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Paper Risk

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After much searching, Gabriel finally had an address. It had taken correlating reams of document transfer receipts and transportation expenses, then cross checking municipal records, but Gabriel had found an apparently unused building within the right milage and in the neighborhood indicated by the sole, lamassu-befuddled driver he had managed to track down. Now, after all that careful work, he had to rely on luck. It was frustrating to have to hope that there had been no thefts that would render it useless, or—less dangerous, but perhaps more irritating—any fires, floods, or vandalism that would leave the matter unresolved.

Gabriel waited anxiously for the building to come into view. Finally, a drab brick one-story, far too small to hold so much material, emerged as they rounded the final corner. If Gabriel’s quick estimate was right, the building’s underground footprint would extend below most of the block. The Hierarch had been in power for a long time, and he had ruled over many, many people he had wanted to keep track of. The ones he cared the most about would have had their files stored among his other treasures, but there was a vast number of people who didn’t make that elite grade, but for whatever reason warranted more than a spot in his official records hall. Their paperwork was consigned to this storage facility.

“This is it,” Gabriel told Max, who coasted the boat up to the curb and wrapped a few quick turns around the nearest cleat.

“We’re breaking into that?” Max asked doubtfully.

“If this works the way I think it should, we are.” Gabriel hefted the glass cup, which was mounted on a gun stock. “And if we’re lucky, we’ll be the first ones to do it.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Max said, as Gabriel approached the door.

“Me too.” Gabriel was less than a year into studying hydromancy, and while he had always had a head for math, there was only so much he could learn about the intricacies of flow, pressure, and the patterns that drove water magic in that time frame. Especially when he was also trying to navigate the power factions and avoid going the way of his predecessor. The device he was carrying, however, he was fairly confident he understood. It had been used rarely while the Hierarch was alive, because a tool that could break the majority of his official locks was verging too close to a challenge, but Gabriel had known Mulholland would have kept something for that purpose in his armory. It had only been a matter of recognizing skeleton key for what it was in the inventory, and selecting the newest-looking one off the storage shelf.

Max sniffed at the lock, then looked at Gabriel with his head cocked. “It’s sphinx oil. And nhang. What is this place?”

“It’s the Hierarch’s secret file cabinet,” Gabriel answered, and pressed the glass cup of the key over doorknob. He pulled the trigger, and inside the key a vial of water cracked and poured into the cup, filling it until the knob was completely submerged. The water went to work on the osteomancy, and a moment later, the lock clicked open. Gabriel pushed the door open, being careful not to touch the water left on the knob.

Inside was dark and smelled strongly of dust. He flipped on the light switch, revealing a cramped reception desk and a corridor leading past it. The calendar on the wall was months out of date, and when Gabriel leaned over the desk to check the log book, it was still opened to the day of the Hierarch’s death.

“They left in a hurry,” Max said, smelling a mug of coffee that had evaporated off into a brown stain at the bottom.

“There’s a lot of sensitive information here. They probably didn’t want to take the chance that they had seen something the new boss might prefer to stay private.”

They set out down the corridor, which lead past a work room and barracks for the cloistered staff who had been stuck living there. It ended at the doors to a freight elevator.

“We’re going down there, aren’t we?” Max asked.

“That’s were the records are. Do you smell any traps?”

“Just the death trap,” Max said, looking at the elevator.

“It hasn’t been abandoned that long, and it was designed to handle handcarts full of files. It’ll manage us just fine.”

It did, moving slowly but steadily down to the lower level. The doors opened onto a pitch black space, and Gabriel groped for a light switch.

“There’s Teratornis here, and… California tapir,” Max said. “That’s a weird combination.”

“It’s an old recipe for pest control,” Gabriel said, and turned on the lights. They were in the middle of a single large room, filled with shelving units. Each one was packed with cardboard boxes and labeled with a number. The ones in front of them were in the 50’s. “Put down some powder, and you don’t have to worry about mice or silverfish getting into your paperwork.”

The recordkeepers had been particularly cautious, Gabriel noted with approval. There was a line of crumbly grey dust around the edges of each shelf. Usually people only bothered with a ring along the baseboards of the room and a few scattered piles. And if whoever had been in charge here ran such a tight ship, then they almost certainly had maintained a directory. Gabriel started looking around, and found it on a clipboard pinned to the side of the elevator shaft.

“We need unit 27,” he read off , appreciating the work ethic of whoever had lived here, tending the files. Surely they had known the place like the back of their hand, and still they had carefully maintained a map and index.

Finding number 27 lead them past boxes labeled with ranges of last names, alphabetized within their subsections. Gabriel had noted categories for the relatives of dissidents, for tax evaders, for people who at one point or another had been suspected of spying. Eventually they hit the section he wanted, where names gave way to numbers. The kennels took eliminating their hounds’ former lives seriously.

Max began to look nervous, clearly recognizing the format of the ID numbers. Gabriel stopped, deciding that he should explain before reaching for the box that contained Max’s number.

“I’m not going to hurt you with it,” Gabriel said. “I want to make sure it doesn’t get into anyone else’s hands.” Max’s eyes held the strange mix of wariness and self-possession that had first fascinated Gabriel, so he continued, “It’s your file, and you can do what you like with it. If you want to keep it, you’re welcome to one of the Department’s safes. If you want to burn it, I brought a lighter. I’ll go wait by the elevator if you want some privacy to look through it.”

Max stared at him for a long moment. “Give me the lighter,” he said, finally.

Gabriel handed it over, and watched while Max hauled down the box with the right range of numbers. His file would contain his old name, the names of his parents and any siblings, possibly childhood friends if the person who’d written it up was thorough—everything the hound trainers wanted to destroy, but the Hierarch’s clerks demanded a record of. It would also have an account of how the 17 year-old who would become Max had ended up in the kennels.

“You should burn it outside, a place like this will have serious fire suppression systems,” Gabriel commented, as Max found the manila folder with his number on it and pulled it out.

“I know that,” Max said, “I’ve been in buildings when the smoke alarm goes off before.” He was holding the folder like it was a bomb.

“Sorry.” Gabriel still misstepped sometimes, when guessing what Max was familiar with and what he wasn’t.

“Are you getting anything else here, or can we leave now?”

“We can go.”

They rode the elevator back up, and left the door locked behind them. Once they were out of the building, Max flicked open the lighter and held it to the edge of the folder. He turned the folder so it would catch faster, until the only part not in flames was the corner he was holding it by. When that started to burn down to his fingers, he dropped it onto the step and waited until it was all feathery white ash and charred black flakes.

“Why did you do that?” Max asked on the drive back.

“I didn’t want anyone else to have it. People are starting to realize just how valuable an asset you are to me, and they’re going to want to convince you to work for them instead. Having control of your file would give them leverage over you.” Gabriel shrugged. “Now they’ll have to resort to offering the standard temptation.”

“Apples?”

“I was thinking money. I’d be grateful for the chance to counter with a raise when they try that, by the way. The other common one is drugs. Do you think you’re likely to be tempted by an offer of drugs?”

“No.”

“Good. Then this works out well for both of us.”

Max looked at him, head tilted. His expression grew serious. “It would have been easy for you to keep my file yourself.”

“Yes,” Gabriel admitted. He also could have come alone, and read it before giving it to Max. “But that wouldn’t have been right. It would have been taking advantage, and I think this partnership only works as long as I don’t do that. Besides, I like you and I’d rather not use blackmail on you.”

Max studied him again, and Gabriel had the feeling of his character being weighed. He shifted uncomfortably.

“You should ask me out for coffee,” Max stated.

“Really?” Gabriel asked, taken aback. He had never seen Max flirt with anyone, but that was unmistakably what he was doing, as blunt as it was. Gabriel quickly tried to sort out his own feelings on the matter.

“It would make me less likely to go work for someone else.”

“I’m not asking because I need you to talk me into it, Max. I just want to know why.” Gabriel had recognized his gut reaction as positive, and surprisingly strong. He did like Max, probably as much as he’d ever liked anyone, and he realized that it had already started shading into love. Max was the one person Gabriel was always relieved to see, when he came in to work to try to reshape a department that had been built on the shoulders of a single man. He was smart, skilled, and easy to work with. He was also strikingly handsome, which Gabriel had always found rather unfair. Gabriel, although he knew himself to be intelligent and expected to become good at his new job, had no illusions about how he stacked up against Max in other regards. He was anal-retentive and a control freak, and was solidly average when it came to looks.

“You don’t try to have control over me,” Max said simply, as if it should be obvious. 

“Oh.” While on the one hand, Gabriel found that a pretty low bar for a potential relationship, on the other, it did cut right to the heart of what Max cared about. “All right, then. Did you have a specific coffee shop in mind? Or,” he added, deciding being too forward probably wasn’t an issue, given Max’s approach, “I could invite you over for coffee instead.”

“That would be a good idea,” Max said, looking pleased.

They drove back to the department headquarters in a mutually satisfied silence, and Gabriel turned to the other project that had been weighing on his mind. He spent the next several hours studying the mandalas that pulled salt from water, trying to understand the complexities of Mulholland’s desalination plants before they aged into disrepair. He managed to only occasionally think about Max, who had gone off to hunt down reports on the dams that had been releasing water far too inconsistently. Max, as self-contained as he was, was a hard man to picture in the throes of passion, but Gabriel found himself trying whenever he lost focus on diagrams in front of him. It was a relief when the day wound to a close and Max began to loiter pointedly in his office. Gabriel had made enough progress on the mandalas that he could put away the books and follow Max out to the boat without much guilt, even though usually he would have stayed later. 

Gabriel studied Max’s profile while he steered them through the streets to Gabriel’s house. It was an angular face, dominated by his strong nose and made sharper by the harsh light of the street lamps. Gabriel was looking forward to kissing him.

“How well can you smell pheromones?” Gabriel asked, struck by a sudden curiosity.

Max took a jog around an idling cab. “Not as well as I can smell osteomancy.” He glanced away from the dark water and the glowing head lights. “But well enough. You should probably think about cold showers if you want me to pay attention to driving.”

“You seem like you’re doing fine so far,” Gabriel said, feeling rather validated after his difficulty keeping his own mind on work. The knowledge that his interest had a domino effect on Max was also gratifying.

“You’re distracted. You wouldn’t notice unless I hit something,” Max said, while he neatly threaded their way through traffic.

“I saw you dodge that van that was going to back into us two blocks ago,” Gabriel pointed out. “But I will admit to finding you very distracting.” Gabriel could see just enough of Max’s eyes to tell he was rolling them, but despite that, he looked decidedly smug.

They finally reached Gabriel’s house—with their fenders unharmed and only the typical number of close calls, Gabriel noticed—and Max led the way to Gabriel’s door. Once they were inside, Max had his hands on him before Gabriel had even turned the light on. He kissed Gabriel with an odd mix of eagerness and uncertainty. Gabriel kissed back, thinking that unless he’d missed something happening in the past several months, it’d been over a decade and a half since Max might have kissed someone last. Max, encouraged by Gabriel’s enthusiastic response, backed him up against the door and kissed him harder.

“Do you have anything specific in mind?” Gabriel eventually thought to ask, when after several thoroughly engaging moments, their fumbling over clothes began to develop into getting their hands underneath them.

“Not really,” Max said, for once slightly out of breath. Gabriel, who had given up on what little exercise he had gotten before becoming the director of Water and Power, was panting raggedly.

“Sixty-nine?” Gabriel offered. It would make a good joke, he knew, him preferring the sex act named after a number, but with Max’s breath coming hot and fast and his fingers getting Gabriel’s shirt open button after button, Gabriel really didn’t care.

Max kissed him urgently, and when he came up for air, he said, “Where’s your bed?”

“That way,” Gabriel gasped, pointing with his chin toward his bedroom while trying to get Max’s belt undone. They managed to get to the bedroom while still undressing each other, and Max pulled them both down onto the bed.

If, when he first met Max, someone had told Gabriel that one day he’d ask him to put his teeth anywhere near any part of his anatomy, let alone around the most sensitive part, Gabriel would have dismissed them as an utter fool. But as they helped each other out of the last of their clothes, Gabriel was desperately wishing for Max to do it already. Gabriel didn’t waste any time himself, as soon as they had themselves positioned he took Max into his mouth. A moment later he felt Max reciprocating, and after that Gabriel experienced one of the rare times when he stopped thinking about anything at all.

When they were both finished, Gabriel shifted so he could lie in Max’s arms. He was tired, and could smell the sweat on both of them better than would usually be enjoyable, but he was relaxed, and happy as well. It was, Gabriel reflected as he drifted off to sleep with Max’s nose pressed into his hair, one of the best days he’d had in a very long time.