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Love Will Tie the Slipnot

by T.F. Grognon

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/338577.html)

They’re headed for the edge. Arranged in a ring, slowly turning, the four of them shuffle and feint, yell and protest. A searchlight bisects the ring, back and forth, an anxious pendulum.

They’re all shouting. His name, others’ names, recriminations and accusations all spiral out over the harbor.

“Everyone, just — shut up!” Nate scrubs the back of his gun-holding hand against his sweaty forehead. “Let me think, for one goddamn second.”

“Nathaniel,” Malinovka says. She sounds firm but kind. He doesn’t trust that kindness any longer. He never should have in the first place. “You know what you need to do.”

“Please,” Sal says, opening their arms. “Let me explain.”

García, of course, says nothing. He won’t deign to beg or explain, not even to Nate. Especially not to Nate. He recrosses his arms and looks away, chewing his lower lip, squinting. He’s furious. He’s holding himself so tightly his shoulders are bowing. The curls on his head, in his beard, brighten in the searchlight’s beam, then sink back, invisible. The blood on his face is darker yet.

Nate straightens his back. “Sal, where’s the film?”

They half-smile. “What film?”

Beside him, Malinovka remains silent, but she does move closer.

“And you–” Nate turns the gun on Malinovka. “Stay where you are. This isn’t, this isn’t–” Something shudders through him, cold and rocky, scraping him raw as it goes. It’s a little like fear, a lot like uncertainty. He doesn’t forget what he was going to say. He has nothing to say. Words are gone, evaporating into the night, sucked up by the sound of sirens, obliterated by the glowing searchlight.

He’s empty. He’s got nothing but a gun in his hand and nowhere to go.

He’d like to know how they all got here.

*

Earlier, when the day itself was still newborn and tentative, in the wee small hours, Sal comes home. The city is vacant and expectant, the lights shining without a soul in motion, every street wider than in the day, waitin. Sal sneaks in, crouching among the crates of a wholesale fruit delivery; they have exactly one dollar to their (ghost’s) name and the clothes on their back.

Those aren’t even their clothes, but that of a hapless, overly friendly Yankee who got a little too close back in Hoboken. They were leaning against the ferry terminal wall, squinting across the river to the city. He decided to make conversation: Commie utopia? I got a paradise right here for you, sweetcheeks. Sal followed him back into the parking lot and got his pants down before they choked him. Shooting would have been easier, but they had no weapon and no desire to bloody the clothes, then stripped him and rolled the body into the river.

It would have company there, at least.

Now, as the sun still shies just below the horizon, Sal moves westward, then north along Sixth Avenue. The old fairy camp down at the Christopher Street piers is gone, so they keep walking. They’d planned to rest there, get the lay of the land, maybe trade favors for a change of clothes. That’s how they did it in the old days.

They’re older now, and this is an entirely new city.

*

When he wakes, Nate has only the echo of a hangover. Nothing terrible, just the suggestion, or a warning of how bad he could have felt if he’d had more to drink last night. But he was (fairly) sensible then, so now, as he finishes his shower, he feels fine. More than fine.

Ravenous, wrapped in Garcia’s crimson robe, he pads down the hall to the kitchen. The robe is huge on him, as it is on its rightful owner, more luxurious than anything he’s ever worn.

“So this is what you get up to when I’m gone,” Garcia says from his usual spot at the tiny breakfast table. He’s dressed for work, corduroy sport coat and red tie, soft khaki trousers and crepe-soled shoes. “Nice robe.”

Surprise plummets through Nate and leaves him hollow and shaky. “What are you doing here?”

“How soon they forget.” Garcia rattles the newspaper in his hands. “I live here, remember?”

“Ha,” Nate says, going to dig out the percolator from the cupboard. “You know what I meant. Shouldn’t you be at Idlewild?”

“Your coffee’s on the table.”

Surprised, Nate turns. “Thanks.” It’s still hot and exactly how he takes it, hardly any milk, too much sugar. “Is everything all right?”

García has his notecards spread across the table, a pencil tucked behind his ear. He’s been working on this paper about the revolting Polish troops and their threat to autocratic stability in Calderon for over two months. The cards are well-worn, written in several inks and smudged lead.

He rarely gives the impression of worry, but he leaves traces, on cards, in the air.

“Changed my flight,” he says when he finishes reading one section of the paper. “Conference doesn’t convene until this evening after all.”

He raises his eyes to meet Nate’s and blinks, then smiles. He might as well be a different man when he smiles. His whole face changes, goes kind and soft. The threads of silver in his hair and beard look less like exhaustion and more like wrought jewellery.

“Your paper’s going to blow them away,” Nate tells him.

García blinks slowly and gives a loose, one-shouldered shrug. “It should. Who knows if it will?”

Nate puts down his half-finished coffee. He needs to find something to pack for lunch, but as he slides between the table and the stove, Garcia grabs him around the waist, tipping Nate into his lap.

“Hi,” Nate says, tucking his head into the crook of Garcia’s shoulder, kissing the soft skin below his beard. “Morning.”

Garcia has one arm around Nate’s shoulders, the other between the halves of the robe, grasping Nate’s knee. When he kisses Nate, he tastes like coffee and cigarettes, sour but far from disgusting. Familiar, really, and Nate’s other arm goes around Garcia as he hums and murmurs, his legs falling open with the robe.

They’ve always been good at this. When he’s feeling glum, Nate thinks that must be because, while kissing, they can’t talk. When they can’t talk, they therefore can’t fight or misunderstand or willfully ignore each other.

“I have to go to work,” Nate says eventually, pressing his forehead against Garcia’s cheek, rubbing the silky beard. “I’m sorry.”

Garcia’s hand roves up and down Nate’s thigh. “For going to work?”

Or something else?, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to say.

“For that,” Nate says, swallowing, “for last night. For…” He trails off and presses another kiss to the side of Garcia’s neck. He’s not going to apologize, not in so many words, but if he gives the appearance of apology, peace just might return a little more quickly.

Garcia tightens his arm around Nate’s shoulders. “On my walk last night, I remembered something important.”

Nate swallows the laugh he’d like to make at my walk. That’s a much nicer, far more polite way to describe García’s exit.

They’d fought, loudly, not even bothering to wait until the party was over. The sort of fight that started small – someone forgot the coasters or burned the pigs-in-blankets – but went incandescent within the space of three or four sentences. Garcia had stormed out, leaving Nate to handle, sheepishly, awkwardly, the remaining guests.

More than anything, he’d hated the pity in their eyes.

“What’s that?” Nate goes to stand up, but Garcia won’t let him. “Work, man. I have to –”

“It’s Sal’s birthday,” Garcia says. “Today.”

As he loosens his grasp, Nate slips to his feet, manages to keep his balance, and goes to the sink. He rinses out his cup, then stands there, gripping the edge of the counter. The calendar on the wall is two months out of date. He really ought to fix that. “I know. I didn’t think you did.”

“Nate –”

Nate glances over his shoulder. “I have to go to work. I…. Thank you. For remembering.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Nate snorts a couple times. They’ve never been able to talk about Sal, not for very long at all. Certainly not while sober.

What did you do in the war, Nate?

I fell in love with my best friend.

What happened?

We blew up.

They’d be twenty-nine today. Next year, ’78, that’s the big three-oh.

García follows him back to the bedroom, perching on the foot of the unmade bed while Nate gets dressed.

“I’m going to be late for work,” Nate says, when he’s pulling on his blazer. He stands in front of García, leans in to let him snug up his tie like he likes to do. He exhales slowly when García cups his cheek.

Garcia squints up at him, his heavy-lashed eyes dark and intent. “Sweetheart,” he says, and then goes silent. He cups Nate’s other cheek now, too. His thumbs tick back and forth, like he’s brushing away tears that aren’t there.

Nate kisses him, one more time, then hugs him for good measure. “Your paper’s going to kill the professors dead, I promise. I’ll see you on Friday.”

He doesn’t make that a question. It has to be a fact.

“Safe travels,” Nate says, like he always does before García leaves. “Come home to me.”

García holds Nate’s hands and peers up at him. He kisses Nate’s left palm, then his right. “Always.”

It’s not a promise he can necessarily keep; they both know that, though for different reasons.

*

Valise in hand, García takes the 125th Street bus across town to one of his boltholes. There, he exchanges the professorial get-up for heavy twill work pants, flannel shirt, and steel-toed boots and back-combs his hair.

He makes good time going south, to the Acropolis diner on the corner of 31st and Eighth. He takes the second to last stool at the counter and drums his fingers on the sticky surface until Frank finally sighs and ambles over.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve coming around here,” Frank says. “The fuck do you want?”

“I missed you, too, lovey.” García blows him a kiss as he turns the stool back and forth. Frank’s one of those resolutely hetero New Left types, so very open-minded right up until it comes to his own life and body. He lasted a good five, maybe six, years at the Church before alcohol blurred his (already small) competence and his (ever hesitant) commitment to his principles.

“Keep that deviant shit to yourself,” Frank says now and García purses his lips again, then toasts him with the terrible coffee.

“Only if you help me out.”

Frank leans a little back, looking García over. “You threatening me?”

“No. Just need a hand.”

Shaking his head, Frank mops a filthy towel over the counter. “You need my help.”

“I do.”

“This ought to be good.”

García opens the menu and studies it, tapping one finger against his lips as he surveys his options. Casually, musingly, he asks, “What’s it called, when you kill a priest? Homicide, fratricide, patricide, I know all those. What kind of -cide is it, killing a cleric? Say, a bishop?”

Frank raises his hands as he steps back. “You’re fucking crazy. Fuck outta here with that shit.”

He sets the menu down and drains the coffee. “But I haven’t gotten my kiss.”

“Man, fuck off–”

García drops enough change to cover coffee and the breakfast he didn’t get to order, and then some; Frank’s liver remains a harsh and thirsty mistress. “I’m going, I’m going.” At the door, he pauses and looks back. “You think of the word, though. You let me know, okay, handsome? You know where to find me.”

*

Sal has to wonder if it even counts as a homecoming if they’ve never been here before.

The city looks just the same, if slightly cleaner. It’s like the warren of rooms discovered in a dream, the space that has always existed on the other side of a door you only just noticed and thought to open.

*

García would like to think that the nickname for the Municipal Security and Intelligence Directorate is ironic. You don’t fight, and win, a thoroughly Marxist-Leninist war of liberation and then go and call the place “the Church” with a straight face.

He hopes not, certainly.

He was up the river on a felony weapons charge when the name took hold. No one who was here is able to tell him who first came up with it, or why. By the time he got out and made it back to the city, the name had stuck.

Even worse, the head of the service is known as the Bishop, which is too twee, unbearably so, for García.

He doesn’t want to know what any of them were thinking. Bunch of empty-headed assholes, slavish-minded clerks, and careerist rats, so far as he was concerned. The intervening years have done nothing but confirm that opinion.

He’d had such high hopes, too. Nothing like idealism, which was the province of liberal-arts undergrads and red diaper babies, but halfway decent expectations for what they might accomplish together given half a chance.

“Sweet, stupid boy,” Robin had always said when he got going, describing what could happen, what should be done.

He put that shit aside within a week of his return.

*

Everyone who works here calls this place the Church. Nate doesn’t know what was wrong with its real name: Armory. After all, knowledge is power. Occupying an entire block, it really does resemble a medieval fortress of red and cream brick.

He enters from the back, with the rest of those at his clearance level. The sign on the building says it’s the Department of Records and Civil Infrastructure. He passes through two checkpoints, waits for the elevator to the sub-basements, and is almost home free when Liza in translations and coding calls out to him. He hooks a dog-leg over to her, waving as he approaches.

“Brown-bagging it today?” Liza asks.

Nate lifts the bag as evidence. “How about you? Want a picnic?”

She frowns and fiddles with the resolution on her terminal display. “I can’t, doctor’s appointment. Where’s the old man?”

“Academic conference,” he says. Some afternoons, when he can, García walks over from his office at Hunter to have lunch with Nate in the park. “Paris, I think.”

She blows a soft raspberry. “Impressive.”

“He’s an egghead,” Nate says, “what can you do?”

“Maybe if my teacher looked like that, I’d’ve stayed in school.”

She makes this joke regularly, and it wasn’t all that funny originally, but Nate nods like he always does, shrugs, and pushes off from her desk. “See you later, then.”

“Kiss-kiss, baby,” she calls after him.

“Have a good day,” he calls back as he unlocks the first of the series of doors to his vault.

When this building was still an armory, the vault stored ammunition and gunpowder. Then, when the war took hold and things looked bad for the rich, art work and statuary from up and down Park Avenue were crowded in here. Now, three levels down, this is where the records of the war and liberation go to rest.

One person’s terrorist might be another’s freedom fighter. One person’s liberator is another’s executioner. But the world over, whatever the regime and its ideology, a librarian is a librarian. Or an archivist, or a records clerk. Frequently also a microfiche technician. Nate is all of those things.

Down here, everything resolves to information. All the blood and gore, diplomacy and intrigue, becomes apprehensible, knowable, memorable. Nate appreciates that. He’s had far too much of fighting: things are messy and unpredictable, full of loss and doubt. Now he keeps records in order, neat and findable, useful.

Desire – hell, people – can’t be resolved down to registry numbers and authority control files. He knows that, and that’s why he likes it down here. Here, everything has already happened. It’s up to him to put it in further, final order and ensure that it is retrievable. The danger is long past; he’s working for the future now.

García believes that Nate is a librarian with the city. In García’s mind, Nate reads storybooks to the little ones and runs research workshops for comrade activists. When he brags on Nate to others, Nate has to fight not to wince at the untruths. He is, sort of, “a city librarian”, but not that kind. Nate considers this fib an uncomfortable necessity, like the ones he and Sal told during the war to get through checkpoints and obtain the material they needed. You don’t enjoy lying, but you do what you have to.

He tries to keep such necessities to an absolute minimum. That’s a big part of why they fought the war, after all. At least why he and Sal did. To be free of crippling compromise, to make the space for honesty.

*

Just below East Houston, Sal passes the apartment building where Nate’s granny used to live. With a sack of liverwurst sandwiches and one towel between them, Nate and Sal would come down here every summer day to visit the massive pool in the park off Pitt Street. Afterwards, they’d have dinner with old Mrs. Turner before heading back uptown, sun-dazzled and exhausted.

If Sal crosses Houston, Pitt becomes Avenue C; five blocks further is where their own abuela lived. Maybe she still lives there, but Sal’s not inclined to find out one way or the other.

The pools are dry. Sal sits on a bench and watches a group of Young Pioneers in their matching raglan jerseys – iron-on bubble letters identify them as Los Jóvenes Exploradores! Loisaida – weed the flower beds and sweep clean the pool bottoms.

“Hey, mister, there’s breakfast inside,” one of them tells Sal as she passes. Her hair is pulled back tightly, only to explode in a massive puff at the back of her head. With her sweet, serious eyes, she reminds Sal of Nate.

“Thanks,” Sal says. The little girl salutes before running off, trowel in hand.

*

Even before the war was over, some in the nascent Church and down at City Hall were concerned about all the young vets growing more extreme, turning from victory celebrations back to political violence.

As García said then, “You’re all worried these kids are going to look around, get a fucking clue that the new bosses are just the old bosses in better clothes with darker skin, and turn on you.”

He was told to watch his mouth and do his job. He could do the latter, at least.

Under the cover of the new ministry of education and youth development, veterans’ division, García and others were tasked with tracking the youth leaders, keeping to light surveillance and occasional contact. It was a demotion for García, a clear signal that his fortunes were again in the gutter. Surveillance and interviews: it was supposed to be insulting.

He was insulted, to be honest. An entire bookcase and office chair suffered his wrath before he settled down. If there was a danger of these kids staying revolutionary, he was lucky to be placed so close to them.

So far as Nate knew, then, García was the post-liberation equivalent of his old social-services caseworker. He had little reason to suspect otherwise, nor was he – at least circumstantially – all that unique. There were many former youth partisans, many now orphaned, for the ministry to watch out for and try to help.

The rest of them faded back into their new lives. All those fears of further putsches and power struggles proved unfounded.

But Nate, Nate. He was different.

“I’m just trying to get back to living,” Nate told him on their first interview. “Man, I don’t want to fight any more.”

He’d been hospitalized for a month right at the end of the war after a bomb meant for the Broadway Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil went off early. His partner was killed; Nate took shrapnel to the gut, some of which was still in him.

“What do you want to do?” García asked.

Nate cocked his head and a slow sad smile drifted across his face. “I told you. Remember how to live. Just be alive again.”

García pretended to write that down while looking at the kid through his lashes. He believed Nate. That wasn’t something that happened to him, ever. “You’re living right now, aren’t you?”

Nate rubbed the sunburst scar on his waist and looked away. “Getting there, but no, not yet.”

García didn’t know what to say or write. “I’ll help you,” he said and Nate looked at him, startled, then full of hope.

“Yeah?”

“I will,” García heard himself say; unable to look away, he held Nate’s gaze. “Promise.”

He was in so much shit.

Nate was strong, young, and beautiful. He looked, to García’s (already ever-more lovestruck eyes), like El Immortal, Martin Dihigo, the pre-war star of Cuban and Negro Leagues that García’s father had made sure he idolized. When Dihigo, now the Cuban Minister of Sport, visited the City just before his death, he umpired a demonstration game: Nate’s Transit Typhoons versus the previous year’s champions, Sanitation Superstars. Fifteen innings, and the Typhoons pulled it out by two runs in the bottom of the fifteenth.

The morning paper the next day published a photo of Dihigo shaking Nate’s hand. Garcia keeps a copy of that photo in his main wallet, the one that he carries if he’s not under any other cover.

When the call went out from the Russians looking for North American cosmonaut candidates, many in the Church put Nate’s name forward. He was already a war hero, athletic and charismatic, a real child of the revolution. He would have excelled, García knew, in both parts of the job. He was a natural for braving space, of course, but also for leading parades, appearing on stamps, accepting wreaths, and cuddling children.

García doesn’t remember coming to any kind of decision. All he remembers is opening the file. Nate’s face peered up at him from the photo clipped to the top. Once García signed off on the nomination, there was only the Bishop left to approve it before it was forwarded to Star City.

He picked up his smoldering cigarette and applied it to the edge of the nomination memorandum. The fire didn’t catch – he knew better – so he clamped the butt in his lips and flicked on his lighter. The memo’s onion-skin went right up in a bright orange flare. He dropped it on the floor to stamp it out. First it drifted, wavering in the air as if it were trying to make up its mind, before it finally came to rest.

The scorch mark remained, shaped like a loop, a cursive lower-case L, for years.

Robin was disgusted by García’s caution, his adherence to the ethics of a profession that was not, actually, his own.

“Screw the boy, have your fun, and be done with it,” she said. “This mooning about is exhausting.”

He insisted on waiting until his new cover came into play: professor of comparative literature at CUNY. Once that happened, he made his move. He felt like he’d already made his declaration, that first meeting, but now was the time to see if it meant anything.

The next day, he took Nate out to lunch, itself not that unusual, though he chose a spot somewhat nicer than their usual papaya-shake-and-hot-dog stand. Nate, however, had just come from his municipal shift in transit, face shining with sweat, expression falling as he took in the restaurant’s white fabric napkins and glittering glassware. Apologizing, García turned on his heel and led the way back to Papaya Boy.

“I’m going to the university,” he told Nate.

They sat on the top level of Bethesda Terrace. It was mid-November, not quite winter but bleak already, pale matted grass and dark bare trees. Nate swung his legs as he munched his second hot dog. His grin broke over his face at the news. “Congratulations, man! That’s great!”

“It is,” García said. He squinted at the angel in the fountain; she had her back to them, her arms spread. “I’ll miss being a caseworker, but it’s a good move.”

“You’re great at it,” Nate said, then shrugged when he couldn’t think of the word. “Working the cases. Me, my case, you know.”

He had a smear of mustard above his upper lip, just on one side, brilliant yellow highlighting the extravagant, gorgeous curve. Even on that gray, glum day, he all but radiated.

García reached over to wipe the mustard away. Nate’s eyes widened, then, somehow, his grin widened even more, and he was grabbing García’s hand, pulling him in, kissing him hard and open-mouthed.

“I’m not wrong, am I?” he asked breathlessly, hand already tangled in the back of García’s hair.

“No, no, never,” García replied, hand on Nate’s jaw, his neck, mouth hot under his, wet and slick and mobile.

That was probably the most honest he had yet been. He has certainly not been able to match it since. But Nate was grinning still, his breath coming fast and shallow, bumping his chest against García’s, nearly wrestling him over onto the ground. It was worth it.

*

Sal places the call from a lunch counter off Union Square. It rings eleven times before he answers, sounding rushed and angry. “Taube. Who’s this?”

“I need something to wear,” Sal says quietly.

He exhales, the noise staticky and thunderous through the receiver. “Do you have your gift for me?”

That’s part of the deal. There is no deal without the evidence Taube needs to bring down the Bishop. Without that, Sal’s just an execution that hasn’t happened yet and Taube would be more than willing to be the one to pull the trigger.

Sal closes their eyes and nods before replying, “Everything you asked for. But I need some clothes. And I need to see him first.”

“Honey,” Taube says, “your soft heart’s going to be your undoing, you know that?”

“Nate,” Sal tells him. “Let me see Nate and you’ll get your gift.”

*

After hanging up on Sal, García finds that breaking into Robin’s west side safehouse is ridiculously easy. She overvalues her own cleverness, always has.

The place is plain, clean with a lingering lemon scent in the air. He helps himself to some cheese and bread, then eats as he paces around. Crumbs drop down his front, onto the floor, as he pokes at books and squints at the unremarkable photographs. He wonders whose pictures these were: A comrade’s? An enemy’s? There is a moon-faced child with a bowl cut in several of the pictures, and a severe woman sucking her teeth.

He grins, chewing with his mouth open, imagining that the woman is Robin in a decade or so.

There’s a nice, well-cleaned Makarov PM in the television cabinet. Tempting, but he leaves it. Too easy to find: someone wants that used. In the bedroom, the bedside table sports only an ugly vibrator and a US paperback with cracked spine that falls open to a frankly pathetic love scene.

Someone lets themselves in as he checks the contents of the jewelry box and an old chocolate tin on top of the bureau.

He has both hands in the top drawer of the bureau, rooting through silky underthings, when Robin presses up against his back, a gun against his right kidney.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in Beirut?” Her lips rest against his carotid, follow him as he tilts his head. She must be wearing heels to reach this high.

He licks the corner of his mouth. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

Her laughter is low and mean. “Only to you, and some others I’d prefer to forget.”

“Well,” he says, raising his hands slowly. “The feeling’s mutual.”

“Cute,” she says. “Who are we today, pray tell? Taube? García? Someone else entirely?”

“I’m anyone you want, you know that.”

“That hasn’t been true for a very long time.” She takes a step back. “Turn around.” He starts to lower his hands, just to annoy her, and sure enough, she clicks her tongue. “You know how this goes.”

“One of us on our knees, the other fighting to stay awake and fake it, yeah.” He turns slowly, crossing his arms behind his head, and leans against the bureau. “Something like that. Hi, Robin. You look…well.”

She doesn’t smile. Little more than five feet tall, twenty years his senior, she is tiny and terrifying. Gorgeous, if, like García, you tend to fall helpless before those cold-hearts who’d just as easily sell you out as buy you dinner, gut you or give you a hand up. They’ve done both to each other, several times over.

Once upon a time, she was his teacher. She preferred that term to the others, just as he preferred student to gigolo, hanger-on, leech.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Needed some lady things.”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Try again.”

“It’s the truth. I’m working with someone who’d like–” Hands still behind his head, he settles for moving one elbow in a rough circle. “Nylons, dresses, that sort of thing.”

“So much easier to break into one of my places and root around than it is to send her off to Peck & Peck. Or, knowing your tastes, Alexander’s?”

“You have such wonderful style,” he tells her. “Something off-the-rack could never compare.”

She snorts lightly and turns, lowering the gun to her side. “Help yourself, then. When you’re finished, then we’ll talk.”

“I’ve got a lot on the agenda today,” he says. “Can we talk while I shop?”

She recrosses her legs, gun-hand resting on one knee. “All right. Who are you working with? Toward what end? And did you really think I wouldn’t find out?”

“I’d never compromise a partner,” he says from the closet, “and the end is, shall we say, opaque at the moment. Of course I didn’t think you’d find out, because I thought you were dead.”

“You’d compromise an egg-salad sandwich,” she says. “The green wool, take that. It never worked with my complexion. As for your ends and your obvious bereavement–”

He glances over his shoulder. “I was devastated.”

“I’m sure you were.” Her free hand goes to her hair, then, as she notices him watching, drifts back down. Now she does smile, tilting her head, looking him over. “You poor thing.”

“Inconsolable.”

“Didn’t your sweet little chocolate bon-bon soothe the pain?”

He turns back to the closet, and clears his throat. “He’s off the table. You know that.”

“I can’t even mention him?” She raises her voice; she must be feigning impatience. “I’m to ignore the love of your life, the beat to your heart?”

He selects a few more simple wrap dresses in dark, organic shades and drapes them over his forearm. “This ought to do it.”

“Good,” Robin says, and opens her arms, uncrossing her legs, as he steps close and sinks down. “Come here, dear boy.”

He drops the dresses in a heap to grasp her knees and lean in, mouth already open, tongue eager.

*

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Sal says.

“Aw, too bad,” Taube replies without a trace of sympathy. “Well, give me what I need and I’ll be on my merry way.”

“You haven’t told him?”

“Oh, dear heart. No. That’s your news.” He nudges the shopping bag on the ground between them with his foot. “Some clothing for you. Broad selection, depending on whether you’re feeling…” He grins and narrows his eyes. “Like a broad or not.”

“That’s funny,” Sal says and he shrugs, rubs his beard.

They’re leaning forward on the low stone wall bordering Central Park. Through the trees, Nate is partly visible, sitting on a bench, eating leftover hors d’oeuvres while reading a book. He looks very much alone, legs crossed to hold both book and bag lunch. His profile curves sharply against the dead grass behind him.

“You got him,” Sal says.

“Funny what just sticking around can get you,” Taube replies. “You never would’ve lost him.”

“I was unconscious for five months.”

“And still,” Taube says. “Plenty of us made it back here. Even a year, year and a half later, the doors were still open.”

Sal looks down at their hands, then back up, across the park. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“Oh, I’m sorry–” Taube takes a step away. “I don’t actually care. Did I let you think I did? Your reasons, whatever they are, doubtless tortured and miserable and pettier than fuck, I don’t care about.”

Sal shakes their head. “Meet me at Café des Artistes at seven.”

“Why?” Taube demands. “Stop drawing this out, for the love of God. Just give me what I want, go say hi, to Nate, hello, sorry about being dead for the last ten years. Just be fucking done with this.”

“No, not yet,” Sal says, lifting the shopping bag and letting the handle slip down to their elbow. “Soon, though.”

They just need a little more time to think.

*

After lunch in the park, Nate is on his way to wash his hands when a little clerk from the upper floors flags him down.

“They want you,” she whispers. “Upstairs, room 187.”

Once a month, he climbs as high as the fourth floor to deliver the next ration of carbons and insta-fiche stencils. But he’s never lingered above the mezzanine.

Now, he’s been sitting in this tiny, drab room, little bigger than a janitor’s closet, for a good twenty minutes. When the door bangs open and an elegant woman in a sharply-tailored dress backs inside, her arms full of files, he nearly jumps out of his skin.

“I’m Malinovka,” she tells him. “I work on the eighth floor of the directorate here.”

“I know who you are.” Nate fixes his posture. “Not by sight, of course. By name, though. Names.” Malinovka’s cryptonyms tend to involve birds and the color red: Rotkehlchen, Tordo, Pettirosso.

“You do?” She presses her hand to her throat and bows her head a little. “I’m flattered.”

“Bachelor’s, Vassar, 1936. Member, CP-USA, 1934. Liaised with both Hede Massing and the Ware Group. Neatly avoided a subpoena at both of Hiss’s trials. You recruited Taube, trained him, worked with him on the Cohn assassination.”

“Well,” she says, smiling demurely, “that was a team effort.”

“All right.” He isn’t looking to flatter her, but to cut through her falsity, this charade that she’s an ordinary flunky who just happens to be meeting with him. “What do you want?”

“You’re admirably direct.”

“Thanks,” he replies. He crosses his arms loosely over his chest, stretches out his legs, and crosses them, too.

He spends long stretches of time alone with file folders and microfiche. He’s used to being quiet. He can wait for her to speak.

She smokes two more cigarettes. He considers asking her for one, then counts to one hundred.

He reaches 87 before she stubs out her cigarette and lights another.

“We have some concerns,” she says.

“Concerns over what?”

“To be perfectly blunt, Mr. Turner, concerns about your trustworthiness.”

Nate keeps still, even as fear surges right up his chest. He doesn’t have anything to worry about, he knows that. She’s just trying to intimidate him.

It’s working.

“My clearance is high,” he says. “Renewed just last spring. There have never been concerns before.”

“Things change.”

“I don’t. I haven’t.”

She pages through an ordinary file folder. “Are you sure about that?”

“I’m just an archivist,” Nate says. “Not even archivist yet, not officially. Just a records clerk. I file things.”

“Just a quiet little filing mouse?” She lifts a flake of tobacco from the corner of her mouth, studies it on her fingertip, then blows it off.

“Yeah. I show up, I work as hard as I can, and I go home, keep my mouth shut and my hands clean.”

“You expect us to believe that? With your history?” She tosses a pile of 8×10 photos across the table; they fan out before him, slippery and antic, images of the bridges he and David bombed, one of the two Yankee cops they killed. A close-up of the bullet wounds in one cop’s back. With her index finger, she nudges a photo of one of the collaborators they had to detain and rough up. Miss Bernhardt, he remembers her name, and how filthily she cursed them to hell and back.

He swallows the sourness – both fear and shame – brimming up through him. “That was war.”

“And what do you think this is?” Malinovka’s gesture manages to indicate, not just the room, but something like the world at large. “The present time, I mean.”

He tilts his head a little. “A nominal peace cut through by deep undercurrents of violent hostility and worrisome instability?”

“Smart ass.”

He nods. “But I’m not wrong, either.”

“Is this funny to you, Mr. Turner?”

Nate schools his expression and shakes his head. “No.”

“This part is harder, Mr. Turner. Unutterably more difficult. Winning a war? We did that with teenagers like you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.” She lights another cigarette and sits there, half-turned away from him, smoking. Her profile is striking, aquiline nose and fine jaw. “Amateurs are useful, you know. They’re very enthusiastic and there are so many of them.”

“We died for you, hundreds of us,” he says. “Thousands. Are you honestly telling me that means nothing?”

Her brow lifts. “You’re surprisingly sentimental. For ‘just a records clerk’.”

“It’s sentimental now, to mourn the dead? To remember them?” No one ever found Sal’s body; they were scattered in countless pieces into the Harlem River Ship Canal.

How do you grieve someone who just vanished? he asked García once when García said something about moving on, putting Sal in the past. You can’t mourn the wind.

“It is when the stakes are this high,” Malinovka replies. “And whenever such deaths are used to score rhetorical points, as you insist on trying to do.”

He sits back, rubbing his forehead. “Fine. Tell me what you want to know, I’ll see if I can help.”

“How much do you share about your work, Mr. Turner?”

“Nothing.”

“Try again.”

“Nothing at all.”

She rests her chin in her hand, cigarette sending a spiral of smoke straight to the ceiling. “Pillow talk happens. We all know that. It’s understandable.”

“I sleep pretty deeply.” He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and takes another. She’s fishing. She might not know anything, but he can’t risk relying on that.

“Your…boyfriend?” she asks. He isn’t sure if he actually heard contempt in her tone at boyfriend or if he’s simply growing more paranoid by the moment. She checks another file, one with blue tape on its spine. He’s never touched the blue spines; they’re so far above his clearance, they might as well be in outer space. “He doesn’t mind?”

“Mind what?” Nate can’t talk about García. He can’t. García doesn’t belong here, but in a library, or in his office, tipping back in his chair, book in one hand, manuscript pages in the other, more books open on the desk, his (illegal) Selectric humming. His thoughts flying through the past, reviving poetry, making it sing all over again.

“Your sleeping habits,” she says, frowning a little at the file. “Lack of pillow talk. Such…tight lips.”

That was contempt, an obscene and obscure jibe. Nate ignores it as best he can. “He knows I work in a library.” He scrubs his palms up and down his thighs under the table. “Who wants to talk much about that?”

She smiles, for the first time, her gaze flickering up to meet his. “Indeed.”

“Yeah,” he replies. The moment stretches a little, until he realizes that he’s been smiling too long, that he hasn’t said anything else. They’re back to waiting each other out. “May I have a smoke?”

She glances at the file. Does it tell her his eating habits, too? “I didn’t realize you smoked.”

“Sometimes, sure.” He accepts the cigarette when she passes it over, then the matchbook. It’s a plain one, red, unused. It takes a few tries to light one, and then, when he does, he chokes on the first few inhales. The corner of her mouth quirks at him. “It’s been a while.”

“I see,” she says. “Now, your…what do you call him? This paramour of yours. The older gentleman — although, of course, given how you met, I’m not sure he’s quite a gentleman.”

Nate holds the smoke in his mouth until his lips burn. “I generally call him García.”

He isn’t a gentleman. Nate’s not sure he’s ever met one, to be honest. García is older, but that’s hardly something that Nate can control. Besides, people his age are somewhat scarce on the ground, thanks to being the sort of amateurs that Malinovka finds so disposable. After the war, García was the only one who listened to Nate. That meant much more than Nate ever realized at the time.

And now Malinovka’s suggesting something odious and underhanded, that García took advantage of his position as Nate’s caseworker. Nate was already twenty.

She wants him to get mad. She’s almost smiling at him. “I see,” she says again. “I see. Now, Nate. You don’t tell him anything about work? Nothing at all?”

“No,” he says. She’s being friendlier now. Calling him by his name, not Mr. Turner. “Really. There are much more interesting things to talk about, believe me.”

“Maybe I’ve been doing this job too long,” she says. “I can’t think of anything more interesting than what we do here.”

“I –” Nate waves the cigarette. “Our jobs are very different. I don’t talk about this with him.”

“Perhaps that’s all this is,” she murmurs as she leafs through the file. “Just a misunderstanding.”

He’s about to ask what “all this is” when he catches himself. It’s nice to have the cigarette. He has something to concentrate on to keep from asking dumb questions and leaving himself open.

“He’s a difficult person,” Nate says. Maybe if he offers something true, easily proven but also inconsequential, she’ll be satisfied. She’ll have enough for a report, the kind he files hundreds of times a day, and this can end. “We don’t always get along.”

“Same story wherever you go,” she says, and Nate isn’t sure, but it sounds like she’s agreeing with him.

“But he’s a good person. A brilliant scholar, a honorable citizen. True comrade. We just don’t always see eye to eye.”

She sets down the file and nudges the ashtray toward him. “You have so little in common.”

“You’d be surprised. We get by,” Nate says. He can think, even occasionally talk, about the difficulties with García, but he doesn’t want to hear it from her. Not from anyone, but definitely not her. “There’s a lot of history there.”

Her eyebrows go up, but she remains silent.

Nate smiles. “We get by.”

“You already said that.”

“It’s true,” he says. “It’s worth repeating.”

“He fucks other people,” Malinovka says abruptly and waves the smoke from her face. “Many of them.”

Nate nods. Part of him would like to see that file. Why would the Church waste its time chasing down all of García’s dalliances and one-night-stands? Even his brief, intense infatuations, those affairs that invariably end with him turning back up at home, abashed and over-affectionate, are hardly matters of state security. “So do I. Sometimes in front of him.”

“You don’t find that–” She looks away, up at the ceiling. “Difficult? If not emotionally, then at least in terms of security? Trust?”

“I don’t really talk to my tricks about work,” Nate says. “Sometimes we don’t talk at all.”

She pretends to smile, but it looks more like a grimace.

He lifts his brows and shrugs. It’s tempting to push the point, discomfit her to the point that she gives up, but that would be, he knows, dangerous.

“Ma’am,” he says, leaning forward, palms flat on the table. “I don’t think the Church is worried about my sex life. Or my boyfriend’s.”

She nods curtly. “We are, however, concerned about his other activities.”

“He’ll be back on Friday. Ask him then.”

“Oh, Mr. Turner,” she says, sadly, gathering up the photos as neatly as a magician maneuvers a deck of cards, “this can’t possibly wait until then.”

He swallows. “He’s on a transatlantic flight at the moment.”

She’s busy arranging the papers and photos and files before her, but pauses, cocking her head slightly. “Is that what he told you?”

Nate stares at her.

She leafs through yet another folder, then pulls out two polaroids and hands them to him. The first shows García leaving a Greek diner, one of those that stud nearly every other street corner in midtown. He’s looking over his shoulder, slightly blurred by motion, but he’s unmistakable: the big nose, the riot of curls, the beard. Sarcastic twist to his mouth.

“I’ve never seen that outfit before,” Nate says. That much is true – García isn’t a dandy, but he’d never be caught dead in something so casual unless he were in the deep woods, and he’d never be caught dead in the great outdoors, period. “When’s this from?”

“This morning.”

He looks at her. “No, he’s flying to Paris for–”

Malinovka raises one brow. She really is a handsome, entirely terrifying woman. “Look at the other one.”

This one was taken at a much greater distance, but there’s García, still dressed like a construction worker, standing next to someone slighter, but just about his height, androgynous in bell-bottom cords and a wool sweater. García blocks most of the person’s body, and they’re shading their eyes with their forearm. They’re standing just outside the park, probably right at the north part of the transverse. Nate was all of two hundred paces from them.

“I–” Nate looks back down at the photo. “I didn’t see them.”

“I expect they didn’t want you to,” she says gently. He has to remind himself that her kindness is as affected as her peremptoriness. “But they saw you, we’re sure of it.”

He wants to shiver, all through his body, or be sick. Not out of revulsion, but like a plane hitting turbulence, he’s losing a sense of certainty, of up and down, here and there. Why and how.

Malinovka plucks the polaroids from his loose grip, then pushes a slip of paper across the table. “You should go back to work now.”

He laughs a little at that.

“Go back to work,” she says, more firmly, “and have a good think about this man you’re so set on defending. If you think of anything else, or just want to talk, call this number.”

He remembers to stand up as she leaves. He’s utterly lost, but he’s still a decent person. He has manners.

*

García recognized Sal almost instantly. There weren’t many photos from the war, not ones with faces visible – that was one thing that the various corps got right, always wearing handkerchiefs over their features whenever they were out. But there were a few, which, even with the bandanas on their faces, were achingly evocative: Nate with his arm around Sal, their heads tipped together, both sets of eyes crinkled up in joy against the sun. Sal’s hair lifting in the breeze, Nate’s teeth white against his skin.

There were more photos from earlier. School pictures, a beanpole kid in the back row with messy hair; a confirmation portrait, hair slicked down, face miserable. These, combined with Nate’s descriptions, meant that García knew.

He took his time, however. He tracked them in Belgrade, bumped into their shoulder in Seoul long enough to get a palm impression on the cling sheet in his own hand, then chatted them up and bedded them in Jaffa.

They wore an overcoat in Belgrade, a light denim suit in Seoul, a pink sundress in Jaffa. Each time, he saw a facet of them, one angle that, dazzling, obscured all the others.

“Sal…” Nate told him once, when he was very stoned and a little weepy, “Sal was complicated. They were so much.” He hiccupped and leaned against García’s chest, wet cheek staining the thin undershirt. “So much.”

García kissed him quiet then, hands gentle on Nate’s back, the nape of his neck, until the distraction took hold and Nate climbed over to straddle him, working open García’s jeans, hands and mouth gone hungry and quick.

He was, García learned that night in Jaffa, absolutely right about Sal. So much, beautiful and magnificent, exhausting. They rode him, sharp nails twisting his chest hair, working him past hardness, well through pain, draining him, then working him harder, until he was empty and hoarse. Then they scrambled up his body to grasp the headboard and rock against his mouth.

It was early morning, barely dawn, birds circling over the sea, when Sal woke to find him smoking on the tiny balcony.

“You need to go,” they told him. “Why are you still here?”

“The former, late, occasionally lamented Sal Reyes,” he said. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Fuck,” they said and leaned against the doorway, shading their eyes. “You’re not having some kind of sexual identity crisis here, are you?”

He lit another cigarette and passed it over. “Darling, give me a little credit.”

“How do you know my ghost?” they asked.

He’d never heard the term before, but he liked it. Personally, he had about six ghosts already.

He scratched the back of his neck, peering over to where the sun’s rays were just finding the pale stone of the mosque and St. Peters. “You know who I am, don’t you?”

“You’re Taube.”

“Then you know how I know.”

Sal didn’t say anything, nor did they move, until the cigarette was smoked down to the butt and tossed over the railing. “Who else knows?”

García shrugged and bent down, shielding his face from the wind, to light another. “Hell if I know,” he said, straightening back up. “Or care.”

“That wasn’t an optional question,” Sal said and there was a knife in García’s side.

“I know,” he said, exhaling smoke that darkened and blurred the brilliant sky. “And I answered honestly.”

“What do you want?”

“There’s a medal, you know. With your ghost’s name on it, but that can be fixed. Easy enough to re-engrave. When you come home.”

“I have a home.”

“No, you have a job. Which includes lodging, sure. No doubt in some sad, second-rate Maryland suburb.”

“Virginia,” they said.

“Oh?” He took another drag and glanced over, grinning. The tip of the knife ripped his undershirt. “You’re doing better than I thought.”

“Well,” Sal said. “I do have a roommate.”

“Oh, then, forget it,” García replied, transferring the cigarette to his other hand.

Sal’s hair blew across their face. Even like this, unmade-up, a little sallow from lack of sleep, they were unsettlingly gorgeous. “Tell me about the medal.”

He held up his palm. “Yea big, heavy. First Rank of Valor, Merit in the Service of Liberation. Want to see it?”

“No.”

“You earned it,” he said. “Several times over. Sacrifice doesn’t begin to cover what you did for the city.”

They plucked the cigarette from his fingers and took a drag; the knife never moved from his side. After a moment, the smoke streamed from their nose. “Don’t tell me you believe all that bullshit.”

“What, about liberation and liberty? Solidarity in the struggle, fighting for the future?”

They smiled without showing any teeth. “Yeah, that.”

García snorted. “No, of course not. What am I, a fucking moron?” He swallowed and watched as Sal flicked the butt over to the restless sea. “Hell of a thing, though. I believe in some who do believe all that.”

“My condolences.”

“Eh,” he said, lifting one shoulder. “Can’t help who you love, am I right?”

“I try to save myself the trouble in the first place,” they said, pressing the flat of the blade against his back now. “Come on, inside.”

He preceded them into the small room that still smelled like their sex. They sat him in the narrow chair and bound him hand and foot so they could dress.

“That’s not wholly true, however,” García said when Sal had pulled on tight dark slacks and was reaching for an undershirt. “About saving yourself the trouble of love.”

“Isn’t it?” They shrugged on a casual shirt, boldly patterned in a slinky fabric, and buttoned it rapidly. “I think I’d know.”

“I mean…” García licked his lips and smiled slowly. “The way you make love, honey. That can’t be all physical. Must put some heart into it.”

“No,” Sal said, sinking onto the foot of the bed to pull on a pair of loafers. They gazed at him in the wide mirror on the wall, steadily but distant. “I don’t. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.”

“My mistake,” García said, not looking away. “Maybe I’m going soft in my golden years.”

“Could be.” Sal stood, smoothing down their shirt, and just like that, change of clothes and set to their jaw, they appeared to be nothing more than a well-off young man, one of thousands here.

“My lover, see,” García added as if there’d been no interruption. “He’s a good influence on me, especially in this area. Heart and feelings, all that.”

Sal holstered a pistol on their ankle and pulled back their hair under a cap. “That’s sweet.”

“Yeah, great guy. Wonderful man.” García tipped the chair back and thumped against the wall until Sal turned to face him full-on. “He’s got a medal, like yours. Couple more, actually. You’d be proud of him. Nate Turner?”

At the name, Sal neither reacted nor didn’t react. They simply seemed to pause, one hand on their slim hip, the other reaching for their jacket. Time moved on around them, skirting them, leaving them be.

“Best thing that ever happened to me,” García said and thumped forward. “You, too, the way I hear it.”

Sal pulled another knife, larger than the first, from the jacket’s lining and passed it from hand to hand. “I was going to kill you.”

“Well, you were going to try,” García said. “But you won’t even do that now, will you?”

They re-sheathed the knife and nodded. “No, I can’t. Not yet.”

The deal they struck was simple. Because Sal had a kill-on-sight order that extended to anyone aiding them, García could hardly just bring them in. Besides, he didn’t want to.

But if Sal brought along some good hard evidence that the Bishop is in the pocket of the Yanks, then the game would be entirely different. Better, far more favorable, and, García believed, much more fun.

However this ended, Nate wouldn’t have to be alone, not in the final accounting.

*

The Hotel des Artistes used to be reserved for the rich and the over-educated; the building, including this bar, is open now to all. Manual laborers buy rounds for their friends in secretarial pools; a union boss sits between his sister the R.N. and his brother the radio and vacuum repairman.

Sal’s all done up in one of Robin’s wrap dresses, enormous sunglasses on their face even in here, where the light is low and amber-warm. Given the flush staining their cheeks and neck, down over their clavicle, they appear to have been drinking for a while when García arrives.

“You do look beautiful,” García says after a bit. “Selling out friends and comrades, abandoning and betraying everything you hold dear, it agrees with you.”

Sal’s knuckles whiten around their cocktail. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Now you are. Yes. Now you’re here, long after you got yours.”

Sal turns their head, smiling vaguely. “I got mine, huh? What’s that?”

“Fuck if I know.” García tosses back his drink and orders another.

“No, you wouldn’t. Nothing’s ever been remotely important to you.”

“That’s–” He sees Nate’s face, ablaze with joy, contorted in desire, hears the resonance of his laughter, feels the weight of him, head to toe, so warm, against García’s own body in sleep. Nate. “Yeah, that’s the way I like it. Keep things simple.”

“Except Nate, of course,” Sal says quietly, almost lightly.

“What about Nate?”

They edge closer to García, pressing against his side, inching an arm around his waist. “How close are you?”

“Baby,” García says, mouth against the crown of their skull, where the scalp is hottest, “you wouldn’t believe how close.”

They end up in the washroom, García pushed against the door, his hands raking up Sal’s skirt, bunching it, grabbing for their ass. They kiss him like he’s another cocktail, a fountain of it, and they’re intent on drowning. They work a knee between García’s, ride his thigh until they’re both gasping.

“Do I need the knife?” Sal asks as they pull down García’s fly. “Are you going to behave?”

He groans at the thought – blade on his throat, hand on his cock – but shakes his head, chasing their mouth for another kiss.

“You love him so much,” Sal says, when he’s about four pulls from coming, “but you’re here with me, now? Devotion.”

His head thumps back, his mouth falling open, as they twist their hold on him and speed the friction. He thinks of Nate, the shine of his eyes when he’s going down on García, his mouth so hot and welcoming, deep and home, his little encouraging moans, the scrape of his nails in García’s skin. Thinks of Nate, sees him, yearns for him, even as he’s spilling in great ropy pumps over Sal’s hand, his pulse resounding against his skull, his knees buckling.

They rinse clean their hand, then draw him into the stall, guide him down to the commode, and lift their skirt as they brace one high-heeled foot on his thigh. Their wet hand goes through the hair on the back of his head, pushing him down and forward, and this, this he loves to do.

He’s always been a mouthy little shit. Ask anyone.

*

After he leaves the Church with the rest of the regular office staff, Nate takes the crosstown bus, through the park, to the old IND subway line. One stop north to 81st Street and he’s at his civic labor shift for the week. Today, he’s in the fare booth.

A lot of people change their civic shifts as often as possible, but Nate’s done transit since the program started, a few weeks after Liberation Day. Sal might have made fun of him, called him an egghead for liking trains (he always had), teased him about assuaging his guilt for all the bridges they destroyed. That’s all part of it, but, more than anything else, Nate likes the transit department. If he’s content – and he is – why change just for its own sake?

He doesn’t grow bored easily. That’s a skill that comes in handy both at the Church and on some of these shifts. Middle of the night, up at Marble Hill or over at Court Street, he has nothing to keep him awake but his own will and endless games of solitaire.

Today, however, his shift is right smack in the middle of the evening rush. Even if he weren’t preoccupied by everything Malinovka said – and didn’t say – he wouldn’t have a chance to breathe easy, let alone grow bored. The crowds pushing through the turnstiles in both directions could make a person dizzy; there’s so much motion in so many directions, women touching their hair, men adjusting their jackets or crotches, kids barreling forward, older people slumping, half a beat behind the rest, holding everyone up.

The secret is not to look at any one person. Unfocus the gaze, take in the sweep and pulse, like wind through autumn foliage or water over the falls.

After the hushed isolation of the Church vault, this frantic activity is wonderful. Along the tiled walls, where advertisements for cigarettes and movies once hung, there are posters in all three official municipal languages — Delawaran-Lenape, Spanish, and English — praising the citizenry and urging them on toward ever-greater things.

Nate makes change without thinking, drops tokens through the slit in the window, keeps going without attending to anything.

Someone pushes an old U.S. dollar bill at him. Nate glances up, pinching it between thumb and forefinger. It’s heavily drawn over with round cartoony figures and tiny, slanting handwriting, all in blue ballpoint ink. “I can’t take this.”

“Keep it, it’s all yours,” the person says, dropping a token into the turnstile and pushing through.

“Hey!” Nate yells but the figure – wine-red coat, silvery-blond hair – is already gone. Sighing, he sits heavily back down, shoving the worthless bill into his pocket, fingers already counting out change for the next patron.

“Groovy,” the girl on the other side of the window says and Nate looks up again, grinning. It’s rare enough that someone speaks to him here, even rarer that it’s pleasant rather than abusive. Twice in a row is unheard of.

“Any time,” he says and she tosses her braid back over her shoulder, winking, as she pushes sideways through the turnstile.

Across the station – the width of five turnstiles – a dark-haired man has his arm around a woman in big sunglasses; they’re embracing so closely that they try to get through the turnstile together. They move a little awkwardly, drunkenly. There’s the blur of crowd between them and Nate, and Nate has no reason to notice them, but he does.

The man looks up. Bearded, dark-skinned, heavy eyebrows and big nose, he’s opening his mouth, saying something. Mouthing something to Nate.

It’s García. It has to be. Nate rises from his stool, presses his palm against the window.

As he moves forward with the crowd, pushing the slighter woman ahead of him, García looks back over his shoulder, then seems to catch himself. He shakes his head and embraces the woman more firmly, kissing her cheek before leading her toward the downtown platform.

Nate tries to remember how to breathe.

It’s all true. He doesn’t know what “all” is but it’s true. He’s been a fool and a half.

*

“Wish I were different,” Nate said. “Better for you.”

They were lying side by side on the roof of their building. To the south, all the way down at the tip of the island, shells exploded, staining the cloudy sky red and yellow. The Yanks still held parts of Brooklyn and all of Staten Island, but Manhattan and the Bronx were almost entirely liberated. Much closer by, gunfire came regular and mundane as the sound of zippers being raised and lowered.

They’d been making out, which in itself wasn’t unusual. But for Nate to stop and roll away, going onto his back, folding his arms over his chest, that was.

“What did I do?” Sal asked, staring up into the sky.

“You? Nothing. You’re perfect.”

Sal laughed at that but Nate rolled back onto his side, grabbing for Sal’s arm. “I’m hardly –”

Nate kissed them, pulling them up against his body, wrapping both arms and one leg around them. “You,” he said more loudly, so loudly that Sal tried to cover his mouth with their palm, “are perfect. Shut up.”

Sal swallowed the arguments, all of them, so many, and let Nate’s kiss rock them into something resembling safety. Eventually, they were both opening flies and pushing hands up under shirts. They’d already killed three people, maybe more; they could have sex, surely, without anyone telling them they didn’t know what they were doing.

The way Nate looked at Sal, openmouthed, shocked, overcome and radiant when Sal came in his hand, was the first, last thing Sal ever knew for sure, the only truth.

*

“I don’t know what he said,” Nate tells Malinovka.

Five minutes after he called the number she’d given him, someone arrived to relieve him in the booth. She was waiting for him outside the station, leaning against the park’s wrought-iron fence.

“Think,” she says.

“I have, and I don’t know,” he says, hears his voice going up, and clamps his mouth shut. He shrugs apologetically. “I don’t know. But it was him.”

“With a brunette in sunglasses,” she says doubtfully.

“That’s what I said.” Pushing his hands into his front pockets, Nate sits against the fence and looks down at the sidewalk. “They looked close. Affectionate.”

“Who is she?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Now, he does want to shout but can’t seem to find the energy.

“Are you sure?”

Nate looks up at her. Evening fell a while ago, and she’s silhouetted against a street light. Her face is reduced to darkly glittering eyes, long nose, slash of mouth. “I’m sure. Why? Do you know who she is?”

“I didn’t see her, Nathaniel.”

He gives her a sarcastic smile. “Maybe you did. You seem to see a lot.”

She blinks slowly. “I do, but even I can’t see everything.”

“Pity,” he says and slumps a little lower.

“That’s where you come in,” Malinovka says as she reaches over and squeezes his shoulder. Nate’s torn between tipping into the touch and flinching away. “Nate.”

“What?” he mutters and kicks at the sidewalk.

“You’re absolutely certain you don’t know who she is?”

He sighs, then forgets for a couple seconds to inhale again. “Yes.”

“If she were a danger, would you be able to take care of it?”

He snorts, then again, and soon he’s laughing and choking. “Sure. Of course. Point me in the right direction, pull my trigger — what the hell, ma’am? What kind of ‘danger’?”

She sits next to him and pats his knee. Like the shoulder squeeze, the gesture feels highly premeditated, not sincere so much as requisite. “We have reason to suspect she’s a Yankee agent.”

He looks around, but they do seem to be alone, surrounded by the cone of light from the street light. “Go on.”

“You’ve heard of the Chimera?”

He was tired before. Now he’s frozen. “Yes.”

“Then you know what we’re up against.”

The East Berlin bombing. The near-assassination of Brezhnev. All of Rome sickened by an antibiotic-resistant strep. Gdansk, Sarajevo, Cienfuegos. Kabul. Deaths caused and secrets stolen vying for preeminence. Angel of death and history.

“She may have something in hand,” Malinovka continues. “An antigen.”

“And she has García,” Nate says.

“Or he has her.”

He removes his hands from his pockets and, extending his arms in front of him, flexes his fingers. “Where are they now, do you know?”

“Agent Turner,” she says, wrapping her arm around his elbow and tugging him close. “I never thought you’d ask.”

“Agent?”

“Consider yourself activated.”

She has a motorcycle, a low-slung, little 150-cc thing; it creaks slightly under their combined weight, but once she’s pulled on her goggles and gloves, then kicked it to life, it moves like a dream.

She weaves through traffic, buzzing down Broadway, with Nate holding her around the waist. There’s a gun holstered under her left arm. He feels both foolish – how can he be more foolish? But he is, it’s an ever-growing tumor of shame and regret – and exhilarated. Wind on his face, the bruise-dark sky overhead and bright neon streak of the street before them.

He’s moving, he’s finally doing something. Maybe this is what he’s been waiting for. Maybe she was right, and the war is still on, just quieter, hidden in the interstices, and he’s about to get his hands dirty all over again.

*

Taube keeps his hand on the small of Sal’s back, guiding them through the crowds thronging Hudson Terminal. No one gives them a second look, but Sal can’t move an inch without Taube redirecting, reasserting control.

“They were going to tear all this down, remember?” he says, applying a little pressure so they turn right up the next incline. “The Yanks. Rockefeller and all them. Just blast it all to pieces, erect some godawful skyscrapers in its place.”

“I remember,” they reply. “Where are we going?”

“Where are the people supposed to go?” He finds the bank of elevators, their gilded details flaking, and presses the up button. “When they pull that shit. People use a place, depend on it, make it their own, and then one day, sorry, folks. Landlords and speculators decided they need some more money so you’re fucked all over again. ‘This huckstering with landed property, the transformation of landed property into a commodity, constitutes the final overthrow of the old and the final establishment of the money aristocracy’, 1844 manuscripts.”

Sal steps aside so an old man, hunched, with soft wool-floss hair ringing the base of his skull, can get on the elevator first. “Like Penn Station,” they say.

Taube exhales so noisily and irritatedly that a clutch of middle-aged women shoot them angry glares. “Don’t get me started on Penn Station!”

“I’m sorry,” Sal tells him. For the first time, the man sounds like who he is supposed to be, an ideologue, long committed to the struggle, equally at ease with the Grundrisse as he is with a sniper rifle. One lone curl dips out of his hair, travelling across his forehead; they quell the urge to brush it back.

They’ve had his mouth on them, his cock in their hand, within the last hour, but he seems more familiar now than at any other moment in their strange, tumultuous acquaintance.

There are two white hairs twined through that dark curl. They catch the elevator’s dome light and wink. His beard could use a trim, some shaping, but it’s a gorgeous thing, almost primal around his red lips.

They’d never really thought Nate would go for someone like this, with this kind of attenuated but stubborn machismo, but what do they know? It’s been years. Nate’s not a kid any longer.

“What?” he demands and Sal shrugs, looking away.

“Where are we going?” they ask instead of answering.

“Thought I had a contact,” Taube says, guiding Sal off the elevator and toward a fire door. “But all I saw were a couple directorate clerks tight in the Bishop’s pocket. So we’re just going to mosey out of sight, out of mind. That all right by you?”

They were climbing narrow service stairs in a claustrophobic stairwell; now they step out onto the terminal’s roof. The wind is fierce, shrieking, up here; the sky vaults overhead, streaked with sallow clouds.

“Did you see him?” Sal asks when they’re halfway across the roof. They wrap their arms around their chest, hunch a little against the wind. “In the subway?”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Taube says, somehow managing to light a cigarette. When he speaks again, the smoke distorts and darkens his face. “Why don’t you just give me the film and we can go our separate ways?”

“What film?”

“Film, documents, whatever the fuck you’ve got about the Bishop. Let me have it, you go have your reunion.”

Sal turns and moves further down the roof. “All in good time.”

“Honey, no time like the–” Taube grabs their shoulder, tries to wrench them around, but Sal reaches back and twists his wrist until he grunts with pain and releases them. “Fuck. Jesus bloody Christ, I just–”

“What did you want?” Sal faces him now, out of reach, and spreads their arms so they’re taking in the entire city. “You wanted me to see him. What else do you want?”

“The film,” Taube says. “Give me what you’ve got on the Bishop, we call it even, how’s that?”

“Even? Even!” Sal pushes the hair whipping their face and laughs. “There’s no even, asshole. You have everything. I don’t have a damn–”

He broadcasts all his moves. They don’t have time to evaluate whether that broadcast is intentional – is he trying to fake them out? – or inadvertent. What they do do, however, is step aside, let him barrel past, then kick him in the back of the knees.

That should have brought him down, but Taube might be a smarter fighter than he comes across as. He tucks up one shoulder, then lashes out, catching Sal’s side, making them stumble.

Now, now, this is real intimacy. Forget his breathless moans as he came, even his little rant against revanchists and rentiers. This is how they know him, utterly physical, fighting for their lives.

*

On the far edge of the roof, two figures are scuffling, their voices lost to the city noise. They shove each other, one rounds off a vicious upper-cut that nearly fells the other, and still they keep going.

As Nate rushes to catch up with Malinovka, the figures resolve. The one just punched, holding his nose as it gushes blood, yet still fighting with the other arm, is García.

The other one is the woman from the subway. Also the figure from the polaroid. They’re quicker than García, lighter on their feet, but their arms don’t have his reach.

“Give it to me!” García is roaring. “The film!”

The other dances out of his way. “We have company.”

They both come to a stop – it takes a few steps for the energy of the fight to run its course and release them – and turn to Malinovka. Nate hangs back behind one of the struts of the terminal sign.

“I’ll take the film, thank you,” Malinovka says.

“Robin, stay out of it!” García says.

The other one – the Chimera, the Angel of Death – stands midway between them. “Who else is here?”

“Nathaniel, why don’t you join us?” Malinovka says without turning around.

Nate steps into the group. He can’t look at García. He doesn’t know where to look instead, however.

“You know he’s off-limits! He’s off the table! He’s always been off –” García shouts but Malinovka shakes her head.

“He can put himself on the table, surely?”

“What are you talking about?” Nate asks.

Malinovka ignores him; García starts forward, but the person with him, the one who’d just been beating him up, touches his arm and shakes their head. They’re a team again, just like that.

“Will someone please talk to me?” Nate says, loudly. García opens his arms, but it isn’t clear if he’s offering an embrace or simply shrugging Nate off. “Tell me what’s going on?”

“They’re talking about you,” García’s companion says. “Hi, Nate.”

It’s dark up here, and sound carries oddly, but that voice is familiar. Nate squints a little. “How do they know each other? Who are you?”

They don’t answer. Instead, they pull their hair back, off their face, and hold it at the nape of their neck. They push the sunglasses up to the top of their head. Now Nate can’t look anywhere else.

When they do reply, they’re singing: “Hello, hello again, sh-boom, and hoping we’ll meet again…

His body rushes apart, Nate is sure of it. Each joint comes loose, tendons fly free, he’s only standing because gravity has yet to catch up with him.

He sings back, their old signal when one was coming back alone, safe and unharmed: “Now every time I look at you, something is on my mind, dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-duh…

“Nate,” Sal says.

“Sal,” he says. “You’re–” He starts to take a step forward, only to have Malinovka bring her hand down hard, judo-chopping, against his kidney. The pain sears up his body, dimming his vision for a moment as he crumples to his knees.

“Leave him alone!” García shouts as Malinovka steps in front of Nate.

“Give me the film,” she tells Sal. “You, old man. Stay where you are.”

“There is no film,” Sal says.

“Antigen,” Nate manages to say, peering up blearily. “Get the antigen–”

Malinovka doesn’t look at him. “There’s no antigen. Is there, Angel?”

“What did you tell him?” García yells.

“Shut up, Taube,” Sal says. They and Malinovka stare each other down, hands on their hips, their feet shuffling like boxers. “Do you ever just fucking shut it?”

“Taube,” Nate says, not even making it a question. It all makes a sickening, strangely satisfying sort of sense. García isn’t a professor, probably isn’t even García. He’s the dark agent in the Church, the one they send to lend a deadly hand. Hanoi, Beirut, Leipzig, Hong Kong. Roy Cohn’s assassin, the man who nearly brought down Richard Nixon. “Taube.”

García turns away, hunching again. On an ordinary person, such a posture might well look like shame. On him, it’s probably nothing more than irritation.

If there’s no antigen, and no film (what film? he still needs to know that), then why are they all here?

“Sal?” Nate asks, pushing himself gingerly to his feet. “Why are you here?”

“To destroy us,” Malinovka says.

Nate sees the lump of a holster under Malinovka’s arm, the one he felt back on the motorcycle. He grabs her around the waist, jabbing his house keys into her lower back. “Give me the gun.”

“Nate–” Sal calls but it sounds far away.

“All right, all right,” Malinovka says soothingly. “I’m raising my hands. Reach under my left arm.”

She’s less than nothing in his embrace, just ropy muscle and bird-like bones. He wonders, wildly, what she might have been in another life – gravel-voiced Hollywood star, Connecticut socialite matron, tennis ace. Her blouse is pure silk, slippery. He unsnaps the holster and pulls out the gun, shoving her away in the opposite direction.

They’re in a loose, messy circle, turning around, nearing the edge of the roof. Ashes, ashes, Nate thinks wildly, we’re all gonna fall down.

This is where we came in.

*

García eyes Sal, then Robin. He can’t account for Nate; his thoughts stutter and fail at the sight. Nate, his Nate, wielding a gun like a pro, tracking everyone’s movements, keeping even Robin in line. He’s tall, and gloriously powerful, and there’s a determined, resigned set to his face that makes García want to weep.

Sentimental old man, good for nothing, just end it already.

“The police will be here momentarily,” Robin says. “Why don’t we all take a breath and put the weapons down?”

Sal takes two steps toward Robin, reaching for her wrist, looking to spin her into a tackle. Robin evades them, shifting behind Nate.

Smart, clever, terrible woman. No one’s going to hurt Nate, except for her.

Nate whirls around, knocking her back with the butt of the gun. “Cops–” he says to García. “Friends of yours?”

“Mine,” Robin says from the ground. She’s on all fours, heaving for breath. Her head hangs down, but her voice still carries. “He has no friends.”

“It’s true,” García says when Nate wheels back to him. “I…this was a solo op. They always are.”

“Just give me the film,” Robin says, “and I’ll make all this go away.”

“There never was any film, was there?” Nate asks Sal.

Sal lifts their chin; hair’s blowing across their face, catching in their lips. “No.”

“I knew it,” García mutters. He’s all the way at the edge now, just a low railing between him and the ferry docks twenty-two stories below. “Fucking knew it.”

“I’m sorry,” Sal tells him. “I had to have some insurance.”

“You have nothing?” Robin asks, back on her feet. The only trace of the hit she just took is the slight disorder to her chignon. “Nothing at all?”

“Not on me. Hidden.” Sal shrugs and, biting her lip, looks north, up the length of the city. “I wanted to come home.”

“Motherfucker,” Robin says. She brushes off her skirt, touches the pearls at her neck, and spits blood at Sal’s feet. “We’re going to debrief you to hell and back, you know that, don’t you?”

“I hope so,” Sal replies. “Much better than dying.”

“And you–” Robin calls to García. “You’re going to wish you were dead.”

García grunts a little with laughter at that. “When don’t I?”

He reaches for Nate; he can’t possibly make contact, but reaches all the same. Nate stands there, slumped, misery wrenching his face to ugliness. As Sal and Robin move away, back to the stairwell to deal with the cops, García says, “Nate.”

“What,” Nate says flatly, watching them go.

“Please.” García swings one leg over the railing, testing the masonry’s stability. “Nate, sweetheart. I’m going now.”

Come home to me, he needs Nate to say, one more time. Safe travels.

*

“No –” Nate dives for him, loose gravel and tar paper skidding under his feet.

García clutches Nate’s shoulders and kisses him. It’s hot, deep and wet, their teeth clacking together, García’s breath nearly inhaling and swallowing Nate’s tongue. He pulls back, swings his other leg over the railing. “Should’ve let you go to the moon, baby.”

He’s not making any sense.

Nate grabs him as García twists, making to jump. He hauls García up, kicking, almost moaning with complaint. “Not that easy, man.”

“Let me go–” García fights dirty, pummeling Nate, trying to knee him, in the crotch, in the kidney, it doesn’t seem to matter. “Fuck you, let me go!”

Nate wraps his arms around García, squeezes hard, and says, keeps saying, “No, no, no.”

García goes limp. Suddenly, irrevocably: one moment he is flailing and fighting, the next he’s heavy as a sack of dry concrete. His face is buried against Nate’s side, right over his scar.

“Let me go,” he mutters, one more time.

Nate combs back the snarled mess of his hair, tucking it behind García’s ear. “No,” he says, just as softly.

“I found Sal for you,” García says against Nate’s chest. “You can be happy now.”

Nate curls over him, pressing his own face into García’s hair, holding him as tightly as he can. “You don’t understand a goddamn thing, do you?”

It’s a long while before García says, “No, I don’t.”

After a minute or so, Nate helps him up, then laces their fingers together and makes for the exit.

At the stairwell, Sal leans against the wall, arms at their sides, head tipped back. Robin is long gone, if she were ever here. Her only trace is the gun in Nate’s belt.

“Come on,” Nate says, taking their hand. “We’re going home.”

He leads them both through the echoing terminal and across to the Chambers Street IRT station. It’s not all that late, but the streets are already quiet and emptied out. Inside the bright station, he waves to Donny Carr in the booth.

“He’s on my baseball team,” he says to García.

“Shortstop,” García replies.

“Yeah, how’d you–” Nate shakes his head. “Yeah, hell of an arm.”

“Got that double play in the semis last year,” García says and his mouth twists into a smile as they descend the steps. “I pay attention.”

Nate can only nod. Sal squeezes his hand – they haven’t let go – and presses against him as they wait on the platform.

On the train, he sits between them, arms up along the back of the bench-seat. García leans against him and Sal tilts in, too, as if they can’t break contact. Nate wonders if Sal has a scar to match his own, the other half of the sunburst. They were on opposite sides of the bomb, after all.

Their reflections in the window opposite shudder and ripple against the dark backdrop of the tunnel. Whenever the train pulls into a station – and they’re on the local, this is going to be frequently – they all vanish, only to swim back into trembling visibility. Nate smiles to test the reflection, sees his teeth and the shift in his cheeks.

“The old neighborhood,” he tells Sal as the train climbs northward, “you’re not going to believe it. Looks so good these days.”

“Don’t oversell it,” García says, then adds, to Sal, “it’s still a dump. Just a nicer dump.”

“It’s not a dump,” Nate says. “Never was.”

Sal looks back and forth between them. “All right.”

He tries to remind himself that he has his arms around two killers, ruthless agents, terrible people. The thought just won’t take hold. They’re all killers, none of them are terrible. He has García, exhausted, and Sal, resurrected (and also exhausted), bracketing him, breathing beside him. That’s the real certainty.

He’s laughing at that, relief flooding through him, as he jogs up the station stairs at 116th Street.

“We’re going to get food,” he tells them, “and then go home.”

They nod. He knows that he should probably savor this moment of easy acquiescence; neither of them is prone to such things at all. That it should coincide like this will probably never happen again.

At Calle el Chino’s narrow walk-up counter, he gets three orders of spicy dumplings and two of maduros, one spicy, one sweet-and-sour. Sal used to like the sweet-and-sour and Nate figures tastes like that don’t change. Everything else might, but not flavors. He’d ask to double-check, but they’re leaning against García outside on the sidewalk, sharing a cigarette. The two of them seem to be disproving basic physics: neither is holding the other up, but somehow, tilting against each other, they’re relatively stable.

Nate knows he ought to be exhausted, too. He is, but the feeling is trapped underneath torrents and freshets of relief, thrill, elation.

“Come on,” he says, knocking his way through them, handing them each a sack of food. He turns down 119th, where it’s darker and silent, and has to restrain himself from jogging up the four flights to their apartment. He doesn’t want to wake the feminist collective on the second floor, nor the Riveras on third (their twins have finals coming up).

But once he’s at the apartment door, he hoots a little as he pulls Sal and García inside. It’s shabby and dim in here, a little stuffy; he’s never been happier to be home. He trips a little as he moves backward, unwilling to take his eyes off them.

“Food?” Sal asks and Nate drops his jacket.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, taking the bag from their hand, digging in it for a dumpling. He stuffs it in his mouth, sears everything with heat and spice, and keeps moving, back into the bedroom, kicking off his shoes, yanking his shirt off, until, finally, he’s here, barefoot, in just his undershirt and trousers, bouncing back in the center of the bed.

“I’m eating it all!” he yells as they move down the hall after him. “You’re gonna want to hurry up!” He licks his fingers and helps himself to a spicy maduro, then another. The crackly outer layer snaps in his teeth, gives way to the sweet gooey gush, and he realizes, all over again, how hungry he is.

Sal’s hovering in the doorway. It’s not like them, being so hesitant. Nate grins and pats the bed beside him.

“García! Get the lead out!” he shouts. He hears the answering yell from the bathroom. “Okay, everyone’s accounted for. Get up here, would you?”

When Sal sinks down next to him, head bent, Nate brushes the hair off the nape of their neck, exposes the little bump of spine there. He kisses it as softly as he can. “Is this okay?”

Sal nods, so Nate does it again, then wraps his arm around Sal’s waist, pulling them back. He kisses the side of their neck, behind their ear, and, just like it always did, that makes them shiver and giggle.

He kisses the edge of their jaw, the soft curve of their cheek. “Happy birthday.”

“Nate–” Sal says, finally turning around, resting their forehead against his shoulder.

“Shhh,” he says. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Hear what?” García asks from the other side of the bed.

Nate glances at him, sees him half-undressed, trousers unbuttoned, drink in his hand. He’s washed the blood from his face. “Not from you, either. All the apologies and explanations and bullshit.”

García smirks at him, sitting down heavily enough that the mattress shifts. “What do I have to apologize for?”

In Nate’s arms, Sal’s shoulders lift with silent laughter.

“You lied to me,” Nate tells him. “Every single day, all the time, right from the moment we met.”

García takes a sip and shrugs. “I could say the same for you, Mr. Not-a-librarian.”

Nate shoves him lightly. “You knew, though. You knew everything about me.”

“But you didn’t know I knew,” García says, cocking his head, licking his lower lip. He’s infuriating, more than Nate has words for, so goddamn arrogant. And an hour ago, he was ready to end it all. An hour ago, Nate saved his life. “You lied, thinking I believed you.”

Sal pushes the bag of maduros across Nate’s lap. “These are spicy. Where are the sweet-and-sour?”

“Yes, your highness, coming right up.” García retrieves the other bag from the floor and passes it over. He grins at Nate, showing teeth, and then the expression softens, descends into something smaller, slightly more tentative.

Nate smiles back at him. He can’t help it; he doesn’t want to be able to. Extending his free arm, he gathers García in, kissing where he can reach – collarbone, neck, beard. Finally, his mouth, tasting like rum and Szechuan pepper, smoke and heat, and García groans into Nate, hand coming up around his neck and holding on tight.

Sal turns a little, going up on their knees, still embracing Nate while planting their chin on Nate’s arm. Their hand moves restlessly over Nate’s chest, pushing at the undershirt, fingertips grazing one nipple, then the other. Nate stretches out between them; his hand was in Sal’s hair, but now it’s on their back as they slide down, mouth moving over his undershirt, teeth dragging lightly over the fabric.

Nate glances down to meet their eyes. “I missed you so much, you know that?”

Sal nods, gaze darting but finally catching on Nate. “Yeah.”

Nate strokes their hair – it was always so silky, fine as anything, nothing like his woolly head – and taps the crown of their skull. “More than you know.”

“Touching,” García says drily, wiggling back into the mattress and resting his head against Nate’s shoulder. “Childhood sweethearts, reunited thanks to someone who’s now entirely forgotten and neglected. Ain’t that a kick in the balls?”

“Shut up,” Nate says and kisses him again.

The giddiness he’s been feeling is evaporating, but slowly, leaving behind a sweet, almost syrupy sense of contentment. The absence of worry seems to be a palpable thing, slow and secure, confident.

Sal’s touching him, García’s kissing him, and this is more than he ever wanted, beyond what he could have asked for.

“You okay down there?” García asks a little later, as Nate arches his back, his head driving back into the pillows. Sal has stripped him, has their hand on his cock, mouth roving over his balls, through his bush, teasing the base of his shaft.

Sal takes a long moment to answer. “Great,” they finally say and reach up to briefly squeeze García’s thigh. “Perfect, I think.”

Nate can hear García’s breath whistling through his nose, feel the heat and damp sweat coming off him. “Good,” García says roughly, cupping the back of Sal’s head briefly before Nate thrusts again and dislodges his arm.

“C’mere, please–” Nate says, yanking on García’s upper arm, kissing him again, desperately. Sal’s mouth and hands are teasing him, driving him around the bend, pushing him right up to the edge, then tearing him back. With the weight and intensity of García’s kiss, at least something’s holding him down.

“So beautiful, look at you…” García was rubbing Nate’s chest, pinching and scraping, but his hand is on himself now; his elbow keeps poking into Nate’s side. He kisses Nate, long and shallow, sucking on Nate’s lower lip as his hand speeds up. A moan builds through Nate, starting at Sal’s mouth behind his balls, hurtling upward, spilling out over García’s tongue. “Oh, God, Nate–”

Nate is panting, pulling up one leg, bent against his chest, bearing down and opening for Sal. “There’s no — fuck — there’s no–”

It’s one of his favorite jokes: Communists are susceptible to religion only in bed. Vigilance is required.

García kisses him, presses him into the mattress, nearly smothers him as Sal works two fingers up inside Nate and takes his cock in their mouth. Nate’s hips buckle and cant, push and ripple, up into Sal, down around their fingers. He clutches at García, barely kissing any longer, just moaning and shuddering around García’s mouth, into his throat.

He comes like that, shaken wild, flying apart, held together only by García’s weight, Sal’s touch. Sal leans back, fingers gone still inside, as Nate shoots. Wrung out, shivering, he curls into García, reaching blindly to bring Sal up with him.

Someone swipes a hand through the come on his belly, and then García’s arm moves faster, jerkier, his grunts running through Nate’s skin. As he comes, as Nate mouths at his chest, moaning when Sal pulls out to climb up behind him, arm over his waist, kissing his neck, García shouts desperate nonsense.

“I love you,” Nate tells them both, eyes closed, his throat raw and aching, “I love you so much.”

He dozes, head pillowed on a forgotten bag of dumplings, stirs once when the plane of the mattress shifts. He hears long, slurping murmurs and suckling groans. García is between Sal’s legs, Sal’s still got their arm over Nate, and it’s way too early to be awake, so Nate pushes the dumplings away and wiggles back against Sal.

*

In the morning light, they’re tangled up like babies – Garcia’s olive skin and dark hair, Nate’s smooth black-coffee limbs and peachy palms, and Sal, intermediate between the other two, smoky and soft – snoring and dreaming like they don’t have a care in the world.

“Wakey, wakey,” Robin says from the foot of the bed. She kicks the box spring for good measure. “Time to get to work, my little chickadees.”

– end –

Thanks to Cicak for inspiration, reassurance, and suggestions that improved this hugely; YouSeemFine for lovely editing and insight; and G. for putting up with me. Title from Magnetic Fields, “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do”.

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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