by MYŌGADANI Mōra (茗荷谷 望裸)
Jonathan is on the floor where he collapsed after they reached the safe house, trying to breathe. His gun is still in his hand, and he supposes, through a haze of oxygen debt, that he ought to let go of it, so he does. It clunks onto the flooring, ceramic-and-plastic against the cheap smokeglass.
Aaron, sitting on the floor near him, is breathing almost normally again, but isn’t moving yet.
“Wow,” Jonathan finally manages. Aaron doesn’t answer, but Jonathan didn’t expect him to. If he’s as out of breath as Jonathan is he probably doesn’t think it’s worth the effort. “Are you sure we managed to outrun them?”
Jonathan isn’t sure he did, but if Aaron says so he figures he must have.
“Thanks,” he says, and since his breathing is finally under control, he sits up, checks the state of his gun, and puts the safety back on so that nothing unexpected happens. “I’m gonna go add this to the report.” He stands up and walks into the bedroom, which, no surprise, is set out in the usual safe-house layout: bed in the center of one wall, closets to the left of the bed, mismatched dressers on the other two walls. He opens up the bottom drawer of the nearest dresser and pushes aside the extra set of bedsheets. It takes him a few seconds of running his fingers around the drawer’s inner joins to find the analog switch that unlatches the side compartment where the DSA-network computer is hidden. He takes it out of the drawer, unfolding the body so that when he plugs it in it’ll firm up with all the wiring in the right places.
The computer looks like a hard-side laptop when it’s turned on, but when turned off it’s little more than a translucent, gelatinous mass with wiring inside.
The computer is connected to the network via a non-disconnecting physical cable, a touch of paranoia that Jonathan has since gotten used to. Since the Global Connectivity Initiative, there’s been universal free wireless internet access in most of the industrialized and developing world, but that doesn’t mean that the wireless is secure. Hence the physical cable. You can’t snatch signals out of the air if they aren’t there in the first place.
He sets the laptop on the bed and hits the ‘on’ button. The case, made out of the silicon-petroleum composite Opaque, is translucent and flexible without the electric current running through it. Once turned on, however, the computer firms up, not only physically but visually, so that he can no longer see the its guts.
He pulls the computer onto his lap and logs in with his fingerprint, retinal scan, and voice check. This lets him access the draft of the report that he and Aaron will turn in at the end of this week when their assignment is over.
Aaron walks into the bedroom about ten minutes later, carrying a bowlful of heated canned soup that he offers to Jonathan. Jonathan takes it. “I’m almost done with the write-up for tonight’s FUBAR’d deal. Have you eaten?”
“Then check this over and make sure it’s accurate.” Jonathan pushes the laptop over the sheets towards Aaron, then picks up the bowl and starts eating. Minestrone soup, with extract of tin can for extra flavor. Delicious.
He manages to choke about half of it down before he gives in to the inevitable digestive defeat and sets the bowl aside.
Aaron hasn’t changed a lot in the report. He corrected some of the quotations, fixed directions and numbers of assailants – Jonathan always trusts him on those – and has corrected Jonathan’s descriptions of certain assailants in a manner with which Jonathan disagrees.
“I don’t think that the first one in was the one in the green shirt – ” Jonathan starts.
Aaron finishes typing before he responds. “Two green shirts. One with a chin scar, one in a hat.”
“I didn’t see the one in the hat,” Jonathan says, troubled.
“Came in later. I shot him.”
Jonathan nods and leaves Aaron to it while he goes to the bathroom.
He walks out to find that Aaron has shut down the computer and put it away again, and is busy hunting down the hidden cameras in the room. There are always a few; nominally it’s so the DSA will know if a safe house is compromised, but Jonathan and Aaron both suspect that it’s more about the DSA not trusting its own agents.
It takes them about half an hour to find the four regulation, obvious cameras around the apartment; they spend an extra hour checking for recording devices.
After that they sweep the house again, which thankfully is rather small: only two rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. Larger safe houses can, given Aaron’s degree of conscientiousness, take more than six hours. But it’s worth it, because the DSA always plants a few extra, hidden ones that are a little harder to find. He and Aaron always cover up the lenses with Opaque gel, then peel it off when they leave. Probably most agents do this: they spend so much time being worried about enemy surveillance that they’ve stopped being able to put up with it from their allies.
Once Aaron’s satisfied that they’ve found the cameras, Jonathan pulls his book reader out of his bag, turns it on, and flips open the now-solid covers to the text inside. He reads for about an hour, mostly newspapers – the WSJ, the Reference News English Edition, La Construction. He loathes all of them, but it can’t be helped. No money for a free press makes the press less free. He learned that one the hard way twelve years ago, when the Tribune Company folded and took his job as a reporter with it.
According to La Construction, the New States are insisting that the DSA was not involved in any way in the bombings in Brussels, since after all the DSA is domestic security. Why would the DSA be doing anything international? Which is total bullshit, but Jonathan is supposed to hold the party line: he’s never worked outside the North American continent; what are you suggesting?
He looks at the blacked-out bulletproof-glass window. He can almost make out, on the other side, a brick wall, but if he could see far enough through the buildings into the countryside, he’d be looking out on the Andes.
Aaron folds out the futon that’s in one of the closets and sets it up on the floor of the bedroom. Since the bust-up in Chile going after M. Villando, that’s just been him pretending that they won’t be in the bed together when morning arrives.
Jonathan has less patience than usual with this game, so he turns off his reader, folds it up and starts to take off his shirt.
“We can leave off of this by now, I think,” he says, through the cotton, and when his shirt is finally off he tosses it on the floor. “Rather than just getting my ego kicked because of your issues, I’d prefer to get laid.”
Aaron kneels in front of the dresser and takes out some of the sheets. Like this, in the posture Jonathan’s uncles called kiza, kneeling-seat, he is dangerous, familiar. Even with his height folded away, he is still imposing, broad-backed and heavily muscled. The blacked-out window puts his street-gang disguise into shadow and the light from the hall isn’t enough to bring it back. It just scrapes along his arms, bringing out the realwood-dark shade of his skin, and trickles over the hard planes of his face.
Jonathan leans forward. “Look, if you don’t want to have sex, say so. Don’t play Mr. Brick Wall. It works great with other people, because they assume you’re just big and dumb, but I know you’re not.”
Aaron slides across the floor over to the futon and starts laying the sheets over it. Jonathan wants to hit him but knows better than to try: Aaron’s greatest skill, other than keeping his mouth shut, is his ability to defend himself with lethal or at least greatly damaging force. Even all of Jonathan’s training in Brazilian jiujitsu isn’t enough defense.
Jonathan watches Aaron fold the sheets around the futon with robotic precision. The old gone-yellow shade of them blends in with the carpet.
Finally Aaron finishes making the futon and sits back on his heels, looks at Jonathan, who keeps silent. If he says anything it’ll come out accusing, and Aaron never answers accusations.
They sit like that for a little while, looking at each other but not really communicating anything by it. Jonathan finally slides from sitting on the bed to on his knees on the floor, in front of Aaron. Jonathan is still shorter, by more centimeters than he cares to discuss.
Aaron has grey eyes, steel and asphalt like any of the Atlantic megametropoles where Jonathan grew up. They’re the clue to telling how smart he can be. Not because they don’t go blank when he’s playing stupid, because they do. But because he is always mentally engaged otherwise, blade-intense, and his eyes are the key to his attention. Aaron is watching Jonathan now, or more precisely staring at a point just over Jonathan’s shoulder. Jonathan’s used to it, so it only hurts a little.
Jonathan follows the lines of Aaron’s arms with his gaze, then reaches out, slowly, and pulls Aaron’s hand towards him, setting his mouth on the inside of Aaron’s wrist and tasting the skin there, then again at the inside of Aaron’s elbow. It is a little salty but mostly tasteless, smooth warmth, muscle heat.
Aaron is nearly impossible to throw around. Jonathan tried, once, when they were still new to each other as coworkers. Aaron choked him unconscious so fast Jonathan didn’t have time to tap out.
Aaron’s hand comes to rest against the back of his neck, palm a warm blot against his tendons. Jonathan closes his eyes, hands sliding up Aaron’s arm to his chest, throat, face, until his fingers brush against the jut of Aaron’s nose, the pressure of his cheekbones, the corner of his jaw. Jonathan wants to kiss those spots but never will; Aaron has made very clear that he would not accept, let alone return, such a gesture. It’s not that kind of arrangement, Jonathan remembers, the words still caught in his head from when Aaron said them so long ago.
Eventually he ends up lying stomach-down on the futon with Aaron’s cock in his mouth, hitting the back of his throat. A few feet north of this Aaron is probably writing reports in his head or something. Aaron takes forever to come, always has, and his reactions are never particularly enthusiastic.
Jonathan never even bothers to look to see if Aaron is watching, just focuses on heated flesh, taste and smell. After a while his jaw hurts; a little after that Aaron taps Jonathan’s shoulder as a warning that he’s going to come. Jonathan pulls off, uses his hand until Aaron finishes, and lets Aaron give him a handjob so mechanical Jonathan could probably measure the passage of time with the strokes. Jonathan spends most of it staring at the ceiling, trying not to look like in his head he’s thinking of putting his tongue to the swell of Aaron’s muscles, tracing their lines up, and up, to Aaron’s throat, to his mouth.
A week later he and Aaron are back in the Desert district of the New States, doing report-filing things, getting physical checkups. The doctor tells Jonathan that he’s healthy enough and releases him back to report-writing.
Jonathan takes the stairs back to the floor where he and Aaron have their cubicles – no offices wasted on them, no sir – in time to nod at Aaron as they pass each other in the hall. Aaron’s probably on the way to his own appointment.
Susan Mehta, Jonathan’s boss, is waiting for him, standing just outside his cubicle, leaning against the blue fuzz-carpet wall. She doesn’t put up with bullshit, but she puts up with nearly anything else so long as it gets the job done. She is intimidatingly efficient with paperwork, terrifyingly smart, and basically perfect in every way except for being memorable. She wasn’t originally, but thanks to a hockey accident in high school that left her blind in one eye and her nose out of joint, she is now. It’s the only reason she’s not an agent. Jonathan doesn’t know why she didn’t go into surgery and get it fixed. Maybe it’s like his ankle, where trying to fix it stands a higher chance of making things worse than of fixing them. Anyway, at this point her head’s full of the custom electronics that agent handlers get, and she’d never be able to pass as civilian.
“Jonathan,” she says. “Come with me to my office.”
He follows her to the end of the hall, steps inside while she closes the door. Susan’s office is tiny, mostly taken up by her workspace, which has a raised computer display screen and a silicon-surface keyboard in the plane of the desk. There are a couple of chairs; both are uncomfortable. Neither he nor Susan sits.
“You’re not going to like this,” Susan tells him.
As though it weren’t obvious. He keeps his mouth shut.
“The higher-ups want you on a desk job.”
Jonathan goes cold. There’s no reason. His malformed ankle hasn’t been acting up. He’s still in excellent physical condition. His performance in the field has been virtually impeccable since he and Aaron started cooperating.
Oh, no. No. God, let it not be that.
Still standing, she taps her fingers on her desk. “They haven’t told me specifically why they want you transferred, but I think I can guess.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, throat tight. One of his character flaws: he never feels bad about doing something, only about having been caught doing it. It’s part of why he’s so good at his job. His old job, he should say.
She snorts. “Fucked if I care. At least this way you’ll get promotions and a life expectancy.”
In some other universe some other Jonathan is pleased by this prospect. Instead he just stands there, not moving.
Susan sits on the corner of her desk, crinkling a stack of folders. “You’ll be down a floor, starting tomorrow. I hear you should go find your desk, move your stuff.”
“Jonathan,” she says carefully, “it’s not the end of the world.”
“No,” he agrees, after a long moment. He doesn’t offer any sort of comeback. There is nothing to say. The world has not ended, and Jonathan Byrne has a different job.
Some days later he wakes up in his own apartment to find a gun pointed at his face. The instinctive reaction to seize up passed long ago. The reaction to get the gun away from his face has been broken out of him from having Aaron give him wake-up calls too often. This is probably not a good survival tactic.
“Aaron, I’m practically civilian now, or haven’t you heard?” He drawls the words out, sliding his eyes up the gun to Aaron’s hands, his chest, his face until they are watching each other’s eyes. “I got transferred.”
“They tell you why?”
“No. My bet is we missed a camera at some point and they decided last week that they wanted me off active duty.”
Aaron grunts, takes the gun out of Jonathan’s face, and kneels next to the bed to put it away. Jonathan rolls onto his side to watch, ceramic and silicon-opaque composite sliding apart. Aaron with a gun is the most brutal poetry Jonathan knows.
“Sanchez is an idiot.”
“If you want to get rid of him, you know how to hide the body.”
Aaron’s mouth twitches, not quite a smile.
“Or you could just get rid of him the same way you managed to get rid of me,” Jonathan continues, only realizing what the sentence means after he has said it. The idea of Sanchez sucking Aaron off makes him go hot-cold with possessive arousal. The reaction embarrasses him. For Aaron it was just ten years of on-and-off, mostly off, halfhearted stress relief. Jonathan shouldn’t get so worked up about it.
Aaron snaps shut the clasps on his briefcase. “Sanchez can’t protect himself.”
Jonathan breathes a little easier with relief at Aaron’s choice to ignore his faux pas. “You’ve gone on record saying the same thing about me, as I remember. Though that was about the time that I was saying you were a psychopath, so. I’m sure he’ll grow out of it, especially if you help him.”
“Can’t be bothered.”
“Then you’re going to get him killed. If you don’t want to work with him, tell Susan and she’ll find you someone else before working with you is like pushing agents into a meat grinder.”
“Or could borrow you off-record.”
Jonathan’s heart twists, but he buries the pleasure of the implied compliment to pull it out later, run his thoughts over it like water. “I don’t think it works like that. And how would I do my job from South America, anyway?”
“Not in South America this time. Local job.”
“I’m sure that’s a higher security clearance than I have right now, and I know we both know my apartment’s bugged. Now, I need to get ready for work, which incidentally is not working with you. Please leave, Aaron. Go work with Sanchez and show him what he’s doing wrong.”
Aaron watches him get out of bed, not saying anything, not moving, until Jonathan glares at him, at which point he turns and walks out the bedroom door. At the end of a hall, the apartment door clicks closed. The movement-sensor that tracks the hall doesn’t beep, which means that Aaron’s left. Jonathan glances up at the corner where the most obvious monitoring camera is, then moves to get dressed.
Less than a week later, around lunchtime, Aaron shows up at Jonathan’s desk, planting himself in front of it. The plane of the desk is a couple of inches below the crotch of Aaron’s pants, so the first thing Jonathan notices is Aaron’s fly, his hips, the fall of his white polo shirt over his abs. Jonathan knows all of these parts of Aaron’s body in bizarrely intimate detail for something only touched, half-seen, in the dark.
He doesn’t look at Aaron’s face, instead letting his gaze fall back to the computer screen, where he is filling out paperwork. The stylus doesn’t work very well, probably because the flat-panel of the computer screen on his desk is scratched – some idiot before him must have been a total Luddite who went after it with a real pen – so he tends to have to go back and rewrite parts.
He manages to fill out three or four spaces before Aaron gets impatient and finally says his name.
“I filed for a replacement for Sanchez.”
Jonathan finally looks up, meeting Aaron’s gaze. “Yes, and?”
Aaron cracks the knuckle of his left index finger, a tight snap of sound. “Come to lunch.”
Aaron’s shoulders tense, just a little, and Jonathan has to suppress a smile. Whoever says passive aggression is unhealthy can bite him.
“I have to finish this report and turn it in at one,” he lies, tapping the screen with the stylus.
“After that,” Aaron suggests, laying his palm flat on the blackglass surface and leaning over Jonathan’s desk. Jonathan’s watching his eyes because he doesn’t trust him. He still notices that the collar of Aaron’s shirt is partially open, baring his throat and the muscles of his neck, strong and heavy. “One-thirty.”
Jonathan imagines this ending in a blowjob on the deli’s bathroom floor and knows it won’t happen. Quentin Aaron Leahy, repressed asshole. “One-thirty, then.”
They do go to the deli. Jonathan jokes around a little with Ye Sheng, the proprietor, before ordering. You don’t come to a restaurant at least twice a week at irregular intervals for almost fifteen years without getting to know the employees.
Aaron orders the sandwich he always has, turkey-lettuce-no-tomato-mayo.
They sit at a table next to the window, looking out on the street full of businessmen and cars. Some of the passers-by read the text painted on the window, but because it’s one-way shading they can’t see in. Ye Sheng, before the Division, was with U.S. Navy Counterintelligence. He is paranoid, but not homicidal. If he hasn’t figured out what Aaron and Jonathan are then he wasn’t worth the promotions he got during the war.
Jonathan should probably start dressing the part of someone with an actual desk job, rather than someone who only comes into an office because he’s passing through. He has been resisting because he doesn’t like wearing ties. For that matter, he doesn’t even like wearing long-sleeved dress shirts and has taken to rolling up the sleeves while he’s working.
They eat lunch almost in silence. Aaron finishes his sandwich first and surveils the restaurant and the street outside. Not that he hasn’t been doing it before, but he’s more obvious with nothing else to hide it.
Jonathan is chewing the last bite of his sandwich when Aaron says, eyes on a homeless man meandering on the sidewalk across the street, “I’m sorry.”
“What about?” Jonathan hopes this isn’t some sort of clumsy attempt at making amends; that would be embarrassing for both of them. He can’t accept any apologies about it because he is angry. He will probably be angry for the rest of his life. Apologize-and-make-up is not going to work here.
“It’s my fault that we got caught.” Aaron laces his fingers together, resting his forearms on the table.
Jonathan licks a stray piece of sauerkraut out from between his teeth. “Probably not, actually. Susan said, and I quote, ‘I don’t know why, but I can guess’ about the reasons for the transfer. Since she doesn’t have access to recordings, it wouldn’t have been only that.”
He leaves Aaron to mull that thought over for a while and munches some chips.
Aaron says finally, “If I resign, they might let you come back. Would that make things right?”
Jonathan’s heart stutters, quick flash of hope in his throat, his eyes, his belly. He squashes it. “If they thought I was the better employee,” he says, “they would have reassigned you.”
“I’m not a good agent,” Aaron states, voice flat. “I’m good at breaking things and at killing people. You are also not a good agent. You have excellent people skills when you choose to, but you’re virtually hopeless at fighting. We’re better as a team than we are apart.”
And there goes whatever plausible deniability Ye Sheng would have had about their careers. Jonathan lets go of that thought – it’s not his job anymore – and for a moment wants to say, No, that’s your dick talking. He doesn’t. Aaron probably doesn’t think with his dick, unlike the sane male part of the human species.
“So find another agent with good people skills and work with them. It’s not the end of the world that we’re not working together anymore. Life isn’t a vending machine. Things change.”
“Not always for the better,” Aaron says. Jonathan ignores him and gathers up the wax-paper sandwich wrappers to throw them out. Their walk back to the office is silent except for the voice-recognition test at the door. Even the farewells; Aaron only nods at him when Jonathan waves on his way out the elevator.
There’s a loud-letter icon in the corner of Jonathan’s personal computer when he wakes up in the morning to check his email. He taps the icon to open it without looking to see who it’s from. The message loads while he drinks coffee and pages through the front page section of the WSJ on his newspaper-reader. When the computer is done loading, the message starts playing automatically.
“Jonathan,” the voice begins, and he can’t stop the flicker of arousal that shoots through him at the sound of Aaron’s disembodied voice coming from his computer speakers. “I talked to Susan. She says she might be able to get you on Asia-only active duty with Koskinen. If you’re interested, tell her.” The message ends.
Jonathan can stand Koskinen. Whether or not Koskinen can stand Jonathan is an entirely different question. The most contact they’ve ever really had was group meetings with all of Susan’s agents, and the few Christmas parties they’ve both been to. Koskinen is small, serious, an eclectic ethnic mix that lets him blend in with almost any group. He spent most of his formative years living in a Chinatown somewhere, so he speaks fluent Cantonese and Mandarin, which would be a nice match to Jonathan’s better-than-passing Thai, Japanese, and Korean. Certainly he and Jonathan are a better business fit on paper than Jonathan and Aaron, whose specialties, besides killing people, are Farsi, Spanish, and Portuguese. This means nothing, obviously. Jonathan doesn’t daydream in the shower about all the ways he didn’t get to have sex with Koskinen.
His loud-letter replayer clicks onto the next message.
“Hey, Jonathan, this is Susan Mehta. Look, I don’t know what you’re doing to Aaron, but whatever the fuck it is, stop it. I can’t have my agents falling apart on the job, so whatever the fuck is going on between you two, get it back to some kind of balance point. Because Aaron is starting to rock boats, and the moment boats get rocked, ears perk among the higher-ups and bad shit happens. Fix it now, because otherwise it’s not just going to be you with a new job, it’s going to be him, too.
“On that note, come see me whenever you’re next in the office; if I pull a few strings I might be able to get you into West Coast duty, but only if you can do it without messing Aaron up. Bye.”
Can he do his job apart from Aaron, despite having been Aaron’s partner for more than ten years? Yes. Can he do his job away from Aaron, despite wanting to learn more of his body every time he sees him? Stupid question. Can Aaron put himself back together? Not Jonathan’s concern. Their sexualized working partnership is over; Aaron’s wanting to work with him again is just his craving for efficiency. Jonathan will talk to him about it, make it absolutely clear how over things other than friendly professional regard are, and that’ll be the end. Aaron doesn’t hold onto hopeless causes. He puts together new strategies to cope with changes in plans, so Jonathan doesn’t foresee this being a problem.
He makes his way down to Susan’s office during his lunch hour the next day and knocks on the door. She calls out from her desk for him to come in, so he does. She is grinning, looking a little embarrassed, and shakes her head as if to herself.
“I knew you’d be by, so I took the liberty of talking to some people earlier today. Ones who won’t froth at the mouth over the same things that the ones who ordered your transfer probably did. You’ll hear back in a day or two.”
He bows his head, uncomfortable with the feeling in his throat, like silvered cotton candy, delicious and fragile. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she says, and waves him out of her office.
He walks to the other side of the hall, where Aaron’s cubicle is; Aaron isn’t there, so instead Jonathan pulls up Aaron’s notepad program and scrawls on it with the stylus, in red ink, We should talk. – Byrne, before going to lunch at the deli. He wonders what everyone else makes of this mess. Probably nothing. Both Susan and Aaron know how to keep their mouths shut.
He’s halfway through his ham and cheese sandwich when he sees Aaron striding purposefully down the sidewalk towards the deli’s glass storefront. He puts down his sandwich and takes a drink while Aaron fumbles with the sticking door and wheels into the seating area before crashing into the chair across from Jonathan. He’s not breathing hard, exactly, but a little more deeply than usual.
Jonathan pretends not to notice Ye Sheng’s hands sliding away from the register.
“Right, you’re here,” Jonathan says, pushing the other half of his sandwich across the table at Aaron, who ignores it. “Let’s talk. You’re not allowed to play brick wall; every statement requires a response that the other person can understand. If he doesn’t, he needs to say so. Understand?”
“Susan yelled at me last night because this situation is messing you up. That needs to stop happening, otherwise you may very well get pulled off field service. What’s going on up there in your head?”
Aaron is silent for almost a minute, eyes cast to Jonathan’s side of the white Formica table, unmoving. Finally he stirs, crossing his arms on the table and looking back at Jonathan. “I want to have you as a part of my life. We make good working partners and better friends.”
And, apparently, irrelevant fuck buddies. Jonathan spares a moment of black humor to be annoyed that Aaron thought his blow jobs so hopeless as to not even mention that he wasn’t enjoying them.
“So?” Jonathan challenges, taking back the sandwich from the center of the table and rewrapping it to take with him back to work.
“So your unhappiness at being forced out of your job bothers me. It’s also a waste of your capabilities to have you on desk duty.”
“So you’re trying to help me get my job back. Do you know what that looks like?”
Aaron’s watching the street outside. “I’m not asking to work with you again.”
“It doesn’t look good, is what it looks like.” Jonathan is most of the way through revving his mental engines in preparation for a rant, but he stalls when Aaron holds up a hand.
“Public fights aren’t good.”
“Then find someplace private,” Jonathan snaps.
Aaron’s expression flickers between several emotions that would be unreadable to anyone other than Jonathan, or perhaps Aaron’s mother, before finally settling on tooth-gritted anxious determination.
“My apartment, then,” he says. “After work.”
Aaron’s apartment is on the fifteenth floor of a thirty-story apartment building; Jonathan knows from dismayed and out-of-breath experience that Aaron prefers the stairs. As usual, they don’t take the elevator.
At the top, Jonathan has to wait while Aaron disables the paranoiac safeguards on his door, entryway, living room, the rest of the apartment. In the meantime, he leans against the whitewashed plaster wall in an attempt to help his quads stop burning. When Aaron calls out the all-clear, Jonathan leans his shoulder into the switch that opens the apartment door and lurches inside. There, he falls onto Aaron’s couch, which is lumpy, dark blue, and not designed for seated comfort. It’s perfectly fine lying down, though, so Jonathan does, hooking the backs of his ankles over the armrest.
Aaron takes a seat in a chair on the other side of a truly disconcerting coffee table. The surface is painted to resemble a World War II-era United States propaganda poster where a caricature of Hideki Tojo urges the watcher to, yes please, neglect his war production duties. The table was a gift from Jonathan. He had bought it at a garage sale during college, and decided to give it to Aaron after they started working together smoothly. It is a small joke, just between them, mostly for Jonathan. Aaron was shocked to discover that despite looking nearly as white as his name sounds, Jonathan is mostly ethnically Brazilian Japanese. Jonathan still gets a laugh out of the memory of Aaron’s facial expression.
“Something to drink?” Aaron asks. He’s already holding a square glass of ice water, which he puts down on the red-sun logo on Tojo’s hat.
“I’ll have what you’re having,” Jonathan says, and makes good on it by seizing the cup and sliding it to his side of the table.
Aaron, unfazed, stands up again and goes to the kitchen to get himself another glass. Jonathan takes the opportunity to lean back against the couch armrest and stretch his neck, which lets him catch a multi-second glimpse of Aaron, the vivid blue of his shirt and the darkness of his pants in marked contrast against the white tile, counter, and cabinets of his kitchen. The half-shadowed line of the back of his neck is nothing Jonathan hasn’t seen in full before – Aaron doesn’t usually wear shirts with collars – but now, the glimpse stolen, it captures all Jonathan’s attention for the moments he’s watching.
When he finishes stretching and returns to staring at the ceiling, his throat is dry.
Aaron returns to the table, sets down the glass of water, and sits, resting his forearms along his thighs. Jonathan pretends he’s not watching by picking up his stolen glass and draining it until the ice clicks against the sides.
“I disabled all the surveillance equipment last night,” Aaron says finally. He doesn’t add anything useful, like So we can talk freely now, or more likely So if an orgasm would put you in a better mood, say so.
Jonathan watches the ceiling. He remembers that once, a little drunk, he saw the Arabian peninsula in one of the cracks in the paint. Now he sees cracks in almost-random patterns caused by physical stress.
“I don’t want to go back,” he says, then, “No. That’s a lie. I want to go back to South America and go back to all our old jobs there, minus the sex, because it’s lost me the best and most successful job I’ve ever had.”
Aaron, in his peripheral vision, shifts his weight forward a little in the chair. “That won’t happen.”
“And I’m not sure what second-best is. Is it the far West Coast with Koskinen, just like what I had before but entirely different? Or is it staying where I am? Or leaving and going somewhere entirely different?”
Aaron picks up his glass of water and drinks. Jonathan keeps his eyes fixed on the ceiling, but his attention is on Aaron.
Aaron finally suggests, “Why not evaluate them.”
“Why not,” Jonathan muses. “Let’s see. I get a job I may like, speaking languages I know reasonably well, in a part of the world I’ve always liked, for good pay. I almost never come home, I get a partner whom I barely know, I may die, I’ll never be promoted.”
Aaron exhales into his glass, fogging the sides, his eyes down.
“If I stay here, I’ll get better pay, I’m not likely to die in a spectacularly violent or painful way, I’ll be able to meet up with friends, assuming I have any or gain some. I’ll also be bored out of my skull.”
“You’re a terrible marksman,” Aaron rumbles into his glass.
“So I’ll practice.”
“Irredeemably terrible,” he amends, but there’s a cadence to his voice, a pitch-difference, like maybe he’s not being completely serious.
“Yes, well. I’m not supposed to be the brawn of this joint enterprise,” Jonathan retorts before he remembers, with stomach-freezing heart-sinking clarity, that no, he’s not the brawn because he and Aaron aren’t a joint enterprise at all anymore.
Aaron sets down his glass, tracing the outlines of Tojo’s hat on the table with his fingertips. “You’ll take it.”
“If it comes through.”
Aaron moves to pick up his glass. Jonathan isn’t watching, not even really peripherally, so he doesn’t quite see, but it ends up falling onto the floor, spilling water all over. Aaron couldn’t have shoved it off the table like Jonathan thinks he might have seen. He wouldn’t do that. His grip on the glass must have slipped on the condensation.
The floor, pinnacle of decorative nanodesign, melts from carpet into a patch of wood.
Instead of going and getting a towel like a normal person, or leaving the water to evaporate, Aaron just strips off his shirt and dries the spot on the floor. He drapes his shirt over the table. The floor re-shapes again into carpet.
Jonathan wants to throttle Aaron, then thinks better of it. He wants to set his hands, his mouth, to Aaron’s shoulders, taste salt and skin, and okay, he’s a little desperate, but it’s probably justified because he hasn’t had sex in nearly a month.
Instead he turns his attention back to the ceiling.
“Well,” he murmurs lowly, “I won’t be able to decide now.” He lets his legs slide over the edge of the couch, feet landing on the floor as he sits up. “Thanks for letting me, you know, crash on your Freud couch. Want to switch places?”
Aaron shrugs minutely, the light from the sunset outside the window playing games of sunlight and shadow in the hollows of his collarbone, against the muscles of his chest. “No. Not yet. Need to think about it first.”
Jonathan, a little put out, rolls his shoulders. “I guess I’ll go home, then.”
“Might as well stay for dinner. Take-out.”
They walk down to get take-out from an Indian restaurant a few blocks away and sit at the two-person table in Aaron’s kitchen to eat it. Jonathan half-expects to be propositioned sometime during the meal, but Aaron never does. Jonathan’s not sure if he likes that or not. On the one hand, it’s realistic, because Jonathan would probably turn him down unless he made a deeply convincing case, which Jonathan suspects Aaron would be incapable of doing. Or it could be the depressing option, which is that Aaron doesn’t care, doesn’t want it, isn’t like Jonathan and didn’t spend the last five years hoping for more than he ever got.
Jonathan leaves Aaron’s apartment feeling clearer about himself, but knowing the situation is no more resolved than it was before.
A week later Jonathan catches sight of Susan coming down the hall towards his cubicle. He never leaves his back to the empty door-space, but he pretends not to see her until he has to. She isn’t smiling.
“Jonathan,” she says, knocking on the silicon-composite frame of his cubicle.
“Let me guess,” he says, not looking up. “I’m stuck here.” His throat hurts, and he wants her out of his cubicle before he starts breaking down.
“Not…exactly. The people who transferred you without talking to you first were viewed as having overreacted in a manner that went against not only department regulations but also, ahem, a civil rights law that still applies to you, so they’ve been slapped on the wrist. If you hear rumors about handler reorganizations and demotions, you didn’t hear them from me.
“I’m being told you should just be reassigned within my group, if you still want to be, and off the record Koskinen is excited to get someone who knows the region.
“You and Aaron are both on probation for the next two years, as well, and don’t expect bonuses for at least twice that long.”
Jonathan swallows anything that might come out of his mouth, because it would come out as ecstatic shouting, so instead he leans back in his chair and coughs.
“Um,” he says, “thank you. For helping.”
“Jesus, Byrne, stop trying to be manly about it. I know how much this means to you. You’re allowed to crack a facial expression.”
He laughs instead.
He spends two months in the Philippines with Koskinen. They think so alike they might as well be reading each others’ minds, and they’re far more efficient than either of them was with previous work partners. No offense meant to Aaron, but Jonathan is better in East Asia and Oceania than he ever was in South America.
When they get back to the New States, Jonathan goes hunting after Aaron, only to find that Aaron’s been sent off to Argentina for a little while. Jonathan has to go out to Korea before Aaron gets back, and then he and Koskinen are delayed by some higher-up international power struggle masquerading as paperwork problems at Narita. That mess ends with them needing to spend two weeks in Tokyo before they can get back to the New States.
By the time they do, Jonathan is deeply jet-lagged. The moment he is back in his apartment he takes a shower and then collapses into bed. It’s barely five in the evening.
He wakes up at two AM, tries to roll over and sleep some more and finds he can’t, so he gets up and fishes through his kitchen for something to eat, eventually managing to find a box of uncooked pasta.
Even after he’s cooked and eaten the pasta, it’s still dark out. He turns on a light and reads a book for a couple of hours, then tries to get back to sleep. This time, it works.
He wakes later that morning, when the sun has finally risen, and finds Aaron sitting in a chair that he has dragged into place next to Jonathan’s bed. Aaron’s hands and gun holsters are empty, hands clasped and forearms resting on his thighs.
“What’s this about?” Jonathan asks.
Aaron shrugs minutely. “Missed you.”
If only hearing that didn’t make Jonathan’s heart swell, make him want to wrap himself around Aaron in ways that he’s never been allowed to do. “You could’ve left me a message asking me to call you about lunch when I got back.”
“Could’ve,” Aaron acknowledges, “but didn’t want to.”
Aaron stares at his own hands for a few moments. “I didn’t notice when we were working together that I want you around. I do now because you’re not always with me, and it makes me crazy. Thinking ‘Jonathan would like this’ and wanting to fold the memory up, keep it in a pocket to bring to you. Not being able to.
“I miss working with you because I miss you. You’re probably still mad as hell, but since we’re not working partners anymore, I want to try everything over again.”
Jonathan swallows. “That wasn’t you talking,” he says, his mouth numb. “I know how to interpret Aaron-speak. That wasn’t it. Translate for me what you just said.”
Aaron half-smiles, glancing away, ducking his head a little in embarrassment. “In Jonathan-speak it’s probably ‘I’m being a girl, so date me already’.”
Jonathan lets himself roll back, flat onto the bed, and puts a hand over his face in exasperation. “Let me get this straight,” he says. “After ten years of sporadic sex, you think now is a good time to reboot and do things with roses and candlelit dinners?”
“Was thinking fewer roses, more sex. Can still do the dinners, if you like.”
“It’s barely even time for breakfast.”
“Did say ‘more sex’.”
Jonathan groans, eyes still covered. “That was an awful come-on,” he starts, only to fall silent at the sensation of Aaron’s fingers brushing up his throat to his lips, tracing their contours. There’s a rustle of fabric, a change in the air currents, and Jonathan almost opens his eyes before Aaron is kissing him, sideways and awkward and morning-breath bitter.
He finally has to turn his head to break the kiss, needing to breathe, and Aaron doesn’t stop. He just shifts his attention to the corners of Jonathan’s eyes, his cheekbones, the side of his neck.
“I thought,” Jonathan manages, sliding his fingers against the cloth of Aaron’s shirt, unbuckling the holsters across his chest and opening the buttons, “that kissing was outside the parameters of our interactions. Too gay.”
“Was wrong,” Aaron says against his throat. “It’s very much inside the parameters.”
I’m so glad, Jonathan thinks, only a little sarcastic, but he doesn’t say it. Instead he pulls Aaron on top of him, Aaron’s knees spread over his thighs, the cloth of Aaron’s unbuttoned shirt glancing over his bare chest. And then Aaron, pants unbuttoned-unzipped bulging, folds to sitting just below Jonathan’s hips – he’s heavy – and kisses him, again and again, unending.
Jonathan fumbles between their bodies, trying to unwrap the sheets and the clothing from between them, and finally his pajama pants are off and Aaron’s clothing has slipped down his hips, matching erections out oh-yes-hello-I-missed-you. Jonathan laughs into Aaron’s breastbone, chokes on his own breath when Aaron grinds into him, the rough heat of Aaron’s stomach, his cock, too much too soon. Aaron hisses.
There’s supposed to be lube in the bathroom. Jonathan never kept it next to the bed because he stopped masturbating after he found out about the security cameras. Now he wants it but doesn’t want to leave the bed to get it, doesn’t want to stop touching Aaron. Just slides his hand between their bodies, skin and hardness against his palm. One of Aaron’s hands reaches to join his, Aaron’s other sliding beneath Jonathan’s back, upward warm pressure on his spine. At some point Aaron’s rhythm slips into unevennness, desperation, throwing off Jonathan’s pace just enough that Aaron comes on him, unexpected. But instead of going away – leaving him – finishing Jonathan like he’s a chore – Aaron slides down his body and apologizes, Never done this before. Sorry, the words breathed vibrations into his hip and Aaron’s mouth warm and slick on him.
Jonathan comes watching Aaron blow him.
Aaron wakes him a half an hour later. Jonathan puts on clothes while Aaron fixes the ones he was already wearing. They go into work together, and take all the stairs.
Their cubicles are at opposite ends of Susan’s group’s space, Jonathan’s further from the staircase exit than Aaron’s. When he moves to leave Aaron touches his shoulder, stopping him, and then the back of his neck, right over C6, intimately dangerous reassurance.
Jonathan stands up straight and looks back, meeting Aaron’s gaze – okay, sex in the men’s room during lunch is definitely now on his agenda. Aaron almost smiles before he looks away.
Jonathan takes that as his cue to go to his cubicle and get to work on the report from the adventure in Korea/Narita.
Koskinen, from the cubicle next to his, says, “Oh, good, you’re here. I did my best with my memory, but I need you to check against the recording of the security goons.”
“Sure,” Jonathan says, going into Koskinen’s cubicle and leaning over his shoulder. “Move over and give me a set of a headphones.”
Koskinen rolls his chair out of Jonathan’s way. “Whiny bitch,” he says, holding out a tangle of wire and plastic, grinning.
Jonathan waves an obscene gesture in Koskinen’s direction and picks up the headphones. He turns on the recording, listens to it for a second before pausing it, and reads Koskinen’s recounting.
“Go use my desk for the day,” he tells Koskinen. “Your memory is abysmal.”
He grins, knowing that Koskinen is rolling his eyes, and gets to work.
It’s the sixth time he’s listened to this particular sentence and he’s still not sure exactly what the guard said. He’s trying to figure out from the sound graph if it was a single- or double-length vowel, and he thought he was beyond this, except it changes the meaning –
Someone taps his shoulder, and he’s so concentrated on listening that he starts to go for the lock without thinking –
Only to find himself dumped back in his chair, Aaron leaning over him, not quite smiling, and pulling Jonathan’s headphones off.
“Said your name before,” Aaron says. “Even the Japanese one.” And Jonathan didn’t answer, right.
“What time is it?” Jonathan asks, then checks the clock on the screen. Twelve-thirty. “Give me a second to close this up and then we can go.” He turns the chair so that it’s facing the screen computer screen again and tries to finish his sentence while Aaron looms over him, hands on the arms of Jonathan’s chair. There can’t more than an inch between Aaron’s chest and the back of Jonathan’s head. Obvious, and dangerous, and – but they’re not partners anymore.
Jonathan locks up his computer and spins his chair again so he’s facing Aaron, who stopped leaning on the chair when it started moving but isn’t really much farther away.
When Jonathan stands, he jostles up against Aaron, not accidentally, and Aaron doesn’t move to give him space.