Halfway

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by Tofu

Intellectually, he knew the sky he saw outside the prison was the same one he’d seen while in it. But it felt different somehow, viewed without the frame of walls five times higher than he was. He wanted it to be bright blue, picturesque, the Platonic ideal of freedom; it was overcast, threatening rain. Still, it was the highest ceiling he’d had over his head in twenty-seven months, and he intended to enjoy every inch of it, cloudy or otherwise.

The bus stopped down at the end of the road, or so they’d told him. He had bus fare, leads on a few privately run halfway houses that might take him in, and not much else. He’d arrived with nothing and was leaving with even less, it seemed. Less of him, that was for certain. He’d always been on the skinny side before all this. Now they had him on an antidepressant that took away half his appetite and an antipsychotic that took away the other half. But they also took away the sense of crushing hopelessness that had characterized his whole his life, and he hadn’t heard voices for at least three months, so it seemed a fair trade, maybe. Either that, or his whole life had been so goddamn unfair that even the slightest break in the constant shitstorm felt like Christmas. The prison therapist told him it was healthy to acknowledge the abuse he had suffered at the hands of others. He nodded like this was sage advice and wanted to crawl in a hole and die.

He wasn’t going to do it in this fucking place, though. He hitched his bag up over his shoulder and started for the bus stop. They’d know he was an ex-con to see him, but he supposed it couldn’t be that odd around these parts. He’d been a minor during the trial, which meant they’d blurred his face out through the coverage. And before that, well. Before that, there had been the mask.

Besides, he was well past yesterday’s news. It was 1995 now, and no reporters were hovering there like vultures trying to capture the release of Ibrahim Sultana’s son. Sultana himself might have made a stir, earning the leading spot on the Hudson City 11:00 news. But that criminal mastermind was going to die behind his bars, though, or so everyone had promised, including his therapist. He figured they thought they were making him feel better, safer.

The parking lot wasn’t even halfway full; he guessed that was because the prison somehow decided that release days and visiting days shouldn’t overlap, probably just to punish families with one more damn trip. What little family he had was already being punished elsewhere.

Beneath the grey sky, the red convertible at the end of the row was all the more striking. It took him several seconds of staring to realize there was someone leaning against side, looking cool and calm as always, like he had all the time in the world.

“Need a ride?” asked Sonny Moreno.

It was all Anwar could do to keep from bursting into tears right here in the parking lot, just crumpling in on himself and sobbing in shame and humiliation like the little bitch his father always said he was. Between the drugs and the spiteful self-control, though, he kept it in. He’d die before he let anyone else see him cry, and he’d die twice before that person was Sonny.

So instead, he squared his shoulders, gritted his teeth, and gripped the strap of his bag so his hands didn’t shake. “No,” he managed before stepping defiantly off down the road, toward that bus stop. He had better things to do with his freedom than be mocked by a fucking cape.

Sonny’s dark eyebrows tightened, troubling his confident smile. “Hey,” he said, stopping Anwar in his tracks. Sonny peered over the thick-rimmed, non-prescription glasses that did a strangely good job of changing the contours of his face. “You hate the bus.”

And fuck Sonny for knowing that, too. Fuck Sonny for knowing so much more about Anwar than he had any right to. Fuck him for not just patting himself on the back for a job well done, and fucking off somewhere instead of pretending to care. “How’d you know I was getting out?” Anwar asked.

“Lucky guess,” Sonny answered with a cheeky wink.

Anwar wanted to punch Sonny in his stupid face. He thought he was so cute, and son of a bitch, he was right. But that didn’t mean Anwar had to put up with it. He pressed his lips together in a thin line and started back on the quarter-mile walk to the bus stop. Even with the cloud cover, it was absurdly hot out. Sweat was already starting to soak through his white cotton dress shirt. He’d worn it on the day he’d arrived, ferried over in shackles straight from the courthouse. He had just enough self-control not to destroy one of the few things he now legally owned.

Not that he’d really thought the conversation was over, but Anwar still managed to be surprised when, thirty seconds later, the convertible pulled up next to him, keeping pace. The radio was playing some song Anwar didn’t recognize. He supposed to a lot of the world was going to be like that now. “Come on, get in,” Sonny said.

Anwar pointed to the bus stop shelter, which didn’t even have the courtesy of a roof. “It’s right there.”

“I mean, back to the city.” Sonny sighed as he rode the brake just enough to match Anwar’s gait. “Or wherever you’re headed.” A pair of pink fuzzy dice swung from the rear-view mirror. For a man legally barred from every casino in the world, Sonny thought he was real fucking funny.

“And what is this supposed to be?” asked Anwar, gesturing back and forth between the two of them. “My mild-mannered former high school classmate, a guy I maybe had a couple periods with senior year, just happens to show up on the day I’m released? That’s real Secret Identity of you, sure. Very suave.”

Sonny glanced back over his shoulder as though checking for a tail, even though they both knew there were no other cars on the road. “You see anyone around who gives a shit?”

The most goddamn frustrating thing about Sonny “One-Eyed Jack” Moreno was that he wasn’t always right, but he was always lucky, and sometimes it was an acceptable substitute.

 

~*~

 

The way the wind whipped through Anwar’s hair through the open top of the convertible bothered him for approximately three minutes, at which point every emotion seemed to hit him at once and his body shut down in self-defense. He passed right out without even meaning to and slept for almost half an hour before he felt the car begin to slow. “What’s happening?” he asked, rubbing his hand across his face.

“Lunch,” Sonny said as he steered the car off the freeway. There were two different truck stops by the off-ramp, one with a McDonald’s, the other with a Burger King. Without asking, Sonny pulled into the drive-thru of the McDonald’s. “You want anything?”

“No,” Anwar lied. He wasn’t even hungry, not really, but the idea of hot, greasy, salty fast food made his body ache with longing. It seemed normal in a way he thought had been stolen from him. McDonald’s was for real people, not criminals. It was a normal vice for normal people, not the kind that got you put away for life. His stomach betrayed him and made an audible gurgle that Anwar prayed couldn’t be heard over the radio.

Sonny clicked his tongue, a sound of clear exasperation. “Well, okay, if you did want something, what would it be?”

He’d done that back in high school too, sometimes: just paid for Anwar’s meals like it was nothing, because to him it was nothing. Anwar had let it happen, because that had been how Anwar had thought normal people acted. Normal people let their friends spot them cash when they didn’t have any. Besides, they’d had their own economy anyway. Sonny had sprung for double lunch in the school cafeteria and Anwar had sucked him off in the third-floor staff bathroom, jerking off as he knelt and choked himself ecstatically on Sonny’s dick. He’d even let himself believe that such an act might be something like affection, there on the dingy tile, with Sonny’s hands knotted in his hair, fucking Anwar’s face with clumsy eagerness, telling him what a beautiful goddamn mouth he had, then kissing him afterward with his come still wet on Anwar’s lips.

But that had been three years ago, which was a past so ancient it could no longer be seen with the human eye. “Small fries,” Anwar said, because he knew Sonny wouldn’t let it go. That was the universal constant of capes: their fucking tenacity.

Sonny ordered that, and then a large fry, and then the biggest chicken nugget box they had, and then a couple more burgers of various sizes, and finally topped it off by asking Anwar, “Chocolate or vanilla?”

What was he supposed to say? “Chocolate,” Anwar grumbled as Sonny ordered two large shakes.

Anwar tried not to glower too pointedly as Sonny pulled up to the window and flirted with the young cashier. She already had stars in her eyes from being charmed by a handsome man in a flashy car; Anwar could only imagine she’d outright faint to know that she was handing bags of burgers to the former leader of Teen Team Justice.

It turned out they’d gotten three fries in their order, all large, which was the sort of thing that happened around Sonny. He took the car to the far end of the lot and parked it near a clutch of trees, shade from the midday sun that was starting to burn through the clouds. Looking cool as ever, he nudged his glasses up over his forehead, pushing the long, frosted strands of his bangs from his face. “So where are you headed?” Sonny asked as he selected his burger.

So that was going to be the trade this time, food for information. Anwar supposed he couldn’t fault those instincts. Once a cape, always a cape. “Got an address.” He pointed to the bag at his feet, then went back to eating the fries. They were disgusting and he loved them even as they burned his tongue. He soothed the burn with the chocolate shake, which was ambrosial. “Just drop me near a subway.”

Sonny straight-up rolled his eyes at that. “You even have any tokens?”

Anwar did not, and they both knew it. “I have money.”

Sonny snorted. “Come stay with me.”

If Anwar had been asked to compile a list of things he’d thought Sonny might say to him after his release, and if he’d been making it since his first day in prison, that sentence would still not have been on there. “What?” He was so dumbfounded by the offer that he couldn’t even manage to reject it outright, as he knew he should.

“Come stay with me,” Sonny repeated, as though this were a normal thing that normal people said, as though they were the kind of normal people who said things like that.

“Fuck off.”

“I’m serious.” Sonny popped the lid from his shake and dragged a fry through it, then ate it with an appraising face. “That works better with Frostys.”

It was true, but Sonny didn’t get to drop a bomb like that and then change the subject. “I’m not going to stay with you,” Anwar said.

“Why not?”

“Why–” Anwar forced himself to chew and swallow a whole chicken nugget before he answered. That was just one of the many anger and panic management techniques his therapist had made him practice, albeit not with fast food. “You testified against me in court!”

“I testified for you in court,” Sonny countered. “If the prosecution hadn’t called me, they would’ve called someone far worse. And I know for an actual fact that what I said is a big part of the reason you’re here now, fresh from juvie, and not sharing a cell with your father.”

That was an exaggeration, of course; “supervillains” like Ibrahim Sultana were kept in largely solitary conditions, and even if they had thrown the book at Anwar, the prison wouldn’t have been stupid enough to put a criminal mastermind and his psychotic hench-son anywhere near one another. Still, the point was made. “What are your little cape buddies going to think?” Anwar asked.

Sonny shrugged like he hadn’t had a care in the world since the day he was born. “I’m helping with your rehabilitation.”

Anwar gagged on a fry at the sound of that fucking word. People used it like he’d been in a car crash and had to learn to walk again, as though the mangled body of his criminal record were something that had happened to him, instead of something he’d done. “Fuck off,” Anwar grumbled again.

“Then who gives a shit what they think?” Sonny stretched his arms above his head, and as he did, Anwar saw that perfect grin of his start to falter. Anwar wished he could believe that wasn’t just another calculated expression, one invoked to represent unfelt sincerity. “Okay, look. Yeah, I did testify against you, and my team took your dad’s crew down. Whatever. But before that. I could have pulled you out, or at least made it so we had to come clean with each other. So we didn’t have to keep pretending like you didn’t know I was One-Eyed Jack and I didn’t know you were the Sinister Sultan’s son.”

The years of media training all Teen Team Justice members went through probably were the reason Sonny could spit out that alliteration with such precision. “I could’ve done that too,” Anwar pointed out.

“And if I’d been the one to go to jail over it, I’d want you to be the one buying me milkshakes right now.” Sonny laughed and leaned his head back. He had such a beautiful throat. Anwar had loved biting marks into it he knew the One-Eyed Jack costume wouldn’t quite cover. “I got lucky.”

That was the hell of it, though, wasn’t it? The two of them had always been so painfully alike — the same side of two coins, Anwar’s father had quipped once, and it hadn’t been a compliment. They’d both come up through the foster system, both been adopted in late childhood by parents who’d seen them as tools instead of people. Sonny’s had gotten him into the cape business, while Anwar’s, suffice it to say, hadn’t. It had been fun, for a while, for Anwar to imagine them as perfect foils, one another’s great lifelong nemeses. Hell, it’d been downright romantic.

And then it had all gone to shit.

“You don’t owe me,” Anwar said, humiliated at the way he could feel himself crumbling. He’d fully expected to spend the night sleeping rough, or on a halfway house’s shitty cot. The thought of not having to do that was overwhelming. He was weak, as weak as he’d been to the fast-food lunch. He was putting himself in a bad position. No, Sonny didn’t owe Anwar anything, but Anwar was not an hour out of prison and already in Sonny’s debt. Nothing good could come of that.

Sonny clucked his tongue. “You want, we can even keep track of rent. Pay me back when you get a job. Fair?”

No, it was colossally unfair. But for once, it seemed the world was being unfair in Anwar’s favor. “You’re not going to let me say no, are you?” Anwar asked, because it was easier than saying yes, fuck, yes.

Sonny just wiggled his eyebrows, then started the car again. “You done with lunch?”

“Yeah,” said Anwar, who was surprised to find he’d eaten rather than just picked through his food. “There’s a lot left, though.” Anwar hated to waste anything, and food like this didn’t exactly keep well.

“Just put it all in a bag,” Sonny said. “I got this.”

As they made their way out of the parking lot, Anwar saw a pair of women standing by an old beater car, bent over a map spread out on the trunk. Sonny veered the convertible toward them deliberately enough that it got their attention. As they stood to look at the approaching vehicle, Anwar could see that both of them looked about as hard-done as their car did. There was a fear in their eyes, too, a shared animal worry punctuated by the bruise shading the smaller woman’s cheek.

“Ladies,” Sonny greeted them, beaming, “my friend and I ordered far too much for lunch, and we don’t just want to throw our leftovers away. Would you mind taking the rest off our hands?”

The women hesitated, and Anwar knew too well the battle they were fighting between caution and need. Trying to look as little like an ex-con as possible, he held out the bag to them, as far from the car as his arm could go so they wouldn’t have to reach inside. See? Not a trap.

The larger woman took the bag, and a nervous smile warmed her face. “Thanks,” she half-mumbled. “Been on the road.”

“Seems like it,” Sonny said with a sympathetic nod, one he’d probably been made to practice in front of a coach. “You ladies travel safe.” And with a gentlemanly smile, Sonny pulled away.

The actual mechanics of Sonny’s probability-altering skills were completely opaque to Anwar. If Sonny hadn’t made an effort, would the women not have been there? Would they have arrived five minutes later, long after Sonny and Anwar were already back on the highway? Would they have pulled off at the other truck stop instead? Would they never have set out on a road trip at all? In other to get a desired outcome, how far back did these powers have to reach?

As long as there’s an unknown, he’d heard One-Eyed Jack say in a TV interview sometime. Anwar’s past was a known quantity now, so he supposed there was nothing for it. He leaned back in his seat and drank his milkshake as the tall city buildings began appearing on the horizon.

 

~*~

 

He didn’t know what he’d expected “home” to be for a cape — maybe some flashy multi-acre mansion, presented by the city with its gratitude. Instead, Sonny swiped a card that lifted a gate to an underground parking garage beneath a nondescript building with a plain facade. After they’d parked in a numbered spot, Sonny led Anwar over to an elevator with an honest-to-Jesus uniformed attendant inside. “Mr. Moreno,” said the attendant with a smile. He was an older man, with salt-and-pepper hair, and the brass-buttoned coat did little to disguise his solid frame.

“Hi, Hector.” Sonny nodded to Anwar. “This is Anwar. He’ll be staying with me awhile.”

Hector’s pleasant expression remained tellingly static. “Mr. Remington will have to approve any long-term guests.”

“I’ll talk to him about it. It’s all good.”

“Very well, Mr. Moreno,” said Hector. He pressed an unnumbered button, and the car lurched to life. A short climb later, the doors opened onto a perfectly mundane hallway, with two doors on each side. Anwar followed Sonny out, holding his breath. He didn’t look back, but he could feel Hector’s eyes boring into the back of his neck.

“Christ,” Anwar muttered after he heard the doors shut behind them. “What is he, Mossad?”

“Ex,” Sonny said, leaving Anwar’s attempt at a joke dead in the water. “At least, I think ex.”

Anwar supposed he didn’t even have to ask what kind of building hired veterans of the Israeli Special Forces to work its elevators. The kind of building with a lot of important people in it, obviously, and that included capes. Anwar had once lived in a building where the teenagers might mug you in the stairwell. This was the same city, but a world away.

Sonny stopped in front of the door with a brass 2 just below the peephole. He reached for where the doorknob should have been, but instead touched a fingerprint scanner. “It may take a couple days to get you in the system,” Sonny said, letting a beam of light read the ridges of his hand. “Until then, just make sure you don’t go out without me, okay?”

Anwar could’ve laughed. He’d spent almost the past three years under someone else’s supervision, operating on someone else’s schedule, trapped behind literal bars. Yeah, he figured he could handle a couple days under low-key house arrest.

The inside of the apartment was palatial by city standards, which mostly meant that there was enough room for a person to turn around. The apartment door opened onto a small foyer beside a kitchen area, which opened onto a dining table area, which opened onto a space for a television and a pair of couches. And on one of those couches was seated, cross-legged, a woman Anwar almost recognized.

“Where the hell have you been, I’ve been Jesus Christ,” she said, the start of her sentence addressed to Sonny, but the rest of it derailed by seeing Anwar standing right behind him. She put down the book she’d had open on her lap and brought a hand to her pink-painted lips. “I thought you were fucking joking.”

Sonny shrugged as he hung up his car keys on a hook by the door. “I told you.”

“Yeah, but see last comment about thinking you were fucking joking.” The woman stood, folding her arms across her small chest. She had a short blonde pixie cut that accentuated her sharp, elfin features. “Remington’s going to flip.”

“Anwar,” Sonny said, skipping the first and obviously unnecessary leg of introductions, “this is Missy, whom you may know better as Harmonix.”

Oh yes, now Anwar could place her, the Teen Team Justice member with an uncanny gift for sympathetic vibrations. “Hi,” Anwar said. “You, um, gave me a black eye once.”

“Yeah, I know.” But whatever spark of surprise and fury had been fueling her earlier seemed to be dying out as quickly as it had flared up. She exhaled and let her hands fall to her sides. “Fine, whatever. Your funeral. But tell me you’re not bailing on tonight.”

“I’m not bailing on tonight,” Sonny said.

“Because if you do, I’m going to murder someone,” Missy warned, “and since the Policemen’s Ball is, traditionally, full of cops, that will not end well for me.”

“I’m not bailing!” Sonny repeated, laughing as he raked his fingers back through his hair. “Can I get five minutes to get him settled, and then I promise you can have me and let me know about whatever it is they need us to do or award we need to present or whatever, okay?”

Missy gave Anwar an even more skeptical glance than Hector had, which was saying a lot. But she nodded and plopped back down on the couch, then opened her book again. “Fine, go ahead. John Grisham and I will be here whenever you get back.” 

“Thank you.” Sonny blew her a kiss, which she neither acknowledged nor responded to, then set off down the hallway on the other side of the kitchen. Anwar followed, again choosing not to look back. People turned into pillars of salt like that. He’d read about it once in a book.

The guest room would have seemed big to Anwar even before he went to jail; now it looked practically palatial. There was a queen bed in there in an actual bed frame, a full dresser, end tables on either side of the bed, and a shallow closet with mirrored sliding doors. Anwar felt a moment of doubt that any human could singlehandedly take up this much space, much less Anwar himself. Atop the bed were three piles of folded fabric: one stack of towels, a second of t-shirts and underwear, and a third of jeans.

“I didn’t want to go shopping without you,” said Sonny like it was no big deal, like this was an everyday thing for him. “But we were always around the same size, so I figured you could live in hand-me-downs for a day or two.”

Of course, of course Sonny had been so sure that Anwar’d say yes that he’d fixed this all up in advance. “Thanks,” said Anwar, not sure how else to react. Did Sonny want him to make a bigger deal of it, for Anwar to fall over himself in gratitude? Anwar didn’t think so, not with how casual Sonny was being about everything. But sometimes Sonny’s perfect practiced half-smile made it impossible to read the room.

Sonny stepped back out into the apartment’s hallway and pointed a little further down. “Next door down’s the bathroom, and it’s all yours. Door at the end’s my bedroom, and my bathroom’s got a tub, so let me know if you want to soak sometime, it’s cool. Eat anything you find in the fridge. Phone in the kitchen doesn’t call out, just down to the front desk, but tell them what you want and they’ll call it in for you. They can get takeout from, like, anywhere.”

“Sounds great,” said Anwar, overwhelmed almost to the point of shutdown. He was still full from McDonald’s and unable to imagine a scenario in which he would voluntarily interact with another human right now, even through the phone.

“Missy and me are probably going to take off” –Sonny looked at his watch and winced– “pretty quick, yeah. Be back late. Wait up if you want to, don’t if you don’t. Anything else?”

Anwar shook his head meekly. “Thanks,” he repeated. Would a more well-socialized person be better able to handle this conversation? Probably. He set his own small bag down at his feet.

Sonny shot Anwar a thousand-watt grin and a pair of finger-guns. “Sounds great, roommate!” Then he turned off down the hall and started talking to Missy again about whether this was a tuxedo situation or a costume situation or what.

The silence after Sonny left a room always seemed deafening, a brilliant, aching absence. Anwar pressed a hand into the impossibly soft mattress, then decided that he might as well lie down and see how it felt. The second he was horizontal, his body’s natural self-defense system kicked in for a second time in as many hours, and just as he had in the car, Anwar fell asleep.

When he woke a few hours later, the apartment was still. He even peeked his head out into the living room, just to make sure, but Missy and Sonny were nowhere to be seen. Sonny’s keys still hung by the door, but they were useless to Anwar, who’d never even thought about getting his license. He wondered if Sonny knew that.

There were, in many strange ways, some comforting things about prison. The big one to Anwar had always been the schedule. In exchange for his larger freedom, he’d gained the freedom from worrying that he was doing something wrong. The idea of choice had become largely foreign to him. He’d eaten when they’d told him to, gone to sleep when they’d told him to, gone to therapy when they’d told him to–

Shit, right, he’d also taken his medication when they’d told him to. He got the plastic bottles from his bag and lined them up on the closer bedside table. It was lithium o’clock, so he tapped out his dose. They’d warned him that stopping his medication would be considered a violation of his parole. He couldn’t express just how much they didn’t need to worry about that. If he never had another intrusive thought (and his therapist had laughed to hear he called them that), it’d be too soon.

He took a long shower, losing himself in the meditative beating of the water. When he was done, he decided to put away the remaining clothes into drawers, like a civilized person. He got dressed, trying not to think too hard about how the clothes had once touched Sonny’s bare skin. They’d been laundered recently; they didn’t even smell like anything but detergent.

For dinner, he ate some leftover Chinese food over the kitchen sink. He thought about taking it over to the couch and seeing what was on TV, but that seemed like too much. Maybe he could let Sonny show him later what was worth watching. They’d gone to a few movies together in high school, but had just ended up in the backs of the theaters, doing everything but watching.

Instead, he decided to read. Anwar scanned the spines of the books on Sonny’s shelves, noticing several in Spanish. Anwar had taken some elementary Spanish lessons through the prison education system, and there was a Spanish/English dictionary with them, so Anwar decided to distract himself with practice. He chose a Gabriel García Márquez novel with a title he didn’t recognize, then retreated to the bedroom. His pace was laborious, but at least the effort occupied his thoughts. He read until 10:30, then put the books down, turned off the light, and went to sleep.

It was nearly two when the sound of the apartment’s front door shocked him awake. For a moment, he was too disoriented to remember where he was, much less what those noises meant. He got his bearings quickly, but his heart was still pounding. He lay there in the dark, willing himself to breathe deeply. Sonny had said he’d be back late, and he hadn’t said he’d be alone, but he hadn’t not said he’d be alone. Out of sheer politeness, Anwar shut his eyes, feigning a sleep that wasn’t coming.

Through the open bedroom door, Anwar heard the sound of the kitchen tap, followed by the opening and closing of the refrigerator door. There were no accompanying sounds, though, leading Anwar to conclude Sonny was indeed alone. He’d never been entirely sure about Missy and Sonny’s relationship anyway. One-Eyed Jack and Harmonix had been the heartthrobs of the team, the teen dreams who’d made magazine covers when they’d shown up holding hands to one celebrity function or another. But though Sonny had been a ceaseless flirt at school, he’d never said anything about a girlfriend back then, and Anwar, who’d had to pretend he didn’t know Sonny was a cape, had been unable to ask.

After a minute, Sonny’s footsteps started down the hall. Anwar shut his eyes, waiting to hear them pass by. Once Sonny was in his bedroom, Anwar would get up to pee, maybe read a little more before settling in again.

Sonny stopped just outside Anwar’s bedroom. Anwar found himself wondering if Sonny was going to kill him right then. It seemed a strange thought, but not an unreasonable one. Capes didn’t kill people, sure, but they also sometimes didn’t not kill people, and when those people didn’t not die, everybody got sad about how the poor cape had been put in an unavoidable situation. Was that what Sonny had set up here, the perfect unavoidable situation? Was this the justice Anwar deserved?

When Sonny pounced on top of Anwar, though, there was no pain. There was only the feel of Sonny’s body holding him down, Sonny’s mouth on his. Anwar’s instincts kicked in, and he was spreading his legs before he knew it, grabbing at Sonny’s clothes. A tuxedo situation, it had apparently been, though Sonny’s jacket was already gone and his tie hung loose around his throat. Fuck, and he was hard already, Anwar could feel against his thigh, through Sonny’s tuxedo pants and Anwar’s boxers.

Well, that answered several questions Anwar hadn’t been willing to even ask. He moaned as Sonny kicked aside the covers and settled between Anwar’s thighs. Anwar could taste the considerable alcohol on Sonny’s tongue. It tasted like a good excuse.

They’d never had this before. They’d had public bathrooms and darkened corners of parks and movie theaters and, once, a gym locker room. Anwar certainly hadn’t been bringing his cape boyfriend back to his father’s house, and Sonny definitely hadn’t been taking Anwar to whatever dorm where they kept the teen superheroes who’d been emancipated from their parents at sixteen. A bed and a locked door had been unthinkable luxuries.

Sonny’s weight was overpowering without being unyielding, and Anwar knew they both knew Anwar had enough fight in him to throw Sonny off the bed if he wanted to. He didn’t want to. He groaned as Sonny began to kiss down his jaw to his throat, panting as he licked and kissed the skin just above Anwar’s pulse.

After a minute of rutting up against Anwar’s hip, Sonny braced himself and flipped Anwar over so he was face-down against the sheets. He held the back of Anwar’s neck down with one hand while yanking his boxers down with the other. Sonny himself was still all but totally dressed for the evening, while Anwar’s whole middle was exposed to the air. Behind Anwar, Sonny shifted around a bit, fumbling one-handed with something. Of course he could let go and Anwar wouldn’t budge, but that wasn’t the game.

Seconds later, a pair of slicked-up fingers slipped their way into Anwar’s ass, making Anwar cry out into the pillow. He hadn’t been fucked since the last time Sonny had taken him like this, and his body was slow to remember. “Fuck!” Anwar swore, biting his lip. It hurt, but the hurt was good and sharp enough to silence everything else. Before the drugs, there had been only one way to get rid of the voices, and that had been getting absolutely wrecked by Sonny. His therapist had called it both a coping mechanism and self-harm. He’d told her it was the only time he’d ever felt safe.

Sonny’s fingers warmed Anwar up, stretching him with no great gentleness. “You still hungry for it?” Sonny growled near Anwar’s ear.

What could he have said? Yes, of course he was. His whole body was aching, like a long-clean addict offered a hit. They needed to make support groups specifically for Sonny’s dick. “Yes,” Anwar said, or tried to say, though it came out more as a pleading whine. God, he was so pathetic.

“You missed this?” Sonny asked, breathing hard. Anwar could hear the manic grin on his face. “You missed having me inside you?”

There was only one thing that had ever given Anwar a peek at what was behind Sonny’s perpetual coolness, and that was fucking. No wonder Sonny insisted on it like this — bent over something or up against a wall, always with Anwar facing away, always as hidden as a body this close to another could be. “Yes.”

Sonny’s only hesitation came in getting ready. There was the crinkling sound of a condom wrapper, the small shift of the mattress as Sonny braced himself — and then Sonny was pushing his cock inside Anwar, making Anwar gasp and whimper. Once upon a time, maybe, Anwar had been composed to keep his reactions to a cool, collected minimum. Today, though, had left everything inside him teetering on the precipice, and feeling Sonny grab his hips and fill him pushed him over that edge. He could feel tears starting to trickle from the corners of his eyes, not because it hurt, but because it felt so good. It had been so long since someone had cared about him enough to cause pain that wasn’t just pain.

“Fuck, I missed your ass,” Sonny groaned. He leaned over Anwar, fucking him hard straight into the mattress. “Nobody loves this like you do.”

That was true, or so Anwar had been given the impression. Real men didn’t get fucked up the ass. Anwar craved it. It made him come even if he wasn’t touching his dick, even if he wasn’t completely hard himself. It short-circuited all resistance and got him what he wanted.

Sonny smacked his ass then, something he’d never done before. The sharpness made Anwar cry out. He shook as he grabbed at the sheets, the pillows, anything to hold onto. Something was making a sound every time Sonny bottomed out inside of him. That something was Anwar. He could feel the heavy weight of Sonny’s balls thudding him every time Sonny thrust in, the warm sting against his skin every time Sonny slapped his ass.

Of course Anwar came first, because he always did. He moaned incoherently as he shot straight onto the bed, coming almost with the force of a seizure. Everything that had been knotted up inside him seemed to come untethered all at once, and it all escaped right through his dick. He was saying things, but they weren’t words, and when they were, they were all just variations on fuck. He collapsed back against the bed, keeping his ass up only as much as Sonny held it there.

Sonny fucked him for a little while longer like that, just grunting and rutting as Anwar fell into an almost meditative state. It was weirdly almost like getting a massage, that deep, rhythmic pressure as his muscles slowly relaxed. He could have kept this up for days. His father had told him once he’d make a good whore. Funnily enough, it’d been meant as an insult.

Somewhere between three minutes and three hours later, Sonny pressed in deep and grunted hard. Anwar smiled as Sonny leaned over him, panting. He could feel the cool buttons of Sonny’s shirt dot against his back, the rumpled fabric of Sonny’s tuxedo pants bunch against the backs of his thighs. Yeah, he’d missed this, all right. There’d been too many late nights wondering why not just to end it all, when the only reason he’d had to go on living had been Sonny’s cock, and that had been enough. He’d admitted that once to his therapist, and bless her professional training, she hadn’t laughed in his gay face.

When Sonny at last pulled out of Anwar, Anwar rolled over with him, ready to kiss him, to tell him how much it meant that even after so long, Sonny still wanted him. But Sonny wasn’t there. He was already up off the edge of the bed, standing in his rumpled suit as he dealt with the condom. He was turned away so that Anwar could only see the barest curve of his jaw in the dark, silhouetted by the faint hall light. Sonny stood there for several seconds, silent and motionless. Anwar held his breath, wondering what came next, holding his words on the tip of his tongue.

Then Sonny turned and half-walked, half-staggered out of the bedroom. After a short pause, Anwar heard the door to Sonny’s own bedroom open, then close behind him. Anwar thought of the first time the cell door had shut with him on the wrong side of it, the terrible finality of that metal-on-metal sound, letting him know with no uncertainty just where he belonged. And what he deserved.

 

~*~

 

“You should come with me to Headquarters today,” Sonny said over cereal a few days later.

They hadn’t talked about that first night, because of course they hadn’t. Anwar was taking his cues from Sonny on it, and Sonny was acting like it didn’t even happen. Maybe it had been a one-off, something for old times’ sake. Maybe he really had been that drunk. There was no way to know without bringing it up, and Anwar was not going to bring it up.

Instead, he pored over the Help Wanted section of the paper, squinting at the tiny print columns. Sonny didn’t really need glasses, but maybe Anwar did. “Very funny,” he said, pausing over a clerical job. He could file, sure. He knew the alphabet.

“I’m serious.” Sonny pointed at Anwar with his spoon. “We could talk to Remington.”

From what Anwar had put together, Remington was the manager of Teen Team Justice in the way that baseball teams had managers: in charge of personnel, not gameplay. “I thought you were going to,” Anwar said.

Sonny shrugged. “And I’m still going to. But you could be there. And you’d be a big hit with the new team members.”

Anwar snorted and turned the newspaper page. “Big hit like a new punching bag?”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Sonny said, his voice a little softer.

Sonny wasn’t caping much himself these days — not that crime had evaporated, but that fighting it on a team was a young person’s game. And by that, they meant young; One-Eyed Jack had made his debut at the tender age of thirteen. He and Anwar were both twenty-two now, which was geriatric by cape standards. There was no Non-Teen Team Justice, after all. Once a superhero got old enough to drink, one of three things had probably happened. One, they’d gotten more into consulting and training, with the occasional guest appearance, like Sonny. Two, they’d gone solo, scraping together sponsorships and developing new identities when their old teams held the copyrights to their old names and costumes. Three, they’d gotten out of the game entirely and settled into their civilian identities, with just the occasional check-up from the authorities to make sure they were still coloring inside the lines.

Or, Anwar supposed, there was a fourth option: They were dead. “Pass,” Anwar said, circling an ad. “How can you tell if somewhere hires felons?”

“You’re not, though,” Sonny said.

“Yeah, I am.” Anwar frowned at Sonny, trying to tell if Sonny was making fun of him. But when Sonny’s expression appeared genuinely confused, Anwar continued: “Cape-Involved Crimes. Doesn’t matter if you or anyone else convinced them to try me as a juvenile. If you guys show up, that shit stays on your record no matter what.”

“Oh.” Sonny pressed his lips together — but of course any worry evaporated seconds later into a confident smile. “Just list me as one of your references!”

“Sonny Moreno, or One-Eyed Jack?”

“Jack’s got your back!” Sonny said, laughing as he recited one of his early catchphrases. There’d been bright posters in Anwar’s middle schools with that phrase and Jack’s cartoon likeness on it, encouraging kids to tell a teacher or a parent if they saw someone doing something wrong. “I’m serious, though. I’ll give you the Director for Talent Coordination’s card to add to your application. She’ll put through anyone who calls about you.”

The sad thing was, it was probably a great idea. “Maybe.” Anwar sighed as he worked his way down the column of ads. At least he’d been able to get his GED in prison, which somewhat mitigated the problem of getting arrested before completing his senior year.

“You don’t have to, you know.” Sonny leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, then his chin atop his folded hands.

“Have to what?”

“Get a shit job. Unless you really want to,” Sonny added. “But it’s not like you really need to. You don’t need to pay rent. I don’t pay rent. I’ve got you covered here, no problem. What about going to college?”

Anwar felt his eyebrows elevate into his hairline. “You didn’t go to college.”

“Yeah, well, I was busy,” Sonny said. “You know, you’d be a good lawyer. I always thought you’d be a good lawyer.”

Nothing about Anwar’s entire experience with the criminal justice system had led him to believe that he’d be a good lawyer, but he wasn’t going to argue that point over breakfast. “Maybe,” Anwar said again, in a way that meant no.

“Or a psychiatrist! I bet you’d be a great psychiatrist.”

Anwar was going to use every muscle in his body to keep Sonny from knowing he’d struck a nerve. He stared at the paper, pretending to be reading, pretending like he wasn’t sitting in court, hearing the prosecutor say weaponized psychosis or criminally insane or can read your mind in his most threatening voice. That last one was something of an exaggeration, Anwar thought. He’d never read anything from someone else’s mind. It was just that sometimes other people’s thoughts got so loud.

But the drugs were like earplugs, and he didn’t hear that sort of thing anymore, thank fuck. “Maybe I’ll just go with you to Cape School,” Anwar muttered.

Sonny’s whole face lit up, driving right past the sarcasm of the statement into sincerity. “That’d be great,” Sonny said, clapping his hands together. “You’d be an incredibly popular character. People love a redemption arc. And that’s the new edgy thing, not bothering with secret identities. Ever since Hayashi Hondo on the Tokyo team announced he was the White Wind, more people have been considering it.”

Hondo had been running for public office at the time, and he’d been crushed in a building collapse three months later, so Anwar didn’t know if that was the best example. “No.”

“Think about it.” Sonny’s grin widened. “Maybe we can design a character who’s Jack’s counterpart. We can go out together. Be a double act.”

Yes, that was exactly what Anwar wanted — a life of public appearances in combat spandex, standing next to Sonny and his squeaky-clean cape friends, smiling and waving and telling the kids to just say no to drugs. “What’s my superpower now?” asked Anwar. “Being so unlucky that I cancel you out?”

Sonny laughed harder than the quip deserved. “Just think about it, okay?” he said, pushing away from the table to take his empty bowl to the sink. “Anyway, if you’re not coming with, I’ve still got to go. I’ll get things sorted with Remington, get your prints put into the door lock system. Shouldn’t be too hard, they’re on file.”

Of course they were. “Thanks.”

“Let’s go shopping and do lunch Thursday. My housekeeper comes to clean then, so we should give her some space.”

“Okay.” Who’d they get to clean places like these, ex-CIA?

Sonny folded his arms across his chest. “You want anything while I’m out?”

Anwar wanted to say no; he wanted to need nothing and no one. But no matter what he wanted, there were things that needed settling earlier than later. “Is there a good pharmacy nearby?”

“You need something?”

“Not yet,” Anwar said, putting down the paper for a minute. “But I will in about a month, so I have to transfer my prescription somewhere.” And, he didn’t add, said pharmacist would probably want to call and triple-check with the prescribing physician that, yes, that was the correct dose.

“Front desk,” Sonny said, pointing to the phone. “Trust me, there’s nothing you can ask the people there that they haven’t heard before. Anyway, I’ve got to finish getting ready. You decide what’s for dinner, okay? We’ll order when I get back.” With a grin, Sonny set off for his bedroom, and when he got there, closed the door behind him. Anwar winced despite himself.

Once Sonny had left the apartment, Anwar migrated over to the couch. He turned on the television, then hit the mute button right away. They’d watched some old movies together over the weekend, seated on opposite ends of the couch with a bowl of chips or popcorn settled in the neutral zone between them, but television was a different matter entirely. At least muting it dulled the edge.

He wandered through the channels, dodging news in favor of game shows, whose bright lights and happy contestants brought a comforting level of cheer to the room. Maybe it was silly, but he so desperately wanted the reminder that he wasn’t in prison anymore. The quiet didn’t bother him, but he’d found his anxiety spiking every time a place got too still. The game show host and his smiling beauty-queen assistants were good companions for a weary loner who didn’t want to be too alone.

Sonny had procured for him a stack of the previous week’s newspapers, so Anwar pored over their classifieds sections as the TV flickered silently in the background. If he wanted to sell Avon or other miracle supplements, he now had a dozen leads. One of his foster moms had sold Avon; she’d been the type to see a get-rich-quick scheme in just about everything, including fostering children. Anwar and the others had left her care about the time she’d realized her miscalculation. Besides, Anwar didn’t think he had a salesman’s touch to him.

Many of the postings asked for skills Anwar just didn’t have: home health aides, electricians, cooks, long-haul truckers. He supposed he could train up to them, but that was little help in the short term. A few restaurants were looking for waiters, but the “experience preferred” gave him pause. And none of the short postings mentioned what they thought of criminal records from job-seekers.

He didn’t really want a job, and Sonny was right, he didn’t really need one either. So what was he doing?

As the hour turned over, the game show changed, this to a team-based one with the word Classic! beneath its logo. Its status as a rerun was confirmed when the first team ran out onstage: five teenagers in bright costumes, led by a familiar masked face.

Sonny couldn’t have been more than sixteen when this was recorded, though Anwar wasn’t one of those cape fans who could tell the year from nuances in the costume. His face looked so young, rounder and softer than it had wound up being. By the time Anwar had met him a year or so later, the sharp lines of his jaw had already begun to settle in. It was almost impossible now to think about how young they’d been then.

Silently, the introductory graphics blazed across the screen. One-Eyed Jack, the text announced, as though there might be someone in America who didn’t know who he was. As the host chatted with him, two informative blurbs appeared in the bottom third of the screen: Can alter probability for favorable outcomes! and The monitor over his left eye provides useful tactical information (but has been turned off for this show!).

Harmonix was next — or Missy, as he supposed he knew her now. Her costume included a signature black bob colored with various rainbow streaks, which Anwar was surprised to realize must have been a wig all along. She grinned brightly and waved, then touched the clunky headphones resting around her neck as the graphic changed to Amplifies sound waves for destructive force! Anwar had shown up to his arraignment with a bright purple circle around his right eye, thanks to her exploding a brick wall in his face. Even at the time, he’d mostly just been impressed.

She was followed by close-ups on three more grinning team members: Solara (Channels solar energy into fiery blasts!), Fathom (Gills allow him to breathe underwater!), and Miss Mercury (Can accelerate faster than a cheetah!). That last one stung a bit, as Miss Mercury had been killed during a standoff against some bank robber probably not long after this had finished filming. Rumor had it she’d actually been shot by one of the officers on scene, not the guy who eventually went down for it. Anwar would’ve believed it either way.

This episode seemed to be some kind of charity setup, Teen Team Justice versus a lineup of actual Hudson City cops twice their ages, with all the winnings going to … some cop thing, Anwar was sure. He exhaled through pursed lips as the show cut to a commercial break, where the first ad was one for the Teen Team Justice Store in Century Square. Unlike the episode, though, this commercial was contemporary, as was the Teen Team Justice it portrayed. Fathom alone was still there, now the oldest member of the lineup instead of the youngest. Seven other costumed teens surrounded him in their various outfits and poses, their likenesses beaming from t-shirts and mugs. Jack’s face still appeared here and there, a testament to his popularity during his time on the team. But he and his cohorts were, by and large, yesterday’s news.

When Anwar had been younger, of course it had made sense for all the superheroes to be teenagers — after all, to a child, teenagers appear impossibly old. When he’d reached the teen stage himself, he’d realized it was more of a marketing gimmick, something to keep the youth interested and the adults … well. Even so, Anwar had often thought it had seemed wasteful. After all, it wasn’t as though their powers evaporated when they reached legal adulthood. Why couldn’t they keep fighting crime into their twenties and beyond?

Prison, however, had given him time enough to reflect on a third fact: Teenagers could be controlled. They could be groomed with what looked like loving care, told that they were special and that this was just how special people lived. They could be taught that love and compliance were mutual necessities. And they could be made to both endure and commit atrocities.

Anwar realized he’d clutched the newspaper so hard in his hand that he’d torn a chunk from its side. Shit, he’d been thinking about his father again.

He’d thought this would be okay. He’d been wrong. Prison was fine, in a way, because the nothingness in prison was what was supposed to be happening anyway. The nothingness out here felt like a violation. He needed something to do or he’d start clawing at the walls like a bored hamster. If not a job, then a hobby. Or a new book. Or maybe he should go back to school. He could do anything he wanted now, after all.

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He didn’t know what he wanted, because he barely knew who he was. Small wonder most cape-caught criminals went right back to it as soon as they got set loose from prison. Maybe it wasn’t much, being a villain with a funny costume and a stupid name, but it was better than being nothing.

 

~*~

 

Anwar’s palms were drenched in sweat as the hostess led them beneath ivy-covered arches to their table. Places like this were way too fucking fancy. Any minute now, some kind of alarm would go off, letting everyone know they had an intruder in their midst, a pretender who’d grown up on free school lunches and store-brand cola, who’d actually developed a taste for shitty prison instant potatoes.

Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the hostess showed them a table right near the flower-covered balcony railing, where two women were waiting. One was Missy, looking radiant in a white ruffled blouse; the other was a petite, olive-skinned woman Anwar didn’t recognize. They stood as Anwar and Sonny arrived, and Sonny greeted them both with kisses on each cheek. Missy rolled her eyes, but it was clear from her expression that she found it sweet. The other woman didn’t even bother hiding how charmed she was. “Ladies,” he said with a grin, “this is Anwar. Anwar, you remember Missy, and this is Diamanda.”

“Hi,” Anwar said, not sure what the kissing protocol was when it came to his turn. He was relieved when the women sat again, and he took his cue from that.

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Diamanda said, folding her well-manicured hands together. This close, Anwar could see that she was older than they were, the fine lines around her eyes putting her maybe somewhere in her thirties. She spoke with some Mediterranean accent he couldn’t place. “Sonny’s told me so much about you.”

Was it rude to point out that Sonny hadn’t mentioned her before? “Oh,” Anwar said, reaching for his water glass just for something to do. He had no idea why on earth he’d agreed to the lunch offer. His first restaurant experience since leaving prison — if one didn’t count McDonald’s — and he was winding up sweating through fine dining in a new suit that felt too big and too small all at once. This was no one’s idea of a good time.

Diamanda just laughed at that. “Nothing that could shock me, darling.” She gave him a wink. “After all, you and I used to play for, shall we say … similar sides.”

Mercifully, Missy took pity on what must have been Anwar’s obvious confusion. “You’ve heard of the Diamond Djinn, yes?”

Indeed, he had. He couldn’t imagine many people hadn’t: one of the most notorious jewel thieves of the last decade, who’d famously gone straight. Last he’d heard, she was working with rich clients to make sure thieves couldn’t do to them what she’d done to others. Of course, most thieves did not have the colossal levels of persuasion she possessed. “Oh,” Anwar managed. He managed not to say that she’d seemed taller on television.

A middle-aged waiter in a crisp-pressed apron arrived then, greeting them all and reciting the specials, which went in one of Anwar’s ears and completely out the other. He wrung his cloth napkin in his lap, hoping he wouldn’t twist it hard enough to tear. It was embarrassing, how easy it was to forget simple things like how restaurants worked. A horn honked from the street far below and Anwar nearly jumped out of his skin.

Then, with barely a shift in his posture, Sonny’s hand was on Anwar’s thigh, just beneath the table and hidden from view. There was nothing salacious or inappropriate to the touch — it was a steady, heavy pressure, the touch someone might use to calm a skittish animal. Anwar supposed that was what he was, after all. Sonny didn’t even look at him, just kept smiling at the waiter as he held onto Anwar like an anchor. And little by little, Anwar started to relax.

“Can I start you with anything from the bar?” asked the waiter at last.

Both Missy and Sonny ordered cocktails, and Diamanda asked for a glass of champagne. But Anwar barely managed to get out, “Just water.”

“You sure?” asked Sonny, his hand steady.

“Yeah,” Anwar said, nodding. As the waiter left, there was a pause that seemed to invite greater explanation, so Anwar continued, “I don’t … drink.”

“Oh, very wise,” Diamanda said, giving Anwar a wink. “Keeps his head about him. You said he was smart.”

Had Sonny said that? It seemed bizarre to think that Sonny talked about Anwar at all in his absence, much less positively. Anwar didn’t much think of himself as the kind of person worth talking about when he wasn’t around. This was an impression reinforced by how he’d literally spent most of his adolescence intermittently able to hear what other people were thinking, and it had never seemed to be about him. At least, not in any good way.

Conversation then turned to the menu, which got Missy and Diamanda chatting about a mutual friend of theirs. As the ladies were engrossed in conversation, Sonny turned to Anwar, withdrawing his touch as casually as if their bodies had never made contact in the first place. “What are you getting?”

Even thinking about the menu was making Anwar’s head hurt. “What are you getting?”

“Roast beef.”

“Sure, that sounds good,” Anwar said, grateful Sonny had picked something both worth eating and that he didn’t need translated from French.

Sonny smiled, but he didn’t point the obvious mimicry. Instead, he leaned back and let his arm rest along the back of Anwar’s chair, in the friendly kind of way good friends did. They weren’t touching, but Anwar could still feel how close Sonny was to him. “Far cry from cafeteria food, huh?” Sonny said with a grin.

Anwar nodded, because Sonny wasn’t wrong. What Anwar didn’t say, though, was that he would have taken cafeteria food anyday, if they could somehow be transported back to what they’d had all those years ago, the little world of two they’d built from their mutual solitude and secrecy. He’d eat shitty cardboard pizza every day for the rest of his life if it meant that afterward he could sneak off somewhere he could close his mouth around Sonny’s dick and not have to think about any of it anymore.

Once they’d ordered, Diamanda beamed across the table at Anwar. No one would question how this woman could seduce jewels from the unwitting. “Now, your father,” she began, cupping her chin in her hand. “Was he the one with the trained dolphins?”

In a way, it was a relief to have someone willing to just talk about it, instead of pretending it wasn’t the only thing most people knew about him. “That was Count Neptune,” Anwar said, pretending to be very interested in straightening his place setting, like this was the most casual conversation two near-strangers could have. “My father was the Sinister Sultan.” Ibrahim had hated the moniker, too, but when the press had found out his surname was Sultana, it had been near-inevitable.

“Who was going to assassinate all those politicians, yes?” Diamanda asked, clearly knowing the answer already.

Anwar nodded. “Blackmail first, and then some kidnapping. But then, yes. That would have been next.”

Diamanda’s pretty painted lips curved in a smile. “And were you the secret weapon, they say,” she purred, her fingers perched on the stem of her champagne flute. “Psionics are the rarest of our kind, you know.”

“I’m not–” Anwar started, then stopped, because that wasn’t right. He took a quiet, steadying breath and tried again: “I don’t do that anymore.” Don’t, not can’t, as though it were a matter of conscious restraint and not staggering doses of psychiatric medication. 

That made Diamanda laugh loud enough that Anwar saw people from nearby tables glance over, wondering just what was so funny. “Of course, darling,” she said, reaching across the table to pat his hand. “The cat-and-mouse game is fun, but so exhausting. And the pleasure in the chase can be in getting caught.”

Anwar forced a small smile he hoped conceded the argument. Missy nudged Diamanda’s shoulder, then looked at Anwar. “You’ll have to excuse Diamanda,” Missy said. “She is very rich and has forgotten how to have a polite conversation.”

“If I ever knew.” Diamanda winked. Anwar wondered if she was medicated too, if the conditions of their freedom looked somewhat the same. She was charming, to be sure. But the Diamond Djinn, who famously carried no weapons, still had a body count of security guards and even a few bystanders she’d talked into unsafe situations as she got away. He couldn’t imagine the woman in front of him giving him orders to lock himself in an airtight safe, while he felt compelled to obey. Then again, Anwar supposed the men who’d wound up there hadn’t imagined it either.

Anwar had never wanted to kill anyone — and, to that matter, Diamanda probably hadn’t either. She’d just wanted to get away, and a few deaths had happened to be a necessary component to those escapes. But Anwar also hadn’t actually outright killed anyone. He’d just passed on the information — the codes to their alarm systems, the passwords to their computers, the numbers of their hotel rooms — to his father, who’d acted upon it. It was a legal distinction, not a moral one. Anwar didn’t know if it was better or worse that he’d never know if his having heard a person’s bank account number actually connected to having read their obituary two weeks later.

Most parents who’d seen the signs of early-onset schizophrenia would have spirited their child to a doctor. Of course, most parents weren’t the type of foster parents who so generously took in adolescents on the cusp of puberty, watching like hawks for any sign of superhuman ability. Those lucky enough to detect powers usually went straight to their local cape talent agency, convinced they’d be set for life. If the couple taking care of Anwar when he’d turned twelve had only been a normal amount of greedy, he’d probably have been a Teen Team Justice member too. Instead, when they’d realized the voices he was hearing were real, their ambitions and connections had reached far deeper underground.

It was darkly funny to Anwar that he still had no idea whether or not Ibrahim Sultana was his real father. The paternity test had said so, which had been enough weight to guarantee the adoption — after all, how many children in the system were miraculously found and wanted by their biological parents? But he’d seen also Ibrahim spend more time forging documents of less importance. They looked enough alike, and records were spotty about Anwar’s birth mother anyway, so no one had questioned the validity of the connection in the face of a happy little miracle, a family reunited.

The rest of the meal’s talk happened among Sonny, Missy, and Diamanda, with Anwar largely trying to become invisible. He didn’t sit there like a stone, though — no, absolute non-participation was too conspicuous. Instead, he used a trick he’d learned long before prison, back in his foster care days, of chuckling and nodding politely yet unobtrusively as others spoke. If he could make them feel just enough like he was a part of the conversation, no one would notice he wasn’t. Sonny didn’t even touch him again, not even by accident. That meant he must be faking it well.

At least the roast beef was good, even if he wasn’t even hungry enough for half of it.

Near the end of the meal, Missy’s pager went off. She looked at it, frowned, and took Sonny with her as she went off to find a phone. Anwar was dismayed to find that this left him alone with Diamanda — not that he didn’t like her, but one could not vanish from a two-person interaction. Diamanda, however, seemed pleased to have the new boy to herself. “It’s strange, isn’t it?” She gestured to their surroundings. “Going from all walls to everything but.”

Anwar didn’t know how much time she’d spent behind bars, but the way she spoke sounded like she knew. “Still weird,” he admitted.

“Here’s the truth, darling: It never won’t be.” Diamanda shook her head as she traced the rim of her champagne flute with a fingertip. “We’ll never fit. It’s a good world and we’re bad people.”

Anwar couldn’t argue that point. “But you seem fine.”

Diamanda giggled at that, and Anwar could at last see a shadow to her smile, the one that had disappeared in the sunshine of the capes’ presence. He wondered how much she still thought about it, if her new marketable clean-cut life was just the methadone to her real addiction. “I’ve made it work,” Diamanda said. “There are ways. New masks.”

“I never–” Anwar gestured to the top half of his face. “Not a real one. There wasn’t really a reason.”

“Metaphorically.” Diamanda winked. “We’re all wearing one right now. Even you.”

The thing was, Anwar didn’t think that was true. By now, he was too tired for artifice. He might be the only person in the whole restaurant, in the whole city, wearing his real face. Still, he nodded because he didn’t want to argue the point. “I guess.”

“At least you’ve found yourself in good company,” Diamanda said, glancing at the empty chair next to Anwar. “A cape who wants to make you his personal pet project. That’s a lucky break for you.”

Anwar could hear his heartbeat thudding in his own ears. “Um,” he said eloquently.

“Don’t underestimate what that can get you. Capes open doors. And more importantly, proximity to them keeps the law off your back.” Diamanda laughed. “And they’re all freaks in bed.”

It was good Anwar hadn’t actually been drinking when she said that, because he still managed nearly to spit-take with an empty mouth. “Sorry, what?”

Diamanda’s smirk widened. “Absolute fantastic fucks. I’ve never met a vanilla cape in my whole life. A lot like being tied down. And stamina like you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost a shame they snip them.”

“Snip?”

Diamanda’s fingers made a scissor-cutting motion. “No super-babies, that’s the law. Also, no paternity suits against the teams, and no knocked-up super-girls having to take a convenient nine-month leave of absence. You can’t hide anything in those costumes. Of course, that just makes them even freakier. Dorms full of gorgeous, athletic teenagers on permanent birth control? What do you think happens in there?”

Anwar became aware he was digging his fingernails into his palms. Some stupid, romantic, utterly naive part of him had always chosen to believe that he and Sonny were each other’s only partners, that everything they’d done together had been for the first time for both of them. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he said, his affect flat.

“So I hope he’s giving it to you good,” Diamanda said, cackling as Anwar’s eyes went wide. “Darling, I’m not the general public, I’m hardly scandalized by Sonny’s tastes. Honestly, good for him. Maybe now you’re around, they’ll move on from trying to pretend like he’s involved with Missy. It’s a shame to string along a will-they-won’t-they when the answer is so clearly won’t.”

The way she talked about it all made Anwar’s head spin, like they were characters in a TV show instead of real-life people who’d just been sitting with them. “We’re not–” Anwar held his breath for a slow three-count. “I mean. Okay. We used to. Before. But not anymore.”

“Oh.” Diamanda’s brow furrowed. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Anwar said, figuring that a drunken fuck that Sonny couldn’t even look him in the eye after didn’t count. Not really. “He’s just … helping me out.”

The noise Diamanda made was comically skeptical. “Your decision not to, then?”

“It’s not — nobody’s decision.” Anwar suddenly found staring at the tablecloth extremely compelling. Why were tears pricking at the corners of his eyes? This was stupid and he hated it. “We’re just not.”

Something about Diamanda’s bearing softened then, weathered by something between sympathy and pity. She reached across the table for him, and without thinking, Anwar reached back, putting his hand in hers. Her fingers were chilly, despite the warm day, but as she wrapped them around Anwar’s hand, he could feel the sheer power in them. The persuasion had helped her life of crime, but the other skills had been all her own. “It’s going to be all right,” she said.

Anwar raised his gaze to hers as he gave voice to the fear that had been running through him ever since stepping out of the prison doors: “I don’t think it will.”

“What are you two villains plotting?” laughed Missy, who’d snuck up on them, with Sonny a step behind her.

Anwar jumped and tried to pull his hand back, but Diamanda held him in place, unashamed of the contact. “I was promising him a tour of Istanbul,” Diamanda lied with a smile on her lips. “One of my favorite cities, made all the better with a handsome man on my arm.”

Despite never having left the country before, to say nothing of how the terms of his parole certainly wouldn’t allow it now, Anwar nodded. “It sounds nice,” he managed. To his either relief or disappointment, Diamanda gave his hand one more squeeze before releasing him. Anwar looked to Sonny, but Sonny’s face was fixed in its practiced smile. Anything could have been hiding underneath.

 

~*~

 

“You didn’t have to come with me,” Anwar said for maybe the thousandth time.

“I know,” Sonny said, and since they were already standing in front of the building, Anwar’s objections were beyond moot. 

Anwar didn’t bring up the fact that he’d been here before. He didn’t have to. Everybody who was anybody in the crime world had at one time or another walked through the doors of Sergei Ivanović’s Hudson City Motors, whether working underhanded business or just getting their cars fixed. It was an actual working garage, which was how it had always kept its doors open in the middle of the most famous cape city in the world. And if sometimes certain people found themselves waiting in the lobby at the same time as other certain people, well, that meant nothing at all, did it?

Anwar had seen its three-line help wanted ad in the paper, and he knew it didn’t mind a criminal element. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was better than nothing.

This early on a Tuesday morning, the waiting room was empty, and there was only one person behind the counter: a rough-looking middle-aged man with buzzed hair. He casually glanced up as Sonny and Anwar walked in his door, then did a legitimate double-take. “Morning,” the man said, almost as a warning.

For a moment, Anwar thought Sonny might’ve been made. But no, the man was staring right at Anwar himself, and there was no mistaking the set to his jaw. “Hi,” Anwar said, trying to remember how professional social interactions worked. “I’m Anwar. I called yesterday about the ad for a clerk.”

“You said you were Anwar,” the man said with a wry little smile. He folded his arms across his chest; heavy tattoos covered his forearms and disappeared beneath the rolled-up sleeves of his workshirt, only to pop up again just beneath his collar. “You didn’t say you were Anwar Sultana.”

Well, this man had him at a disadvantage. “It’s–” Anwar cleared his throat. “It’s just Anwar Smith now.” To that point, it had always been. It hadn’t been until his arraignment that Anwar himself had learned that while the adoption had been legal, the name change hadn’t. As with so many other things, Ibrahim Sultana had simply said it, and everyone else had taken him at his word. “Where’s Mr. Ivanović?”

“Same place your father is,” the man said. “For similar reasons.”

“Great,” Sonny said, grabbing Anwar’s elbow and tugging him toward the door. “Thanks for your time, we’ll be going now–“

Anwar held his ground, though he didn’t hurry to extract himself from Sonny’s grip either. “I’m not my father,” Anwar said. “I’m just looking for a real job. Above the table. Paperwork, taxes.” Were those part of real jobs? Anwar didn’t know; he’d never had one. 

The man smirked and ran his fingers across his short black hair, which was shot through with grey. He was handsome, though he had the gruff countenance of a man who’d had a hard life. “I’m Sergei’s cousin, Milos. And I run a clean shop, in and out. I’m not courting trouble.”

The relief Anwar felt was palpable. “Neither am I,” he said, giving Sonny a pointed glare. To his credit, Sonny backed off a little, though he didn’t let his guard down. Clearly, Sonny had imagined that Anwar would be walking back into some great den of sin, ready to throw himself bodily back into the criminal underworld. Was he actually disappointed to find that he didn’t have to sweep in to save the day?

“What my cousin used to allow in here, I don’t.”

“Okay.” Anwar nodded.

“So if you think this would be an easy way back in–“

“I’m done with that life,” said Anwar, holding up his empty hands. “I never wanted it in the first place. Now I’m just trying to make my way.”

Milos looked Anwar up and down with a considering smile, a process long and intense enough that Anwar felt Sonny’s grip tighten on his arm. “You know,” said Milos after a full minute, his voice softened by sympathy, “I did some time in lockup too, when I was a kid.”

Anwar could feel a flutter of hope start to pound in his chest. Was this what it was like to be Sonny, to have good things happen in unexpected places? Was he somehow feeding off that just by having Sonny here? “Yeah?”

Milos nodded. “Fortunately for me, I was a nobody that nobody gave a shit about. You, though, you’re not exactly the most anonymous ex-con, are you?”

That was a fair statement, considering how quickly he’d been recognized by Milos — a man who, to Anwar’s recollection, he’d never met before today. He could follow Milos’ train of thought: If a certain bad element saw Anwar behind the register, they might get the wrong idea about the shop, and that wrong idea could quickly become trouble indeed for Milos. “Guess not,” Anwar said. He could feel the heat of Sonny’s hand radiating through his shirt. Under other circumstances, it might almost have been sweet how Sonny wasn’t letting go.

Letting out a heavy breath through pursed lips, Milos shrugged. “How are you with numbers?”

The question caught Anwar off-guard. “Like … emotionally?”

That actually scored a laugh from Milos, a quiet little bark of actual amusement. “I was thinking adding them,” Milos said, favoring Anwar with a charmingly lopsided smile, “but sure, that too.”

“I can add,” Anwar promised. Math had never been his strongest subject, but he’d never been offered wages for it either. Maybe all he’d ever needed was the right motivation.

“Sergei cooked the books.” Milos jerked his thumb over his shoulder, toward what Anwar knew was the back room. He’d never been allowed in there before, but he’d seen his father disappear back there from time to time, all the while Anwar sat in the waiting room and pretended to read while he listened through the walls. “Un-cooking them has been a challenge. Come in mornings, when it’s quiet, like now. Work in the back. Seven bucks an hour. You work, I pay you. You don’t, I don’t.”

Before Anwar could respond in the affirmative, Sonny stepped up close behind him. “He’ll think it over,” Sonny said.

Milos’ response then was so rapid and sharp, it was over before Anwar even realized the words had been in Spanish. He hadn’t flipped over the language part of his brain fast enough to catch their meaning. Sonny, however, shrank back an inch. As though he hadn’t even noticed, Milos extended his hand to Anwar. “Sure, think it over,” he said, gripping Anwar’s hand in a tight shake. His hand was warm and strong, and this close, Anwar could smell a pleasant mix of clean sweat and motor oil hanging around Milos. “You know my number.”

Back on the street, Sonny was clearly sulking. “What’s your problem?” Anwar asked as they made their way the few blocks to the subway station. The city was awake now, bustling with commuters and vendors and kids on their way to school. They moved their way through the crowds unnoticed, looking maybe like a pair of college students headed to class uptown.

“He’s a creep,” Sonny said, his hands buried in his pockets.

Anwar rolled his eyes. “He’s not a creep.” Sonny would just have to trust him that Anwar had met enough creeps in his life to know. “What’d he say to you?”

Sonny snorted. “Nothing.”

“Come on.”

Nothing.” Sonny glowered back in the garage’s direction even though they were well out of sight now. “Just … you know, ‘back off’. Which is a creep thing to say,” Sonny added.

Anwar suspected there’d been implications to it far beyond that, but Sonny was hardly in a giving mood, so Anwar let it go. They followed the crowd down into the subway station, waiting by the turnstiles to drop their tokens in. The warmth from all the bodies made drops of sweat roll down Anwar’s brow. They jostled their way together to the platform, waiting for the rush of air that would herald an oncoming train. A busker in the center played some pop tune on an oboe, accompanied by a tinny backing track from a boombox. The tracks reeked of garbage and urine in the early morning heat. Somebody had spray-painted All Capes Are Bastards across the station name on the far wall. Anwar had missed all this.

He felt fingers brush against his, and before his instinct could pull away from the touch, Sonny had slipped his hand into Anwar’s, interlacing their fingers. Anwar’s heart jumped into his throat — they were in public, people could see them! — but Sonny just looked ahead into the darkness beyond the platform’s edge, casual as he ever was. Anwar found himself gripping back tight.

That had been one of their unspoken rules, back in high school: nothing physical in public. They’d barely allowed themselves in arm’s reach of one another, sitting on opposite sides of cafeteria tables, occupying desks a row apart. The price of discovery had been too high, for that secret and for so many others. They’d needed to wait for darkness and closed doors to make contact.

But here Sonny was, taking Anwar’s hand on a crowded subway platform like he didn’t care who saw. Not that anyone else was looking, of course — the sight of two men like this wasn’t unheard-of in the city, and Hudson City residents were famous for minding their own business. They could have been, though.

Once the train arrived, the two of them wound up tucked against the far doors of the car. The commuters that rushed in pressed everyone tight, until Anwar could barely reach the bar to hold on. Wool suits and briefcases packed in around them, turning up the summer heat to sauna temperatures. Just before the closing-doors announcement sounded, Sonny turned where he stood and let himself be crushed against Anwar’s side, steadying himself with a hand flat on Anwar’s belly. The indifferent businesspeople around them paid this no mind.

Cautiously, Anwar took his free hand and put it on the small of Sonny’s back. Sonny leaned in and made a pleased little noise that barely carried over the clacking roar of the train. They were closer now than even the cramped conditions of the car dictated. Anwar could feel Sonny’s grip against his stomach, wrinkling the nice shirt he’d worn for what hadn’t turned out to be much of an interview. Well, this challenged Anwar’s theory that Sonny had only fucked him out of some drunk nostalgia. Maybe Sonny had just developed a taste for chaste cuddling in the interim? Anything, he supposed, was possible.

Then Sonny lifted his chin and turned so his lips were only inches from Anwar’s ear: “I want your mouth on my cock.”

Anwar couldn’t keep the surprise from his face. He glanced around, but judging from the bored expressions, no one else had heard Sonny’s dirty talk. Anwar swallowed hard and nodded. He shifted his weight, finding himself wondering whether if he untucked his shirt, it would be enough to cover his sudden erection.

“Remember the time you sucked me off on the A Train?” Sonny continued after a minute. Of course Anwar did. It had been late enough at night that they’d found themselves in an empty car between stops. Sonny had glanced around and shoved Anwar’s head down toward his lap, probably as a joke. But Anwar had been so keyed up from their evening together that he’d just gone for it, hastily unfastening Sonny’s winter clothes until he’d gotten his lips around Sonny’s dick. He could remember clear as day the noise Sonny had made, the force of his hand tightened in Anwar’s once-shaggy hair. “Wish you could do that right now.”

Only the greatest work of self-control kept Anwar from falling to his knees right there, yanking Sonny’s jeans right down so he could take Sonny’s cock to the root. Would he be so low beneath the crowd that no one would notice? Or would he have a whole train car’s eyes on him, staring at the homosexual in his natural habitat as he buried his nose in his boyfriend’s pubic hair.

His boyfriend? Were they boyfriends? Anwar had never been so unsure of the answer to that question as he was in that moment.

“Yeah.” Anwar moved his lips in the shape of the word, but made no sound. He nodded and swallowed hard. Christ, Sonny could probably grab Anwar’s cock right now and make him shoot right in his pants.

Sonny’s laugh was wicked and low. “I always wanted to do that again,” he said. The train lurched as it switched tracks, jostling them all so that Anwar could feel Sonny’s cock pressed against his hip. This wasn’t just a cruel tease; Sonny’s body at least thought it was real.

The subway stopped at the next station, and this time the platform was on their side. In a flash, Sonny stepped back, pressing himself against the bar at the far side of the car doors, so that all the commuters entering and exiting had to rush between them. His grinning face was eclipsed and revealed by the passing of people in front of him. Anwar could only stare across the distance and wonder what the hell had just happened.

Two more stops and two more tidal floods of commuters rose and fell between them, and then it was their turn to leave. This time, though, Sonny did not reach for Anwar, nor did Anwar try to make contact. Instead, Anwar followed Sonny up the stairs to the surface, always caught by the crowd just a step behind him. They exited through the turnstiles and made the last ascent to street level, where at last the majority of commuters went one way, while Sonny and Anwar turned another. The three-block walk to Sonny’s building happened in what Anwar would have called tense silence, except that Sonny was smiling all the way. Anwar found himself thinking of the time he’d seen the Miss America pageant on TV, how all the women’s faces had sported the same practiced expression. Sonny’s wasn’t as ostentatious as an insincere beauty-queen beam, but it seemed about as professionally fixed in place. He strode along the sidewalk with his long legs, leaving Anwar almost scurrying to keep up. They were the same height, but the disparities in build made a difference.

Hector greeted them dispassionately in the elevator. Sonny made small talk with him about the hot weather for the time it took the elevator car to get to their floor, then casually made his way to his apartment door. All Anwar could do was follow, bracing himself for what would come next — or, worse, what wouldn’t.

He hadn’t needed to worry about the latter. The second the apartment door was closed behind him, Anwar was pinned up against it, held in place by Sonny’s larger frame. He wasn’t as big as he’d been back in his team leader days, but Sonny still could pack a wallop. He grabbed Anwar’s wrists and locked them against the wall about eye level. His face was only inches from Anwar’s. “Fuck, you make me hard,” Sonny confessed in a hot whisper. “I used to think maybe it was just your powers. That you’d been, I don’t know, psychically enticing my dick.”

Anwar snorted. He’d never even tried to do such a thing. He’d never needed to. “Used to.”

“Yeah,” Sonny said, his grin widening. He got his knee between Anwar’s thighs, pushing up against Anwar’s unmistakable erection. Anwar gasped. “Thought I might be safe from you now. Guess not.”

Before Anwar could anwer, Sonny let go of one of Anwar’s wrists and shoved his hand down the front of Anwar’s slacks, pressing his palm against Anwar’s rigid cock. Anwar bit his lip to keep from moaning, especially here where someone could hear through the door. Sonny didn’t seem to care who heard them, though, as he bent to kiss at Anwar’s throat. He bit down on the skin just above the collar of Anwar’s shirt, making Anwar swear: “Fuck!”

He could feel Sonny’s lips curl into a smile as Sonny roughly licked the mark he’d made. “Is this what you were thinking about him doing?” Sonny asked.

“What?” Anwar didn’t follow.

“Him. That Serbian daddy in the garage.” Sonny kneaded Anwar’s cock as he talked, making it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. “I saw his hands. You wanted to get them on your ass?”

Under more civil conversational conditions, Anwar would likely have admitted that, yes, he did think that Milos was attractive, though his assessment came with no expectations that he’d ever do anything about the information. Even if Milos did like men — and Anwar had no reason to think that was true — Anwar knew the world of rough men like that who liked the taste of other men’s bodies, and it had no appeal to him. Honestly, the most he’d expected out of working for an attractive man like that was thinking he’s attractive every so often and making it no one’s problem but his own.

Sonny, however, seemed to have a different read on the situation. “Did you want to suck his daddy dick?” Sonny growled, which was far more arousing than it should’ve been. “Get down on your knees in the back of that shop and choke on his big fat cock?”

Intellectually, Anwar objected to all of this, primarily crossing the wires of sexual interest, paternal language, and gainful employment. Physically, he could barely remember having been this hard in a long time.

“Is that what you want? A big rough daddy to put you in your place?” Sonny’s hand jerked Anwar faster. “Bend you over that counter? Stick his cock in you raw and make you moan? Maybe grab your hair a little, tell you what a great fuck you are? Shoot his load all over you like he fucking owns your ass? You want to be his whore? A slut for daddy?”

There was no real way for Anwar to protest that, no, it wasn’t so much the idea of blowing Milos that was doing it for him as it was Sonny’s dirty talk — especially not as his body jerked and he came in Sonny’s hand. Anwar cried out in a way that was definitely audible through the door, but he couldn’t hold back. Sonny thought Anwar was supernaturally turning him on? That was rich, when everything Sonny did set Anwar aflame.

“You like that?” Sonny half-growled. Even though Anwar had already come unmistakably, Sonny’s hand stayed tight around his cock. “That what you really want?”

The fog of Anwar’s arousal started to clear, replaced by a growing unease at Sonny’s words. “Hey,” Anwar began, getting his free hand against Sonny’s shoulder. “Slow down.”

But Sonny didn’t. There was a set to his voice that made it clear he was speaking through clenched teeth. “Looking forward to being the office slut?”

“Hey!” Anwar hadn’t known where the line was until it got crossed. He gave Sonny a hard shove backwards, and Sonny staggered away enough that there was space between them. “What the fuck, man?”

There was a heavy moment where Sonny just stared at him, breathing so hard his shoulders rose and fell. He was still visibly hard, but that wasn’t what Anwar was looking at. He was looking Sonny in the eye, where Anwar could see a fire that looked at first like anger. But no, that wasn’t it, despite the tension that pulled every muscle in Sonny’s body taut. Anwar had seen Sonny angry before. What Anwar found now in Sonny’s expression was an emotion Anwar knew far better: fear.

And then it was gone. Like flicking on a lightswitch, Sonny’s face snapped from his jealous panic straight to a genial, practiced smile. “Hey, just joking,” he said, laughing like his clenched fingers weren’t slick with Anwar’s come. “You know, just playing around. That’s all.”

Anwar had spent his whole life swimming in polite fictions, the helpful lies people agreed to ignore because they were easier than the truth: lots of older children get adopted; keep working hard and you’ll go far; your father wants what’s best you. His therapist had told him it was his right to push back against them. He was just surprised that he seemed to have chosen now to start. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” answered Sonny, whose grin was starting to grow manic. “Just having fun.”

“I’m not into him.” Anwar hoped his whole debauched appearance, complete with come-soaked slacks, didn’t detract from his sincerity. 

“Whatever!” Still laughing, Sonny turned and headed down the hall with a faux-casual amble. “Whatever, you can do whatever, it’s all fine!” He gave a little wave behind him, then disappeared behind his bedroom door. The slamming sound made the dishes in the cabinets rattle.

Alone in the apartment’s main room, Anwar barely managed not to crumple to the floor. He grabbed the edge of the nearby kitchen counter for support, taking deep breaths as he tried to remember how his legs worked.

Fuck therapy. He’d liked things better before, when he’d been able to swallow everything and spit nothing back. Once upon a time, he would’ve been able to recover at a similar speed, shoving everything under a veer of calm neutrality. Now he felt hot tears sting at the corners of his eyes. So Sonny only wanted Anwar when blasted drunk or reflexively jealous. That was great. This was definitely the foundation of a stable relationship.

What relationship? They’d never had a relationship. They’d had a teenage fling and now they had … something that maybe wasn’t anything at all.

The cold granite of the countertop felt strange now, when all he could remember was the heat of Sonny’s hand in his. Maybe that had only been jealousy too, some primal possessive reflex acting out its only socially acceptable option. But goddamn, in that moment, it had felt real.

Anwar stared at the phone on the wall. He’d call later and say yes, he’d take the job. Maybe Sonny would make fun of him for it, but Anwar could deal. Soon he’d make enough money to move out, and then Sonny wouldn’t need to worry about him at all.

 

~*~

 

Anwar’s first thought was, they look so young. He’d never been that young, he was sure of it.

The girl who backbent her way across the balance beam couldn’t have been thirteen yet, but she already wore a costume that had clearly been designed and branded for her. It was black with neon green spirals that seemed to spin out from her wrists and ankles. As she readied for the dismount, Anwar could feel a breeze rustle his hair. She sprung off and spun an impossible number of times before alighting gently on the ground.

“They’re thinking ‘Cyclone’,” Sonny said as they watched her from the far side of the gym. “Of course, there was Ciclón in Argentina a few years back, and that’s probably too close for copyright purposes, so they’ll have to think of some modifier. ‘Sweet Cyclone’ and ‘Cyclone Girl’ both polled well with test audiences.”

She looked happy enough as she hopped back up on the balance beam, though far less gracefully than she’d dismounted. She’d probably had her powers for less than a year, maybe only a few months. No wonder her control was still shaky.

“She’s third on the team list,” Sonny continued. “That is, if she stays here. We’re the most prestigious, obviously. But she’s looked into some West Coast teams. And her paternal grandmother was Korean, if she wanted to go that route. It’d make citizenship easier.”

Anwar didn’t know why he’d agreed to come. Maybe because Sonny had seemed so excited, or maybe because Anwar had just gotten tired of saying ‘no’. Either way, given that his housing and food were coming, albeit indirectly, by way of the organization, it seemed only polite that Anwar should show his face. How bad could it be?

That was the problem — it wasn’t bad at all. It was a shiny, well-lit, state-of-the-art gym with all the bells and whistles one could have hoped for. Everything was incredibly safe and secure. The coaching staff, all identifiable by their slate-grey uniforms, smiled and cheered the kids on, giving them high-fives when they succeeded and hovering cautiously over them when they started to flag. It all seemed so nice. Anwar couldn’t even imagine what their NDAs must be like.

All told, there were about twenty costumed teens around the room at various pursuits. A few boys hung out over by the weight machines, joking around with one another as the beefiest among them did bicep curls. One girl had been doing pull-ups since Anwar had walked in the room and looked like she wasn’t stopping anytime soon. A red-suited boy held a column of flame in his hands, which another girl appeared to be trying to extinguish by punching it. The only real way to tell the official Teen Team Justice from the hopefuls was that the real members all had the white team logo sewn across the right side of their chests, and an American flag patch opposite it, just over their hearts. That was a new addition; One-Eyed Jack’s costume had never been so patriotic.

They hadn’t talked about what had happened after the garage. They hadn’t talked about anything. Sonny had emerged from his bedroom that evening and asked what Anwar wanted on his pizza, which they’d ordered and eaten while watching HBO. Anwar hadn’t said he’d taken the job, and when he’d left early the next morning, Sonny hadn’t asked where he was going.

More to the point, Sonny hadn’t touched him again, not to pin him against a wall or to hold his hand. The few times Anwar had made to touch him, Sonny had shifted away at the last minute, his movements so agile and natural that even Anwar couldn’t tell if Sonny was acting or reacting. Because Anwar hadn’t built it, he had no idea how to begin tearing down the wall between them.

Not, of course, that there’d ever been anything but walls between them. Anwar supposed he should never have gotten his hopes up.

From back out in the hallway, Anwar heard a slamming sound followed by a muffled cloud of raised voices. Sure, it wasn’t any of his business, but when had that ever stopped him before? Even with his psionic abilities muted, he still had ears. It was tough to pick out individual words from the angry cloud of overlapping speech, but Anwar definitely got liability and PR disaster.

Anwar gave Sonny’s shoulder a nudge. “What’s going on there?”

A break in Sonny’s cheerful smile showed that Sonny had hoped Anwar hadn’t overheard. “Some shit went down the other day,” Sonny said, shrugging.

“‘Some shit’?” Anwar echoed. “That sounds like an entire storm of it.”

“They–” Sonny shrugged again, looking less convincingly casual every time he did it. “Look, it’s a dangerous business. The kids have to make real-time decisions and threat assessments.”

Anwar’s eyes narrowed at the obvious evasion. “What happened?”

Sonny snorted, but gave a sideways nod, a gesture that indicate Anwar should follow him over closer to the wall. The ambient sounds from the gym would have made eavesdropping difficult already, but moving there together ensured no one could sneak up on them either. “You know Blue Apollo?”

“Yeah.” He was the team’s second-in-command now, a run-of-the-mill light and energy manipulator, but a particular heartthrob for having released an album of love songs to middling reviews and spectacular sales. Anwar had heard one of the songs on the radio. It was okay.

“He was out with the team the other night,” Sonny said. “They had a credible threat about a bank robbery. They were looking for a specific make of car, when one matching the description runs a red light going way too fast. Blue Apollo sees them and tries to go for the tires — you know, slow them down at least. Except he somehow hits the car a little wrong and the whole thing loses control instead.”

Anwar didn’t need to hear any more. He’d seen it on the TV in the garage’s waiting room — flipped car in the Financial District, whole family of five inside pronounced dead at the scene. The news hadn’t mentioned any cape involvement. Anwar wondered what it had cost team management to keep that out of the headlines. “Jesus,” Anwar swore.

Sonny nodded agreement. “Gets worse, too. Relatives of the people in the car, they want to sue. Remington offered them a fair settlement, more than fair, but they won’t take it. They say they’re out for justice. Except we’ve got immunity, so they’re trying to sue the city for letting us operate without oversight — which isn’t even true! Of course we have city oversight.”

Anwar hadn’t seen an inch of non-private anything since the moment he’d walked into Headquarters, but he wasn’t going to press the point. “An organization this big, though, it’s got to have multiple PR plans ready, right?”

“We do, but there’s something else.” Sighing, Sonny raked his fingers back through his hair. “They say they’re going for his mask.”

“They want him off the team?” asked Anwar, who figured that would be a reasonable ask from a grieving family.

Sonny shook his head. “They want to know his civilian identity.”

“Why?”

“They’re African-American, and he’s … him.”

Anwar could follow. After all, he’d seen Blue Apollo before, all six feet two inches of his sturdy Aryan build. The ‘blue’ in his name came from his eyes, which were piercing. His blond lifeguard physique was part of his appeal, or so Anwar had gathered from the few ads he’d seen featuring Blue Apollo in a swimsuit, his mask, and little else. There might not have been a whiter human being on the planet.

“Anyway.” Sonny sighed. “It isn’t true. I mean, he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body! But his family, well … they’re another story.”

“Didn’t they do a background check?” Anwar asked.

“Of course we did! But we’re not going to keep someone talented off the team just because his grandpa said some shit a few decades ago!” Sonny stopped himself and took a breath, and when he spoke again, his voice had returned to a normal speaking volume. “It’s all just a mess. Blue Apollo did nothing wrong. He followed his training in the service of keeping the city safe. No one could have imagined it would have turned out that way.”

Given that Blue Apollo was capable of generating car-flipping energy blasts, Anwar would have hoped that people would have been a little more proactive about imagining the potential outcomes. But there was something to the tone of Sonny’s more measured voice that made Anwar realize it wasn’t Sonny talking; it was the organization speaking through his mouth. “You realize that’s not true, right?” Anwar asked.

Sonny’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Well, he wasn’t keeping the city safe,” Anwar pointed out. “He was trying to get a private bank back its money.”

“That’s–” A flash of anger crossed Sonny’s features, but was replaced immediately with a grin. “It’s keeping the city safe from thieves!”

“It’s keeping a bank safe. And banks are insured. They have to be, because things like this happen even in cities without capes.” The prison where Anwar had done his time had pulled from the whole upstate area as well, and more than one of the guys in there with him had been thrown in for small-town bank robbery. “Nobody was kidnapped, nobody was bleeding out. Worst case scenario, some people might have been driving money from one place to another.”

Sonny folded his arms across his chest in a huff. “So you’re saying, what, we just shouldn’t go after bank robbers?”

Anwar opened his mouth to say, no, of course he wasn’t saying that — but the words died in his mouth. Was he saying that? After seeing firsthand the disparities between the wealth of the people who owned banks and the poverty of the people who usually robbed them, maybe it wasn’t the worst idea anyone had ever had. But that seemed like a different conversation for another time. “I’m saying,” Anwar continued after a moment, “that maybe a superhero team should prioritize the stuff only they can do.”

“Stopping crime is our priority,” Sonny said.

Anwar pointed to the rest of the gym. “Stopping crime isn’t what pays for all that.”

Sonny pressed his lips into a thin line. “You’re just being a jackass. I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” And before Anwar could reply, Sonny strode off back into the hall.

Was Anwar supposed to follow? Was that how a fight like this went? He wasn’t sure, so he stayed put.

What stung was, he wasn’t just being a jackass. He’d surely been guilty of that before, especially back in high school — just saying things to rile Sonny up, playing devil’s advocate for points he didn’t even care about, playing like he didn’t care while loving every second of getting under Sonny’s skin. He supposed he was the boy who cried wolf here, at last shouting about a real danger only for no one to believe him. Well, he couldn’t say he hadn’t done it to himself.

Anwar leaned back against the wall and watched Sweet Cyclone or Cyclone Girl or maybe Just Plain Cyclone backbend her way slowly across the beam. No wonder they recruited kids. At thirteen, he’d been more than eager to please — he’d been outright desperate for love, but without the skills to distinguish nourishment from poison. He hadn’t yet understood that the world was more than just heroes and villains, much less that there was any chance he might not be on the side of the angels. If he’d instead been wrapped in a warm blanket of unchecked authoritarianism from the time he’d hit puberty, he supposed he wouldn’t see anything wrong with this at all.

He didn’t blame Sonny for having his internal gauges set to thinking of a place like this as normal. But they weren’t kids anymore. Anwar was afraid that if Sonny didn’t start pushing back against the organization’s easy fictions soon, they’d swallow him whole.

That was, if he hadn’t been already. Anwar had once confessed to his therapist that he’d been in love with Sonny, and she’d asked in turn which Sonny he’d meant: the classmate, the cape, or someone else? Even at the time, he hadn’t known what to say. Now he was starting to worry that the answer to her question had never existed, except inside Anwar’s imagination. Served him right for ever giving in to optimism.

Neutralized psionics tended to go off their meds sooner rather than later, complaining that the suppression felt like losing part of themselves. Maybe Anwar was lucky, in that he’d always thought of his ability to overhear people’s thoughts as something that happened to him, not something he was. Losing them had been less like going deaf, and more like installing soundproofing against noisy neighbors. He honestly didn’t mind the quiet.

But goddamn if he didn’t sometimes wish he could hear what Sonny was thinking.

The real problem was that he’d never been able to, not really. Anwar’s abilities had always been passive, in the same way a radio couldn’t force a radio station to start broadcasting. Sonny, meanwhile, had rarely broadcast anything. Anwar had known Sonny was One-Eyed Jack from the start, but that had been logical deduction, nothing supernatural. Everything else had been locked under such tight emotional control that Sonny had always been more or less quiet. The only real thing Anwar had ever been able to pick up from him had been the desire that had given Anwar the courage to pass Sonny that first note: after school, practice rooms by the band hall. Sonny had come, and then they’d both come, repeatedly, and that had been the start of … whatever it was they had now.

Anwar exhaled through tight lips. He’d never thought he’d miss prison, but it sure as hell had been a lot less complicated.

“You’re Mr. Anwar, yes?”

Anwar turned to see a small, silver-haired man staring at him through inch-thick glasses. The man was wearing a strangely cut but stylish suit, and carried what looked like an artist’s portfolio under his arm. “Yeah,” Anwar said, looking around. Was he somewhere he didn’t belong? “Just Anwar.”

The man’s face broadened into a grin. “Wonderful, that’s wonderful,” he said, extending his hand. Not knowing what else to do, Anwar shook it. “I’m Klaus. So pleased to meet finally you. I’ve heard so much about you.”

How much did Sonny talk about him when he wasn’t around? Anwar supposed it was in some way only fair; after all, nearly every substantive conversation Anwar had had in prison had been about Sonny. But he’d basically talked to no one but his therapist for two years. Sonny didn’t have a therapist; Sonny had image consultants.

Klaus glanced about. “Is One-Eyed Jack around?”

“Sonny’s–” Anwar hated the way people around here talked using their cape names, like those were real and the people under them weren’t. “He had to step out for a minute.”

“Well enough. Would you care to join me elsewhere?” asked Klaus, gesturing toward the gym doors. “It’s so loud in here, I can hardly hear myself think.”

Anwar knew what that was like. Seeing no reason not to, he followed. He guessed this would be something related to his access to Sonny’s building. That portfolio probably held liability paperwork Anwar needed to sign, or some other legal formality. He let the little man lead him down a bright, wide corridor. Large plate-glass windows in the walls showed the interiors of multiple meeting and briefing rooms. Everything was branded with the team logo, even the chairs.

Halfway down the hall, Klaus picked a room and stepped inside. As Anwar took a seat, Klaus opened the portfolio and spread its contents across the surface of the table.

At first, Anwar didn’t understand what the drawings meant. They were all the kind of rough designs he associated with high fashion, where too-thin human figures sported sketchy ideas about clothing, only these ideas were all clearly new cape designs. There were six of them, all mostly black with red detailing,each with its own name scrawled at the top in flamboyant handwriting: Lancelot. Suicide King. Knave. Roland. The Man with the Axe. Charlemagne.

“Now of course, much of this will depend on the branding,” Klaus said, tapping the chest pattern of the Lancelot design. “For instance, I think this trefoil pattern could be very flattering, but that only makes sense for the Jack of Clubs, not the King of Diamonds.” Klaus pointed to the Man with the Axe, whose black bodysuit had red half-moon blades down the arms..

“They’re nice,” Anwar said politely, not sure what reaction he was supposed to give. And they were nice, at least as far as he could tell. But he wasn’t an expert on design, and he definitely wasn’t an expert on capes. 

Klaus smiled enough that Anwar could the comment had been a compliment — that he had designed all of these. “And of course, we can mix and match, to some degree,” Klaus continued, tapping each design’s boots as though swapping them around. “Though I reserve veto rights. Some combinations may look good on paper, but will simply fall apart in real life.”

Though the costumes were different, the man wearing them appeared identical from sketch to sketch. At first, Anwar had thought that was simply a placeholder decision, the same way store mannequins all looked alike. Looking closer, though, he realized the hairstyle was familiar — not his current half-grown-out prison cut, but the shaggy way Anwar had deliberately styled himself in high school.

“This was indeed a challenge!” Klaus laughed at his own statement, pulling the Knave design down toward Anwar. “Nothing wholesome, no. The watchword was ‘rebellion’, that bad-boy appeal. I adore this leather jacket, but if it seems too hot for all-season wear, we could create a summer variation, like a motorcyclist’s vest. Same with the gloves, if you’d prefer them fingerless for warmer weather.”

“I–” Anwar held his fist to his mouth for a moment. “These are supposed to be for me?”

Klaus placed a friendly hand on Anwar’s shoulder. “It can be a little overwhelming, I know. And of course, these are only concepts. If you had your heart set on something else, let me know and we can discuss it. Though I must say, Lancelot was the one our One-Eyed Jack was most partial to.”

Sonny. Of course this had been Sonny.

Klaus pulled out the chair next to Anwar and sat down, folding his wrinkled hands in his lap like the world’s fussiest grandpa. “The trick, of course, was making the design also work with Jack’s costume. I tried to evoke his look without replicating it, as you can see with the asymmetrical masks. Alas, I wish ‘One-Eyed Jack’ as a phrase had a more obvious counterpart, but it is a bit sui generis, is it not?”

Anwar took a deep breath and counted to ten. He wanted to be mad, because mad would have given him guidance for his reaction. Mostly he felt cold sweat. “These are lovely,” Anwar managed, because they were, and because he didn’t want to disappoint an enthusiastic old man who’d clearly put a lot of work into these. “Sonny should see them too. Can you go page him?”

“Of course!” Klaus said, standing. “I’ll be right back.”

Anwar waited at the door until he couldn’t hear any movement in the hallway, then made a break for it. He didn’t care if the surveillance cameras would give away his escape eventually; he had to get out now. He kept his spine straight and his pace even, walking like he knew where he was going even when he was completely lost. By now, Klaus had probably returned to find Anwar gone. If he’d gotten paged, Sonny would be there not long after. That meant it wouldn’t be long before those two weren’t the only ones looking for Anwar.

Sonny’s residual luck seemed to be holding out for Anwar, though. As he reached the skylit atrium by the entrance, he found a group of maintenance workers there, chattering with one another as they headed out for lunch. Anwar folded in just behind them, holding his breath as he got on the elevator that led to the ground-floor landing. Security was high coming in, but there were fewer checks about anyone getting out. In less than a minute, he was at street level, breathing in raw Hudson City air.

Fuck this. He’d be homeless before he let anyone, even Sonny, pull him into this shit. Maybe Milos would let him sleep on the shop floor. He could still find the numbers for those halfway houses. He had other options. At least, he did so long as he was himself. Once he became Charlemagne, or the Suicide King, or even fucking Lancelot, it would be all over.

 

~*~

 

He’d considered just turning tail then, leaving with only the clothes on his back, taking subways and trains as far from the city as he could before the cash in his pocket ran out. But no, his meds were still in Sonny’s apartment. Anything else, he could have left behind, but not those. He’d just have to be as quick as he could be.

He shoved his pill bottles into his backpack, along with some underwear and shirts. He wanted to sort more carefully, to make sure that nothing he was taking was Sonny’s, so that he couldn’t be accused of theft. But of course it was all Sonny’s. Sonny had bought it for him, spinning stories about how it was all right because Anwar would pay him back someday. Anwar hadn’t even gotten his first paycheck yet. Maybe he could have Milos send it directly to Sonny, just mail it right there until his debt was repaid. Whatever. He’d figure that out later. His mad ransack completed, Anwar left the apartment without even looking back. If he could make it out of this last elevator, he’d really be free for good.

The elevator didn’t come. Anwar pressed the button again and again, but it wouldn’t even light up in recognition. His fists clenched. Of course they could shut him in, close the trap around him. He’d just traded one prison for another.

All of a sudden, Anwar was eighteen again, trying to do homework in the late-night quiet of his father’s apartment, only to have the alarm sound. The whole household had sprung into action, trying to destroy evidence, hide contraband, prepare for battle. Anwar had just run. He’d torn out of there in a blind panic, barreling down the hall with no destination but not here. Halfway to the stairwell, though, the wall had exploded beside his face with sonic force, throwing him to the ground. When at last he’d looked up, covered in brick dust and rubble, the only thing he’d seen looking down at him was the unreadable face of One-Eyed Jack.

At last the elevator sounded its arrival ding, and Anwar knew exactly what he’d see on the other side.

“Anwar!” Sonny launched at him and wrapped him into a hug. Stunned, Anwar could only stand there, trapped in the embrace as the elevator doors shut again. It was amazing how quickly the flight ran out of him in Sonny’s arms. If only they’d thought to catch him like this the first time. “Jesus, I was scared to death.”

What was there to say? All Anwar wanted to do was bury his face in Sonny’s soft hair, melt into his strong arms like some silent-movie heroine. Instead, he dug deep to find the anger that had fueled his panic, trying to remember why he’d wanted to leave in the first place. “I can’t be something I’m not,” Anwar said softly.

“No one’s asking you to be,” Sonny said, either lying or oblivious. “God, can we — can we not do this in the hallway?”

Given how many surveillance cameras were probably trained on them right now, Anwar agreed. No matter what was about to happen, it was no one else’s business. Defeated, he nodded and let Sonny guide him back to the apartment. He dropped his bag by the door, though. Just in case.

Once they were alone, Sonny cupped Anwar’s cheek with a tenderness that made Anwar’s heart ache. Goddammit, why couldn’t he be like this all the time? “I thought someone had taken you.” Sonny’s voice was soft.

Anwar snorted even as he leaned into the touch. “The bad guys or the good guys?”

Sonny didn’t answer. “Was there something wrong with the designs?”

Unbelievable. “Yes, there–” Raking his hands through his hair, Anwar pulled away. It was getting harder to take steadying breaths. “The designs were wrong with the designs. I can’t be that.”

“Sure you can!” That artificial grin lit up Sonny’s face again. Anwar had to wonder if he even knew he was doing it. “You’d be great at it. I told you, everybody loves a redemption arc!”

“This isn’t an arc!” Anwar pounded a fist on the table, making the items strewn across it jump. “I’m not a storyline! I’m a person. And so are you!”

Sonny seemed taken aback by that. “I know!” he half-shouted, before reining his volume back in. He bit at his lower lip. “I’m a celebrity. This is my job. You don’t yell at Madonna when she wants to put out a new album.”

“Because she’s not usually trying to use me to do it,” Anwar pointed out. “Jesus, I just … I wish you’d been up-front with me about this. I could’ve told you no right outside the prison and saved you a lot of time.”

“That’s–” Sonny’s dark brows furrowed. “That’s not why I showed up.”

Anwar wasn’t going to cry. His therapist had taught him crying was healthy, and his father had taught him that crying was for babies and manipulative women, and guess which lesson he’d internalized more deeply. “Isn’t it? Because I get it. I swear to God, I do. You’re not on the team anymore. You’re down to making appearances and having your merch in the ‘vintage’ section. Then all of a sudden, just your luck, one of your old collars gets out of prison! Sure, he’s someone nobody really remembers, but you figure you can work the reformed-criminal angle to get you back in the spotlight. And you know what? I’m not even mad about that. It’s a pretty good idea, and I’m kind of shocked you seem to be the first one who’s thought of it. I just fucking wish you’d told me you wanted me for a project, and not for me.”

Sonny straight-up looked like he’d been coldcocked, perhaps repeatedly. His lips were parted with surprise, and Anwar knew it wasn’t because of the audacity of the accusations, but because they’d been right. “That’s…”

“Because I loved you, you know.” Shit, Anwar was on a roll now, and he didn’t know where he’d be able to stop. He gripped the edge of the table for support. “Shit, I was so in love with you back then. I would have done anything for you. You’d asked me to become your Lancelot or whatever when we were kids, and I would’ve dropped everything in a heartbeat. I’m still so stupid for you. God, I want you so bad, and it’s like a kick to the fucking teeth every time I realize you only want me as far as I’m useful to you.”

“You–” Sonny sputtered for a second. His dark eyes were prickling with red around their rims even as he forced his lips back into his casual grin. Fuck, Anwar wanted to punch that expression off his face. “Everybody’s just like that.”

“Then you can find another ex-con to design fun matching outfits for. I’m out.”

“I don’t want someone else!” Sonny shouted, slapping his hand against the kitchen counter hard enough that the wood under it cracked along the joint. He pressed his lips together and stared at his palm, which was now pink with the impact. The smile stayed fixed as the dishes stopped rattling. “Anyway, what are you talking about?” he said, his voice soft again. “How could you love me? You didn’t even know me.”

“I think,” Anwar said after a moment, “I’m the only person who ever has.”

Sonny snorted, but it was a snotty sound, one just at the verge of tears. “Bullshit,” he said, still looking at his hand. “You love Jack.”

“Fuck Jack,” Anwar said, before he could think better of it. “I fucking hate Jack.”

“Bullshit,” Sonny repeated. “Everyone loves Jack.”

Anwar shook his head. “Everyone uses Jack. They slap his face on things to make brutality sound heroic. They make him show up to catch bank robbers so people don’t think about why somebody might be desperate enough to rob a bank in the first place. They use Jack just like my father used me. Except my abuser went to jail, and Jack’s negotiates sponsorship deals with Nike.” 

“You sound like your father,” Sonny spat.

As statements went, that one had probably been meant to hurt — and once upon a time, it would have. However, nearly two years all but alone with his thoughts, with no mirror to look into but himself, had give Anwar the power to respond with a mere shrug. “So? Maybe he was wrong about the methods and right about the critique, and everybody gets to focus on the blackmail and the murder so they don’t have to admit he has a point.”

“So that’s it? You’re going to leave and become like him?”

Anwar threw up his hands in frustration. “There are more than two options! Hats come in more colors than just black and white! I can disapprove of assassination and point out fascism at the same time!”

Sonny was no longer even trying to front a smile. His entire posture seemed to have wilted, so that he was now leaning un-heroically against the counter, looking at the floor instead of meeting Anwar’s gaze. “If that’s what you think of me, then you probably should leave.”

Anwar wasn’t sure if he more wanted to rip out his own hair or Sonny’s. “That’s Jack. Not you.” He forced himself to unclench his fists before he dug wounds into his palms. “You asked me if I remembered blowing you on the A Train, yeah?” he asked. Sonny gave a cautious nod, narrowing his eyes. “You tell me if One-Eyed Jack, upright defender of Hudson City, would have let his boyfriend suck him off between stations on public transit.”

It was a testament to the obviousness of the answer that Sonny didn’t even bother addressing it. “We weren’t boyfriends,” he muttered instead.

“Yeah, I think we were,” Anwar said, folding his arms across his chest. “Because you remember what happened right after?”

The faraway look in Sonny’s eyes said that, yeah, Sonny remembered. He remembered how he’d blown his load in Anwar’s mouth right as the train had pulled into the next station, and they’d had to scramble to clean up and make themselves look presentable as a couple weary city-dwellers had taken seats around them. Sonny’d pointed to Anwar’s chin, and Anwar, realizing he hadn’t swallowed as neatly as he’d thought, had wiped his mouth on Sonny’s scarf. That had sent them both into fits of excited giggles, ones that got worse every time they looked at one another. At the next station, even though it hadn’t been their destination, Sonny had grabbed the sleeve of Anwar’s coat and yanked him out onto the platform, and they’d gone running up the stairs together, faces red from exertion and the cold, all the way to street level. I’m hungry, had been Sonny’s only explanation for their sudden departure, so they’d gotten gyros from a cart and eaten them on a nearby park bench, knees pressed together, staring up at the Christmas lights strung through the trees. If that wasn’t boyfriend shit, then Anwar didn’t know what was.

The memory seemed to have taken the last of the wind out of Sonny’s sails. He looked deflated now, beaten in a way capes weren’t supposed to be. “Fuck,” Sonny muttered. He rubbed a shaking hand across his face, dislodging the useless glasses; they clattered to the floor. Tears trickled out from behind the veil of his hand. “Fuck, this isn’t — it’s not — fuck.”

“I’m not going to make you choose between me and Jack,” Anwar said, weighing his words carefully so he didn’t promise something he didn’t mean. “But you don’t get us together, either. And if that’s the only way you ever wanted me, then … I’m going to go.”

“You don’t get it,” Sonny managed through clenched teeth. His hand still shaded the top half of his face from view. “He’s all I have. Nobody gave a shit until I was Jack.”

“I did,” Anwar said.

“You fucking didn’t!” Sonny scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “You knew who I was from the start. I know you did.”

Anwar shrugged. “So what?”

“So you’d hate what isn’t Jack!”

“How do you know?”

“Because I do!” Sonny snapped, slamming his hands against his thighs. His pretty brown eyes were bloodshot now, his cheeks pink and puffy. “Jesus Christ, do you know what I do when you’re not here?”

Anwar shook his head. He hadn’t seen telltale piles of empty liquor bottles or drug paraphernalia, but then again, he had no idea what was inside Sonny’s bedroom.

Nothing. Just … nothing.” Sonny jabbed a finger toward the couch and TV. “I sit there and I watch … I don’t even know what I watch, because it’s all noise. I do it until it’s late enough to go to sleep, and then I wake up the next morning and pray Jack’s got something on the calendar, because if not, it’s just going to be me and the nothing all over again. Goddammit, I need this, I need this comeback, because if I don’t get it, it’s just going to be me and the nothing forever.”

His words made Anwar feel sick to his stomach, not because they were so strange, but because they were so familiar. If he hadn’t gone to prison, what would he have continued to throw at his life to keep from ever having to be alone with his own thoughts? “Sonny…”

Sonny gritted his teeth and forced a smile. “There! Are you happy? Are you going to sleep better knowing what a worthless sack of shit I am?”

“Jesus, no,” Anwar said. “Why would I be happy?”

“Because I deserve it!” Sonny said, poking at his chest so hard, Anwar was afraid he might break his finger. “I could have saved you and I didn’t.”

“You couldn’t have saved me!” Anwar shouted back, rushing forward to grab Sonny’s hand in his own before Sonny hurt himself. Sonny’s whole body was trembling, the shakes of the first edges of a panic attack. Anwar put his other hand against Sonny’s damp cheek. “And you need to stop trying, or we’re both going to drown together.”

Sonny frowned. “I could have,” he said, and there was a bit of wounded pride to the statement, as though affronted by the idea that he, One-Eyed Jack, might be incapable of something.

But Anwar shook his head. “No. You couldn’t. Everything I went down for, I’d already done by the time I met you. I could have made the choice to stop, but I didn’t. Prison got me the help that nothing else had, but it couldn’t have saved me. You couldn’t have saved me. The judge who sentenced me couldn’t have saved me. My therapist couldn’t have saved me. I had to save myself.” 

That had been the shitty part, hadn’t it? The part where nobody had showed up with the superpower of making everything all right again. Everyone could offer at best only one more tiny patch for the half-sunk ship that was his life. He’d had to be the one to wake up every morning and make the decision to keep mending, keep bailing, keep trying to stay afloat. He couldn’t even say that it had sucked, because it did suck. He was still doing it, and he’d probably have to keep doing it for the rest of his life.

Nobody else could do it for him, though. Sonny wanted to do it for him, but what he’d offered Anwar was not a fix, but a mask to hide the damage. Tempting as it was just to hide again, Anwar knew better now.

“Jesus,” Anwar swore as he stepped close and wrapped his arms around Sonny. Sonny melted into him, tucking his face into the crook of Anwar’s neck. Anwar could feel Sonny’s tears soaking into his shirt. He stroked back Sonny’s wild hair, which was slick with sweat. “You could use a therapist.”

“Fuck you,” Sonny muttered, which Anwar chose to interpret as agreement.

“Yeah, yeah.” Anwar got his arm around Sonny’s back. Bracing himself under Sonny’s larger frame, Anwar led them in an ungainly half-shuffling dance down the hall to Sonny’s bedroom. At first Anwar thought it might be locked, but the handle turned easily and the door swung open like any normal door.

The inside of Sonny’s bedroom was so sterile that Anwar at first feared they might have fallen through a portal to some hotel room. But at least hotels put generic art on the walls and dabbled in patterned bedspreads. This was … hollow, was the only word that came to Anwar’s mind. No paintings or photos decorated the walls, no trinkets or memorabilia lined shelves. It wasn’t immaculate — a few socks littered the floor and half-closed dresser drawers had contents peeking out of them. It was just empty of all personality, functional but anonymous.

It reminded Anwar of nothing so much as his cell.

“Come on,” Anwar said, hefting Sonny over to the unmade bed. He lost his balance in the process, though, and they both went down together, bouncing against the mattress. Sonny clung to him, tucking his body against Anwar’s in a way that made him strangely small. Anwar stroked Sonny’s hair and back in a way he was pretty sure no one had ever done for either of them before. They were both unaccustomed to comfort, to safety.

Sonny wasn’t crying anymore, it seemed. He was just breathing deeply, filling his lungs and holding the air in before letting it go. He clung to the back of Anwar’s shirt with a miserable clutch. Their encounters had always been rough, frantic, excited, desperately trying to get each other off before they were discovered. They’d never just held one another before. That new intimacy made Anwar’s stomach flutter in a very different way.

“Do you actually want me in costume that bad?” Anwar asked into the silence between them. He wasn’t considering it — he knew his boundaries on that, at least. But he needed to know.

Exhaling hard, Sonny pressed his face to Anwar’s chest. Anwar could feel the slight shake of his head. “I just wanted you to stay.”

“I’m here.”

“Not now.” Sonny’s voice was soft, the quiet tone of a painful confession. “When … when you find someone better.”

Well, that put a few things into perspective. Anwar could see now that, in a way, it had been a cunning plan: to obligate Anwar to him through his job and public persona, tying their lives together through the one part of himself that Sonny actually liked. A clever bit of future-proofing their relationship, from a man certain he could never hold onto it any other way.

Anwar sighed as he pulled Sonny close to him. “You’ve always had me,” he promised. “You have me now. You have me. Not Jack, you.”

With a snort, Sonny shook his head again. “Don’t pretend.”

“Oh, for the–” Anwar pulled back from the embrace, moving so they were lying face-to-face on the bed. He couldn’t make Sonny look at him, but he could at least make himself visible. “I’m done pretending. I’m sick of masks. I–” No, he was being honest now, he couldn’t chicken out now. “Okay, yeah, I love you. But not if I have to be someone else for you to love me back.”

Sonny turned his gaze then, lifting his wide, dark eyes. He had the prettiest eyelashes, long and black, so much easier to see now without his stupid fake glasses in the way. “You wouldn’t love me if you knew me,” he said, his voice a whisper.

Anwar managed a soft smile. “How about you let me decide that?” He reached for Sonny’s right hand with his own and clasped them together, holding them between their bodies in a romantic approximation of a handshake. “Hi,” he said, looking Sonny in the eye, “I’m Anwar.”

That made Sonny laugh, a snotty little explosion that had him scrubbing his face against the sheets. “Sonny.” He looked sheepish for a moment, then added, “Well, ‘Arsenio’, if you’re the government.”

How had Anwar managed never to know that about him? “Really?”

Sonny nodded, his smile a little distant. “Yeah. They started calling me ‘Sonny’ when I started training for the team. I guess the image consultants thought it was less ethnic, or something. Which is stupid, because it’s not like the public knows what’s on my driver’s license. But yeah. By now it’s just … what I’m used to.”

Everything was fading now into the quiet exhaustion that followed panic and anger, leaving them looking at each other’s real faces for what felt like the first time. “Do you want me to call you Arsenio?”

For a moment, Sonny pressed his lips together in serious thought — then shook his head. “Nah, it’s fine,” Sonny said. “Besides, it’s you. You’re more likely to call me ‘hey dickhead’ anyway.”

Anwar’s heart brightened to hear Sonny joke about it. That was a start. “Only when you’re being a dickhead.”

“So all the time, basically?” 

“Basically.”

With a weak little chuckle, Sonny squeezed Anwar’s hand. “So, yeah, I guess, call me whatever you want. None of it really feels like mine anyway.”

How much of themselves had they given up to play supporting roles in other people’s narratives? Anwar gently brushed some strands of hair from where they’d stuck to Sonny’s sweat-damp brow. “Okay,” Anwar said, nodding as he took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s go from here.”

“Okay.” Sonny nodded in kind. He leaned in until their foreheads touched — then shuddered and drew back. “God, don’t kiss me, I’m gross.”

The fact that Sonny was thinking about kissing at all, Anwar took as a good sign. “Shower?” he offered.

That was how the two of them wound up together in the narrow stall shower that occupied the corner of Sonny’s bathroom. Sonny stood with his face directly under the spray, while Anwar slipped in behind him, between Sonny’s body and the tile wall. He put his hands on Sonny’s hips, marveling at the way the water and soap made Sonny’s skin feel soft and slick. Anwar traced up and down Sonny’s sides, along the curves of flesh and muscle over bone. 

He poked Sonny just below his ribs, and Sonny laughed, spitting water. “Jerk,” Sonny said, tossing a scowl over his shoulder that he didn’t mean.

“Whatever.” Anwar rolled his eyes and pressed a kiss at the base of Sonny’s neck, right over the curve of his spine. Closing his eyes, he rested his cheek against the same place. He reached around Sonny’s waist and clasped his hands together in front of Sonny’s belly, holding him tight. For the first time in all their time together, Sonny felt like his.

After a minute of this, Sonny turned beneath the spray to face Anwar. Those pretty eyelashes were dewy with beads of water. “I always tried to pretend like I knew what I was doing. But I never did. I never wanted you to know that with you was my first time for everything. My only time for everything, still.”

“Oh.” Anwar swallowed. Well, he supposed that answered that question. “Well, um, for me too.”

Sonny nodded, then raked his fingers through his wet hair, slicking it back out of his face. “But it’s been a while. So I guess it’s up to me to admit now that I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

“What do you–?” Anwar started, then stopped as Sonny dropped to his knees in the shower and took Anwar’s cock wholly into his mouth.

Anwar gasped as he grabbed for Sonny’s hair to keep from teetering over. Sonny had never done this before. The rules between them had been unspoken but clear — Sonny pitched, Anwar caught, and nothing troubled that established power dynamic. At least, not until now. 

Sonny gave no cause to doubt his claims of inexperience; he was eager but unpracticed as he choked a little on Anwar’s stiffening erection. He compensated, though, wrapping his hand around the base of Anwar’s dick. He didn’t look up at Anwar in the way Anwar often did when sucking Sonny’s dick. Instead, his eyes were closed with concentration. Water fell around his face as he started bobbing his head back and forth, letting his mouth work Anwar’s cock.

No wonder Sonny had always gone so crazy for it when Anwar had sucked him off — it felt good. What Sonny lacked in finesse, he made up for in dedication. He let his tongue swirl around the head of Anwar’s cock, in a way that Anwar could tell wasn’t because of any calculated gambit, but because Sonny actually wanted to learn for himself the layout of Anwar’s dick with his tongue. There was something peaceful about his expression, almost pleasant — which might have been a weird thing for Anwar to think about the guy blowing him, but fuck it, what about them wasn’t weird?

“God, you’re beautiful,” Anwar said, raising his voice to be heard over the shower spray. Dirty talk had been Sonny’s thing, while Anwar had always been a little too self-conscious to give voice to what he was thinking during sex, lest he give too much away. If Sonny could be brave about trying something new, though, then so could Anwar. “You look so hot like this. Your mouth feels amazing, fuck.”

Sonny opened those dark eyes and looked upward. What Anwar saw in that gaze was not cocky confidence, but vulnerability. This was what Sonny looked like without his mask, without any of his masks. He was uncertain but willing to trust Anwar, at least this far.

Anwar owed him at least that much in kind. “Suck me deeper,” he said, guidance instead of a command. “Open your mouth and breathe through your nose. Go as far as it still feels good.”

The muscles in Sonny’s mouth tightened as he swallowed anxiously, but he nodded. He took a few careful breaths, then tightened the seal of his mouth around the shaft of Anwar’s cock. Inch by inch, he let his mouth slip forward until his lips were almost brushing Anwar’s damp pubic hair. Sonny looked up again, his expression pleading for some kind of reassurance.

Anwar brushed his thumb along Sonny’s lower lip. “You’re doing so good, baby.” He heard the term of endearment come out of his mouth and winced. Where had that come from? He braced for Sonny to mock him for saying something so silly and weird.

Sonny, however, all but beamed at the pet name. He gripped Anwar’s thighs to brace himself, then started bobbing his head up and down on Anwar’s cock. His tongue swirled and flicked as he worked, but mostly it was just the friction of his lips and the eagerness with which he took Anwar into his mouth. 

Anwar was so keyed up from the tension of the last few hours that it wasn’t too long of this before he could feel the edge of his orgasm approaching. “I’m going to come,” he gasped by way of warning. “You’re going to make me come.”

At first, Anwar was a bit disappointed to feel Sonny’s mouth slide off his dick — though sure, it was Sonny’s first time, and he was allowed to take it slow. But instead of just pulling back, Sonny aimed the head of Anwar’s cock right at his own face and stroked him off with eager force. Anwar only had time enough to realize that the placement was deliberate before he came, shooting all over Sonny’s face and straight into his hair. America’s favorite superhero was getting a facial of convicted felon jizz, and judging by his expression, he fucking loved it.

Sonny sat back hard on the floor of the shower, his legs spread wide. One hand wrapped around his own cock, while the other pinched at one of his nipples. He said nothing, but moaned as he jerked himself off, making eye contact with Anwar the whole time. The look in his eyes said he wanted Anwar to see just what he did to Sonny, how hard pleasuring Anwar had made Sonny too. And then he came, just as explosively as Anwar had, though with no particular target. His cry of release rang off the bathroom walls, then faded into the heavy sound of his breathing and the steady drive of the shower spray.

Anwar reached for Sonny, and Sonny reached back, letting Anwar pull him to his feet and right into a fierce kiss. Sonny wrapped his arms around Anwar’s shoulders, while Anwar looped his own around Sonny’s waist. Anwar felt a thrill at realizing he could taste himself on Sonny’s mouth. He couldn’t imagine ever getting enough of this.

Some time later, after turning off the water and drying off with Sonny’s hotel-quality fluffy towels, they lay back down together on Sonny’s bed, face to face. Anwar’s still-damp hair soaked the pillowcase beneath his head. He brushed his fingertips over the curve of Sonny’s hip, feeling how the cool of the air-conditioned apartment stole the shower’s heat from his skin. The red numbers of the bedside clock announced that it was ten minutes to noon. It’d already been a hell of a day, and it wasn’t even fully lunchtime yet.

“So what now?” Sonny asked, his voice quiet.

It was a question bigger than Anwar could wrap his head around. “I don’t know,” he said, taking Sonny’s hand and twining their fingers together. “What do you want?”

Sonny laughed softly, turning his face toward the pillow and shutting his eyes. “I don’t know. What do you want?”

Small wonder that neither of them knew, and for much the same reason. “I don’t know,” Anwar said.

“I mean,” Sonny continued, “I know what I’m supposed to want. I know what my adoptive parents thought I was supposed to want. I know what the team thinks I’m supposed to want. I know what Jack is supposed to want. But about as far back as I can remember, there’s only one thing that I’ve ever wanted just because I wanted it.”

“What’s that?” Anwar asked.

Sonny touched the tip of his index finger to the ball of Anwar’s nose. “You.”

Anwar swallowed hard. “Well,” he managed after a second, “here I am.”

“Yeah.” Sonny nodded, his lips lifting into a soft smile — not the practiced grin of justice the world got to see, nor the casual smirk that paved over anything unpleasant, but a quiet, gentle expression. “But everything else is, uh, kinda fucked up.”

That was putting it mildly. “Kinda, yeah,” Anwar agreed.

“And it’s–” With a sigh, Sonny rolled on his back, stretched out atop the rumpled sheets. He was still the most beautiful man Anwar had ever seen, but there was also something almost childlike about the unselfconscious way Sonny lay there naked. All his harsh lines were gentle when he was off-guard like this. Maybe they were both artificially young like that, robbed of their childhoods, their bodies trying the only way they knew how to compensate for the loss. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know if I can fix it. I don’t even completely know what the problem is. I just know that you’re right, and I can’t keep pretending like you aren’t any longer.”

Anwar sighed. “Does it help that I don’t want to be right?”

“No,” Sonny said, chuckling. “Okay, maybe a little. Means you can’t gloat.”

“When have I ever gloated?” Anwar asked in mock affront, recalling many of the times he’d gloated in Sonny’s presence when they were younger. He wondered if they’d ever get back to that point again, where not everything was life and death, capes and criminals, black and white. Anwar had to trust they would, because he belonged in the grey areas now, not a hero or a villain, but somewhere in-between. Maybe Diamanda had been wrong — theirs wasn’t a good word burdened with bad people. There was just the world, and there were people, and there were the negotiations everybody needed to make to live. Including them.

A thought struck Anwar, and he rolled out of bed, then found the jeans he’d left on the floor earlier. He stuck his hand into one of the pockets and pulled out a quarter. “What are you doing?” Sonny asked, propping himself up on his elbow.

“Let’s do this your way.” Anwar sat back down on the edge of the bed, holding the coin between his thumb and forefinger. “Heads, we stay here. I keep working at the garage. You keep being Jack. We do the best we can from the inside. I show up with you at Headquarters — not as a cape, but as a consultant. We make things less shitty for the kids there now. We work with the system.”

Sonny nodded slowly. “And tails?”

“Tails, we go.”

“Go where?”

“Just … go,” Anwar said. “Go rogue. Pick a direction and start driving. Send them a postcard from somewhere west of the Mississippi saying sorry, you’re retired. Work odd jobs where we can. Find places to be, and move on when they’re not right anymore. Help people along the way, real people with real shit problems, in towns that have never even seen a cape. Teach me to drive. Change our names. Find out who we are when no one’s watching.”

For a moment, Sonny just stared at the coin in Anwar’s hand, letting the weight of their shared future hang in the balance. As long as there’s an unknown. “Flip it,” Sonny said at last, quiet but determined.

Anwar did. He launched it upwards with a flick of his thumb, where it spun too fast for human eyes to track. On its descent, when it was about eye level again, he snatched it from the air and held it tight in his fist, then slapped it down on the back of his other hand so hard it stung. Even though he was touching both sides of its surface, he couldn’t feel any clues about the detail. His heart pounded in his chest. He thought of the wide sky outside the prison walls, of the sound of unlocked doors, of that first sharp, strange, terrifying taste of freedom.

Before he removed his hand, Anwar looked over at Sonny. “You feel lucky?”

Sonny’s smile broke like dawn over the horizon. He winked at Anwar. “Always.”

That was all Anwar had ever needed. He took in a full, deep breath and held it for a long count, and as he let it out, he drew his hand away, revealing the coin’s upright face.

 

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7 thoughts on “Halfway

  1. First off, I see what you did with the title and placement in the issue and it cracked me up! Love this take on the sort of fridge horror of teen superheroes and villains (and the people who would want to use them in the first place). Both Anwar and Sonny hit me straight in the “oh my god those poor kids” pretty quick but their big fight/feelings dump makes it easy to be optimistic about things working out for them. Really dig the ending too, kind of a nice nudge to imagine whichever sort of happily ever after (within the system/fuck the system) that suits you.

  2. This was great! I really loved the commentary on reform vs. getting the heck out and cackled at “all capes are bastards”. I also loved that Anwar did so much work on saving his own self (which, it is SO RUDE that that’s the only way that works) and loved the super pro-mental health care vibes. Also them both having only ever been the only ones for each other despite Sonny’s overall bravado and them both totally unmasking / coming clean by the end was great.

  3. All Capes Are Bastards is extremely clever, bless you. There’s so much good stuff here, the shared insecurities that Sonny and Anwar feel but can’t share with each other, the exploitation of teens because they’re easier to control than adults would be, and yes also two guys just wild about each other’s dicks.

  4. The open ending and the underlying racial tensions simmering make it feel very relevant to the present day. Great.

  5. this was such a treat! i so love deconstructions of superhero stories and your take is so interesting, where mostly only minors are doing such dirty work. there’s a darkness and an anxiety to this world and it’s articulated perfectly through the eyes of one of its reformed criminals. I honestly was rooting so hard for anwar and sonny to disappear together in the end, but the idea of them squaring up with their lives in hudson city is equally as satisfying because it means that actual, real growth is slated to come. thank you for this!

  6. I really, really liked Anwar in this one, both with him struggling to better himself on his own terms (which involved some very relatable grappling with mental illness and medication), him trying to overcome his past, and him still being willing to question the status quo without going for a black and white “well, these guys are messed up and horrible, clearly this means I have carte blanche to just do whatever so long as I’m opposing them on paper” mentality. There’s also a sense of love for the genre written into everything here, which makes the points the story brings up that much stronger: this isn’t an outsider being smarmy and going for low-hanging fruit, it’s someone who has done time appreciating these tropes on various levels who still has something to say about what sorts of messages a less-critical example of cape stories might be sending. Pretty worthwhile commentary in our MCU-drenched present.

    The colors and shapes going on in the art are incredibly striking, to say nothing of how you can easily tell the two Sonnys apart while they’re also clearly the same person. It’s bold, it’s dynamic, and it’s a perfect fit!

  7. it was a real treat to unravel what was happening with both Anwar and Sonny, especially with the context of the world. the idea of halfway is a fun comparison between the two characters’ situations and even though they went through a lot of similar crap, the optimistic tone throughout was pretty nice. also i love how colorful and symbolic the art is! i scrolled back up after i finished reading to ponder it and also enjoy the sexyness haha

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