It was an unusual time for a visitor. Jan had only just begun to clear up after dinner when there was a knock on his door, so quiet that at first he was sure he had imagined it. He shut the water off and listened closely, and, just when he was sure that he absolutely had imagined it, he heard it again. It was a little stronger this time, but still nothing impressive; Jan wondered if the person out there was nervous or shy, but for some reason it seemed unlikely. He moved towards the door, not understanding how he seemed to know what he was going to see, but knowing that he was right all the same.
He was therefore completely unsurprised to see Axel standing there, leaning heavily on his stick, his face bruised and exhausted. He seemed to be barely holding himself up; no wonder the knocking had sounded so feeble. Jan let out a soft gasp and stifled saying anything more, knowing that Axel wouldn’t appreciate it, and instead moved to the side so Axel could hobble in, again knowing that Axel wouldn’t appreciate any further action. It took the man a great amount of effort to haul himself over the door step, and as he came inside and Jan got a closer look at him in the light he realised that Axel looked very sickly indeed. He was paler than Jan had ever seen him, his hair stuck to his forehead, and he was trembling so lightly and so consistently that Jan hadn’t noticed it at first.
“The kitchen,” Jan said, closing the front door behind him. “Go and sit. You need water. Are you sick?”
Axel slowly shook his head, the simple movement seeming to take vast amounts of effort. Jan wanted to lift the older man, to throw him over his shoulder and simply carry him in there, because while Axel was significantly taller than Jan, Jan knew he likely weighed twice as much as him on a good day, and probably even more now. Even though Axel was bundled up for the cold weather outside, Jan could tell more weight had dropped off of him; his hands almost blended into his wrist, they were so skinny, and Jan could see hollows in the man’s cheeks.
It took Axel a painstaking amount of time to reach the kitchen, and as soon as Jan presented him with a chair he fell unceremoniously down into it the second he could, when usually he liked to take his time a little, as though proving that he could endure until he didn’t have to anymore and then endure a little past that, too. For a second, Jan thought that Axel had promptly fallen asleep; he sat there quite still, his legs splayed out in front of him, his chin drooping down onto his chest and his eyes barely open. Just as Jan was going to give him a gentle shake, he seemed to rouse himself, and with more effort pushed himself up into a more respectable sitting position.
“I’m sorry to drop in on you like this,” he said, clearing his throat. His voice sounded hoarse, Jan thought, as though he had been yelling, or maybe screaming. “There was nobody else in the area, and I didn’t think I was going to make it all the way over to my own residence in this state. I didn’t like the idea of passing out in the snow.”
“It’s no bother at all,” Jan said, shaking himself out of his shock in order to grab a glass and start filling it with water. “I’m glad you came. I don’t think I would like you being alone in this state, if that’s not too presumptuous. I’m sure you could look after yourself, but why bother when I could do it for you?”
He handed Axel the glass and watched as he took short, quick sips, his hand holding the glass surprisingly steadily considering how the rest of him was trembling. As he raised the glass to his lips Jan caught a glimpse of Axel’s skin further along the arm, as his sleeve rolled back slightly to reveal more bruises and angry welts around his wrists, some of which were coated in dried blood.
“What was it this time?” Jan asked, giving a sympathetic smile. Axel took a couple more sips before he answered, and then he shook his head.
“The technicalities do not matter,” he said. “It has all been resolved now.”
“Resolved until the next time, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t sound so bitter. It will get you into trouble.”
“I know, I know,” Jan said, sighing. “It’s just a little frustrating, don’t you think? Why do they always pick on you?”
“I’m sure they have their reasons.”
“I would love to know what they are. It would be interesting to compare them to my theories.”
Axel sipped at his water for a while, and when he was done Jan took the glass from him and refilled it, setting it at the table beside him and then taking a seat himself. Axel looked at him for a long moment, his eyes unfocused with exhaustion, and then he seemed to make a conscious effort to pull himself out of it.
“What theories are those?” he asked, and Jan was all too happy to tell him.
“I think they’re targeting you deliberately,” he said firmly. “You told me that you have a lot of enemies where you work. Not that I pretend to know a lot about what you do – though I do have my ideas, as I’m sure you’re aware – but I know that whatever is going on there is a little bit more than office beef. Though, if it is just office beef, then I have to say that your workplace has a very over the top way of dealing with it. Whatever happened to a good bit of conflict resolution?”
Axel managed a laugh, and Jan was always surprised at how he did it. Even in the immediate aftermath of what Jan knew to be awful experiences and cruel treatment, Axel still managed to genuinely laugh, genuinely smile, drag himself to his feet and get on with it. Jan had thought of endurance differently ever since he had met Axel, who seemed to have new scars every other month.
“Perhaps this is conflict resolution,” he said. “I don’t pretend to understand it, Jan. It is just the way it is.”
“But why you?”
“Because I am good at what I do,” Axel said simply. “And because I have something that everybody wants but knows they can’t get, so I suppose they like to remind me of my place. It is petty, yes, and juvenile. But I know that they will never kill me, not so long as I have what they want, and that’s good enough for me.”
“And what if they get what you have?”
Axel shook his head. “It will not happen.”
“How do you know?” Jan asked. “You say that very boldly.”
“I know,” Axel said simply. “I can’t tell you how I know, Jan, but I know. That is all that matters.”
“Well, I suppose if you’re that sure,” Jan said, still slightly unconvinced, but knowing he wouldn’t get any further answers. “Hey, at least it’s worked so far,” he added, brightly, and Axel gave a tired smile.
“I won’t ask you for specific details,” Jan said, as Axel sipped at the new glass of water. “But is there anything I need to worry about? Any injuries?”
“Nothing serious,” Axel said. “It was only beatings. I have had plenty of those and they haven’t ruined me yet.”
Jan knew just how seriously he and Axel’s ideas of ‘nothing serious’ could get, but he knew better than to press it. Axel was like a cat in that respect, Jan thought. He would rather suffer in silence than draw attention to an injury, and the only time he would ever made it abundantly clear that something was bothering him was when he physically couldn’t stop himself. Jan had even told him once, upon realising that Axel had been concealing several broken ribs from him for weeks, that Axel was probably the type to go out and find a shed to die in on his own rather than let people know he was hurt. Jan wondered where Axel had picked up the habit from; if stoicism was really his default, or if he had learned it somewhere. One thing was for sure, and that was that Axel would literally rather die silently than be seen as vulnerable.
“Do you want anything to eat, at least?” Jan asked. “I just finished eating, myself, but there are leftovers. There’s also some basic stuff, if you don’t mind potatoes, which I’m sure you don’t.”
Axel smiled. “I would love to eat eventually, but right now I think I would much rather just sleep, if you don’t mind me subjecting you to myself a little longer.”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Jan said, shaking his head. “What are you like? You really think I would turn you out onto the street to try and make your way home in this state? I would be genuinely worried at this point that they’d pick you up again for another go.”
“Oh, there’s no need to worry about that,” Axel said, before taking a final sip of his water. “They do like to let the bruises heal up a little bit before they give you new ones. I think it must be an aesthetic choice.”
Jan snorted, both at the joke and out of disdain. He took the other cup and set it by the sink, trying to hold his tongue. Sometimes it was impossible, when he saw Axel like this. Axel, who he knew to be wholly dedicated to the cause, and to the country as a whole; Axel, who Jan knew to be one of the best, even if he wasn’t strictly supposed to know that Axel had anything to do with intelligence. It was impossible not to, really, not considering how they had met, but out of a mutual understanding Jan never mentioned it to him outside of things that could be passed off as jest. He knew it, though – he would be an idiot if he didn’t. Axel was a spy, and from what Jan could tell, he was an incredibly good one. To him it seemed like a cut and clear case of somebody abusing the ideology in order to try and pave their own way to success; something that Jan saw depressingly often in his own line of work. The way he saw it was that somebody was obviously threatened by Axel, maybe multiple people, and this was how they tried to deal with it – accuse Axel of something, or insinuate something about him, and hope that he’d finally get a beating too many.
In an uncharacteristic move, Axel allowed Jan to help him up the stairs. Jan was glad for it, because he sincerely didn’t think Axel had the strength to make it to the top on his own, even if he gave it his best effort. He had been right to assume earlier that he could easily lift him, because that was what he was basically doing as they got to the hallway at the top of the stairs; Axel was practically sagging in exhaustion, and put up no fuss as Jan sat him on the bed and took off whatever clothes they could afford. In his shirtsleeves and trousers and socks Axel looked even skinnier, the clothing hanging off of him and his collarbones creating a significant rise in the material of his shirt.
“Get under the blankets,” Jan instructed him. “I can find some more, if you need.”
Axel moved slowly, grabbing at the blankets and pulling them back, shuffling around so he could slide under them. He was shivering by now, and Jan went over to him, tucking them around him. As he went to step away again, Axel reached out and grabbed his wrist, his grip surprisingly strong considering the state of him.
“Please,” he said, a sudden hint of desperation in his voice. “Don’t leave me alone.”
“I’m only going to –” Jan began, but looking at the flash of panic in Axel’s eyes he knew it would simply be cruel, no matter what he was doing. “Alright,” he said, giving him a small smile. “I won’t go anywhere. Just let me get changed, alright?”
He felt Axel’s eyes on him as he got changed, and his gaze was so nervous that Jan didn’t bother to brush his teeth, telling himself he would do it first thing in the morning and again before he left for work. He shut the light out and felt his way through the darkness, climbing on to the bed and huddling down under the blankets with Axel, who was still shivering. Jan pulled him closer and they huddled together, Axel’s skin like ice, his bones sticking out everywhere they could.
“I’m worried one of these days I’m not going to be able to warm you up,” Jan confessed, and Axel burrowed closer to him.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” he mumbled, and Jan kissed the top of his head.
“I’m going to anyway. You’re a mess.”
“I’m still here.”
“I know. Thank god you’re a stubborn mess.”
“I have to be,” Axel said, his words beginning to slur together with exhaustion. “It’s all I have left sometimes.”
Jan wondered how far Axel had walked to come here, how long he had dragged himself through the cold in this much pain, this exhausted. He almost wanted to ask, but Axel’s breathing had finally evened out and he was no longer shivering, and so Jan decided to wait until morning for that, too.