The street looked dark enough, it looked like water. I would have pretended I was diving, and I would have hit it head first, and that would have killed me instantly."
Michael stopped suddenly.
When had he gotten to his feet?
He realised he was standing close to the other man, that he was shouting at him, actually shouting at him. He was suddenly ashamed of himself, awfully, crushingly ashamed.
"I'm sorry," he said, in a small voice. He sat down on the sofa. "I've been through ... a bit of a tough time. It's not your fault. I don't know why I'm shouting at you. You just saved my life, and here I am yelling at you as if you're ..."
As if you're Nick.
A thought suddenly occurred to him.
"If you didn't think I was going to kill myself, why did you pull me back inside?" he asked.
The intruder shrugged. "It seemed like the right thing to do," he said, simply. "You looked like you were in trouble. Also, I suppose you might have landed badly," he added, as if conceding a point under great duress.
Michael felt the corner of his mouth quirk in a smile. "So you admit I might have died, then?"
"It's unlikely, but who knows?" the man said. "I wouldn't want that kind of thing on my conscience. That's bad karma."
Don't say it.
"What, and breaking and entering is okay, karmically?" Michael couldn't stop himself.
The intruder raised his eyebrows. "Yes, as it happens. You've got insurance, haven't you? I wouldn't have taken anything personal. Just small, expensive things. You could have got the money back, no one would have been hurt. And I need the money. It's for a good cause."
Michael shook his head, exasperated. "Go on, then. Show me."
"Show me what you would have taken. Show me how this would have been a victimless crime."
The intruder licked his lips. "Well, the laptop, for a start."
"It's got all my photos on it," said Michael, who had been expecting this. "Those photos are irreplaceable. And what if I had been writing a novel? What if I had spent the last five years writing a novel, and you had stolen my laptop with the only copy on?"
The intruder rolled his eyes. "No-one keeps just one copy of the novel they're writing. Not nowadays. You just email it to yourself whenever you write a bit more."
Michael snorted. "That's not the point! The point is, there's all kinds of personal, irreplaceable files on that laptop. It wouldn't be a victimless crime if you stole it."
The intruder shook his head. "Fine, well I would have taken jewellery, then," he said, a little sullenly.
"Jewellery! That's even worse! You would have taken ... wait ..."
Michael jumped to his feet, dashed into the bedroom, and returned a moment later carrying a golden ring.
"There!" he said triumphantly, throwing the ring to the intruder. "That's what you would have taken, isn't it? That's the most expensive bit of jewellery in the place, and it used to belong to my grandfather, and it's totally irreplaceable. I mean, yeah, it's insured and I would have been able to claim for it, but that's not the point, is it? I'd never be able to get my one back!"
The intruder looked sheepish. He laid the ring carefully on the table, and began pacing around the apartment, glancing here and there.
"Then I would have taken ..." he let the last word hang, as his eyes moved around the room, trying to find something he could have taken that would have supported his theory of victimless theft.
"You know," he said after a moment, "this place is pretty empty, actually. Have you only just moved in?"
Michael felt something slump inside him. All the indignation was suddenly gone.
He shook his head.
"No," he said. "I've lived here for nearly a year. Someone's just moved out."
"Oh." The intruder thought for a moment, silently.
"Is that why you were...?" He gestured toward the window, and Michael nodded.
"Oh," said the intruder again. "Sorry."
He paced for a moment longer, then perched uncertainly on the couch, on the edge, as if worried that Michael might order him to get up.
"Why did she leave?" the intruder asked.
"He." Michael looked at the intruder, challenging him to be outraged, examining him for any flicker of disgust or disapproval.
But the intruder shrugged.
"Sorry, my mistake. Why did he leave?"
Michael licked his lips. "I ... don't know," he said, and understood suddenly that this was the truth. That was what hurt the most. That was what had made everything seem so pointless, so awful. "Maybe he was bored. Maybe he had found someone else. He was always more outgoing than me."
Michael had a sudden image of Nick, how he had looked the first time they had met. It had been in a bar in Soho. Michael never went out to bars to pick men up—he was never good at it, he had always been shy. Even when he was a student, when he had lived in Brighton and it seemed the whole world was going out and kissing strangers and having sex, even then pick-ups had been something that happened to other people, things that had made him feel jealous and left out. Not that he had been alone. No, far from it, he had been with lots of men, had lots of relationships. But he was rarely the one to initiate things, and he had had more relationships begin in libraries and art galleries, and then later online, than he had ever had drunken fumblings in nightclubs, soaked in darkness and sweat, engulfed by pounding, heavy music.
With Nick it had been different. He was everything that Michael lacked, everything he hated himself for lacking. He was confident and sleek and socially forward. Michael had noticed him standing outside the bar, as he and his friends had arrived, a tall man, a little older than Michael, a few streaks of grey in his dark hair, a cigarette clutched lazily in one hand, tight blue jeans and a leather jacket, and quick, curious eyes.
Nick had come up to him a few minutes later. He had known one of Michael's friends, only vaguely; later Nick had told Michael that he detested that friend, and would have probably tried to get away without being seen, if he hadn't noticed Michael and been interested. Of course, Michael found this flattering.
"Did you know it was coming?" the intruder asked, and Michael was back in the present. He started, and gazed for a moment at the small, dark stranger who—he realised—was the first person he could be honest with about what had happened.
"Yes," Michael said, though he had told his sister the opposite when she had asked him. "I'd known for weeks. We both had, I think. We never talked about it, but it was there. It was in the little things. We were spending more time apart. He went out without me. I worked late. I said I had to, and it was true, work was busy, but ..."
"But that wasn't the only reason."
Michael nodded. "I knew it was coming, but it still hurt like hell. I'd got this whole thing planned. We were going to go away. A cottage in the Lake District. We'd been there before. I booked it months ago. It was going to be beautiful, so romantic. There's a little fireplace in the lounge for burning wood, we were going to curl up under the blankets, listen to music and watch our favourite films. It was going to fix everything. And then ..."
Michael shook his head.
"And then he left. He'd been planning it. I know that, because one moment we were screaming at each other, and the next he was standing there with his bags. They were all packed, everything that was his. He must have been getting ready for a while. He was just looking for an excuse."
"He sounds like an idiot," said the other man. "You shouldn't treat people like that. It's bad karma. It won't do him any good in the long run."
Michael barked out a laugh.
"Karma again?" he said. "What, are you a Buddhist?"
"No, I'm not religious."
"How can you not be religious but believe in karma?" Michael demanded, suddenly irked again.
"Just because I'm not religious doesn't mean I can't have a spiritual dimension to my life," the man said, and for the first time there was a note of anger in his voice. "There's more to things than atoms and clockwork. I can think that without having to believe in an invisible man who watches everyone all the time and who only priests can talk to."
As he was speaking, the man raised one hand to his woollen hat and pulled it off. It was warm in the apartment, and he was starting to sweat. His hair was very dark, Michael noticed, much darker than Nick's had been, almost black. His skin was smooth and his eyes were intelligent and danced warmly.
He's beautiful. Handsome was the wrong word. Nick had been handsome, tall and strong, with his salt-streaked hair and dark stubble. The small man, however, was beautiful. There was something about his compactness, the subtleness of his features, the dark smoothness of his skin. His hands were clean and slender, but they looked strong, too.
"I don't know your name," Michael suddenly blurted out, not realising he was going to say it until the words came tumbling out.
The small man hesitated.
"Call me Richard," he said, and Michael laughed because it was so obviously a lie.
"What?" demanded the man who called himself Richard. He looked hurt.
"You're name isn't Richard," said Michael, surprised by how confident he felt. He would never have dared challenge someone like that usually. What was wrong with him? He was sitting in his apartment with a complete stranger who had broken in and then saved his life, and he was laughing at him because he had come up with such a ridiculous false name. This was really not how he had imagined he would be spending the first day of the new year.
"I could be called Richard," the man protested, sounding indignant.
"Yes, you could," agreed Michael. "You could, but you're not."
"Fine. What do you think I should be called, then?"
"I don't know, Abdul?" he said.
"That's so racist!" said the small man, outraged. "How dare you call me Abdul? This is 2012, for God's sake!"
"Not anymore," said Michael, looking at the clock on the wall. "Now it's 2013."
"Well then, even more reason!"
Michael looked away.
"Sorry, I'm sorry," he said, trying not to laugh. "Go on then. Tell me your real name. I promise I'll stop being a racist if you tell me your real name."
"Fine," said the small man, sounding slightly mollified. "My real name is Hammed. Are you happy?"
"Happier than if you had continued to call yourself Richard," said Michael neutrally.
Hammed nodded. "And you?" he asked "What's your name?"
"Abdul. No, I'm just joking. Sorry. Sit down. It's Michael. I'm Michael."
Hammed looked at him suspiciously. He hesitated for a moment, then sat down again.
For a few moments, there was silence. The two men looked at each other, as if seeing one another for the first time.
This is so strange.
But Michael liked it.
He liked Hammed, he realised. There was something honest about him, something sweet.
Even though he was about to rob you?
"So what's the good cause, Hammed?"
"What's the good cause? The one that meant it would be OK to steal my computer, karmically speaking."
"Oh," said Hammed. He licked his lips. "You don't want to know. It sounds like you have enough on your plate."
"No, please," pressed Michael. He wasn't just being polite. He really did want to know.
"My ... cousin," he said. "He's not well. He's sick. He needs money, to pay the doctors."
"He lives here?" Michael asked, but Hammed shook his head.
"No, back home. I haven't seen him for several years, but we were close. I study, and in the evenings I work, but it's not enough. So I decided ..."
"You decided it would be OK to rob someone to pay for your cousin's medical bills."
Hammed looked him in the eye. "Yes. That's what I decided."
Michael nodded, thinking.
Shall I say it? Do I dare? If I'm wrong, it's going to sound awful.
But he wasn't wrong. He didn't know how he knew, but he knew. He was sure.
"He's not your cousin, is he." Michael spoke the words softly. It wasn't a question.
Hammed started and looked like he was going to leave, and Michael felt a bolt of pure, unreasonable fear shoot through him.
No! Don't go! Please!
But then Hammed relaxed and slumped back down into the sofa. He shook his head. "No," he said after a moment. "He's not my cousin. He is ... he was my ... my friend. My close friend."
Michael licked his lips. "He was your close friend? What happened?"
Hammed looked away for so long that Michael thought he wasn't going to answer. At last he said, "It's not like London back home."
Michael didn't say anything. He waited for Hammed to go on.
"We grew up together," Hammed said at last. "We both came from good families. We were not poor. We were best friends since as long ago as I can remember. His father had a shop. He sold furniture, good quality stuff, and we used to help out there. When we were very young we just used to do little jobs, run small errands, that sort of thing. As we got older, my friend's father used to leave us in charge of the shop. We used to open up in the mornings, before school, and after school we would go and work there for a few hours before closing time."
Hammed paused again. He was picking his nails absently, and Michael found himself staring at those small, strong hands again. The nails were cut short and were very clean. There did not seem to be an excess ounce of fat anywhere on his body. Michael could see the way the muscles moved under his warm skin, precise, delicate.
"Then one day he kissed me," Hammed said, all at once, as if he had been struggling to force the words, and they had exploded out from the pressure. "It made me so angry, at first. I felt betrayed. I felt dirty. There were words for people who did that sort of thing. None of them were nice. People who did those things got punished, or worse. I slapped my friend, I pushed him away. I pushed him to the ground, and I ran away."
Hammed looked up, as if he were afraid of what he would see in Michael's eyes.
"It was wrong of me, I knew that even then. It wasn't my friend's fault. When I let myself see it, it was bound to happen sooner or later. We had been more than friends for a long time." He smiled, sadly, and shrugged his shoulders. "And so I went back. I went back to him that same night, and we locked the door of the shop and we held each other and touched each other and cried because we were so happy."
Hammed looked older than he had before, despite his smooth, unblemished skin and the smallness of his body. His eyes are old.
"It was the happiest time of my life. But we were foolish. People notice things. Little things, touches and glances, things like that. And then his father found out. He caught us, in the middle of ..." He waved a hand vaguely and trailed off.
"I don't blame my friend," he said, after some time had passed. There was something raw in his voice, but Michael found that he believed him. "After all, what choice did he have? What kind of a life could we have made for ourselves? He loved his family. He loved me, and I thought he loved me more ... but no, it was his family who he loved the most."
"You didn't blame him at all?" Michael asked, frowning. "You thought he loved you, and he dropped you as soon as his father found out, and you didn't blame him?"
"I didn't mean that," Hammed spoke quietly. "I meant I don't blame him now."
"What happened to you?" Michael asked.
Hammed settled back in the sofa and shut his eyes. He looked tired. "My family were less forgiving. I had to leave. It was best that I left. If I had stayed, there would have made things more difficult for my friend. This way, people could say that it was my fault, that I had ... led him, corrupted him."
Michael shook his head in disbelief. "And you were happy with that?" He sounded angry. He couldn't stop it. It made him furious.
Hammed opened his eyes.
"Like I said, home wasn't like London," Hammed sighed. "We were lucky things worked out as well as they did. It could have been a lot worse, for both of us. Anyway, I had always wanted to travel. To see more of the world. That's why I came here."
"But he left you!" Michael was shouting now, actually shouting. "He should have stood by you, he said he loved you, he said ..."
And then he was crying, crying so hard that he thought he would never stop, sobbing and heaving and he couldn't breathe and he had left him why had Nick left him how could he have left him and he was alone and ...
And then there were arms around him, warm, strong arms cradling his head, stroking the short hairs that the trimmer had left on his scalp, rubbing him, caressing him. They felt so good, the fingers were so soft against his skin.
Michael leant his head against Hammed's chest. He could hear the beating of his heart through the thin shirt the younger man was wearing, he could feel his warm breath tickling his ears.
He looked up with tears in his eyes and suddenly they were kissing. He lifted his hands and ran his fingers through that rich, dark hair.
The sofa was soft underneath them. They lay there for a long time, touching, breathing, not speaking.
At last, Michael drifted downwards. It wasn't sleep, not quite; but his mind closed inwards until all there was in the world was the warmth, the safety, the body breathing softly next to him.
Some time later—he could not tell how much later—he felt Hammed move against him, felt emptiness, and he stirred awake. They had turned the light off during the night, and now the faintest tinge of dawn was beginning to creep in through the window.
Hammed was standing by the window, looking out through the glass as morning gathered in the corners of the sky and opened a new year over London. His bare chest looked almost golden in that early light, but his back, which was still in shadows, rippled in darkness, hidden and beautiful.
Moving slowly, cautiously, Michael came to his feet.
Hammed must have heard him stir, because he half turned his face, so that he was looking back at him from the corner of one dark eye.
Michael reached out a tentative hand. It had all felt like a dream. He was scared that if he moved too fast, dared too much, the dream would burst and collapse like something sodden, broken.
But he dared. He placed his hand on Hammed's shoulder, and Hammed covered it in his own.
"You carry people with you, you know," whispered Hammed. His voice was very soft.
Michael stood beside him, enjoying the warmth of his body. Beyond the window, the sky changed colour almost moment to moment. The dark purples were leeching away, being replaced by clear, warm blues and gentle violets.
"I know," said Michael.
He thought of Nick, of all his thousands of mannerisms, expressions, little sayings and phrases and turns of speech. He had loved some of them. He had hated others.
He would never see Nick again. He knew it with complete certainty.
He had always known it, from the moment Nick had picked up his bags and walked out. No, he had known it before then. Nick was strong, handsome, confident. And he had loved him.
He had loved Nick, and Nick had probably even loved him, too. At least, in the beginning.
But things had changed. They had used one another up, they had each taken what the other had to offer. And that was okay.
It wasn't Nick he had been mourning, not Nick he had been furious with, not really.
Could it ever have worked? He wasn't sure. They had been so different. It had been wonderful, it had been exciting, it had been special. But it was in the past. It was burnt up and blown away, yesterday's ashes.
It was too fresh now, too close to the surface, but in time, he knew he would take something from it; everything positive that could be dredged up and recycled, he would take with him. That was how people grew. They loved and they experienced and they lost and they cried. Then they picked up the broken pieces and rebuilt themselves, and there was always at least one new piece that had belonged to someone else before, something to take along with you.
He pictured Nick one last time, how he had looked in that favourite photograph of theirs, looking away from the camera, tongue just peeking from behind those perfect white teeth. Then he breathed out and let it go.
He wrapped his arms around Hammed's shoulders and kissed the nape of his neck.
Outside, the sun sparkled golden as it rose above the horizon.
What happened next was up to them.