Lawrence froze with his finger hovering over the Enter key. The latest page of Ray's blog lay before him, a review of a little restaurant called Bleu Jour. He'd spent the last hour crafting and recrafting his comment, which didn't even exceed one hundred words. He'd spent three hours getting ready for, travelling to, and eating at the restaurant himself, so as to write said comment. He'd even created an account on Ray's blogging site of choice, under the name Julian, even though the website allowed for anonymous commenting.

But now that the moment had come, he suddenly couldn't. Julian didn't exist. Not even though Lawrence could picture, half deliberately and half subconsciously, exactly how he would act. Julian would be open, kind, energetic, positive, funny, interested and honest. Julian would be good at listening, supportive without envying, and… he'd have short hair.

A strange choked laugh erupted from him, bringing a lump up with it and a sudden hotness behind his eyes. His index finger trembled over the black Enter key. Julian didn't exist. Julian couldn't exist. Perhaps, even, shouldn't.

A tear escaped and he brushed it away brusquely with the back of his hand, coughing up another broken laugh.

Just talk to me, Lawrence. That's what Ray would say.

He still had Ray's number. Against the odds, they had remained friends after the break. Friends was an odd way to put it, but the English language didn't offer him a good alternative. They were linked. Their histories were linked.

Exes. That was the real word for it, wasn't it? Exes? Lawrence hated that, though. Defined by a loss of something, defined as the shadow of something. It wasn't right.

He reached for the cold mug of tea beside his laptop, shaped like an inkwell with a feather quill bend back to form the handle. It had been a birthday present.

The way you talk, you should be a writer.

Lawrence wasn't a writer, though. Perhaps Julian might have been. He closed his eyes, wrapped his hands a little tighter around the cold mug of tea, and pulled his legs up onto the seat of the simple grey office chair he had at his desk so that his toes just about curled over the edge. The chair creaked a little as he leant back.

#

"You're never going to cut your hair, are you, Lawrence?"

"I've told you before – if you don't like it, you can cut it." Lawrence span around in his desk chair slowly, a teasing smile on his face, quietly pleased for any distraction from his work. Ray was reading a book, laid back on his bed, watching him. He lowered the book to his chest for a moment, allowed it to rest there as a means of holding it open.

"But it's your hair."

Lawrence shrugged. He wondered for a moment if that meant the topic was concluded again, and if he'd have to go back to work.

"Does it bug you?" he asked.

Ray shrugged, shook his head, then opened and closed his mouth for a moment. "I only suggested it because I thought you might like it shorter."

"But it does bug you." Lawrence smiled at Ray's kind attempts at courtesy. He knew his long black hair was messy. He struggled to maintain it with the attention it needed – wash it, dry it, and all that effort. He'd thought about cutting it himself before, but he hadn't. Reaching for the acrylic black pen pot at the corner of his desk, he took out the large pair of scissors and dangled them towards Ray again.

"Go on, then."

"It's not my choice."

"It could be."

"But it's not."

#

Lawrence looked over at the acrylic pen pot at the corner of his desk, gaze landing on the blue-grey handles of the scissors inside. It was one of the few things on his desk. Laptop, mouse, glass of water, pen pot, and a desk lamp. There used to be a small photo of him and Ray in a simple metal frame, and a lot of messy work paperwork. The paperwork he'd cleared up earlier that day. The photo, he'd put away when Ray had giggled and called it cute. Like a girl with a crush, he'd said. It had turned something unpleasant inside him and he didn't like it anymore after that.

It had been a picture of them at the beach. Cliché as anything. A silly selfie with both their feet in a tidal pool, toe-wrestling amidst tiny crabs and shells. Ray looked good with a tan that summer. White t-shirt, green cargo shorts and a bright smile. Eyes blue as the summer sky, earthy brown hair. Ray thought of himself as practical and ordinary – no, not even that – as simple, as bland, almost as boring. He never saw it, the beauty Lawrence had seen that day and in that photo. Maybe there were some things about a person that could only ever be seen through someone else's eyes.

A vision of a bubble bath, the white tub filled to the brim and the perfect amount of heat. Lawrence felt the ghost of the warm water floating over his skin, the weight and buoyancy of his hair as he sunk his head down. Imaginary fingers stroked through his hair, massaging in the shampoo, teasing the water through from root to tip. Ray's warmth at his back, kisses on his neck, hands in his hair.

He'd never asked.

Lawrence's phone was in his hand and Ray's number was on the screen and it was too late; far, far too late.

Just talk to me, Lawrence. That's what Ray would have said.

How do you use words to explain where the words have vanished to, and why? Lawrence's hair was greasy, trapped between his back and the chair, unwashed for days.

What was the 'call' button for, if there was nothing he could say?

#

"Do you love me, Lawrence?"

The look on Ray's face, and he knew he'd pushed it too far.

"I'm sorry, Ray. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

"Didn't mean to ask me, for the third time today, if I would like to travel halfway around the world without you?"

"I'm sorry." Cold fear paralysed him.

"Do you love me, Lawrence?"

"I'm sorry."

"Do you love me, Lawrence?"

"I'm sorry."

#

"Lawrence?"

Lawrence's hand was shaking. He stood slowly, fumbled at his empty pyjama pockets and then at the top of his drawers for a cigarette.

"Lawrence?" The voice from the phone was distant and quiet, distorted by the technology, but Ray's tone was still there.

He put the phone down on his desk, managed to switch it to loudspeaker after three attempts, and forced his trembling fingers to hold and light a cigarette. He paced a tight circle on the floor, the floorboards creaking with the weight of his silence.

"Lawrence, are you there?"

"Yeah," he managed. Inhale, exhale. He coughed. He wasn't even wearing a top, he realised. He wasn't entirely sure what time it was either.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah." He couldn't say anything, he realised. His words were trapped in another timeline, and the sharp edge between his world and the other was cutting him straight down his centre. Something opened inside him; and old deep hollow. Perhaps it had never really closed.

"Are you sure?"

He took a long draw of his cigarette, managed not to cough this time. His lungs weren't obeying him; they plotted betrayal with every idea that might have passed his lips. Inhale. Exhale: a bitter laugh. Betrayed. He swallowed, stared around at his small and empty room and the bed where Ray wasn't reading.

"I think I'm going to cut my hair."

#

"Why do you make it so difficult?"

"Make what so difficult?"

Chocolates in heart shaped boxes. Red ribbons, pink ribbons, white and gold ribbons. A chocolate shop on Valentine's day, thrumming with activity. Lawrence was holding a bag of chocolate coins.

"This is more appropriate, don't you think?" he commented, holding up the coins and gesturing at the shelves around him.

"Loving you," Ray said, ignoring his comment.

"You can love me if you want," Lawrence retaliated, eyebrow raised with a smile.

"There. That – that thing, that you do."

"What thing?"

"You… I don't know. It's like a wall, or something."

"Did I do it just then?"

Ray frowned slightly. "I don't know. Maybe?"

"Are you saying I'm difficult to love?"

"No –"

"You'd be right." Lawrence winked at him. "How about if I buy you that giant chocolate heart over there – will that help?"

Ray sighed, and then smiled. "Well it wouldn't hurt."

#

There was knocking at his front door.

"Lawrence!"

Sitting on the floor in the dark, surrounded by long severed clumps of hair, Lawrence buried his head in his arms and let the scissors drop.

"Lawrence, let me in! Lawrence!"

#

"After you." Lawrence gestured Ray in through the heavily decorated wooden door.

"What is this place?"

"Mr Quirky's Magic Emporium of Wonders."

"I don't remember reading that on the sign."

Lawrence grinned. "It is, though. It even has funhouse mirrors at the back."

"The ones that make your reflection all wonky?"

"The very ones."

"You seem very excited. Anything else I should know about?"

Lawrence shrugged. "Cacti?"

#

Lawrence's heart hammered in his chest. Ray was going to get in. He was going to get in and find Lawrence like this on the floor. And then –

No, wait, he couldn't – the door was locked.

He glanced down at himself in the near darkness. Loose hair clung to his chest and pyjamas, neck and face. The cut strands had stuck to the tracks of his tears and sweat. He was disgusting and despite knowing this, somehow still crying. He hunched alone under the loss of something, in the shadow of something.

It was okay, though, because the door was locked.

#

"You're beautiful, you know."

"What?" Ray turned to him, bemused, pausing with his spatula still in the stir fry.

"You're beautiful."

"Are you extra hungry or something?"

Lawrence shook his head. "No. You're just beautiful. All of you. You just are."

Ray blushed. "What's gotten into you?"

"You don't believe me? Doesn't stop it being true. You're beautiful." He stepped closer, turned Ray towards him by the elbow and kissed him. He smelt of onion and egg and pepper. Ray blushed deeper.

"Lawrence, what the hell?"

"Beautiful." Lawrence kissed him again, and again, until Ray warned him he'd have to stop cooking if Lawrence kept at it like that.

"Still don't believe me?" Lawrence asked, once Ray had fully abandoned the spatula to wrap both arms around Lawrence's neck.

"Maybe you don't tell me often enough," Ray murmured bashfully, and kissed him again.

More and more often, and far too late, Lawrence would wonder if that wasn't more than a little true.

#

Any second now, Ray was going to give up. The pauses between the knocks were stretching out, and the shouts were getting quieter.

"Lawrence!"

Lawrence could see him in his mind's eye. Probably dressed in his favourite knitted blue jumper and comfy faded jeans that were too big for him. He missed Ray's house. Terrible concrete building, small flat, and an ugly balcony where Lawrence would stand smoking in the mornings. It had felt so cosy back then. Ray didn't live there any more though. There was nowhere to go back to.

"Lawrence!"

His legs shook as he stood, wobbled to the bathroom, and splashed water on his face. He brushed the hair from his face and clothes sloppily, with limited success. Finally he found his way to the stairs and stumbled down them groggily, his head thick and stuffy and yet painfully awake as his hands found the door. He pulled back both bolts and undid the chain before finally opening it, just enough for a person to pass through. He felt Ray push it the rest of the way open and then suddenly he was there.

"You look awful."

It came out so matter-of-fact that Lawrence sobbed. He covered his face with his hands.

"Why'd you hang up on me like that? Why didn't you answer?"

Lawrence dropped his hands limply. "You didn't have to come out here."

"Oh, didn't I? I'll just go then, shall I?"

It was. It was the exact same knitted blue jumper that Lawrence had imagined, although the jeans looked black and new. But the jumper was the same. He blinked the tears out, just so that he could look at it a little longer.

"You always did like this jumper."

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Lawrence registered surprise. That Ray remembered. That Ray noticed him staring at it.

You can go if you want, Lawrence replied in his head, but the words didn't make it out. He could feel the jumper under his hands, without even touching it.

"I didn't meant it like that, you know," Ray said softly. "Hey."

The cable knit ran vertical, top to bottom from the collar to where it met the base. A thick soft cable knit perfect for winter. Small diamond textures alternated with the cable, although the colour was the same warm deep blue throughout.

"Hey," said Ray.

It was. It was just as soft as he remembered.

#

"You can have it, if you want." Ray was smiling as Lawrence looked up from the drawers.

"What?"

"That blue jumper you're so mad about."

Lawrence finished folding the last jumper, put it away and frowned slightly. "No."

"You don't like it that much, then?" Ray teased.

Lawrence turned to him properly. Ray was sitting on the edge of the bed, still wrapped in a towel fresh from his shower, looking at him.

"Of course I like it," Lawrence said firmly, struggling to find words for his objection to taking it.

"But you don't want it?"

"I like it for you," he tried.

Ray just rolled his eyes with a smile. "Alright."

#

His arms felt the same. He smelt the same. It was soft and warm and so familiar that Lawrence wondered if the hole in his chest could possibly burn any deeper. He wondered if it could burn him up there and then, and he realised he would be content to go this way. He hated this. He hated it and he hated it and he hated it and it felt like the floor was falling away beneath him and:

"I love you."

Ray stiffened slightly. "Lawrence," he said. And it was a warning.

And the floor fell away.

Don't say it.

"You broke up with me, Lawrence." There was still hurt in his voice as he said it, just the slightest edge.

Falling and falling and falling.

"Come on, let's go inside," said Ray.

"No."

#

He laughed and span under the bright lights of the amusement part, his long scarf and hair chasing and then wrapping around his neck as he stopped, dizzy under the smell of roasted chestnuts, hotdogs, and mulled wine. Ray followed him, also laughing, with two giant sticks of pink candy floss in hand. The tip of his nose was red from the cold.

"Alright, where next?"

Lawrence pointed. "Up up and away."

"Ferris wheel? Do we kiss when we get to the top?"

Lawrence looped back to him, threading an arm through his and grinning. "Nope. That's where I push you out the window."

"Ah, of course. Murder. I should have seen it coming."

"Aye, the signs were all there." Lawrence winked, then waited a beat. "Nope, I'm not going to kiss you then." He took his candy floss from Ray's hand, lingering as their fingers brushed. "Because I'm going to kiss you right n–

#

"No, Lawrence." Ray turned his face away. Lawrence knew this should be his cue to let go of the hug as well, but he couldn't make his arms obey. He couldn't make his feet leave the doorway.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. He felt Ray sigh shakily, his ribs resisting the exhale.

"You can't–" Ray's voice cracked and broke off. When he breathed again, the sentence had been abandoned, but he still maintained the hug.

"I'm sorry."

"Why?" Ray whispered.

Lawrence knew it wasn't asking why he was apologising, or why he'd tried to kiss him. It was a 'why' to everything, to all of it. Not even a 'why did you break up with me?' or a 'why are you like this?' but simply a 'why'. It sounded the way the hollow in Lawrence felt. No amount of shouting answers across the void had ever or would ever close the distance.

"Why?" Ray demanded, a little louder, and Lawrence could hear the tears in his voice.

"I don't know," he said. "I know."

"If you wanted in, you could've just stayed in."

"I can't." He swallowed a sob. "But I don't want to go, either."

"Lawrence, you can't just… stand in the doorway, forever."

Hold me, he wanted to say. Please just hold me. There was no going back to the warmth of the past, and there was no going forward without making a promise he could not make. It was only now, where he still had a chance to be held the same way before it was over. There was only now, before Ray let go and left, before he was alone in a dark room again with nothing but cut hair and memories. He wished it would last forever. The warmth of the blue jumper and Ray's embrace, his arms around Lawrence's waist, the weight of his head on his shoulder, their breathing in tandem. But time would always move forward, and there would always be consequences to pay.

Time only stood still in stories.