Paint the City Red

by Mikami Ren (三神 恋)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/238447.html)

With the last rays of the dying sun painting everything red, the city becomes, if not beautiful, at least tolerable. The oil slicks in the river shine bright crimson, the shadows in the street lengthen more and more, the noise of traffic dims as the few citizens still around hurry to get home before curfew. At night, when darkness envelops the buildings, the city looks even better. If only the night never ended, Juan thinks, at least he wouldn’t have to see how ugly the place is.

Juan never liked this city, not even a little. He feels he ought to, because being born and raised here has to count for something, but a lifetime in the city has only given him a lifetime of bad memories. A man like him has no need for sentimentality. Sometimes he’s tempted to pack his things and leave, to take his gang with him if they will follow him, and find another place to live. Another city that’s less ugly, less smelly, less noisy, less deadly. Tempting as that thought is, Juan always ends up staying, always will, even though if anyone asked he wouldn’t be able to explain why. Maybe because he knows that no matter where he goes, the whole world is rotten to the core, rotten like the mounds of garbage filling the streets.

On the night everything ends and everything starts, Juan is sitting at his favorite corner table at Charley’s, halfway through a glass of something that’s less tequila and more like something you’d use to clean an engine. He knows that something’s wrong the moment he sees Amira making her way through the dance floor. The place is packed as usual, but one look at her crimson headband and everyone hurries out of the way. Juan stares at her and tips back the last of the tequila. He has a feeling he will need it.

Amira sits down in front of him, uninvited, and leans forward. “Boss,” she says, just loud enough for Juan to hear above the noise of the club. “Joe is dead. Most of his people too.”

Straight to the point, that’s Amira. No circling around the question, no lengthy preambles. That’s why she’s one of Juan’s favorite lieutenants, though in this case he wishes she’d given him a little more time before delivering the news. Joe is dead. This is bad. This is very, very bad. “Are you sure?” he asks, even though Amira knows better than to bring him unsubstantiated gossip.

“Positive,” she replies. She places a folded square of cloth on the table between them. “There was an explosion an hour ago, south by that warehouse that they’ve been using as a base. They haven’t found the body yet, but there’s no survivors, the whole block blew up. All the Yellows who were inside died in the blast, and the survivors are running around like headless chicken.”

Juan clenches and unclenches his fists to stop them from shaking, then takes the piece of cloth and unfolds it. It’s stained with blood and dirt, and has a burnt hole right in the middle, but there was no doubt that originally it was yellow. “Who did it?” he asks, feeling his voice tremble with unsuppressed rage. “Who’s the fucker who did it?”

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, he thinks. There was a code, damn it, a mutual agreement; they were past killing each other in the streets; he’d kept the peace for the past six years no matter how tempting it had been to do otherwise. And now someone decided to blow up a city block. Whoever it was, Juan would make sure that they’d pay for it.

Amira shakes her head, her mass of dark hair threatening to break free from under the headband. “That’s the thing, boss,” she says. “Nobody did it.”

“You mean you don’t know yet,” Juan snaps, raising his voice without realizing it.

She glares at him but keeps her voice level. “I mean that it was an accident,” she replies. “They’ve been smuggling explosives downriver. The chemical, dangerous stuff.” It makes sense. Joe could never resists making a profit, no matter what the risks. “Either they had a bad batch or they made a mistake in handling it. Their whole cache blew up, just like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. “So you can stop looking for asses to kick, because this time you won’t find any.”

Juan isn’t too sure about that yet. “Could be that someone rigged those explosives to explode,” he says, turning the burnt cloth over and over in his hand, thinking about old grudges. “Joe was always fighting with Tony over weapons distribution. Or maybe one of his lieutenants had a beef with him.”

“Could be,” Amira concedes, shrugging. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Joe’s gone. None of his men are in a position to take over the Yellows; there aren’t any Yellows any more, boss!”

She’s nervous, Juan realizes. Her eyes are open wide and she keeps moving her head this side and that side, to check her surroundings. In all those years he’s known Amira, she’s never looked so unsettled. Then again, nothing this big has happened in a very long time.

“Do the others know?” he asks her. He doesn’t need to specify who he’s referring to. The other gang leaders, the ones who hold all power in this city. Green and blue and white… and no more, he thinks, crumpling the yellow cloth in his hand and stuffing it into a pocket.

Amira shakes her head. “If they don’t know already, they’ll find out soon enough. It was a pretty fucking big explosion. Hard to miss.”

Suddenly, Juan feels all the urgency of the situation. “Let’s go,” he says, jumping to his feet and heading towards the exit without even turning to see if she’s following. The whole situation is pretty fucking big, and no mistake.

Their peace had been built out of careful negotiations, out of a delicate power balance between the five different factions, all of whom wanted more territory and influence but stood to lose even more by upsetting their neighbors. Now that the status quo has been effectively blasted by smithereens, now that Joe and his gang are out of the picture, the whole south quarter is completely open. There’s no way to stop it. There’s going to be blood in the streets.

They meet by chance three days later, in an alley next to the old bridge. It’s almost sunset and Juan is looking for the nearest bar; he’s got a black eye and a darker mood. He’s walking quickly, leather jacket pulled tightly around his body, because there’s a chilly wind blowing north from the river, but also because this is not his turf and he doesn’t want to attract any undue attention. He’s already spent the afternoon beating up Green Blades and needs a break before the next fight.

Juan turns a corner and there’s Gabriel right in front of him, walking out of a building. Their eyes meet and Juan’s hand flies inside his pocket, to the switchblade he always keeps with him for times like these. He’s on his guard because he’s never sure if today they’ll end up fighting or fucking. Not that there’s a lot of difference, not with Gabriel. Every time they meet Juan ends up bruised and aching.

Gabriel throws away the cigarette he’d been smoking, crushes it under the heel of his shoe, and waves to Juan. He looks terrible too; his usually pristine clothes are rumpled and stained with blood, even though judging by his movements he’s not hurt. “Juan,” he says, stressing the vowels with his insufferable accent.

Juan’s only greeting is a curt nod. “What are you doing here?” he asks, glancing at the building where Gabriel came from. “This is Quinn’s territory.”

“For now,” Gabriel replies. “There’ve been a lot of changes lately, and there will be even more before it’s all over.”

Before Juan can say anything else, Gabriel grabs him by his shoulders, pushes him against the wall and kisses him, and, okay, so today is one of those days. Juan’s fingers are still around his switchblade. It would be so easy to take it from his pocket, flick it open and bury it up to the handle in Gabriel’s stomach. His eyes, bluer than the sky over their heads, are half-closed. A quick movement and he’d be dead before he hit the pavement.

Gabriel’s mouth tastes like those cheap cigarettes he’s always smoking. Juan grabs the lapels of his coat, so hard he almost tears them off, and pulls him closer. Gabriel whispers something indistinct against Juan’s mouth and pushes one of his leg between Juan’s. At the sudden contact Juan bites Gabriel’s lower lip, stifles a moan that would have been way too embarrassing, but he can’t stop himself from grinding against the other man.

Gabriel tilts back his head and smirks. “Today you seem even more impatient than usual,” he says, running his thumb over his split lip to catch a drop of blood. He licks it away, and Juan’s eyes follow the motion.

Juan hates Gabriel, hates the fact that Gabriel can make him feel like that with a single kiss, hates being unable to think about anything but how much better it would be if they could do this without clothes, if he could feel Gabriel’s naked skin under his fingers. But they can’t, he can’t have Gabriel, not here and not now, and that’s what Juan hates most.

It’s daylight and they’re out in the street, anyone could see them. He and Gabriel aren’t exactly the city’s best kept secret: Tony glares at them every time he sees them together, Quinn winks and drops hints about threesomes, their lieutenants gossip behind their backs. But gossip is one thing; getting caught in an alley in broad daylight with Gabriel’s hand in his pants is something else entirely.

The concrete wall feels cold against his back. “No,” Juan says. He puts one hand on Gabriel’s chest and pushes him away. They can’t, not while there’s a fucking war going on.

“No?” Gabriel echoes, mocking, taunting. “Have you become shy and chaste all of a sudden, my friend?”

Juan wants nothing better than to kiss him and wipe that insolent look off his face. Instead he says, “Drop it. I’m not your friend. We were never friends.”

That makes Gabriel’s smirk disappear quickly enough. “Yes,” he says, curt, “that’s how it is.” He glances at Juan’s hand, still resting against his chest, and Juan reluctantly lowers his arm.

Gabriel turns around and leaves without another word. Juan watches him walk away and disappear around the corner, then leans back against the wall and swears loudly and profusely under his breath.

It would be easier if the other gang leaders weren’t such a bunch of stubborn fuckers. Tony, sometimes arrogant, most times downright megalomaniac, always sure he’s so close to defeating the others once and for all. Quinn, with a perennial smile on her lips, as if she’s the only one who got the joke, as if she enjoys fighting a never-ending battle day after day. And then there’s Gabriel, who might be the only one who honestly believes that the city would be better off if he were the only one in command. Gabriel the altruist. Gabriel the saint.

Juan hates Gabriel. That’s the way it has always been. Hates him since before, since when Gabriel was just another one of his brothers in arms, a man (almost still a boy) like a thousand others, tall and lanky and long-faced, so pale that his complexion matched the flag he fought under. Juan doesn’t remember where and when he met Gabriel for the first time, but he remembers how Gabriel looked him in the eye and smirked, as if he could see straight through Juan, and in that moment Juan swore to himself that one day he’d kill that bastard with his own hands.

Not that Juan thought Gabriel would need any help dying. Gabriel looked as if he came from some far-off paradise, not the hell on earth that was their city. Juan gave him a month until someone put a bullet in his pretty face and dumped the body in the river. But then a month went by, and another one, and Juan’s prediction never came true. Not only was Gabriel still around, he quickly rose through the ranks, promotion after promotion, until he outranked Juan. Until he took control of the White Angels. And rather than taking orders from him, Juan had left.

It was easier, back at the time. There were over two dozen rival gangs, the smallest counting only three or four members, the largest (like the Angels) maybe a full hundred. So Juan had taken a handful of guys, the ones who were loyal to him and not to Gabriel or the Angels, and he’d left. Nobody had tried to stop him. Gabriel had just shrugged, as if he had been expecting it, as if he’d known why Juan was leaving. Juan couldn’t stand it.

One by one the other leaders had been defeated, their people either slaughtered or recruited by stronger bosses, and the number of gangs had gone down. Until one day the sun rose on a city painted red by carnage, on a square full of wounded and dying man, on the corpse of one of the last leaders. One gang down, five to go. Juan had seen Gabriel opposite him on the far side of the square, pointed his blood-stained knife against him.

“You’re next, Angel,” Juan said.

Gabriel bared his teeth in a smile that was almost a sneer. “We’ll see who is going to kill who,” had been his answer.

With only five gangs left, it seemed inevitable at that time that one of them would prevail over the others and take control over the whole city. But, as time went on, the five gangs clung to their territory. The five leaders refused to die. They were locked in a standstill with no winners and no losers.

This has been the status quo for the past six years. Juan is used to the uneasy peace between the gangs, he knows the others so well that it’s natural for him to go for a drink with Quinn in the same bar where he punched Tony last night, and maybe tomorrow the three of them will meet at the same coffee shop for their morning espresso. He’s used to trading news and insults with Gabriel, used to having lunch together in the only decent pizza place, used to meeting him in the alley behind Charley’s for a quick handjob. He doesn’t even remember how that got started and he still hates Gabriel like he hates nobody else in the world, but he doesn’t hate the status quo.

Juan would have been okay with living like this until the end of his days, but there’s no point wallowing in regrets. Six years of peace, and it only takes them six hours after Joe’s death to descend into full-blown chaos. That’s okay with Juan, too. If that’s how the others plan to end this gang war, he and his Devils will not pull back.

Juan doesn’t see Gabriel around for the rest of the week. His informers let him know that the Angels are launching an attack to the south-eastern part of the city, beyond the river, and he doesn’t want to hear any more. He doesn’t care where Gabriel is or what he’s doing right now, as long as he keeps well out of his way. Some of his Devils fall into an ambush and he loses two of his lieutenants, not to mention those too wounded to fight, and Juan is too busy fighting for survival to worry about Gabriel and his mind games.

But it’s hard for Juan to ignore Gabriel entirely when he hears that he fought off Quinn and her men and now he’s taken control of a few key areas in the south, he’s well on his way to taking all of Joe’s territory. Juan barely managed not to lose any territory. He’s still hanging in there, only just, and he knew that if they were keeping score he would be losing badly right now.

A handful of former Yellows show up one evening. Three men and two women, haggard and nervous, asking to join him because even being part of a losing gang is better than being part of a gang that has already lost. Juan shrugs and swears them in, and his people open a keg of beer to welcome the newbies.

Juan doesn’t tell them that he’s having someone keep an eye on the newbies in case this is a trap. Doesn’t tell them that other former Yellows joined the other gangs earlier, that according to Amira’s reports at least a dozen went straight to the Angels. Then men need an excuse for a celebration, and Juan is tempted to join them, but his dark mood would only bring everyone down.

Instead he goes straight to Charley’s. It’s not safe, not like it used to be before the breach of the peace, but nowhere in the city is safe for Juan now and he really needs a drink. He’s in half a mind to get drunk and wait for Gabriel, who sometimes goes there on the weekends. Juan hasn’t decided if he wants to fight Gabriel or fuck Gabriel tonight. Both, maybe. Either would be preferable to doing nothing.

Gabriel doesn’t show up that night. Juan waits at the bar, drinking an alarming amount of tequila to pass the time and glaring at everyone around. He toys with the idea of going home with a stranger for a night of forgettable sex, but none of the twinks on the dance floor catch his eye. When the club closes, just before dawn, Juan is thrown out and ends up going home alone. The next day he has the worst hangover in his whole life and he gets beaten up by a couple of Spades like the loser that he is.

Gabriel is nowhere to be found. It’s as if he disappeared into thin air. Juan always had a volatile temper, but now he feels downright explosive, ready to jump on anyone who as much as gives him a pretext. His behavior can be justified by the fucking awful situation his gang is in: the war is taking its toll, they’re losing men more quickly than they’re recruiting new ones and they’re on the verge of being kicked out of their territory. From beyond the river, Amira keeps bringing disastrous news about the Angels’ quick expansion.

There’s more than enough reason to drive anyone mad, Juan insists. And, for the most part, his men pretend to believe him. Then one of the newbies makes the mistake of asking him if he had an argument with his boyfriend. Maybe it’s an innocent joke, maybe the newbie was just trying to be helpful, but Juan gives him such a telling-off that the guy leaves pale and shaking. After that, everyone steers clear of him.

The next night, Juan skips his customary pilgrimage to Charley’s and goes looking for a hooker. There are many in the east quarter; prostitution is a lucrative business and one that the gangs are fighting over even now. Juan doesn’t dare to venture into the east quarter alone, because that’s Angel territory, but there’s a few brothels on the south side of the river too, around the small bridge. The walls of the buildings here are covered with graffiti marking who owns each building at this time: many show the Angels’ white wings, but there’s also the Spades’ namesake ace and twin crossed swords for the Green Blades.

Here and there Juan sees the crimson pentacles marking the dominion of the Devils. Juan tries not to think about how few pentacles there are compared to the other symbols. He should be somewhere else, fighting for survival, fighting over this damned city. He shouldn’t be out here in the open, looking for someone willing to be fucked for money, but he feels like he can’t concentrate without releasing some of the pent-up tension from the last few days.

Some of the gang symbols have been painted over and covered with newer ones, a sign that those buildings are highly coveted and have already changed hands more than once since the beginning of the hostilities. There’s also buildings without any graffiti at all, the decrepit, ruined ones that nobody wants, not when there’s better prey to capture. Juan stops in front of one such building, a sad, gray, two-storied thing, and he knocks on the door because there’s a sign saying the doorbell is broken.

Inside, the place is gray and sad too. Someone tried to spice up the atmosphere with gaudy floor lamps that give off a reddish-purple light, but the electric grid is unreliable at best and the lamps’ light keeps flickering on and off. The semi-darkness doesn’t manage to cover the peeling paint on the walls and the suspicious stains on the sofas that Juan won’t investigate closer. He’s not here because of this place’s interior decorating anyway.

There’s a huge burly man sitting next to the door and checking who comes and who goes; when he sees Juan he gets up to greet him, bowing and scraping despite being a good two feet taller than him. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to take over your pitiful place of business,” Juan tells him. “Today I’m here as a customer.”

The man tries to hide a sigh of relief. “Do you have something in mind already?” he asks.

Juan does have something in mind: pale blond hair, half-closed blue eyes, an insolent smirk and a cigarette at the corner of the mouth. He shrugs. “Let me have a look,” he says.

There’s half a dozen boys at the back of the room, some lounging on the sofas, a couple playing cards in the corner. Juan browses each of them in turn, one by one, and none of them strike him particularly. “Him,” he says in the end, pointing to one of the card players.

The boy seems young, probably not even twenty. He quickly tosses his cards on the table and gets up from the chair with a smile. “Follow me,” he says, taking Juan by the hand and leading him into one of the bedrooms upstairs. This room is gray and sad too, as expected, but the bed at least looks large and comfortable and clean.

Juan takes off his jacket and tosses it over a rickety chair. Meanwhile he looks at the boy. He’s blond, yes, but it’s the wrong shade of blond, a reddish blond, too dark. He smiles too much, in a way that’s too unctuous and servile for Juan’s tastes. Worst of all, he speaks too much. “It’s your first time here, right? I’d remember someone like you. You’re Juan, the boss of the Devils. I always thought you are so cool. My name is…”

“I don’t give a fuck about your name,” Juan snarls. If he wanted to talk with someone he’d be at Charley’s, letting strangers buy him drinks and pretending to be interested when they try to chat him up. All he wants tonight is sex. He sits on the edge of the bed and motions for the boy to come closer. “Now shut the fuck up. I’ve got a couple of better uses in mind for your tongue.”

In a short time Juan has the blond kneeling between his legs, stark naked, lips stretched around his erection. It’s a great improvement from having to listen to his mindless chatter. Juan concentrates on the feeling of it. His breath quickens and he twists his hand in blondie’s hair. In the dim light it’s hard to see his face well, and for a moment Juan imagines it’s Gabriel kneeling in front of him, sucking him off, thinks how wonderful it would be to have Gabriel in his power and feel his thin lips around his length.

Juan moans and pushes his hips forward, forcing the boy to deep-throat him, until he’s almost choking on his dick. The boy blinks away a tear, but if he’s uncomfortable he doesn’t say. With a tinge of annoyance, Juan thinks that Gabriel would never allow anyone to use him like that. Suddenly being blown by this stranger has lost its appeal.

He pushes the boy on the bed, face down so he doesn’t have to look him in the eye, and fucks him with a desperate fury he didn’t know he possessed. All the while the boy keeps moaning and panting in feigned pleasure, but Juan doesn’t care, not any more, he doesn’t even bother to tell him to shut up. His orgasm leaves him breathing hard and feeling as if, whatever he was looking for, he didn’t find it here.

Juan doesn’t even wait a minute to catch his breath. He cleans himself up as well as he can with a handful of paper towels, picks up his clothes from the chair and dresses up in silence. The boy walks him to the exit, walking slowly, too sore to chat. The bouncer looks at them curiously, no doubt wondering why they are done so quickly, but he knows better than to say anything. Juan is reaching in his pocket for his wallet when the door opens, letting in a new client and the cold wind of a winter night.

The newcomer is Gabriel. Juan is paralyzed for a moment, the hand holding the wallet still in mid-air, the other hand clenched into a fist. Gabriel runs one hand through his hair and frowns, he’s unsure about what to do as well. They didn’t come here to fight, but since they’re both here now, they might as well get it over with. All it would take is for someone to make the first move. The bouncer looks between the two of them with worry, and some of the wiser whores hasten to leave through a back door.

Juan takes a handful of cash from his wallet and hands it to the boy, thrice as much as he owed. “We’re going to need your room,” he says. “If you value your life, we were never here.”

Gabriel pushes Juan backwards on the bed, against the headboard, and slips the jeans off him with a single quick move. His fingers feel like ice. When they brush over his skin, Juan shivers at the contact. There’s a smirk playing over Gabriel’s lips, so Juan kisses him to erase that insufferable expression from his face. His hands move to Gabriel’s chest, unbutton his shirt, tear it away from his shoulders, run over his hips.

Pale and perfect, Gabriel doesn’t have a single scar despite his violent past. Juan is seized by a sudden powerful need for marking him like he’s one of his conquered territories. He licks a line along Gabriel’s jaw, nips at the jugular, bites him hard enough to leave a mark. Gabriel arches against him and drives his fingers into Juan’s forearm. The next day they’ll be both bruised, and Juan feels a jolt of pleasure at the thought.

“How come you’re so possessive today?” Gabriel asks, amusement glinting in his pale eyes. Kneeling on the bed, he towers over Juan.

Juan takes off his shirt and flings it away. “You know why,” he says, almost snarls. He’s already hard in his pants.

Gabriel laughs and pushes Juan back against the pillows, kisses him. “You missed me,” he whispers against his lips. He smirks. “Is that why you were trying to replace me with that bad copy I saw in the other room?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Juan lies, flushing scarlet. “It was a relief not seeing your ugly mug around the place.”

One of Gabriel’s hands slides downwards to toy with the hem of Juan’s boxers. “Don’t worry,” he says, still laughing. “I’m here now, and I’m going to take care of you.”

Juan holds his breath when Gabriel takes off his underwear and presses two fingers against his entrance. “No, I never…” he says, choking on the words. He grabs Gabriel’s wrist to still his fingers. “I don’t like being…”

Right now, Gabriel looks everything but angelic. “You’ll like it with me,” he replies, mocking. “If you want me instead of your cheap whore, you’ll like it.” Juan hates Gabriel.

The advantage of fucking in a brothel is that there’s no lack of lube and condoms. Gabriel takes the bottle from the table and pours a liberal amount of lube in his hand, while Juan grabs the sheets under him with enough strength that his knuckles go white.

Gabriel doesn’t miss that. “It’ll hurt less if you’re not nervous,” he says, circling a around Juan’s hole with one fingertip and kneeling between his legs.

Pain isn’t what worries Juan. He’s used to being beaten, being stabbed, being shot, he doubts being fucked will be much worse. But he hates being in this position, having to open his legs for Gabriel and watch while the other rams two fingers up his ass. He hates feeling so defenseless.

Gabriel, bastard that he is, takes his time. Juan didn’t expect that, judging from his earlier expression he thought Gabriel was going to be brutal, instead there’s something almost tender in the way Gabriel slides inside him one knuckle at the time, waiting until Juan gets used to the size of his fingers before pushing deeper.

“You’re so tight,” Gabriel remarks, leaning forward to kiss him.

Juan glares at him and bites his lip. “I told you already, I don’t like it,” he says, but Gabriel moves his fingers in a certain way against his sensitive spot, and Juan is left breathless. He needs all of his self control not to beg Gabriel to do that again. But Gabriel reads the request in his eyes and repeats the gesture again, and then again, until Juan starts moving his hips together with him, desperately wanting more friction, more contact than Gabriel is allowing him.

Gabriel, that bastard, doesn’t even let him touch himself, even though by now Juan is painfully hard. “Not yet,” he whispers, catching Juan’s wrists in an iron grip and holding them over Juan’s head, pinning him to the bed. In the room’s red lamplight, his eyes look almost purple.

Gabriel adds a third finger, then a fourth, stretching him so slowly that Juan has to bite his lips to stop himself from crying. Juan withdraws his previous opinion; this isn’t tenderness, this is the worst kind of torture, and he needs to feel Gabriel inside of himself and not just those damn fingers.

“Will you hurry up?” Juan growls, trying to push against Gabriel’s fingers. He’s ready, damn it, he’s so ready he feels a trickle of lube dripping between his buttocks; Gabriel has used almost all of the bottle.

The other man smirks. “I thought you didn’t like it,” he says, but finally he pulls out his fingers and gets up to fetch a condom.

Juan can’t hold back a moan of anticipation when Gabriel kneels between his legs and brushes the inside of his thigh. But Gabriel isn’t planning to give him what he wants, not just yet.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, looking down on Juan, a small smile playing on his lips.

Juan just glares at him. He doesn’t want to think about how he must look like, painting on the bed under Gabriel, opened up for him.

“Take your time, I can wait all night for your answer,” Gabriel says. “If you’d prefer it I can leave, and you can go look for someone else.” He would be capable of that, too. He’d leave Juan behind, alone and frustrated, and Juan wouldn’t be able to stand that.

“Fuck me,” Juan says, giving up entirely. His dick is so hard, he feels as if he could die if Gabriel doesn’t do something soon. “Please,” he says, spreading his legs like a common whore, he didn’t mean to beg, he doesn’t know why he’s begging, he hates himself for giving up so quickly but he can’t stand the wait any more.

Gabriel smiles. “As you wish, my friend,” he says.

He slides inside Juan with a single movement that leaves him breathless. Gabriel’s cock is much thicker than his fingers, and it feels perfect, just on the right edge between pleasure and pain. Gabriel doesn’t give Juan time to adjust before starting to move, ramming into him hard. The urgency of his rhythm makes Juan think that maybe Gabriel was tired of waiting too. Juan wants to mock him, regain at least some of his dignity, but even breathing takes too much effort right now. All he can do is hold on to Gabriel’s shoulders and try to move together with him and think finally, yes, please, god, finally.

It takes Juan a ridiculously short time to reach his orgasm, he doesn’t even need to touch himself, he was wound up that tight. Gabriel comes shortly after, and then falls over Juan’s chest without bothering to pull out of him. Juan throws his head back on the pillows and stares at the ceiling, listening. The only sounds he can hear are their irregular breaths and their heartbeats.

“Stop calling me your friend,” Juan says as soon as he catches his breath. Why does Gabriel even do that?

Gabriel props himself up on an elbow and kisses him, slowly, almost lazily. “No,” he says when their lips part.

Juan hates Gabriel.

More weeks go by. Juan keeps fighting, clinging to survival with all he’s got, despite the odds being stacked against him. Keeps fucking Gabriel. He doesn’t plan for it to happen, doesn’t want it to happen, but that’s what happens anyway. They meet often, and they fight most of those times, and when there’s no one else around Gabriel drags him away from the street and has his way with him. Juan lets him; he feels powerless to resist.

Juan knows this is a very bad idea, so he doesn’t talk about it with anyone. If someone guesses at the reason why sometimes he shows up bruised and limping, they don’t say. They’re at war. Everyone has bruises and wounds of some sort, both his people and the other gangs’.

Then one day, out of the blue, one of Quinn’s lieutenants walks into the Devils’ headquarters and says that her boss wants a face-to-face with Juan. The request takes him by surprise, and he wonders what Quinn wants from him. He hasn’t seen much of her people lately; they’re staying close to the river while Juan and Gabriel are fighting in the heart of the south quarter.

His first instinct is to refuse: Quinn wouldn’t invite him into her den if she didn’t have something to gain from it, and this could very well be a trap. But subtlety isn’t Quinn’s style; if she wanted Juan dead she would have sent him a gunman and not a messenger. Juan is curious despite himself.

So he goes. Quinn’s base of operations is in the middle of the river. Juan, Amira and half a dozen others take the ferry to the island a couple of hours after sunset. There’s guards at the docks, checking all arrivals to keep troublemakers away, but they must have been alerted about Juan’s arrival because they let him through. He’s been here a couple of times already, before Joe’s death, so he knows the way. His destination is a large gaudy building on the riverfront, whose neon sign above the entrance proclaims it to be “The Queen’s Palace”.

The men stationed at the casino’s entry, more like sentries than porters, direct Juan to the upper floor. The place is still crowded despite the situation, or maybe it’s the knowledge that they might be killed by a stray bullet the next morning that drives so many people to search the momentary excitement of the poker tables. Juan hates gambling. He’s a lousy bluff.

This is enemy territory, so Juan stays on his guard. He doesn’t need to remind Amira and the others to do the same. But despite Juan misgivings the casino is much more peaceful than the rest of the city, with only the occasional scuffle here and there. They reach Quinn’s private room without any trouble.

There are voices coming from inside. Juan doesn’t bother to knock and just pushes in. Across the room, two groups of people decked in blue and green are glaring at each other. Quinn is sitting at a round poker table, toying with a chip, turning it over and over in her fingers. Tony is sitting in front of her, precariously balancing his chair on its two back legs, his feet propped on the table. He’s in the middle of a vehement speech but he stops dead when he sees Juan walking in. His chair falls forward with a thud. Juan’s hand flies to his switchblade.

Only Quinn looks as if nothing’s amiss. “I’m so glad you could make it,” she tells Juan, flashing him a smile, the perfect image of an elegant hostess. Juan wonders how many weapons she has hidden under her skirt. She’s enjoying the confusion, he knows.

“You didn’t say he would be here too,” Tony says, jerking his head towards Juan. His voice is a low rumble.

“Didn’t I?” Quinn replies. “Sorry, it must’ve slipped my mind. Were you hoping to have me all to yourself?” She’s dressed in blue tonight, a sleeveless dress that exposes her impressive collection of tattoos. A blue ace of spades, her pride and joy, covers her left collarbone. Her lipstick and nail polish are blue, too. “Take a seat, he’ll be here shortly.”

Juan sits down between her and Tony, who’s still glaring. “He?” he echoes. It’s not really a question, there’s only one person Quinn could be talking about. On cue, Gabriel walks in from the door Juan left open. He only has a couple of his men with him. Either he’s very confident, or very trusting, or very foolish.

“Hello, Gabriel,” Quinn says, giving him a little wave of her fingers, and Gabriel sits down in front of Juan.

Tony looks as if he’s about to have a stroke, Quinn has a satisfied smile on her lips, Gabriel’s expression is impossible to read as always. Juan doesn’t like this one bit. Suddenly he knows why they’re all here, and it’s not to fight or kill each other, though he’d almost prefer it if that was the case.

Quinn starts making her little speech. They are, all of them, fighting a war that they can’t afford. They don’t have the resources and they don’t have the men. Juan knows that his gang is in bad shape, but Quinn knows that all gangs are in bad shape. She doesn’t make a secret of the fact that her people are bleeding too.

Juan can feel the two dozen men and women around the table tensing up as Quinn rattles off names and numbers. They all knew that they were bleeding, but they didn’t know how much. The truth is brutal. Quinn knows a lot about their gangs’ activities, probably more than Juan himself knows about his own; her network of spies is impressive as always, so impressive that Juan glances at Gabriel and wonders if this time Quinn had any help.

Tony complains that he’s better off than Quinn makes it sound, but Juan knows that he’s lying through his teeth. Quinn pushes Tony’s feet away from the table, places piles of poker chips over a map of the city and starts moving them around to mark the position of their men. By the time she’s done replaying the events of the last few days, the piles of chips have dwindled down considerably.

Juan sees her point. As it is, none of them has enough strength to take over the whole city. They can try to destroy each other, but they’d need to sacrifice their own gangs in the process, and that would leave them too weak to external attacks.

“So what do you suggest we should do?” Tony asks, and that’s when Juan knows that Quinn will get her way. They can’t go on like this; they need to restore the status quo. It’s either that or die.

Quinn’s proposal is, surprisingly, good for all of them. “I already have this island and some territories in the northwest. I don’t want to have my men on three different sides of the river. I’ll pull out of the south quarter if you agree to tear down Joe’s old gambling den and leave me the monopoly on casinos.”

That’s reasonable; it’s not as if it would ever be a profitable business anyway. “What about me?” Tony complains. He’s got the north quarter, it makes no sense for him to split his forces and fight for the south quarter, but that’s what he’s been doing anyway. He’s stubborn and full of pride, and he won’t go away so easily.

“Weapons,” Quinn says. “All of Joe’s stock, whatever didn’t get blown up with him. All of his smuggling business too.”

Tony makes a great show of thinking about it, he haggles over the details, but Juan has seen his eyes sparkle with greed. In the end, he bites. That leaves only Juan and Gabriel.

Gabriel hasn’t said anything; he’s just sitting there smoking one cigarette after the other, staring at Juan. He’s trying to unnerve Juan, and the worst part is, it’s working.

“The south quarter is yours, boys,” Quinn says, waving one manicured hand towards the two of them. “It’s only logical, since it’s between your current territories.”

“And I bet you’ve already decided how to split it, too,” Juan snaps.

Quinn laughs in the face of his glare. “I’ll let Gabriel tell you,” she says.

“Cigarette?” Gabriel says, offering him the packet, and Juan just glares at him. Juan hates Gabriel. Right now he hates Quinn, too. Hates how she planned this with Gabriel, how she’s forcing everyone to go along with her plan by making it seem like the only reasonable thing to do, like there’s no alternative.

She accepts a cigarette from Gabriel and he leans forward to light it for her. From their movements, it looks like a familiar gesture. How long have they been planning this for?

Then Gabriel takes a large red marker and draws a line on the map, splitting the south quarter in two along the narrow streets and alleys. Juan stares at it and clenches his fists. This is it. This is what he’s been waiting for, this is the end of the war that has been threatening to kill him and all of his people. This morning he wasn’t sure he’d be able to hold on to one single building, and now Gabriel is giving him almost half of the south quarter. Almost.

Juan takes a deep breath. “Is this a fucking joke or what?” he says, slamming one hand against the table. “I’m not going to settle for your leftovers.”

“Then you have a problem,” Gabriel replies, “because this is all I’m willing to give you.”

“Give me?” Now Juan is positively enraged. “You’re not giving me anything, we’re splitting this territory to stop this bloody fucking war.” He glances at the map again and makes a disgusted face. “This is barely a third of the land, and you’re keeping all the choice bits to yourself.”

Gabriel shrugs and takes a long drag of his cigarette. “I figured that was appropriate, since you’re currently outmanned and outpowered. Do you have a better division in mind?”

There’s blood pounding in Juan’s ears. He snatches the marker from him and looks at the map. If he knew what was good for him, he’d take Gabriel’s deal. But Gabriel is living proof that Juan never does what is good for him, and besides, Amira and his people are watching. Juan traces another line, way to the right, claiming a good three-fourths of the south for himself.

Gabriel raises an eyebrow. “Really?” he drawls. “I knew you were going to make some ridiculous request, but… really?”

Quinn raises her hands in mock surrender. “Sort it out between yourselves, I’m not going to be your divorce attorney,” she says, while Tony roars with laughter.

“You should’ve said yes,” Gabriel says, pushing Juan inside a stall.

Juan wraps his fists in the collar of Gabriel’s shirt, pulls his face close, so close he can smell the smoke on Gabriel’s breath. He’s expected Gabriel to be pissed about the refusal, about his plan not working, but Gabriel seems just amused. “Fuck you,” he spits.

Gabriel laughs. “Not here,” he replies. “I don’t have any condoms.”

“You bastard,” Juan says. He pushes Gabriel away when he tries to go in for a kiss.

Still laughing, Gabriel sinks to his knees. Juan’s mouth falls open, and he stares while Gabriel undoes his belt with quick fingers. Then Gabriel’s mouth closes around his cock. Juan slumps backwards, throws back his head and doesn’t even notice the pain when he hits the stall’s cardboard wall.

This is not what should have happened. Quinn and Tony agreed to withdraw, so the war’s just between Juan and Gabriel now. If there was ever a time to stop fucking the enemy, it’s now. They should have settled this years ago. They could settle this now in a matter of seconds. It’s not that hard to kill a man.

Juan feels as if he’s lost control over his own life, or maybe he didn’t have any to begin with. Gabriel’s mouth around his cock feels even better than he thought, and at the same time it’s completely different from what he imagined. There’s nothing submissive in the way Gabriel holds his hips, scrapes his teeth lightly along his shaft, and the things he does with his tongue, god, that’s so good it should be illegal.

The noises Gabriel is making are indecent, too, loud slurping noises, as if he’s enjoying this. He’s probably faking it, Juan knows that the bastard is faking it, no one likes sucking cock that much, but it’s still a turn on. Juan bites his own wrist to stop himself from moaning.

Then, above his ragged breathing and the sound of flesh on flesh, Juan hears the bathroom door opening. He grabs Gabriel, digging his fingers into his shoulder, not daring to speak in case whoever’s outside hears him.

There’s footsteps, which stop far from their stall, then the sound of running water. Someone washing their hands. Gabriel has to have heard that, but he’s not going to stop anyway. He looks up at Juan from under his eyelashes, those ridiculous, long, pale eyelashes of his, and just sucks. Juan groans.

Someone’s talking outside. Juan recognizes the voices, it’s Tony and one of his men, though they’re too far to hear what they’re talking about. He closes his eyes and tries to choke down all the noises, doesn’t even want to think about what will happen if Tony hears him.

Gabriel doesn’t seem worried about discovery; he’s doing his best to make Juan cry out loud, as if this is all a game to him. He’s fucking crazy. Juan is going crazy, too, between trying not to let the whole casino know that he’s getting the best blowjob of his life and, well, getting the best blowjob of his life.

Juan tries to wait until Tony has left before coming, but Tony seems to be taking forever and Gabriel’s mouth feels so damn good. He comes, harder and more loudly than he’d meant to, and Gabriel doesn’t even pull away, just takes it. Juan was right, Gabriel is a whore. A great one, though.

For a moment Juan blacks out. Tony could open the door of the stall and Juan wouldn’t even notice, he’s so out of it. Then he collects his thoughts and his heart jumps in his throat, because he hears footsteps again. But they’re walking away this time, the door opens and closes, and the restroom is silent again.

Gabriel wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and stands up. He’s still smirking. “You,” Juan tells him, “are a fucking psycho.”

The other man just laughs and kisses him. The taste of come in Gabriel’s mouth mingles with the cigarette smoke, but this time Juan is so dizzy that he can’t stop him. Their tongues entwine together.

One of Gabriel’s hands cups the back of Juan’s head, slides under the collar of his leather jacket and under his shirt. His fingers brush the small tattoo at the base of the neck.

“I love you too, old friend,” he says.

Juan jerks awake in his bed, going into panic alert before he’s even fully awake. For a moment he’s not sure he really heard footsteps outside the door; it could have been just a dream, or maybe the noise came from the street outside, where the gangs are still fighting even though it’s almost dawn. But if Juan has learned anything in this damn city, it’s that paranoia keeps you alive.

He slides one hand under the pillow and retrieves his switchblade, opens it and at the same time sits up in the bed, ready to fight. Before he can do anything else, a hand closes around his wrist, forcing it backwards until he’s forced to let go of his weapon. At the same time his mysterious assailant pushes his knee against Juan’s chest, knocking the breath out of him.

“You’re impossible to deal with when you’ve just woken up, dear,” a too-familiar voice whispers in his ear.

“Gabriel,” Juan says, and the name is almost a curse on his lips.

The other man laughs and his breath, smelling of alcohol and cigarette smoke, tickles Juan’s cheek. “Were you waiting for someone else?” Gabriel asks.

Juan wasn’t waiting for anyone at all; he’d been hoping to catch up on some sleep after having been awake for almost forty hours straight. “What are you doing here?” he asks. It’s not going to be anything good. Gabriel shouldn’t even know where Juan lives.

Instead of answering, Gabriel shifts his weight over him and moves to turn on a lamp. Juan blinks to adjust his eyes to the light, then lets out a surprised hiss. Gabriel’s face, usually pale, now has a ghastly tinge. His left eye is almost completely closed, ringed with purple and black bruises, and his cheek is marred by a diagonal cut that looks shallow but is still bleeding.

“Your Devils are being a nuisance,” Gabriel says, brushing a rivulet of blood away with his thumb. “I assume there’s no way you would just give up and accept your inevitable defeat?”

Juan closes his free hand into a fist, but even in this condition Gabriel is quicker than him, dodging the punch and pinning both of Juan’s hands against the mattress. “You haven’t defeated us yet,” Juan says, baring his teeth.

Gabriel laughs, making a sound like a wheeze. A couple of broken ribs, Juan thinks, and probably under his coat he’s got a collection of bruises to go with the ones around his eye. But Juan has got bruises of his own, too, and Gabriel’s grip is still strong. Juan can only clench his fists and glare at Gabriel.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” Gabriel says. “But surely you can see that I’m telling the truth.”

The worst part is, Juan knows he’s right, the Angels are holding almost all of the south quarter by now. Juan is still clinging to some scraps, a building here and a shop there, but he’d need a miracle to turn the situation around. Juan doesn’t believe in miracles, never did.

“Sorry,” he says instead. “I’m not going to give up, not now and not ever. If you want this city, you’ll have to fight for it.”

“I expected nothing less from you,” Gabriel replies with a smirk. “You’ve always been a tough one.”

Right now Juan feels anything but. He’s too exposed, he can’t move and doesn’t have any weapons. “Are you here to kill me?” he asks.

By way of an answer, Gabriel bends down and kisses him. His mouth tastes like ash and blood, bitter and metallic at the same time. Juan hates the taste but kisses him back anyway, with all of the desperation that comes from coming that this could be the last time, that any time could be the last time.

“Not yet,” Gabriel whispers, almost too low to hear, and Juan fills the blanks in his head. Not yet, but soon. Soon their time will be running out.

When Gabriel makes to kiss him again, Juan makes a sudden jerking movement and manages to free one arm. For a moment Gabriel is caught unawares and loses his balance. Only a moment, but it’s more than enough. Juan gets up and pushes him backwards, reversing their positions. Now it’s Gabriel who is pinned down against the mattress, trapped under Juan’s body.

Gabriel’s features, usually so composed, are distorted in a mask of pain. Multiple broken ribs, Juan is sure of that now. But Juan can be a right bastard, too. He ignores Gabriel’s struggles, tightening the grip on his arms and rutting against him, looks at Gabriel’s face, a mixture of pain and pleasure than Gabriel can’t quite hide.

“You know,” Juan says in a casual tone, running his free hand over Gabriel’s side, “I’ve always hated you.

When Juan undoes his fly, Gabriel has an involuntary shudder. Under his jeans he’s wearing nothing. “I’ve always been attracted to you, too,” Gabriel says.

Juan wraps his fingers around Gabriel’s hard-on and bites back a moan at the idea that Gabriel came here tonight for this. Not to fight, not to trade insults, not to talk about their destiny. Simply because he needs Juan almost as much as Juan needs him. He needs this.

“Listen to me when I talk,” Juan says, slowly moving his hand. “I said I hate you, not that I’m attracted to you.” Gabriel tries to arch his back and push his hips upwards into Juan’s fist, but his current position doesn’t allow him to. “It’s two different things.”

“Not even that much,” Gabriel replies. His voice is already rough. “There’s a very thin line between love and hate.”

It’s not what Juan wants to hear, not tonight. He’d kiss Gabriel to shut him up, but Gabriel turns his head in a sudden spasm and the kiss lands on the corner of his mouth. Again Juan tastes blood on his lips. On impulse he presses another kiss, this time on Gabriel’s cheek, and then more along his cheekbone.

When Gabriel moans and closes his eyes, Juan moves his hand more quickly, just the way he knows Gabriel wants it, doesn’t let himself think about how he memorized all the lines of Gabriel’s body. He traces the line of the cut with his tongue, licks the last few droplets of blood. That’s enough to push Gabriel over the edge. He comes without warning, murmuring words in a foreign tongue and something that sounds like Juan’s name.

Juan’s grip on Gabriel slackens, because Gabriel right now doesn’t seem capable of doing anything but breathing, and even that seems hard. It’s not usually like this. Juan doesn’t like to admit that he has any basis for the comparison, because this story has been going on for far too long, but it’s the first time Gabriel has let himself be caught unawares. He’s never so open, so vulnerable, so exposed.

Not yet, Juan thinks, but soon. Yet soon is not now, and what Juan has now is Gabriel in his bed, curled around him, and outside of the window he can see the first rays of the rising sun. When Gabriel opens his eyes, Juan cups his cheek with one hand and kisses him, slow and languid, as if they have all the time in the world. As if he doesn’t feel that their time is running out.

Juan has no idea what time it is. Late afternoon, maybe early evening. There’s a thick fog rising from the river, filling the streets and draining the color from everything. It can’t hide the blood, though, could never hide the blood. There’s blood everywhere, in the streets and on the walls, too many dead bodies around him.

They’ve been fighting since yesterday without any breaks, and Juan has lost track of how long he’s been going without sleep. He doesn’t see the man who jumps at him when he turns the corner, barely has time to react at all before being knocked off his feet. He shields his face with one arm and feels something crack when he falls down on the cobbles, hard. His arm throbs with pain.

His assailant punches him in the stomach, once, twice, and Juan doesn’t try to hide the pain he’s feeling. Juan doesn’t recognize the man, has never seen him before; his eyes are on the length of chain that the man has got wrapped around his fist. The stranger might have more weapons on him, but he doesn’t feel the need to use them. Probably feels he has the upper hand on him, Juan thinks, which is just so arrogant. Fucking Angels.

Juan jerks his leg up and knees the man in the family jewels. He feels a small pang of satisfaction when the man doubles up with pain, but he’s not about to drag this out and make the same mistake as the man did. In a heartbeat Juan takes his switchblade, flicks it open and buries it up to the hilt in the man’s stomach; he twists the knife around a bit before taking it out in a spray of blood.

The man clutches at his wound and gapes at him, trying to stop the blood flow, but he’s spitting blood already; the knife must have punctured some vital organ. Juan has got no wish to see him die. He shoves the man away from him and pushes himself to his feet, boots slipping on the wet cobblestones; he’s closer to the river than he thought.

He looks around, trying to figure out where he is, and that’s when he notices the figures around him. They’re lurking just far enough to be half-hidden in the fog, but they’re slowly moving towards him. Juan takes a few steps back and sees the shape of the old bridge looming out of the fog.

It’s close enough that he’s tempted to make a run for it, to retreat to the relative safety of his turf. When he reaches the start of the bridge, though, he sees that there’s people here already, standing in the middle of it like sentries. For a moment Juan dares to hope, but then he notices the white bandannas and strips of cloth tied around their arms and legs. He should have known that luck is always against him in this fucking city.

This is it, he thinks. Maybe it’s better this way, running away with his tail between his legs was never his style. The Angels close in on him. He grins and holds his knife with his left arm, because his right is broken, and wonders how many he’ll be able to take down with him.

“Back off,” says a voice far behind him. “He’s mine.”

Several heads snap around to look at the speaker, but not Juan’s. He doesn’t need to see him to recognize the bastard. “Gabriel,” he says through gritted teeth, “come to join the party?”

There’s a familiar sound of Gabriel’s taking a pull of his cigarette. He walks into Juan’s field of vision, shooing away his subordinates. “It’s going to be a rather private party,” he says. “Just you and me and our… unresolved issues.” He stretches the last words, giving Juan an oblique glance.

Juan smirks. “That might take us a while,” he says.

“No,” Gabriel replies. “I don’t think so.” Suddenly he’s dropped his cigarette and he’s throwing himself at Juan, pushing him against the bridge’s parapet. The very old, crumbling parapet. Juan feels the stone digging into his thighs and into his back.

Juan tries to knee Gabriel, the same move he used on his mook, but if Gabriel fell for such cheap tricks he would have never stayed alive in this city for as long as he has. Gabriel dances out of the way, dodging the blow, and one of his hands wraps around Juan’s throat. Juan tries to spit a curse at him, but he’s already choking.

He should have seen this coming, damn it; he’s sparred with Gabriel often enough to know that Gabriel is quicker than him, and that he should try to use his larger bulk to his advantage. Or his knife. His first knife fell out of his hand during the struggle with Gabriel, but it would be just stupid for a man to walk around with only one blade on him.

Gabriel isn’t paying attention to Juan’s hands, he’s staring him in the eye while choking the life out of him, and his face is carefully devoid of expression. Without looking, Juan takes the second knife from his belt and flicks it open, pressing it against Gabriel’s stomach, right where he knows it would be fatal. Gabriel’s eyes are gray today, reflecting the fog around them. Juan can’t help thinking back to the man he killed just now, how his eyes had gone blank as he died.

Then Gabriel glances down and his breath catches as he sees the knife. Juan has got a split second to do this. He holds his knife in his right hand, his broken hand, and it would be so easy to do it…

He drops the knife. It was never going to happen anyway. Juan hates Gabriel. Hates him because he’s the only person in this goddamn city worth living for, the only one who makes Juan life mean something. Without him, there’s no reason to hold on at all.

“Do it,” Juan says, choking on the words, still staring into Gabriel’s eyes. Time seems to stand still.

“I can’t,” Gabriel replies, quiet.

The grip around Juan’s neck slackens and he sucks in large gulps of air, leaning against the parapet for support. He’s feeling dizzy and lightheaded and he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Gabriel is still holding him, or maybe supporting his weight.

“You’re my friend,” Gabriel says, after what feels like an eternity. “I can’t kill you.”

“Bullshit,” Juan says. He clenches his fists despite the pain in his right arm. He needs the pain to keep him grounded. “What makes you think we’re friends? I left, seven years ago, and I never looked back. So stop acting like… like I’ve only stepped out for a minute and I’ll come back any time. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Gabriel’s fingers brush Juan’s neck. “Bit too late for that, Juan,” he drawls, and Juan scoffs. “And besides, you still have the tattoo.”

Juan meets his eyes, defiant, and just shrugs. “So?”

Gabriel leans forward against Juan’s chest. “Don’t tell me you couldn’t be bothered to have it removed.” He tugs down the collar of Juan’s shirt, and Juan knows what he must be seeing, wingtips peeking out at the base of his neck. “Seven years, and you’re still sporting our symbol. Why?”

It’s the same question Juan has been asking himself for the past seven years. He didn’t know the answer then, and he doesn’t know it now. “There’s been too much blood spilled,” he says instead. “It’s too late to go back now.”

“Would you go back if you could?” Gabriel says, almost whispers, in Juan’s ear.

Juan looks above his shoulder. The fog hides anything further than a couple of meters away but he knows that Gabriel’s people are standing at both ends of the bridge, waiting for the outcome of this exchange. He knows that there are bodies in the street, in the south quarter and maybe in the west too, he knows that there’s blood everywhere and it’s him who pushed the situation this far.

“I really thought I’d make a better boss than you,” Juan says, more to himself than to Gabriel. He’d thought it until the very end, clinging to his stupid pride despite everything, despite all evidence that it was Gabriel who had everything under control, while around him his gang crashed and burned. “I’ve really fucked it up, didn’t I?”

He raises his hand to the red bandanna tied around his left forearm, undoes the knot with shaky, pained fingers. When the cloth falls to the ground, it looks like a puddle of blood at their feet. Juan does feel like he’s bleeding, though it’s probably just the fatigue and the punches. Gabriel wraps his arms around Juan’s shoulders, and Juan lets himself be held. It should feel like losing, but really it feels like going home.

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