…But You Can’t Take Him Out

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/54118.html)

He only noticed the guy was following him after he’d passed Penn Station — around the corner of 36th and 7th. Before that the press of people was so bad that you could’ve been walking in any direction and somebody could be guaranteed to be following you, but when he crossed 7th Avenue to the east and then jogged across to the shops on the other side of 36th just for the hell of it, his messenger bag bouncing on his hip, he saw as he was checking over his shoulder for traffic the guy in the sunglasses completing the same weird-ass maneuver at the same time. If he hadn’t crossed the street just then he probably never would have known, but as it was he faced front again frowning. Still, could be nothing. Coincidences happened.

But then he turned left on Broadway, up to 39th, and then across and right again on 6th, zigzagging, and tried to look like it was the storefronts he was glancing back at over his shoulder, and all except the last part the guy did exactly the same things. And even more than that, he just… he had a feeling. A bad one. He didn’t like the way he couldn’t see the guy’s eyes.

To his credit, he thought, he took it seriously. At 5th Avenue he didn’t even waste time, just swept left again and into the first big department store he saw; it wasn’t too long. There was a security guard at the metal detector just inside, an earphone clipped on one side of his head, and Hikaru silenced his lipsynch piece for the next show (Janis Joplin doing “Half Moon,” half classic and half just weird enough to suit) and pulled out his own earbuds, giving the guy what he hoped was a winning smile. “Hi,” he said, at a lower-than-public pitch, the one that got attention right away from somebody who was there to keep the peace. “I’m having a little problem…”

At any rate, when he told Max about it Thursday night, he tried to focus on the positive — like how calmly and sensibly he’d handled the whole situation — more than the negative — like that the situation had come up in the first place, or that he hadn’t told Max about it for two and a half days — but somehow he got the feeling Max wasn’t fooled. “Hm,” was all Max said, his cigarette burning its serene uninterrupted way down to nothing as it dangled out the window, but that hardly mattered. “What’d he look like?”

He shrugged, swiping the plates off the table and toward the little postage-stamp kitchen. Sometimes it seemed like this whole apartment should just fold up like one of those beds that folded into the wall — what were they called? he’d have to ask Max — to save space from itself. “Not much like anything. He was tall, he was wearing sunglasses, umm, he had really short sticking-up hair — ” He turned back to gesture above his head, waiting for Max to supply whatever the term was, but Max just nodded and eventually he kept going. “It was dark brown, I guess. He was big. Square face.”

Max nodded again, and Hikaru finally went into the kitchen. “Then what?”

“I asked the guard to call the police, he called the police. The guy hung around outside for a while but he was gone before they got there.”

“Gone where?”

“I didn’t ask him.” He glanced out the doorway, but Max didn’t look like he thought that was funny. Oh well. “He got in a car. This black car pulled up and this woman got out, and they talked a little, and then they got in and drove away. You know, it was probably nothing, that’s what I told the guard. He was probably just–”

“The woman, what’d she look like?” Max stopped him, and he frowned, trying to remember.

Alta — ehh. Tall. Taller than me, I think. Blonde. She had short hair too, not a lot longer than his. Thin. I didn’t — what?”

Max had dropped his cigarette out the window, and now was coming over. The look in his eyes didn’t make Hikaru comfortable at all. “Narrow face, sort of big nose, about fifty?”

“I… guess. I couldn’t see well. What–”

“Was she packing?”

Hikaru stared at him. “What does that have to–”

“Was she carrying a gun, you fucking nancy?” Max cut him off again, and although he managed to sound dry and impatient his mouth was twitching so badly Hikaru threw back his head and laughed out of sheer relief.

“Fuck you!” He wiped his face with the back of his hand, snorting, and shook his head at last. “I don’t know. She was wearing a big coat. I guess she could’ve been.”

Max nodded, and he still looked grimmer than usual, but he looked easier in himself than before in a way that made Hikaru able to relax, to finally run the water to soak the plates. “Were you? Carrying, I mean.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, Max, for the five hundredth time.”

“Bollocks. Was it loaded?”

Hikaru bit his lip. “…It might have been?”

“For Christ’s sake, Hikaru.” Max sighed and tapped out another cigarette. “I want it to be from now on, and none of your shite, either. And you tell me right away if somebody so much as looks at you funny, all right?”

Hikaru sighed, rinsed his hands, and turned off the water. “Max, what’s going on? Why are you, why are you freaking out? Do you know her?”

Max chewed on the filter a few minutes before he answered, pushing the cigarette with his tongue to the other side of his mouth. It was a sort of distracting thing to watch, but Hikaru held on. Though he did wander back Max’s direction, not that it was a long trip. “Yeah,” Max said, finally.

“From where?”

Max chewed some more. “Old girlfriend.”

“…That means you’re not going to tell me, right?”

“Mm.” He was smirking a little now, around the filter, but there was still that look in his eyes Hikaru didn’t like. “Actually what it means is she’s an old girlfriend, and I’m not gonna tell you.”

Hikaru sighed. “You’re an asshole.”

“Mm.”

So he yanked the unlit cigarette out of Max’s lips and kissed him, enough to give him something to think about at least. “Fine,” he said, sticking out his chin up in Max’s direction. There was a good ways up to go, but he’d never much minded. “Be like that. What do you call those beds, they fold up into the wall when you’re not using them?”

Max blinked. “Murphy beds?”

“Yeah, that’s the ones.” He kissed Max again, and then stuck the cigarette back in his mouth as an afterthought, patting his cheek. “I got to get ready. Are you working tonight?”

“Yeah. I’m coming in at ten. When are you on?”

“Um. I start the second set, it might be close.”

“I’ll turn up early.” And Max grinned, and grabbed his waist, and hauled him in one more time, and nobody in their right mind gave a shit about tall blonde women in black cars anyway. (Old girlfriend? Seriously?) “Maybe catch you backstage.”

“Depends how fast you run,” Hikaru threw over his shoulder, but he was grinning when he got to the bedroom.

When they’d first gotten to the U.S. Hikaru had had some English — always at least enough to get by if somebody approached him speaking it, and more since Max started insisting on working on it with him, anticipating the move — but he’d still been shy about it, functional but not fluent. Tired and too scared to admit to in their hotel room, he’d asked Max what some foreign kid with no education who spoke mostly Spanish was supposed to do in New York City, and even though Max had immediately suggested being a taxi driver, Hikaru didn’t think he’d had much idea either.

(“I can’t even drive,” he’d pointed out, sprawling on his stomach on the king-sized bed, and Max had grinned his dopey dogface grin. They’d been speaking Spanish, then, even though Max had mostly insisted on English once they were in New York; they always ended up speaking Spanish when Hikaru was unhappy.

“Damn, then you’re perfect.”

Hikaru threw a pillow at him. “Racist.”)

Finding ¡Vestete! had just been accidents and luck, really. When asked later he’d sniffed and said he didn’t know if it was good or bad luck, but really he thought it was some of the best that he’d ever had, almost as good as meeting Max in the first place. It had been Esperanza who’d first noticed him hanging around in the Village, who’d heard his accent the time or two he’d actually spoken, who’d exclaimed over his skin and eyes and completely baffled him, as he hadn’t found himself exclaimed over by many 6’2″ women with adam’s apples before, even his life being what it was. She’d invited him and left him in a fog of confusion and Obsession knockoff, and he’d dragged Max along that weekend out of sheer boredom, and somehow the rest had just fallen together when he wasn’t looking.

It was silly, and it was fun, and silly and fun was mostly what he had wanted around then, what he still wanted by now. It had been almost six years and he still had never quite shaken the feeling like this was all just some long vacation that would someday end, see him trudging back to Spain again under a never-ending cloud.

“Hikita Mikita,” Lupita sang as she walked by behind him, and reached up to ruffle his hair; he ducked out of the way, in toward the mirror, and scowled without a lot of feeling, trying to keep his lipstick hand steady. They all called him by one or both of the nicknames off and on, despite — or maybe because of — his patient attempts to explain that it made no sense in Japanese, but he had to admit it sounded sort of cute. Especially with the first H left off his real name, but he’d gotten used to that from people a long time ago. “Where’s your sexy esposo, ain’t he tending tonight?”

“He comes in at ten. Don’t bump me, I’ll mess it up.”

“Ain’t the only thing about you messed up,” Lupita said cheerfully, and grabbed the mascara off the table. Hikaru shot his middle finger at her with the hand not applying lipstick, never taking his eyes off the mirror, and Lupita swatted at it. “Ay, tan sucia.

Tanta como tu chocho.” And Lupita managed to crack up without messing up her makeup, which was a trick he was going to have to learn someday.

“Somebody is being disgusting in here,” Carlos sniffed, breezing in behind them in a trailing sequined gown, bare feet and a hairnet. Hikaru grinned, then used it to check the application, and found it looked good. He didn’t know how the same dark berry color that was complete camp on Esperanza looked classy and sexy on him, but he’d take it. “Miss Miki, are you leading us?”

“The next set, yeah,” Hikaru said, and pulled back from the mirror again. He put the lipstick aside, going instead for the black fake French twist — “the rat,” Lupita called it, when he let it get a little saggy at the end of the night. With the fancy chopsticks stuck into it you couldn’t really tell the difference, though; his hair was shaggy to begin with, and it pinned in seamlessly. “Can you tell if this is even?” He turned his back to Carlos, who came over from whatever he’d been fussing with, gave the rat a couple of expert tugs, and then even set the first two bobby pins before he could protest.

“There we go.” Carlos peered over his shoulder and smiled. He was almost forty, very dark, a shockingly gorgeous man but a sort of odd-looking, stocky woman. “You look so pretty.” He left a kiss on Hikaru’s cheek and bustled off to something else. Hikaru debated wiping off the lipstick mark, then decided it was a nice touch.

He stood back, adjusted his tits under the cheongsam, decided they were even too, and went to dig his fan out of all the crap on the table.

It was a good night; even on an average night they had to pack the place full of extra folding chairs, but tonight there were practically guys sitting out on the street. Max turned up early as promised, in plenty of time to watch “Miss Miki” strut around rolling her bare bony shoulders and fluttering her fan, moving her lips to Janis’s sick-sexy voice. Hikaru didn’t want to brag, but privately he knew he was partly responsible for the big crowd. Funny: in Barcelona, he’d been Japanese; in Manhattan he was Spanish; now, in ¡Vestete!, he was Japanese all over again, or at least generically “Asian” as it suited on any particular night. Some amount of exotic no matter where he went. It got old after a while for him, but the other girls seemed grateful enough. Max stood just out of the reach of the lights and held up a pillar with his shoulder, unshaven and with his shirt hanging out, smirking around the cigarette dangling from his mouth, and it was all he needed to do. Just be there, and watching.

He came backstage afterward as promised, too, amid Lupita yelling “Boy in the girls’ locker room!” but that was just Lupita for you. Max just rolled his eyes and kissed his boyfriend; it didn’t matter if he messed up his makeup now, after all.

“Should I be jealous?” he asked, grinning, touching Hikaru’s cheek, and it took him a minute to remember what he meant.

“Did you like that? Carlos gave me the idea.”

“Oh, I should then.” Hikaru laughed, and shoved him, and then pulled him back in by the back of his shirt. His hand bumped the hidden, heavy shape of Max’s gun, tucked into the waistband at the back of his slacks, and something about it struck him hot tonight, making his breath come a little shorter all at once. Not that Max all by himself couldn’t get him up pretty much at random anytime, even now. He craned his neck up and nipped at Max’s lip.

“Is Jeevan covering the bar?” he muttered into his mouth, and he could practically feel Max’s eyebrow go up.

“Yeah. He can pull a pint but the kid still can’t mix worth a damn.” He leaned in to nip back, and Hikaru purred, let his hand slide a little lower down his back. “You got something needs seeing to?”

“Mmm. I might.”

Nobody was in the makeup room now, everyone else either onstage (Jonny, who got billed JuanoJuana, was wrapping up, he seemed to recall) or squeezed into the other of the two tiny backstage rooms, the one with the banks of dusty lockers. The two of them blundered kissing and blind into the stool in the corner and Hikaru sat on it, yanking Max down by his shirtfront, tonguing into his mouth and probably smearing him with dark lipstick. The cheongsam was slit up just about forever, so much he had to be careful to tape the hip pads high in his hose so they didn’t show, but it was just fine for Max getting his hands in under there. He dug his big fingers under the waistband of the pantyhose and pushed them down, pads and all; Hikaru just rocked the stool squirming on it, Max in the V of his legs, toeing out of his pumps (which had started hurting at least half an hour ago anyway) and picking up his legs to let them be stripped.

Not fast enough, though — “Ow,” he muttered, and started scrabbling under his own skirt for the elastic of the gaffe, arching up his hips to yank it off. “Need to get out of this before you get me hard.”

Max laughed at him in his ear, feeling for where his hands were and then dropping them away to let him take care of it. “Not my fault.” Hikaru scowled, and then let out a harsh breath when his cock finally pushed free, and a harsher one when Max’s hand showed up at once through the slit to soothe its outrage. The gaffe ended up somewhere on the floor, too, which did mean a little more laundry, but what the hell. He wasn’t on again until the weekend.

“Yes it is.” None of the rest of the architecture was worth it, and he wrapped his ankles behind Max’s knees, both pulling him forward and tripping him up so he fell with his free hand on the stool and a soft grunt of breath, smelling like smoke and beer and sweat and Max right under Hikaru’s nose. Wrapping his hands up behind Max’s neck, digging his fingers in, his neat nails painted purple just three hours ago and already chipping, all coming apart, free to throb now under Max’s palm and a lap full of heavy black stitched silk. “Yes it is, come here, come on,” moaned in Max’s ear, and not even knowing anymore if he was begging in Max’s language or his own.

And then Max was down on his knees and it didn’t even matter, if it ever had.

Most of the skirt ended up thrown across his hip, on a diagonal origami fold. Max’s head was left in one corner of the space between his thighs, but he didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t tease, and Hikaru should have been bored by it but he’d always loved it instead, it was just all mouth all at once in a sudden surrounding wet heat that shut the world down all at once. Stubble scraped up the inside of Hikaru’s thigh, and he hissed and dug his fingers into Max’s crazy dark mop of hair, his knee clunking on the wall as he stretched out. “Fuck,” he hissed, and he could feel the corner of Max’s mouth turning and pulled on his hair for it. Not that Max seemed to mind that, either. “Fuck, Max — ”

The sounds around him filled his awareness as everything else left it — well, everything else except Max’s mouth on his cock, and tongue, twisting around the slit at the tip, making his thigh muscles twitch on every lash — people laughing and talking in the next room, lockers closing, the muffled bass thumping through the wall at the end of Jonny’s number. He screwed up his fingers in Max’s hair, dripping sweat that was probably ruining what was left of his makeup, eyes squeezed shut and mouth panting open, and drove into his mouth, trusting him to take it, and Max did like he’d been doing it all his life and not just for a little less than the length of their acquaintance. He swallowed and Hikaru felt his head bump the back of Max’s throat, flashed white behind his eyes, crushed his face into the wall beside it to keep a moan from being a shout. Held like that, arching, shaking, his legs braced with feet tangled up in the rungs of the stool and all of him focused on Max’s stupid gorgeous smirky cigarette-chewing mouth

Came like that, whining like a hurt dog, with his teeth closed to keep it below the music and the sounds of life next door.

Max came back to him hot and breathing fast, weight pinning Hikaru to the wall as he tucked his head in the corner of Hikaru’s shoulder. “Lube?” he muttered, a suggestion as much as a request.

Hikaru laughed with no breath, and tugged at the mess of his hair. Oh really. “Cold cream?” he said, and laughed again before Max could even answer.

“That’s foul, that is.” Max grimaced then, suddenly, patting at his hip. “No rubber on me, either — ah, forget i–”

“No — no, I want to.” Not in any particularly urgent way just right now, but if Max wanted to, he always wanted to. “‘s both in my bag. It’s in my locker.”

Max glanced over his shoulder, and then back at a distance enough for Hikaru to see his raised eyebrow. “You think I want to deal with that lot right now?”

“Not like they don’t all know anyway,” Hikaru said, grinning, first at Max’s eyeroll and then more at his touch of a blush. You had to really know him — well, and fuck him — to believe that he could be pretty shy about sex, but it was there: Hikaru’s private secret, or he liked to think so.

Max went, and Hikaru sat gripping the stool, eyes closed, catching his breath. Listening without really hearing any words to the murmur of amusement rising a little next door, smiling — and then spreading into a grin when Max’s footsteps were close to the door and Lupita’s voice rose over the top, in a quavering falsetto mockery: “Ayyy, Papi! That’s too little! Baby’s pretty little culo needs the economy size!”

Max paused in the doorway, and Hikaru could hear his mild voice much more clearly than the squawk of delighted laughter in the other room: “You’re like a crazy person.” And that made Hikaru crack up, hard, the sound of his laughter joining into the roar of everyone else’s. It wasn’t a sound he ever got tired of.

“Don’t listen to her, bébé, she’s just jealous,” Esperanza called, at a pitch meant for Hikaru, and he grinned, sitting up a little as Max came back in.

“Damn right!” Lupita called her agreement.

“Shut up, bitches, you’ll make him soft!” Hikaru yelled back, when he had the breath, and then Max was gently closing the door on the fresh laughter that followed that, coming back to his arms with a twitching sour look on his mouth.

“I hate them and I hate you,” he muttered in Hikaru’s ear, as Hikaru’s arms fastened back around his neck, as he hiked up his legs and his skirt and wriggled his hips down and Max pulled the condom wrapper open. Hikaru grinning, just feeling so good, everything else totally forgotten. Not afraid of anything, never like this.

“I know.” He kissed Max’s ear. “Hurry up. Jeevan will probably forget to put in an umbrella and then there’ll be a riot.”

Hurry up?” Max repeated, indignantly, but there was still the heaviness to his breath and, seconds later, his cock-head easing inside Hikaru’s ass, one big hand gripping and helping lift his hips, and that was all he needed anyway.

It was a little sweeter than it might have been, still, a little less intense, just the two of them in the middle of everything, making their own space. Max’s hands propped him up on the wall behind Hikaru, Hikaru gripping around his neck for leverage, hot breath and sweat everywhere on his face and throat and his hair plastered to him in sticky strands. More heat inside him, under him, changing his shape, as Max’s pants sagged around his thighs and he made the only tiny noises, mostly breath, that signaled his excitement and then his nearness to coming and then the coming itself. He pressed a long groan into Hikaru’s shoulder and Hikaru held his head, eyes closed, panting, remembering the rain on the windows in the hotel room the first time, how quiet it had been all around them then and how noisy now. How he sort of missed the quiet sometimes, but mostly didn’t.

When Max lifted his head Hikaru kissed him, for a long time, and then shooed him off, despite the fact that he’d gotten mostly hard again in the process; he could take care of that himself, or even ignore it, really. He wasn’t a kid anymore, no matter what anyone teased him about. And Max stripped off the condom, pulled himself together, and went back to the bar, and Hikaru set to cleaning himself up, and at the end of it all he might have said, if asked, that whatever it was exactly that had happened on Tuesday was about the furthest thing from his mind.

Until he came out the back door into the side street at 2 a.m., clean and in his street clothes, to find Max and the tall blonde woman standing there talking.

He didn’t see the black car at first, but then noticed it parked out on the main road, a sliver of its passenger door visible at the mouth of the alley. There was steam rising off the grates at intervals, and a little off a fresh pile of garbage bags from the restaurant on the other side. Max and the woman stood a small distance from each other, maybe five paces, each with their hands in their coat pockets, Max with a cigarette stuck in his lips and trailing smoke. They looked like characters in a spy movie, and that thought pissed Hikaru off right away, because if this was what he had thought then that was basically what they were, wasn’t it?

Shit. Fucking shit.

“What’s going on?” he said, not loud yet but getting there. Max’s back was to him, and he didn’t turn.

“Nothing much.” The way he said it made it come out almost nuffink. It was a wonder Hikaru’d ever learned English at all. “You wanna wait back inside?”

“No.” He came down the steps, down to their level. “What’s going on?”

Max sighed, finally bothering to look at him at least. “Hikaru — ” The woman said something to him, fast and in a language Hikaru didn’t recognize — but it sounded, he realized with a feeling like concrete in his belly, like Russian. Her tone and expression were almost amused. Max glanced back at her, made an impatient gesture in her direction. “Hikaru, get back inside.”

“No!” He pulled away from Max’s reaching hand, away from the woman’s coolly interested gaze, aimed his finger at her like the gun he wished Max wouldn’t make him carry. “Who is she? What the fuck is this?”

Before Max could decide how to answer, though, the woman solved the problem for them; she stepped forward, into range, extending a slim, pale hand that looked as dry as a bone. “My name is Natalia,” she said; her voice was low, smooth and pleasant. The accent to her English was light, but definitely, unmistakably Russian. “I’m pleased to meet you, Hikaru. I’m sure Max hasn’t mentioned me.”

Hikaru ignored her hand completely, never turning away from Max; he tried to demand an explanation again — maybe it took four repetitions to get any answers around here — but Max cut him off, turning back to Natalia with a stream of Russian that sounded just a few shades shy of angry. His accent wasn’t nearly as good, but even though Hikaru couldn’t understand he didn’t need to to know what Max was saying. He isn’t involved in this. Leave him out. His own anger surged again, leaving him dry-mouthed and shaking, feeling like he could punch Max right in his fucking dirty closed mouth.

“Max is going to join my colleagues and me for a ride,” Natalia said. Her hand was still extended, and she was ignoring both of them. “Perhaps it would be best if you did wait for him inside. It may take some time.”

“Fuck you,” Hikaru said. His voice was very quiet and it shook.

Hikaru,” Max said, again without turning to him. It sounded almost gentle, but Hikaru could read the disgust underneath, and it stung like a slap.

“Fuck you too.” He took a deep breath, tried to steady his hands. “Then I’m going with you.”

Max exploded. “Hikaru, for fuck’s sake — ”

“You’re not going without me!” Now he was yelling, yelling practically in Max’s face, grabbing a handful of his coat so tight his fingers turned chalky and white. “I want to know what is going on and I want to know where you’re going and you’re not going if you don’t take me! I’ll call the fucking cops, I swear I will, you don’t even fucking try it!”

In the ringing silence that followed, the woman shrugged, gracefully. “It makes no difference to me,” she said, as low and pleasant as if nobody had been yelling at all. “We only want to have an amiable discussion with Max about some business matters. You’re welcome to join us if you’d like. My friends can drive you home when you’re ready.” She tilted her head toward Max. “Is that all right with you?”

The line of Max’s shoulders was rigid under his coat, but he didn’t say anything. After a few seconds he just started walking away from both of them, past her, toward the car. She smiled at Hikaru, briefly, and turned to follow, and he jogged after both of them as fast as he could, trying not to be left behind.

He was so goddamn sick of being left behind.

“I already told you,” Max said in Spanish, keeping his voice low anyway, in the back seat of the long black car as it eased its slow way through night traffic; he wasn’t sure, but it looked like they were heading downtown to the interstate, toward the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. “I also told you that I wanted you to be careful. This isn’t careful.”

“You didn’t tell me shit and you know it.” He was glad they were both speaking Spanish, whatever the reason; it gave him a speed advantage and let him get his thoughts out all the way, instead of about 80-90% of them with some muddle in between. “I thought you said this was over. Why is this not over? How did they find you, Max, what the fuck is going to happen?”

“This? This is why I didn’t tell you.” Before Hikaru could get pissed over that all over again, though, he was already sighing, shoving a hand through his hair. “I don’t know. I really don’t, it’s the truth. Talia said they wanted to talk business, so I’m going to talk business. I think I can guess what ‘business’ means, but who knows. They might just want to work something out and leave me alone.”

“But you don’t think so.”

Max sighed again and looked out the window. “No. And I think you shouldn’t be here.”

“If I shouldn’t be here then neither should you.”

“Don’t act like a kid.”

“Then don’t treat me like one.” Max was silent, facing the window. Hikaru blew out breath. “Who is she really?”

Max glanced at him, then looked away again. Seeing the genuine worry in his eyes — the genuine fear — softened Hikaru up a little, but only a little. He wouldn’t let it be more. “Talia was in the KGB,” he said. No Spanish for that, but if — Talia? — guessed the subject of conversation from hearing Max say the abbreviation in English, from the front passenger seat, nothing in her posture let on. She might speak Spanish too, come to that, but what did it matter? “Never told me what exactly she did for them, but for the most part I didn’t want to know. Since then she’s been in the group whose leader I had to do when I left you with Lucero. Second-in-command, when I met her, and she still is.” He paused there for a minute or two, taking his pack of cigarettes out of his coat, turning it over in his hands, finally seeming to think better of it and putting it away. “I wasn’t worried about him, but I didn’t want her to get interested in where I’d gone and make trouble for us. She’d wanted Ibyatov out for a long time, and I thought if I gave her what she wanted — let new management take over — she might be willing to forget about me. Seems like I was even right, for a while.

“She’s got a son, probably about… nineteen now. He was about ten when she and I, when we, well. Nice kid, anyway. Pretty smart. She says he’s running the group, but I think she’s running him.” The reflection of his face in the window glanced at Hikaru, but that was all. “She stays out of sight, but she’s good. Better than I’ll ever be.”

He waited for more, but Max seemed done; the street lights made their slow way across his face one after another, as the car shoved its way through clogged beeping streets. Finally Hikaru said, “Say no, Max.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It can be. You know what they want. Say no. We’ll think of something.”

“That’s enough.” He stared out the window a moment longer, then faced front again, where Talia and a man who looked a little like the man who had followed Hikaru, but wasn’t, were sitting quietly. “Just stop it. I need to think.”

And Hikaru figured he probably did, and stopped asking questions. But his hands locked up around the shoulder strap of his bag, and they stayed there, buried and pale and still, like a statue’s hands.

They ended up in Brooklyn — somewhere or other in Brooklyn, Hikaru didn’t know Brooklyn very well — in a huge apartment in a nondescript building, an apartment that must have been several apartments once but where the walls between had since been knocked out. They were seated in a sort of living room with plushy, modern furniture and wood floors, and the frequent sound of footsteps from the floor above. Traffic roared and honked outside. There were a few other people in the apartment, all men as far as Hikaru could tell, but they came and went between the other rooms without interfering or participating.

“Of course we have nothing against you, Max,” was how Talia started the real conversation at last, folded in a curving black armchair. She’d taken off her coat and now was in a short-sleeved sweater, slacks, and low boots, all black too. It was very striking against her pale skin and hair, which Hikaru was sure she knew. She’d never be pretty, but her hawkish face had its own kind of beauty, made it hard to look at anything else in the room. He decided, a little flourishingly, that he hated her. “Dying was the best thing Vitya ever did for the Bratva. But there are other people who would be very interested to know where you are, and who would be less forgiving. Surely you could do us a favor, in return for keeping your whereabouts secret?”

“If you want to blackmail me, why don’t we just start there?” Max said, to his cigarette. “I don’t really want to dance.” He hadn’t taken off his coat, and sprawled in his chair with knees knocked apart like an old man waiting for a bus. Talia smiled broadly, a dry-lipped, warm smile. Everything about her seemed so dry, sun-bleached white.

“You’ve changed a bit from how I remember you,” she said without explanation, then went on. “We only want one job, anyway. A small one. It shouldn’t be very difficult for you.”

Hikaru looked at Max, sharply, but Max’s expression hadn’t changed. “Tell me.”

“Max — ” Hikaru hissed, and Max glanced at him, moving no more than his eyes and one eyebrow.

Callate,” he said out the side of his mouth the cigarette wasn’t in, not unkindly. Then he was locked in again. Max in work mode. There had been a time when he’d even have found it sexy. Not that he found it unsexy now, but mostly he was too upset and uncomfortable to be turned on.

“The man’s name is Conrad Barron,” Talia said, as though she hadn’t been interrupted. “He lives on the Upper East Side. Do I need to go on?”

“No,” Max said. Hikaru didn’t recognize any of it, but didn’t interrupt, just listened hard for any clues. “But you are fucking kidding me, right?”

Talia smiled again. “It’ll all be taken care of. Don’t tell me you’ve been out so long you’ve lost your courage.”

“Who said I ever had courage?” Max snorted. “What do you need me to take out Barron for, anyway? Or is that not in the deal?”

“As a sign of good faith,” Talia said, without missing a beat. Hikaru couldn’t tell if she’d been expecting the question, or if she was just like that. “To tell us that you don’t mean to exploit any of your old connections now that you’ve left the business.”

“And I do this, and you leave me alone? Keep your gobs shut and just let me go?”

“Yes.”

“You really think I think that’s gonna happen, Talia?”

Talia smiled and said nothing. Max sighed, scruffed at his hair.

“All right,” he said, finally, and kept going a little too fast for proper drama, to make sure to run over anything Hikaru tried to say. “But I want some conditions. First, I want to be paid up front, and I want you and your — colleagues to take me right to the guy’s front step. If I’m getting set up I want everybody else set up right in the same row.” He paused just long enough to raise a hand and pop its first finger in Hikaru’s direction. “Second, I want him out of it. Now. We shake hands on this like gentlemen and first thing you do is take him right back where you found him.” Switching effortlessly into Spanish, still not looking at Hikaru, he added, “And don’t you argue with me. This is important. I can’t do anything if I’m worried about whether you’re talking shit to the wrong Armenian.”

“Fuck your mother,” Hikaru returned, slightly counterproductively. Max grinned in spite of himself.

“Just play.” Back in English, he said to Talia, “Is that a deal?”

Hikaru didn’t know if Max was really planning to go through with this, but he didn’t like the way she was looking at Max, either — a little too narrowly, now a hunting hawk. But none of it showed up in her voice when she said, “Yes, that sounds fine. But this isn’t a setup, I assure you.”

“I’m sure you assure the hell out of me,” Max said drily. He stood, pulling his coat to settle around himself, moving toward her with a hand out. “Then shake.”

She stood, and did. She really was tall, when Hikaru saw them both standing black-clad against the white walls: almost Max’s height. He looked away from the sight of Max’s big hand folding around her little slim one, and contented himself with calling deliberately back to mind how that big hand had been wrapped around his own cock not long ago tonight. He was still too tense for the image to do much for him, but it had a petty sort of pleasure tangled in it all the same.

“Now get him out of here,” Max said, nodding toward Hikaru. Hikaru stood up too, meaning to argue again, but stopped, miserably, at the look on Max’s face. It said everything he could possibly need to hear to shut him up. He wanted to fight, wanted to throw another tantrum about how anywhere Max went he wanted to be in the same damn place or he’d call the cops down on everyone, but he knew it was bullshit by now and so did Max. If he didn’t get out of the way, Max could get hurt. They both could, of course, but mostly Max. Always mostly Max.

Talia nodded, and called a Russian name Hikaru couldn’t quite catch that summoned a slim, wise-eyed older man in a dark suit from one of the other rooms. “Where should he be dropped off?” she asked, and Max gave her an oddly long look before answering.

“Just back at the bar,” he said, finally, and then turned toward Hikaru for once in all of this. Hikaru guessed he understood why he wasn’t doing that often, though; Max’s eyes, though they probably looked steady enough to most people, to him were like thunderstorms in miniature. Looking at him made Hikaru feel a little like crying. “Stay there for about a half hour,” he said, in Spanish again. “Maybe an hour. Then don’t go home, even if you don’t see anybody following you. Go to a hotel, get a room with the emergency credit card. Keep your cellular on, I’ll call you later and you can tell me where you are. Just don’t go back to the apartment tonight.”

Hikaru nodded. His stomach felt full of lead. “Don’t do it,” he said, one more time. Staring at the wood floor, he reached out and grabbed a handful of Max’s coat — not to pull this time, just to hold it. The wool felt huge in his hand. “Please. For me.”

Max didn’t say anything for a minute, but a big hand came to settle on the back of Hikaru’s neck, making him look up. “You’re killing me, kid,” he said, soft and rueful, in English. “Get out of here. I’ll call.”

He wanted to hug, to cling, to kiss Max hard — something to put one last claim on him, one last marker that meant Max was coming back to him sometime no matter what — something, anything, but he also didn’t want to, not in front of this ice-water bitch and the droopy-eyed guy who was already staring at the two of them like they were an unpleasant mess, something that belonged inside the body and not out. In the end he didn’t. In the end he just nodded, reached behind him to squeeze Max’s hand, and stepped back, out of reach. “Be careful,” he said, and tried to mean it as much as those words had ever been meant.

Then the man in the dark suit was wordlessly but clearly showing him out, and he went, past Max and Talia to the hallway that led to the apartment’s front door, to where the building would let them out eventually into the cold night air. He didn’t look back at Max as they went, or back at the front door after it had closed behind them. Looking back was what they expected you to do, so eyes front. Don’t give them the satisfaction of clipping your shoulder on the wall. So many lessons he’d had to learn, and he hated all of them, every single one.

The man in the dark suit drove him back to Manhattan, back to ¡Vestete!, all without speaking, and let him off there. It was just starting to think about dawn when they arrived, but the car sat at the curb for a while anyway, lighting his way with its headlights. He found the back door open when he tried it, and when he went into the dressing room, sure enough, there was Esperanza, not yet dressed down, sitting on the stool Hikaru and Max had misappropriated earlier and working on a ledger at the central table. She didn’t look up until he’d been there a few long minutes, then jumped about a mile when she did, clapping a hand to her throat.

“Jesus Christ, bébé, give me a heart attack! What are you doing back here at this hour?”

“It’s a long story,” Hikaru said, and was horrified and infuriated to find his voice beginning to crack and shake as he did. “Can I stay with you tonight?”

He didn’t start talking until they got to Espe’s place — a dim, tidy, tiny walk-up near Chinatown she shared with a perpetually absent actor/possibly prostitute — and that seemed to get Esperanza’s attention even more than it had already been gotten, the unspoken knowledge that this wasn’t subway stuff, that this had to wait for private space. Still, she gave him a little more time by changing clothes, and he was glad; he’d been able to gather up his thoughts a little by the time she came out with her real hair, darker and coarser and shorter than her usual teased wig, held back in a simple cloth headband, and dressed in a pair of loose soft pants and a pale yellow t-shirt under which, without breastforms, her little buds barely showed. She’d been considering the surgery for years now, and in her mid-forties was just beginning to admit that she’d probably always stay at just considering it, but she still took the hormones as long as she could find someone to prescribe them. “Sometimes fantasy’s better than reality,” she’d sighed over the cartons of Chinese she and Hikaru had been sharing the one time they’d talked about it, backstage at the bar, “but I still hate it, it makes me feel like such a fucking wishy-washy half-ass little queen. Like I can’t be for real, I ought to be singing death arias and beating my inconsiderable breast or it doesn’t count, but ho hum, I keep passing along. Kind of bitransexual, you know? …Oh, Christ, don’t tell Max I said that.” Hikaru had laughed then, and hard, but he’d also known what she meant, a little. You didn’t always want what you thought you wanted, even when you did.

He’d told Esperanza a little bit of his own story already, of course. He’d felt obligated, after his semi-formal “interview” at ¡Vestete! had concluded — once they were in private — with her, without preamble, stretching out his arm to its full length and touching the little nest of faded scars inside the crook of his elbow, and asking, “I think I know the answer to this, but I still have to ask: Is this still a problem for you?” And he had smiled, and he had told her no, and he had told her not for six years, and he had already told her earlier that he was twenty-one then so he really could have just stopped there and she would have understood, but it had just come out, more history than he’d thought he’d ever bother saying out loud again. Espe, he had learned, was a very good listener. But it had all been his story, not Max’s, which he hadn’t figured was really his business to tell. Maybe it still wasn’t now, but it was necessary. As much of it as he knew even now, anyway.

It was a long time before he was even done with that much. When he stopped, Espe considered for a minute, then shrugged. “Well,” she said, “I always knew Max wasn’t born a bartender, but I don’t think ‘hitman’ would have been my second guess, either. He’s just got that sort of harmless little puppy face, you know?”

“Yeah,” Hikaru said, dimly, down into his hands. He did know.

“But I guess it doesn’t surprise me, either.” Hikaru glanced up at her, and she just shrugged again. “Makes sense of why he goes around armed.”

“…You could tell?”

“Didn’t want to call attention to it.” She smiled at him in a way that was probably meant to be mysterious and just came off pitying and sad. “But he quit?”

Hikaru nodded. “Just before we met. But… well, a lot of things happened, and later he was afraid the group who hired him in Moscow would come after him. To clean up, you know. He left me, with… mm. It’s too long to say. Somebody he knew he could trust. And he went to check out that group, and it ended up he killed their leader, so this woman he’d been screwing could take over it, and she might let him go.” He took a deep breath, and let it out hard enough to stir the bubbling surface of his gin and tonic. He didn’t really like them, but Espe had put a new one in his hand as soon as he’d finished the first to be polite, so he figured he was doomed. “…He disappeared for a whole year, Espe. I thought he was dead. Or he was just never coming back. I didn’t know where he was. I… I went sort of crazy.”

Esperanza made a small, soothing sound, reaching into his lap to cover his hand with hers, pushing his hair back from his eyes with her other. He closed his eyes and leaned into her hand, unable to even think of doing anything else. “Of course you did.”

“I think — I think he did too, though. Max did. I don’t know. When he came back, it was like… he kind of… no, I can’t, uggh. I hate English!”

That actually made Espe laugh, and she patted his hand. “You’re in good company. Drink your drink.” He did. It was better now that it’d gone a little flat.

“I guess it doesn’t matter, anyway. We were okay, really. For a long time. And now…” He made a hopeless, frustrated gesture, and then set his glass down before he could do it any harm. “I don’t know, I don’t know anything.”

Espe was quiet for a moment, maybe waiting to make sure he was done. “You don’t think Max can handle it?”

“No.” Hikaru scraped his hands back through his hair. “Yes, maybe… That’s not it, even. It’s, I know he doesn’t trust them. I know he’s good. He can probably handle it, just…” He sighed, dropping his hands back into his lap. The gin probably wasn’t making his English come any easier. “Maybe he doesn’t want to.”

And Espe still quiet, still waiting. He took a breath. Here it was.

“I think when I met Max, he wanted to die,” he said. “Or not even that he wanted to, that he just didn’t know what else to do. I think he still does, not always, but sometimes. He wanted so much to get out, and they keep pulling him back in, and they keep pulling me in, and it fucking kills him, I know that. And whenever he goes back in like this, I just think… It’s stupid, I know. But he scares me. I’m not scared of him, I’m scared of — seeing what’s left of him for me to pick up, at the end. Like, are there any big chunks still left? Or is this the time it’s all just shattered?”

Espe’s hand found his again, cool and smooth, and squeezed. “He tries to keep you safe, and can’t even figure out that just gives you more time to worry about him,” she said, with a tough pursed little smile. “Men are so stupid sometimes it blows my mind they can breathe.”

I’m a man,” Hikaru complained, a little louder than he’d meant to, although he didn’t pull either his hand or his shoulder away. “I mean — no offense, but I still am one. It’s him, he’s the stupid one.” He scrubbed the back of his hand over his face, sniffed, winced. “Okay, don’t make me drink anymore.”

She smiled a little more, and stroked his hair again. It felt good. Safe, and good. “I should put you to bed. Poor bébé.” She paused, for a long moment, thinking. “Who was it they wanted him to hit?”

Hikaru sniffed again, and scrubbed at his sinuses with his palm. “Um. Someone… Baron? Conrad? That might be wrong, I don’t remember really.”

“No, it’s right.” The sudden, poised interest in her tone surprised him, and when he glanced up at her there was a sense of business about her features. “Conrad Barron. You don’t know who that is?”

“No.”

“B-a-r-r-o-n. Like the fancy hotels.” Hikaru made it halfway into a deep frown before his brow cleared with recognition. “Yeah. He’s the one who owns them, now anyway. Old family business.” She thought for a minute, fingers over her lips, and only half took them away to talk. “They’ve been expanding overseas, and one of the things the Russian Mafia’s into deepest, back in Russia, is the hotel business. For a couple years now he’s been trying to get hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they’ve been putting pressure on him to pull out. It doesn’t surprise me they finally got tired of fucking around, but that doesn’t explain why they’d want to send Max after him. He’s got more money than God, but I can’t imagine he’s anything they couldn’t handle themselves.”

Hikaru was only vaguely aware that he was staring. “…What, and he likes to dress up on the weekends?” he managed, when he could say anything, budding hilarity slightly deforming the gape of his mouth. Espe glanced at him, startled, and then cracked up again.

“No, no. Oogh, thanks for the nightmares. No…” She hesitated, then smiled. “I don’t want to alarm you, bébé, but I suppose you didn’t know I used to be on the NYPD?”

That didn’t exactly stop Hikaru staring. When Espe started to look annoyed, he said quickly, grinning a little in spite of himself, “Sorry, I’m just… I’m trying to picture it, with the blue suit, and the donuts, and…?”

“Har har.” She swiped his glass off the floor, drained off what was left of it. “Not that kind of cop. I was a forensic investigator with the crime scene unit, in those dim dead days, and we worked with Organized Crime a lot, as you might expect. They liked to talk.” She glanced at him, and smiled again out into space, a lot less authentically. “It was a long time ago. But Barron’s been an issue for the Organizatsiya even since then.”

“Do you think they’re setting him up?”

“Do you?” He must have looked at her little sourly, because she shrugged, leaning back next to him. “I just ask because it’s about an even guess. It would make sense for them to: they’ve got him up against a wall, especially with you involved, and it sounds like he knows it. But on the other hand, if they’ve let him go this long and he hasn’t made any trouble…” She made a small, expressive gesture with her hand. “All there is to do at this point is keep your head down and wait. And trust him.”

“I do trust him,” Hikaru said, but his brow had furrowed and he was staring into his lap again. And he did, he always did. But.

But.

He sighed finally, and leaned on her shoulder, and she slipped an arm around him and held him there, rubbing his upper arm soothingly. “I’m glad you’re here,” he murmured, after a minute, and she smiled, squeezing him. “Really, I am, you don’t know how much better it is.”

“Anytime,” Espe said, and kissed the top of his hair lightly. She was still rubbing his arm. She smelled like makeup and sweat and hairspray, lycra and faint traces of perfume. Her arm was smooth and brown, and it was good to be held; good not to be alone, after the same bitter fashion it had been good not to be alone in that long, strange desert year when he’d had only cryptic postcards to prove that Max hadn’t just been a nice dream he’d had in the last hour before waking back to smeary red evening above a dirty street. The thought made him aware of his body suddenly, aware of his mingled weariness and restless half-craziness, aware of Espe’s body too. She was as tall as Max but slimmer, wirier, more angles and less breadth.

She had long, smooth hands and tapered fingers. He picked one up, dreamily, to look at it, but he ended up lifting his head instead to look into her face, and she was turning her head at the same time to look at him, curiously, and somehow after that he was kissing her, her mouth dry and unready, his head full of gin and stupid, crazy thoughts. Espe tasted like alcohol and traces of lipstick, and it was pretty good, and he turned deeper into it, his hand finding its way up into her hair at the base of her skull. It wasn’t Max but it was something, something to turn on against the night even the dingy grey light blooming outside couldn’t seem to banish —

Espe broke out of his hands then, back to a small safe distance with her eyes half-shut and full lips parted. “I don’t think this is really what you want,” she said, quietly; and Hikaru’s stomach wrung itself like a sponge.

“No,” he forced out of his mouth, after a pause of what felt like at least ten minutes. It felt like a part of himself he had to choke up and spit out. Not feeling all that drunk anymore, at least. “I guess it isn’t.”

She smiled at him again, although at this distance he couldn’t tell if it was one of her real ones or not. Then drew back, back to half-hug territory, made them both safe again. “Go to sleep, bébé. You can have my bed or Stef’s, God knows when he’ll turn up again anyway.”

“I’ll sleep in his,” Hikaru said, a little too fast for either of them not to notice. “…Thanks.”

“Shh, stop that. Somebody’s gotta take care of you.” She stood, headed for her bedroom door. “Night-night, bébé.”

“Night, maman.”

And it made her smile, before she shut the door. What else could you hope for?

He lay down on top of the coverlet of the crumpled, untouched bed in the other room, whose owner’s possible prostitution he himself had suggested years before, after observing Stefano’s habits and the times that he came and went. He was sure that he’d never be able to sleep, that he’d go crazy if he even tried, but nearly the second that he closed his eyes consciousness was gone. He woke up around noon, though, out of a blurry nightmare, scared and disoriented, and ended up creeping into Esperanza’s pitch-dark cave of a room and into her bed. Wrapped around behind her curled, lightly-breathing form in the dark, he could go back to sleep, and he did, at once, knowing that when they both woke it would be awkward, and she would still be kind. He had come to so much kindness, somehow; sometimes it shamed and frustrated him just by existing, like a language he would never quite learn to speak.

They got up in the early evening, a little before five. The light had turned sunset golden by the time Esperanza finished with her shower and her coffee and her various makings-up; by the time she stood, her usual magnificent self again, before where he sat on the couch and said, “What do you want to do?”

And Hikaru looked up at her, and without even having to think, said, “Do you know where this Barron guy lives?”

So this is what it comes down to, Conrad Barron thinks, as he comes all the way awake in the never-really-dark darkness of Manhattan at night. Fifty-nine years old with hemmorrhoids and a bleeding ulcer; your name entombed somewhere in the Forbes 400; the press eating your idiot kids alive for making asses of themselves with the fortune you worked your whole life to maintain; crime lords breathing down your neck; the best security money can buy, legal and illegal; and at last, the soft snick of a gun cocking underneath your chin in the dark, as you hear some goddamn Cockney Brit saying, soft and pleasant, “Don’t turn on the light, Mr. Barron.”

So after everything, this is all. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised.

Playing tourists in the early evening wasn’t hard; Hikaru had never been to the Upper East Side, and it was amazing. It was very late before their explorations paid off, though, probably almost two, but finally he and Espe turned down a side street nearby Barron’s townhouse and he saw the long black car, sitting dark and silent like a sleeping dragon at the curb.

Finally faced with the moment again, adrenaline burst like poison up his arms, and he had his gun out of his back before he knew what he was doing. “Where is he?” he yelled at the car, unmindful of its discharging its many more gun-pointing passengers like an evil magic trick, unmindful of Esperanza yanking at his elbow, shouting in his ear. “Call it off! Call it off or I swear — ”

“You stupid boy,” Talia said, from where she’d come out of the front seat. She had an automatic pistol trained on him over the car door, and her voice was soft and almost meditative. “Drop it and get out. Do it at once.”

What did you do? Tell me where he is! Tell me where —

“Oi!” Max’s voice — bellowing and blessed. Hikaru half-turned, letting the gun fall, he was still so bad with guns, and found Max’s figure coming on the run, his long black coat like wings around his legs. “Let them go! Fuck, don’t shoot!”

“Max — ”

And then he was between the two of them, protecting grasping hands around Hikaru’s upper bicep and Espe’s waist. “Let them go,” he repeated, at a lower pitch. Raised voices in the streets in the night weren’t strange to much of anywhere in Manhattan, but this was a pretty fancy area, and it finally dimly occurred to Hikaru to consider the consequences. “Talia, it’s done, all right? It’s done. The kid just panicked. Let us go.”

That news shuttered Talia’s face, and only after a long, considering moment she slipped her gun back into her coat and came away from the car, to where they all stood. The rest of the men with her followed her in the latter action, if not the former. “Is it, Max? This — ” she swept a hand at Hikaru and Espe — “isn’t another game?”

“No. No more games.” Without taking his hands off either of them Max jerked his chin back toward the building. “Don’t go in there right now, security’s about to be crawling the ceiling — ” Seeing her expression, he interrupted himself, talking faster. “We do it like we’ve always done! Wait. Check the news in the morning. If you ain’t satisfied, you can come find me. I know you know how.” This last touched with bitterness. “I’ve got no reason to lie.”

Talia’s head was tilted, and that stooping-hawk expression on her face was stronger than ever. It should have made her less beautiful, but somehow only made her more. “Unless you plan to use the meantime to run.”

“Can’t run forever,” Max said, showing his teeth in a grin. That grin was such an awful parody of his normal dopey one that Hikaru couldn’t look at it for long.

Talia looked at him for a long moment, and Hikaru tried not to hold his breath. “We’ll be in touch,” she said, at long last. And then they all stowed their guns.

And with a last, long look, she turned, and began to lead them away.

Max took his cue, seizing Hikaru and Espe and steering them around as well. “Is he really dead?” Hikaru murmured, barely loud enough to hear, as soon as their backs protected them.

“Oh yes,” Max breathed, grimly. “Walk fast. Both of you. Don’t run until I tell you.”

“Max?”

“Better just do what he says,” Espe murmured across Max. But Hikaru didn’t need to be told.

They walked fast. When they got near the end of the sidestreet, Hikaru heard the car start.

Now!” Max hissed. And they ran.

The car bomb went off with a piling, crumping sound that seemed to drill through the air, hollowing it out. Hikaru felt sudden infernal heat sear his back, saw the dim street suddenly illuminate as with day. He felt air sucking past him to feed the crescendo of fire, trying to pull him back, before the explosion’s concussion shoved him brutally the other way.

They made it to the avenue and piled around the corner of the building, sheltering against the bricks. Screaming, running pedestrians both failed to notice and hid them. Max, whole and well and strong, closed his eyes and breathed deep and hard next to Hikaru, as sirens started in the near distance.

“So here’s what we’re going to do,” Max says.

Barron has given him the pad of paper and pen he asked for, and in the pale circle of Barron’s penlight he sketches the side street outside, marks the location of the car, of its tailpipe, the location relative to it that the guard has been posted. Draws a dotted line from the back entrance Barron has told him where to sketch along the best possible line of approach. The chief of Barron’s personal security force watches over his shoulder, silent.

“You’re going to have to wait for a distraction,” he says. “I’ll try to draw them out when I leave the building, tell them I did the job and I want to get paid and all that. That should give you a window.” He puts the pack of plastic explosives in the man’s hand. “Stay out of sight until then. Keep low, crawl if you have to.”

The guard goes when Max tells him to. Now they’re alone again.

It is a second too late before Barron realizes that was a bad idea.

“I thought we had a deal,” he says, his eyes full of the gunbarrel. He’s a tough old guy, and his voice only shakes minutely. Max admires that.

“We still do,” Max says. “I just didn’t tell you about this part.” He pauses. “I really am sorry about this, Mr. Barron. But it’s business. You know how it is.”

With the silencer on, the gunshot is no more than a faint whine.

As soon as they’d gotten far enough away they didn’t have to worry about drawing attention anymore, Max punched Espe in the face.

Hikaru cried out his name, miserably, but he still stood over where she’d fallen on the sidewalk, lips pulled back from his teeth. “Why did you bring him here?” he snarled.

Hikaru latched onto his balled fist, pulling it back down, away. “Max, don’t, please. I asked her to.”

Espe raised her head to him coolly, fingertips pressed into her fresh bruise. “He thought you were going to get your stupid self killed,” she said, ignoring Hikaru.

None of the anger left Max, but he did seem to falter, and his fist opened in Hikaru’s hand. “Jesus wept,” he said, in a slightly lower voice. “I don’t need fucking drag queens for babysitters.”

“Seems to me like you need somebody,” Espe said, pulling herself to her feet. “I know I just came in, but you’re the one who’s like a fucking lunatic, Max. Do you have any idea how much it fucked this kid up last night? Thinking he’d lost you to them again?”

And the again finally stopped Max. He recoiled from her physically, his eyes frozen wide. Espe looked at him with a sour disgust in her pursed smile for a long moment, then shook her head.

“No, of course you don’t,” she said, and walked by. “Guys like you never do.”

They stood alone for a long silence, counting seconds.

“Hikaru — ” Max said, faintly, but Hikaru stopped him.

“Never mind,” he said, fast. “It doesn’t matter. Are you all right?”

Max smiled at him, shakily, out one corner of his mouth, and took out his cigarettes for something to put in the other. “Nah,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

The apartment was small, but safe, always and still safe. They took off their clothes in the dark, lay in the bed in the dark. Before long, fucked in the dark, with Max’s big thighs pushed up and spread out, his breath fast and shaky and face unseen, Hikaru driving into him like he could claim everything back and make it his again. He shook more afterwards, and Hikaru held him, and it was still so dark.

“I just wanted to get through it,” he was saying, when Hikaru folded Max to his shoulder, pressed his hand over his hair, and Max’s voice now was cracking, breaking. “I don’t even know, they might really have let me run, or just drove back around and shot me, I don’t know, but I never meant to go down, I swear I never. I just wanted to live, I want to stay, I want to stay with you, I want — ”

“Shh,” Hikaru said, his whole face pressed in Max’s hair, his arms like steel around his shoulders. “Shh, Max. I know.”

Max had explained it to him, coming back: he’d had to kill Barron. Had to. This way, the Russians would think he’d done his job, and the group just got unlucky with the security force; the cops would think it was a mob hit, which it was, and go after the Russians. With Barron dead, nobody had any reason to chase Max, or even think of him. Not that that made it any easier for him, that or a blonde woman’s charred corpse in a car somewhere on the Upper East Side. Nothing had ever been easy for Max, except maybe this, this here and now.

They slept, later, when it was almost morning, tangled together in their tiny bed in their tiny bedroom in their tiny place. Max clung to his hand in sleep. Light came, and winter rain drizzled over the city. And they would be all right.

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