It was grotesque to see Axel’s long, thin hand wrap itself around the lower half of his face. He sat hunched over the side of his chair, leaning forward at an angle with his head down and his eyes closed. His skin, which was usually pale, looked grey; a thin layer of sweat ran across his forehead. When he finally sat up slightly straighter, he was shaking.
“Should you be here?” Pym asked.
“It’s fine,” Axel murmured. He wiped his mouth again and swallowed. He had to wipe his hands down on his trousers. When he looked back to Pym, Pym saw that his eyes seemed glazed over and unfocused.
Hesitantly, Pym pressed on. “You don’t seem fine.”
“Nonsense,” Axel said. “I shouldn’t have eaten as much as I did. I’m fine, though.”
To hear him say such a thing was jarring, especially when Pym looked at him. His face was gaunt, and his cheekbones hollow. Although his neck was always thin, it had changed from appearing slender to looking starved; his hands, which always looked bone-thin and starved, looked positively emaciated. The round blisters on the back of his palms didn’t help. The sleeve of his jacket had fallen when he’d clasped his hand across his mouth; around his wrist, Pym caught sight of another band of red blisters, and the bone jutting out against his skin.
“You look like you’ve been starved,” Pym said. “I think you could use some more food, actually.”
Axel snorted. “Do you not know how starving works, Sir Magnus?”
“Food is the last thing I need right now,” Axel said. Then, quickly, with a light touch to Pym’s shoulder, he added, “I’ll eat when I’m home. I can lay down when I’m finished, and I won’t have to worry about being ill.”
Pym would never be used to how it looked to see Axel sitting across from him, clearly ill and struggling to sit up. In the long shadows cast by the setting sun across the fields outside the farmhouse, Axel looked even more sickly. The thought of sending Axel away to look after himself felt obscene; he’d been missing for many months now – Pym had been worried since the first week that Axel hadn’t been there to see him – and despite seeing him here, wearing what was left of his body with the same confidence he’d always possessed, Pym could not bring himself to feel confident that sending Axel away was the right thing to do.
“Here,” Pym said, pushing the food he brought for Axel across the table to him. “Eat this.”
“That isn’t a good idea right now.”
“Please,” Pym said. “You’ll need your strength to return across the border.”
It was the same food he’d brought every week, like a private offering to fuel a prayer he didn’t know he’d been making every time he took the long journey to meet his friend. Every time that Axel had not shown up, Pym had stared guiltily at the food, caught wondering what to do with it. It was meant for Axel and so eating it felt sacrilegious, but so did the thought of leaving it – he could imagine how Axel would scoff at him, wasting food in the name of sentimentality. Each night Pym had forced himself to eat it, feeling guilty with each bite; always, he was certain that Axel would arrive through the doors just as he was finished, and he would have to account for what he’d done to Axel. And so he ate slowly, methodically measuring his bites and dragging the last of his gift until sunrise, when he was certain that he would not see his dear friend.
“So I should be careful to not waste what strength I have on throwing up,” Axel counter. “Do you know how exhausting that can be?”
“I have been sick before.”
“But not like me,” Axel insisted. “Please, Magnus. You have to be careful when you start eating again. If you’re ever starved, remember that. Please.”
“There is nothing in you to throw up.”
Axel waved Pym away with a gentle flick of his hand. “Give me what you brought me, please. You will be doing more of a favour to me like that than by feeding me. I promise.”
Pym did as he was told, sliding across the table the information he’d quietly accumulated for the past three months, during the duration of Axel’s disappearance. For a few moments Axel flicked through the top papers, nodded, and then pushed the documents further down the table. Axel leaned across the table over where the documents had been not a moment before, resting his elbows on the hard wood and staring quite intently at Pym.
“Let me help you,” Pym said. When Axel shook his head, Pym leaned forward and took his fingers, careful not to touch the back of his hands. “Please, Axel. You don’t even look like you can sit up.”
“I am fine, Magnus,” Axel said. “I’ve been through this before. But if it pleases you, next time I am taken away and starved and beaten I will wait the extra week before coming to meet you. I will put back at least some of my displaced weight so as not to trouble you.”
“You aren’t troubling me,” Pym said. “I just want to know you’ll make it back safely. You shouldn’t have come – it’s dangerous, crossing borders like this.”
The smile Axel gave Pym looked sad, and Pym could guess any number of reasons why that might be. How many other borders had Axel crossed when he was in a worse state than he was now? He thought of Axel when they’d sat on the train, the first time he’d learned how Axel walked with his damaged leg; and he thought of Axel now, and imagined him escaping across the border when he looked as though he could barely sit up, with his grey face and the dark bags under his eyes.
Another question crossed his mind: had Axel ever actually been in a worse state than this? He couldn’t imagine it, even when he thought back to Berne and the delirious ramblings he’d confessed to Pym while he was ill. It had seemed far away. He hadn’t had to see it.
Pym wanted to ask if Axel really had to go; he wanted to make a case for Axel to stay with him, to allow himself to be looked after like he used to. Axel, for his part, looked like he was going to say something to: to contest what protests he knew was coming, because he was Axel and even as weak as he was now, there was still no doubt in either of their minds that Axel would make it back. He could take care of himself. It was simply that Pym didn’t want him to have to.
As it turned was, neither had the chance to say anything before Axel’s hand returned to his mouth and he was heaving, twisting his body so he leaned closer to the floor. Pym watched his back and shoulders shudder, heard him retching. By the time he reached the other side of the table Axel’s hand was held out to the side, slick with bile and the dark remains of whatever it was that Axel had eaten too much of. His other hand wrapped around his stomach. At first it didn’t look like Axel was going to sit up again; he simply sat there shaking. Only when Pym moved closer to him did Axel finally look up at him.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his clean hand, and shook the bile from his other hand. His eyes were damp, and his lips were again slick.
“Do you have anything for my hand, Sir Magnus?” Axel asked.
When Pym couldn’t find any towels or blankets immediately available, he pulled off his own jacket and handed it to Axel, careful not to step too close to where Axel had been ill on the floor. Shivering, he watched as Axel turned it over once, with his clean hand, before handing it back.
“I can’t take this.”
“Please,” Pym said. “You’re worse off without it than I am.”
“I have a jacket of my own,” Axel said. “It’s fine if there isn’t anything.” To make a point he wiped his hand on the heavy trousers he wore – first his palm, and then the back where some of the liquid was beginning to touch his blisters. He looked up at Pym again with a look Pym supposed others would call grim determination, although all he could see was stubbornness. On anyone else it would have looked hopeless, or desperate, but both concepts were foreign to Axel.
Pym took his jacket back and put it on. He walked over to Axel and put a hand on his shoulder, leaning down to be closer to him. He could smell the acid on Axel’s mouth. Instead of doing any of what he might want to do, he leaned forward and rested his face on the back of Axel’s neck, touching Axel’s feverish skin with the bridge of his nose and feeling his protruding spine push against him.