When he walked Axel looked like he should be falling down, and when Pym would offer him his arm Axel would almost always scoff, shake his head, and say something to the effect of, “I need to learn how to walk by myself, Magnus,” before eagerly latching onto it. As far as Pym was concerned Axel didn’t actually need to learn how to take his own weight, because he was dauntingly slight and Pym would have been happy to carry him forever.
On one of their walks one day Axel asked to rest, and so they took a seat at one of the benches. Axel, tall but more slight than Pym; young but in none of the ways Pym would have expected from a fifteen-year-old, rested his head against Pym’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
“You get tired very easily,” Pym said. Axel nodded in agreement, and Pym felt it on his arm; he also felt how Axel held more tightly to him. “Do you want to go home?”
“I would just sleep,” Axel said, sleepily, “and I would rather not be in bed right now.”
They stayed that way for a while until the chill of Bern began to settle over them and the night began to fall. Pym stood up and again offered his arm to Axel, who took it and stood as quickly as he could.
“I can’t believe we’ve been out for so late,” Axel said, shaking his head. “Let’s go back. Now, Magnus.”
Whatever Axel wanted, Axel got. Both Pym knew this and Axel knew this – at the very least, they knew mutually not to discuss the philosophical implications of what Axel wanted, which were numerous and covered a vast many things including the answer to questions about whether he would ever go home again, and wanting to go home.
Magnus walked Axel through the streets and minded his leg as they stepped over curves, and he ignored the grimaces of pain Axel made. He didn’t comment on how Axel looked around himself like a small rabbit, but simply did the same himself, and even when the pain Axel was in grew to be almost too great, Pym didn’t stop walking or slow down the pace. When they were finally inside again, he helped Axel onto the couch and wrapped a blanket around him. They were the only ones still awake, and so they sat quietly downstairs by themselves.
“Is this okay?” he asked. Axel nodded, and bundled up tighter under it, until he was only a pair of dark brown eyes and a shock of black hair that was growing too long looking over the top of the blanket.
“Do you want to sleep?”
“Magnus,” Axel said, looking him straight in the eye and refusing to look away. “I do not want to sleep, ever. But if you would like to, then you should not wait for me. All I ask is that you bring me to my room and leave me there to suffer quietly.”
Pym flopped out on the seat next to Axel, spreading his arms and looking at the ceiling. “Well, Axel,” he said, “in that case I’ll stay down here with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“But I will.”
They stayed there for the rest of the evening, quietly, together, and read for a while, and then when Pym finally did bring Axel up, he brought Axel to his own room where they sat on the bed for a while longer. Axel furiously massaged his leg, using all of his knuckles and grimacing every so often, closing his eyes and catching his breath, twisting around so he could lay at a right angle and then finally staring off at the rest of the room. He didn’t look up when he said to Pym, “Do you want me to leave?”
Pym told him that no, he didn’t want Axel to leave, and so Axel moved in closer to the wall and lay there, and Pym knelt in front of the bed with Axel, and rested his head on the mattress. It did not take long before Axel’s pale and spindly hand reached out and found Pym’s brown hair. He twined his fingers through it and scraped against the scalp, then leaned forward and rested his own forehead against the back of Pym’s head.
“Are you comfortable there?”
“I am as comfortable as you.”
“Then not very.”
“I want to stay awake with you,” Pym said. He looked up, and was surprised to see Axel’s face only inches from him, studying him intently. “If I climb in bed, I’ll fall asleep too quickly to be much good as company.”
“You don’t need to be awake to be good company,” Axel said quickly. “Any company is good company if you’re cold enough.”
“Are you cold enough?”
“Not now,” Axel said; he said it in the tone of voice that made Pym think that if not for the pain it would cause his hip, Axel might have rolled over and stared up at the ceiling in the noncommittal way that he did sometimes, when he was bored with something or tired of it. Recently, Pym thought, he’d seemed to tire of most things rather quickly.
Axel’s hand moved from Pym’s face to his arm, where he twined his fingers through the sleeve of Pym’s shirt and simply held on. It was Pym’s turn to touch Axel’s face, and after Axel’s initial moment of shying away from the sudden contact, he leaned into it and closed his eyes.
“You’ll stay with me?” Axel asked.
“You’re in my room,” Pym said. Axel, accepting this as his answer, moved over and inviting Pym into his own bed. When Pym was comfortable Axel latched onto him, holding him tightly. He rested his head on Pym’s shoulder and like a cat, pinned him there under his tiny weight.
“Will you be able to sleep?” Pym asked.
“No, never. I don’t sleep, Magnus.”
“Yes, you do.”
“When was the last time you saw me sleep?” Axel asked.
The last time Pym saw Axel sleep was a few nights ago; Pym had fallen asleep first and had only woken because in bed next to him, Axel was trembling like a leaf. Pym thought for certain that Axel was awake, that he was crying silently, and was left mortified to think that he might see something that Axel had not given him permission to witness, because when did Axel ever give himself permission to cry? But Axel had been asleep, and when Pym took him by the shoulder and give him a hard shake, Axel had gasped and dragged himself awake.
“When you fell asleep downstairs,” Pym said, “and woke up because you heard one of Ollinger’s daughters mention bread.”
Axel gave a wry smile, which Pym thought he felt in how Axel settled against him as much as he saw it. Pym never felt smaller than when he had an arm around Axel, knowing that it was the most he could do; he never felt more certain that he was doing something right than when Axel settled against him and relaxed, and when his touch came as gently as a hand reaching through water, compared to a death grip that could reduce a stone to sand.
“I would never miss the opportunity for bread, Magnus.”
“I could not have been asleep.”
“Because I don’t sleep.”
“Then what do you do all night?” Magnus asked. “When you’re like this, what do you do when I am sleeping? Do you just sit there, and be bored?”
“It isn’t boring in the slightest,” Axel assured him. “You make a lot of noises, and you tell me the funniest things. I love it. We have entire conversations that you are not even aware of, and I make you agree to things that you would never agree to in a thousand years.”
“I would agree with you on anything.”
“I make you promise me that you will do things that you would never willingly do, voluntarily.”
“Lies,” Magnus murmured. “I would volunteer to do anything that you asked of me.”
He would die for Axel, Pym was certain of it; he would die for Axel just as soon as he would live for Axel, and in the meantime he would do anything he could to make Axel comfortable.
Axel leaned in closer to Pym. “You shouldn’t say that. You don’t know what you might be asked to do one day.”
“I don’t care,” Pym declared. “Anything you want me to do, I will do it. I want to protect you.”
Axel snorted. “You have no idea what you're saying.”
“I know you, though,” Pym insisted. “That’s enough.”
They fell silent for a short time after that. To Pym’s surprise, he didn’t fall asleep. As comfortable as he was with Axel next to him, and as warm as he was, certain that there was a roof over his head and that the only person touching him was Axel; that the only person seeing him was Axel; that the rest of the world didn’t matter except for what was in this room, which blessedly included Axel; -- as certain as he was to know all of this, Pym stayed awake, curled against Axel and waiting to see if he would speak again.
“You are an idiot and you are going to die one day,” Axel said at last, with such resignation that Pym couldn’t help but laugh.
“I hate to tell you this, Axel,” Pym said, “but one day you, too, will die. There is a very high death rate for people who aren’t Magnus Pym, as well, and you certainly aren’t.”
“Thank god,” Axel said, and they both laughed. Then Axel said, more quietly, “But you know, Magnus, no one’s been able to kill me yet, and everyone has tried. If I were going to die it would have happened, because what am I? Fifteen?”
“You are Axel,” Pym murmured. “And Axel is still going to die one day.”
“If it happens, it will be a surprise to me, too. But it won’t happen.”
“Good,” Pym said, “At least I can know that if anything happens to me, you will be completely fine even without my protection.”