This Thing Of Ours

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by safelybeds

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/119353.html)

Thinking back now, I remember it in slow motion, like when the film gets caught in the projector at the pictures and everything spins down until Greta Garbo moves like she’s underwater and sounds like a foghorn speaking Swiss. But at the time, it went so fast that the only real, conscious thought my brain got off was what the hell is Bruno Battaglio smiling about? Then the pistols started shattering the glassware above the bar, and I grabbed Ken’s tie, and we hit the floor hard.

It’s not hard to stage a hit in a restaurant, which is why I suppose so many of them go down there — it’s not like the ones worth eating in are built for mobility, especially what with space at a premium in the part of Atlantic City where we were, and after a good bottle of wine or three, you’re not thinking too clear. If things had gone a little different, I could’ve been a chalk outline for the cops to shake their heads over the next morning, sprawled across floorboards where you can’t tell the blood from the marinara. But wouldn’t you believe it, the guy his boss had arranged to drive him over made a right turn on red and got lectured for half an hour by some Jap-hating cop for it. Instead of starting in on the second bottle, we’d barely unfolded our napkins across our laps when Bruno and the Russian goons busted in, and I was still strung high wondering if I was going to get just plain stood up.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the best thing to do when a half-dozen heavily armed Russians bust through the front door of your bistro, and that’s just what I did: dropped to the floor, kicked the table over for cover, and started scrambling back toward the kitchen. It was only when he started making choking sounds and punching my leg that I realized I still had a death grip on Ken’s tie, so I let go, figuring he knew enough to follow me anyway, and pushed through the swinging metal kitchen door. Fortunately, the same restaurant impediments that make a getaway difficult also make pursuit a problem, and we were closer by far to the kitchen than they were to us, so by the time I heard bullets start to ricochet off Mama Mattioni’s good stock pots, we were out the back door and down the alley.

I was armed, of course — have to be stupid not to be, especially when your boss has sent you out alone to meet with the also-alone representative of a group where you don’t know if tomorrow they’ll be your business partners or your new best enemies — but my first thought has never been to shoot so much as to slug, which is what I did the second an ugly Russian face rounded the corner. My fist connected with that lumpy nose of his, and he fell back into the guy behind him, the bottom half of his face bright with red blood.

Before I could get to the second goon, though, a foot flew up out of nowhere and slammed into the side of his head, and I recognized the high-shined shoes I’d seen stride in through the restaurant door barely five minutes previous. I turned to Ken, though I didn’t know why, maybe to ask him how the hell he’d pulled that off or just to tell him nice shot, but I was distracted by the crack of gunfire from the other end of the alley. Damn that Bruno, he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Battaglio tree, but neither was he such a slouch that he didn’t cover his exits. He obviously hadn’t told those guys with pistols who they were up against, though, because a shot apiece later, both of them were down and my .22 was barely warm.

“Come on,” I told Ken, and he followed me like he was in no mood to argue, out the alley and down the block half a ways before ducking into the front of an apartment building where Bruno and I both knew several of the residents. Instead of taking the chance on one of them, though, I sprinted through the narrow corridor past the stairs and out a back service door that looked bolted tight but gave if you did so much as nudge it. I could hear them behind us, their heavy feet making no bones about their coming, but I had all the advantage I needed. I reached down and yanked up the heavy metal door at my feet, waving Ken inside and following down after him; it closed with a resounding thud, and the three bolts I threw to shut it weren’t exactly silent either, but by then, I was willing to trade stealth for safety, and there wasn’t a place in all of the eastern seaboard safer than the basement of St. Claire’s.

~*~

illustrated by safelybeds

Bruno’d had it in for me since he’d called my old man a coward and a fink, and I’d beaten the daylights out of him. We’d both been eight at the time, and while there’s a general boys-will-be-boys attitude about those kinds of insults and resulting tussles, doing it at a kid’s dad’s wake loses you a lot of sympathy points. His dad was Don Ernesto Battaglio, who made him apologize to me in front of everyone at the funeral parlor, even though Bruno was the one with the bloodied tissue stuck up his nose. The Don and my dad had been best friends, close like brothers from their time in the Old Country, and my dad’s death had rattled the Don something fierce. From that funeral on, he kept an eye out for me, and after my dear mother, God rest her, passed seven years later after a short, brutal bout with cancer, I became the Battaglio family’s honourary fifth son.

Sad to say, this didn’t sit well with any of the four real sons that got there before me, and everybody knew it as well as everybody else. Even the Don, who always thought the world of his children, had put a fatherly hand on my knee one day as we sat in the hard oak pews of St. Claire’s, waiting our turn in the confessional line. “Marco,” he’d told me, his smoke-roughed voice a grim whisper, “you know the things you do, sometimes, they don’t make my boys happy.”

“I know, Papa,” I’d said, figuring that one of those things they didn’t like was how I complied with the Don’s instructions to call him that.

He’d grinned, showing his crooked yellow teeth, and patted me again with his meaty, wrinkled hand. “Good, good,” he’d nodded. “You keep doing them. You’re a very good boy.”

I didn’t feel like a particularly good boy at that moment, though, locked up in the near-total darkness of the church basement, my heart pounding in my ears. Instead, I felt like the same coward Bruno’d accused my father of being — though he was obviously the coward here, if he’d called in the Russians to do his dirty work for him, cover his tracks, make the mess look like an outside job. A coward and a fink to boot, which made him at least a whole level worse than my yellow-livered run-for-my-life self.

Fortunately, though, I was a yellow-livered thug who knew how to turn on the light. I lifted my hand only an inch or so higher than my head — I’m a tall guy — and walked toward the center of the room until my fingers hit a metal chain, then grabbed it tight and tugged. The fixture gave a little metal whine and the bulb started glowing itself to life, casting the small storeroom in a progressively yellow glow as the filiment inside heated up. The basement room would have looked big on a floor plan, maybe, but that didn’t mean there was any room to move around; the place was filled with boxes, all labeled in Father Luigi’s meticulous script, disappearing under one another all the way back to the far walls. The ones that ran up against those cement boundaries were probably dying slow, mildewed deaths, but I doubted anyone would miss them — in my twenty-four years since my parents had christened me Marco Anastasio Giuseppe Maria Falaguerra, Jr., just upstairs of where we were right now, I’d seen plenty of things come down into this basement, but I’d never seen one brought back out. I just prayed that didn’t go for us as well.

Their footsteps thundered down the alley, and I knew the sound of at least one shoe’s kicking at the handles to the trap door in frustration, but though the metal rattled, the bolts held, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Bruno may have been a rat bastard, but he wasn’t the kind to bring a bunch of gun-toting Russians into his own church. As much as you could be in a town where someone had shared out a box of bullets with your name on them, we were safe.

My gradually slowing heartbeat softened in my ears, only to be replaced by another sound: heavy breathing, and it wasn’t mine. It was then I remembered what made this a ‘we’ experience: Ken, slumped back against one of the less decayed stacks of boxes, still on his feet but looking like he wasn’t going to be able to keep it up much longer. His short-cropped hair stood wild on its ends, and his small, dark eyes were even smaller as he bit down a grimace. His suit was a dark navy, so it took me a minute in the dim light to see that right thigh of his pants was stained darker than the rest of the fabric, and the stain was spreading.

“Aw, Jesus,” I muttered, crossing myself as an apology for the blasphemy before I went for my tie, yanking it off so fast it made my neck burn through my shirt. The Don had given me this tie as a Christmas gift, but if I made it out of this alive, he might understand, and if I didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. “Let me see.”

Usually when you’ve gotten your fool self shot and someone who has nearly gotten himself shot at the same time comes toward you offering to help with your bullet problem, you don’t step away or threaten him. That don’t, however, describes to a T what Ken did next. “Get back,” he snapped, pulling his left hand tight into a fist. The step he took back, though, found him leaning against a stack of boxes that didn’t appear quite as sturdy as his previous supporting pillar.

“You’ve been shot,” I informed him, in case the gaping wound in his leg hadn’t been enough of a tip-off. I pointed my finger like a pistol and aimed it at his leg. “Shot,” I repeated, speaking louder in the way you do when volume is your only hope of overcoming the language barrier.

Back!” Ken was the one backing away, though, and I could see how much stress his hand was putting on the box beneath it versus how much the collection of ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths, Feb – Apr 1953’ was willing to put up with — and he was on the losing end of that battle. I supposed I couldn’t blame him for thinking I might still have his number, seeing how it had been one of my guys at the head of the pack of gunmen who had been wishing him dead just a few minutes earlier, and there’s no way a man like him could be expected to know what just didn’t get done in the House of God.

I took a deep breath. “I’m not trying to–” I started, taking a step forward at what turned out to be too broad a pace, because Ken jerked backward and that two-year-old cardboard box just decided it’d had enough. With a wet sound, it tore, and Ken’s hand punched comically through, sending it and the box atop it — ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths, May – Jul 1953’ — spilling down to the floor. Unfortunately for Ken, he was between the box and the floor, and stacks of leather-bound ledgers collapsed on top of him. He went down with barely a cry of shock, just the fluttering of pages also filled with Father Luigi’s meticulous script, all settling on top of him like the world’s strangest, tiniest blizzard. It was over almost as quickly as it had begun, and he lay quiet beneath them, unconscious on the dirty basement floor.

Well, I thought to myself as I started to excavate, aiming first for the place I presumed his wounded thigh to be, at least this would give me some time to think.

~*~

He jerked awake, scaring me so bad I nearly dropped the bottle of church wine I’d been fussing with to keep my hands occupied, and in his half-awake panic might have done any number of things — up to and including injuring me severely — had I not put both of our ties to good use: mine, I’d used to wrap a clean hand towel tight to his upper thigh; his, I’d used to tie his wrists to the bedframe. The sacristy had a little cot that Father Luigi often used for naps between masses, and I’d known how to pick the lock for years. Being an altar boy has its advantages.

“Woah, hey, take it easy.” I put the bottle down gently and walked to him with my hands up, palms showing, fingers wide. “I got the bleeding to stop. Your leg. It’s stopped bleeding. It’s okay. Okay.” Despite what had looked to me like an entire ocean’s worth of blood drenching his pants, he didn’t look to be in a lot of danger. The bullet had been small-caliber and fairly close-range, and both the entrance and exit wounds traced a clean, short path through soft tissue, missing the bone entirely. “Your leg. It’s okay.” I may not know much about medicine, and I’ll never be destined for life as a doctor, but I know a gunshot wound from a hole in the ground, and I know how to patch both of those up when I need to. It no doubt hurt like hell, but it’d be fine if he didn’t move it too much; thus, tying him to the bed.

illustrated by safelybeds

Ken looked me in the eye, his square face set in a look of pure fury, and he said damn near the last thing I expected from the mouth of any grunt-level yakuza lowlife, even one shot up and bound up at once:

“You son of a bitch, you dirty son of a bitch, fucking untie me, what the fuck do you think you’re doing, who the fuck were those guys, what the fuck are you thinking, are you out of your goddamn mind?”

There were certain things I’d become pretty sure of in the few months the Don had gotten us tentatively associated with this Japanese syndicate. The first was that the Japanese had on balance about as many vowels in their names as we Italians did, which was a weird thing to feel kinship over, but there you go. The next was that no matter what they gave you to drink, the only way to get it down was not to think about how much it smelled like bleach, or fish, or both. The third was that even though they were all still touchy over the war thing, not one of them got why we might be a little touchy over it too. And the last was that not one of them could string together an English sentence that had even half the words it needed, much less could chew my ass out like he’d been doing it all his life.

Instinct, however, cut through the shock, and I kicked the metal post of the cot, sending vibrations through that made him wince. “Watch your mouth. This is God’s house.”

That just made him mad, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me. “Fuck you, Guido!” He jerked against the bed, but I’d been taught to tie knots by the Don’s best answer man, and the pretty blue silk of Ken’s tie wasn’t going anywhere.

“I can leave you there,” I snapped, folding my arms across my chest. He was quickly making me regret I’d saved his life.

Ken jerked his arms against the cot, and the springs beneath the mattress rattled, but the frame held sturdy. Father Luigi was a large man, and serious about his naps. The surge of adrenaline that had flooded him on waking had begun to subside, though, and in the places where I’d first seen panic and rage, I now saw the wheels of a man who’d begun to think his way out of a problem. It was then I started to worry, because while I’ve got some know-how in general and a few tricks up my sleeve in particular, I’ve never been accused of being the brains of any operation.

“So,” he said, and his accent was less Tokyo and more Los Angeles, “what do you want with me?”

“I want,” I said, pointing to his leg, “to keep you from hurting yourself. Or me. Or getting us both killed by doing something stupid like trying to leave. We’re safe as long as we’re in here.”

Ken nodded, frowning a little but looking otherwise relieved that I’d turned out to be the kind of guy who was not immediately trying to kill him, which is a pretty important kind of guy to have around you in these situations. “So where’s here?” he asked, looking around the sacristy.

I figured the answer he wanted was more geographic and less concerned with the nuances of Catholic architecture. “We’re in a church. My church.”

Your church?”

“No, not mine. I don’t own it. But I go here, and I know it.” I glanced around the windowless room. “And we’re safe here.”

Ken scooted his good leg closer to him, until he was sitting up with his back against the wall at the head of the cot, his still-knotted hands coming to rest closer to the small of his back. “Why?”

“Because we are. Bruno knows we’re inside, but he won’t shoot inside a church. He might break in, but he doesn’t know where this room is.”

“Bruno,” Ken echoed, chewing over the name. “The Don’s son?”

“That’s the guy.” I nodded, leaning back against the drawers of the sacristycredens that took up one full wall of the small room. It was close quarters, since the inclusion of the cot meant there wasn’t really room for more than one person at a time. There’d been a point in my youth, during those awful few months where I had simultaneously watched my mother’s cancer eat her alive and figured out why precisely it was that I’d never seen the point in having a girlfriend, that I had seriously considered the priesthood, and Father Luigi had told me that it was good that being ordained was such a solitary pursuit, or else there wouldn’t be enough room to get anything done. I hadn’t understood what he’d meant at the time; I was slowly getting it now.

Ken frowned. “So why’s he trying to kill me?”

“He’s not trying to kill you, he’s trying to kill me. You just got in the way.” I reached to straighten my tie, sort of a nervous gesture, and when it wasn’t there, I ended up rubbing at my bare throat.

“So why am I tied up?” he snapped.

It was a fair question, and now that he’d calmed somewhat, I could see it might be all right to let him loose. However, I’m a cautious guy by nature — hell, the first thing I’d done after hauling him up here from the basement was to take everything off him that might even be part of a weapon, which had included some decidedly unassuming objects — and I could also see the merits in keeping the angry Japanese guy who could probably kill me with his bare fists anyway held down a little longer. “Because you don’t trust me.”

Ken opened his mouth to respond, then closed it sharply, eying me like he was having trouble figuring out if I’d actually just said what I’d just said. “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?”

“Well, okay,” I admitted, “I don’t trust you either. But I know I’m not going to hurt you. I don’t know that you’re not going to hurt me. So I’m going to keep you there for a little bit longer. That way neither of us gets hurt.” This was the part I always left up to people like Bruno or the Don, the part where the guy tied to the chair got explained to him just what he’d done to get himself tied to that chair. I’d been a heavy since I’d hit my growth spurt, and though I’d probably be skinny all my life, I had enough height to make people nervous enough so I never really had to talk. Explaining the rules was a job for the thinking guys.

“What if I don’t trust you not to hurt me?”

I rolled my eyes. Wasn’t he supposed to be the thinking guy here? “What, getting you out of the restaurant, pulling you off the street, and not letting you bleed to death in the basement didn’t convince you?” I held up my empty hands again and took a deep breath. No need to get either of us agitated more than necessary. “I need you alive. You’re my only witness.”

Ken shifted on the bed, wincing as a busted spring gave a little lurch and jostled his bad leg. He was a little guy, short but compact, like a lion I’d once seen at the Brooklyn Zoo, which had looked for all the world like just a big fat housecat until a zookeeper startled it with its lunch and it roared, pouncing at the meat it was thrown with a speed I hadn’t thought possible. On further reflection, keeping him tied up was probably a spectacular idea, at least for the time being. “So,” he asked after a moment’s consideration, “what’s your plan?”

“Father Luigi will be here in the morning. He’s an early riser. When he gets here, he can go vouch to the Don for us.”

“And until then?”

“Until then?” I shrugged. “…We wait.”

“Wait? That’s your fucking plan?”

“You got a better one?” I snapped, and he shut up because, like I’d figured, he didn’t. As much as I was out of my league here, at least I was on my home field, and that meant I got to be in charge. With a grunt that was half disgust and half pain, he slumped back against the wall, looking at least for the moment like he’d resigned himself to the situation.

Truth be told, I felt bad for the guy, I really did. I’d seen him a few times before this, during the Don’s brief encounters with the yakuza boss, a silver-haired Japanese guy with a smile that made a cobra look sincere and a body that made the Don look slender. Thugs all tend to look the same after a while, no matter where they’re from — same suits, same haircuts, same menacing glares — but I’d recognized him the minute he’d walked into the restaurant anyway. Something about him stuck out even from the times I’d seen him silent in the background, just another weapon in the grand arsenal, just like me.

“Look,” I said after several minutes of silence, “I’m sorry.” He didn’t even look at me.

~*~

The sound of the bedsprings woke me from a light doze, and I glanced up across the room from where I’d been sleeping on my feet, leaning against the door. “How’s the leg?” I asked, trying to sound like I’d been paying attention the whole time.

“Fine,” he gritted through clenched teeth. The guys had always told stories about how tough the yazuka were, about how they’d never let an enemy see them sweat, how they were so mean that even the slightest mistake meant you had to cut off the ends of your own fingers. The fact that Ken looked like he did had to mean he was in a world of hurt.

I shook my head, walking over. “Let me see,” I said, so of course he pulled his leg away, defiantly. I resisted the urge to kick the cot again, just to make a point. “I said, let me see.”

Looking ever so put upon, he relaxed his right knee and let me have a look. Earlier, I’d torn the material around the wound wide, just jammed my fingers in the bullet holes and yanked, and the fabric had already started to dry, turning the fine navy silk of his trousers into a brittle brown mess. The white towel I’d tied around both holes was still clean on the top, except for my bloodied fingerprints, and when I pulled up the edge to give the wound as much of a look-over as I knew how to do, I saw bits of dried blood smeared at the edges. “It hasn’t started bleeding again,” I told him, which may not have been an expert medical opinion but would have to do. “That’s good.”

“Yeah?” Ken caught himself sounding a little too concerned and stiffened his spine. “I mean, yeah. It’s fine. I can walk on out of here.”

“Were you not listening earlier?” I resisted the urge to poke the wound. I was resisting a lot of urges around him. “Because it sounds like you speak pretty good English, but I can say it again more slowly if you didn’t get it: Russians. With guns. Outside.”

He inclined his head toward me, pointing as best he could with his nose. “Looking for you.”

“Obviously,” and this time I did poke his injury, albeit through several layers of makeshift bandage, and felt a little smug when he hissed through clenched teeth, “they’re not big on the difference.”

“Well, what the hell are they shooting at you for anyway?”

“I don’t know!” Agitated and beyond the point of being able to provide any further medical assistance, I stood and took up my earlier perch near the door. The little room was warm, so I shrugged off my own coat, folding it across the top of the sacristycredens; my father had drilled it into my head never to look anything but professional in front of business associates, but I figured that this was kind of a special situation. “…I don’t know, in particular. I have an idea, in general.”

“The boss’ eldest son thinks you might be next in line instead of him and wants to make sure that doesn’t happen?”

I threw up my hands. “And then you waste my time asking questions you know the answers to already.”

Ken shook his head, but a bitter little smile had begun to play at his lips, the kind that said he knew well what he was talking about. “So … he hires the Russians to throw off suspicion, I’ve got that part already. What I don’t get is, why during your meeting with me? Getting yourself and one of his men offed makes your organization look real sloppy to my boss.”

“Probably just Bruno leaping before he looked, like always,” I shrugged. “Either way, bad luck for you.” It was really getting hot in our little glorified closet, which had a vent system that was probably so full of dust that not even the idea of air could get through. Figuring I was already in for a penny, I undid the cuffs of my shirt and rolled them up past my elbows. “Hey, you warm?”

“Little cold, actually,” he shrugged, which made me calculate that the king of the understatement over there was probably damn near freezing. I hadn’t even thought about shock, and apparently neither had he, but he looked pale in the way that made me think it wasn’t out of the question. I snatched up my jacket and spread it across his lap and thighs like a blanket, figuring that it was already a bloody mess beyond the hope of cleaning, and a little more wouldn’t make a lost cause any worse. He didn’t thank me, but he grunted and nodded a little, and I was going to take it.

Glancing around the room, I saw the bottle of port I’d been playing with earlier and weighed blasphemy against utility, much in the same way I always did when I considered just about any part of my job. In the end, though, I figured it wasn’t blessed yet, and even if Father Luigi got mad, I’d buy him a hundred bottles anyway to say thanks for letting us hide out and sorry about all the blood on everything. The top drawer had a well-used corkscrew that looked even older than the church itself was, and I made short work of getting the bottle open. “Here,” I said, because I’d read somewhere about dogs that brought frozen skiers bottles of brandy, and figured that this wasn’t brandy, but it might have the same net effect. Besides, there’s nothing better to make you forget about having been shot, I know that for a fact. I pulled a stepstool over to the head of the bed and lifted the bottle toward Ken’s lips. “Have a drink.”

He looked at me like I was a moron and rattled his hands against the cot frame. “Tied up at the moment, thanks.”

“I know.” I put a hand under the base of the thick green bottle and lifted the neck slowly toward his mouth.

Ken took a moment considering the situation, and I honestly thought he was going to turn me down out of sheer spite. But after a minute, he nodded and parted his lips, so I put the mouth of the bottle against his mouth and tilted it just enough to get the liquid to him. But the bottle was heavy by itself, and the wine inside made it heavier, so my hands misjudged the weight and the port sloshed against his lips, spilling deep amber down the corners of his mouth. He coughed and made a face, drawing his head away. “Ugh, it’s sweet,” he coughed.

I shrugged, trying to bite down a thread of offense; it may not have been good wine, but it was communion wine, even pre-blessed, and that deserved a little respect. “Yeah, and it’s also all I’ve got. So you can say no thank you, or you can go down the hatch, it’s pretty much all the same to me.”

He didn’t take quite as long to think this time, just took a deep sneering breath and nodded again. This time we both had ourselves a little more under control — he didn’t choke with surprise on the port’s taste, and I didn’t try to drown him with it, so he got a few good mouthfuls down before he shut his lips against the bottle and I pulled it away at a more measured pace. Twin trickles still ran down the sides of his face, tracing a path down the pale brown skin of his throat, and I bit my tongue.

Licking his lips, he shut his eyes and leaned back against the wall. “Thanks,” he said after a moment of quiet.

“Don’t mention it.” I considered the situation, then took a drink myself, shuddering down the heaviness of the port. Getting drunk on communion wine seemed like one of those instant tickets to damnation — not because of any particular prohibition so much as just on general principle — but it wouldn’t have been the worst thing I’d ever done in my life. Two more deep drinks, and I was feeling a little less shot to hell by the whole experience. “How’s it feel now?” I gestured with the bottle in the general direction of his leg.

He shrugged, his eyelids still closed. “Fine.” He cleared his throat. “Better, actually.”

I glanced down at my watch, which had somehow managed to come out of the night’s ordeal with only a slight scratch across the glass; 3:20, the hands told me, which meant I’d dozed longer than I’d thought. In another three hours or so, Father Luigi would be here, which meant I had to keep it together at least that much longer, until I could get him to go get the Don for me. Bruno might suspect something was up, and he might loom or be threatening, but he’d never get in a priest’s way, and that would be good enough to get the message across. After that, well, I lived or died on my own merits.

Ken was right and he didn’t even know how stupid of a plan it was. But smart plans are for smart people; muscle like me has to make do with what we’ve got.

“So,” I said, talking before I even really knew the sentences in my head were making their way out of my mouth, just to give the room something other than the silence that was starting to gnaw at me, “how’s a guy like you wind up sounding like something that just hopped off the overnight from Frisco?”

He cracked open one eye, giving me a look as if to judge whether or not I was being serious, then shrugged. “I was born in Bainbridge Island, Washington, actually.”

I squinted at him, trying to decide if he was just yanking my chain, but eventually decided that if he’d actually been trying to bluff me, he would probably have picked somewhere a little less obscure to prove his point. “So how’d you wind up across the Pacific?”

“Picture: I’m ten years old and my dad tells me the government’s making us move to somewhere in the middle of the California desert, because even though my mom was born here and my dad came over when he was five, the two of them and my four sisters and me are probably dirty Jap spies.” His gaze slipped from me and unfocused, looking to a time and place that had nothing to do with this tiny, dim room; his eyes softened for a moment, then hardened again with the bitterness of memory. “And while we’re there my mom dies of pneumonia and my littlest sister breaks her neck playing on an old cattle fence. So we live there until the war is over, and when it is, my dad packs up what’s left of us and moves us back to Japan.”

I wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol, the pain, or the boredom that had made him chatty, but I found myself in the middle of a conversation and wanting to do nothing else with my remaining three hours of life than listen to Ken talk. “I’m … sorry,” I said, and it was lame, but it was all I could think to offer.

Shaking his head as if to scare away the ghosts, Ken frowned. “Hey, past is past.” He nodded toward the port. “Can I have some more?”

“Sure.” I lifted the bottle to his lips as I had before, and watched as he drank deep, swallowing large mouthfuls at a time. Another trickle slipped past the corner of his mouth, down his barely stubbled chin, and I fought back another insane urge, this one to pull the bottle free and lick it clean. I chalked that up to adrenaline and exhaustion, and quickly put it out of my mind. “So, was your dad in, you know, the business?”

He laughed into the neck of the bottle, and I pulled it away before he could choke himself. “Dad was an electrician.” He rubbed his mouth on the shoulder of his jacket. “The most ordinary man who ever lived.”

It occurred to me then that I had no idea how someone got caught up in this kind of life if not for the pull of some family legacy, the kind of blood ties that taught you from an early age that sometimes men with guns gathered around your kitchen table, and your dad was one of them, and when it was done he came into your bedroom where you were supposed to be asleep and he kissed you good-night and told you he loved you, so you knew that even though those men probably killed people, and your dad was one of them, they couldn’t be all bad, could they? “My dad was Don Ernesto’s best friend,” I told him, and took another drink myself, feeling warmer all the time. It was kind of ridiculous, I knew — it wasn’t like we were shooting back straight grappa, or anything else that could really knock a man on his ass — but drunk is as much a state of mind as an actual physical condition, and I, at least, was in a state of mind at this point to help the alcohol along.

Ken nodded and shifted his leg; moving it made him wince, but less than it had earlier, and I figured that meant something must have been working. “Guess that explains,” he began, and then trailed off, shaking his head.

“Guess that explains what?”

“Why the real son is afraid of you.” Ken looked me over, wearing sort of a half-smirk. “Probably thinks you’re trying to negotiate with us behind his back.”

Part of the reason I’ve never considered myself one of the thinking guys is that stuff like treachery never occurs to me until it’s already happened. “That’s stupid,” I frowned, leaning against the same wall Ken was using as a backboard. “I’m not trying to take over.”

“What, you don’t want to run the business someday?”

“No,” I told him, and he scoffed loudly. “What, you don’t believe me?”

Everybody wants to run the business someday. That’s where all the perks are. You, me, everybody.”

“Yeah, well, not me.” I drummed my fingers against the half-empty wine bottle, liking the soft pitch of each impact.

Ken’s frown said not that he disbelieved me, but that he didn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth. “How come not you?”

It wasn’t something I’d ever really had to articulate before — nobody had ever asked, and the Don just seemed to understand — so I took another deep drink while I thought about it. “Because … everybody wants to run the business someday,” I said after a minute’s thought. “And running the business means watching out for all those other people who want your job.”

“Isn’t that what your boss has guys like you for anyway?”

I shrugged, holding the bottle toward him, and he nodded at the invitation. “Maybe,” I told him, helping him to another drink. “But I’d rather do it for someone else. I’d rather just go where I’m told to go and do what I’m told to do.” And, I thought but didn’t say, if the Don couldn’t even trust his own eldest son now, he needed a guy like me more than ever. The only problem I had now was convincing him of that.

Swallowing, Ken leaned his head back against the wall. “Yeah, well, maybe when I take over my side of things, I’ll be in the hiring mood. I could even forget about the whole tied-to-the-bed-while-I’m-shot thing.”

That surprised me into a laugh. “I don’t even speak Japanese.”

“I’ve got an awful American accent. We’ll make a great team.” He shrugged, then tugged at his bindings again. “Of course, I’d forget quicker if you let me go now….”

“Clever. No.” Like I said, I never suspect treachery until it’s right in my face. For good measure, I scooted the stool away from him, taking the port with me.

He sighed, defeated but not entirely surprised. “You still don’t trust me.”

“I told you, you don’t trust me.” I checked my watch. “Look, not much longer.”

“And what if someone doesn’t come?”

“Then I….” All the possibilities I’d considered had relied on Father Luigi’s punctuality, and I wasn’t sure what was left to do if that failed me. “…I’ll think of something.”

Ken snorted and closed his eyes. “Wake me when you do.” And the silence he left behind him was so vast that it rang in my ears, telling me how much I’d actually enjoyed just being able to talk to someone like that and reminding me that I probably wouldn’t get the chance again.

~*~

By the time he stirred a few hours later, groaning and shifting in the way of someone who’d just come awake straight into pain, I had only slightly more of a Plan B up my sleeve. It involved my leaving everything in a letter and coming out alone, trying to negotiate my continued survival for the sake of not causing any more of a mess than Bruno and his hired thugs already had. Of course, it probably also involved my brains splattered all over the steps of St. Claire’s, but it would at least give Ken a chance of making it out alive.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt bad for having gotten him all caught up in something I hadn’t even known was happening until there were guns pointed at me. I know why Bruno had waited until I was alone and in a public place at the same time — just another hit, no one of the Don’s people around to suspect anything wrong, nobody to recognize Bruno long enough to question why he’d been lurking behind the gunmen — but couldn’t figure out why he’d planned it for the meeting with Ken. We hadn’t even been planning on trading any information of value, just hammering out the last essentially cosmetic details of the big meeting between his boss and mine, the kind of details that could easily have been done in writing or on the phone, except the Don thought that sort of communication came off as too impersonal. And unless there was something about his story he wasn’t telling me, Ken seemed just like a young guy who’d worked his way up in the organization, not anyone’s family member, blood or otherwise. I could see where bumping me off fit his own needs, but not how taking out both of us did anything but damage the ties the Don was trying to set up with the Japanese. Unless–

“He’s working with the Russians,” I said, as it finally dawned on me, “He didn’t just hire them. He’s working for them.”

Ken’s first attempt to say something got swallowed in a yawn, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Why the Russians?”

I leaned closer to the bed, dropping my voice not because I thought anyone else might hear us, but because conspiracy seemed to demand it. “It’s something Bruno says a lot: the world’s a lot bigger than it used to be. Back during Prohibition, when the Don took over, he could run his whole business with maybe a trip to Canada once in a while. But the world’s changed a lot since then. It’s why I thought Bruno’d be thrilled to be working with the Japanese.”

“But he’s not, because he’s already on the international market.” Ken sat up as much as he could, thinking this all over with an intelligent sort of smirk that twisted his face handsomely. He wasn’t what most people might call a good-looking man — and not even because, like me, he’d obviously had his nose broken a few too many times — but there was still something about the way he smiled, how his lips worked up in the way that promised he knew something you didn’t, that had a charm all its own.

And there I was, finally thinking it not even so much in general suggestions, but in complete sentences. I generally tried to keep that kind of thing so deep to myself that I didn’t even let those thoughts finish, because they were pointless in the abstract and useless in any practical sense, and there was no reason to torture myself over them. But he was here, and I’d been watching him sleep not because there wasn’t anything better to look at while I thought things through, but because I just plain ended up wanting to, and my mind had arrived at its own conclusions. Staring down what was looking more and more like the last hour of my life brought a certain kind of freedom, even if it was only mental.

Thinking about his mouth wasn’t going to help me get us out of this, though, so I derailed that train for the time being. “And the Don hates Communists,” I added, coming back to the matter at hand. “…Bruno must have been with them for years, making connections, getting alliances. The second the Don gave him the reins, he would have made the connection formal.”

Ken nodded as I spoke. “So he wanted the hit to make your guys look bad. You look stupid enough to let important details slip, and get me killed in the process.”

“And you guys aren’t exactly known for rewarding stupidity.”

“That’s actually … kind of clever.”

“Except for the part where you get killed?”

“No, that’s actually kind of clever too.” Ken shrugged. “I don’t like it, but it’s smart.”

Well, he may have been crazy, but at least he was a kind of crazy that I could understand. I ran my hands across my hair, which had over the course of the evening become less and less amenable to the grease I’d put in it nearly twenty hours previous, until long, annoying black curls of it had started to fall into my face. “Which is why I need you. Without you, it’s just my word against Bruno’s, and the Don might like me, but blood’s thicker than water.”

“And with me?”

“I’ve kept you tied up while shot for six hours now. The way I see it, you’ve got no reason to lie to make me look better.”

That little smirk edged up the left corner of his mouth again, but his eyes narrowed, giving him that dangerous tiger-look again. “How do you know I’m not going to lie to make you look worse?”

I tried to keep my expression flat to hide how I honestly hadn’t thought of that possibility. “Because,” I said, taking a deep breath while I tried my damnedest to figure out just what might give him reason enough not to hang me out to dry. I folded my hands in my lap and stared at my knuckles, looked at my father’s gold wedding band that I kept around the middle finger of my left hand. “…No, okay, I don’t know. Look, forget it, say whatever you want, you don’t owe me anything.”

“You’re right, I don’t.” Even as he said it, though, Ken’s gaze fell on his injured leg and my inexpert doctoring. Now, I’ve never been the kind of bastard to hold a little thing like maybe saving a guy’s life over his head, but hey, if he wanted to remember and be thankful, I wasn’t going to stand in the way.

The truth was, though, I knew that he didn’t. Maybe I’m not the brightest, but I’ve always prided myself on being a pretty okay judge of character, and I didn’t think he’d turn on me. Even past all the stuff I’d heard about the yakuza and their honour and all that other stuff that was probably just PR, he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would lie, even out of spite. And even though I wasn’t entirely convinced yet of the goodness of letting him go, I knew that despite what I kept saying, he did trust me. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have told me about his family, about his father. It may have been flimsy reasoning, but it was all I had, and I was in a pretty desperate place.

Ken cut through the silence with a cough as he cleared his throat. “So, got a cigarette?”

“I don’t smoke,” I told him, which was true in the sense that it wasn’t a habit, not in the sense of never. But that meant a lifetime of accepting other people’s offerings, and not of carrying my own.

He shifted, pushing his shoulders forward so his coat hung loose around his chest. “Right side pocket,” he directed.

I’d hauled his body upstairs just a few hours earlier (he was a strong little guy, but when it came to being deadweight, he still had the ‘little’ part going for him) and I’d done the best field medic job I could manage given the circumstances, but I hadn’t actually touched him much in the whole process, not deliberately, and being asked to do so gave me pause. Fast enough so that I hoped he didn’t notice the delay, I got myself back together and reached my hand into the right side of his jacket. The fabric inside was smooth and rich, and the right breast pocket sagged with a weight that turned out to be a soft pack of Japanese-labeled cigarettes and a heavy metal lighter, both of which I’d apparently missed during my earlier search. Contraband, one; my powers of observation, zero. I curled my fingers around them, and both were warm to the touch.

As I drew away from him, Ken exhaled a little too loudly, like a man who’d been holding his breath without wanting anyone else to know. There were only three cigarettes left in the package, and I wondered if he’d been rationing them since he’d left Japan. I tapped one out and grabbed it between my lips, pulling it free and settling it to one corner of my mouth; his lighter flicked to life, and I touched it to the edge of the cigarette, inhaling it to life.

When I looked back at Ken, I saw his eyes had gone narrow with something like suspicion again. “…Thought you said you didn’t smoke.”

I shrugged, plucking it from my mouth and exhaling slowly. “I’m full of surprises.” Father Luigi might take me to task for smoking inside his church, but I figured that in light of my trashing his storage, leaving an unfortunate amount of blood all over everything, and drinking all his wine, he could just add it to the bill. I took the cigarette and placed it between Ken’s lips, leaving my fingers perched around it until I was mostly sure he wasn’t going to drop it into his lap and add burning the whole church down to the list of Father Luigi’s complaints.

He puffed away at it for a minute in silence, expertly negotiating the smoke it one side of his mouth and out the other. As the ash grew heavy on the end, I took it from him without comment, tapping the grey remnants down to the floor before taking another long, slow lungful. When I turned to give it back to him, I caught him staring at me, watching as I took the cigarette from my mouth and replaced it in his. “Maybe you should start,” he said, and the glowing red cherry bobbed as he spoke.

“I like to avoid … habits,” I said, eliminating the word ‘bad’ at the last moment; it was true that I’d never fallen into the obsessive love of girls or alcohol in the same way the Battaglio boys had, but neither did I attend mass or confession as regularly as I should have. The only thing you could really count on with me was that I’d do exactly what you asked exactly as many times as you asked me to do it, and anything beyond that had to be re-negotiated. The Don had told me my father had been exactly like this, and I wasn’t sure if this made us both reliable and valuable, or just the most boring human beings on the planet.

With a quiet laugh, Ken turned away, patiently smoking the cigarette down. The air in the tiny room had grown heavy, and everything had taken on a dreamlike grey; smoke-filled enclosed rooms tended to make me claustrophobic even at the best of times, and I braced myself for the low hum of panic that always rose in the back of my throat in situations like this. But it never came, and even as the smoke clouded thicker with every breath — even as I took into my lungs the warm air I knew he’d just exhaled from his — I didn’t feel trapped, only quiet. Maybe, the maddened romantic part of my brain thought, we could burn our way through all three of the cigarettes together, and when they were gone to smoke and ash, we’d disappear completely.

At last, I took the dying cigarette from his mouth and took one last drag into my lungs before tossing it onto the cement floor and grinding it to death beneath my shoe. If the Russians didn’t kill me, the Catholics would. “So, read any good books lately?”

That actually earned a laugh from him, low and bitter though it was. “None you could read,” he smiled. “…You got anyone waiting for you to get out of this alive?”

I frowned, puzzled by his choice of conversational direction. “What, like a girl?”

“Yeah, like a girl.”

“Nope.” I twisted my dad’s wedding band again, self-conscious as always of my empty left hand and how it was probably going to stay empty for the rest of my life. “You?”

“No,” he said, though his answer took a minute’s more thought than mine had. “My sisters, though. They worry about me a lot, especially….” His voice trailed off, and then he snorted a laugh. “You and my middle sister have the same name.”

“What?”

“She’s Maruko. You’re Marco. …It sounds the same in Japanese.”

I couldn’t hear what he was talking about, but I was willing to take his word on the matter. “So why doesn’t she have an American name like you?”

He looked at me as though he couldn’t believe I could be quite that stupid. “An American name like Kenichiro?”

“Oh,” I said, feeling self-conscious. “I thought it was just … short for Kenneth.”

I suppose I deserved something more scathing for that particular cultural assumption, but instead, he just closed his eyes and smiled. “There’s a whole world out there where nobody assumes I’m a Kenneth.”

“Yeah, well … there’s a whole world out there where nobody thinks ‘Marco’ is a girl’s name, either.” As insults went, ‘your name is girly in another language’ was admittedly pretty weak, but Ken was still smirking at my indignation, which let me know he’d meant at least something by it. “A guy named Marco even wrote part of the Bible.”

Ken peeked over at me. “Maybe it wasn’t a guy. Maybe it was my sister.”

Startled into a laugh, I closed my hand into a light fist and punched him awkwardly in the shoulder, not in the way that I could recall ever having done before, but in the way I’d seen guys like the Battaglios behave with one another, that sort of mock-violence intended to answer teasing. He blinked, then laughed along with me, and at that minute, we might have been any two other men anywhere else in the world, joking and ribbing one another like guys did, neither of us injured or tied down or waiting out the inevitable. And then the laugh was done, and we somehow had managed to catch each other’s eyes, and it wasn’t the lingering smoke in the room that was making it hard to breathe or any silk ties that held us in place, and somehow we’d ended up very close.

And then a key turned in the lock, and I jumped to my feet just in time to see Father Luigi’s portly, white-haired frame burst into the room. He looked first to me, then to Ken, then back to me, and if the air quality was bothering him, it was a far secondary concern. “When I saw Bruno hiding in the alley, I knew I wasn’t going to like this,” he said, his words rolling out like heavily Italian-accented thunder, “but when I saw blood, I feared the worst.”

“We’re–” fine, I started to say, but there was very little ‘fine’ about the predicament we’d worked ourselves into. “I need you to do me a favour, Father. I need you to go get Don Ernesto. Wake him up if you have to, and tell him to come to the church. Tell him anything you have to, just get him here.”

Father Luigi took another look at Ken’s leg. “My son, we need to get you to a hospital–”

“No.” Ken shook his head. “No, he’s right. If we don’t get this settled, the only thing that would change is where I die. I’m more worried about the if.”

“Please, Father. You have to trust me.” I stepped forward and took his soft, old hands in mine, trying to look as sincere as I had when I’d been a kid and had believed completely, before I’d learned to lie or hurt or kill. I knew he hated the man I’d become, but maybe he’d still be willing to save the boy I’d been.

He looked me hard in the eye, and I stared back, unflinching beneath his gaze, until he finally nodded and turned away. “Half an hour,” he promised. “You boys stay here and stay out of trouble.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, sighing with relief as he went; I pushed the door shut tight and locked it behind him, then leaned against it, shutting my eyes. There was no certainty that everything was going to be all right here — in fact, now that the Don was for certain on his way, I felt even less sure than I had when the whole thing had begun — but at least the waiting was nearly over, and just knowing that was enough of a relief that I could have cried.

Could have, of course, had I been alone, but I’d be damned if I’d let that part of my relief show. “Come on,” I said, reaching down for the knife I kept strapped to my right ankle, “I’ll let you go.”

Ken’s face contorted in anger. “Not the tie. Not the tie! Dammit, that’s still a good tie!”

“Can’t be helped,” I shrugged, taking a perverse amount of pleasure in his indignation as I went blade-first forward for his hands.

~*~

I blinked as I stepped into the sanctuary, and I slowed enough in my surprise that I nearly tripped Ken, who was limping along with one arm around my waist and another more securely over Father Luigi’s shoulders. He came down hard on his bad leg and spat something in Japanese that sounded perfectly vulgar, but there wasn’t really time to assess the damage or apologize for slipping up, not with the crew waiting for us. I’d called on the man who was probably the only priest in the world capable of getting half a dozen well-suited mafia men together in a downtown church at 7:00 on a Saturday morning.

What had startled me, though, was that the Don’s boys weren’t the only ones waiting for us — twice that number of scowling Japanese men clustered together in the pews on the other side of the sanctuary, the young ones hovering like satellites around one particularly mean-looking, silver-haired fellow. Even had I never seen him before, Ken’s boss wouldn’t have been difficult to pick out in this crowd. When he saw Ken, he stood and folded his arms across his chest, looking particularly displeased with the entire situation. I was embarrassed to realize that nowhere in this debacle had I considered how bad it might have made Ken look. But that bridge was already well and truly burned behind us, and there was nothing to do but walk forward.

The Don spoke first, clearing his throat for emphasis before beginning. “Marco,” he said, sounding glad to see me, though not entirely awake, “what’s happened here?”

“Ask your son,” I said, helping lower Ken gently into the throne-like chair Father Luigi usually occupied during mass. “Bruno knows.”

“He’s lying!” shouted Bruno, and his voice echoed off the high ceiling. I suppose I hadn’t told Father Luigi not to let him in, and his father had no reason to exclude his eldest from the proceedings, but I found myself wishing that someone along the way had thought of a good excuse to leave him outside the church doors. It would have been easier to play my word against his if his word hadn’t been there at all.

The yakuza boss barked something at Ken, shutting up Bruno as a nice side benefit, and Ken nodded, answering briefly in Japanese before turning to me. “He heard what happened last night,” he said, and though he obviously meant the translation for me, he didn’t bother lowering his voice.

“We all did,” Bruno snapped, folding his meaty arms across his chest. “You should just be glad the Russians are slightly more incompetent than you are.”

“Is that what you’re glad about?” Ken gave Bruno a look meaner even than the meanest one he’d given me. Thirty seconds in the same room with him, and already Ken apparently hated the guy; I couldn’t tell if this was his being a good judge of character too, or if Bruno just had that effect on people, and decided the answer was probably some combination of the two.

Sensing this whole thing could blow out of control easily, I stepped forward, taking the equivalent of center stage in this whole circus. Not being a guy who was known for making much noise, I was pleased to see that now that I finally had something to say, at least my guys had ears to listen. “The Russians that shot up the restaurant last night, Bruno was with them–”

“That’s a fucking lie!” Bruno bellowed again, a bright crimson creeping up his face, and I found myself wondering if he’d even care if he ever found out what an asshole he looks like all the time.

His father, however, was obviously growing tired of these outbursts. “Sit down,” he ordered, swatting at Bruno’s knees with his cane. “Let Marco finish, and you can have your turn. We’ll be civilized.”

Muttering something that I’m certain was as foul as Ken’s earlier invective, Bruno sank into the front row of pews, folding his arms across his chest like an oversized three-year-old in the middle of a colossal tantrum. Resolved neither to let this bother me nor to dignify it with a response, I started again. “Bruno was with them, leading them to us, because he wants me out of the way, and because he wants your alliance with the Japanese to fail.” I hesitated a moment, knowing that I wasn’t proof positive about the next allegation, but as long as I was shooting, I might as well see what I could hit. “Because he’s already made an alliance of his own, with the Russians.”

“Are you going to listen to this?” Bruno threw his hands up in the air, looking square at his father. “You let this little piece of shit into our family, and this is how he repays you? With jealousy and lies?”

“I’m not lying.” I gestured to Ken’s leg, which was now propped on the footstool the acolytes used to light the tallest candles. “Ken got shot, and we’ve been hiding out here in the church because Bruno and his men have had the place surrounded. If we’d tried to come out ourselves instead of sending Father Luigi, we’d be dead.”

The Don looked over to Father Luigi. “Eh, padre, is this so?”

Father Luigi looked obviously uncomfortable at having been caught up in the middle of this, but even as much as he disapproved of the turn my life had taken, he still saw me in the confessional at least once a month; the same couldn’t be said for Bruno. “When I got here at daybreak,” he said, slipping into Italian as he talked to the Don, “Bruno was hanging around outside, trying not to be seen by me.”

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always come off as the most trustworthy guy, but the word of a priest was pretty good currency around these parts. “I was going to come to confession!” said Bruno, answering in English as those of us our age tend to do even when responding to the language of our parents. “I’m trying to get right with Jesus, and this little weasel sets me up–”

“Listen here, you shit,” Ken started in, but Bruno was on a roll.

“Sets me up in front of my own father! My own father!” He looked theatrically to the Japanese men on the other side of the aisle, whose stone faces appeared unmoved by all of the high-volume Italian drama. “My own father!” he repeated, as though we’d somehow missed the first two invocations of the relationship.

“Can I say something, sir?” Ken looked directly at the Don, who appeared just as surprised as the rest of my guys about being addressed by a Japanese punk in perfect English. The Don gestured him on, and Ken nodded. “I don’t know how your business is arranged and I don’t care who’s in charge. But I saw that man,” he pointed to Bruno, “last night with the men who shot me. Whatever that means, that much is true.”

Bruno barked out a laugh that crackled with menace. “How much is that little fairy bribing you to say that?”

I didn’t know if he was striking out with the first below-the-belt insult that came to mind, or striving for accuracy in humiliation, but one way or another, it didn’t matter — I didn’t even have long enough to change my facial expression in rebuttal before the Japanese boss turned, glaring so hard that even Bruno shrank back. “We do not bribe!” he said, his voice as mean and curt in English as it was in Japanese, each word spat out like a firecracker pop. “Yakuza do not lie!”

The Don rose to his feet, raising a hand in a gesture that was both deferential and silencing. “No one here is accusing you of–”

“Make the deal!” Ken pointed at Bruno, then to his boss. “Make the deal, go on. You, right here. Shake on it, little Italian. On your father’s behalf, as a show of support. And we’ll make sure the Russians hear all about whose hand ended up in whose.” He turned to his boss and fired off another salvo of Japanese, presumably translating his suggestion, and probably providing extra commentary on top. He was right about the accent, too; I didn’t know Japanese from a hole in the ground back then, and I couldn’t have put my finger on it if my life had depended on it, but there was still a marked quality difference between the way Ken spoke and the way his boss did.

The boss listened for a minute to Ken’s suggestion, nodding quietly and wrinkling up his lips so his moustache twitched. Finally, he uncrossed his arms and nodded, first at the Don, then at Bruno. “Fine,” he said, sounding more approving than resigned. “Kudo-kun has spoken well of your man. It is agreeable that we should do business together.” His English was measured and a little formal, but he definitely knew how to string a sentence together than some of the guys I knew who’d grown up speaking the language. Two strikes for stereotypes tonight.

While he spoke, I could see red drain from Bruno’s face, until he’d gone a sick sort of pale. “Papa, have you thought about this?” he asked, turning back to the Don.

I’m not too dignified to say that I took some small, mean pleasure as the Don cuffed him upside the head with his cane. “I am not a stupid man and I do not make stupid decisions.” With the same cane, he pushed Bruno forward. “Or am I to believe you oppose this arrangement?”

“No!” said Bruno, but he spoke too quickly, letting the fear shine through his voice, and that was the end of his case. He babbled on at his father for another minute or two about thinking about the future and other business opportunities and the ways in which the Battaglio family should want to be known in the modern world and the great opportunities to align with a great nation instead of one putting itself back together after getting bombed to pieces, but it was a useless speech, and everyone in the room knew it, even Bruno. It was a desperate act, hard to watch, especially knowing what was probably going to come next.

When he’d finally had enough, the Don placed one of his hands on Bruno’s shoulder, and Bruno’s frantic reasoning petered out into silence. “Vittore,” he said, looking straight at Bruno but addressing his second son, “take your elder brother home. This is a family matter, we should not trouble other people with it.”

Vittore, whose primary virtue was being stupidly loyal, even by my standards, stood and placed his hand on his brother’s arm. Bruno’s face curdled like lemoned milk, and he snarled at Ken. “He bribed you!” he yelled, even as Vittore tugged him toward the exit before he could make more of a scene. “If he didn’t pay you, how did he threaten you? How did he keep you here? What did he do to you to make you lie for him?”

“Nothing,” answered Ken, looking Bruno straight in the eye. He had a cold, even look about him, made even more regal and terrifying by his place on the priest’s high-backed seat. “He didn’t make me stay. It was my own choice.”

With the help of two of the Don’s bodyguards, Bruno was escorted bodily from the church, howling and making a fool of himself in both English and Italian. I didn’t know what the Don had in mind for him, and didn’t really want to know; it was, after all, a family affair, and one I was happier to give a wide berth. When the heavy wooden doors slammed shut, the quiet that followed rang in my ears almost louder than Bruno’s wailing had. I stepped back toward the chair where Ken was sitting, bracing my right hand on the carved knob at the end of the armrest, and he shifted, using both his hands to reposition his injured leg; when he was finished, he returned his hands to the armrests, casual as you please, and his knuckles came to rest against the outside curve of my wrist, to where I might have thought the touch completely accidental, except for how he didn’t pull away.

Don Ernesto bowed to Ken’s boss, an awkward gesture but all the more sincere for it. “I apologize for my son.”

The boss returned the bow, though without bending nearly as deep. “I have three sons. I know they can be … a difficult thing.”

There was a touch of sadness in the Don’s voice as he laughed, and he eased himself forward on his cane across the aisle, shrugging off gestures offering help from his remaining entourage. “If you would let me, I will call an ambulance for your man.”

At the mention of Ken, however, the boss’ face went cold. “We have matters to discuss first,” he said, and I felt Ken’s hand clench as his superior’s eyes fell on him.

“Hey,” I said, stepping forward. I calculated that the previous eight hours had heard me string more words together than the previous eight months had, and there seemed no real reason to stop now that the going seemed to be getting rougher. “None of this was his fault.”

Shut up,” hissed Ken from behind me, but I didn’t turn, placing myself instead in the direct line of sight between Ken and his boss. Whoever wanted to get to him would have to go to me. I’d kept him bound for hours for my own selfish reasons; I owed him at least that much.

The boss turned and eyed me with that cobra stare, and it was just as terrifying to be on the bad end of it as I’d imagined it might be. “He has shown cowardice and weakness.”

It would have been so easy then to say I tied him to the bed and forced him to stay, but not only was I not sure how that would have come off in the showing cowardice and weakness department, it would have called out Ken’s parting lie to Bruno, and if the yakuza were as keen on honesty as this guy had made them out to be, I wasn’t going to put him in that position either. “He stayed for me,” I said, ignoring Ken’s cat-like hissing and shushing. “He wanted to leave, to fight his way out, and I asked him to stay so that I could put this all in order. It wasn’t being a coward or being weak. He was the only witness that my word was good.”

Everyone in the room was watching me by then, and I remembered all at once why I didn’t generally mouth off in front of other people: it made people remember you weren’t invisible. “Marco,” said the Don, my name the only warning he was going to give me that the path I was travelling was a very dangerous one.

The boss, however, seemed perfectly calm about my newfound casual disregard of my own life. “It is possible,” he said, and every word he spoke had its own isolated weight, “for a man to take the punishment for a man who has been under his orders. Is that how it has been with you?”

“Yes,” I said, sticking my hands casually in my pockets so that no one could see them shake. “That’s what happened. He was following my orders.”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind–” shouted Ken, but before I could get on him for his blasphemy, his boss was shouting at him again, short, clipped bursts of Japanese that sounded like barely more than a sentence or two. Whatever it was, though, Ken wilted back into his chair, and though I tried to catch his eye, he neither looked at me nor bothered to translate what had shut him down so completely.

With his man gone quiet, the boss nodded to the suited figure to his right, and that man produced a clean white handkerchief from his pocket, which the boss spread across the waist-high railing in front of the pew. “We Japanese are civilized,” he said, beckoning me closer. “We do not kill what we still can use. We only leave … a reminder.” He extended his left hand, and the man on that side of him withdrew a previously unseen knife, nearly a foot long, placing the blade flat in the boss’ hand. “Kudo-kun would yubitsume for me, do you understand?” He gripped the blade in his right hand and placed the left palm-down on the white cloth, then mimed slicing off the tip of his left little finger with a movement so swift and fluid it was horrible and beautiful at once.

Obviously ill at ease by my impending dismemberment, the Don walked close as fast as he could. “Please, wait,” he said. “Maybe we can find another way to–”

“Papa, it’s all right.” I took a deep breath and worked my face into an approximation of my bravest smile, feeling already the throbbing at the joint where the cut would go. “This is my choice. It’s my responsibility.”

“But Marco–”

“Papa, please.” I smiled at him more honestly this time, emboldened by his concern. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t?”

He had no answer for this, or if he did, he chose not to speak it; instead, he folded his hands gravely over the head of his cane and stepped back, giving me some room. Now there might as well have been no one left in the sanctuary except for me and the yakuza boss, and I forced myself every calm step of the way across the distance between us, until we were face to face with the rail between us. I was in the cage with that cobra now, and I could hear the lock turn behind me. “I will do it for you, if you like. You are not used to our way.”

I shook my head. “I said I’ll do it, and I meant I’ll do it.”

“Then please,” he said, extending the blade to me flat across both his palms.

“Thanks,” I said, reaching for my ankle, “but I’ve got my own.” I unsheathed my knife, which I could tell even at a glance wasn’t nearly as finely made nor as sharp as the exquisite weapon I was being offered, and which the sinking feeling in my gut told me might not even cut clean through the first time. But it was mine, and if I was going to do this, that was as important to me as anything.

“As you like,” the boss said, and he placed his hands on either side of the white cloth, stretching it out smooth. Bracing my feet, I splayed my left-hand fingers wide and set my hand palm-down on the cloth. It was silk, like everything about these guys seemed to be, and it seemed a distant sort of shame to mess it up by bleeding all over it. I gripped the handle of my knife tight and placed its tip against the material, ready to let the handle fall, just like chopping vegetables for my mama’s minestrone. Easy as that.

I might have lost my nerve entirely, right then and there, if I hadn’t thought instead of Ken. In my line of work, you tended to meet tough guys — some because they’d been born that way, some because they’d made themselves that way, some because they’d figured out how to make you think they were — but he blew them all out of the water. He’d been cool and confident enough through the whole mess to fight when he thought he’d have a chance, and to sit back and wait when he needed to. And he’d done it all with a bullet hole in his leg that couldn’t have made anything easier for him, and he’d come out on top of it all still willing to come to bat for me. Compared to hours of putting up with that, an instant of pain seemed like a small thing, barely worth even worrying about. I might not have been as tough as he was, but I could be tough for him, and that was what mattered. With a sudden surge of determination, I brought the blade sweeping down.

I was surprised at first when it didn’t hurt, and more surprised when I realized that the sound it had made was not metal-on-skin, but metal-on-metal. I opened my eyes and saw first no blood, and then no absence where my last joint should have been — and then the yakuza blade, wedged expertly in the fall path of my own knife, stopping my own efforts a hair’s breadth from skin. “You would have done it,” said the boss, his tone full of undisguised awe.

“Yeah,” I said, surprised that my voice worked even that much. “I would have.”

He laughed and plucked my knife from my hand, and all his men laughed with him, until the weird joke that had been the whole experience slowly became clear. If I’d let Ken taken the fall, there would have been no mercy for him; if I’d chosen the easy way out and let the boss make the cut, I’d be missing a little piece of myself right now. The only way for me to keep everything was if I had the guts to sever it with my own hands.

Still holding on to the white-draped railing for support, I looked over to the Don, whose face was slowly making the transition into relief. The boss caught my gaze, then smiled at the Don. “Mr. Battaglio, I agree to your business alliance — but only if this is the young man who speaks for you to me.”

“Well, then,” nodded the Don, “I see no reason to argue with that, so long as the young man over there is the one who speaks to you for me.” He gestured over to Ken, whose hands hadn’t quite unclenched from the armrests of the chair, and whose smile looked forced over a face that was still braced for impact.

“It is good to me,” the boss said, and the two men shook hands like old friends first, then bowed to one another, busying themselves with chatter in the midst of a bunch of professionally stone-faced Japanese and Italian mobsters who seemed almost friendly. The distraction was welcome, as I slunk back out of the spotlight, barely able to make it to the communion rail before my legs gave out under me. I took a few deep breaths and glanced over my shoulder to Ken, who looked about as worn out as I did. I was dimly aware of someone’s being sent off to find a doctor, and even more dimly aware of further plans being made on our collective behalf, but Ken and I couldn’t seem to look away again, so we just kept staring at one another with these stupid smiles on our faces like we had no idea how we’d both made it out of that one, no idea at all.

~*~

It was another four months before a knock startled me from my studies. I lay down the Japanese travel phrasebook I’d taken out of the local library and walked over to the front door of my apartment. “Who’s there?” I called, my fingers perched on the deadbolt.

“Just some guy you once tied to a bed,” came the voice from the other side of the door, and my hands couldn’t seem to undo the locks fast enough to get the damn thing open. I fumbled at the knob with suddenly clumsy fingers, cursing under my breath, and when I finally managed to twist it open, it took pretty much everything I had not to keep from flinging it wide.

Instead, I pulled it back at a measured pace, even if all the control in the world couldn’t have kept the delighted expression I knew I was wearing off my face. “Hey,” I said, leaning against the door like I got surprise guests like this every day, trying not to feel self-conscious about being caught in my shirtsleeves and in the socks I knew had holes in both big toes. “Long time no see.”

Ken tipped the brim of his grey fedora at me, giving me that smug, handsome smirk. His overcoat was the same light grey, double-breasted and flattering, and from what I could see from beneath the hat brim, he’d let his hair grow out a little, enough so fine black wisps peeked out from under. “You going to invite me in?” he asked.

I stood back and gestured him inside, locking every lock behind us again when he was in; there really isn’t such a thing as too careful, not when you’re like us. “I’m sorry it’s a mess. I wasn’t expecting company today. I didn’t think you’d be here for another two weeks.”

“I’m full of surprises,” he grinned, brushing off a light dusting of melted snow before he hung his hat on the rack by my door. Unasked, he kicked off his shoes and stacked them beneath it, in the same place I usually left mine because if I didn’t, I’d never remember where I’d put them. “It’s not really cold outside, it’s just … snowing.”

“Welcome to January in New Jersey.” I took his coat from him. Freed from his winter accoutrements, he ran his fingers through his hair — which was definitely longer, I could see that now, and little locks feathered his face, having been pressed there by the hat. “I’d say you should have waited the two weeks, but February’s not much better. …Why didn’t you tell me you were coming in now? One telegram, and I would have cleaned the place. …And me.”

He chuckled at the mention of our wire conversations, which had grown increasingly frequently in the leadup to what I thought was going to be his arrival, information bounced back and forth in as few words as possible, via the one method of rapid communication that truly respected the twelve-hour time difference. Just because we hadn’t actually laid eyes on one another since the paramedics had whisked Ken away from St. Claire’s in an ambulance, didn’t mean we hadn’t kept close tabs on one another. “And ruin the surprise?” He shot me a perfect give-me-a-break expression, which made me laugh.

I gave him the nickel tour of the apartment, which mostly involved pointing him at the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen while standing in the closest thing the place had to a living room. Sure, I had the money for a bigger place, but I didn’t really see a reason to bother; after all, the only person I ever entertained there was myself, and I wasn’t exactly fussy. This meant, however, when I invited him to sit down and stay a while, he got one end of the couch and I got the other, and when we crossed our legs, our ankles hovered close to one another, not bold enough to touch but not turning away either. “Flight was good?” I asked, once I’d gotten us both settled with dirty martinis in our hands.

“It got me here, so good enough.” He shrugged, taking the olive and biting it in two. “You know, this is a lot better than what you had to offer last time we went drinking.”

“I don’t think that counted as going drinking,” I pointed out, swirling my own olive around the glass; I liked to save it to the end. “I don’t think it counted as much of anything, except an experience I don’t care to repeat.”

Ken shrugged, staring into his glass. “I don’t know, it had its moments.”

I still had gin lingering on my tongue, but that wasn’t the reason my mouth had suddenly gone dry. “So, how is your leg?”

“Nearly healed up, which is the reason I could get the earlier flight. I wasn’t going to wait around if I didn’t need to.” The other half of his olive disappeared between his lips, and he swallowed it nearly without chewing.

“The doctor wouldn’t let you fly with a gunshot wound?” I asked, which didn’t sound right; he’d made it to Japan, after all, and that had been several months ago.

“No.” He took another long drink of the martini and set it down on my coffee table, which I owned only because I had inherited it from my mother, then took his fingers and started for his tie. “The artist wouldn’t finish the outline until it had healed.”

The world had suddenly stopped making sense again, but I’d since learned not to let little things like that bother me so long as everything came out all right in the end. “What artist?” I asked, looking around. I hadn’t noticed his having brought anything in with him, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t found a new and exciting place to stash art.

As far as noticing places went, though, my critical failure had been in not expecting anything that he’d have to undress so much for; he took off his tie and folded it on the couch beside him, then shrugged off his jacket and went for the collar of his shirt. In the clear daylight of my apartment, I could see something curling up around his neck, just a little blue tendril, and it took me a moment to realize that wasn’t something between his shirt and his skin, that was his skin. Still wearing that know-it-all smirk, he patiently undid each button of his shirt, cuffs and all, before pushing the whole thing off and laying it over the back of the couch.

For as much as I’d been concerned about the state of his body during our long night in St. Claire’s — for practical reasons, I reminded myself — I realized I actually hadn’t seen much of it, not with his suit and the host of other concerns I’d had. He turned slowly away from me now, though, and I could see for the first time what I’d missed. He’d definitely found a new and exciting place to stash his art: he was the canvas, and his back, shoulders, and forearms were covered with a set of designs so overwhelmingly intricate that my eyes first read the design as just abstract. But my eyes returned to that first blue curl I’d seen on his neck, and I stared at it until it began to make sense, and changed from just a mark into a splash of water. I followed it down his back, and more splashes of water appeared where there had first just been blue. The splash was coming from behind a dragon, one of those long Japanese types that looks more like a snake than the kind you see trying to eat the yellow-haired princesses in those kids’ cartoon movies, and the dragon curled around a woman so pale and heavily robed that she might have been the Blessed Virgin, except for how she was missing her burning heart or her Baby Jesus or any of the other things you usually saw a Madonna carrying.

illustrated by safelybeds

“…Is the dragon supposed to be eating that lady?” I asked.

Fortunately, Ken found my cultural ignorance amusing, and he laughed. “No, he’s protecting her. She’s the Goddess of Mercy. He eats everyone else.”

I nodded and considered just plain sitting on my hands to keep them from doing all that they really wanted to do, which was to reach out and touch his marked skin. “So, this is what you wanted to get finished before you came over here?”

“Sort of,” said Ken, and to my combined horror and delight, he started for his belt buckle. “This part’s actually been done for over a year. But when I knew they were going to keep me over here for a while, I didn’t want to come without at least getting the new stuff started.” With a lack of modesty I found surprising, he lowered his pants down to his knees.

I’d seen earlier how his tattoo hadn’t stopped at the waistband of his pants, but I’d just assumed that it ended another half inch or so below. But it didn’t — the earlier design went several inches further down his bared back, stopping completely on the left side but continuing down the right. There was a clear dividing line between the old art and the new, but only because the new design was just an outline, the black boundaries where later sessions would add all the spectacular shades that decorated the rest of his back. This new design curled down around the bullet’s entrance wound — a puckered scar barely the size of the ball of my thumb, perfectly circular and smooth — and like with the rest of the art, my eyes took a minute to figure out what, precisely I was seeing, a task made more difficult by being forced to decode the image from lines alone.

It slowly faded into sense, though: the artist had not tried to paint over the scar, but had used it, taking its blank roundness and turning it into an eye. Beneath the eye there was a snout and fanged mouth, and around the creature’s head was a mane of curls that looked like they might someday be the same splashes that teased up Ken’s neck. Its paws were clawed and furred, and its lean body half-disappeared under the earlier work, as though it were emerging from the same deep ocean current that had brought up the dragon. This was a definite case of you-say-poTAYto brought to life in art, but even when it was done up in crazy Japanese inks, I knew a lion when I saw one.

“What do you think?” Ken smiled at me over his shoulder, considering my stunned silence, and a line of worry crawled between his eyebrows as I gave to answer to his inquiry. “So, there’s a Christian man near where I live, and he told me that your Saint Marco was a lion. …Well, not a real lion, but his symbol. So … there it is.”

Wide-eyed, I scooted closer to get a better look, and now that I was in on the joke, I could see it: the lines of water (presumably one day to be blue) that snaked around the lion’s body circled its paws three times each, almost as though you could have pulled them taut and held the beast down. The skilled artist had frozen him forever there, halfway bound and halfway loose, caught in perfect mid-pounce where at any moment he might break free.

I saw Ken’s hands falter, and he started to slide his pants back up his hips. “Anyway, I–”

“Please,” I said, and I did the only thing I could think to do to keep him from hiding this from me again, which was to reach for it; the wound was exactly the same size as the tip of my thumb, and his skin was warm to the touch as I let my fingers wrap around the side of his thigh. He neither staggered nor swayed as he stood there, but the sudden clench of his fingers betrayed him anyway. Emboldened by the crazy decision I’d made the last time I’d had him around, I bent down and kissed the skin just above the scar; I’d never done anything like this before, not with a man or a woman, and for all I knew I was doing everything entirely wrong, but all I knew was that I needed to know as soon as I could just how his canvas of skin tasted. I couldn’t take it back one it’d been done, I knew that, but I’d taken that chance before.

That, at least, got a reaction: Ken let go of his trousers and grabbed the arm of the couch to keep from pitching forward. I took this as a sign of encouragement and opened my mouth, giving the skin I’d just kissed a gentle bite, and then the skin above it, working my way slowly up toward his incredible, shapely posterior, moving on instinct instead of knowledge. I reached for his left hip with my other hand, holding him in place, and bit harder to see how much pressure I’d have to apply to leave a mark, even for a short while. It turned out, not much.

After barely a minute of this, Ken reached for my hand on his hip and gripped it tight. “I was afraid you wouldn’t like it,” he said, his voice thick and breathy.

Time to let the knife fall and see what happened next. “No,” I told him, and as I spoke, my lips brushed the border on his behind where the old design ended and the new one emerged. “I like it a lot.”

He laughed, though the sound was thin. “We could get you one, when you come visit someday.”

“I’m good with yours for now,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt. The truth was, I’d pretty much resigned myself to the idea that being with another guy was about the stupiest thing I could do to myself, if anyone I knew ever saw me in the kind of dives and alleys where men like me went to pick up other men, since the problem with associating with lowlifes is that you can’t slip under the radar of the people who are always watching from the bottom. Now, in the safety of my own apartment, with a guy who was actually supposed to be hanging around me as much as we both could manage, the entire situation seemed about as mythical as the dragon on Ken’s back. But like the tattoo itself, this was finally real, and that realization knocked the wind from my sails.

Ken’s hands faltered against mine, and he turned, kicking his pants from his ankles and standing just a few feet from me, bare and handsomely muscled. “You didn’t finish the tour,” he said. I frowned, and he pointed in the previously indicated direction of the bedroom — though I confess it took me nearly a minute to actually see what he was getting at, since I couldn’t entirely get over the magnetic vision of having his naked body that close and available to me. “Come on.” And with one last graceful kick to divest himself of his socks, he strode into the bedroom.

I couldn’t even get mad that the place was a mess, or that he’d caught me right before laundry day, or that I hadn’t bothered to make my bed that morning, because by the time I made it to the bedroom myself, he was sitting on the edge of the mattress, his knees spread and his cock perched attentively between them. With a laugh that took all the air from my lungs, I slumped against the door frame, paralyzed and elated all at once. “You sure this isn’t some sort of elaborate revenge fantasy?”

Ken rolled his eyes. “Please. You’ve learned to be too suspicious.” He patted the mattress next to him. “Unless you’re having second thoughts.”

“No, no.” I cleared my throat. “Still stuck on my first ones.”

“Then come on.” He scooted back, closer to the pillows and the wrought iron frame behind them — another inheritance from my mother, though I didn’t really want to think about that one right now. Instead, I moved to the place he’d indicated, still fully clothed down to my suspenders, and sat down.

The truth was, I hadn’t learned to be too suspicious — I’d learned exactly how suspicious I should be, and he was just an utter jerk. Of course, I didn’t figure that out until he was on top of me, pulling out one of the ties I’d apparently left discarded somewhere around my room and grabbing my wrists. Before I knew quite what had happened, he’d lashed them together and then to the frame, and no amount of pulling was going to let me loose.

“All right,” he admitted, straddling my waist, “there’s revenge involved too.”

“Son of a–” I started, but he put his fingers to my lips and that shut me up pretty quick.

“I said, ‘too’. Doesn’t mean I don’t want you for other reasons.” With his unoccuped hand, he started unfastened the buttons of my shirt, baring my skinny, hairy chest — something I’d never felt the need to feel self-consicous about before finding myself face-to-face (or, really, chest-to-chest) with his sleek, muscled body. Ken, however, seemed to have no qualms about what was hiding beneath my clothes, and as he tugged one of my nipples between his teeth, I bit my lip hard to keep from either crying out or climaxing right then and there.

I wanted to grab for him, to push him away, to pull him close, to do something so I didn’t feel quite so powerless, even though I knew that the point was that I couldn’t do any of those things, not while Ken had me down. As he unbuttoned my suspenders and set to unfastening my pants, I took a deep breath. “Just … don’t injure me, okay?”

Ken paused mid-zipper and jerked his head toward me, his cocky smile fading into a look of genuine hurt. With a sigh, he placed one of his hands flat on my belly and leaned closer to my face. “You don’t trust me,” he said, and his voice was so gentle that I almost couldn’t believe it was coming out of his mouth. “But that’s what you need to do.” And as though to seal the deal, he bent down and kissed me.

Italians are, on the whole, a very kissing people: lovers, close family, extended family, good friends, old friends, new acquaintances; on the hand, on the forehead, on the cheek, on the mouth; in private, in close company, in public, in front of cameras; you get two Italians together for long enough, and one of them will probably find a reason to kiss the other. But I’d never, not once in my whole life, been kissed like this. He didn’t just kiss with his lips or tongue, he kissed with his teeth, biting at my lower lip until it was sore and warm, and it was all I could do to try and keep up enough to convince him that he should never stop. I could taste in his mouth the cigarette he’d probably smoked on the way over, but mostly I could just taste him. If this was how he took his vengeance, I was willing to take my medicine until I couldn’t anymore.

After a few minutes of this, he broke free from the tangle, pressing our foreheads together as we both gasped air back into our lungs. “…Do you trust me now?”

No.” Italians also get kissed enough to know you can’t bank on that alone.

Ken laughed and bit my lower lip once more. “And that’s why you stay tied up,” he grinned as he scooted back down the bed, taking hold of my trousers and finishing the job he’d started earlier. By the time he got them undone, my cock was so hard that it practically pushed its way out all by itself. He gave it a few experimental strokes with his fingertips, smiling every time his touch made me make some terribly undignified noise, then leaned in and took it all the way into his mouth in one swallow.

This was the kind of thing you saw in the Tijuana bibles the other guys passed around, the dirty little black-and-white comics where the cartoon girl took a cartoon penis in her mouth, smiling all sweet and innocent up at its unseen owner. The difference here was, it was my penis, and the look Ken gave me as I strained against my tie-bond was neither sweet nor innocent, but instead the cock-accommodating version of his regular smirk, and that was enough of a realization to knock the wind out of my lungs. “Fuck,” I breathed, turning my face into the pillow so none of my neighbors would suspect anything amiss.

Ken’s smile broadened, and he let my cock slowly slip from his mouth, kissing the tip as he went. “Profanity,” he said, sounding sarcastically impressed. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I will kill you when you untie me,” I promised, and the threat wasn’t idle.

“Then I’ll never untie you.” Ken shrugged and gave my cock one more long, wet lick before letting go and stretching out beside — and slightly on top of — me. He’d left me pretty much flat on my back, with my prick pointing straight up into the air, and aligned his body with mine so that our cocks were pressing next to one another, which meant his mouth wound up in the vicinity of my throat and collarbone. “I’ll just keep you here,” he threatened, taking both of our cocks together in his right hand and stroking them slowly; mine was still slick with his spit, and they slid against one another in a way that made my heart race even to think about, much less to have happen. “Tell your boss you can’t come out to play because I’m too busy fucking you into the mattress.”

I must have made some amusing noise at that, because he chuckled and bit my throat. “Ask him if he’ll let you do your job with your dick in my mouth,” he continued. “Or maybe with my dick in yours. I like that idea better.” He nipped at the skin just above my adam’s apple, and I found myself glad in advance that it was scarf season. “Only if you want it, though. So you’d better tell me: do you want to suck my dick?”

I nodded, partly because I had indeed jerked off to that very fantasy probably fifty times or so since meeting Ken, but partly also because I would probably have agreed to anything at that point so long as he kept stroking us off. “Can’t hear you,” he said, and he bit my throat again.

“Yes.” I could barely find enough air in my lungs to make the words. “Yes, yes.”

“Yes what?” he asked, and even though I was mostly concerned with myself at the moment, I could hear his own arousal begin to cloud his voice — and that opened up a floodgate I didn’t even know I’d had.

“I want to suck your dick,” I said, no longer even caring what busybody neighbors might be listening in through the grates. Let them eavesdrop; at least they’d get a show worth hearing. “Please, I want to taste your dick in my mouth, I want to suck you until you come, please.”

“Have you ever sucked cock before?” His fingers moved faster, and our erections slipped and pressed together in his grip.

I shook my head, closing my eyes. “No,” I confessed, though confession proper was never quite like this. I pushed my hips against his hand, and when he didn’t reprimand me or stop, I did it again. “I want to, I want it, please….”

He sucked the place at the base of my throat where he’d just bitten. “I’ll think about it,” he said, obviously trying to sound casual though even I could hear the barely managed restraint in his voice. “But first? I want to see you come for me right now.”

I tried to tell myself I didn’t need his commands or his permission, and that I could manage myself however I wanted, but I couldn’t do either with a straight face, not while I was coming without warning into his hand and all over my chest, straining against the well-tied bonds and making the whole bed rattle. I heard a deep, gasping cry, which surprised me because it was coming from my own mouth — and then surprised me because it wasn’t, and I felt another wet splash of come across my belly as Ken thrust hard into his hand, jerking and writhing along with me. I wanted to kiss him again, but I couldn’t reach where he was or grab him into a better position, so I pressed my mouth to the top of his head and breathed in the lavender scent of his shampoo and the sharper salt of his sweat beneath.

And then it was done, and I was almost sad that it was over so quickly — though, being honest with myself, I had to admit it was sort of a miracle that I’d lasted so long in the first place. And maybe it hadn’t been everything I’d thought it’d be, but it’d been something else even better, and the truth was that it was incredible that he was here at all, so anything beyond that was icing on one hell of a cake. I took a deep breath and tried to let it out slowly through pursed lips, except that I couldn’t stop smiling.

After a moment, Ken released our softening cocks and let his hips fall back to the bed with an impact that made the bedsprings squeak. He didn’t say anything, just pressed his face into the bare skin of my shoulder and sighed.

Now post-orgasmic and still tied up, I wasn’t sure what the etiquette for the situation might be, so I cleared my throat. “I thought you were going to let me….” Now that my arousal had subsided, at least for the time being, all the dirty talk I’d been capable of for that brief moment had vanished. “…You know.”

Ken propped his head up on his hand, resting his elbow on my pillow, and smiled. “I’m going to be around for a while. We’ve got time.”

“Okay.” I shrugged, trying to play it off cool, when really I hadn’t quite stopped shaking. As far as first times went, I think I’d done pretty well. “You know, if you’re not busy with something else.”

“I promise,” he leaned in to kiss me lightly on the lips, “that I will let you put your mouth anywhere on me that you want for as long as you want to leave it there.”

I gave him my best apprasing stare. “I’ll think about it.”

He laughed and rolled off the bed, stretching his arms above his head and giving me another full viewing of his incredible tattoo. “…Now I’m hungry,” he said, looking around my bedroom as though he expected my icebox to be within arm’s reach.

“Well, if you untie me, I’ll cook breakfast.” I turned to look at the bedside clock. “…Lunch. Whatever.”

“I got off a plane two hours ago. My body thinks it’s one a.m. I don’t care what you call it, so long as it’s food.”

I tugged at my hands. “The untying is an important part of the offer.”

He turned to survey my situation, as casual as could be, and put one hand under his cock, which had already begun to twitch at the sight of me spread out and half-naked like this, and if that wasn’t a heady feeling, I didn’t know what the hell was. “Well, that depends. Were you serious about killing me when I untie you?”

“Only if you’re serious about not untying me.”

Ken smiled at that and walked over to the head of the bed. He dragged one finger along the inside of my wrists, and I shivered at the touch of his warm hands against my cold skin. I felt him slip one hand beneath the tie, presumably where he’d fastened the knot, and give it a quick tug — and then he stepped away, leaving me as tied up as I’d been before as he sauntered off toward the kitchen. “I’ll think about it,” he smirked over his shoulder, and disappeared into the rest of the apartment.

As I lay there, tied to my own bed, listening to him clank around the unfamiliar kitchen, wondering when he’d finally get around to giving me back my hands so I could strangle him and suck his dick, possibly in that order, I found that I still couldn’t get that stupid grin off my face. I didn’t know where this was going or what was going to become of it or even what he thought he could make from the meager provisions in my pantry — but I did know that as sure as he’d got me tied to the bed, I’d gotten quite literally under his skin. For everything else, we’d just have to be brave and wait and see.

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