His breath condensed in the air as he walked, leaving little clouds in his wake. One of his hands was shoved deeply into his coat pocket; the other dangled at his side, limply clutching at the neck of a whisky bottle. His coat was black, and cheap; he'd got it from some stall somewhere, and a black cap was firmly planted over his head. He liked black; it made him fade into the night and then he was practically invisible. When he was younger, he'd liked to be seen. He had liked everyone to know him, and that wasn't hard to accomplish in such a small town, but then he liked them to keep a distance. Friends were non-existent; he had acquaintances, and he could talk to them easily, but they were such empty conversations. He liked his own company. Loneliness was probably a good thing; it taught you not to rely on people, and his own company was all he had now. He raised the bottle to his chapped lips, and the whisky made its way down his reluctant throat, and he gasped a little. He still wasn't used to it, but it was all he had right now.
"Hey! Kid!" came a hoarse voice from beside him, and he looked down. An old man was sprawled against the wall, his grey beard matted and his eyes dark.
"Wouldn't spare some change for a poor old man, would ya?" the man asked, gesturing to an empty hat that sat in front of him. The boy smiled, and shook his head.
"Have none to spare" he said apologetically.
"Aw, never mind it, kid" the old man croaked. "But give us a swig of that juice, huh?"
"With pleasure" He handed the bottle over. The man grinned, raised the bottle in a sort-of toast, and then threw his head back and sucked at the bottle like a baby. The boy watched, amused, as the man prised the bottle from his lips, and shivered with pleasure.
"Mind if I join you?" the boy asked, and the man shrugged. He squatted down, and sat on the pavement as the old man passed the bottle back. He sipped at it.
"What's your name, boy?" the old man asked.
"Hanschen Rilow" he muttered, and pulled the cap off his head.
"German, huh?" the old man asked.
"Yes. I came here a few months ago. And you, sir?"
"Sir!" the man repeated, and laughed, a rough cackle that cut through the air. "Oh, man, that's priceless. I aint no "sir", Hashan, or whatever your name is"
"Hanschen" Hanschen corrected. He didn't sneer, like he would have used to at other people's misfortunes. What was the point? He was just as pathetic, really.
"Hanschen, right. I'm Jack"
"Nice to meet you, Jack" Hanschen said, offering a smile and a hand. The man accepted and returned both.
"You know, you're alright, Hanschen. What's a nice guy like you doing down here on Christmas Eve? You should be out with some pretty girl; doing whatever it is you young people do these days"
Hanschen almost laughed.
"No; I haven't got any money. It all ran out"
"Money always runs out, Hans. Take it as a life lesson from yours truly"
A small smile quirked its way at Hanschen's lips as Jack leant back against the red bricks and closed his eyes a little.
Man…" he sighed, his eyelids flickering apart. "I aint gonna see another Christmas. Not one like this, anyhow. Won't see another one…this aint no place for the old"
He began to hum, softly. Hanschen didn't know what the song was, but he could tell that, for Jack, there was something intimate and private about it, and so he looked away.
"Come gangers all from Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim too…oh, we'll give 'em a slip and we'll take a sip of the rare old mountain dew…" Jack whispered. He shifted, and propped himself up against the wall again.
"So, what brought ya to New York, huh?" he asked.
Hanschen shrugged. "Escape, mostly" he said softly. "A lot of bad things happened in my town. It was…oppressive. So I stole some of my parents' money and got on the first boat I saw. I suppose I got on the lucky one"
"New York the lucky one – hah! That's rich, kid!" Jack laughed roguishly, and slapped his knee. "You stole from your folks?"
"Yes. We were well off; one of the most well off families there" God, if Herr and Frau Rilow could see him now… "So they won't miss it. Or me"
Hanschen took another sip from the bottle.
"Well, let me tell you something, Hanschen - that's your name, aint it? Don't get tied to your dough. Money don't mean nothing when you aint got anything else"
Hanschen smiled wearily. He knew that far too well.
"Now, I'm only telling ya this because I like ya, Hans. I had a doll once. Molly – Irish gal. Vivacious, with hair like molten lava and feisty as a hellcat" Jack paused to laugh. "She came here because she thought the streets were paved with cash. And I was poor and she was penniless but I asked her to marry me and we was great together"
"Where is she now?" Hanschen asked, even though he had already guessed.
"Hm? Oh…she's ten feet under St Mary's" Jack replied. "And I aint got nothing no more. You got a gal waiting for you in Germany, kid?"
Hanschen looked away. "Not really. I did, but…it was complicated"
"Huh. Young love" Jack scoffed, taking a swig from the bottle. "Name?"
"What was her name? Your German doll?"
"Ah…" Jack sighed, pressing the bottle to his lips and finally draining it.
The two men, the old and the young, fell quiet. Somewhere, a cat yowled, and the faint sounds of people from 5th Avenue could be heard in the distance. Snow had begun lightly falling, peppering Hanschen's eyelids, lips, cheeks and freezing there until his face burned with the cold. He rubbed his gloved hands together, and puffed on them, but it didn't make any difference. A group of men appeared out of the darkness, young men only a little older than he was, holding a lantern and scuffling between them. Suddenly, almost without warning, the group burst into song. It was completely tuneless and bawdy, and shattered the almost-peace the night had previously had.
"Ohh – if you ever go across the sea to Ireland!" the boys yelled out. "Then maybe at the closing of the da-ay…You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh, and see the sun go down on Ga-all-way…Ba-ay!"
The bunch was ready to break out into the second verse when Jack picked up the empty whisky and threw it at them. It was a clumsy throw, designed to miss, and it fell too short and smashed into the middle of the street.
"You lousy kids!" Jack yelled. "It's Christmas Eve! If you're gonna sing so damn bad in the middle of the night, sing us a carol!"
"You can't do that!" the leader of the yob protested, his voice betraying his Ireland upbringing. "We're from the NYPD choir!"
"I don't care if you're the angels of Jesus Christ; just do it! Go on - I like Silent Night"
The boys shuffled uncertainly for a moment before hastily dispersing. Jack chuckled to himself as he watched the thick, dusty night and the snow swallow them up once again. Hanschen watched on, a small smile playing at his thin lips.
"So what happened to her; this Ernesta gal?" Jack asked, and the smile vanished.
"It's a long story…" Hanschen muttered.
"Kid, if I didn't have time to waste I wouldn't be here. Go on…spin us a yarn"
"Look, Hanschen! It's snowing! It's actually snowing!"
"I fell in love with hi-her when I was fifteen. She was…small. And she had this thick tawny hair that I could run my fingers through, and these huge doe's eyes; not beautiful, but there was something about her that just captivated me. Of, course, she was a complete innocent; didn't realise I was advancing on her until I kissed her…but I was an innocent too, I suppose. I knew a lot about the…mechanisms of it all, but I didn't understand what love actually was. So you can imagine how very surprised I was when I realised that this wonderful little girl had me completely wrapped around her finger"
"It's so lovely! Oh, don't look at me like that; I know I'm being sentimental"
"We weren't allowed to tell anyone we were together, because nobody would have accepted it, and that just made it all the more exciting. We would spend hours just…sitting. Talking about nothing. Her hand in mine, stroking my fingers. And that smile…too wide for her face, but when she smiled at me I just wanted to grab her and kiss her senseless. We were completely enraptured with each other. God…she was just perfect and nobody in that stupid little town saw it except me. She was too good for them, for any of them. She was too good for me, too, but she was too sweet to see that"
"This is a year for us, isn't it, Hanschen? I can just feel it"
"Yes…too good for all of them, but she didn't know it. She used to talk to me…she was such a dreamer, always had her head in the sky. She used to talk about this place, far away, this place where rivers were made of gold, and she made it sound like a fairytale. Yes…a fairytale of New York. And she dreamed of going there, one day. And so I would take her hand and promised her I would take her there, and she would be the Queen of New York city. But, then, the chance arose for us to go, but she…she wouldn't. She couldn't leave the village behind"
"Hanschen, I can't. They're our friends, our family, I can't just leave them!"
"I was young, hot-headed. I thought she was saying she couldn't go because of me. And I got angry with her. Not violent or anything; I wouldn't touch her, I couldn't do that. But I said that I…that I never loved her. That she was just a game. And because I kept my emotions locked within myself, she believed me. Oh, It wasn't true, none of it. But I was completely distraught. So I got up the next morning really early, took some money from my father's desk and took the train to the docks. I got on the first boat I saw, and it took me here. Ironic"
"Don't go. Don't. Please. Hanschen…!"
As the words ringing in his ears faded away, Hanschen reached up and swiped away the tear that was clinging to the corner of his eye and threatening to spill.
"I only left to benefit myself. Because I wanted to…to be someone. And because I was so self-centred, and more naïve that she ever was, I thought I could actually make it. Hah. Anyone can be someone, if they have someone who believes in them, but I went and threw mine away because I was jealous"
For a literal second, there was silence, punctuated by Jack's ragged breathing and the howl of the winter wind that circulated the road. Then, there was a rustle, and Jack spoke.
"Man…" he muttered. "That's tragic, kid"
Hanschen smiled bitterly. "I know. I was a fool"
"No, no…don't keep beating yourself up about it!" Jack protested. "Hanschen, kid, you're alright. You were stupid, granted, but it aint the end of the world"
"I guess so" Hanschen said, and smiled. He rocked on his heels, and hoisted himself up off the ground with a small grunt. Jack's head followed him as he stood, and pulled the back cap over the mass of honey-yellow hair.
"You aint off, are ya?" Jack asked. Hanschen nodded.
"I am. Sorry. I have to be somewhere" he replied. "It was nice to meet you, Jack"
Jack shook his head. "Me? I'm a washed-up old man. But you - you're young, and free, and you can do…anything! Get on with life, Hans. New York will either let you thrive or pray on your soul and spit you out. Don't end up like this. Word of advice, huh, kid?"
"Thank you" Hanschen said, solemnly. Then he turned, and began the walk back down the road. Halfway down, just as he began to see the bright lights of 5th Avenue ahead of him, he turned and looked back. He could just see the faint outline of the old man, leaning against the wall, just as he had left him. Hanschen smiled fondly, and went on.
There was a small square that he came out to as he left the road. It was brightly lit, and decked with lights. In the centre, by St Mary's church, there was a small Christmas tree, rigged up by whichever authority thought it would be nice, and it was covered with thin, frayed tinsel and small, plain baubles. It was nothing special, yet there was a small crowd huddled around it, singing carols. At the particular moment, they were on God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen, and it was mostly out of tune. However, there was a sort of charm to the scene; not a kitsch charm, but the sort that likens to that of a bedraggled and dirty puppy. Hanschen looked at it for a moment, and then he crossed the road and joined the group. He jostled amongst them, and then, once he had found a place, he reached into his pocket, drawing out a scruffy, folded, well-thumbed scrap of paper. Slowly, in a well-practised way as if he had done so many times, he unfolded it, and read the contents.
Because, despite what he had told Jack before, the story hadn't yet ended.
He remembered sitting in this square, a few months ago; October maybe. He could see the café across him, just hidden behind the tree, and could pick out the exact seat he'd sat in, the one just next to the window. He'd sat there for hours on end, mulling away over the same cup of coffee, and with a piece of paper lying guiltily in front of him. He could remember exactly what he'd written, too; had written it and revised it and crossed out so many sentences and scrapped it and started again; could have recited it like a Latin assignment if someone had asked him to:
At this moment, I am writing this letter from a small café by the square on 5th Avenue I'm here, Ernst – I'm in New York. I finally made it. I escaped the clutches of our town, and I left behind the memories. I did it! But this is only a half-victory.
The city is not how we imagined it, Ernst. The buildings are tall, but far from heaven-reaching; rather they loom, casting a shadow over the brick. It's cold, too, far too cold for any city to be. I have attempted to make a home here, but I have failed miserably. Every so often I wake up in my dingy room in 22a Vine Street and the first thing I think is that maybe I should go and call for Georg and Otto and see how they are managing their day. And then I remember how the room I am in is not my own at home, and how I do not have enough money to pay the rent, and it really does an awful lot to kill one's spirit. And every day I wish I had remained behind, because I forgot to bring you with me, and that is the hardest thing of all.
I hope my leaving did not upset too many people – I wouldn't have imagined it so. I hope Father isn't too angry with me, but I wanted to make a dramatic exit, one they would talk about for years to come. I wanted to leave my mark on the town, at least. I hope you have made yourself happy. I only want you to know that everything I told you before I left, it isn't true. Maybe it was, once upon a time. But I loved you, Ernst. Still do.
It was a poor attempt at an apology, but it was the best and most truthful Hanschen could manage. He smiled to himself. He'd sent that letter before he had a chance to change his mind, and now he looked down at the second piece of paper; the one in his hand. It was short, a small letter of little sentiment, one that had come unexpectedly in November, although it had been sent God knows when:
Stay where you are.
He came here every night after his pathetic translating job to wait. But now December was stealing away into the thick dusty night and the snow and yet still no friendly face. Hanschen shivered, and felt at least a hundred years older than he was. He was surrounded by people still, but even now the crowd had slowly begun to thin out, going home to their families and their warmth and their possessions. Hanschen couldn't blame them, though. If he had all of that, he would have done the same. If he'd been back at home, he would be sitting in the stuffy living room with his Mama and Papa, sipping gently at glasses of mulled wine, his father reading the paper and smoking a pipe, his mother occasionally ducking her skinny hand into a box of chocolates, and he would still have been able to taste Ernst's sweet-salt kisses on his mouth. God, what he would give for all that again. But now there was no chance. He would have to burn in hell first.
The crowd had lessened to less than twenty carol-singers now. Hanschen rubbed his fingers together in an attempt to warm them as he slowly, tunelessly, hummed along to an unfamiliar song.
The first chime. The crowd turned their heads, red and ruddy from the cold and glowing with merriment, to St Mary's spire, and he followed the gaze.
The second chime. A small child clung to his mother's coat in anticipation.
The third chime. A young woman took her elderly father's hand.
The fourth chime. A group of teenagers whispered excitedly in a foreign language.
The fifth chime. A middle-aged man snuck his arm around his wife's waist.
The sixth, the seventh chimes. A baby sucked its thumb and closed its eyes.
The eighth chime. A little girl watched, open-eyed, from her father's shoulders.
Nine and ten. The crowd shivered in excitement.
The eleventh chime. There was no sound. Hanschen breathed.
The twelfth chime sounded, and the crowed erupted in cheers and calls as Christmas Day descended and another year was lost, and he could barely stop himself from smiling. People were laughing, and hugging each other, whooping and clapping. Someone bumped into him, a vivacious young woman with hair like molten lava. She giggled a quick apology, and dashed back to the young man who was waiting for her outside the church, where she pulled him into a quick kiss. A young child began to moan with sleepiness, and for a moment he was distracted, but when Hanschen turned his attention back, the couple were gone. Slowly, the crowd began to thin out once more. Eventually, the last person, a warm smile on their face, turned to leave as well, and after a fleeting glance at the tree, Hanschen began to follow them. Then, he stopped.
Across the street. That was where he stood, a little to the left (on Hanschen's side) of a group of chattering women, his tiny body racked with heavy breaths, as if he'd been running. Then, with tentative, uncertain steps, he crossed the street. Hanschen took in a shuddering, drowned breath as he stepped closer, his walk more deliberate now, until Hanschen could have reached out and touched him.
"Please tell me it's you" he said quietly, their native language flowing from his lips.
Hanschen shrugged, replying in German: "It depends on who you want me to be"
"It is you, then" Ernst said unsmilingly. "I didn't think you would be here"
"I could say the same for you"
"I didn't think I would find you. I thought you would be long, long gone by now"
"Well, I'm full of surprises" Hanschen muttered softly. "God, I've missed you"
"I thought I'd never see you again, Ernst" He reached out deftly, quickly pressing his hand to Ernst's arm before it flickered back to his side. Ernst flinched at the contact.
"I still can't believe it" he said. "The whole way, I was preparing myself for you not being here, I kept telling myself…"
"But I am here!" Hanschen interrupted, a nervous smile stretching across his face as he stared into uncertain hazel eyes. "I'm here, and you're here, and I missed you so much-"
"Don't!" Ernst snapped suddenly. "Don't f-flatter me, Hanschen!"
"I thought it was my fault you'd gone!" the smaller boy said, his face contorted in anger and sorrow and…was that disgust? "I thought you left because you hated me – that you'd suddenly woken up and realised you were making some horrible mistake in going with another boy and ran off. I mean, you were hardly nice to me before, were you?"
"No! No, that isn't-"
"I got up to your father banging my door down demanding to know if you were there. My mother was terrified! And then you were just gone! Vanished into thin air – nothing. Not even a note. What in h-hell was I supposed to think? I thought you despised me. And then, out of the blue, this letter, from New York nonetheless! And I just thought: of course. Only he would be the sort of arschloch to take off to New York and kick me when I'm down. So don't flatter me! You always were honey-tongued, and it was such a shame, such a sin that I fell for it the first time. Not now. N-Not again, Hanschen"
Hanschen stood, silent, as half a years worth of anger and pain streamed from Ernst's mouth, quiet enough not to draw attention, but strong enough to hurt. The brown-haired boy's left arm was laid across his chest as if shielding himself, the other hand covering his tear stained eyes. He was taller than when Hanschen had last seen him, his face, although no less effeminate, was prominent and more angular. And then he realised. It hadn't been a few months. It had been at least three-quarters of a year since he'd been home, and everything he'd done to try and help had gone to ruin.
"Ernst…" he murmured. "I am so, so sorry"
Ernst's head snapped up to glare at him.
"Just hear me out, ok?" Hanschen quickly continued. "I left because I was angry with myself and I didn't think you would want to take me back"
"Oh, yes, I'll believe that when I-"
"Ernst, just…be quiet for a moment, will you? I thought that without you there would be nothing left for me there. New York was the first boat I saw, a lucky guess. I took your dreams from you, there's no denying it, and I am sorry. But I had to. I had to keep them with me, to have something to aspire to. I had to realise it for you, because they were my protection and without them I would have shrivelled and died"
The confused look on the young man's face told him he was just digging a deeper hole.
"Oh, this isn't making any sense…" he muttered to himself. "Um…basically, what I think I'm trying to say is that I could use your pardon. And a lot of hope. But I love you, Ernst, I do, and I am really, really sorry"
"I know" Ernst said, his voice choked. "I know you are. And that's the worse bit!"
Silence. Save for the noise of the early-morning road, there was nothing.
"Pardon…?" Hanschen ventured.
"I know you're sorry" Ernst repeated. "And I believe you. I told myself I wouldn't forgive you and I don't"
Hanschen swallowed, his lips suddenly dry.
"I don't forgive you" Ernst said. "But I will try…to overlook things for the time being. Because I lo- woah!"
His feet slipped on the pavement as Hanschen, in an uncharacteristically public display of affection, pulled him into an embrace, wrapping his arms around Ernst's back and smiling into his shoulder. A man gave them a strange look as he walked past, and Hanschen quickly straightened.
"He's my brother…" he muttered in English, a red blush staining his cheeks. The man seemed satisfied, for he nodded and continued his walk. Ernst began to laugh, and Hanschen joined in.
"I love you, Ernst" he whispered, his words slipping fluently back into German. "I love you, God, you don't know how much"
"And so you should" Ernst grinned, folding his arms around his lover's neck. "So, we're finally here. Where shall we go first?"
"Anywhere we want" Hanschen beamed. "This year's for me and you. This is New York, Ernst! This is New York, and the bells are ringing out for Christmas day!"
A/N – Gah! Can't…breathe…so…much…fluff…choking…help…! Have a very Hernsty Christmas, folks!