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If Scheherazade

by The Inimitable Pooh Bah

Date: September 1, 2001 to March 27, 2002

Rating: Hard R. Sex, language, violence.

Summary: Ben discovers the subtle shift from love to obsession to insanity. "Pollo Loco" pre-ep. Angst. Slash (Zack/Ben, Krit/Ben).

Spoilers: Zack arc of "411 on the DL" through "Blah Blah, Woof Woof." Some characterizations are built on references and/or appearances in episodes through "And Jesus Brought a Casserole."

Disclaimer: Dark Angel belongs to James Cameron, Charles Eglee, and/or FOX.

Feedback: poohbah@gray-eyed.com

Website: http://www.gray-eyed.com/

Archive: List archives and by submission. Do not archive or repost without permission.

Notes: Dedicated to Carla Jane--it's still your fault, though some people probably worship you now. Thanks to Jane for encouragement when my confidence waned, to Sylvia for the shirt idea, and to Rashka for babysitting Pike.

And before anybody else tells me this, "pollo loco" does translate to "crazy chicken"--literally. But "pollo" is also slang for "young man" (that, or my Spanish-English dictionary is lying to me).


You're hiding your instincts every minute of every day, so no one will know who you really are.


There have always been two options: what you were designed and trained for, and the humanity they couldn't edit out.

You've always been fascinated by the choice. You've looked at your siblings, ranged across the scale. Van is firmly at the designed end, making only enough pretense at humanity that nobody realizes what she is. Zane is just as firmly human--he's always had normal-human relationships and jobs and homes, and you hear he even bought a dog recently. Zack is near Van, Krit and Pike have moments at all points on the scale, Brin and Tinga and Mab tend toward Zane's end. Syl is in the dead center, blending in almost flawlessly but keeping her head clear of sentimental traps.

Jondy struggles with her dual instincts sometimes--she says it's because her insomnia gives her too much time to think. You struggle too. You think too much, just like Jondy, and you hate to imagine what would happen if you couldn't sleep. You would probably go insane.

It's not that the choice is hard to make. It takes only a look at Van's soulless eyes for the humanity in you to reject that option. . . . Something in you isn't quite comfortable with Zane's lack of discipline, either, but it's not as bad as Van.

So you lean toward humanity, toward telling stories and making friends and falling in love. You try to ignore the reminders of what you are, the flashes of bloodied limbs that pass behind your eyes sometimes, the moments when you shy away from physical contact because something feral in you still doesn't trust human beings.

You're human, mostly. And you know that's the better option.

--

You can't remember when you fell in love with Zack. The closest you can figure is some time while you were with Ethan, before Zack shot him. You cried when you found him dead, but it was more relief than sorrow.

You do remember exactly when you first kissed Zack, first took him into bed, first threw him out of his routine traveling. It was less than twenty-four hours after Ethan, less than a thousand miles from the bloody corpse in Detroit. Zack only left you when Jondy called the contact number, worried because he was more than a week late to check in on her.

You remember finding out about Van, a year later when the twins dropped in and Pike was showing you the latest picture he'd been able to get of her.

"You know," Krit said to Pike, though he was watching you look at the photo, "you really should leave her alone."

"Or what, she'll smash my nose again?" Pike returned flippantly.

Krit shrugged. "Or Zack might turn a couple million dollars' worth of biotechnology into ketchup."

"What the hell are you talking about? Zack's always wanted to turn me into ketchup. Van's got nothing to do with it."

"He's screwing her again," said Krit, with a careful eye on you and your reaction.

"He isn't!" cried Pike, sharp and pitiful.

"Hell yeah," Krit argued. "I was at her place last week and it reeked of Zack and sex. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they're not estranged any more."

"Fuck," Pike wailed.

"Chill. She never liked you anyway, and you know it."

"Yeah, but . . . but . . . Fuck, Krit! This is just terrible! Right, Ben? It's terrible isn't it, Zack stealing your crush?"

You nodded silently. There were worse things, though, like your big sister stealing Zack.

You remember going to Utah and telling her to back off. She beat you black and blue, not out of jealousy, but out of offense that you'd aimed a kick at her head when the two of you argued. She's always had the same cold heartless way that Zack does, and it still makes you bitter to think how perfectly they fit together.

You don't know why you hate Van so much. You knew all along that Zack didn't love you, and you know he never loved her either. He's never tried to hide the one-night stands, the bruises and scrapes that aren't from fights. Maybe you just wanted to be the only serious one--and it's serious with Van, even if there's no love lost between them.

You try not to think of her much. After three years, you're pretty good at it.

--

Zack is waiting for you when you unlock the door and walk into your apartment. He's been gone longer than usual, almost two months, and you've missed him more than you dare admit. You smile and stride toward him with opened arms.

He doesn't walk over to meet you, doesn't return your smile or embrace or kiss.

You pull back and look at him with one eye narrowed. You're not really surprised, though.

"It's over, Ben," he says. His voice is low and quiet, but his calm only makes the words sting more.

No, you're not surprised. You knew all along that he was fickle, selfish, uncaring. It was a mistake to love him at all, and that mistake has compounded day by day until this moment.

"Zack," you moan. Your voice cracks--you can't even manage the dignity of dry eyes, an unwavering jaw, a stoic acceptance of what was inevitable.

But was it inevitable, really? You can't think of a reason Zack would leave you like this, forever. It's not for someone else-- the one-night stands and Van never kept him from coming back to you. He can't be tired of you, because he would have drifted away slowly, not just come back one day to break it off. You know he likes the convenience of having you right there, ready and eager any time he wants you. You doubt he's suddenly developed a moral code that forbids illicit affairs or sleeping with another man.

You won't ask him his reasons. He wouldn't answer, and it doesn't really matter anyway.

You will beg him to stay, though. You'll try to seduce him into one more time, and another time after that--like Scheherazade spinning her stories night after night, genies in lamps and treasures in caves and brave sailors slaying monsters, until the sultan finally forgot he'd ever wanted to chop off her head. But you've poured your heart and soul and humanity into loving Zack, and all of that is at stake now. If Scheherazade had failed, all she had to lose was a life already set to end at dawn.

"Please, Zack," you whisper.

You don't wait for an answer before you kiss him again, slowly, mouth, jaw, neck, down to the collar of his tee shirt.

He doesn't try to stop you.

You keep kissing your way down. You know he can feel your lips through the shirt as clearly as a normal man would feel on bare skin. Your hand goes on ahead, stops on the front of his jeans, strokes idly while it waits for your mouth to catch up. How can he tell you it's over, when he can't convince his own body not to want you?

He doesn't try to stop you. That means you've got a chance, and a chance is all you really need. You'll make him take back what he said--sometimes words don't mean a thing coming from Zack.

"Please, Zack," you beg again as you finish sinking to your knees and start working his belt and button and zipper.

He doesn't try to stop you.

You've done this a thousand times before and never once felt ashamed. This time, though, you feel cheap and dirty, guilty for stooping this low to manipulate him. . . . But then, does he deserve respect and honesty? Has he been treating you any better than you're treating him right now? He deserves to have his mind screwed over. You still have the power to do that--you've always had a little power over him, even though he's stubborn, even though it's always been just sex to him, even though his hold on you has always been so much stronger.

He doesn't try to stop you, doesn't try to stop himself from enjoying this.

It takes only minutes, you know, but the time seems to stretch as you kneel there. Seconds are multiplied by your dread for what might come next, Zack saying again that it's over and suiting his actions to his words. Minutes seem like hours as you pay such close attention to all the familiar details, make certain you'll remember Zack's taste and feel and the sounds of groans too quiet for a normal ear to hear. He feels and tastes and sounds just like he always does. You thought last times were meant to be different, regretful and tender. You remember that Zack doesn't harbor regrets, and no matter how gentle he is, he'll never be tender.

You're finished suddenly as he groans and shudders, then pulls away still breathing hard.

You get to your feet, lick your dry lips, swallow. You're right there beside him the moment his jeans are fastened again, arms wrapped around his waist and shoulders, lips at the corner of his mouth.

"Please, Zack," you murmur.

"It's over, Ben." This time his words are real, because he pushes you away and walks past you to the door.

You don't try to stop him.

You stand there in your apartment, arms empty, ears full of his footsteps fading away, the taste of him still fresh in your mouth.

You can feel your heart breaking. Tears aren't strong enough to express pain like this, but they're all you have.

--

You stand in front of Van's house, a tiny square of adobe and stucco with a drooping, thick-trunked eucalyptus tree and some weeds dying in the draught El Paso has been under. It's four in the morning, and the side of her house is still radiating heat left over from the day.

There are two windows in the front of the house, and you pick the one by the door. It's open; it has to be for the swamp cooler to work. You push it open the rest of the way and step inside. Van's living room is about what you expected--three computers, mountains of papers and books, a sofa that looks ready to fall apart. Your shoe sticks a bit on the floor. Van's not much of a housekeeper. Most of your brothers and sisters aren't.

You pull out your knife as you turn down a short hallway to find her bedroom, on the other side from a bathroom and a heater closet, past a framed photograph of somebody else's family. The photo probably came with the house, and Van hasn't bothered to take it down. You wonder what kind of people would leave their family portrait on the wall when they moved out.

It's a good thing you didn't use the bedroom window--the double bed is pushed up against it, and Van, in nothing but white cotton panties, is sprawled on top. Like a shadow, you drift across the room, lean over her, lay the blade against her throat. Her eyes snap open at the contact and her body tenses almost imperceptibly. "Ben?" she whispers harshly, too surprised to say anything more.

"What did you do?" you hiss.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" she hisses back.

You press the blade until a dark trickle appears against the edge. The smell of her blood makes you light-headed. It takes conscious effort not to think of what would happen if you kept pressing--crow-black eyes glossed over, copper skin marked by dried red smears, strong hand gone limp and cold.

She winces, actually winces, at the pain and the threat of death.

"Did you make him give up the one-night stands too, Van? Or am I just special?"

"Oh," she says, suddenly soft. She raises a hand and lays it gently on your shoulder, and looks up at you with unusual sympathy in her eyes. "Oh, little brother. Didn't he tell you why?"

You shake your head, ease up on the blade a little.

The moment your guard is relaxed, your back hits the floor. She has you pinned with a knee on your chest and a hand squeezing your throat, breasts swinging from the motion of throwing you down. Her grip is barely light enough that you don't black out-- she's always had perfect, deliberate control of her hands, never a twitch, never a slip. Your knife is gone, and you have no idea where it is now.

"You're bullshitting yourself, Ben," Van snarls. "Like I give a flying fuck if you're Zack's bitch? Like I could get that asshole to stop screwing around? Like he'd come back to you if you knocked me off? You're fuckin' delusional."

Her hand tightens the slightest bit. She probably didn't intend it--she doesn't seem to notice your struggle to stay conscious. Her voice starts to stretch and warp in time with the room's erratic tilting.

"I'll tell you what happened, Ben. He found Max, hasn't fucked anything since that doesn't look like her. . . . He doesn't want me. . . . He doesn't want you. . . . He's not coming back to either of us. . . . "

You hope desperately that your oxygen-starved mind is twisting her words around into something they're not--if what you're hearing is true, then there would be no reason to keep going, no reason to resist Van's hand slowly cutting off your life. . . . But maybe resistance does no good anyway. Maybe you're just denying her coldly accurate prediction, and he really isn't coming back.

Everything is fading to black, when the chokehold suddenly disappears. Van shrinks away, rocking back on her heels with a shudder. You sit up, pulling in huge gasping breaths between fits of coughing.

She folds her arms loosely over her knees as she watches you. Her breasts are left exposed, but she knows her woman's body won't ever interest you. Her throat is bared too, and that's the part of her that has your attention. The blood has stopped flowing, and is beginning to dry in trickles down to her collar bone. You're fascinated by the violence you were willing to commit, by the blood scent still in the air, by the vulnerability under her stony demeanor.

It's just before dawn now, and there's a cold blue light filtering in through the window. Out of all of you, Van's face has changed the most since the escape, chiseled and bronzed and solemn where it used to be soft and pale and almost sweet. In the pre-dawn light, she still reminds you of the girl who sprinted with Brin into the woods.

You cough again, then raise a hand to your throat and wince at the bruises you feel forming.

"Serves you right," says Van. "Psycho."

"I hate you."

"You try any more shit, and I'll kick your lily ass into the middle of next week."

You jump to your feet, fight off a brief wave of dizziness. "Yeah right," you snap.

She rises slowly, quiet feral dignity betrayed only by the fury in her eyes. "I'm bigger, stronger, and not insanely jealous of someone Zack isn't even fucking any more."

"He didn't leave you," you argue.

Van doesn't answer, just stands there looking at you. You dart forward to tackle her, but she dodges. You don't have time to regain your balance before she grabs you by the collar of your shirt and throws you toward the open door. You hit the wall beside it, face-first. Before the stars can clear, she pulls you away and tosses you through the door and into the hallway's wall. The family portrait falls from its nail at your impact, and the glass shatters on the floor. She walks right over the shards after propelling you into the living room. You manage to stumble to a stop before you hit the wall there--Van catches up soon, though, and smacks you hard against the front door.

She lets you lean dizzily against a bookcase for a moment while she opens the front door. You look back the way you came, see the trail of her bloody footprints across the dirty linoleum, wonder if that'll be enough to make her mop the floor.

"He left me," Van insists as she gathers you up to toss you out into the yard.

You could have avoided the eucalyptus trunk if you'd been in better shape. You should have been smarter than to tangle with Van, you think as the dried leaves shower down around you.

"Ask Pike," her suggestion registers through the fog of adrenaline and pain. "He was here when it happened."

There's a thump above you, a lighter shower of leaves, and you look up. The knife blade is buried in the tree trunk, inches from the top of your head. You're not sure if Van missed her target, or just meant to make you nervous.

"I don't want to see your face around here again," she says. You turn around just in time to see the front door close.

You reach up and pull the knife from the tree. The blade still has her blood on it, and you don't bother to clean it before putting it back in its sheath. You lean against the tree for support, until your legs feel steady again. It feels like a long time before you can walk away.


Ben.

Max?

Ben, why are you doing this?

You know why.


You would ask Pike about Van, but you don't have the slightest idea where to find him. Few people ever do.

The next best thing is Krit, because somehow or another they always know about what the other's been up to. You need someone who listens, anyway, and Pike was never strong in that department. Krit has an address in New Orleans, and that's where you've gone.

It's four in the morning when you arrive at his door. He might be asleep, or he might not. You knock softly; he'll hear, because he sleeps as lightly as a dove.

There's shuffling inside, and Krit opens the door in wrinkled jeans and rumpled hair and a sleepy look more pronounced than ever. His brain is following at least five conscious trains of thought, and even groggy he can kill a man before anybody knows what's happening--but if you didn't know him, you'd never believe any of that.

"Ben?" he asks as he rubs one eye with the heel of his hand. "Wasn't expecting you."

"Hi."

"Come in." He nods over his shoulder and steps back so you can enter. He looks you over--he can't hide his inspection from you, and he doesn't try. He doesn't ask about the fading fingerprints on your throat or the way your face is still a little swollen, just puts a hand on your shoulder and gives you a concerned look. "You okay, Ben?"

"No."

"Zack?" You never did tell Krit about you and Zack, but it seems like he's always known. He always seemed to know about Joel and Ethan too. Breakups are the only reason you've ever come knocking on his door like this, unannounced, empty-handed, travel-worn.

"He left me."

"Shit," Krit mutters. It sounds more like he's annoyed for his own sake than for yours. You wonder if it's because Zack's screwing him now and your visit spells trouble--Krit's not above using sex to get what he wants, and you've wondered before about him and Zack.

"What do you mean?" you ask.

"Zack's an asshole 'n' you should be glad he's gone." Krit sounds almost like he thinks that's a real answer. He said the exact same thing about Ethan, four years ago, but it made so much more sense then.

He walks across the apartment to the miniature kitchen and finds a blue plastic glass and a jug of that moonshine he makes. He fills the cup and hands it to you. "Talk, Ben."

You've never had anything stronger than beer before, and the first swallows of Krit's whiskey burn almost as much as remembering the last time you saw Zack. Your throat adjusts and your sorrows lighten some as you stand there talking. Neither hurts quite as much when the story is over.

Krit refills your glass, and watches you closely as you take another swallow--you're not looking at him, but you can feel his eyes. "Zack's an asshole," he observes again as he refills the coffee mug he's been drinking his booze from.

You can't remember when he got his drink, or when the two of you sat down on the bed that's about all the furniture he has, or when the whiskey jug got as light as it seems now as he sets it back down on the floor, or why he's sitting so close that his shoulder brushes yours when he moves.

You stare down into your drink. The cup is a cheap plastic impression of frosted glass, made to hold innocent things like lemonade or milk or orange juice. In it, the moonshine looks almost like iced tea.

"Van says he dumped her too," you say.

"Pike told me about that," Krit agrees.

"She says he found Max."

"Oh yeah, Ben, he found Max." Krit's got a sly smile on his face when you look up at him, but he jumps right back to that expression that could mean almost anything.

You sigh and swallow more whiskey. "I tried to kill Van."

"So that's what happened to you, big brother." He reaches up and brushes his fingers against your still-bruised cheek. He must remember Ethan, must have been afraid it'd gone the same way with Zack.

"She'd be dead right now, if she wasn't as sharp as she is."

"You wouldn't be sorry about that," Krit notes.

"Yes I would." You'd be sorry that you couldn't keep your predatory instincts in check. You'd be sorry that the thoughts her blood stirred up had been beyond your control. You'd be sorry that you were losing your grip on humanity.

Krit cocks his head to one side. "Why?"

"If I killed her, it would mean I'd gone mental."

"It would mean you were jealous." He brushes your cheek again, and you wince a little this time.

"Mental," you insist. You don't want to explain it. It just is. Maybe Krit doesn't have moments like that and he can't understand.

Nobody says anything, and nobody moves.

Krit finally shifts, moving smoothly to kneel on the floor in front of you and put his other hand on your other shoulder. "You seen Syl lately?" he asks. You wonder about the change of subject. Maybe he's done all the listening he can handle.

"Last year," you say. "Why?"

"You think she was crazy?"

"Of course not." You look at him curiously, trying to decide how his face has changed in the last few seconds. He seems a little more calculating now, almost the way he looks when he sets out to talk his way into a naive stranger's money or seduce someone who's still half reluctant to come home with him. He's never used that expression much around you, and it's a little unnerving to wonder what's going through his head.

"She ever tell you about that guy she killed?"

"What guy?"

You notice a slight tension in Krit's lips. Most of the change has been in his eyes, though--harder, brighter, more alert.

"Zane tells me she killed this guy back in '15, right before he visited her. It was totally random, totally unprovoked. Z-man freaked out when she told him, high-tailed it back to Oklahoma."

"That's not sane," you say.

"You thought she just fine when you saw her."

"Maybe she wasn't really," you speculate darkly. Maybe there's something insane lurking inside all of you, in Van and Zack and Krit and Brin. Maybe even in Zane--maybe what scared him about Syl was that he almost understood why she did it.

Krit barks a laugh, amused at the way his analogy's been turned around, and runs his hands up and down your arms, from shoulders to elbows and back. "Well, no, Ben, that's not what I mean. Syl's okay--she's got her job and her apartment and everything, she hasn't done anything else fucked-up. Everybody does insane things once in a while, even normal people. I think we've got more right to it than they do, growing up like we did. . . . And if you killed Van, at least you got a reason. There's shitloads of jilted lovers out there who've done much stupider things with a hell of a lot less cause."

"You don't get it," you tell him.

"Explain it to me, then."

"Something in me wanted blood, and pain, and death. Like some animal."

"What else are you meant to want for the bitch? Sunshine and daisies? Hell, I want to kill Van sometimes. Somebody needs to save Pike from himself, and if she got iced, that just might do it."

You shake your head--he just doesn't understand. "You ever get nightmares, Krit?"

"You mean like about experiments and shit?" he asks.

"Like Jack getting dragged off, or us killing that Nomaly."

"Not those," says Krit. None of those ever did seem to bother him. "Why?"

"Forget it, Krit."

"Okay."

"What's Max like?" you ask, since Krit might know.

He takes a moment to reply, keeps on rubbing your arms through the sleeves of your shirt. "I hear she's a bad-ass, wouldn't listen to Zack when he told her to leave town, likes to steal things. I think that makes about nine of us kleptomaniacs, right? Me and Pike and Zack and Tinga and--"

"What's she look like?"

Krit shifts uneasily. "I hear she's pretty."

"What kind of pretty?" you prod after he doesn't elaborate.

Krit shrugs. "How many kinds of pretty are there?"

"A lot," you tell him. "What kind of pretty is Max?"

"Oh . . . Tall, skinny, kinda Hispanic-Asian."

You close your eyes, and drain your glass as you try to form a picture of Max in your head. Krit's hands disappear from your arms, and one of them brushes your fingers as he pulls your glass away to refill it.

Your eyes snap open to look at him as he empties the last of the moonshine into your cup, and then it hits you--he's tall, skinny, kinda Hispanic-Asian. You tip your head to one side. "How'd you hear about Max, anyway?"

He watches you cautiously as he hands back the glass, and he doesn't touch you. He's turned evasive and sneaky now, you note- -it's a side of him you've hated the few times he's shown it to you, but it's also one he can't quite get away from when things get dicey.

"I walked in on him screwing this girl, and then he put the moves on me the next day. Turns out me and the girl both look like Max."

It's no shock to hear that about Max. It wasn't even a shock when you guessed it a second ago. "So you slept with him, Krit?"

Krit raises one eyebrow and puts a tentative hand back on your shoulder. "There was nothing I wanted from him," he tells you.

"You're not answering my question." You hate it when Krit gives you answers that aren't really answers. Asking for explanations hasn't helped much before--he's just kept pussy-footing around-- but you're giving it a try anyway.

"Does it make any difference if I did?" Krit asks softly. He leans closer to you and his hand moves from your shoulder to your neck, brushing your barcode and the base of your skull and your back under your shirt collar. "He's horny, I'm easy, it wouldn't mean shit to either of us."

"It matters." You like Krit. You'd hate to lose him over Zack, but you know you couldn't take it if they were lovers. He would be another Van, and he might end up dead because he wouldn't be as quick and brutal with you as she had to be--he just doesn't have it in him to smack you around.

"Is there a difference here between 'would' and 'did'?" he asks.

"Just tell me."

"There was nothing I wanted from him. So I didn't. Never have, either."

You believe it, because Krit hardly ever lies outright, and because it's what you want to hear. You close your eyes, let him pull you into his arms and plant gentle kisses on your cheek.

"You would, though," you murmur. Even when Krit says something directly, there's a half that he leaves out.

"Yeah," he admits, breath warm against your cheek, hands untucking your shirt little by little and sliding over your bare skin underneath. "Most of us would, I think."

"You think?"

"Yeah. Pike and Zane are too damned straight, and Tinga's got her Charlie, but the rest of us would. The other girls don't have Charlies, so they go looking when they're in heat. And I'll screw anything in a skirt or a pair of pants, if they're cute or I'll get something out of it. . . . "

You open your eyes, look sideways at him. All you can see is hair and an ear. There's the faintest traces of a scar on his earlobe, aged tooth marks that somehow make you think of Syl. "What about me, Krit?"

"You loved him. Nobody's doubting that, Ben."

You twist out of Krit's arms and push him away. "No--am I cute or are you getting something?"

"What the hell would I get out of you, Ben?"

You shake your head, trying to clear the fog he's been creating little by little ever since he let you into the apartment. "I don't know. Something. Anything. Maybe you just want someone to play your twisted little mind games on."

"Ben, I wouldn't. You're too . . . too . . . too sweet, too innocent. I feel sorry for you, losing Zack like that, and I want you to feel better, maybe do something to take your mind off that bastard."

You jump to your feet, furious with him. "You look like the girl he left me for! How can this not be a mind game?"

"Because fucking with your head would be like kicking a puppy dog." Krit stays on the floor--you figure it's so you're the taller one and you feel less threatened.

"It's a mind game," you insist. "Everything is with you."

"Not everything. Not even most things."

"I wish you'd just admit it, Krit."

"Fine." He looks up at you with wide, sincere eyes. "I hate Zack's guts. You're his ex. He wants to fuck me but I won't let him." Krit pauses, offering you a guess.

"And it'd be a slap in the face if we were sleeping together," you say.

"Exactly." Krit smiles and gets to his feet, trails his thumb over your cheekbone and behind your ear, kisses you. "Don't tell me you don't want that, Ben," he whispers against your lips.

"I don't know. Not now."

Krit nods and steps back. "Okay."

You shiver, suddenly cold without the heat of his chest against you, his arms around your back, his lips on yours.

--

You've been in New Orleans almost a week and haven't left Krit's apartment once. He's been in and out, picking pockets, running scams, smuggling, brewing his moonshine, whatever he does. You talk with him when he's home. When he's gone, you sleep in the bed or just sit cross-legged on the floor and think the way that's going to drive Jondy batty one of these days. You sit there thinking when Krit's in bed asleep, too--he's invited you to sleep with him, no sex if you don't want it, but you're reluctant to do even that. You haven't touched him this whole time, no matter how often he brushes you or puts an arm casually around you while you two talk.

To tell the truth, you still can't get over his similarity to Max. You stare at him constantly, memorizing his features and guessing at what the feminine version would look like. You don't blame Zack for liking her . . . but you've looked at men you've liked, and you never left Zack over one, never even cheated on him all those four years.

It's Saturday morning now--almost five o'clock, judging by the slow bleed of light into the cold blue sky. Krit left the apartment this time yesterday and hasn't come home yet. You're not worried, because you know this is just how he is. He says he stays out all night every Friday because of parties and all the business deals to be make between dance sets. You've always thought it's just a feline need to prowl, because he's also been known to not come home on days of the week when there aren't a lot of parties. You're sitting on the floor, concentrating on listening for his footsteps coming down the hall.

Your attention is rewarded twelve minutes later, and Krit comes in the door looking rumpled and smug. He greets you before pulling his shirt over his head and tossing it into the corner with the heap of other laundry.

"Good night?" you ask as he's stepping out of his jeans.

"The best," he says.

"Boxers with little red hearts," you observe as the pants go sailing into the corner after the shirt. You've never seen those before, on him or in his laundry heap or in the dresser drawers he's been lending you clothes out of because you came here without any luggage. They're too loose on him, and he had to hold on to the waistband to keep from dropping them with his jeans.

"Yup," Krit agrees. "Didn't think they really made those, did you?" He drops into the bed, landing on his stomach and pulling the sheet over his head in one efficient move. He's slept on his stomach for as long as you can remember, and it's one of the few predictable things about him.

You've heard it takes twenty minutes to fall asleep, but Krit does it in under five, the same way every one of you drops off when they want to. You sit there, watch the lump under the sheet rise and fall, match your breathing to his, wait for his scent to spread through the apartment. You could smell the beer on him the moment he walked in the door--he was probably drinking right up to the moment he decided to come home, and you know he'll have an ugly hangover when he wakes up in four hours. Soon you can also smell traces of sultry perfume and aftershave that isn't his, and somehow that bothers you.

"Krit," you hiss.

He moves under the sheet, pulls it off his head and props himself up on his elbows to look at you.

"Who'd you sleep with last night?"

"Nobody you know," he assures you. "And 'sleep' is the wrong word."

"But who?"

"I was fooling around with Amy O'Hara in a club, and then I went home with a guy named Jean I found at a gay bar after Amy decided she'd rather be with Bubba Grant. God knows why anybody would want to go home with Bubba. But like I said, it was nobody you know."

You don't reply. You try to keep your expression neutral, but Krit must see something in it.

"Jealous, Ben?"

You shrug.

"There's plenty of me to go around," he reminds you.

"You're like Zack that way."

"Ohhhh," he says knowingly. "I'm sorry. It's just that I waited around for you for a week and that's a damned long time for me to go without getting laid."

"I've gone longer," you tell him coolly.

"You could grow spider webs waiting around for Zack to come screw you again," he remarks.

"Do you fool around all the time," you return, "or just between relationships?"

"The only relationship I ever really had was two years ago, and that was before I did much fooling around. We lasted a month and we broke up 'cause Steve got distracted by another boy."

You wrinkle your nose. "You were all of what, fifteen?" You were fourteen, Joel was twenty, he used you and you've come to regret starting so young.

"Sixteen," says Krit. "And Steve's my age, so it's not like you with Joel or Ethan. I still see him sometimes--slept with him last month, actually. First loves got a lot going for them, you know? . . . Anyway, I don't think I fool around while I'm in a relationship." Krit bats his eyes and gives you a coy little smile. "Wanna help me find out for sure?"

You don't answer, just stand up and walk out the door, leaving Krit sitting there wearing his borrowed shorts and an expression of surprise behind his five o'clock shadow.

You wander for blocks and blocks, shivering a little without the sun yet out to send up a muggy Louisiana heat, steering wide paths around the scattering of other early-rising pedestrians. Your pace is as rapid as you dare use in public, every brisk, measured step trying to release a bit of your frustration with Krit but not making any difference that you can tell.

Maybe your marching would help more if you knew exactly why it bothered you that he'd picked up a guy last night. You knew that 'fidelity' isn't in his vocabulary. He's never liked being trapped or tied down, by perimeter fences, by orders, by sector checkpoints, by anything or anybody, and least of all by something he entered into voluntarily. You wonder for a moment if you love him--but you wouldn't, so soon after Zack. You're not the kind to move quickly between men; when you fall in love, you fall hard, and you fall for keeps, no matter how self- destructive it is. You left Joel only because Zack made you move, and it was a month before you got involved with Ethan. That ended when Ethan died, after Zack had seen the bruises on your face and arms, asked point-blank if you liked rough sex, found out you didn't. It's true you slept with Zack the next night, but you'd fallen out of love with Ethan a long time before. . . . Maybe you fell out of love with Zack, too, before he left you.

It's nearly an hour of fruitless walking, rising sun at your back, before you hear the bells striking six, look up and see the tower rising above the other buildings, blocks away from you. There's an odd comfort to it, history and permanence in every stone, a solemn grounding influence in each peal. You work your way toward the church, and with every step you feel less and less lost in your sea of feelings and memory and heartache.

You've reached the heavy front doors by the time you hear Krit jogging behind you. You stop and turn, wait for him as he takes the front steps two at a time to reach you.

"Ben . . . " He looks you in the eye and puts a hand on your shoulder. He still smells like beer and another man's aftershave, and with more sunlight now you start to notice the tiny red vessels in his bloodshot eyes.

You jerk away, snap at him not to touch you, turn your back to him and reach for the door's handle.

He puts his hand right back, turns you around to look at him. "Ben, I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd be upset like that. Steve wouldn't've been, Zack wouldn't've been, I--"

Your right hook connects with his jaw before he sees it coming, and he backs up a few steps, nearly losing his balance on the stairs he encounters in the process. You wonder exactly how drunk he still is, that his balance could be so faulty. He gives the steps a quick glance to correct his memory, then raises his fists defensively in case you plan to hit him again.

"I'm not Steve or Zack," you growl at him.

"You hit better than either of 'em," says Krit with a wry grin.

"I'm not you either."

He doesn't answer, and you don't continue.

Krit's smile fades as he goes serious again.

"Look," he sighs, dropping his fists and running one hand through his hair. Even though he's been awake for an hour, ever since you left, he hasn't done a thing to fix his case of bed head. He's a sorry sight in his stubble and mussed hair and wrinkled clothes. "Ben . . . I am sorry. You're just not like anybody else I've ever wanted to sleep with, and I don't really know what to do with that. Sex and cheating and everything, it all means so much more to you."

You narrow your eyes at him. "I think it does to a lot of people, if you get to know them before going to bed."

"I'm sorry."

"Let's talk inside." You nod over your shoulder to the door, open it and slip through, leave it ajar for Krit as you wait for him in the foyer.

He doesn't follow you.

"Krit?" you call. "Come inside."

His face appears slowly in the doorway, peering inside with rounded eyes, jaw tense, Adam's apple bobbing as he tries to swallow with a dry throat. You're not sure whether it's wonder or caution or both.

"Can't," he says, eyeing the candles and stained glass and altar and crucifix--you decide that it's not wonder or caution in his eyes. It's fear.

"Why not?"

"Churches freak me out. They remind me of Manticore."

You laugh, and it's far too loud against the silence of the sanctuary.

Krit waits for the last echoes to fade, then reaches an arm inside to point out the church's features. "Look at it, Ben. Teeny-tiny confessionals, like if you crossed an interrogation room and an isolation cell. Altar's too much like a gurney. The whole crucifixion thing sounds like something Lydecker would make up. And it's always quiet, so you feel like you're under silence orders again. And don't even get me started on the Virgin Mary. . . . "

You look around at all the things he's described, and you see nothing but oak and stone and paint--no cold steel or endless institutional-white corridors. "Krit." You chuckle again, because it's just so ridiculous. "How could you be scared of a church?"

"Look, I'm serious. It's like you getting nightmares about Jack and that Nomaly--that's what you carried with you when we left. This is what I carried. . . . You stay if you want, but I'm going home before this headache gets worse. You know where to find me."

He pulls out of the doorway and you hear him walking away, the rhythm of his steps so slightly erratic that no normal person would ever notice.

You stay behind, because it feels like none of your past could ever follow you into this sanctuary, even if Krit's haunts him most here. You sit in a hard wooden pew and let your eyes roam until Krit's comparisons start flickering more and more frequently behind your eyes. And suddenly, the demons become Nomalies, you can't stop seeing Jack in martyred saints' faces, Mary's comfort is lost in swirling memories of seizures and roofs and teeth.

You can't stand it here any more, and you leave too.

--

You're sitting cross-legged on the floor when Krit comes home Monday with mail. He tosses you a manila envelope labeled with his alias and post office box number and a return address you recognize as Van's, then goes over to the kitchenette's counter and starts opening business envelopes.

"What's this?" you ask.

He glances up from the bill he's reading. "'Sfor you."

"It says 'Christopher Boone.'"

He shrugs. "She meant 'Ben Kirszner.' Open it."

You rip off the envelope's top, slide out a report with a familiar logo in the corner. . . . Words fail you as you stare up at Krit, so you just pull in an awed breath.

"Save it," he suggests. "Van's the one who got that for you."

You mouth the word three times before you can get your throat to make the sound to match: "Why?"

"Oh," Krit shrugs, "you're her little brother and she cares about you. In a kinda warped way."

"We almost killed each other ten days ago."

"Well, she cared about you a lot more after I sent her two thousand dollars and promised to keep Pike away from El Paso for the next month so she won't do something regrettable when she's in heat."

You scan the report, read about Lydecker's near-capture of Max and Zack in Seattle. It's cold and factual and down to business, and it misses everything important--the changes that night made in Zack, the ways that it didn't change him, all the pain it's caused. The report doesn't come close to answering your questions. What's so important about Max? Why couldn't you fit into his life along with her? Does she love him back at all?

"Coulda got her to steal some of the stuff they found in Zack's apartment," Krit remarks, "but she wasn't willing to risk that for the money I could give her up front. I don't think she trusts me to pay up later."

You flip back to the page that's a scan of a block of classified ads. One was circled on the original newspaper sheet, Max's barcode printed for the world to see. 332960073452 . . .

For the first time in years, the first time since Zack left you, you think back to the way things used to be between you and her. You think back to stories whispered so the guards wouldn't hear, shadow puppets made with your hands when the search lights swept over the windows, the way two years' age and a desire to entertain put you in such a place of adoration. Zack and Van and Eva commanded more respect from her, always did--but she never smiled for them, never asked them for stories, never kept them awake for hours because she couldn't get enough of their words and ideas.

It amazes you how quickly and thoroughly you came to hate her. Just having her identified as the root of Zack's desertion was enough that years of hero worship, years of big-brother concern, every story you made up just to see her smile, all of it became nothing. Maybe you shouldn't have let it all go so easily.

"She doesn't love him, you know," Krit says, and your memories dissolve into the present. He's leaning on his elbow against the countertop and tapping an envelope against the crook of his thumb and palm. "Van says he was moping about how Max turned him down flat before she found out who he was. 'Tell me, Grasshopper, what's the sound of one hand slapping you upside the head?'"

You snicker, and Krit grins.

"You should be glad Zack hasn't been by here," he continues. "Van says he's very, very annoying when he gets to whining about rejection, and it wasn't worth listening at all 'cause he didn't even try screwing her to dull the pain."

"Hmm."

"She loved him too, you know. . . . Or at least got as close as she's capable of--she was upset that he left."

You remember the way she almost strangled you without meaning to, the shiver that rippled through her as she pulled away, the fury she let out by slamming you into walls.

You look back down to flip through the detached and useless report again, and Krit turns back to opening his envelopes.

"Do you miss Max?" you ask him after a minute.

He pauses to think, probably not about the question but about how you'll respond to his answer. "Hell yes," he says quietly. "Do you?"

You nod.

Krit stares wistfully out the window over your head, at the rusting ironwork on the building across the street. "You know what's funny, Ben? I wasn't really close to her in Manticore, like I was with Pike or Zane, but now I feel like half of myself's gone missing. . . . I guess you take people for granted when you spend so much time with them, and you don't realize how important they are to you until they're gone."

You wonder if Krit matters more than you think. . . . And when he turns back to his mail, you stand up and move across the apartment and slide your hand across his back as you head out the door.


Do you hate yourself that much? Hate what you're doing that much?


If Krit has been playing games with you, he's won. And when it happened, you never noticed and you wouldn't have cared. All that mattered since you first reached out to touch him on Monday was touching him again.

You went back to the church when you left the apartment. It still held the same comfort and peace as it first did, and this time you weren't driven away by nightmarish comparisons. You were pulled home instead, by images of Krit, by memories of him touching you, by your fingers' tingling to reach out to him again.

It had gotten muggier while you were in the church, and it was muggier still by the time you got home. The air conditioner was broken, and Krit hadn't been able to get ahold of Zane for advice--so he was stripped to the waist as he stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes.

He heard you come in, of course, but he didn't turn around when he greeted you. It didn't make any difference; you came right up behind him, flattened your palms against his shoulders and ran your hands over his back, slid them around to his belly and held him against you.

"Change of heart?" he asked. Your goal couldn't have been more obvious, pressing into the back of his thigh, and he couldn't have kept the delight out of his voice if he'd wanted to.

You kissed him, ran your lips all over the back of his neck and shoulders, over the barcode you could almost feel burning against his skin. He moaned deep in his throat, almost below the range of human hearing. You pulled him with you to kneel on the floor, settled your chin in the crook of his neck while you dealt with his jeans. He turned his head back over his shoulder as you worked, neck twisting more like an owl's than a human being's, and he kissed you back.

If Krit's been playing games with you, that's the moment when he won. Even if you had noticed, you wouldn't have cared. Everything that mattered was him. Pulling off his clothes, touching every inch of his bare skin, pushing into him, feeling his back arch beneath you as he cried out your name again and again. . . . Him.

--

It started quickly, it's been going two months now, and it's going to fall apart any day. Oh, part of you wants to believe it'll last--but nothing's ever lasted before for you, not even when you thought there was no way away from Ethan and even when you thought Zack would always come back eventually. If Krit's been playing games, it's as good as over. He's never been one to stop and dwell on his victories.

Seventy-six hours ago, the ringing phone pulled Krit from bed in the dead of the night, and left you cold without his arms. He talked, quietly, urgently, begged the caller to wait and not do anything, promised to be right there. He came back to you, dropped a kiss on your forehead, whispered goodbye. You asked who that was and what it was about, but he ignored your questions as he pulled on his clothes and left you to finish your night's sleep alone.

You expected him home the next morning, and he never came. You expected him home that afternoon, and he didn't come then either. He wasn't back that evening, or the next day. You've been sitting here, waiting for him to walk in the door or call or send somebody to let you know he's okay, wondering what's going on that's so important and so secret, wondering if you'd rather not know, wondering if he has it in him to leave you like this and just not come back.

You jump when the phone rings, and dart across the apartment with inhuman speed to answer. Maybe it's him, maybe there's an explanation for this and no reason to worry, maybe . . .

But it isn't him. It's Van, voice tired, old, thickened almost imperceptibly as she asks for Krit.

"He's not here." He could be anywhere. He could have left New Orleans forever, and you wouldn't know.

"Fuck," she whispers. It takes her a second to say anything more. "Sit down, Ben."

You drop to the floor and fold your legs under you, and wait for Van to go on.

"It's Zack and Max. Stupid little cunt didn't get out of Seattle when she had a chance, so he turned himself in last week to save her. I just saw the report."

You hardly hear the rest of what she says, and when she hangs up you don't know what to do. Cry? For him, like for Ethan? For yourself and the fact you ever loved him? For whoever's out there who still had a reason to care? But you don't feel any tears welling up. You couldn't cry if you wanted, and its a strange feeling to have dry eyes right now.

Tell Krit? . . . Yes, tell Krit. Find him and tell him. Because he's out there, and he might care that Zack's gone. You've wondered about them before, and he's admitted that he would--and maybe some part of him deep down did care about Zack, beyond the power struggle and the manipulation. You would want to know, if you had somebody like that.

You get up to go looking for Krit, without any idea where he'd be or who to ask. You're out the door, running down the deserted hall, scrambling down the staircase toward the ground floor three stories down. You don't have to look far to find him--he's just crossing the street toward the building when you burst out the front door, and you stop dead in your tracks.

The corner of Krit's lip twitches nervously as he notices you, and he abandons some of his controlled movements to dodge slower- moving pedestrians as he hurries the rest of the way to meet you.

He doesn't touch you.

He always touches you, when he comes home, when he wakes up in the morning, when you smile, when you look at him, when he's telling a story about some prank he and Pike pulled on Zack once- -a hand on your shoulder, an arm around your waist, a quick brush of his lips against yours. But he's not touching you now, and he always . . .

"Ben?" he asks. "What's wrong?"

His clothes are rumpled, you think you can smell someone else's sweat on him, and the stark light before dawn leaves you unsure whether you see the edge of a hickey that his jacket collar doesn't quite cover.

But none of that matters. You reach out and pull him into your arms, and it takes him a moment to hug you back. There's no reason to cry for Zack after the way he used you, but you do anyway. You've always cried for the men you've lost--or maybe it's mourning your own folly and the parts of yourself you left with each of them.

"Oh, Ben, nothing happened, I swear nothing happened. It's not like--like--" He cuts himself off, because you've stopped crying and you've pushed yourself out of his arms and you're staring at him wondering what he's talking about. He's put his foot in his mouth and he knows it. They designed him smarter than that, he's not meant to ever say a word he doesn't mean to say, he should have done so much better.

"Ben, are you okay?" he asks. He never did like to explain himself. "What happened?"

"No," you whisper, head shaking side to side, suspicion and anger rising up again even with Zack still heavy on your mind. "You tell me. Where were you? What did you do? Why didn't you come back sooner?"

You wait a full minute for him to answer.

He doesn't.

You turn and start walking, the same aimless path that you never consciously recognize until the bell tower comes into sight.

--

Krit's sitting cross-legged on the bed when you get home. He doesn't get up to greet you, doesn't even speak for several minutes as you stand in the doorway waiting.

The sun's setting outside, though all you can see through the window is the changing shades of light on the building across the alley. You saw it already, anyway, before you came inside--you climbed up onto the roof, looked out over the rooftops around you, wondered why there wasn't the same sense of awe you remember from childhood. When did the world change? When did you stop trying so hard to categorize things as black and white, good and bad, us and them? The lines started blurring before you can even remember--before Jack disappeared, before you screamed questions to the sky but found no answers, before your loyalties turned completely and you scrambled over that fence into another world that was meant to be better but turned out to be every bit as hostile.

"About the other night," Krit finally starts, then trails off.

You push the door shut and lean back against it. He showered, shaved, and put on clean clothes while you were gone. Nobody's scent could survive so much soap, and no careless marks could show through the collar of the turtleneck that's too warm for this time of year. But you remember what he's trying to hide. Is lying to you such a black thing, if he knows you can see right through him? Couldn't it be a shade of gray, like other rationalizations and attempts to smooth out situations too rocky for anybody to come out really happy?

He starts again: "About this morning." And he doesn't finish this time either. Maybe it doesn't make any difference. You have an idea of what happened, thoughts of him tangled in someone else's bedsheets, him moaning someone else's name. Anything he could tell you would be just painful details, blackening the gray of the situation. You liked Krit better when he was closer to the white end of the spectrum--but he hasn't been there in a long time, maybe not since you parted ways outside Manticore.

Krit clears his throat. "Van called again while you were gone. She told me everything, wanted to know how you're dealing."

"I'm fine," you say. You're not, not quite, maybe never will be, and Krit knows it. But if you ignore it, it doesn't bother you as much. Isn't that something? Isn't that a step in the right direction?

"Now about the other night?" you ask. Maybe it's just painful details, but your curiosity has always had a morbid streak. There's not so much difference between explaining the nomilies in the basement and finding out where Krit's been and what he's done--is there?

"It was Steve on the phone," says Krit.

"And?" you ask after the silence starts to drag.

"And he was depressed and drunk and suicidal, and what the hell else was I supposed to do?"

"Since when do you care?" Maybe he doesn't now and never did.

What you know now, you knew two months ago when you first took him on the kitchen floor. You knew Krit's not the kind who can maintain a stable relationship. You knew he doesn't come close to understanding you, no matter how sincerely he apologized that morning you first found the church, no matter how hard he's tried to figure you out, no matter how much he's restrained himself for you and tried to give you what you need.

"Ben . . . " Krit sighs, runs a nervous hand through his hair. He's almost making eye contact with you, but not quite. "Ben, I care. I care a lot more than you'd think."

But he doesn't say what it is that he cares about--is it about Steve, about everything in life, about you?

No. Not about you. Never about you.

You don't answer him.

"Ben, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Why didn't you think about me earlier? They made you smart enough." Five trains of thought, and you thought you would have been in one of them when he contemplated sleeping with Steve--but you weren't.

Love is blind. Or infatuation is blind, or meaningless sex is blind. You're not sure any more how to classify what you have with Krit. He could be genuinely concerned for you. He could be just playing around with you like with everybody else. He could be using you toward some larger end. Or he could be exactly as much and as awkwardly in love as you were with Joel, fumbling with new emotions your trainers never warned you about, fighting against old habits of caution and detachment, more vulnerable than you ever feared or suspected. There's just no way to know for sure.

You thought you knew about you and Krit. You thought it was love. You thought he was telling the truth when he said he didn't fool around in a relationship. You wanted so badly to believe that, for once, you really would be the only one, not like with Joel, not like with Ethan, not like with Zack. You were sure Krit would want to save himself for you, and that they'd bred and drilled enough discipline that he could do it. You were sure that--on some level, in his odd way--he loved you.

"I'm sorry," Krit repeats. Why can't you take it at face value? Isn't anything he tells you outright always true? Isn't that the way it's always been? People don't change. He's still the Krit you grew up with, and he always will be.

"So you did do something wrong," you observe. So he lied when he said nothing happened, lied outright when he'd always been tenuously honest before. You can't trust anything he says any more, because people do change after all. But it's hard to notice, because it's subtle--they stop making exceptions to their ways, stop trying to be something they don't have it in them to be, and just become more and more like themselves.

"Ben--"

"You two never did break up completely, did you?" When he told you it had been Steve's fault, maybe that wasn't true either. Maybe both of them got distracted by other boys, and maybe he does fool around during relationships, and it's a slap in the face that he could lie to you about that when he knew he was exactly the kind of man you've always been with before--and maybe you haven't changed all that much either, even though you realize what a fool you've always been. Maybe you'll always be the exact same fool.

"Ben, don't be so paranoid."

That's no direct answer. There's so much room for interpretation, for facts he avoided mentioning. And he's made it about you, as if anything between him and Steve is just in your head.

You just stare at him, daring him to meet your eyes. He doesn't- -he probably couldn't hide his guilt if he did.

Krit gets to his feet, pads over to the kitchen, and starts scrubbing surfaces with a sponge that's so discolored you doubt it'll do any good. "Anyway," he says without turning to look at you. "Pike called too while you were gone. He was heading for El Paso, but I got him to come visit us instead. He'll be here tonight."

It's like you were just talking about the weather before.

--

Pike arrives about as expected. He bursts through the door without knocking, because he knows Krit heard his Jeep pull up outside. He barely glances at you, sitting on the floor by the bed, and pauses only long enough to toss his duffel and sleeping bag into the corner before tackling Krit with a playful bear hug. "I missed you!" he cries. "Life's dry as dust and twice as boring without you around!"

Krit chuckles and shakes his head. "I don't believe that for a minute."

"Well," Pike shrugs. He rolls off of Krit to sit on the floor, one leg tucked under himself and the other extended in front of him. "I had to cut back on a lot of stuff, 'cause I didn't have an evil twin around to blame things on. . . . "

Krit punches him in the shoulder and gets to his feet. "I hate it when you do that to me. Like in St. Paul, I spent a week in jail and they busted you too when you tried to break me out."

Pike grins happily behind his three-day stubble. "And how 'bout Rochester? Now that was something. Zack had a fit. I think that's the only time he's ever had a seizure."

Zack seized in your apartment once, too, when he'd cut back on tryptophan bit by bit until he wasn't taking any at all, trying to wean himself off of it. He hated his dependence on the drug, he told you as he lay sweat-drenched and pale on the bed and one arm twitched in the seizure's wake. He hated the weakness in his DNA that had made him collapse trembling onto your bathroom floor. . . . Maybe he kept coming back because you were a weakness too. Maybe he left because you're one of the few weaknesses he's ever been able to control. But how much control does he really have, if all he's done is swap you and Van for Max and Krit, one flaw for another? And if he was willing to go back to Manticore for her sake, wasn't she the more dangerous soft spot?

Krit shifts uneasily at Pike's mention of Zack. "And you've seen a few Mexican jails by now, right?" he asks.

Pike raises a fist and solemnly extends his thumb and first three fingers in turn as he recites his list. Ethan used to count that way; he'd been an army brat, and he'd spent so much of his childhood in Europe--you have no idea where Pike would have picked it up. "Leon, March '16, gas theft. Chihuahua, January '17, unlicensed firearm. Durango, April '17, assault. Veracruz, October '18, breaking and entering. What can I say, they love me."

Krit raises an eyebrow in surprise. "Nothing this year?"

"I've gone clean," says Pike with too straight a face.

"Riiiight."

"I haven't gotten caught," he corrects. The only change in his expression is a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "And how's your rap sheet, Krit?" "Nothing since St. Paul."

Pike gives him an incredulous look. "What the hell have you been doing with yourself, then?"

"Fraud, blackmail, smuggling, petty theft, and I've invested in a couple underground casinos." He leans down toward Pike's ear and whispers conspiratorially, "I haven't gotten caught either."

Pike laughs, too low-pitched for a giggle, but too frivolous to be a chuckle. You wonder whether he's high on something, or just having one of his more characteristic moments. Krit straightens back up and turns toward the kitchenette. "Drinks?"

"Yup!" Pike agrees cheerfully.

"How 'bout you, Ben?"

"Water, please," you say.

The conversation halts awkwardly while Krit opens a cupboard and clinks glasses around. "So!" Pike chirps. "How's you and Steve?"

Krit whirls around with a fearsome glare in his eye, and his elbow knocks one of the glasses over the counter's edge and onto the cracked linoleum. It's the sound of translucent saints falling to the cold floor in thousands of pieces, the sound of the family portrait Van didn't own shattering, the sound of breaking through a window and coming up on your feet to sprint through the snow. The muscles in your neck tighten, and you can feel your heart rate and temperature rise.

Pike glances between you and Krit and back, a perplexed look on his face. "What's wrong? Isn't Steve still--"

"No," Krit denies too quickly, too emphatically. "Have you heard from Tinga lately? She said Case was starting--"

"Jesus, was your breakup that ugly this time?"

"Get out," Krit orders.

"Okay. I can take a hint. Forget I said anything." Pike shrugs with forced nonchalance, and raises a hand to scratch absently behind his ear. "Didn't know it was the wrong week to ask."

"Out!"

Pike gives Krit the one of nastiest glares you've ever seen. "Well, fuck you--if I wanted to get yelled at, I woulda visited Van." He picks up his luggage, flashes Krit a middle finger, and leaves the door hanging open behind him. "In fact," he calls back in a voice obviously meant to be heard, "I hear El Paso's been having some nice weather . . . "

Krit aims a dark glare at the empty hallway. You can hear Pike stomping down the stairs in his surplus-store combat boots.

"What's your problem?" you demand.

Krit sighs, runs his eyes over the ceiling as he looks for a good reply. He looks back down to you and then the glass scattered over the floor, and rubs the sole of one shoe over the opposite leg of his jeans. "Nothing," he mutters. "Go stop him, would you?"

"Nothing, my ass! You know I've figured out about you and Steve, and there's no point getting so touchy about Pike mentioning him! Unless there's more that you're doing a better job keeping from me?"

Krit stares at you with helpless pathetic dewy eyes. "He's not gonna listen to me right now, Ben, and Van's gonna have my ass."

That's not an answer.

"I'm sick of this, Krit. I'm tired of you lying and denying and avoiding everything that's important. You're treating me like dirt."

"Would you stop Pike for me?" he asks again. "Please?"

"Stop him yourself," you whisper, but you walk out the door after him anyway.

--

You step out onto the street and look around for Pike's Jeep, but don't see it. So he's gone, and there's nothing left for you to do. The last place you're going is back upstairs to Krit, but there's nowhere else to go either--so you stand there, breathe in smells of people and city dirt and a cigarette burning nearby, look up to a sky too polluted to see more than a handful of stars. The sky was so much clearer in Utah, before Zack left you, before you came here. It was beautiful there; beautiful to have a barren empty wilderness so close at hand, beautiful to drive five miles out of town and see so many thousands of points of light, beautiful to have Zack with you and make love with him under those stars. Beautiful. And you wonder how it could all vanish so quickly, with so little warning.

"Pssst, Ben," a voice hisses, and you turn around. Pike is leaning against the side of the building, hidden in the shadow of a dumpster, easy to overlook.

He flashes you an almost maniacal grin as he waves a wallet in the air. "Lookit this."

You come over for a closer look. "What is it?"

"Pickpocketing's in the genes." He grins wider and flicks through the stack of cards he pulls from the wallet. Driver's license, sector passes, employee IDs from a dozen businesses-- every one forged, every one with Krit's picture on it.

"Dude," Pike titters, giddy with his good fortune, "I could paint the town red. Damn, Krit's got it good. I wouldn't have such a stick up my ass with these in my pocket--why's he got that stick up his ass about Steve anyway?"

"Krit's been sleeping with me. And I'm not the only one any more."

"Hmmmm." Pike cocks his head to one side and looks at you. "First Zack and now Krit--I'd say you've got lousy taste in men, Miss Fidelity."

You sigh, feel a sardonic smile tug at your lips.

"Cheer up, Ben!" Pike admonishes, with a playful blow to your shoulder. He never could take being around anyone else's emotions, and you wonder what he did with his own feelings when Eva died, or a month ago when Brin went back, or when he found himself alone in a world he wasn't prepared for. Maybe his constant flurry of motion and chatter and beer and women and adrenaline is all to distract himself and keep every painful thought buried just under the surface where he doesn't have to worry about it. Maybe he's got the right idea--so you'll play along with it, focus all your attention on him, let him keep you from thinking about your own heartaches.

"Let's go to El Paso," he suggests. "Maybe you'll find a nice, stable, normal boy. And I'll flash Van Krit's ID and convince her that I'm him. Think I'd have a chance?"

"No," you say. They may be identical, but Van's not stupid.

"Damn." Pike shrugs and tucks the cards back into the wallet and tucks the wallet into his back pocket. "Think I'd survive long enough to see Van kick his ass?"

You narrow one eye suspiciously. "How did you know about that, anyway?"

"I saw Syl last week, and she said Krit'd put out an APB on me. I figured it out from there." He goes quiet, the way he does in the split second he spends considering the consequences of some spur-of-the-moment idea. "Hey, man, let's go for a ride--the Jeep's in the alley."

You've got no problem with that. You follow him around the corner of the building and over to the beat-up Jeep with his luggage in the back. You get in the passenger side, and he settles in behind the wheel.

"Whadda you think, Ben, should we go clubbing and ruin Krit's reputation?"

You buckle your seatbelt because you don't trust Pike's driving and you're only almost indestructible. "I don't think there's a way to sully Krit's reputation."

"Point," Pike agrees. He fires up the engine and pulls onto the street too quickly for comfort. "Maybe we could get to El Paso before Van goes out of heat instead."

"She'd kill you as soon as look at you," you say. And she'd probably treat you the same, after what happened last time.

"Yeah," Pike sighs. "She would. Clubbing it is, then." He ignores a stop sign, then turns right and speeds nonchalantly through a red light. You can hear tires squealing and horns blaring in his wake.

"You're going to kill us driving like that!" you holler over the wind the open frame is letting in.

"Isn't it great?" He guns the engine and flashes you a toothy grin. You've always suspected he was insane, and now you know for sure. "I'm young, I'm invulnerable, and I'm engineered to raise hell. I'm just doin' what I was made to do."

"Are you looking for trouble?"

"No," he replies cheerfully. "But if any comes askin' to join us, I won't say no."

The Jeep speeds by another stop sign, almost running over a pedestrian who'd been about to cross the street. The sound of shouted curses prompts Pike to slam on the brakes, and you're grateful for the seatbelt as you jolt forward.

"Ow! Pike!"

"Speaking of trouble . . . " He throws the Jeep into reverse and zips backward to the crosswalk.

"Hey, sailor," he chirps to the man still standing there, and you can practically feel him turning up the charm as high as it'll go. The man on the curb is thickset and muscled, and strikes you as the kind who can't count his hours in the gym because he doesn't have enough fingers.

"Damn you, Krit, what the fuck are you thinking?!" The Jock waves at the Jeep to indicate he's talking about the reckless driving.

"Oh, no," Pike corrects, "Krit's a much worse driver."

The Jock groans in disgust. "Now what the hell are you doing back in town?"

Pike forms his lips into a pout and softens his eyes, a ridiculous parody of the face Krit puts on sometimes. "Awww, honey, you haven't lost interest in me again, have you?"

The Jock barks a laugh, shrugs in an admission that Pike's charm has broken through to him. "So where's Krit tonight, anyway?"

"I left him at home. He's got his panties in a knot 'bout his love life, and that was cramping my style. Hop in, sailor, and I'll buy you a drink."

He gets into the back seat, and Pike sets the Jeep speeding forward again.

"So who's this?" asks the Jock.

Pike claps a hand on your shoulder. "This is my bro Ben. I think Krit's told you about him."

"Yeah," says the Jock, a simple word that seems so much more laden than it should be.

"And who's the sailor?" you ask in return.

Pike gives you his smoothest, most disarming smile. "Ben, I'd like you to meet Steve."


War is art. So what if I sign my work?


Every muscle in your body is tense as you sit at a table in the gay club Steve directed Pike to, beer in front of you, Steve in the chair next to you. Your drink is untouched and warming as Pike returns with his and Steve's fourth round of bourbon, slipping around the other men in the crowd, offering a half- flirtatious correction when the bouncer mistakes him for Krit and asks if he wants to go dancing next Thursday--and you're beginning to figure out why Krit's never taken you clubbing.

On either side of your glass, your fists clench and unclench, kneading the hilt of an imaginary knife. Half of you would love nothing more right now than to slit Steve's throat--you don't have your real knife because you didn't expect to want it so badly, and you wouldn't have had the foresight to pick up anything when you left Krit's place, anyway.

But there's another half of you, too, a clever, scheming side only vaguely familiar after years of infrequent use. That half tells you that it's better to have forgotten the knife and that, if you'll just be patient, Steve will be worth so much more if he's alive--you'll find some way to use him to get back at Krit and humiliate them both.

You're tired of being taken for granted. Krit's underestimated you. He's underestimated your nerve and your desperation and your cunning. He's underestimated the rage that's been simmering for years, building up bit by bit with every mark on Joel that you didn't make, with every bruise Ethan left on you, with every mention Zack made of Van, with every time Krit himself walked with you down the street and some woman greeted him just a little too much fondness.

What he's overestimated is your patience. Nobody can leave everything pent up forever, not even you with years of training in stoicism and self-control. You suspect you were much closer than you've thought to shooting Ethan yourself, to leaving Zack alone and bewildered, to pushing the knife just a little farther into Van's throat.

You wonder how close you are now to leaving Krit for someone else.

Because it would be so easy to do behind his back what he's been doing behind yours. There's a brunet sitting at the bar, peering toward you through smoke and between other bodies, staring with frank lust. He has green eyes that remind you of Krit's because of their shrewd glint, though his sharp nose and chin don't belong to anybody you know. It would be so easy, you think as you catch his eyes and hold them, for you to go introduce yourself, to touch him and let him touch you, to wake up in his bed. Maybe Krit would be sorry then. Or maybe he'd feel that much less guilty for what he's done, since you had gone and done it too. Is it wrong to be spiteful this once, after the way you've always been treated?

Pike's voice cuts into your thoughts: "Your turn to buy, sailor."

The legs of Steve's chair scrape against the floor, and he crosses your field of vision on his way to the bar. Without really meaning to, you break eye contact with the brunet and track Steve's movements. You can't help but notice the contrast between his body heat a moment ago and the cool air that's against your arm now--you hadn't realized he'd been sitting so close to you.

You hated Steve for his role in Krit's life, back when he was just an abstract dread and an earthy scent clinging to Krit's skin. Now that he's a flesh-and-blood man, you should be hating him more, for who he is as well as what he's done--but it's strange how much that burning distaste for him has cooled to icy calculation. You can almost understand why Krit's been in and out of his bed for two years.

He's good looking, almost good enough to have been made that way, like you and your siblings. He has Van's hair, from the glossy dark color down to keeping it just long enough to pull into a ponytail, or, in Van's case, hide a barcode. His eyes are Syl's amber brown, and his strong jaw and rugged features could have been borrowed from Zane. That smug twist in his lips is like a vengeful Jondy just returned from vandalizing her ex's apartment, and his heavy muscles and broad shoulders belong to Zack.

You should hate him for being a mockery of your family--but you find it fascinating, and maybe it's what fascinates Krit too. Even if he didn't look like the others, every attractive detail should be one more reason to snuff him out like a candle and get him out of your way. But you're starting to think that would be a terrible waste.

Steve returns, sets down the new drinks, and excuses himself to the bathroom. You watch him this time too, sauntering off, all tight jeans and arrogance. He knows he's a looker, and every move is a reminder to the world, even when every move is slurred by alcohol. You wonder for a moment why Krit overlooks that blatant personality--but, then, Krit's a bit of a peacock himself, and Joel was even more so, and you still fell in love with both of them. And, besides, you're sure Krit puts less value on noble character than on bedroom skills or political opportunities. It's your guess that Steve's a good lover, because Krit gets bored with politics quickly, and it would've been over for real long before now. . . . You wonder if Krit's relationship with you was all about politics. He as much as admitted that sex with you was about proving a point to Zack, and now that Zack's gone, there's nothing left to prove.

"Ben?" Pike asks you, leaning forward across the table to wave a hand in front of your eyes. "Ben, I don't like the look on your face, man."

You blink, turn to look at him. "Huh?"

"It was stupid to invite Steve along, wasn't it? I didn't think you'd look at him like that, so damned murderous."

"Murderous?" You hadn't realized you'd gone back to those feelings.

"Yeah. That's what you're thinking, isn't it? You look so . . . so hungry, but it's gotta be a predator thing, 'cause I know you wouldn't be thinking of fucking him."

Or would you? Maybe that's the way to get back at Krit. It's the same way he used you to get back at Zack, and wouldn't that be ironic. So deliciously ironic . . . Yes, it would be a terrible waste to kill Steve--because Krit's so wrapped up in him, and even if killing him would break Krit, you'd also break everything that's between you two. Krit would hate you then, and that's worse than using and neglecting you.

"Should we go?" Pike asks you earnestly. He gets up too quickly and his chair tips over and clatters onto the floor, and he glances nervously at the still-closed bathroom door. "I didn't plan on anybody getting killed tonight. Krit would have my hide if I let something happen to Steve."

He tugs on your arm urgently, pulling toward the door. It's almost funny to see him panicking, when he's the one who's always so carefree. You let him pull you to your feet, but not one step away from the table.

"Pike," you murmur. "It's okay. I'm fine."

He glances sharply at you.

"What were you thinking anyway," you ask, "picking Steve up like that?"

One corner of his lip curls up in a wry smirk. "Oh, I figured we'd get him drunk and maybe when he woke up tomorrow he'd find a tattoo on his ass that says 'Property of Dustin'. 'Cause people do stupid things when they're drunk, y'know? I think he had a few before we drove by, so he's right about where we want him."

"I thought Krit would have your hide if something happened to Steve." Though you do kind of like Pike's plan. The idea of seeing Steve marked permanently piques your interest.

Pike shrugs. "Well, if something debilitating or lethal happened. But a tattoo never killed anybody." He looks at the bathroom door again. "Damn, he's been in there a long time. I'm gonna go check on him. Don't do anything stupid, okay?"

Pike pats your shoulder and walks off. You turn back around to see if the brunet's still watching you.

He is. He winks at you; you suddenly feel undressed and vulnerable, and you turn your back to him, face burning.

You wouldn't, if it came down to it. You wouldn't. Wouldn't go with him, wouldn't have a one-night stand, wouldn't cheat on Krit. Wouldn't do anything but take the high road.

Where's the high road ever gotten you before? You've taken it all your life, and nobody's ever respected you for that. Not anybody who's ever slept around behind your back--not Joel or Ethan or Zack or Krit. Not even Van, on the high road herself, though you always wondered if it ever cost her anything.

You hear a new glass of beer slide onto the table, and you turn to see the waiter. He nods over his shoulder to the brunet in the corner. "He says you should drink this one while it's still cold."

You stare down at the beer after the waiter heads back toward the bar, and you leave the glass exactly where he put it. You don't sit down, just stand there motionless. You don't dare look up at the brunet again. You wish Pike would hurry up and come back here. You'll ask him to just take you back home, and you'll talk to Krit and say . . . and say . . . Well, you'll say something, anything to get back in Krit's arms and pretend again that it's all okay and there's nothing going on between him and Steve. Maybe you'll tell him exactly that: "I want to believe you still care." It's honest enough.

Footsteps. There's footsteps coming toward you. For the briefest flash of time you believe that they're Pike, but you know they're from the wrong direction, from behind you, from the corner where the brunet was sitting and staring at you, and you know it's him following the beer he sent.

You don't turn around. You hold perfectly still; they taught you to do that, taught you that motion draws attention and that if you don't move maybe you'll be overlooked. They never did overlook you, though. No matter how still you stood, they picked you for their experiments and tests just as often as they picked anybody else.

The brunet's fingers brush against your barcode, and a shiver runs down your spine. You shut your eyes against the touch of his fingertips--it doesn't make any sense, shutting your eyes to block out something that you can't see. But nothing ever makes sense any more, does it? Nothing's ever made much sense out here anyway. You never know exactly what's expected of you, because the clues are so subtle; reading them is a human art form and you're not all human, not quite. You couldn't figure out how to keep Joel all for yourself, or how to keep Ethan contented. You couldn't even figure out why Zack and Krit weren't satisfied with just you.

"I like your tattoo," the brunet murmurs, voice all honey and smoke and seduction. Beautiful. Intoxicating. You could listen to it forever. You can smell him behind you--fading soap and fresh sweat and the cocktail he was drinking. His scent is just as intoxicating as his voice.

"What's your name, precious?" he asks; your stomach tightens, defensive, sick, protesting, but you don't know on a rational level why it objects.

You remember his smoldering eyes, how you felt naked under them. How they reminded you of Krit at first. You remember how, once, so long ago, you didn't want Krit to touch you either. What if that never really changed? What if you hate this new man's touch because deep down you also hate the feel of Krit's hands on you?

What if that's all just in your head?

Or what if it's true? How could you go back to Krit then?

Will the brunet go away if you don't reply? Will he stop talking and touching and being and making you doubt your desire go home to Krit if Pike would just hurry the hell up?

"Ben," you answer him. You didn't mean to speak, and your voice surprises you with its calm, low, normal tone, so different from everything that's beneath the surface. What if everything everybody else does are all just as fake as this? What if you never really did show your feelings, so Krit had no way of knowing and respecting them?

"Ben," he repeats. "Krit's boyfriend?"

You shake your head. "No. Not any more."

"Better that way. I'm David." He moves his hand down to grip your shoulder and turn you halfway toward him, and he dips his head to kiss the side of your throat. His other arm, the left, wraps around your waist. For some reason you finally open your eyes, to look at that arm. The sleeve is pulled back a little from his wrist, and you can see the edge of a tattoo.

"Does Krit talk about me?" you ask. "So many people know about me before I ever meet them."

"Word gets around," David murmurs into your neck. "Everybody was surprised how long he's been with you--but they wouldn't have been surprised if they'd met you. God, Ben, you're so beautiful."

You raise your hand to push his sleeve farther up. There's a Celtic knot on the back of his forearm, a six-inch-long latticework of blue ribbon with black outlines. "Nice," you tell him, running your finger along one of the loops, to the center and out to the edge again. Your eyes are much faster, though, and they've already figured out that it's one infinite loop, weaving in and out of itself to form the entire design.

"Thank you," he says. "I did it myself."

"You're a tattoo artist then?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"That's perfect," you whisper. Everything's starting to fall into place now.

David turns you the rest of the way around to face him full-on. Your eyes slide closed again as his lips meet yours, and your mouth falls open with a flick of his tongue. Your stomach lurches--you know this is cheap, and you know that cheap isn't what you want. You can feel yourself hardening anyway, and maybe you do want it after all, right or wrong, meaningful or empty. You've never felt so helpless against your own desires. At least you'll make this a means to an end: even with David's hands exploring your body through your clothes and his own erection pressed against your hip, you're busy deciding exactly how to get Steve unconscious and David willing to tattoo him.

You hear Pike cough behind you, and you break away from the kiss-- David's breathing hard, but you're not. Krit once mentioned he appreciated not having to worry about you suffocating during a kiss.

Pike has Steve's limp arm slung over his shoulders, and the rest of Steve is dragging along with equal energy, head flopping away from Pike, loosened strands of hair falling across his face, jaw slack. "Hey, Ben. Steve's blacked out, so I'm taking him back to his place. You wanna go home to Krit, or will you stay here?" Pike doesn't seem to think there's much question--he glances significantly at David's arm wrapped around your waist with the thumb hooked underneath the waistband of your jeans, and at David's other hand clutching yours at your side.

"I'll go home later." This is the second time tonight you've said something you didn't intend to say. You're beginning to wonder if what you want and what you think you want are two very different things.

Pike drops Steve for a moment to give you a bear hug. "G'bye, then, Ben--I'm off to El Paso after I lose Steve. Wouldn't be any fun having his ass tattooed if you weren't there to enjoy it, and I've got better things to do than wait around and let Krit rag on me."

"Bye, Pike."

He doesn't go yet, though--he glares at David. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, messin' around with my bro . . . "

"You must be Krit's twin," David guesses. "He talks a lot about you."

"Damn straight he does!" Pike can't help puffing up just a little, now that he knows his reputation precedes him. "And if you break Ben's heart the way Krit did, I'll be breaking a few parts of you--and unless you get off on pain, it's not gonna be any fun, either."

David raises an eyebrow. "Krit would take care of me before you even heard there was a problem."

"I don't trust Krit to do lasting damage," mutters Pike. And he's right--since the escape, Krit's only physically hurt people by accident. As for emotional damage, you don't know if anyone besides you has ever been stupid enough to trust him.

"Hey, Ben . . . " There's so much concern in Pike's voice, and you wonder just how strongly he has to feel it before it shows. "Take care of yourself, bro. If you need me, call Zane and he'll know where to find me--I'm not telling Krit again 'til I know you're okay."

He picks Steve up again and continues toward the door.

You watch him dragging Steve away until David pulls you back into another kiss, deep and slow, arms sliding around your back at the waist and shoulders. This time he's the one who breaks it off, panting, eyes glazing over with want. "We should go back to my place, precious."

"Not yet."

"I want you, Ben," he murmurs, taking your hand and pressing his lips to the palm. "I want you so much . . . "

"There's something I want from you first."

"Anything, precious," he promises. You would never say 'yes' to a request so open-ended. But you've had to be cautious from the time you were a child, and maybe David's never had a need to be so wary.

"Do you know that man Pike and I were with?"

David nods. "Steve Connor."

"Do you know where he lives?"

David nods again.

"I want you to give him a tattoo, on the neck, exactly like mine."

--

The rest of the night is a blur of pain and sick delight, one fading into the next, distinctions of time warping as if you were drunk, though you know you didn't touch a drop.

The hum of David's tattoo needle remains constantly at the front of your memory, and you're glad for it in those dark moments later. You can ignore discomfort and banish regret if you just remember David scraping those precise lines into Steve's skin as he slept off the bourbon, marking him forever. Now Krit will remember you every time Steve's back is turned to him, and maybe he'll stop wanting to hear that man crying out: *"Krit, Krit, Krit, oh God, Krit . . . "*

--

In David's bed, you cry when he enters you.

It's not anybody's name you sob. It's just wordless agony that you could sell such an intimate aspect of yourself for a job that didn't even take him as long as the time you know he'll spend using you. Though maybe the times aren't so very different after all; you wouldn't know, because you can't tell seconds and centuries apart right now. Every one of his touches tonight has lasted lifetimes.

He pauses above you, a delicate calm that a human being would consider perfectly still--but you can feel each minute shift in his weight as he obeys his imperfect, normal sense of balance.

"Are you okay, Ben?"

You try to blink back your tears, but they fall anyway, rolling down your face, dropping onto the rumpled bedsheets between the fists you're resting your weight on.

"Yes," you choke. "I'm okay . . . " Nothing could be farther from the truth. You're longing for Joel, or for Zack, or for Krit--for those delusions that you were loved, that what you're doing now was an expression of something more. You remember Pike suddenly, threatening David in the bar, and you wonder if you should have gone with him to El Paso. Pike cares about you, under his banter and bravado--and he doesn't like boys, so he would never, ever use you this way. He'd never let you sell yourself to him like this. He would have kept you from selling yourself to someone else, too.

"No, precious, be honest," David admonishes. "Am I hurting you?"

Nobody's ever asked you that before.

Zack and Krit knew you were strong enough, while Joel and Ethan just didn't care. David's concern stuns you into silence, and you have to swallow before you find your voice again.

"No," you whisper hoarsely. "You're not hurting me."

What hurts is that nobody else ever cared enough to ask that, and that the man who finally has doesn't know how being here is killing your soul.

"Okay," David murmurs, and he drops a kiss on your shoulderblade before moving again. You bite your lip as he begins to thrust.

You let your head hang between your locked elbows, and fix your eyes on the arm he's wrapped around your chest. It's covered with downy hairs and his own tattoos; your eyes finish retracing the Celtic knot's intricate loops long before he's finished with you, and you move on to the dragon above the knot, with its rich blood-red scales, black talons, spread wings, and long tail disappearing around the edge of David's arm to the side pressed against your ribcage. You block out everything, every feeling, every sound, every smell, except for the sight of that dragon and the remembered sound of the needle against Steve's neck.

--

You're still staring at the dragon hours later, while David sleeps and you decide to leave now so he won't wake up next to you in the morning. The dragon is what your eyes fall on when you take one last look at him from the doorway--your first one- night stand, your first infidelity, the first lover who didn't earn that title.

You walk down the dark streets where David drove with you earlier, back toward Steve's apartment.

--

Steve shifts restlessly in his sleep as you watch from the bedroom doorway, and he murmurs Krit's name. How deep does their relationship go? Is Krit only on Steve's mind because his twin brother was out on the town tonight? Or is he Steve's deepest, most abiding desire, voiced only in unconscious moments?

What if you were the one who stepped into a part of Krit's life where you didn't belong? They've been lovers since they were sixteen. Two years, and, even if it was off-and-on, it isn't something that can just be shoved aside. What if Steve is every bit as jealous of you as you've been of him? What if Krit has been up against the wall, trying to avoid choosing between you two, trying to love both of you at once?

Does that make either of them any more right?

No. Fuck, no. Did they ever stop to think how grateful you would've been if they'd just been honest with you from the start? They could have saved you another heartbreak. They could have saved themselves what you had David do tonight.

"Krit . . . " Steve moans again.

"Shhhh," you croon, and reach out to smooth back the strands of dark hair falling over his forehead. "I'm here, baby. . . . " And you don't stop at that, no. He's going to know about this, he's going to know everything that Krit will realize with one look at that tattoo. He's going to know that you're better than him, that you did this, that you've marked ownership on him the same way your creators marked you. So you strip off your clothes and make a folded stack next to the crumpled jeans and jacket and tee shirt that Pike stripped off of him earlier. You lift the covers and slide into the bed behind him.

You wrap an arm around his belly and murmur again, "I'm here, baby."

Steve sighs in his sleep, and settles against your chest and into your arms, helping you spoon against him. As his breathing becomes slow and deep once again, you kiss the tender, fresh mark on his skin, and a cruel satisfaction washes over you.

"I'm here, baby. I'll always be here."


I've killed.

Go on.

I've taken human life; what more is there to say?


"Oh, fuck."

Steve's muttered curse awakens you. You open your eyes to find him propped up on one elbow, holding his head with his other hand, squinting at you in confusion as he brushes back the dark, dark hair that has fallen into his face.

You stare right back up at him, trusting your eyes to be seductive, intoxicating, irresistible. Joel always told you that you had beautiful eyes. Ethan never noticed that; he looked at you but never saw beyond the bruises he'd left, fading rapidly from your enhanced skin so they never had a chance to symbolize the scars he left on the intangible parts of you. But no bruise could ever last long enough for that, even on a normal boy.

"Good morning," you purr. You wonder if Steve's noticed yet that the skin on the back of his neck is sore. You wonder what he'll do when he finds out what's there. You reach out to touch his shoulder. He pulls back to avoid your hand--you go on anyway, thumb caressing the perfect bulges of his muscles.

"You were wonderful," you lie. If it really had happened, you wouldn't have enjoyed it any more than you enjoyed sex with David last night. No, it would have been even worse; there's a huge, gaping difference between a stranger from a bar and a man who, from the moment you knew he existed, you've hated.

"Do you want to make love again?" you ask. Even if you know you would hate it, hate him, hate yourself, to the last fiber of your being, you offer. You don't know why. You suppose that, after last night, you're beyond caring about meaning and emotional depth. What you're doing now feels so natural--it's hard to remember ever not using sex and lies to get what you wanted. It's what they made you to do, after all. It's why they designed you so pretty, so graceful, so goddamned easy; it's why it felt like you'd been seducing men for years, when you first caught Joel's eye. And the only thing that didn't turn out right was that you ever cared--cared!--about who you went to bed with and whether you loved him and whether he'd at least told you pretty lies about loving you too.

Steve turns away from you, away from your sultry look and your hand straying onto his chest. It's almost as if he felt guilty for finding out he'd slept with you, and he walks out of the bedroom with the slow but deliberate pace of a man who doesn't want to believe what he's leaving behind in the bed. But that's okay, it's all okay. You'll still be here when he comes back. And even when you've left, he'll still have that tattoo. And even though he can't see it, he'll feel its mark. And even if he has it removed, he'll always remember that it had been there.

And he'll never, never get rid of you, get rid of what he did to you and what you did back. Never.

You hear a door shut down the hall, and the shower running. Here in the bedroom, the window is open and sunbeams are tumbling into a pool of light on the worn-out carpet that might have been white or powder blue years ago. There's a light breeze--there are no curtains for it to blow, but you can feel it, you can feel everything, however small, that comes in contact with your skin: the wind, the weave of the sheets, the tiny ridges of your own handprints as you rest your palms on your belly. Your nose twitches; you can smell Steve, of course, but the breeze has brought in other odors, odors so faint that he'd never even suspect they were there--you can smell the garbage cans outside and pick out things like chicken bones and bar soap wrappers and discarded vodka bottles, you can smell that five different cats have marked territory there just this morning, you can smell the bed of newspapers somebody slept in last night.

It's a long time before the water turns off in the bathroom. You tense alertly when it does, remembering the wonderful sound of the tattoo needle, waiting for Steve's reaction. Once he's stepped out of the shower, it doesn't take very long for him to mutter a string of curses. You assume he's felt the soreness, found a hand mirror to reflect his neck onto the medicine cabinet, and found out that he's been marked. But he doesn't come out right away; he stays for almost as long as the shower took. You wonder why he's not here now, furious and at your throat. It hits you that maybe he doesn't remember last night clearly, doesn't realize what you did, doesn't understand the meaning of those lines.

He doesn't come back to the bedroom. You hear him walking up the hall and into the kitchen. You hear him dialing a phone, and he speaks quietly, foolishly believing you can't hear him and can't hear the other side of the conversation either.

"Yeah," Krit's voice says on the other end. You should have figured Steve would call him. Should've noticed what you're starting to notice now, that whatever's between them goes too deep for your presence to end it.

"Where's that asshole twin of yours?" Steve demands.

"Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Timbuktu--not like he told me. Why?"

"He got me drunk and fuckin' tattooed me!" That's dead wrong, and somehow it bothers you that he's blaming somebody else for your work. "I woke up with a barcode on the back of my neck! What kind of sick obsession do you two have going, anyway? That barcode-tattoo trend was dead before you hit kindergarten."

Krit tries to stifle a laugh. You don't see the humor in the situation--but maybe it's downright hilarious when you're a sociopath and you don't realize what the tattoo really means. Or maybe it really isn't something to take lightly. Maybe Krit's just insane. There's a strange, strained edge to his laugh, after all.

"Shut the hell up, Krit. It's not funny." There! There! Krit's gone nuts! You get up, pull on your jeans. The fabric feels rougher against your legs than it ever has before. The scrape against your skin is distracting, and it takes a conscious effort to tune it out.

"But I've warned you about Pike," Krit points out. "I've told you that going drinking with him only gets you trouble. Anyway, you can always get the tat removed after it heals--I'll pay for it and send him the bill."

You walk down the hall on bare feet, silent like the predator you are, feeling the grimy flattened nap of the carpet under your toes. You round the corner and Steve comes into view. He has a bath towel wrapped around his waist and his back is turned to you. One fist is planted argumentatively against his hip, while the other hand holds the phone to his ear.

"Forget it, asshole," he snaps.

"Go fuck yourself," Krit snaps back. "I'm just trying to make it right, you know."

Steve scoffs, and tosses his head. His wet black hair swings with the motion, and it brushes over his barcode just like Van's hair would over hers, if she ever indulged in such a frivolous gesture. You can smell his shampoo, a baby-gentle formula without silly flower scents, and his soap, plain Dial antibacterial. Even his taste in toiletries is like Van's.

"Honest," says Krit. "I don't want you pissed at me, baby."

"You think you can fix every fuck-up with a little cash and a couple words? It doesn't work that way, Krit. Not when you just sweep all the shit under the rug and go right on being the same careless fuck you've always been."

"Steve, c'mon," Krit coaxes. "I didn't even do anything this time."

"But it's the same attitude, and it's still gonna catch up with you."

"I'm a smart cookie, Steve. I know what I'm doing."

"Doesn't make you immune, just makes you cocky." Steve feels your eyes on him. He glances over his shoulder at you--his perfect, tanned shoulder--then turns back away. You wonder if all that sunbathing will give him skin cancer someday and kill him.

"Honestly," Krit huffs, and you can almost hear him rolling his eyes. This conversation reminds you of Zack and Krit, with their mutual dislike, and Krit's constant disregard for everything Zack says, and that power struggle Krit dragged you into without a second thought. Steve's right that Krit's careless--maybe not about self-preservation, but about other people. People like you. You're so much more fragile, and so much more dangerous, than he ever gave you credit for.

Steve smirks--he's not facing you, but you can see how his cheek bulges with the smile. "You don't know where Ben is either, do you?"

"Not like you would have a bigger clue," Krit says. "You were out drinking with Pike. Ben probably went to midnight mass or something."

Steve looks at you again, with the smirk still on his face, and his expression reminds you of Krit. Maybe everybody in the world is that devious at heart. Maybe it's a built-in defense, as instinctive as returning a blow when you're struck. "Ben just got his lovely ass up out of my bed."

"Sleeping with my boyfriend, huh? That's low, Steven Connor. Wish I'd thought of it."

"I think Missouri is a little far for you to go just to bang Neil."

"He'll be back one of these days, you know. Now, do you want that tattoo off or not?"

"You know, big shot, you're not the only guy in town with money."

"Fine!" Krit huffs.

Steve hangs up. And he turns to you. "I swear, if I find that son-of-a-bitch Pike, I'm gonna break his neck."

Your mouth opens, and you speak. "But it was me." And you didn't really mean to tell him that.

But it doesn't really matter what you meant to say, does it? What matters is what you did say, and what you've done. Those are what make Steve's jaw clench and his fingers curl into fists, what make him aim a right hook at your jaw. He moves so slowly, like any other normal person, but you still can't duck in time. You just watch the ripple of each muscle involved, and you can't move at all.

"You bastard! What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Nothing's wrong with me," you croak, and you didn't really want to say that either. You don't hit him back, just slump against the wall he's knocked you into. You always froze like this when Ethan smacked you around, but Steve shouldn't be like that, shouldn't stir up that fear. . . .

"Like fuck it isn't," Steve snaps, and hits you again, same spot. You can feel your teeth loosening, and you taste the blood pouring into your mouth. Your eyes focus on a point beyond his shoulder, on a patch of sunlight like the one in the bedroom but on the floor by his couch.

"Nothing's wrong with me!" The blood spills over your lip when you scream that, and your eyes are have begun spilling over as well. "It's not my fault, what else was I supposed to do? It's Krit, it's you, but it's not me!"

He brings his fist back to hit you again, still so much slower than could possibly surprise you, and nothing really surprises you any more, no matter how unexpected it is. You could block him. You could hit him back. You could break his neck if you wanted. You could do any of that.

But you don't. You take the hit; you swallow the new rush of blood, but there's more to replace it, always more, millions-of- dollars-of-engineering more; you squeeze the hot angry tears out of your eyes, but there's new ones to replace those too, too many new ones, new ones that never should have been there because you were trained better than to cry.

"Stop," you beg, "stop, stop, stop, stop, stop . . . " but he keeps right on hitting you again and again and again, your face and your bare chest and your belly, first until you double over with pain, then until somehow you find the strength to knock his fist aside. He tries to hit you again, but you raise your forearm to take the force of the blow, and you push him back before he can attack you another time. He stumbles backwards a few steps, and stands there panting.

You stare at one another, and you can't see his expression because your vision is too blurred by your tears. It doesn't matter anyway. You don't need to see him to know that he wants Krit, and he hates you, and he'd love to have you out of his way for good--and that means you have to get him out of your way instead.

You want to slide to the floor and pull your knees up and just cry and bleed and hope all your organs survived the punches to your gut. But you can't seem to dictate your actions anymore, and that's the most terrifying thing in the world. You push yourself upright and walk over to him, and the only thing you're doing that you wanted to is that you're still sobbing. Even if you really can't have Krit, there's no reason Steve should either.

You reach a trembling hand to touch his shoulder and wrap around to the back of his neck, and you touch your lips to his. He has to die, you realize. He won't leave you alone--won't leave Krit alone--as long as he's still alive.

He doesn't move in response to your kiss; maybe his expression says he's too shocked to do anything, if you could just see through your tears. Or maybe he understands what's going to happen, realizes the inevitability of his death, isn't going to give you any trouble. You're still crying, but you can see enough to spot the blood that's come off on his lips. How sick is it to kiss the man who just made you bleed? What's wrong with you? No, please no, this can't be real, this can't be happening. . . .

"Last night was beautiful," you whisper to him, voice breaking with your crying. You pinch his neck to knock him out--your hand twitches involuntarily and there's a snap beneath it.

Your whole body shakes for a second, a tiny seizure, and you'll have to hurry up and immobilize Steve in case a stronger seizure is on its way and he wakes up before it's past. Steve falls to the ground, a crumpled heap in the sunlight in front of the couch. You let yourself go down with him, still sobbing as you turn him over roughly and slam him face-first into the floor, even as your limbs turn unsteady and barely controllable. You twist his arm behind his back, and a sudden jerk of your body makes the bones crack apart and his shoulder pull out of its socket. He doesn't cry out or whimper in pain, but you don't mind because at least now he won't hit you again--you should have done this to Ethan, years ago. You turn him back over with your shaking hands, and he holds so still as you land faulty blows against his jaw, trying to get the wet sound of damaged teeth, trying to get him back for the huge bruises you feel forming on your face and the blood still pouring into your mouth. Your seizure shakes you more violently, and you have to stop to ride it out. You curl around Steve, so that if he tries to escape you'll at least know.

He's still lying there beneath you when the shakes are past, and you pick up right where you left off. You open his mouth--he's complacent, so complacent, and maybe he's realized it's useless to struggle because you really are stronger and better--to see if your blows loosened his teeth at all, but they're still clinging to their sockets. Pike has talked about a time he got a tooth knocked out in a fistfight, but now you doubt it could happen so easily. You did at least make Steve's jaw bleed, and your fingers slip too much on the blood to pull the teeth out. "Stay there," you tell him, then stumble to your feet, go to the kitchen on still-weak legs to see if you can find some pliers to help you. Your hands leave bloody prints on the countertops and the cupboard doors as you search, and you eventually find a toolbox under the sink. It's mostly empty--knowing Zane, you'd expected toolboxes to always be full--but it still has pliers, and that's all you want, so you pick them up and go back to Steve. He hasn't tried to get away, and you have a twisted admiration for someone man enough not to scream and beg when he knows nobody can stop what's going to happen.

Yes, pliers were just what you needed. It goes so easily now, one tooth, two teeth, three, four, five. You count them out loud to him, so he'll know exactly what's happening, and you place the extracted teeth in his open hand, letting him hold on to them just a while longer until you leave and take them with you forever. Even the teeth on the other side, where you didn't hit him at all, come out so nicely now that you have a tool. When they're all out, all thirty-two, you arrange them on the floor in a ring around his head, a last cruel sarcastic joke to him before he has to die--"Take a good look at it, Steve, it's the only halo you'll ever get." He doesn't reply; your jest hangs heavy in the silence, and you realize that it was out of place, that he didn't deserve even this horrible parody of a saint's or angel's blessed glow. So you gather the teeth back into your hand, and this time you lay them out in rows. Just rows, rows on the carpet, plain rows of molars and of incisors and of eye teeth, and you adjust their positions over and over again until the lines are perfectly straight and the teeth are in perfect order.

When you're finally through, you place a hand against his chest to push yourself back to your feet and get one last look at him alive--but you pause.

His skin is cold.

He's dead; he's been dead for hours. All the blood streaking his chest and staining your hands and flowing down your chin has dried. The sun patch that he first fell on has shifted toward the window until now it's nothing but a sliver on the windowsill. You've stopped crying, though you never noticed--maybe you just ran out of tears. Maybe you'll never cry again.

You look down at what you've done, at the blood and the teeth and the cold stiffening body. You get a sick feeling, like a snake twisting around in your stomach. What have you done? They'll find him. They'll find the body, and the teeth, and the blood. They'll find your barcode on his neck. They'll find out that some of the blood is yours. They'll find you--they'll ask you how it happened, but you don't know now and you won't know then, so they'll say that you're crazy, and maybe they'll be right--and they'll take you back and lock you up. In the basement. With the creatures you feared so much as a child, the X2s who went insane and tore their trainer apart with their bare hands--even though you're not like them, and you're not crazy, and you had every reason to do what you did. But they'll lock you up anyway, and that's the most terrifying idea in the world.

Clean it up. That's what you should do. Maybe nobody will even know it happened, or at least they'll never know it was you. You start with the teeth, fold them into a paper napkin and tuck it in your pocket. Then you move to the kitchen, wiping the blood from the surfaces you touched. As you throw the blood-stained rag into the trash can, you see your hands, smeared and reeking, and realize they should have been the first thing to clean.

Your hands are still full of soap lather when you hear a knock on the door. Your heart jumps with fear, and you don't say a word, just keep washing and hope whoever it is will go away. The knock comes again, this time with a call--"Steve? Steve Connor?"

David.

Your breath catches in your throat, and you rinse the soap off quickly. You don't even bother to dry your hands before hurrying to the door. Your hand is already on the knob when you realize that even David shouldn't see what's inside the apartment--you open the door just enough to slip out into the hallway, and you pull it shut quickly behind you. You hug yourself, curling your hands around your sides so David won't see the blood that wouldn't wash off, hunching your shoulders for no reason you can tell, refusing to meet his eyes because if you do maybe he'll see right into your soul and know what happened beyond the door.

"Dear God, Ben," David murmurs, brushing a hand against your bruised cheekbone so gently that you--even you--barely feel it, then wrapping his fingers around both your shoulders. "Are you alright?"

You shake your head and stare at his arms, revealed by the wifebeater he's wearing. The dragon is still there on his left forearm, strong and fearsome, and it's never going to change the way that everything else does.

He reaches around your waist and leads you toward the stairs, and his arm is stronger than you expect from a normal man. You have no shirt or shoes, but you don't even care. "What happened to you, precious?"

You stare back over your shoulder, worried about the mess you didn't finish cleaning, but so relieved that David is taking you away from there that you don't want to go back. He's saving you, like a knight in shining armor; he's come to take you away from your dragons--from this place, from Steve, from the jealousy that's pushing you toward the edge of insanity.

You don't answer his question, just ask one of your own: "How did you find me?" Your lip tears as you speak, and you realize that one of Steve's blows must have split it. You never even noticed at the time.

"I asked Krit where you were, but he wouldn't say a word. I looked all over town for you, precious. I wanted to find you anywhere but here." It surprises you that he could guess and fear that you'd be with Steve, when he's only known you since last night. You yourself never expected to be here.

You sigh, and rest your head on his shoulder, and close your eyes and just let him guide you. That's your problem, trying to change things. If you'd just accepted all along that Zack would leave you someday, that Krit might never be yours . . .

"Talk to me, Ben," David begs.

You shake your head. Talking hurts, in more ways than one. And you're afraid you'll say something you shouldn't, and then David will know what you did.

Since you won't talk, he does. "I kept worrying about you. You told me you were okay--but okay people don't cry as much as you did, precious, and then you were gone before I woke up."

You open your eyes as the two of you reach his car, an old Ford Tempo with peeling red paint, like Syl used to drive when she lived in Miami. He guides you into the passenger seat and makes sure you buckle the seatbelt.

"You poor thing," he murmurs as he slides in behind the wheel. "I think I was right to worry."

You let your eyes slide closed again as he starts the engine. You're so tired suddenly. It's no wonder, after a beating and a seizure and a murder. "Where're we going?" you ask, careful not to move your lip more than you can avoid.

"The hospital. I think your lip needs stitches. I don't know about the rest of you."

You shake your head. "No, I'm fine."

"But you're not fine, precious. Don't think I can't see that."

"Don't take me to the hospital," you plead. Hospitals are dangerous. Hospitals have doctors, and doctors like to experiment and run tests and tell people about it when they find something strange like your blood or the way you're healing up so much faster than any normal person. "Please don't, David." You only half expect him to follow your wishes; nobody else ever listens to what you ask.

He's silent, and you have to open your eyes to see if his expression contains an answer. He's looking at you, a world of pity in those green eyes. It's wrong, so goddamned wrong, that a one-night stand is the only person in the world who cares enough to make sure he doesn't hurt you, to worry about you when you leave suddenly, to go looking for you and to save you from a place you should never have let yourself go. You wonder if he could save you from yourself too, if you let him; you know he would at least try to, and that might make all the difference in the world.

"Please just take me home, David," you whisper, and you're not quite sure if it's loud enough for him to hear.

"Home to my place?" he asks.

"No. To Krit." You don't want that. But you can feel your hand starting to shake again, and David won't understand that, so you have to go back to Krit, so you'll be safe with someone who won't ask questions.

"Alright," he agrees, soft with reluctance, so that you might not hear and then he wouldn't have to do it. He drives in silence for several minutes. You close your eyes again and will your body to remain still--you can feel the turns he makes, and you know the streets enough to notice if he tries to take you somewhere else. You listen to the other cars, all of them passing you--David's driving too slowly, probably because he wants to keep you with him as long as he can. You listen to the pedestrians you drive past, chattering to each other about their mundane, shallow lives, none of them talking about the wounds and death and fear that are so heavy on your mind. You listen to David's breath and his heartbeat and the tiny gurgling of his stomach asking to be fed--the clock in Steve's kitchen said it was half past three, and David must have skipped his lunch to go looking for you.

"Ben . . . "

You answer with a little rumble in your throat.

"I hope that knowing Steve's a prize fighter will keep you from going back."

"No, I won't go back," you assure him. Anything to get yourself home. You never want to go back to Steve's anyway. There wouldn't really be a point--you can't clean well enough to compete with the forensic detectives they'd bring in. It would be smarter to just leave town while you still can. Maybe Krit would help you with that, if you didn't tell him why you had to go.

David stops in front of Krit's apartment. You take off your seatbelt and reach to open the door.

David stops you with a hand on your knee. "You know where my shop is. You know where my apartment is." He leans over and leaves a feather-light kiss on your cheek. "Find me if you need me, precious."

--

"What the hell did you do?" Krit demands the moment you step into the apartment. He can smell the blood, of course--and he can tell that it's not all yours. Maybe he can even tell that it's Steve's, if Steve has ever bled near him. There's no way to tell if that's ever happened, so you can only hope it hasn't.

You don't answer. You give in to your shaking and drop to the floor. The bedsprings creak as Krit rises from his seat on the mattress, and you can hear the slight stick of his sneakers on the floor has he walks over to the bathroom. He comes and kneels down beside you; there's the rattle of pills in a bottle as he moves.

He's silent for a long time. Your eyes are shut, but you can feel that he's watching you.

"It was you, wasn't it?" he finally murmurs. "Pike didn't do a thing. . . . "

"I d-didn't mean to," you force out between clattering teeth.

"You hurt him. That's Steve's blood on you."

You shake your head no. It's a complete lie, and there's no reason to expect Krit to believe it, but you need him to stay with you now. He can't go over there--he would know that you didn't stop at hurting Steve, and then how could he stand to ever look at you, touch you, kiss you, make love to you again?

Krit sets the tryptophan bottle down on the floor and steps over you as you lie there shaking. He never asked if you were okay. He didn't care that you arrived without even your shoes, or that you'd been hurt too.

The door clicks shut as he abandons you, and it's the most honest thing he's ever done.


If your brother was a killer, would you want people to know?


You have to leave, you realize as you lie on the floor seizing. Krit's gone to check on Steve, and now it's all falling apart. He won't forgive you for this, and you don't know why you ever thought he might. Maybe you just weren't thinking.

You try your best to stand up, and you fail. Sometimes, with some things, it's pointless to try--but so many times, you've been too stubborn to admit defeat. You're admitting it now.

You wait until your limbs stop twitching and then you rise--maybe success is all a matter of timing. You pick up the tryptophan bottle Krit left beside you, and you fumble it open and swallow a few pills.

You pause for a few moments to clear your head, and then you get dressed to leave. Krit left a shirt crumpled on the bed, and you put that on--it smells like him and a little bit like you. You want so badly to be comforted by that. But you're not.

You left your shoes on Steve's bedroom floor, so you put on Krit's scuffed-up combat boots. They're too tight and that's going to drive you nuts, and you wonder if that's anything like what loving him did to you. They're the best you can do, though, so you keep them on.

Once you're dressed, you move on to luggage--you're not going to leave New Orleans empty-handed, the way you left Salt Lake City after Zack abandoned you. You take Krit's dusty olive-drab duffel bag from under the bed, and you go over to his dresser to start packing the things you'll need. He keeps an envelope full of fifty-dollar bills taped to the back of the dresser, and you help yourself to it--you don't feel the slightest guilt for stealing from him, because he's done so much worse to you. You'll need clothes, too--his size is close enough to yours that you've been borrowing from him, so you'll take from him as well. You throw in a few pairs of jeans from the bottom drawer. When you open the middle drawer for shirts, you freeze--there's Steve's scent floating out toward you. One by one you pick up the shirts and raise them to your nose. About half of them, the worn ones that always hang a little too loose on Krit's slim frame, smell as if Steve wore them for a long time before he passed them on to Krit or Krit stole them.

You pack up every one of Steve's shirts.

--

You don't want to leave. Any excuse to stay, you're willing to take--so here you are in the church, sitting at the end of a pew, duffel on the floor beside you. You hope that Krit cares enough to look for you here, to come inside in spite of the fears the sanctuary stirs up in him, to tell you it's all okay.

You wait for hours, staring forward at the Virgin and sitting numbly through two masses and countless visitors to the confessionals, until finally, when the church is empty for the moment, you hear hesitant steps coming into the foyer and up the side aisle. You continue to look ahead as you hear him stop at your pew. He stands in the aisle right beside you, watching you.

"Damn you, Ben," he hisses, too quiet for anybody but you to hear, if anybody else had been here. You can barely make out the quiver in his voice, and you don't know whether it's grief for Steve or his fear of churches.

You don't reply. You don't look at him. Your hopes are too fragile, and the slightest thing could shatter them.

Krit pulls in a shaking breath.

"I hid the body," he says. "I cleaned up the apartment."

"Thank you," you whisper.

His fist comes out of nowhere and catches you right on one of your worst bruises. Your head snaps back with the impact.

"Fuck you, Ben! You think it was easy for me to do that? Does that even matter to you? Doesn't anybody else matter? Why's it all about you?"

You shake your head. You finally look up at him--that blow was enough to get rid of all your hopes, and there's no way for him to hurt you more. His eyes are red, and his face is streaked with dirt and sweat or tears. He's got mud on his clothes and arms; he must have sunk the body in the bayou.

"It's never been about me . . . " Never. Not with Ethan, not with Zack, not with Krit. Not even with Joel. You've finally taken things into your own hands, just this once, and you don't think that's so selfish.

"The hell it hasn't. Why do you think I let you stay with me, and slept with you, and took care of you so long? I should've sent you to L.A. when you first showed up on my doorstep. Zane would've taken you in same as I did, and you wouldn't have killed anybody over him."

"He wouldn't have screwed me and then screwed me over, either. He wouldn't have lied about loving me."

Krit narrows his eyes and shakes his head. "I never said I loved you, Ben. Never."

"You've never loved anybody," you accuse, "not really."

He blinks slowly, three times, before he responds. You almost think you see tears in his eyes. "Steve was the first man I was ever with."

"And how many girls did you have before he came along?" you ask bitterly. First times don't really matter with someone who's as much of a slut as Krit.

"I loved him."

"You're not capable of loving anybody."

"And you are?" Krit scoffs.

"I loved you. . . . I loved you too much."

He's silent for a moment. Then he drops your shoes--the work boots you forgot when David took you away--on your lap. "You left these at the scene, baby."

You don't dignify his sarcasm with words. You reach into your pocket and take out the napkin crumpled around the teeth like gift wrapping. You pull his hand toward you and close his fingers around the present. Curious, he tugs the thin paper away from its contents, and he stares down at them with wide eyes.

"Oh my God." His fingers spread in horror, and the teeth fall to the ground, clattering on the cold tiles. He wipes his palm on the leg of his jeans, even though the teeth didn't leave any blood on him.

"You said it didn't matter," you whisper. "When I tried to kill Van, you said that was okay, that being jealous was a good reason and it would have justified it if I really had slit her throat. You didn't even mind it when Syl killed someone for no reason. Why's it so different now? What's the difference between being jealous over Zack and over you? What's the difference between Van and Steve?"

Krit doesn't answer, just stares at you with those wide eyes.

You draw a breath. The sanctuary is deserted right now, except for you and Krit, and you hope nobody else walks in and sees the teeth scattered under the pews and into the aisle.

"Anything's okay, isn't it," you say, "until it happens to you. This was never about me--it's always been about you."

"I could call the cops." Krit speaks so quickly that the words almost tumble over one another, and you're sure they would be just a blur to a normal ear. "I could tell them where to find the body. I could tell them about how you came home bloody like that, and how Steve had the same tattoo as you. I could tell them that you hang out here. I could tell them the names of all the gay tattoo artists you could've slept with to get it done--was it John Penna? Matthew DaWood? David Schwartz?"

You flinch.

Krit smirks. It's not as potent, when his eyes are still wide with horror. "I thought it might be David. Think about the trouble he could get into, tattooing somebody who was too smashed to consent. Maybe he was even your accomplice--he'd do anything for a boy as pretty as you, when he's drunk."

"Krit, don't," you protest weakly.

"Don't? Who are you to ask me not to?"

"Please--don't."

"I will. You'd better get the hell out of Louisiana before I do."

--

You have to leave, even if you don't want to. There's really no reason to stay any more, and there's every reason to go. There's no way Krit will take you back now, and you can't be sure his threats were empty.

So you buy a ticket for the next bus heading out of state. It's going west, through Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, all the way to L.A. and Zane. He won't ever use you like Zack or Krit have--he won't ever have the chance to, because he's too straight and too committed to his Colleen.

You call him before the bus leaves; he says you're welcome to stay for as long as you need.

"And if I hear from Pike again before you get here, I'll be sure to let him know you're alright--because you are alright now, aren't you, Ben?"

"No," you sigh. "No . . . I can't talk about it now." Zane wouldn't understand about the jealousy and the rage and the blood, and the other people in the bus terminal might overhear. Maybe you'll never be able to talk about it to anybody.

"They made you strong, Ben--you'll be alright. You will. I promise."

"Yeah," you whisper. "Yeah. I hope so."

Zane is silent for a moment.

"Your bus route stops in El Paso, doesn't it?" he asks. "Maybe you should stop at Van's for a while, instead of coming straight here. You sound like you need someone a lot sooner than L.A."

You nod thoughtfully. Zane never knew about how much you hated Van--but the old murderous rivalry doesn't seem to matter any more, without Zack to fight over. "Maybe I'll do that."

"Call me," says Zane. "Let me know."

--

You make up your mind during a layover in Dallas, and you call Van.

She's waiting for you when you get off in El Paso at a quarter to midnight. She doesn't say a word, just starts walking once you've seen her. You follow her out to the dark parking lot and a rusty pickup truck you don't remember her owning.

--

"This is why never to fuck your brother," Van says to you as she hands you a cup of coffee and sinks down onto the couch beside you. She's fumbling things again, not paying attention, and she poured in so much milk that you can hardly tell there's coffee at all. "Doesn't matter how pretty he is, how much you think you love him or need him. Zack screwed us both over, Krit screwed you over--and Pike wonders why I won't touch him with a ten-foot pole. I guess this is why incest's such a taboo."

You take a sip. Her coffee beans have been stale a long time, and her milk is beginning to turn sour. You set the mug down on the desk near the ratty creaking sofa where the two of you are sitting, and you think of how much better Krit plays host. You could use some of his moonshine now--or maybe not, since it would remind you of him, and of Steve, and of why you're sitting here with Van instead of sleeping in Krit's arms.

"I didn't think you ever had bad ideas, like sleeping with Zack," you say.

"Fuck," she groans. She's closed her eyes and tipped her head to rest on the back of the sofa. You're not sure, but you think you can see a long, faint scar across her throat where you tried to cut it months ago. "I'm only human."

She's anything but, and you're glad for that. Van's about the only person who can understand what you've just been through, and a human being couldn't shrug off murder attempts and broken love triangles like she does. She comes just short of forgiving you and starting to care, but it's worth so much more than the human emotions it parodies.

"How'd you end up with him, anyway?" you ask.

She shrugs, strong shoulders pulling against her black tee shirt. "First time I went into heat. It went from there."

"I can't believe you put up with him when you weren't prowling around like an alley cat."

"Zack was an asshole, but he was good in bed."

You nod, remembering his hands touching you, remembering his strong beautiful body, chest against your back, both of you drenched in sweat, and you wonder if it was always just about control, because he hardly ever cried out his pleasure. . . . You remember the other things he's done, too, the reasons you can be grateful to have known him--saving you from the police or Lydecker, forcing you out of relationships you never would have left on your own. But you never would have left Zack on your own, either. He used you, just like Joel and Ethan and Krit.

"Didn't it ever go deeper than sex?" you ask Van.

She just stares at you.

"Did you love him?"

"You know I don't fall in love. It's not what I was made for. I needed to get fucked, he fucked me, and I don't know why people have to be so emotional about things like that."

You don't believe a word she says, but you don't tell her so.

"Van?" asks a voice.

You spin around toward it, and see a man standing in the hallway in his pajama bottoms, tall and blonde and sleepy-eyed.

"Who's this, honey?" he asks.

"My brother," she says. "Go back to bed, Don."

He casts a skeptical glance at you, then looks at her. "You coming with me?"

"I'll be there soon."

"You need to take better care of yourself, honey. Think of the baby."

"I'll be there soon," she repeats. He glances at you again, then turns reluctantly and goes back down the hall.

"Baby?" you ask.

"I was in heat," she murmurs, too quiet for Don to hear. "He was there. Turns out he's the sensitive and responsible type, and now I've got him for keeps. Isn't that ironic? Everybody but me wants a man like him . . . "

"You're going to have a baby," you murmur. It's the sweetest thing in the world--funniest, too, but still sweet. Maybe she'll be a good mother, even if she's not that kind. "Going to be like Tinga."

"I'll be fucking miserable if I have this thing. It's a liability. If Lydecker came around, I'll have to leave it. It won't be able to protect itself, and he'll take it--it'll end up wishing it hadn't even been born."

"So what are you going to do, then?"

"Miscarry. There's ways to make that happen. And maybe Don will leave, once there's no baby. . . . See, Ben? We all got problems. You just gotta figure out what to do about them. You're doing the right thing, leaving Krit. Now you just need to be careful--no more sociopaths, no more control freaks, no more abusers, no more older men. Don't let people stomp on your heart. And then you'll be just fine."

"Yeah," you nod. You'll get through, by being more like what they intended, less like what they tried to erase. They designed you with a purpose, and maybe it's useless to fight those instincts.

Van nods too and stares off down the hall, resting her forearms on her muscled thighs and dangling her hands between her knees. There's a shard of glass still lying against the baseboard, from when she threw you against the wall and broke that picture frame. They made her so perfect and precise, but she can't even clean her floor completely. Maybe it's just something she doesn't care about. Maybe it's a rebellion against the pristine, sterilized laboratories and hallways at Manticore.

Van's looking at the glass too.

You think about the barcode you marked Steve with, the crack of his neck, the way he crumpled to the ground. You think about the church that didn't soothe you like it should have, about Krit standing in the aisle muddy and exhausted, the way he just stared at you. That's the last time you ever saw Krit, maybe the last time you ever will see him, and you're almost sure he's still there, frozen in time by the shock. In your mind, he'll never pick up the scattered teeth, never go back to his clubs and bars and one-night stands, never even move from that spot. He'll be there waiting for you, when you come back someday.

Van gets up and goes over to the linen closet in the hall. She takes down a spare pillow and a blanket, and brings them back to you.

"I'd let you share my bed, but Don's there already."

You smile at her joke. "I wouldn't mind sharing with him."

"Touche." She punches your shoulder, and turns across the living room to go back to her man. She pauses at the head of the hall and looks back at you.

"I was worried about you, Ben. For the longest time."

Neither Van or David worried half as much as they should have, you think. Even now, calm and safe, you can still feel yourself slipping. "Pollo loco," Pike called you once, before Joel or Ethan or Zack or any of this--"Crazy boy." You shot back that he was the one who wasn't all there, he was the one who'd been so reckless and had almost been captured a week before. But there was more truth in his words than either of you ever guessed.

Van turns again, rounded female hips swaying as she walks down the hall. She closes the bedroom door behind her.

You put the pillow down at one end of the sofa, and spread the blanket.

As you take off your shoes and slip into your makeshift bed, you can hear Van in her bedroom. There's the brush of fabric coming off of her body, then the rustle of bedding as Don moves aside and she climbs into the bed beside him.

"So he's your brother?"

"That's what I told you, isn't it?"

"Last I checked, white boys like him didn't have Apache sisters."

"Fuck off, Don. I don't wanna explain it."

If you're sure you're going insane, doesn't it mean you haven't yet, not quite? Doesn't it mean you still know what's real and what's not, still know up from down and right from wrong? It means that you're not completely lost, and that there's still a chance to turn back--doesn't it?

"There's too many things you don't want to explain."

"I'm not about to change that just for you. Maybe we're not right for each other. Maybe you should pack your bags and take your bitter ass somewhere else. I don't need this drama. I don't need you."

"Van, I want this to work . . . "

"But what if I don't?"

Don doesn't reply. Van doesn't add anything more. Soon both of them are breathing with the slow even rhythm of unconsciousness, and the house is silent, dead.

You stare up at the water stain on Van's ceiling, and it's hours before you drift to sleep.


[ END ]


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