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Fire in the Blood

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“You can’t hold me, I’m too slippery,
I do no sleeping, I get lonely.
You can touch me if you want to,
I got poison, just might bite you.

Lie in circle on the sunlight
Shine like diamonds on a dark night.
Ain’t no mercy in my smilin',
Only fangs and sweet beguiling.”
Nick Cave, Fire in the Blood/Snake Song

**

“Do you know what happens to wiseguys who snitch on the Family?”

The faceless man was tied to a chair. Fraying rope had been looped around his wrists and thread through the metal rungs in an intricate series of knots. The skin was already raw where he’d been nervously testing the give, dull brown fibers digging into his flesh. He smelled of sweat and booze and piss. There was a stain on his rumpled dinner jacket that could have been blood, though Billy didn’t want to look close enough to tell for sure.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have the stomach for this line of work. It wasn’t. Whatever Tommy liked to say, it was never that. It was just…another day, another ghost, another hash mark in the journal he’d never admit to keeping. It was the only monument Cocchino would get if things went south. What a way to be remembered.

The hapless man made a low noise and twisted against the knots, as if he could feel the weight of Billy’s eyes on him. As if he could peek inside his head and see his own death there.

“Come on, Cocchino, it’s a simple enough question.” Teddy’s hair shone gold under the single bulb. The cellar had been built decades ago to store perishables in a kind of primitive refrigeration. Now it was filled with crate after crate of illegal booze—Old Crow whiskey and Blackwoods gin. Bathtub rotgut and Gordons so smooth it went down with a song. The walls were thick to keep in the chill, so deep in the ground it felt like they were in some kind of ancient cavern. It was the perfect place for Teddy Altman to work his special brand of magic. “Here. I’ll go slow so you can be sure you heard me clear. Do you. Know. What happens. To. Wiseguys. Who snitch on the Family?”

Billy hid a shiver, restlessly crossing his arms behind his back, fingers of one curling around the wrist of the other. His fancy-man dinner jacket pulled tight across his chest. His silver tie had come loose at some point during the initial scuffle and he almost reached up—self-conscious, of all things—to fix it, but he stilled the gesture before he could give in to the nervous tic. It shouldn’t matter how he looked. He was an enforcer for one of the greatest Families in the state, in the whole country. It didn’t matter what a dead man thought of him.

But it wasn’t the faceless man he wanted to look his best for; it was Teddy. Gorgeous, golden, glorious Teddy with the sweet smile and warm blue eyes and a real way with a straight razor.

The faceless man coughed, rough fabric puffing out around his mouth. He was pushed back in his seat as far as he could go. The sound of his heels scraping the rough stone underscored the harsh rasp of his breath. “I, no, I mean. Shit. Shit. I didn’t—”

“You better not be telling us you didn’t do it,” Teddy snarled, pressing close, sudden and vicious. The man shrank back, and the noise he made, God. Billy would take that to his grave. “We got an eyewitness; we know what you did. That ain’t the question. And I gotta tell you, my silent friend here doesn’t like being lied to.”

Billy straightened, automatically narrowing his eyes in what he hoped was a menacing expression before remembering…right. Sack over the head. He could be blowing raspberries and the faceless man would have no clue.

He met Teddy’s eyes instead, brows arching. My silent friend? he mouthed.

Teddy arched a single brow. Work with me here.

“He gets real angry when someone tries to play him for the fool, and Cocchino, I’ve got to tell you—you don’t want to see him angry. This little thing we got here, this rapport? This little game we’ve been playing? This is nothing. I’m the nice one. Can you believe that?” He reached up to run a fingernail slowly, slowly, down the curve of Cocchino’s jaw. The noise of it—a soft, whispery hush—made Billy’s stomach clench and the faceless man moan. “I’m the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, Cocchino. I’m a Goddamned Pollyanna. But Billy? I wouldn’t want to get on Billy’s bad side. Do you know what they call him?”

Teddy was so close he was practically whispering in the shell of the man’s ear. Billy watched, transfixed, as one big hand slid into the neat fold of his pewter gray suit and pulled out a straight razor. The handle was mother of pearl. The little blade shown like a mirror, giving a whispered shhht as Teddy opened it into a wide, gleaming smile.

The faceless man sobbed in a trembling breath.

“Oh, looks like you do know. Looks like you know exactly who you’re dealing with.” He twirled the razor expertly in one big hand, making it dance, light winking at Billy almost playfully. He found he couldn’t look away; he didn’t want to. He could live or die by the husky whiskey-gold warmth of Teddy’s voice. He was so close already.

Standing there, watching Teddy Altman do what he did best, Billy couldn’t help but wonder how it had come to this. Not in the literal sense—he remembered well enough the summit that had brought them, such an unlikely pair, together. That, at least, he could wrap his head around.

It was Jersey. The Atlantic City boardwalk was gleaming silver with rain and the moon was high overhead, watching as wary men poured out of their Fords in Noah’s Arc groupings of two. If you’d asked Billy before all this had happened, he’d have said anyone with half a brain could pick the Italian and Jewish Families apart just by sight. They were too different, from impossibly distant worlds. It was crazy to think the two crime rings could find a way to work together, could intermingle, like they were made of the same stuff.

But as those men came pouring in, water beading off their expensive suits and catching in the brims of their hats, they hadn’t looked so very different from him, from his brother, from the score of men lounging with deliberate ease against the walls, faces wreathed in violet smoke, eyes narrowed.

He’d glanced over at Tommy, brows lifting in question. Tommy had shrugged his shoulders back.

Billy had gotten a new partner that day—one of the Italians with an unexpectedly German surname. That made him nervous, though he refused to let it show, but ten minutes in Altman’s company… Well, it had been a struggle to remember that he was anything other than Teddy after that. Even his nickname, the Hulkling, was endearing. Golden haired and blue eyed and gorgeous in a way Billy had always figured was impossible outside of Hollywood, Teddy the Hulkling Altman was just too. darn. nice. to be any sort of real Enforcer; but hell, Billy figured he’d pick up the slack. He figured he’d take the wheel, because he’d rather do all the heavy lifting than lose sight of Teddy’s easy grin.

And then he saw the Hulkling at work.

And then he saw this.

Teddy dragged the straight razor up and down the burlap sack. Rasp rasp rasp, like a song. God, he was good at this. Billy had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from gasping in time with Cocchino. His stomach twisted in mingled fear and, and, and want. Teddy murmured, sweetly, “You know what we’re all about, don’t you, Cocchino? You’ve heard all the stories. So why don’t we skip past all the nastiness, all the mess your insides are gonna made on my brand new shoes, and just get right to the part where you sing like a bird? Does that sound good to you? Does that sound like something you can do for me?”

Rasp. Rasp. Rasp.

There was something both beautiful and terrible about Teddy when he was like this. Billy wet his lips and looked down, trying to hide the guilty flush he knew was creeping up his neck. He didn’t want to find Teddy attractive—not at all, not when it was so dangerous to be hiding these sorts of unnatural yearnings, but especially not when Teddy was like this. Wanting the gorgeous movie-star handsome man in the pewter suit was wrong, but at least it made sense. Wanting the monster with the smiling half moon razor whispering against a dead man’s neck in a twisted kiss… He didn’t want to watch him, listen to him say those things, and think, How I would sing for you.

It was all screwed up. When had it gotten this screwed up? Was it there from the first, when Silver gestured him forward and laid a big hand on his shoulder and said, “Kaplan, you’re going to play test subject on this new alliance we’ve got going. Shut your gob; I don’t want any protests. Just meet your new partner—Altman, Kaplan. Shake on it.”

He’d looked up and met the bluest eyes he’d ever seen; he’d taken Teddy’s hand in his and their fingers had folded together as if they were meant to be. And yeah, maybe it had been love from the first, a little. At least a spark. But that had just been a spark. The whole rushing bonfire had been born out of a series of laters: riding shotgun as they made their way down the Jersey shore, chatting about their lives as if they weren’t on their way to murder a man in cold blood. Teddy leaning out his window and tossing a kid a dime, just because he could. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in a diner after a quick smash and grab, the corpse cooling in the trunk, coffee wreathing hot clouds around their shyly grinning faces.

There were so many memories. An “accidental” full-body brush at the pool hall. Ice cream by the beach. The old bucket seats swinging as the Ferris wheel went up and up and up until the whole world cracked open below them, wide and filled with possibilities. Stealing a shy kiss at its apex, so far away from the world it may as well have fallen away—tasting ice cream on Teddy’s mouth and feeling the warmth of his hand cupping the back of his neck. Not pulling him in. Not pushing him away. Just touching, so gentle Billy thought he might shatter anyway. And then later, a secret glance over dinner, feet knocking together, ankles brushing under the table. Laughing as they drove to their next job.

Watching Teddy carve a man into a grimacing jack-o-lantern and still, still wanting him more than he could believe.

It was some kind of sickness, Billy thought, fingers tightening around his wrist, watching as Teddy threatened to take another man apart piece by piece. It was sick that he had this in him, this capacity to watch Teddy’s hands moving over the straight razor and wonder what they’d feel like against his own bare skin. To fantasize in shades of red and black and silver.

Billy expelled a silent breath and bit the inside of his mouth, quaking.

“It’ll be so easy,” Teddy murmured, voice low and throaty. “I’ll make it so easy for you.”

Fuuuck.

“I don’t,” the faceless man gasped. His breaths were coming in low panting moans as Teddy leaned close, blade against the gentle rise of his Adams apple. Billy would hear that rasp of metal on skin in his dreams. “I don’t know, I…”

“Liar,” Teddy murmured, dragging the flat across the jut of his collarbone. A red line formed in its wake, beads of blood spilling in a slow motion waterfall. Even that was beautiful, in its way. Even that had its own sort of grace. “What did we say about lying? Come on—we know you’re a dirty snitch. We know you gave up information on the Family. All we need is a name. That’s simple enough, isn’t it? Just tell us who you blabbed to—which copper you pulled into this sorry mess—and it’ll all be over.”

The man’s labored breathing was loud in the little room. It echoed off the old stone; it made Billy shiver. He was getting hard and desperate to hide it. His stomach was tied in a thousand different knots. This was so far away from that Ferris wheel, from the taste of ice cream and Teddy on his tongue, and yet… And yet somewhere along the way, some wires had gotten crossed and his brain had gotten screwy and the two were melded together in some glittering, deadly knot of want. He wanted to be in that chair. He wanted Teddy’s low voice breaking over him, wanted steel on his skin, wanted—

God, what was wrong with him?

Billy drew in a sharp breath. He could hear the distant thrum of music as the party unfolded above them, more the beat of the brass band than actual sound. He could feel the energy of a hundred people dancing over their heads. None of them knew what was going on just below their swirling skirts and fancy-man suits. None of them knew what Teddy was slowly, piece by piece, breaking apart with his deft, graceful hands.

The faceless man shuddered hard, collar soaked red. The snik of Teddy’s pearl-handled razor was elegant, almost beautiful, in counterpoint. Cocchino was moments away from breaking. All it would take was one little push, one nudge over the line and they’d have him. Teddy would have him, cupped between his palms, bleating like a lamb—singing like a bird—and giving them everything they needed. Thank God. Billy wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take.

5.

“Cocchino.”

4.

Sobbing.

3.

“Don’t you want to make this easy on yourself?”

2.

Breaths coming in harsh pants, jaw lifted as he tried to squirm away from the bright pain of the razor lovingly caressing his throat.

1.

“All you have to do is give us one little—”

No.

0.

Wait. No?

Teddy paused, then slowly pulled back. He looked down at the faceless man with knit brows, annoyance and incredulity clear on his face. “No?” he repeated. Billy echoed the word silently, heart leaping into his throat. No. No. No no no.

Don’t be an idiot, don’t do this, you don’t want to do this, oh fuck don’t make me watch.

The faceless man twisted against the knots holding him in place, head bowed. Broken, Billy would have said, if not for his whispered, unexpected denial. “No,” he said again. He sounded hopeless and hopelessly afraid, but there was no waver there. “God, I can’t give you his name. I can’t do that to him, to his kids. I—Jesus, do what you’ve gotta to me.” He dragged in a breath. “Ah fuck, ah Christ, yeah, just. I ain’t giving up a good man. A fucking hero. I ain’t doing it. I can’t. I can’t be that.”

No.

Teddy studied the faceless man and Billy closed his eyes. Torture. That’s what it was coming down to again, wasn’t it? Before, they could have gotten away with the game, a little theatrics, a little skill with words and tone and implication and a very sharp blade. But now

All the cards were on the table. Words and veiled threats weren’t going to be enough. Teddy was going to have to torture the snitch for information.

And Billy was going to have to watch. Do you want to see a trick? Wanna see a rabbit come out of this hat? How about your intestines; wanna see your intestines come out of your gut like a snake in a can?

Teddy would be glorious. There was nothing like the Hulkling when he was elbows deep in his work. Billy knew he wouldn’t be able to look away.

He was going to be sick.

Billy startled at the soft hand against his, eyes flying open. Teddy was standing just a breath away. His head was ducked low so he could see into Billy’s eyes and his brow was knit in visible concern. He reached up, big hand soft against Billy’s cheek. The brush of his thumb made his entire world quake and narrow.

He bit the inside of his mouth to stifle the soft noise and cut his gaze toward Cocchino. The faceless man was breathing heavily, head down; he still twisted anxiously against his ropes, but there was a stillness to his body, a tension.

He was waiting to die.

No, Billy thought, swallowing hard. Death would be easy; death Billy could shrug off. A bullet between the eyes, a crowbar to the back of the skull; he knew a hundred ways to kill a man fast and not feel anything but the reflexive clench of a morality long since packed away beneath yards of duty and honor and Family. What was going to happen here tonight, that was something more visceral than death. A lot…messier.

Teddy dragged his thumb down Billy’s jaw and his eyes flicked back. The empathy, the warmth there was almost enough to undo him. How, how could this beautiful boy with the guileless blue eyes have this inside of him? How could Billy want this so bad?

You okay? Teddy mouthed.

And what, really, could he say to that? I don’t want to be here, Billy admitted. He carefully shaped the words so Teddy could read them and hoped to God that he understood.

Teddy studied his face for a long, silent minute, then leaned in to press his lips to his forehead. To his brow. To his mouth. As he pulled back, Billy leaned in, not wanting to end the kiss; bound to the old chair, the faceless man shifted and moaned piteously.

“Go wait outside,” Teddy said gruffly. He pulled back, lifting the straight razor again. It caught the light, winking at Billy—beautiful and terrible and eternal. “Cocchino and I’ve got a few words for each other.”

“I don’t—” Billy began, but his voice was hoarse and his heart was suddenly pounding with the desire to do just that. It would be so easy. He could lose himself in the sound of jazz and raised voices and couples swaying across the dance floor; he wouldn’t hear the Hulkling at work. He could still love him and not see this every time he closed his eyes. He could find a way to keep the two parts of Teddy separate in his brain a little while longer and not continue to feed the sick fascination growing inside him.

I love you, Teddy mouthed, expression soft. He pressed the edge of the blade to Cocchino’s exposed throat, eyes never leaving Billy. His lips pulled into a sad smile. It’s okay. We’ll talk about it later. Go.

Billy bit the inside of his mouth, looking between the snitch and the gangster. Love and horror filled him in equal measures.

I love you too, he mouthed back, appalled at how light he felt inside when Teddy’s gorgeous face broke open into a wide, dazzling grin. Then, stumbling a step, Billy moved away from the island of light, the tortured breathing, the wide smile of the straight razor.

He left Teddy to his work.

**

Teddy waited for the door to close before turning his attention back to Cocchino. He wondered what Billy saw when he looked at the faceless man. A father? A husband? A church-going sinner who made the wrong friends and crossed the wrong men and spilled his guts to a cop who wasn’t much longer for this world?

Teddy saw all of that, too. But mostly, he saw a canvas.

“So,” he murmured, slipping effortlessly back into that other skin. “Where were we?”