The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost
Axel stared sluggishly at the mug of coffee cupped around his hands. The darkness of the December mornings was starting to hit him; he was finding it harder and harder to pull himself from the lure of his warm duvet and towards the bitter winter chill. The only upside to his early mornings was that he could always rely on a hot, frothy cappuccino to warm him up.
Well, that and the young, handsome barista, who always seemed to be working the morning shift at the cafe. The man was in his late twenties, presumably British (Axel easily placed the clumsiness of his German that could only come from learning it as a second language) and had learned Axel's usual order almost off by heart now. God knew that seeing him always made Axel's day a little better; it was like sitting on a bench in the Leise Park, watching, waiting to see the moment the clouds parted and the sun broke through, a little victorious light upon him.
He sipped what was left of his coffee and bundled himself back up in the two scarves and the thick coat he'd brought. With a tired sigh, he pulled a brown leather satchel over his left shoulder, murmured a swift thank-you to the nameless barista, and retreated out into the cold. The walk to school wasn't much further, only five minutes, but the air chilled him to the bone: it wasn't snowing just yet, but the weather forecast had promised it by this afternoon.
By the time he'd gotten to school, he was shivering, fingers red and stiff, fumbling with his keys in a fruitless attempt to unlock the door to his classroom.
"Good God, look at you, Axel."
"No, no," the man said quickly, hushing him. He came to Axel's right, gently taking the keys from his shaking hands, and unlocked the door. "I keep telling you, you're in no shape to be walking all this way in this weather. Especially with no gloves." He gave the other man's hands a pointed look, and then his eyes met Axel's. "I can always drive you; I'll come and pick you up. It's never a bother."
Conrad followed him into the classroom, shutting the door and pulling down the blind as he did so. Axel sunk limply into the chair that sat by his desk, trying to muffle the sudden sob that had escaped from his mouth. But once that one had come, it was hard to stop the others, especially now his eyes were wet.
"Hey, hey now," came a soothing murmur, and Conrad's arms were around him, holding him close. Axel breathed in his scent, sniffling; herbal tea and chlorine, lingering from all the time he spent watching his daughter's swimming practices. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been held or even hugged. "You're alright. I've got you."
Axel grabbed the fabric of his shirt as he wept; now that he'd gotten over the initial surprise of being hugged, he didn't want to let go. It was as if something primitive had woken deep inside him, clamouring for the comfort he'd been craving for so long. He'd managed to suppress it ... until now. The desperation was alive and feverish, unafraid of its greedy neediness.
Gently, Conrad prised him away and Axel realised, with a jolt of surprise, that he had buried himself in the other man's chest ... and had, subsequently, sobbed all over his pale blue shirt. He was moments away from apologising when his eyes met Conrad's.
"Are you alright?"
The question alone almost brought on a fresh set of tears, but with luck, he managed to reign them in this time.
"I'm sorry," he admitted quietly. "I didn't get much sleep last night. I guess I must be more tired than I thought."
Conrad studied him sceptically. "I'm driving you home tonight," he said firmly, leaving no room for argument. "If you try to walk home I'll use the database to find out where you live, and I'll pick you up on the way."
True to his word, Conrad let himself into Axel's classroom the minute it hit four o'clock, gently closing the door behind him. "Snow's coming thick and fast out there," he commented neutrally, watching Axel pack a stack of orange exercise books into his satchel. "I spoke with the Head this afternoon. He said it's looking likely we might close the rest of this week."
Axel swore quietly, almost unheard. He pulled the satchel over his shoulder and wordlessly switched off the lights. Conrad took this as his cue to lead Axel to his car, stopping patiently to let the younger man lock his classroom door. The rest of the walk was silent, as was the car ride, with Axel only speaking to provide directions. Something, Conrad decided, was wrong.
As he pulled up outside the block of apartments Axel lived in, he turned off the ignition. "You wouldn't mind if I stayed for a drink, would you? A coffee?"
Axel seemed to freeze. "Oh, um," he began, flustered, "no. Of course not."
Conrad had the feeling he very much wanted to turn and run, to be anywhere but here. It piqued both his curiosity and his worry. He let Axel guide him up to the third floor, the man stopping outside his apartment.
"It's uh, not exactly the warmest in here," he explained shakily. "The central heating's not working very well and my landlord is away for the month, so ..." He gave an apprehensive laugh, not daring to meet Conrad's eyes as he said it.
'Not working very well', it turned out, was an understatement. Not only was the central heating not working at all, but there was also a crack in the window, and following today's weather, well ...
"It's snowing in your apartment," stated Conrad, dumbfounded. "Axel ..." He sighed at the ashamed guilt that had overtaken his friend's face and shook his head. "How have you not frozen to death yet?"
"It's not a big deal," he replied quickly. "I'm used to it. It honestly doesn't matter."
"Jesus Christ," continued Conrad, as if Axel hadn't spoken, "no wonder you were so cold this morning. You ... you can't stay here."
"What?" The younger man stared at him, eyes wide, both confused and somewhat helpless. "I just told you, it's no big deal." He shrugged. "I'll just ask my landlord to fix the heating and the window when he gets back."
"Axel," Conrad began, taking his hand gently, "it's minus ten degrees outside. Which means it's minus ten degrees in your house. You could freeze to death in here."
"Oh." He swallowed. The other man could feel him trembling. "Oh."
"Come home with me. Gita and I will sort something out for you."
Axel had the feeling that Conrad was not going to take no for an answer; he wouldn't allow him to even think of refusing the offer. Not trusting himself to speak, he nodded. He packed an overnight bag with several shirts, pants and underwear, throwing in a pair of pyjamas at the last minute.
"I'm sorry," he said, in the car, eyes purposely on the road ahead so as not to face Conrad. "I didn't want to worry you ... I didn't want to be any trouble."
The other man shook his head. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked fondly. "You're never any trouble ... you know that, right?"
"I was going to tell you--"
"No, you weren't."
Axel leant against the window, sucking in a breath at the anxiety in his stomach. He was shaking badly, trembling with every little breath he took. He was relieved when they finally arrived at Conrad's apartment block, and the man grabbed his satchel for him. He felt like he was crawling up the stairs, as if he wasn't really him, like some sort of ghost inhabiting his own body. He was warm, which was strange considering the temperature. He wanted to tell himself that he shouldn't be warm, and he thought he should tell Conrad, but his mouth wasn't attached to his face anymore.
"There you are! I was just about to call you--"
"We're lending out the couch for a while. I'm sorry I didn't let you know, it was a last-minute thing. His heating's broken and he's been freezing half to death--"
Axel's vision swam dangerously and he grabbed onto the part of Conrad's arm he could see, gasping for air. Immediately, there was someone on his other side, gentle--
"I don't feel good," he mumbled.
"--sit down," he heard, vaguely, like it was being said on the opposite end of a swimming pool, like when he was a child, and he and his friends were taking turns dunking each other into the water like beach balls; it was his turn, seemingly, and he closed his eyes in anticipation as he was pulled down into the water.