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Stroking Luck

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He was lying awake at 6:30 in the morning, staring at the drips of blood artfully splattered across his motel room ceiling.

They sprinkled the stucco like stars: an entire galaxy of the last moments of someone's life spread above his head. His first thought was why no one had bothered to clean the ceiling. The rooms weren't used for traveling businessmen or families on vacation, that was for sure, so a lot of people would probably be on their backs, looking up.

Then he touched on the more obvious reason. No one cared. He was now a part of society that was routinely forgotten, that paid little attention when some depressed man, or hooker, or drug user decided to end it all with a Glock and a steady hand. He was considered disposable in a city already swimming with the dregs of humanity, so who would give a fuck if one of them politely made it less crowded? Not the owners of this motel, obviously.

Or perhaps the red swath was left there as a warning, to remind whoever it was in the middle of their self-destructive act that things could be much worse. Trace the path to your future! it seemed to say.

Fuck.

He hadn't planned on winding up in a $35-a-day shithole with one duffle bag that held everything he owned. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He never dreamed he would have to choose between eating or buying toilet paper. He deserved more, goddammit. Didn't he?

He'd been in prison since he was 17, on that fucked-up assault charge. And when Chris Keller got out of Lardner that first time, man, he thought he could take on anything. Reality had no meaning for a kid who tasted real freedom for the first time. Just feeling the sun on his skin made living worthwhile, and for weeks he moved from place to place, experiencing whatever he could with whomever he was with. Drugs, girls, parties, booze...it was heaven on earth.

With four years under his belt for that assault he should have been old enough to know better, but a drunken bender and a slight miscommunication with a store clerk -- who had actually shot at Keller in the middle of his half-assed robbery attempt -- landed him right back in Lardner not three months later.

Three months of freedom since he was 17. That was it. In the time other guys his age were getting drunk and fucking their brains out in college, he was getting an education at Lardner. It made him bitter and jealous of the rich assholes who didn't have to fight for what they had, all of them enjoying a good time away from home. That should have been him. Well, might have been. He never did graduate high school.

Last year, when he turned 23, he said goodbye to Lardner once again. Not long after, he found himself roaming the streets, searching for a liquor store or gas station to rob. He was starving and out of cash, and decided to sit on a park bench in order to decide what to do. When the man approached him and asked him how much a blowjob would cost, his mind was made up. Rather than get thrown back into prison for some robbery -- he was never any good at stealing shit anyway, that was obvious -- and be made a prag again, he decided to take what he had learned and put it to good use.

That would be his talent for fucking and sucking of course, thanks to Vern.

It was never a skill he necessarily wanted to acquire. When he was thrown into that place he had tried to fight back at first. But day after day of nightmarish torture at the hands of Vern Schillinger in return for "protection" eventually broke him down into nothing more than a walking shell. He was forced to grow up fast in Lardner, learning how to kiss, how to kill, and how to fuck.

He learned how to smile behind dead eyes; how to strut like you owned the cellblock; how to manipulate and deceive; how to hold the shank sideways so that it slipped smoothly through the ribs. He also learned how to be afraid, how to cry without being heard; and how to pray all over again.

He still did that sometimes, when things were at their bleakest, when he felt like his world was collapsing around him. He used to ask the Virgin for protection and forgiveness, kissing the cross around his neck, until he was forced to hock it in order to eat.

Choosing to sell his body for cash wasn't an easy decision, but he preferred having control over who he fucked, and when. He never had that choice in Lardner. The night he got paid ten bucks for his first back-alley blowjob, he leaned against the wall and cried. Then he got up off his knees and went on to find the next john, forcing himself to believe that at least this time, he was getting paid for it.

Sniffling, he wiped his nose on the pillowcase of the bed and lit up a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, relishing the sensation of the acrid smoke in his lungs. Blowing out the gray haze in a cloud around his head, he tilted his eyes up again to stare at the blood droplets, contemplating his next move.

Living from dollar to dollar in this city was no easy task. More often than not he was hungry, or cold, or walking the streets trying to find a place to sleep. He didn't get any work yesterday, and as a result he was short of cash and would need to pick up at least one good-paying customer tonight.

At 24, he still looked young enough to pass for a twink rentboy, which was generally the type the men out here were looking for. Lean and muscular, with a cock that didn't disappoint -- according to his johns -- Keller had a way of exuding charm to get the best-paying clients. Unlike others on the street, he tried to educate himself by eyeing what the prospective john was wearing. Tailor-made business suits, silk ties, $300 loafers...Keller became a connoisseur of the well-dressed gentleman seeking a blowjob in the back of a Beemer.

Then again, he never passed up an opportunity to make some quick cash. There wasn't much he wouldn't do, which often led him down dangerous paths. He'd already been raped once, the time he underestimated a well-dressed john, who brought over two of his friends without asking. When Keller balked, the guy -- and his friends -- had a good time anyway after Keller passed out. In those cases, he did everything he could to forget the pain and went looking for the black tar. He developed a taste for heroin when he was doing time, although Keller hadn't graduated to mainlining yet. He still smoked it, which was the "pussy way" of getting high, according to the dealers. Still, in his mind, slowly sucking the wafting smoke through a tube kept his need for the stuff manageable.

Heroin was an easy way to lose himself when he had the extra money. It was like inhaling a warm blanket that wrapped itself around his body. His stomach would relax, often alleviating hunger pangs, and the heat of the hit would surge lower, caressing his abdomen and cock. Then the euphoria would kick in, making his life bearable.

But he didn't have the money for an extra meal right now, much less a rock of heroin, making him glad his habit was limited to rare occasions.

He padded over to the bathroom and packed away the two grungy towels the motel had provided, in case he might need them. Taking one last drag from his cigarette, he exhaled and spit the butt into the toilet. He examined his reflection in the mirror, wishing that the bruises and split lip he suffered the other night as a result of an overzealous john would fade. Scratching at his two-day-old stubble, he gingerly touched his cheek, which was an interesting shade of purple. Shit. He should have charged the fucker extra for that.

Sighing, he went back to the bed and stretched across it one more time. That could easily be his blood up there, thanks to the shitty path his life had taken of late. But suicide was a sin after all, banishing you to an eternity of pain and torment, right? He considered it, wondering if hell was any worse than New York City in the summer.

He doubted it. Besides, even bullets cost money.

* * *

Half an hour later, Keller was out on the streets with his bag and the few dollars he had left in his pocket. He found it wise to skip out on paying the motel bill early in the morning, when the dayshift came on. He probably had enough money for a decent lunch at one of those hole-in-the-wall Chinese places, but since he wouldn't be able to pick up clients until the bars opened and the nighttime cruising crowd showed, he would put off eating until later. Counting his few bills and change, he knew $5.65 could fill his stomach for that night at least. He could go hungry for a while; he hadn't been forced to eat out of the garbage -- yet.

The city was already buzzing with energy, even at that time of the morning. Hordes of well-dressed office workers began to flood the streets, making their way to jobs in their glass-enclosed boxes high above the shit and filth of the rest of the city. Sometimes Keller used to like to sit on the cement barriers that surrounded Port Authority, just to watch the ebb and flow of the mass of humanity. He welcomed the smells of the sewer, the garbage, and the piss-stained walls. It made him feel alive. And free.

Walking up the crowded sidewalks, he headed south, toward Chelsea, the Meatpacking district, and the river. Twenty-six blocks, more or less, and if he took his time he could stretch the walk out to around 40 minutes. The frenzy of midtown in the streets of the 30s morphed into historic brownstones and trendy boutiques in the 20s of Chelsea. Then the buildings would begin to look older and more shabby -- where some sections of street were still cobblestoned -- letting him know he'd reached the Meat Market down around 14th Street. Turning right, he walked up 14th and passed Our Lady of Guadalupe, where he paused for a moment to bless himself. Then he retreated toward 10th Avenue, where the confluence of stacked buildings and the old, unused West Side elevated freight line tracks provided plenty of places to sleep. From there he could see the river, Hudson River Park, and Jersey.

At that time of the morning the side streets were alive with trucks and deliveries of all sorts, making him feel more comfortable among the blue-collar men, rather than those in business suits. Walking down the worn and broken streets that were shaded with the freight bridges, he felt a sense of comfort that you couldn't experience in midtown. Everything up there was loud, and overwhelming, and crowded. Down here people didn't mill around or take tourist photos; no one had the need to dwell beneath the shadows of the oppressive steel and ironwork overhead. Curiously, if you walked up a block or two you would run into fashion boutiques, places which functioned side by side with disused meat packing plants.

He could smell the river before he even crossed the highway, that familiar scent that always hit him as he walked the length of the street. He liked strolling along the piers, watching the tugs, river taxis, tour boats, and sometimes a random pleasure boat, traveling the water. Sometimes he just needed to be close to the water, to remind himself that 40-story high-rises and hot pavement wasn't all there was to this city.

He kept away from this part of town in the winter, though, because the breeze off the pier was fucking intolerable. But in the spring and summer it was a nice place to be, and for some reason he took comfort in the fact that he could sit there and pretend to be just like the rest of the office workers out on their lunch hour. He didn't often blend in with his ratty jeans and beat-up jacket, but the illusion was enough.

He sighed and shifted his bag over his shoulder, looking for a decent spot near the abandoned factories on 10th Avenue. They were doing construction on one building, and the blue scaffolding that was a fixture of life in the city offered him plenty of cover.

Sometimes it was hazardous sleeping out in the open, because those that did had a tendency to get stabbed and robbed of what few items they owned. Keller kept a knife in his boot for just such an occasion, which luckily hadn't happened to him yet. He'd seen evidence of such attacks though, so he made sure he was always aware of his surroundings.

That wasn't always possible when it came to dealing with johns. He had been in a few hairy situations since he hit the streets that made him pull that knife. As much as he tried to be selective, there were times when he was so desperate that he got into cars -- or vans -- without a second thought. Those were the moments in his fucked-up life that he most regretted, because they hammered home the fact that no matter how much he was being paid, he was still someone's bitch.

Tucking his bag under his head and placing the sheathed knife next to his hip, Keller scanned the area one more time, and then drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the highway traffic.

* * *

Strange that he could sleep more soundly on a slab of concrete than on an actual bed. He wasn't sure what that said about his life of late -- that he was better off living in the filth under a bridge? He tried not to let the thought depress him.

It was mid-afternoon by the time Keller left his sleeping spot, and he decided to walk to kill some time. It wasn't that hot today, thank Christ.

Sometimes he could hop a turnstile if the attendant was busy with a customer and ride the subway until it got dark. The trains were air conditioned, once you got past the stifling heat of the platforms. It made for a unique mix of people down in those packed little silver cars, every one of them desperate to be away from the stink and the heat of the tunnels. For Keller it was the only way to keep cool without being hassled like he would have been anywhere else.

It never bored him, either. He was the type of man who paid attention, not just to those prospective johns that dressed well, but to the little things that occurred around him. You needed to be vigilant to survive. He always kept his eyes and ears alert for the small things, shit that the scurrying worker bees would never bother to notice.

One afternoon about two weeks ago he was sitting there looking at the ads above his head when he felt eyes on him. It was true what they say about the feeling of being watched, and this was unmistakable. Carefully he scanned the car, looking for the threat.

There across from him sat a little kid, maybe five or six years old, looking at him. The kid's mother was beside him, engrossed in a magazine. Keller decided the kid was probably staring at him because he looked kind of disheveled. His prized possession -- a button-down collared shirt -- was only worn on special occasions. Then Keller began to panic in case the mother caught him looking at the kid. He began averting his eyes, looking at other passengers, the lights passing by the scratched car windows, anywhere other than the dark-haired little boy. When Keller was about to get up and move to another seat, he glanced over at the boy again.

He was smiling. A warm, happy, friendly grin, something Keller hadn't seen in a really long time.

Keller, for all his imagined bravado and tough-guy attitude, began to feel tears well up in his eyes.

He would often look for the boy every time he was riding the trains after that, hoping to see him again. It never happened, though. It was one of those beautiful random events that life threw at him, offering up a rare moment of happiness. He clung to things like that. It helped him remember who he was, and that the streets hadn't yet claimed him.

Like today. Today he would travel those streets, some of which he knew well enough to remember when to step over cracks in the pavement. Even though he usually walked the same route, back and forth to Port Authority, over and over, he never got tired of the sights and sounds. They were different every time.

That afternoon he would travel those same 26 blocks until he lost count. He only paused momentarily when he hit 33rd and 9th, to see the stunning sight of the setting sun tossing reflected patterns over the Empire State Building. But rather than be taken in by the gorgeous colors, all Keller knew was that the sunset meant the city was coming alive for the evening. Alive, and full of potential for a man who was willing to use his miserable life to make someone else happy in the time it took to finish a blowjob.

Grinning, he shouldered his bag and took off once again in the direction of Chelsea.

* * *

He decided to give it another hour before he hit the bar, and stopped in one of the cheap Chinese restaurants to eat. If you knew how to do it, you could get three different things from the menu and still have change left over.

Keller sat there with his soup and fried wontons, watching as the city slowly awakened to the night. The glow of the streets made him feel hopeful that he'd be able to pick up a high-class customer tonight. He'd already changed into his dress shirt for the hunt.

Two blocks from where he was sitting was his eventual destination, the XL Bar & Lounge. It catered to a diverse clientele, and Keller had no problems making it past the bouncer. Well, he had given him a blowjob for free that one time in return for access to the club, but he still had to work his charms when he got inside.

There were usually drag shows or some other sort of entertainment to be seen, but he generally concentrated on the two-for-one drink specials and the lack of cover charge. It allowed him to hang out longer in case he didn't turn up any customers right away. The after-work crowd tended to be more horny, and the music was better before it hit 9 p.m. Tonight he was looking for the suits drinking at the bar with their ties undone -- the men who gave off that vulnerable and needy vibe. He could always pick up on the sensation.

Slurping up the last bit of his hot-and-sour soup, Keller dumped his tray and popped a piece of gum into his mouth. He regarded himself in the mirrored wall of the restaurant, and smoothed down his hair. Looking at his reflection, he hoped the gash on his lip and the bruise weren't too noticeable. Then, to better counteract the possibility of someone noticing, he unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt.

* * *

The bar wasn't flashy on the outside; if you didn't know it was there you would walk right past it. There was a simple placard on the wall outside the place that read "xl" in lowercase letters.

The place was very hip, very modern, and a little slow this evening. With two levels, he knew the higher class clientele would most likely be on the second floor. The mezzanine bar was quieter, away from the driving music. There were chairs and tables in which you could sit away from the bar, allowing for more intimate conversations. Keller had the best luck in this part of the bar because of the stairway. Whenever he ascended those few steps, all heads turned his way. He liked the feeling it gave him most of the time -- but on bad nights he imagined himself nothing more than a piece of meat.

Tonight he wasn't thinking of anything other than getting some rich bitch businessman to pay -- and pay well -- for some fun. He was hoping someone would be willing to proposition him for a fuck, rather than a blowjob. He needed the money.

Slowly he made his way to the back of the bar and the stairs to the second level. The music was already throbbing, no doubt to help everyone forget their workday troubles. As he walked up the stairs he scoped out the main bar on the ground level. The ambient lighting changed in time with the flow of the music, bathing him in soft, bluish colors. No one caught his eye, unfortunately.

At the mezzanine level there were several businessmen sitting in a group, all relaxing over drinks. There were also a few men seated at the bar proper, and Keller paused to check them out. One was wearing a suit, but it looked like an old style, and his shoes were scuffed. That was a no. Another looked promising, but Keller could tell his watch and jewelry were fake. Cheap bastard.

Then he caught sight of a man about his age, maybe younger, in a very nicely pressed double-breasted suit. Keller moved a little closer, getting a good look at the man's brushed-back blonde hair that went past his collar, the Rolex on his wrist -- which looked real -- and the wire-rimmed glasses that gave him an air of superiority. And with that, Keller could also sense a note of loneliness, and perhaps depression. Just the type of man he wanted tonight, and if he played his cards right, would want him right back.

He sauntered over to the man, who was on his fourth martini if the used glasses on the other side of the bar were any indication. Drunk and desperate were a good combination. The blonde man was sitting there staring into his drink, and didn't notice Keller walk up next to him.

"You don't drink them with olives?" he asked.

The blonde man blinked, his blue eyes meeting Keller's. He stared for a moment, and then casually cast a glance over Keller's body, taking in his unbuttoned shirt. That was a good sign.

"Huh?"

"The martini. You don't drink it with an olive?"

The blonde man sniggered. "Like my friends say, I'm a pussy. I'm drinking apple martinis."

Keller eased onto the stool beside the other man and smiled, all smooth charm and professionalism. "You don't look like a pussy to me. And if it tastes good, why not?"

"That's what I always say, goddammit," the man replied, taking another sip. "Why do I have to drink that shitty straight whiskey or Glenlivet like my father does? He just wants me to look good in front of the rest of the firm."

"You a lawyer?"

The man nodded. "In Connecticut. My father sent me on some bullshit research trip for some stupid lawsuit he's handling. He wanted to get rid of me."

Keller could feel the anger and desperation coming off this man in waves, and knew he had found his prospective john. "You don't sound very happy being a lawyer."

"It's not that..." The man sighed, and sipped at his drink again. "I love the law. I worked really hard to get to where I am, passing the bar and all those relentless nights of pressure and studying. It's just...I didn't think it would be like this. I wanted to help people, not sit in a room with my father and his cronies discussing retainers and which clients will pay the most money."

Keller leaned in close and put his hand on his chin. Grinning in a way he knew showed off his eyes, he looked at the guy and lied. "My name's Liam." He always liked the sound of that name.

The other man held out his hand in an offered shake. "Mine's Tobias. Tobias Beecher. Good to meet you."

"I'd offer to buy you another apple martini Tobias, but I'm a little short tonight..."

"Oh, hey, that's okay, let me buy you one." Tobias gestured for the bartender.

Perfect.

"What will you have, Liam?"

"Whatever's on tap is fine. I appreciate it, Tobias."

"No problem. It's not my expense account," he laughed. "And please, call me Toby. They only call me Tobias in court."

The bartender placed the bottle of beer in front of Keller and smirked. Keller glowered at him, giving him a look of burning hatred. He hated that prick. The guy recognized him, and he better not fuck this up for him.

"So why do you stay at your father's firm if you don't like what you're doing?" Keller asked, relaxing his body against the stool so that his and Toby's knees touched.

"I don't really have a choice right now. I'm young and need more experience before I can go somewhere else. And besides, it's my father, y'know?"

Keller pretended and nodded knowingly, having never met his father. "You have to live up to a lot."

"Yeah, and no matter what I do it seems like it's never good enough."

"And you can't really tell him no, because you love him and want to look good in his eyes."

Toby nodded and sipped again. "Right. He thinks he knows what's best for me all the time."

"I bet you went to the same college he did," Keller said off-handedly, seeing this type of guy over and over in the nights he cruised the bars. He was going to be easy to get into bed, the little bitch.

"Harvard," Toby sighed. "I really wanted to go to Yale."

Keller caught a change in Toby's demeanor when he mentioned the other school, and felt that there was something there to seize upon. "You were following someone there?"

Tobias shrugged and took a drink. "Sort of."

"What was his name?"

Toby looked up at Keller in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"The guy's name that you wanted to follow to Yale."

"It wasn't a guy!" Toby insisted, his face coloring. "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about..."

Toby downed the rest of his martini and called for another from the bartender.

"If you don't want to talk about it, I understand, but I'm sure everyone in here has been through something similar. I'm a fairly good listener." He was, too. That wasn't bullshit. There had been a number of johns that loved to talk his ear off that fucking annoyed him, but other times he liked listening to the tales of woe and collapsing family lives, because it made his life better by comparison.

The bartender placed another drink in front of Toby, and he took a small sip before turning back to Keller. "My father thought he caught me talking to my...old boyfriend."

"Boyfriend?" Keller asked, his voice soothing. He gently put his hand on Toby's arm. Damn, he was good.

Sighing, Toby nodded. "I haven't seen Stephen since we went away to college. We were best friends through high school, doing everything together. And then, the night before graduation, Stephen comes to me and tells me he feels something more than friendship for me."

Oh, this was going to be a good one, thought Keller.

"I...didn't take it very well at first," Toby admitted. "He gave me time, which was brave of him. Then as the summer went on and I found myself without him, I came to the realization that I did have feelings for him. I never experienced that before. I didn't know what I was doing at 17! I was just a kid. That's why I was hoping to go to Yale, to be with him." He shook his head and took a large gulp of his martini. "Father had pulled every string to get me into Harvard, and when I finally told him about Stephen...I thought he would understand! He went nuts, saying that he wouldn't have a deviant for a son. That's what he called me. A 'deviant.' God. Father threatened to cut me off financially -- cut me out of the family -- if I ever saw or spoke to Stephen again. So...that was that. I broke Stephen's heart, went on to Harvard, then Harvard Law, and here I am."

Silence hung between them for a few moments. Keller knew he could use this to his advantage.

"If you hadn't talked to this guy in all this time, why did your father think you were on the phone with him?"

"I tried to call to invite him to the wedding," Toby said, looking down into his glass.

"Fuck," Keller said in mock surprise. "You're gettin' married?"

Toby nodded, playing with his bar napkin. "Her name's Genevieve." He smiled weakly at Keller. "I didn't date after what happened with Stephen -- not that I had the time, anyway -- and my mother saw herself as the matchmaker of New Haven. But I do love Gen. I do."

"Just not as much as you did Stephen."

Toby nodded again, unable to look at Keller. "When my father heard his name I was on the next plane out here on this 'research trip.' The funny thing is that I never even got to talk to Stephen. I was making calls to old friends trying to track him down."

Keller took a draught of his beer, and thought about what he was doing. This guy was obviously really fucked up emotionally, and with all the martinis he was pounding he couldn't have been thinking very clearly. It was a case of Drink To Forget. Unfortunately, it also made Toby the ultimate prey for a cash-strapped street hustler, and Keller was more concerned about that than this guy's feelings. He tried not to let it bother him, and played along with his chosen manipulative game.

"Well, Toby," Keller said, brushing his fingers over Toby's knuckles, "I'm glad you're here in New York, even if you're not."

Toby smiled sadly. "Thanks, Liam. It's nice of you to listen."

"Don't mention it. Hey, how about you and I find somewhere more comfortable around here to sit and talk? These stools aren't doing us any good."

"Yeah, okay."

The two men picked up their drinks and went to a quiet corner of the mezzanine, where they could converse more comfortably, and where Keller had more privacy to talk about what he was really after. He didn't want that prick bartender getting into his business.

Toby collapsed into one of the plush leather chairs, and Keller made sure to sit close enough next to him so that they were touching. He found that bodily contact always worked well when he was using it in combination with his charm.

"Did you choose this bar because you feel guilty or something?" Keller asked after they had settled comfortably.

"I'm staying at the Maritime Hotel on the corner, and this place was the shortest route to getting shit-faced -- which I've been doing too much lately, it seems. I didn't even know it was a gay bar at first," Toby chuckled. "Then I saw the bartenders, of course."

The cheapest room at the Maritime was almost $400 a night. Keller stifled a grin and looked up as one of the shirtless men walked by with another drink order. All they wore here were pants and shoes. "I guess it was obvious then."

"But I was enjoying my pussy apple martinis and decided I didn't care." He took a drink and wiped his mouth. "I don't really care about much lately, actually. My life is fucking shit."

Keller took that opportunity to wrap his arm around Toby's shoulder in a gesture of understanding. "It can't be all that bad, Toby. You have a good job, a fiancée, plenty of money. It could be worse."

You could be me, thought Keller.

"I may have all that, but there's nothing in here," he said, meeting Keller's eyes and pointing to his chest. "I don't feel shit. I'm empty. Nothing."

A flash of empathy spread through Keller, but he did his best to ignore it. This guy was prime for the picking. "Maybe that's why you ended up here tonight."

"What do you mean, Liam?"

Keller made his move then, and touched Toby's cheek gently. "I can make you forget everything tonight, Tobias," he whispered seductively. "I can make you feel."

Toby tensed when Keller touched him. "I don't...I mean..."

"Your daddy isn't here, Toby. You're a grown man, with desires, who can do whatever the fuck he wants. You're free of your life for one night. Why not take advantage of that?"

"W-What exactly are you asking?" Toby asked, pressing back against the leather as Keller moved closer into his personal space.

"I'm not asking, I'm offering."

"Offering? What? You..." Toby lowered his voice and glanced around frantically. "You want to have sex with me?"

"I can do anything you want Toby, if the money is right."

"Oh my God, you're a prostitute?" he practically squealed.

"Tobias," Keller said calmly, putting his hand on the other man's chest, "you're getting married."

"So?"

"You're never going to see Stephen again. Never. Think about that. Think about that flutter you used to get in your stomach whenever he touched you. Think about holding him, being with him, having the strength of a man beside you. You have the chance to get all that back, even if it's only for one night."

Oh, he was working his magic, that was for sure. This guy was clay in his hands, and Keller was going to mold and shape him in order to wring everything he could out of this night.

"I've never..."

"Picking up a prostitute is no big deal," Keller interrupted. "You can leave all your upper-crust Connecticut upbringing behind, along with the shit you're going through over the wedding, your parents, work...I can give you freedom."

Toby was staring at Keller now, his eyes wide with a combination of interest, fear, and what looked like lust. Keller could tell he was seriously considering it. Maybe he could even stay the night if he got lucky. Reaching down for the rest of his drink, Toby downed it in one large gulp and motioned for the bartender. The man walked over and Toby pulled his credit card from his wallet. "May I have the check, please?"

"Certainly, sir," the bartender said, flashing his eyes at Keller again. This time Keller flipped him the middle finger and mouthed a "Fuck you" at him without Toby seeing.

Toby was nervously rubbing his palm against his knee when Keller reached over and took his hand. He leaned close to Toby, who was almost trembling, and planted a soft kiss on his neck. Tobias shuddered and exhaled sharply. He licked his lips and stared at the portion of Keller's shirt where his chest was exposed.

"Liam..."

"Yeah, Toby?"

"How...how much?"

Keller cocked one of his shit-eating half-grins and rubbed Toby's hand again. "Why don't we go back to your hotel room and talk about it?" he suggested.

* * *

Just as Keller had suspected, the room was richly appointed, with a queen size bed and a nice view of the river. It was refreshing to be able to experience such luxury for a change; he was getting sick a back-alley fuck sessions.

"Mind if I take a shower? It's been a long day."

Toby shook his head and sat on the edge of the bed without looking up at Keller. "No, uh, there should be fresh towels in there." He waved his hand toward the bathroom. "Go ahead."

"Toby."

The blonde man glanced up at him.

"Don't be nervous."

"I...I'm not, really," Toby replied, fidgeting with the bedcovers. "Not much. I mean, this is sort of out of character for me...I'm usually not this reckless."

"You don't have to worry about that. I don't do anything without protection."

Toby frowned at him in confusion, then laughed, a drunken, giggly sound. "That wasn't what I meant. I'm a lawyer for Christ's sake. My family name goes back generations. My father is an icon in New Haven. My mother serves High Tea to her bridge club every Tuesday. I volunteered at the literacy center, I donated to the New Haven Animal Shelter...fucking hell, I drive a Volvo! I'm not supposed to be getting shit-faced and picking up prostitutes!"

Keller walked over to the bed and stood in front of him. Slowly, he unbuttoned his shirt, making sure Toby was following his every move with his eyes. He had a way of trailing his hands down his body and sliding his fingers inside the buttonholes that drove johns crazy. From the look on Toby's face, he could tell his performance was having a similar effect.

"Tell you what," Keller said, tossing his shirt aside, "I'll take a shower and give you time to decide whether you really give a fuck about everything you just said." Padding back over to the bathroom, he turned to Toby. "Hey."

Toby came out of his martini-induced fog and looked up at the man standing in the doorway. "Hmm?"

"That animal shelter...is it one of those no-kill ones? Y'know, the kind where they find homes for all the dogs and cats nobody wants, even if they're full of fleas and have three legs or scars and shit?"

"Uh, yeah, I think so. Why?"

He shrugged. "No reason," he said, and closed the door behind him.

* * *

A short time later, Keller emerged from the steam-filled bathroom to find Toby sitting exactly where he had left him 10 minutes before. Wrapped in only a towel, Keller stood in front of the mirror across from the bed and ran his fingers through his hair to get rid of the excess moisture. He leaned over the bureau to get a better look at the cut on his lip, which was still angry and raw. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed Toby watching him.

"Did someone hit you?" Toby asked gently.

Keller met the other man's eyes for a moment, and then went back to examining his reflection. "It comes with the territory."

"Seems like a dangerous business."

"It has its moments. You get used to it."

Toby rose from the bed and motioned to the bathroom. "I'm gonna..."

"Yeah. I'll be here."

The door closed, and Keller made his way over to the bed. Reaching beneath the blankets, he felt the sheets. Nice -- and certainly befitting a $400-a-night room. He spread out on the bed, and through habit his eyes found the ceiling. No evidence left behind in a place like this.

It seemed like his instincts paid off when he chose this Toby kid. Kid. He laughed at that, figuring that they were probably closer in age than he might have expected, but certainly nowhere near each other in experience. Toby had probably lived a fairly sheltered life -- although Keller did find the fact that he was fucking that Stephen guy intriguing -- with all of the opportunities afforded the child of a wealthy family. That made Keller even more determined to get all he could out of Toby.

His hand drifted down to the wet hairs on his stomach, and then lower, to the trail on his abdomen. He wondered if tonight was going to be a lot of work. He hoped not. The bed was extremely comfortable, but he didn't relish having to lie there with his ass in the air waiting for Toby to get it up. With any luck, he'd just be able to bend over and Toby could take care of the rest. He wasn't in the mood for hand-holding tonight; at least offering up a good fuck would allow him to hang around until breakfast.

Finally the bathroom door opened and Toby exited in a blast of steam. He was wearing a thick terry cloth robe that stretched nearly to his calves, and was drying his long hair with a towel.

"Did you want..."

Toby stopped in mid-sentence, having just removed the towel from in front of his face. He was staring at Keller, who was still stroking his damp belly.

Keller lifted his head. "What?"

"Uh..." Toby cleared his throat. "I was going to ask if you wanted something to eat."

His Chinese lunch was a few hours ago, but he wasn't going to admit that he was hungry until he was sure Toby wasn't going to change his mind. "A place like this'll have room service 24 hours a day. We can wait until later."

"Later."

"Yeah."

"You sure?"

"Yep."

"Okay."

Keller slid an arm beneath his head and stretched, the lithe muscles of his chest and thighs flexing as he did so. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, tilting his head to the side to expose his throat. With his other hand he reached down and hooked a finger under the edge of the towel around his waist, drawing it upward teasingly. He waited, stretched again, and moved his fingers more purposely this time.

Sighing, he lifted his head from the pillow. "Toby."

"Yeah?"

"You can come over to the bed now."

"Oh, right. Sorry."

Keller stifled his impatience, trying to remind himself that the longer he stayed in the room, the less time he had to spend sleeping on sidewalks that smelled like piss. But he found it curious that Toby seemed so hesitant now. He was probably still working this through in his mind.

Toby approached the bed and sat on its edge, facing Keller, with one leg curled up and the other on the floor.

"Tobias," Keller said, touching his wrist, "remember that you're paying for this. You can have anything you want."

"I...know."

"Then just tell me how you want me."

Toby made a face. "That sounds so callous."

"I can't read your mind," Keller pointed out.

"I know, Liam. Can we, I don't know, just talk first?"

Oh Christ, he was one of those, Keller thought, exasperated.

"Whatever," Keller said, placing his hands behind his head and relaxing against the pillow. "Just don't ask me if I do this often."

Toby smiled and shifted his weight so that he was sitting fully on the bed now. "I wasn't planning on it. This is kind of..."

"What?"

"Well, awkward, you know, talking about sex and shit."

"Is that what we're doing?" Keller asked sarcastically.

"I'm just not used to it."

"What, talking about fucking?"

"Sex, yeah," he said. "It simply wasn't done in my family. Hell, it's still not done, and I'm an adult."

"Well, you're gonna be having sex once you hook up with what's-her-name. What do your parents think about you getting married?"

"They're happy of course. I think I've done a lot of things in my life to make them happy. Law school, joining the practice, marrying Gen...it's what's expected of me."

"Fuck that shit."

"What do you mean?" asked Toby, who had stretched out next to Keller. Toby had propped his head up with his hand and was listening intently, but was still keeping his distance.

"You can't live your life based on what your parents want for you. You'll go crazy."

"It's obvious you don't come from a prominent Connecticut family."

"It's obvious that I couldn't give a flying fuck," Keller retorted. "I had a mother. I made it through."

"That's it?" Toby asked, surprised.

"That's what?"

"You didn't have your father around growing up?"

"No."

Toby looked at him thoughtfully. "Huh."

"Now don't go telling me it was his fault that my life turned out this way," Keller huffed, rolling his eyes.

"Do you think...things would have been different if he were in your life? My life certainly would be different without mine."

"I don't really think about what-ifs," Keller stated emphatically, wondering how they had gotten on this topic of conversation. "My ma did her best."

"Why do I get the impression that you were a little demon as a kid?" Toby asked, almost shyly.

Keller looked up through his eyelashes at the other man. Lying there, with his blue eyes wide and his hair clinging to his face in damp curls, Toby looked like a mischievous little boy. Keller wasn't sure what he was getting into by answering all these questions, but a part of him was baffled by the interest and he sought to understand why.

"I might have run a little wild, yeah," he admitted sheepishly, recalling many a night when he was sneaking up the fire escape at 2 a.m. or hiding from the cops. His mother became fed up with him when was he was around nine and got caught stealing packs of baseball cards.

"She probably wouldn't let you have a dog either," Toby noted off-handedly.

"Man, she used to get pissed every time I mentioned it. I used to promise her I'd walk it and feed..." Keller paused, and pursed his lips. He glanced at Toby, fire flashing in his eyes. "How the fuck did you know that she wouldn't let me have a dog?" he growled menacingly.

Toby flinched and held up his hand to calm the other man. "Easy, Liam. I just guessed, based the fact that you asked about the animal shelter earlier, that's all. And since you were a handful as a child I just put two and two together." After a moment Keller relaxed, and Toby exhaled a sigh of relief. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

"No, it's all right," Keller said, settling back against the pillow. Toby had an intense look on his face, like he was actually concerned about how Keller felt. That was strange. "I guess you're a pretty talented lawyer if you could read me like that." It also made him wonder what else Toby could tell about him.

"Not really. I am good at paying attention, however. I even write on my notepad from time to time so the judge thinks I'm working."

At Keller's confused look, Toby laughed. "That was a joke."

Keller shook his head and stuck his tongue out. "Good lawyer, shitty comedian."

Toby laughed louder that time, a deep, throaty sound that Keller found really sexy. And for some reason it brought a smile to his face, too.

"Have you always lived in New York?" Toby asked.

"No, I bounced around from place to place," he said, which was more or less a lie, since he spent all of his childhood in the city, but his teenage years locked up, and that didn't count in his opinion. "I like moving around."

"I do too. I hate these business trips, though. I think my own personal hell is going to be an airport terminal waiting area, where the seats are plastic and you stick to them because of the fire and brimstone," he said, grinning.

Keller tossed a smile his way. "I wouldn't mind traveling. The stewardess chicks are hot."

"You, uh, you like women?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised.

"Of course. Kissing 'em, fucking 'em, whatever. The rest of this shit I learned from Ver..."

He stopped himself, amazed and pissed off that he had admitted to something as personal as that. It baffled him that he was having this conversation at all, especially with a guy who was going to fuck him for money. He'd never let himself slip that much before -- for some reason Toby seemed to want to hear what he had to say.

Attempting to recover from the mistake, he said, "I do what I have to. It doesn't make a difference if it's a man or a woman."

"But out here it's only men."

Keller glanced at him sideways from the pillow. "Yeah."

Toby met his gaze and didn't look away. Something passed over Toby's face -- it was clear he was contemplating something -- but he seemed hesitant to put whatever it was into words. Keller felt Toby's eyes on him, traveling up and down his body, then slowly returning to his face. It was sensuous -- and completely different from the way other johns had looked at him, which always revolved around unbridled lust. He couldn't help but watch Toby as his eyes moved from his arms, to his chest, then to the towel, and down toward his legs and feet. When Toby locked eyes with him again, it felt like the other man was looking through him, inside him, seeing things Keller never shared, with anyone.

He lost his breath for a moment, and his chest constricted.

"Uh, listen," Keller said, trying to regain his composure from the unsettling feeling that had just passed within him, "not that I don't mind chatting and all..."

"I'm going to pay you, don't worry."

"I wasn't...I just..." Keller said awkwardly, surprising himself by back-pedaling. He shrugged. "Whatever, it's your money."

"Speaking of...how much are your services going to cost?" Toby asked softly.

Keller blinked. "Oh, fuck! Sorry about that."

"It's no big deal. Like I said, I'm here on my father's dime, and I don't really give a shit."

"You have to pay me in cash, y'know. I don't take credit cards."

Toby chuckled. "I figured that."

"Um, well, I'll suck your cock -- and make it last -- for, uh, $50," Keller said, boosting the price of his typical $20 blow. "Sixty-five without a condom. You can fuck me for $150 -- no option on the rubber, there -- and I can give you rimming or fingering or anything like that before hand, but that's extra. I'll do kinky shit, but that's extra too. There's pretty much nothing I won't do."

"Jesus, it sounds like a menu."

"I like keeping things straight-forward," Keller admitted, grinning.

"It's impressive."

"Not really. It's a part of life. It lets the john know where he stands, and keeps me safe."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't want any surprises," Keller replied. "Surprises can get you hurt."

"Like..." Toby hesitantly reached up and brushed his fingers gently along Keller's bruised cheek, "this?"

Keller frowned and nodded, confused at the tender display. "Yeah."

"Why did he hit you?"

"He got a little carried away. I told you, it's part of the job."

"Or he wanted to do something you didn't want to do?"

"Maybe," Keller answered.

"I thought you said there was nothing you wouldn't do."

Keller closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't know...Christ, Toby, why are you asking me all this shit?"

"Because I want to get to know who you are."

"Fuck, why?" Keller exclaimed. "I get down on my knees to make other people happy, all right? I live like shit. I score heroin when I have extra cash. I'm a hustler, a whore, a guy who gets fucked by other guys in alleys."

"No, you're not."

"How do you know?"

"You're beautiful."

Keller was going to laugh at that, until he saw Toby's face.

"You're serious," Keller said, disbelieving.

"Why are you surprised?"

"Because, I..." Was he really going to be honest with this guy and break his personal rules? "Because no one ever said that to me before."

"Then let me be your first."

When Toby said that, Keller sat up in bed and cocked his head, realization finally sinking in.

"I'm going to be your first too, aren't I?" Keller asked.

"What?"

"Your boyfriend Stephen. You never fu...you never made love with him, did you?"

Toby blushed and looked away, the answer written all over his face.

"You had to end the relationship before you got to experience any of that?"

"We never even kissed," Toby whispered harshly.

Reaching up, Keller placed a fingertip on Toby's chin. The other man turned and looked at him with those haunting blue-gray eyes, and he felt his chest flutter again. Gently he brushed strands of blonde hair from Toby's face, and paused to think about what he was doing. This was so far beyond his normal operating methods it wasn't even funny. But there was something...different...about this man, from the way it was possible to read the pain in his eyes, to the hesitant way he touched Keller's face. This had nothing to do with money, nor sex. This was about a man who had been blaming himself for most of his adult life for a mistake he made when he was a teenager.

The irony of the moment wasn't lost on Keller. He himself had been doing the same thing, only in his case he didn't break any hearts. His was broken for him in Lardner, along with his pride, his dignity, and his self-worth. He was warped him into believing that he was useful for one only thing.

Impulsively, Keller pulled Toby close to him in a strong hug. He allowed himself a moment of weakness, something he vowed he would never show again. Dropping his guard, he pressed his face into Toby's neck, and hung on.

Eventually, Toby brought his arms up and wrapped them around Keller, matching the embrace. They clung to each other like that, neither one of them speaking.

Toby nuzzled Keller's neck, and pressed his lips to the other man's ear.

"Liam," he mouthed softly, "tell me your real name."

The answer hitched in Keller's chest, as he struggled to answer without his voice breaking.

"Christopher."

"Do they call you Chris?"

Keller pulled back from Toby's arms and faced him. "I've never used my real name. With anyone."

"You can with me, Chris," Toby said.

Chris reached over and touched Toby's hand. "I'm sorry you never got to be with Stephen."

"So am I, but I need to accept what I did and move on," he sighed. "It haunts me though."

"Toby...I can still be your first, if you want. I won't...I wouldn't make you pay."

Toby offered him a gentle smile. "You remind me of him. Maybe that's why I did this -- but it's not the same."

"I understand. But I can still offer you something."

"No, Chris, just being with me tonight was what I really needed. I haven't had anyone listen to me in such a long time. I haven't talked about Stephen to anyone, and this mess with my father brought up painful memories."

Reaching up to cup Toby's cheek, Chris ran his thumb over the other man's bottom lip. "I didn't mean sex."

"Then what..."

"Let me kiss you."

"Kiss me?"

Chris nodded. "It's not the man you loved, but I can give you a little piece of what you might have had, at least. Would you let me do that?"

Toby's fingers traced over the gash in Chris's lip. "This cut on your lip. You said one of your johns hit you?"

Chris nodded.

"He tried to kiss you, and you refused him," Toby said, more a statement than a question.

"I don't...I won't let anyone kiss me."

"That's the only thing you won't do."

Chris nodded again, looking down at his hands. "But with you, it's different for some reason."

"How come?"

"It's the way you look at me," he admitted. He thought about it for a moment, and then chuckled. "It's like you're seeing me and not some gutter-dwelling slut."

"You're more than a piece of meat, Chris."

"It doesn't always feel that way."

"Maybe I can see the man underneath the tough street hustler."

"Oh yeah?" Chris said. "What does he look like?"

"A scared little boy."

Chris smirked. "I could say the same of you," Chris pointed out, recalling the awkward, bumbling Toby of an hour ago.

"You could," Toby replied, gently touching Chris's hand. "We might have more in common than you thought."

"Ever been to prison?"

Toby frowned. "No..."

"Then I don't think we could have anything in common at all."

Toby slid closer to Chris on the bed. "You ever feel lost?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"You ever feel so...empty that it's like you have nothing left to give? Like someone has ripped your soul from you, so that all you're doing from day to day is surviving, and not really living?"

"Sure."

"Then we definitely have shit in common."

"How can a guy like you, handsome, rich, successful -- how can you feel like that?"

"There are all different kinds of hell, Chris. Mine happens to be a routine existence in which I tend to get drunk every night to dull the pain, and then go home to a woman I'm marrying to make my parents happy."

"Getting fucked up the ass for money sounds great in comparison."

Toby stared at him, and then Chris's sly grin made him break into a laugh.

"Chris..."

"Mm?"

"I'm sorry if it felt like I've been stringing you along tonight, but I was serious earlier about being grateful for having someone to talk to. It means a lot."

"And I'm still serious about that kiss," he said, putting his hand on Toby's knee.

Toby looked down at Chris's hand, then back up into his eyes. Pressing himself into Chris's chest now, he drew himself tight against the other man so they could both feel each other's hearts beating. Resting his lips on Chris's shoulder, he muttered something into his neck.

"What was that?" Chris asked softly.

Toby pulled away from his shoulder and put his forehead against Chris's lips. "I said I thought you were right when you said you could give me freedom for one night. I can feel it."

Chris placed his hands on either side of Toby's face and looked into the other man's eyes. "So can I," he whispered, and brought Toby's lips to his.

He kissed him gently, tenderly, never remembering when he had felt such an emotional connection through the touch of a kiss. His chest ached as Toby deepened the press of their lips, bringing his arms around Chris's waist and shoulders. Their tongues clashed, each of them hungrily exploring every sensation possible. Then Toby whimpered, and Chris drew back.

"You okay?"

Toby nodded, wiping at his eyes. "I d-didn't expect it to be like that."

Chris rubbed Toby's hand. "Like what?"

"That I could never kiss another person for the rest of my life and I wouldn't care."

"But you can't have it that way," Chris said. "You're getting married."

"And you're going back to..."

Chris shook his head to quiet Toby. "Not for tonight. Tonight I'm still all yours."

"I told you, Chris...I...I'm not ready to make love to you."

"I'm not asking you to. But I still want us to spend the night together," he said, pulling back the covers. Chris stood and nonchalantly dropped his towel, and climbed into bed.

Toby watched him, and then took off his robe and tossed it to the floor. Dousing the lamp before climbing in, he settled against the heat of Chris's back. He brushed his hair from his face, and settled back against the pillow.

In the darkness, Chris spoke.

"Toby?"

"I'm here, Chris."

"Hold me."

From behind him Chris felt Toby's strong arms wrap around him.

"When we go our separate ways tomorrow morning," Chris said softly, "I want you to promise me something."

"If I can, I will," Toby said honestly.

"I want you to remember the guy who had the balls to make his own decisions, who took a chance with a stranger to have a little enjoyment in his life -- even if he didn't go through with it."

Toby chuckled from behind him, and Chris continued.

"You're your own man, Tobias. Use that strength."

Toby pressed his lips to the back of Chris's neck. "Now I want you to promise me something."

"If I can, I will."

"Remember how beautiful you are. Never forget that."

Chris intertwined his fingers with Toby's. "And I'll never forget you for saying it."

Toby sighed deeply and tightened his embrace, and for the first time since he was 17, Christopher Keller went to sleep believing in the future.