"You disappoint me, String. I had such fuckin' hopes for us."
The thing is—the fucking thing of it is—is that Lester's right. There ain't no way in hell they're gonna pin anything on Stringer now, and Jimmy doesn't see a better goddamn play. Maybe he owes it to the unit, after all, owes it to Daniels and Ronnie and Kima and Lester and Prez, to play this game they're stuck playing, to rustle up whatever mid-level players they're stuck chasing, even when they're nothing, stupid mopes still on pay phones, barely even a challenge, nothing next to Barksdale, next to String.
"Cocksucker stood right there and tried to sell me a fuckin' condo," he says, half to Greggs and half to the tumbler of Jameson's on the bar. "Loft apartment by the Hippodrome, he said, like he really was legit. Just that goddamn copy shop and some real estate developments, more than enough to occupy him, what the fuck."
"That's ballsy," Kima says, "we always knew he was a ballsy motherfucker. Stringer Bell, the bank? Jesus Christ, Jimmy." She takes a long pull of her beer, and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Do not talk to me about Stringer Bell's balls," Jimmy mutters, and Kima snorts, bitterly amused.
"What now?" she asks, spinning the neck of her beer bottle between her fingers.
Jimmy contemplates the liquor in his glass, golden and smoky in the flickering alcoholic light, and then he knocks it back. "I told Lester I was back in," he says, dropping the empty glass on the bar. "Said, I guess it was time for Kintell Williamson."
Kima frowns, eyes narrowing, "That's it, then? After all this, now you're gonna just walk away, play nice for the unit? That ain't you, Jimmy."
"Hey," Jimmy says feelingly, "hey, you were against this from the beginning." He catches the bartender's eye and holds up two fingers.
"Went with you, didn't I? Even when Lester ripped us both new assholes. Bell's the real deal and always was." She finishes her beer, and the bartender comes over with Jimmy's drink.
"Double Jameson's, neat," the bartender says to Jimmy, whisking away his empty glass, and to Kima, "Another of those?" Kima nods, and the bartender sets the bottle of Miller Lite—fuckin' horse piss—on the bar.
"I'll take another of these," Jimmy says, draining half his glass. The whiskey goes down smooth and hot, perfect burn in the back of his throat. "Or maybe I better just buy the whole bottle."
The bartender laughs, "I'll get you another."
"Keep 'em coming," Jimmy calls after him.
Kima waits, patient, drinking her beer and not saying a word. Eventually, Jimmy sighs and takes another long swallow of his drink. "Lester was right, though, Kima, just like he always fucking is. If there's no case—and there won't be, will there? He keeps playing it legit—and he will, if I know Stringer at all—it'll be like, like, like bringing down Senator Clay fuckin' Davis. No way in hell, whether or not we play by the goddamn rules."
"Shit ain't right," Kima says, shaking her head, and Jimmy's never agreed with her more.
He finishes his second drink and starts in on the third. Next to him, Kima morosely knocks back her beer, and the two of them drink together in grim silence, until Kima's got a little line of empty bottles along the bar, and Jimmy's vision is starting to blur around the edges, the first telltale sign. The whiskey doesn't stop tasting like whiskey, though: heady and blistering and alive.
"—like he didn't even know me," he groans, halfway through a conversation he shouldn't be having, but Kima isn't paying attention. She's looking down the bar, eyes on a girl—a hot girl, Jimmy thinks, momentarily distracted: little nothing of a skirt riding up on the bar stool, showing off mile-long legs. Nice tits in a low-cut top and masses of pinned-up dark curls, coming loose down the graceful line of her neck. She catches Kima watching and smiles, glancing coyly away. But even if she's hot as hell—which he'd be a fool not to notice with Kima looking at her like that—even so, the sinking feeling that she isn't anything close to what he wants leaves him suddenly unsteady, shaking with something that isn't just the booze.
"Number six?" he suggests, and if his voice is a little uneven—well, if Kima even notices, she'll blame the whiskey.
"Hmm?" She looks back at Jimmy, "Number what now?"
Bunk would know immediately, but—right. Greggs isn't Bunk. Sometimes he forgets that they haven't been drinking together all that long, partners or no—and maybe because she'd always seemed a whole different kind of married than Jimmy or Bunk. Seems like she's on her way to being just as much a fucking asshole as the rest of them, though. Police, shit, what a mess they all are. He almost has to wish Ronnie and Daniels the best, much good it'll ever do them. "My wife just left me," he says mournfully, "ran off with my best friend." He gives her the eyes that work on eight women out of ten.
She stares at him for a minute, and then bursts out laughing. "Are you fucking kidding me? That can't possibly really work, Jimmy, shit."
"In my defense," Jimmy says slowly, drawling but not slurring yet, "Bunk came up with most of the lines—though I did number the fuckers. Gotta have a code, Greggs, gotta have a protocol."
"Motherfuckers." She sounds about equal parts impressed and appalled.
"So?" He tilts his chin at the girl. She's looking over her shoulder at Kima, trying not to look like she's looking—girl might not even need a line. "Gonna give it a shot?"
"I—" Kima glances down the bar, one corner of her mouth quirking up. Jimmy recognizes that look. "Yeah, maybe."
He's not really trying to get rid of her—at least, not with any forethought. She's the right person to drink with, tonight. She's had his back, stood with him against Daniels and Lester and the whole damn unit. She'll commiserate with him and drink with him and mourn the case they don't have, and she won't for one second tell him to stop chasing the real thing for all this Kintell Williamson bullshit. But the thing is—the thing is, they really are screwed, fucked right up by Stringer Bell, one step ahead of them all the way to the top. Greggs does the job better than ninety-eight percent of the cops Jimmy's ever worked with, believes in the job, but—it's not personal, for her. Jimmy should fucking know better, after all his years in the Western, should know, but Stringer had stood right there, asshole smile like a mask, and pretended like he didn't know Jimmy at all.
"A'ight," Kima says, making up her mind, and Jimmy lets out a breath—way more relieved than he should be, shit, this is Greggs. "Will you be okay, if I—" she makes an ambiguous gesture. Jimmy snorts, and Kima rolls her eyes, "See if I ever get your sorry ass home again, McNulty."
"I'll be fine." He puts his hand over the top of his empty glass. "I should call it a night, anyway, gotta, what, go to fucking work tomorrow, pretend to care about this loser, right?"
"Right." Kima slides to her feet, only a little unsteadily, and claps Jimmy on the shoulder. "See you tomorrow," she says, and then she's sauntering off down the bar. Jimmy watches her go for a second, and then he looks away.
"Another?" says the bartender, and Jimmy stares down at his hand over the mouth of glass.
"One for the road." He downs it in a quick swallow, fire and liquid courage. Doesn't need the courage, most nights, but—maybe, tonight.
He pays his tab and gets up, shakier on his feet than Kima was, and thumbs through his wallet—but of course, he left the business card with Lester. He glances at the pay phone on his way out the door, but that's not right, either, whether or not the motherfucker is listed in the goddamn phone book. His car is parked around the corner. Three nights ago he followed Stringer home to his downtown high-rise with its doorman and bay-side view, sat outside in his car until seven o'clock the next morning, but some impulse turns him the other way, west towards the copy shop and its sign in the window: B&B Enterprises, Office 2nd Floor.
Just like stepping in front of the goddamn train.
There's a light on in the second-floor window. Jimmy always gets off the train tracks at the last fucking minute, but tonight—tonight he puts his ill-gained Western District training to use, and breaks and enters. It doesn't take him long to find the stairs; door at the top gives him more trouble, but he gets it open with a little applied force, opens it up on a dark, ordinary office: bookshelves and filing cabinets, heavy wooden desk stacked with papers; telephone. He goes around the desk to page through the papers, but a cursory glance shows 'em all legit. Not surprising.
"You got a warrant, Detective?" Stringer says, behind him.
Jimmy turns, heart beating too fast in his fucking throat. Stringer's leaning in the doorway to the office's second room, arms crossed, light pouring out behind him. Backlit, the shadows of his half-moon glasses obscure his eyes. He's wearing the same striped shirt, the same too-fucking-well-fitting pants, that he was wearing that morning. "No," Jimmy says.
"Then you'll excuse me if I call the cops." He doesn't move.
"I am the cops."
"You trespassing on the private property of a tax-paying citizen, is what you is," Stringer says, brittle-bone dry. "What's the name of your commanding officer, Detective?"
Jimmy shifts up on the balls of his feet, ready for the fight. "You're a cocky motherfucker, you know that? Let's cut the horseshit, String, we both know why I'm here."
"Do we, now?" Stringer takes a step forward. Out of the light, Jimmy can finally see his face, impassive and deadly, dangerous and blank; he's seen that look in the back of too many damn courtrooms. "Here to bring me in, man? Middle of the fucking night, no warrant, no back-up? Ain't likely. Ain't nothin' here for you to find."
Jimmy laughs, humorless, "Ain't I know it." He holds up his hands, empty. "You've gone and done it, haven't you? Got everything you fucking wanted, everything you and Avon—what, dreamed up when you was corner kids? One day, he said, and you just fuckin' deliver?"
"You don't know shit about Avon," Stringer snaps—and there's that nerve. Yes. Jimmy's vision is crystal clear, suddenly, too-sharp; alcohol burned through his system and turned to reckless heat. He takes a step towards Stringer.
"Just what you always wanted, huh, String? Always raising your hand in the middle of that goddamn law class they made me take at BCCC—and then back out on the streets, on the corners, in the pit when I was riding a radio car in the Western—all that time, building up for a real fuckin' legitimate business empire, building to get out of the game. Always knew you was somethin', Russell, but did you have to go and be something on a shit-high mountain of dead bodies and dirty money?"
Stringer's mouth twists into something that might be a smile in the right light. "Think there's any other way in Baltimore, Officer McNulty?"
"You do remember," Jimmy says, before he can think better of it—fuck, maybe he is too drunk for this. Maybe he isn't fucking drunk enough.
"Ain't nothin' I don't remember." Stringer takes off his glasses, folds them and slides them into the pocket of his shirt. Even without the glasses, Jimmy can't read a goddamn thing in his eyes. "Pays to, in this business."
Jimmy takes the bait, "What business is that, exactly?"
"Real estate," Stringer returns, pitch-perfect deadpan, not a second off his game, and Jimmy falls back against the desk, half-hysterical with sudden laughter.
"Oh, fuck you, Stringer Bell," he gasps. "Motherfucker—you're winning. I can't touch you now, and you fuckin' well know it."
Stringer leans against the edge of a filing cabinet and narrows his eyes at Jimmy, waiting.
"Years," Jimmy says, "years, I been chasing you. You always were the best, weren't you? Smartest kid on the goddamn corner, smartest fuck in that goddamn class, smartest up-and-comer of the West Side. I'd'a helped you get out of the game then—if it hadn't always been about goddamn Avon. Both of you should be in fucking Jessup for life, fuck—legit, my ass."
"Don't got any real criminals want chasin'?" Stringer demands. "Gotta go after honest businessmen, now, too?"
Jimmy smiles at him—can't fucking hold it back, sharp and brittle and desperate. They've been dancing like this too goddamn long; someone's gotta give, gotta stop playing whatever this game is they've been playing for too many fucking years to count. Wherever it started—that classroom, under the bridge on Winchester, some shakily established middle ground where they never shoulda been in the first place—too long. "Cop's only as good as his C.I.s," he says pointedly.
Stringer slides his hands into the pockets of his perfect goddamn pants. "Tryin' to tell me I was the best you ever had, man?"
Jimmy grins, wild and dangerous, "Best I never had, String. Never did, did I? Even for the five goddamn seconds you were my C.I., never—"
"No," Stringer says harshly, and maybe Jimmy's drunker than he realized, because Stringer's in his space before he even sees the motherfucker move, trapping him against the desk. Jimmy tenses, hand on his gun. "I remember you, Officer James McNulty," Stringer says, eyes narrowed. "I remember all your little mind games, back in the day—ancient history, right? Should be, man, that's the game: give a little, get a little, move on, rise up. Not this. Your bugs and your phone taps, bringing in that fucking faggot to frame Bird, chasing down my people, locking up D'Angelo, locking up Avon—just to get at me, man? That's pathetic. What'd you think you were even gonna do with me, you brought me down?"
"See your ass behind bars where it belongs," Jimmy says, half bravado. Stringer's staring Jimmy down, Christ, and this is it. He came here tonight to make Stringer see him, more than the detective in the back of the courtroom, more than a daily legal nuisance in the face of criminal conspiracy, more than a neglected memory. If he can't catch String the ordinary way, can't catch him on the wire or the streets, then there's this.
"You think that'd be enough?" Stringer says, putting one hand on the desk next to Jimmy's hip. "Even if you could convict me—and you ain't gonna, Detective—you think you'd be satisfied?"
"Satisfaction of a job well done," Jimmy baits him. "Justice serving its true course, all that shit. Gets me hot, why you think I became a cop?" Stringer's so close that Jimmy can feel his breath on his face, hot and just a little too fast. Proximity gives him a head rush, alcohol and adrenaline leaving him shaky, unsteady, suddenly grateful for the desk holding him up. For just a second, he lets Stringer get to him: would he be satisfied, without String to chase? Without String to outsmart him and outplay him and make him work for it, without String to give him a goddamn challenge? What'd he be, without that? Moot point now, anyway. He grabs on to the desk to steady himself, and Stringer brings his other hand down, boxing Jimmy in on both sides.
"To get in my goddamn way?"
"Added bonus," Jimmy says, and pushes forward.
Stringer shoves him back until they're pressed together, knee to groin to chest. Stringer's big—fuck, Jimmy's no slouch, but Stringer's taller than him, strong enough to hold him down. Jimmy knows twenty different hand-to-hand maneuvers that'd get him free, but he still wouldn't pit himself against Stringer in a fight. He shivers—fuck, this is String. Finally.
"Too bad, man," Stringer says, keeping Jimmy pinned. Their hips are flush, and Jimmy can feel him, hard against the seam of his pants. Stringer drags one hand up into Jimmy's hair and yanks his head back.
"We done playing?" Jimmy gasps.
Stringer kisses him. He's all tongue and teeth, bruising Jimmy's lips and pulling his hair; he takes, and Jimmy opens up for it, kisses him back with all the fury of all the years that they haven't been doing this. Kissing Stringer Bell, shit. Ain't anything like kissing anybody else.
He knots his hands in the fine, expensive fabric of Stringer's shirt, careless, until Stringer pulls back far enough to get both their shirts off. Bare-chested, Jimmy grabs Stringer's shoulders. His skin is hot and smooth under Jimmy's hands, and Stringer's body against his is entirely different from all the myriad women he's been fucking lately. Not so different from the men he's fucked before—hard biceps, broad shoulders—but Stringer Bell has always been impossibly, dangerously, terrifyingly attractive. "Shit, String," he says into Stringer's mouth, and String bites his bottom lip and rips open Jimmy's jeans.
They get the rest of their clothes off, somehow, but Jimmy isn't paying attention to the details; his world has narrowed, blurred out everything unessential, everything but Stringer's hands on him, Stringer's tongue in his mouth. He hangs on and gives back and wants, and then String's turning him around and shoving him over the sharp edge of the desk. Jimmy clears the desk with one flailing sweep of his arm, and String presses up behind him, cock naked and hard against his ass.
"Fuck, String," he says again, almost a moan.
Stringer bites his neck, just beneath the line where his shirt collar would be. "Detective," he murmurs, hot in Jimmy's ear, and opens the top drawer of the desk.
"You always were an ambitious motherfucker," Jimmy says breathlessly, as Stringer slides two lubed fingers into his ass. Nothing remotely fucking delicate about it, his fingers rough and still a little too dry. Jimmy shoves back into his hands, trying for leverage, but Stringer pushes him down.
"Pays off," Stringer says. "Move when I tell you to move, Detective."
Jimmy groans and closes his eyes; the wood of the desk is cool under his cheek. Stringer adds a third finger and twists up, rough and hard and perfect, and Jimmy cries out, tries to grab for his own dick until Stringer slaps his hand away. "Ain't you the rebel."
"Think that was clear when I started fucking criminals," Jimmy grits out, and Stringer actually laughs, the same surprised, almost-pleased laugh from that morning, like Jimmy impressed him, like Jimmy did something he didn't expect. They know each other too goddamn well, and they don't know each other at all. Stringer twists his fingers again, sharply. "Motherfucker," Jimmy groans, "do it already, how long've we been fuckin' waiting for this?"
Stringer laughs again, derisive, but he pulls his fingers out, slicks up and pushes in. His cock is a hell of a lot bigger than his fingers, and Jimmy isn't ready—maybe wouldn't ever be ready—but the burn of it is like good whiskey, heady and intoxicating, too much and too little all at once. He curls his sweaty hands over the far edge of the desk and hangs on. "Fuck," he whispers into the desk, gasping as String fucks into him, slow burn, "fuck you, fuck."
"Fuck you, Detective McNulty," Stringer says against his neck, harsh and breathless and there, and Jimmy laughs, triumphant, pushes back until Stringer slams him into the desk. String fucks him hard and rough, relentless—too goddamn good, shit—and Jimmy rides it out. This is all gonna be over too goddamn soon, but it's been a long time coming. Stringer's got his empire, and Jimmy's got his unit, and maybe they're all just fucked; if this is all they get—
"Harder," Jimmy gasps, filthy and desperate, and, "String, shit, come on," and "Cocksucker, touch me." Stringer's arched above him, hands hot on Jimmy's hips, and then he puts one hand between Jimmy's shoulder blades to hold him down, and gets the other around his cock. No finesse to this, either, but after that everything is just flashes: heat and motion and sensation, world narrowing all the way down to his cock in String's hand and String's cock in his ass, give and fucking take, until Stringer's crying out, one wordless shout, and coming hotly inside him. Jimmy rides out the aftershocks, trembling, so fucking close—and then String jerks his hand up, hard, and Jimmy comes all over the desk. Stringer's other hand clenches on Jimmy's arm, bruising.
He's gonna feel this tomorrow—gonna wake up, go to work, play nice for Daniels. Chase down Kintell Williamson, fuck it; whatever he has to do, however far from Stringer he has to get, he'll know. He had him once, right here.
Stringer pulls out, and Jimmy winces at the shivery, unpleasant feeling of it, and pushes himself up onto his elbows. His back twinges unhappily when he turns over. If he were in a bed, if he were with anyone else, this is the point where he'd fall asleep—even with total strangers, he falls asleep, but Stringer ain't no stranger, and Jimmy's still a cop. "Thanks, Russell," he says, "it's good to know how you like it. Avon take that from you, or is it the other way 'round?"
Stringer hisses, sharp, and lands a blow on Jimmy's chest, sending him sprawling back onto the desk. "Get the fuck out."
Jimmy grins up at him, darkly satisfied. Naked, angry, eyebrows drawn fiercely together and chest still gleaming with sweat, Stringer's not so impervious. Jimmy's gotta chase down more of this feeling. "You tell me something," he says, "off the record, then I'll go."
For a second, Stringer looks like he's gonna throw Jimmy out on his ass. Then his face relaxes, mouth settling into an ordinary frown, and he nods, once, not a concession, but—something. He doesn't make any move towards his own clothes, but he throws Jimmy's jeans at him. Jimmy drags them back on, wincing at the rough fabric against his sore, sticky skin. "All this," he says, "all this—becoming the bank, trying to sell me a goddamn condo, going to lunch with fucking state senators—" Stringer looks momentarily surprised at that, and then resigned. "You could've—years ago, you were always smart enough to get out. Fuck, too smart for me, way too damn smart for the game. Why didn't you, then, why didn't you—"
"Only one thing really matters, man," Stringer says, "one thing, and it ain't about the money, or the business, or the game—family, man. You keep lockin' mine up, I make it so you can't—only goddamn thing."
"Family," Jimmy scoffs, "and what about poor fuckin' D'Angelo, murdered in goddamn prison? Wasn't he your family? Decent kid, wanted out of the game, but you fucks didn't do a damn thing for him."
Stringer goes still. "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about, Detective."
"I know it wasn't no suicide," Jimmy snaps. "So do you, String, so—want to tell me more about your goddamn family? Avon's in prison, D'Angelo's dead, your people, they ain't family, they're just minions. What you got left?" They're both alone out here; Jimmy doesn't have any family left, either, but String's the one goddamn constant. He likes to think, maybe, he's just as much a constant for Stringer, constant challenge, constant heat. If he can't have the chase—maybe there's this. Whatever Stringer is to him, whatever he is to String, they need each other.
"Prison ain't nothing, Detective," Stringer says, harsh and hard, shattering, "Avon's my family, always fucking will be. Nothing you can ever do about that, nothing you ever could—we're brothers, man. You think you can break that? Tilting at goddamn windmills. You've got nothin'. Ain't nothin' to me." He tosses Jimmy his shirt, and turns away.
Jimmy stares after him—fuck that. "I'll fucking show you," he says roughly, "I'll show you and your fucking family. Someday you're gonna slip up, String, and I'll be waiting for you. Right there, when you fall."
"Goodbye, Detective," Stringer says, and walks out, into the office's other room, shutting the door behind him. Jimmy pushes himself off the desk, shaky and furious, and shoves his feet into his shoes.
"This ain't over," he says, half to himself, loud enough to be heard through the door. He waits, one more minute, but Stringer doesn't come back out, and Jimmy slams out of the office, out of the copy shop and onto the empty street. Leaves the door of the shop wide open, lock broken, just because he fucking can—watch Stringer report the goddamn vandalism. "Someday," he says to his steering wheel, spinning his car away from the curb. "Someday."