‘You’ve lost the beard,’ he says unnecessarily, after ten minutes of silence.
‘I don’t know what to call you,’ Nero replies.
He doesn’t look any different. Doesn’t have that New York air about him that Nero’s learned to recognise now, doesn’t look remotely like the remnants of the small-town boy he used to be either. He actually looks the way Nero dreams of him-- nameless but striking, so clear and silent. A fatal blow come out of nowhere, or from inside the hollow of his chest.
No, he doesn’t look any different. Even hauntingly younger than before, if anything. As if that gunshot really was the rebirth Nero wanted it to be, for both of them. And then again, that’s why he doesn’t know what to call him.
Then he replies, finally looking up, and Nero realises what’s different. His eyes are alive now, burning quietly.
‘I don’t know either,’ he says. ‘But let’s start with Angelo.’
‘Trying to be honest these days?’ Nero says, cracks a smile at the burn on the tabletop.
‘Trying to find myself,’ comes the reply, and Nero’s smile turns into a laugh.
Prohibition officially ended two months after their last day together, which Nero thinks is just fucking hilarious. It’s difficult, surreally so, to remember why a goddamn bottle of alcohol used to be so important, now. He’s glad he can never step foot inside Lawless; he wouldn’t know what his place is in the absence of the conflict that defined it. Not that he has a place anymore. Not that he wants one. (Not that he knows what he wants. If he did, maybe he’d stop having so many goddamn dreams.)
Angelo tips the bartender and wraps his scarf anxiously tight; doesn’t look at Nero on the way to the door. It’s only once they’re lighting up outside that he speaks again.
‘I don’t think about it anymore,’ he says. ‘If I did, I’d tell you it was an evening just like this. Light snow. The kind that melts the moment it touches anything.’
‘You still think about it.’
Angelo says nothing, again, for a while. Then: ‘I never went back. I came straight here.’
‘Is that right?’ Nero blows out a ring of smoke, taps some ash into the melting snow. ‘I don’t even know where I was, the first few months. Slept in the car. Jumped at every sound, I was so ready to die.’
‘I...’ When he looks over, Angelo’s gaze is distracted, staring at something in the distance as he slowly gathers his thoughts. Nero’s never seen him like that; it’s soothing. ‘I didn’t want to be anybody for a while, I guess. It’s easy to do that in a big city. I didn’t want anyone looking at me.’
‘Sorry. I talk more now. I don’t know where that came from.’
Nero doesn’t reply to that, just takes a long drag on his cigarette and tips his head up to squint at the streetlamp. The snowflakes glimmer gently in its glow; that beautiful kind of night. The kind that melts the moment it touches anything.
His room is simple. It’s an I still don’t know where to go room, a large bed, a table, a chair. One solitary lamp. Nero doesn’t need to tell Angelo to follow; for all that he talks more, he has an I still don’t know where to go air about him, more than anything New York could ever erase. After all, if he doesn’t know where his place is anymore, Angelo, who spent so long being his shadow, is more lost than ever.
‘Where do you live?’ he asks, for something to say.
‘Why do you care?’
‘Good question.’ There’s something about the stupidly simple sight of both their coats hanging over the single door hook that brings a lump to his throat. It’s not that he’s been lonely; he can’t, when Angelo exists somewhere. It’s just that, actually; the image of Angelo in this big city. Angelo, walking the crowded streets, anonymous like he wanted to be. Angelo, eyelashes matted in the autumn rain, thin fingers curling over the metal that separates him from the river. Angelo, young and lost and looking for a reason to live. (Nero, young and lost and looking for a reason to look for a reason.)
‘Before I left,’ Angelo says suddenly, ‘I’d taken a label of Lawless Heaven with me. I wanted to frame it.’
‘What do you think?’
There’s nothing romantic about it, about being so horribly bonded to someone that their touch stings but their absence burns wild like a forest fire, obliterating. He doesn’t even think his old name to himself; Angelo’s room must be bare, razed clean, like the rest of him. There’s nothing romantic about it, but the snow’s still falling and there is only one lamp, and Angelo is sitting on his bed and staring at him with forest-fire eyes.
‘I do miss it, though,’ Nero says. ‘Lawless Heaven.’ Prohibition ended two months after their last day, which is fucking hilarious. ‘They just don’t make them like that anymore.’
‘Yeah.’ Angelo’s gaze hasn’t wavered from him for one single second, just as silent and clear as always. ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’
The heating is on, but they share the blanket. It isn’t even the first time they’re doing it, though it is the first time Angelo removes his shirt. Nero watches a little dumbly as he unbuttons it and lets it pool on the wooden floor as if they do this every night, as if there isn’t a year of distance between them, as if it’s back to the old days when Nero often had half a mind to kiss him just to see what would happen.
Nero looks at the scar on his shoulder; it’s ugly and raised like a burn, and he wonders how long it hurt. The solitary lamp divides his skin brusquely into light and dark, the beauty spots on the pale expanse like inverted constellations. Nero marvels for a moment, but then Angelo is turning on his side and going right back to staring at him, something nameless in his golden eyes that makes him swallow.
‘I didn’t know where I was,’ Nero says. The thing is, it’s not romantic, but he can’t imagine a reality in which he’d never have met Angelo, or one in which only one of them lives. ‘But I’d have known if you had died. Fuck, I’d have been furious.’
‘I’d have hated missing that,’ Angelo says, and nearly smiles. ‘When I die, I hope it’s slow. I want to see you angry like that.’
‘Fuck you,’ he says, and nearly means it. ‘Why didn’t you just walk out, when you saw me? Why didn’t you just leave?’
‘Would you have let me?’
Would he have let him? What would he have done, really? He can’t imagine a reality other than this one; where he looked up as the door opened, right into Angelo’s dumbstruck eyes, and froze, unable to do anything other than stare. Where Angelo blinked at him, utterly stunned, before gathering himself, walking up to the bar. What would he have done, if Angelo had left? Would he have called out, run, pulled out his gun?
There are no guns here, but the sky outside is red with snow, and the lonely lamp casts dark shadows. The snow is slowly gathering on the windowsill, and up this close he can smell cigarettes on Angelo, and he sometimes wonders if his very body is incapable of loving anything else. The only reality, among a thousand in which they nearly never meet again.
There are no guns here. Just Angelo, his eyes burning with the will to live. Just Nero, who made himself a bed of gauze and called it a day. The blanket is warm and heavy like the safety of childhood, and he can’t even cry; he doesn’t have the right.
‘Listen,’ he says, voice stupidly thick. They could so easily never have met again, and there’s nothing romantic about it, about the red snow, the low lamp, the melded tangle of their lives. There are no guns here. Just Angelo, nameless and striking. Just Nero, the bewildering loss that muffles his existence now, and his desperate grip on the life he’s found again.
He tries to say don’t die but it comes out in an unintelligible sound, and Angelo is already on top of him, his kisses hungry and falling like fire. Fingers twining with his and pressing his hands into the sheets, gentle and owning. Nero’s glad he never wasted time pretending Angelo isn’t the most beautiful thing in his ugly, ugly life. He feels burned clean; he feels brilliantly alone. Doesn’t make another sound until Angelo finally meets his lips, then he lets it out; that singular relief that allows you to feel the full extent of your misery.
Without Angelo he’s willing to die in a heartbeat; with him he’d find the courage to start an empire from nothing. He sobs and Angelo breathes, and they live, and they’ll live, and they’ll live. There’s a phoenix in his chest, a never-ending moment that he can’t seem to burn down.
‘I’d never have looked for you,’ Angelo whispers into his collarbone, and Nero frees his hands, wraps his arms around him. ‘You told me to just live. I’d just have lived.’
‘Yeah, well, I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about,’ Nero says, laughs harshly; it sounds weak. ‘I take it back. Not because it’s wrong. But because I want to.’ I didn’t kill you because I didn’t want to.
‘You’re lucky I ran into you then.’ Angelo sounds breathless, excited, suddenly, or laughing. Another kiss to the rub under his heart, and another, and another. ‘Really lucky.’
He’s lost the beard. He’s lost his name. He’s lost just about everything, but the phoenix in his chest rises time and again, terrible and immortal.
‘Yeah.’ Through a film of tears, Nero stares helplessly at the most beautiful face in the world, and Angelo smiles at him, the realest and most alive he has looked since that night by the fire. He thinks back to that night by the fire, the young boy weak with tears, how there’s nothing romantic about two people who destroy each others’ lives so completely that they’re the only ones they can turn to. Razed clean, nothing left but black. ‘Lucky’s one way to put it.’
There are no guns. Nero’s hands move constantly over Angelo’s exposed back, thumb running down the ridge of his spine, the curve of his waist. They kiss like any moment could be their last, like reality could turn on its head in a second. He pushes Angelo onto his back and Angelo wrestles his way to the top again, grabbing fistfuls of Nero’s hair and looking down at him, the fire in his eyes deadly calm. Nero submits to it like one worships in church, and lets absolution fill his veins.
‘I’d have known too, if you had died.’
The lamp is off, the sky outside a purpling bruise, the only light in the room from a far-off streetlamp. Nero pulls Angelo close and wraps an arm around his slender shoulders, breathes in the cigarette scent of his hair.
‘Yeah.’ Angelo sounds clear. Not so much a person, for a moment, as a charring silence, branding Nero’s skin where he touches it. ‘I would’ve torn the world apart.’
‘And you call me the angry one.’ He doesn’t say I dreamt about you all the time, doesn’t say it was always so big that I didn’t even know if it was really about you. Nameless and striking like the hand of God. He shudders and Angelo brings a hand up to rest over his chest, and if anything about this was as small and petty as love, both of them would’ve been dead already.
‘You are the angry one.’
‘I dreamt about you all the time,’ Nero says, then, not even surprised at himself. ‘I don’t know what, though. I just did.’
‘What a coincidence,’ Angelo replies, raises his head to look Nero in the eye, and that’s an honest-to-God smile. ‘I dream about you all the time too.’
‘You’re always complaining about the food in your plate. Always the same thing. Just complaining about the food.’
‘That sounds like me,’ Nero says. ‘Now I know where I was, all that time.’
In the morning, he’s still there. They both are. It’s cold and grey, but Nero could howl, so he presses his forehead to the crook of Angelo’s neck, and doesn’t think about anything at all.
The snow hasn’t melted all this time. It doesn’t matter anymore.