There was a core to the soul that could burn so hot it bled away. And once that core had melted, what would be left of a man? His eyes would be empty like the cloudless sky--
A sharp knock at his office door jerked Brandon back to reality. Bunji.
"I've got a recruit, Ani-ki."
Brandon gave him his attention.
"First off, it's a girl. But it's not like that. Sure, bringing a woman in will cause a lot of shit. Anyone else did it, I'd be the first to smack him. But this girl, she's worth the shit storm. Or put another way, letting any other syndicate pick her up would be a bigger one."
"Came up to me in a bar. I thought she was a guy, just some skinny kid, till she opened her mouth. She said she needed a job, must have been scoping me out. She said she was good with a gun, so I thought, why not, I'd take her for a test drive." He hesitated. "She drew almost as fast as me. Fast and cool." The dark pools of his glasses were zeroed on Brandon. "She reminds me of you, Ani-ki. You should take her on."
The woman, Kino, was better than Bunji. Not quite as good as Brandon but one of the best he'd ever seen.
He interviewed her in the back room of the shooting gallery and, as per custom, asked the most important question first: "Why Millennion?"
She stared a second, like she didn't get it. "Why do I want to work for Millennion?" She had a slight accent. "I've heard it pays a lot of money. I need a lot of money."
Her eyes evaded him: big, brown eyes. Short, brown hair. She did look more like a kid than a woman in her oversized men's clothes. "I have a sick friend. He's in, well, a coma. I came to your country because I heard people here could fix him--sorry, I said it wrong. I'm foreign, you know. They could cure him. But it's difficult. It's very expensive, these new treatments."
Her eyes said she was lying. Then again, everyone lied (except Bunji). He passed to the more important point. "Money's a poor substitute for loyalty. Those who betray Millennion earn death."
She gave him a sober look. "I have loyalty to my own integrity. A lot of times, I don't interfere. I don't believe I'm here to fix the world's problems. But if I say I'll do something, I do it. If I say I'll work for Millennion, I'll do it till I leave, and I'll leave honorably."
Her face spoke of long sadness that made him believe her friend was sick--or, rather, that she had inserted that for something else equivalent.
"I have loyalty to him," she said. "My friend. He's been my only real friend for twelve years now. I won't give up on him."
That he understood (too well).
After she had killed five people for money, Kino spent the afternoon at the lab. The scientists reiterated that the type of advanced computing that powered Hermes's mind was so cutting edge she would have to fund a great deal of infrastructure before they could even get to work.
She paid them the money she'd made and sat for while by Hermes. She longed for his chattering voice at the same time she was well aware that no moral law made his life (consciousness) more important than the people she'd shot for him. No, not for him. He wasn't suffering. He wasn't anything now but a motorrad. And she could hop on his back and ride away from this country right now if she weren't so afraid of the loneliness.
She patted his rear wheel. "I love you, Hermes. Or maybe I'm just a coward."
She tried not to care that the other sweepers didn't like her. It was trivial, and many countries had ridiculed her dress and her behavior. The difference was she hadn't had to live in them.
She adopted her usual strategy. When they made snide remarks, she pretended not to notice. When they complained at a woman dragging down the team, she executed her orders better than they did. When they made passes at her, which was rarely, her blank affect sloughed them off. They still didn't like her. All but two.
Bunji liked her because she could shoot. After watching him for a week, she was convinced it was that simple. For her part, Kino considered Bunji the poster child for everything wrong about this country: obsessed with violence and absolutist loyalty to the exclusion of any other moral consideration. But he was straightforward about it. What you saw was what you got, and Kino would take that any day over the endless stream of lies that afflicted most every country she'd visited (not least her own).
Brandon liked her too--or maybe he was just a competent leader. He was never snide to her or to anyone that she saw. Most of the time, he wisely let her fend for herself, but when the men grumbled too much, he shut them up with something concise, like "I only see one person here causing trouble," and a meaningful look at the chief grumbler.
The True Grave were clearly afraid of him, and their wariness made her wary too. He impressed her as being calm and fair: a good boss, insofar as anyone who kept ordering you to go shoot people could be pleasant to work for. That made the men's fear all the more unnerving.
There was a core to the soul that was like a ball of metal, warm all around, as if you held it in your hands. It was born to us perfect and strong, like love. There was a hammer in the soul, and our hands were its wielders. Time after time, we took it up and struck the core of ourselves, till our deformations made our metal weak and we woke each morning wondering if today we'd split in two. Brandon knew that one day he'd raise the hammer and smash himself to pieces... if things kept going on like this. But he thoroughly expected to be dead before that day.
But women, however dexterous, were not made for being killers. Kino might take down Millennion's enemies as efficiently as Bunji, but her face mirrored Brandon's secret face: two hammer blows within him where there had been one. Women were meant for kindness. Kino's woman's heart revolted at the work he gave her hands.
So after a month or so, he changed her assignments, restricting her almost completely to bodyguard duty. He assigned her to women and children, partly so as not to insult the men, partly so she could use her woman's power to comfort. It didn't make the best use of her talents, but it was the best solution.
The first week, she made no comment on the change. In the second week, when he gave her her assignment, she said, "Thank you. But please feel free to place me wherever I'll be most of use."
She nodded. "Thank you." She started out but turned back. "Why do you do it?"
Kill, she meant. "For Millennion."
"What does that mean?"
"To protect the Family."
"And what about the people who aren't in the Family?"
He knew the answer but needed a moment to compose it. "Millennion stabilizes this city. It's true it kills some people, but its presence saves more people than it kills."
She gave him a dubious look. "Is that enough for you?"
"It's enough for all of us," he warned her.
After she had gone, he felt a pressure in his head, as if he'd said something wrong. But when he reviewed all the words that had come out, everything had been correct. And yet, the killing was always wrong, and that was the paradox.
Kino understood gifts, and she accepted the gift of her new assignments with gratitude. Her new role defeated much of the reason she'd been hired. Her marksmanship was rarely put to the test; instead, she spent diverting hours talking to Millennion wives and daughters. They came in many different flavors, like people everywhere. Yet they had a commonality--with each other and with the women she had met in many countries. They reminded her of her mother and made her long to leave.
As for Brandon, their talk had revealed a lot. His subordinates' fear had a mundane basis: if they showed disloyalty, he'd kill them. It was so simple she wondered that she hadn't understood it. Maybe she hadn't wanted to believe he was so much like Bunji.
Yet he wasn't like Bunji. Bunji liked killing people, and Brandon didn't. The more she saw him, the plainer it shone in his face. He carried his guns like penitence. He was an object lesson in the dangers of getting entangled. Millennion was aiming a gun at his heart, and he had bared his breast to it.
Brandon had a meeting with Bob in which he insinuated he was in on certain financial irregularities. Without mentioning anything specific, Bob responded with a sort of rhetorical wink that suggested he, too, was in. It could just be Bob posturing, but Brandon didn't really believe that.
But if there were irregularities, why wasn't Brandon in, if Bob was and certainly Lee was? Brandon had committed crimes with Harry before. Before. Before Millennion. And now, of course, it was not the same, and Harry knew Brandon well enough to know that. But if that was the case, how long did he plan to shut him out? The answer came far too easily. If Harry was cheating Big Daddy, he would keep Brandon out as long as Brandon was loyal to Big Daddy. Which would be forever. There would never be an end to it.
"How's your friend?" asked Brandon one day after Kino's debriefing.
The question surprised her, as spontaneous conversation from Brandon surprised everyone. "The same." She dug her hands into her coat pockets, aware it had become a nervous habit. "They're working on it."
"I'll give you a loan." He took out his checkbook. "How much--?"
"I'm already earning. I don't take loans." Again, he'd surprised her. Entanglement loomed, and as always, she would unravel herself from it.
"But the longer you wait on the money, the less his chances?"
"No... no, he's stable. He's just... he's stable, it will just take time. Really. Thank you, Brandon, for the thought."
She left his office troubled. She didn't doubt he meant it kindly, but his kindness endangered her by making her want to say yes. That vulnerability stripped her bare, stranded as she was without Hermes's childlike good sense to enfold her. Every day the sameness of these streets grew lonelier. And Brandon persisted with his quiet misery, his magnanimity and murderousness, all encased in a body she found appealing, and she'd been here before with other men. But till now she'd never had to stay beneath the onslaught.
When he broke Maria's heart...
Correction, he'd been breaking it for years, hoping she'd see he wasn't worthy of her suffering, hoping his cold would drive her into the sun.
On the day he finished breaking her heart, the hammer didn't fall. He could feel it suspended; he could feel it laid down. Instead, an ordinary pain clenched his chest: the simple, paralyzing ache of the realization that he'd lost forever the only woman he would ever love.
The next day, Harry took him out to lunch to celebrate having sex with Sherry. Over his steak, he exclaimed, "I've nailed it!"
Harry gaped, as he always did when Brandon was vulgar. "Hey! Wash out your mouth before you talk about my girl. It. The whole package. I'm in. Don't say it. With Bear Walken. No, really, don't."
Brandon was laughing so hard he had to take off his glasses to wipe his eyes.
"What I mean is-- What I mean is--" Harry broke off, chortling, a bite of steak poised on his fork. "What I mean is... it's perfect." He grinned. "She's perfect: beautiful, loyal, fun. She's crazy about me--and I'll tell you something else." A shade of seriousness now. "She understands sacrifice. And she's Bear Walken's daughter. I mean, how lucky a dog am I for Bear Walken to have a daughter like that, just ripe for the picking?"
As Harry spoke, Brandon's good mood faded. It was wrong to feel like the butt of God's jokes just because Harry got the woman of his dreams the same night--the same fucking night--that Brandon surrendered the woman he'd loved years before Harry had ever met Sherry. He should be happy for Harry. And he was: it was a good thing. It tied Harry to Bear Walken, and Bear Walken was Big Daddy's right hand man. So there was no way Harry would...
He just wouldn't.
"So naturally, when she's done with school, I'm going to marry her. Be my best man?"
Harry footed the bill, and they walked for a while. Brandon listened to Harry chatter about his big evening with Bear Walken and Sherry and his plans for the future. Nice plans. Safe plans, protecting Millennion along with Brandon and Bear Walken. This should all comfort Brandon, and it did--or would have maybe, but the hammer had found its way back into his hands, and though its weight was impossible, once again he raised it.
Brandon deployed all his men to put down the Northern Fire Syndicate. It was a major success: ten casualties and no deaths for Millennion, practically unheard of for a big job. That called for a party. Brandon did his usual routine, pretending to talk at the bar for a while, then taking his brandy to a corner table where no one would notice him (except Bunji, but he'd only notice him once an hour for about five minutes).
For a while, Brandon scanned the action: drinking, gambling, posturing, flirting with the inevitable contingent of girls. After a time, his eye fell on Kino. As he watched her, he spotted a pattern. She'd be talking to one of them, or mostly listening. A few minutes would go by, then inevitably, the guy would hit on her: move in, put an arm around her shoulder. Again and again, she extricated herself like magic. A second later, she'd just be gone, heading off to talk to someone else. After about an hour, though, she seemed to get fed up and wended her way to a side exit.
He felt a pang of anxiety at her departure. On an impulse, he got up himself and slipped out.
She spun around and drew at the sound of a step behind her, then sighed. "Brandon." She lowered her gun and let him catch up to her, all the time thinking, Go away, yet not wanting him to.
They walked in silence down the midnight street, the lamps doubled by the rain-washed sidewalk.
"You don't need to walk me home."
He kept walking. She tried to prize the reason for it out of his silence. Like everyone in Millennion, he didn't believe in women being out alone at night, yet since joining them, Kino often had been. No, he wanted something from her--some escape or something. Something she shouldn't try to give.
When they reached her rooms, she had the opportunity to thank him and say goodnight. So instead she said, "Would you like to come in?"
He came in and looked around. She put on the gas, wondering what he saw. She'd done her best not to acquire any new possessions she couldn't stuff into her rucksack, with the result that there wasn't much to see.
"I guess it's the custom to offer you something to drink." She rummaged in the cupboard. "Is it too late for tea? I may have some herbal tea around."
She put on the kettle. He wandered around the room, two steps in any direction. She threw her coat over the chair and regretted it, feeling small and undressed in the shirt underneath. The silence deafened her, so she started to talk. "I've been in this country six months."
Brandon stopped inspecting the room and looked at her.
"It's the first time in a decade that I've stayed anywhere more than a week." She handed him a cup of tea, which he sipped then set aside. "Do you like sugar?"
She put two spoonfuls in her own cup. "I once vowed I would never stay anywhere more than three days. Then, I let it be longer, but never more than seven. Then, Hermes got sick. It's amazing what we'll compromise for love. It's amazing I say I love him. Until he got sick, it never even occurred to me. And that's amazing too."
She didn't understand why she'd said those things. It wasn't small talk. All at once she felt like crying. He's not the one looking for something. Not at all. She should never have stopped in this country.
His eyes were bent on the floor, but she believed he'd been listening. It was a talent of his to give the impression of ruminating on what you had to say. And what did it mean to him, her weird pronouncements about Hermes? The intent, inner look in his eye said that he saw himself in her words. But she couldn't see what he saw. She only saw his misery. And with resignation with which she went out on a hit, she let that misery conquer her judgment.
"Will you stay?" she asked him because sometimes living required surrender.
He was scarcely sure he'd heard her right. Women came onto him sometimes but not women like her. (There were no women like her.) Sex didn't seem to exist for her. Or maybe he just hadn't seen it.
She searched his face as if he were some exotic type of wildlife. "Sorry. Maybe I've committed a faux pas." She drained her cup and set it in the sink. "Maybe I misread it when you walked me home."
Had she? Why had he wanted to stick with her tonight? Not to protect her: that thought had come later. Because he was lonely? Because he was angry--at himself, at Harry, (at Big Daddy), at life for not giving him a life he could share with Maria? Was he seeking a replacement for the irreplaceable? Maria. The name kept on beating on his brain. His head felt hot. He'd had two brandies, enough to loosen him up a little.
When, with a sigh, Kino moved to walk past him, he stopped her with a light hand on her arm. She barely came up to his shoulder. He bent and kissed her. Her lips were too much like Maria's. As he explored her mouth, he sank into that first day with Maria. He'd been seventeen; she'd put her arms around him, which made him deliriously happy. Then, she'd drawn back a little and kissed him. She was the only person he had ever kissed, till now. It seemed so disloyal. But if Maria was happy with Big Daddy, she would want him to find someone, wouldn't she? If she was happy...?
Kino's arms went around his back, and he drew her close, conscious that he was using her and that she deserved better. Sexual satiation had always seemed to him an impoverished reason for exploiting others' emotions. Maybe that was because he didn't need sex the way most men seemed to. He found some women attractive but felt no urge to do them. It was so much less messy just to get himself off.
But he'd missed being held. It had been ten years since he'd embraced another body... ten years since Kino had stayed in one place. What a lonely life she must have led... except for--
He pulled back. "What about your friend?"
She stared a moment, then burst out laughing. "We're not on that footing, Hermes and me." She chuckled again. They stood stupidly. "I have condoms. It's not-- I don't mean that I do this all the time." She retrieved the box from the bathroom. "It's just that when you're a traveler, you learn to be prepared for anything."
He tried to think about what that meant but found he didn't want to. Imagine being prepared for anything with condoms; it sounded like Harry. He set his glasses on the counter, making a mental note of their location because, he knew from experience, losing your glasses sucked.
She studied him. "You look different."
"You too." Though at this distance, the focus was sharp with or without the correction.
They made some awkward preparations: lowering lights; removing shoes; a short, silent skirmish over whose gun went where on the bedside table. He felt himself flailing, like an earthworm on the sidewalk. He was twenty-seven; he should know how to touch a woman. Harry would be laughing at him. But it would be good-natured laughter.
She didn't wear a bra, and it looked wrong to see her small breasts naked as she unbuttoned her man's shirt. She didn't shave anywhere either, which made her look unnatural. But being in bed with her was nice, feeling her skin. He must be twice her weight, and she placed herself under his power with a trust he found almost heartbreaking.
It surprised him how tricky sex could be: to get hard enough (wasn't he usually faster?), to get the condom on, then to find his way inside her. After his third failed attempt, she actually apologized. "Sorry. I've only done this twice before. I guess I must still be pretty tight." Only twice, and she'd chosen him. He hated that responsibility.
I should tell her I've never done this at all. But he knew he wouldn't. It would give the wrong impression: that she meant something she couldn't mean. He couldn't expect her to understand that he had given up his heart a long time ago.
Once he'd finally worked inside her, his awkwardness lessened, and for the first time he understood somewhat why Harry found sex so exhilarating. He couldn't tell how much he pleased her. She lay beneath him quietly, her arms around his shoulders.
Afterwards, he held her close; he had to: the bed was too small for two. She was warm and slowly breathing beneath his arm and smelled something like Maria but less of flowers and more of sweat.
Today, we killed people, he thought. And then we went to a party and had sex.
He slid away from her as much as the bed would allow, and they settled into their own spaces, touching lightly. He was used to sleeping alone.
But he hadn't always been. When he'd first joined Millennion, he had trouble sleeping, not because the couch was hard but because his friends weren't breathing near him. Now, in the warm dark, the sounds of her sleep returned him to that first place they'd holed up after the orphanage: the cellar of a condemned house, a kerosene heater, a not-too-grungy mattress--the triumph of weeks of searching. For a year, till just after his fourteenth birthday, he and Harry had nightly closed their eyes on the world in the womb of that cellar.
Over coffee the next morning, she said, "I didn't ask you to stay because you're my boss. I'm not angling for anything."
The comment came out of nowhere, as if it had only just occurred to her. Certainly, it hadn't occurred to him. He nodded and drank his coffee.
"It was a mistake, wasn't it?" She put a thoughtful hand to her mouth.
He studied her.
"This is why I don't stay. It's like getting into quicksand." She turned her coffee cup around in her hands. (She made excellent coffee.) "I like you. I like you too much, and I should go."
He could offer her the money for her friend's treatment again. But he couldn't very well offer her money right now. He nodded. "We shouldn't do this again."
Bunji agreed, a fact he shared amply back at the office: "So you're screwing her now?"
Brandon stared him down, considering whether to accuse him of spying. But more likely, he'd drawn obvious conclusion when Brandon left the party. "What I do in my off-hours isn't your business."
"I never said it was. Do whatever the hell you want. Have an endless stream of women; have no one; pine over that blonde chick. Means fuck all to me. But when it screws with the team, damn straight it's my business; it's everyone's business. You don't play favorites with your own fucking guns. I always figured you knew that."
Brandon glared a few more seconds while framing his response. "You're right, Bunji. None of us has the right to jeopardize Millennion. But the one who determines if the True Grave is placing Millennion in jeopardy is me."
"And the one who pays for being wrong is you, Ani-ki."
Harry, on the other hand, had a different opinion. All throughout their personnel review, Brandon sensed him suppressing something, but he was so used to it by now that it scarcely registered.
When they'd finished the last file, Harry leaned back in his desk chair. "So I hear you have a thing going with your gun slinger girl."
Brandon, on the other side of the desk, felt like he was being interviewed. "Bunji told you?"
"He might have mentioned something, yeah."
Exasperated, Brandon gazed out the window.
"Oh, let it go. He was barking up the wrong tree coming to me. You can handle yourself." Harry laughed. "I told him if he was worried it would get out, it he should shut the hell up about it."
Harry got up and poured a shot of bourbon. "I wouldn't have pegged her as your type, but still. Fact is I'm relieved." He threw him the old grin. "I was starting to think you'd be worshipping at the altar of Maria forever. Don't get me wrong; I like Maria. I always thought you two were good together. But if she's with Big Daddy now--which is fucking weird, by the way--" He drained his glass. "Well, I'm glad you finally moved on."
Brandon gestured at the bottle, and Harry poured him one. He felt caught between embarrassment and basking in Harry's attention, not wanting to confess that they'd already called it off.
"She any good?"
Harry folded his arms and watched Brandon drink. "It serious?"
Harry nodded like he didn't believe it. Then, he picked up his coat and headed for the door. Hand on the doorknob, he looked back. "Don't be afraid to let it be."
But Brandon was afraid, and it couldn't be. He liked her, so he needed to protect her from himself.
The streets were not the same streets. In the four hours Brandon had spent at the lab, night had fallen as if for the first time. The sharp, concrete corners had become a mass of shadows. And this was all the world. It was not the same world. When had the plain meanness of his youth been overrun with monsters?
In those four hours, Brandon had learned two things. The one so vastly overshadowed the other that the second thing sat at the back of his mind like the trace of a dream forgotten.
He couldn't think.
He couldn't think.
Harry could not do these things. Harry could lie and cheat and embezzle and place his own ambition before the good of Millennion. Brandon had (tried to) come to terms with that. But there were some things Harry wouldn't do. There had to be a misunderstanding.
He roamed the streets, vaguely aware of not seeing his surroundings. If someone tried to shoot him now, he wouldn't even get his gun drawn.
There was a hit that night, scheduled for 10:14. At some point, Brandon glanced at his watch: 8:28. He couldn't go through with it. If he tried to go in like this, he'd get his men killed. He went home and called Bunji. It was the first time in ten years with Millennion that he'd called in sick for a job. Bunji told him he sounded like shit. Probably true; he could barely make his voice work. Having arranged for Bunji to cover, he sat on the floor of his apartment in a stupor.
A garbage can clanged and the growl of a cat made him look up at the clock: 11:47. He couldn't sit in this room. He walked again, a phantom quiet through the uglier, later night. The cold air revived him a little--or maybe it just made him shiver. At a stoplight, he saw a motorcycle, and the second thing clicked in his thoughts.
Too exposed in her long nightshirt, Kino opened the door and, recognizing him, lowered her gun. He came in without being asked and put the check down on the kitchen counter.
"You've got to leave town. Get your motorcycle fixed. Make them fast track that processor part."
She glanced from the check to his face. "What's happened?"
"Something's going to go down. Soon. You should get out of town."
This was it; she could see it in the set of his jaw. She'd seen too many countries poised on the abyss to misread that petrifaction. "Maybe you should too."
Brandon shook his head.
She picked up the check. "I can't pay you back."
"It's a gift."
She nodded and started to dress. A bell tolled in her chest: joyful and earth quaking. The check disappeared into a pocket. Coat, hat, boots. Then, she came back to him and held out her hand. He stared at it, put his hand in hers. She shook it soundly, knowing she would never touch it again: glad and sorry. Free again. "Thank you." She gazed at him a moment longer, memorizing his passing because someone should remember. "Please, lock up when you leave," she said and went home into the wide world.
At home the next evening, Brandon tried to read. He'd spent two hours after work making plans--no, discussing contingencies--with Tokioka, plans--contingencies--that made his future a nightmare, and if he couldn't escape that reality, surely he could blot it out for an hour or two with an old novel. In his early years in Millennion, he'd developed an appreciation for reading: stories of young men on the frontier, striking out through the desert. Now, he couldn't focus on it. The scene kept turning into him and Harry in the desert--and then not in the desert, but back in the city--with the undead.
Harry knocked. Brandon started at the familiar, self-assured five raps. For an instant, he had a vision: he'd open the door, and Harry would grin and shoot him.
He opened the door.
Harry sidled past him, tossed his coat on the couch. "Hey. What's this I hear about your girl being gone?"
For a moment, Brandon thought he meant Maria; then he realized. "Yes."
Harry clapped him on the shoulder. "That's rough. Women, I tell you: can't live with them; can't get off without them--not too good anyway." He went to the kitchen and pulled out the bottle of bourbon that lived there for his visits. He poured two shots, handed one to Brandon. "So what went down?"
"She made enough money for her friend's operation."
Harry smirked into his glass. "She tell you her friend was a bike?" He eyed Brandon, reading confirmation in his face, then nodded. "Guys at the lab keep me posted on this stuff. That's some awesome AI technology. Old though. Maybe that's why she came here: the people who invented it forgot about it. Talk about dumbasses. Millennion's not going to make that mistake; we'll be making dividends off her investment for a long damn time." He drained his glass. "Doesn't help you right now though. She seemed like a good fit for you. Sorry it didn't work out. Though, I don't know, a girl whose best friend is a bike..."
Brandon gulped his bourbon in a failed pretense of enjoying it.
"You look like shit," said Harry. "Let me take you out to dinner."
Inside Brandon, an alarm went off. They'd go out, and there'd be dinner and maybe Bob and Lee, and this moment... This was the moment. If he didn't act now-- "Harry, we should go."
Harry, in the act of throwing on his coat, stopped and frowned at him. "Go? What are you talking about? Besides to dinner."
"We should--" leave Millennion? "We should cash out and start a new operation... in another town."
Harry's frown deepened.
"Big Daddy won't hold us if we ask to be released."
"What the fuck, Brandon?" said Harry faintly. "Where's this coming from all of a sudden?"
"We're not-- we've gone-- Millennion's not-- we've gone as far as we can go in Millennion. We need to be free." Paltry as Brandon's ad-libbing was, he hoped--he dared to hope--he had struck the right chord on "freedom."
Harry gaped a moment longer, then laid his coat back onto the couch. "Can I use your phone?"
Brandon nodded. Harry was going to put a hit on him. No, not from his own phone right in front of his face.
Harry dialed and loosened his tie as he waited. "Hey, baby. Listen, I'm not going to be home tonight. Now, hang on, hang on. I adore you when you're jealous, but it's not what you're thinking. I have some work stuff to sort out with Brandon. Here, I'll put him on, just so I have an alibi."
Brandon heard himself say, "Harry's at my place, Sherry."
"Well... I guess work comes first," sighed Sherry. "Put him on again, okay?"
Brandon handed off the phone.
"Yeah, baby." Harry laughed. "Oo, I like the sound of that. Yeah, breakfast. I'll stop by before work. Love you, lemon drop." He hung up. "Have you had dinner?"
Brandon thought back and shook his head.
"Watcha got in here?" Harry rummaged in his cupboards. "Why the hell you don't get yourself a housekeeper I'll never get. Spaghetti?"
While Harry boiled water and dumped a can of sauce into a pan, Brandon fished half a loaf of bread out of his freezer. They both hated cooking--at least for more than one. It made them think of Jolice. Brandon stuck the bread in the oven and went into the living room, needing space.
He jumped at the touch of Harry's hand on his shoulder and whirled, not far from slugging him on pure defensive instinct.
Harry backed off, hands held high. "She really had her hooks in you, didn't she? I guess it was kind of a one-two punch. First, Maria and Big Daddy, and then you finally met a girl you liked, and then she took off just like that. Damn. I know what it means to you to find a girl you're into. Me, I'll have fun with anyone, as long as she's under thirty and up for a good time. But you..." He went back to the kitchen to stir the spaghetti. "A girl just doesn't exist for you unless it's for forever."
It dawned on Brandon that he was relieved that Harry misunderstood--or least pretended to. The moment was lost. But it had been a lost cause anyway. Harry would never leave Millennion. And Brandon had been at most two sentences from falling flat on his ass trying to sell it.
At least now, it wouldn't happen tonight. Tomorrow maybe. But not tonight.
After dinner, they watched sitcoms for a couple of hours. Brandon didn't bother to follow the plot. He just sat there, listening to Harry laugh with the laugh track, his sense of humor, as ever, well trained and sincere.
"Well," said Harry when the 10:30 slot ended, "I'd better turn in. Gotta be home for breakfast bright and early." He went to the linen closest and started pulling out blankets. "Your couch is a bitch, by the way. But I guess I can take it for one night."
"Sleep with me," said Brandon, and at Harry's raised eyebrow, "not like that."
Harry stared barely a second. "'Kay. Like old times, huh?"
Brandon smiled. It had been his thought exactly.
In the dark, sleepy haze born of pure exhaustion, he could almost imagine the years rolled back: an old basement, an old mattress, and two warm bodies breathing--for one more night, safe from the wild, preying things that threatened to consume them.