Fights between Theo and Xandra are some kind of cage match that Boris never fully understood. There is lots of cold stares and clipped remarks before one of them storms out of the room with a slammed door and the other spends the rest of the day sulking. This is how he finds Theo one night, sitting on his front porch with his head in his hands. “Fucking Xandra,” is all Theo has to say and Boris just nods, offers him a cigarette and tugs a tuft of Theo’s too-long hair that’s feathering outwards at his ears.
They end up at some senior’s house party three neighborhoods away, sitting around a firepit with friendly strangers who are happy to share their cocaine. Theo turned into himself, agonizingly quiet like he is in big crowds and Boris overcompensates for both of them, schmoozing and loud and animated until the baggie of powder gets passed to them. Boris hands it to Theo first, who takes it without a word and dutifully cuts himself two lines. Boris wants to jostle him, remind him that this is a party! Show some enthusiasm for these kind strangers! Doing coke does not have to be so clinical and robotic! But he’s rooted to the spot, doesn’t want to cause a scene at a party they technically are not even supposed to be at. Boris can just sit and watch Theo pinch his nostrils. What else is there to do, really, for a boy who misses his mother and only wants to die? “Potter,” Boris offers, softly, not sure what he’s trying to say and Theo just looks up at him with glassy eyes, thin mouth, “What, Boris.”
They watch each other for a long moment, the way they do when one of them is wondering if it’s worth it to say something that they ultimately won’t. “Try on your gums, next time.” Theo watches, eyes squinted as Boris slips a finger into his mouth and rubs a cocaine-covered pinky over his own gumline.
An hour later, Theo’s face is washed in blue and red, alternating, one of his palms pressed against Boris’s mouth to keep him quiet. Boris has to blink hard to stay focused, something about the light on Theo’s face making him look like something out of a horror movie, all mottled and twitchy. Crouched behind a dumpster and it’s the only time Boris has ever heard Theo reference anything even mildly religious, whispering “Dear God don’t let us get caught” and giggling into Boris’s palm, hoping the cops won’t think to look this deep down the street.
They stay at Boris’s that night, Theo still fucking sulking about his fight with Xandra and the party getting crashed and it’s one of his moods that Boris cannot do anything about. Tries feeding Theo a beer, stale popcorn, secret stash of Skittles from Halloween but eventually gives up. “At least we are not in jail!” Boris tries one last time to get a smile and he can’t. Smiles from Theo are very rare currency, anyway, these days. Boris has to work very hard to earn them. He thinks he is not going to earn anything tonight, which is no problem. Nothing new. Sits with his back against the side of the couch and Theo lays on the floor next to him, head in Boris’s lap and they share a cigarette. It may not be a fun night but they did not get caught or arrested. And Theo’s hair smells like Boris’s shampoo. So Boris decides that even if he did not earn any Theo-smiling-currency, he at least broke even.
Boris is sitting with his legs in the pool smoking a cigar he stole from his father’s dresser when he realizes that Theo has not surfaced. “Potter?” he calls towards the pool, where he can see Theo’s form rippling under the surface of the deep end. He kicks the water hard, blinking against the shower of water drops. Theo still does not come up. “Fuck.”
He jumps in fully clothed and finds Theo sitting at the bottom, eyes squeezed shut and cheeks puffed out when Boris hooks his hands under Theo’s armpits. As soon as he starts pulling the boy upwards Theo thrashes out of Boris’s grip, kicking furiously back towards the bottom of the pool. Their underwater fight eventually results in them both surfacing, anyway. Boris with a firm grasp around one of Theo’s wrists and the natural buoyancy of their bodies working against Theo’s efforts to stay down. They both break through the surface with Theo coughing until he’s red in the face, gagging on the water he must have sucked in during their fight.
“What the fuck, Theo!” Boris bursts as soon as Theo yells, “Fuck you, Boris!”
They glower at each other, Boris’s chest heaving and lightheaded from the panic of dragging Theo back and Theo trembling with anger, anger at Boris for what? Saving him? Forcing him to stay alive? Why the fuck does Boris feel guilty about this, anyway? They talked about it, once, Theo black-out drunk and slurring and Boris was not as drunk as he wanted to be. Sitting on the couch with Theo’s head in his lap, Boris carding his fingers carefully through Theo’s hair.
It should have been me, Boris. I should have-- a hiccup, turning his face into the crevice between Boris’s torso and the couch-- I should have died there.
Well. I am glad you did not.
Theo gives him that half-lidded look of. Hatred? Annoyance? Not quite. Impatience, maybe. I want to kill myself.
What good would that do for me, Potter, eh? Leave me alone in this godforsaken desert? Boris is joking but not really. I think we need each other here. Like cowboys on the wild frontier.
It’s all I want, Boris. It’s all I’ve ever wanted in my whole fucking life.
And what do you say to that, even? Because they both know it’s true, know it at their core that it’s the only thing that will solve all of Theo’s problems. You put me between, ah, rock and bad place, Potter. Theo dozing off in his lap. So which of us is the one who is more selfish? You for wanting to die or me for wanting to keep you here anyway?
And for someone who is constantly threatening to kill himself, fucking drug store is out of Vanilla Coke, I am going to kill myself! Boris spends most of his time privately worrying about Theo. Because for as often Boris threatens it, they both know deep down that Theo will be the one to actually do it. The two of them laying in the middle of the road but Boris twitches when headlights flash at the end of the street while Theo just inhales and exhales slowly.
Boris thinks a lot about how they’d die in Vegas. Boris with some dramatic explosive death, chaotic and loud and maybe an accident. Falling off a building or getting hit by a car or killing himself with drugs. Theo would implode in on himself, quiet and polite and nondisruptive. Drinking himself to death or bleeding out in a bathtub. Both boys just like dying stars, deciding whether it’s worth it to turn into a black hole or not.
But sometimes, the desert is not so bad. Boris’s fingertips digging mercilessly into the skin of a grapefruit, hissing when the juice seeps out and stings his chewed and papercut fingertips. He’s already halfway through completely murdering it before Theo sees, “Boris! You’re ruining it!”
Boris with grapefruit juice running down to his elbows, now, “not my fault you do not have knives, Potter!” even though he’s standing four feet away from the kitchen counter where there is, indeed, a set of knives in a block against the stove. Boris Hulk-rips the fruit in half, anyway, handing half to Theo on his way out to the patio. They watch the sunset outside, alternating between pulls from cigarettes and bites of grapefruit with their feet in the pool. Theo whittling pieces off of his wedge with his dad’s pocketknife while Boris pulls out chunks from his half with his index finger and thumb, sucking it off his fingers like a little kid. Patio bricks still sun-warm under their legs, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album playing from the CD player on the kitchen counter, turned up loud enough that they can hear it through the open sliding door. Didn’t mean to love you, didn’t think it would work out.
He’s just a coffeeboy, really, for Mr. Silver. He thinks that Mr. Silver only keeps him around for the intimidation of it all, Boris’s growth spurt putting him a good five or six inches taller than most of Silver’s other stockier henchmen. The all black, dark circles, crazy coked-out presence of Boris at the back of a room while Mr. Silver works out a deal is like a dog on a chain, he’s never hurt anyone! is the truth, but Mr. Silver’s clients don’t believe it.
“This is my friend Boris,” Mr. Silver introduces him and Boris holds up two fingers in a silent hello. “He is not quite right in the head,” Mr. Silver warns, tapping his temple under his cowboy hat and Boris knows, he knows this is all for show, play the part of silent crazy Russian hitman or whatever. But also. Also.
Memories of his father, a rare night at home with mining friends drinking and playing poker, You fucking crazy bastard! Followed by raucous, drunken laughter. Boris with his bedroom door locked and a chair pushed against it for when his father inevitably stumbles upstairs later. He can hear all of them: reliving the pipe wrench story, reliving his mother dying, reliving the first time he caught Boris drinking and disciplined him for his own good! which is when he broke Boris’s wrist by throwing him down the stairs. You Pavlikovskies, fucked in the heads, all of you! Is it true your whore wife fell out of a window? Ha!
Theo’s sleepy-soft eyes, staring at the finger-shaped bruises on Boris’s neck, promise me we’ll never be like our fathers.
Mr. Silver still pays him in heroin and oxys and poker chips at that point, not sure I should trust you with cash, kid, but that’s alright by Boris. Nothing new to him, scraping by like this. Except heroin. Heroin was new--he had shot up meth, once before, or rather Kotku did for him. Boris just stared as she tied off his arm with an expert precision. The rubber band sting-pulling the fine hairs on his arm hurt more than the needle did. He doesn’t remember much of that time other than it made him fucking sick and feel like shit for days after. He watched with a cautious curiosity as Chester set up a tiny prep station but he liked Chester. Mr. Silver’s right hand man, practically, just as fun as Theo’s dad but with an occasional temper that reminded him of his own father. And then Chester offered him some: You want to try a little bit?
What was the expression Xandra had taught him? Curiosity murdered cat? Boris nodded dumbly, plopping down on the couch and shrugging off his jacket. His veins were still good, then, prominent and puffy after only a few seconds of tying off his bicep. Chester had hummed with jealousy, flicking a finger against the crook of Boris’s elbow. Lucky lad, look at this one coming out with no problem! Hold still.
Mr. Silver sends him to California with Chester to torture one of his business partners. That is all Boris knows. He mostly only remembers Mr. Silver and Chester speaking in euphemisms, Boris packing up everything he owned and leaving that godforsaken housing development without a second thought. Mr. Silver promises him a place to live if he finishes the job. Chester teaches Boris how to punch while wearing brass knuckles.
The man in the room is kneeling on the ground with a hood over his head like every crime movie Boris has ever seen. His shoulders are shaking violently and when Chester takes the hood off the man is sobbing, choked noises around the duct tape over his mouth. He’s already got two black eyes and a broken nose, corners of his mouth wet and bloody. Boris’s own face aches with the phantom-pains of every beating he’s ever gotten, feels for a strange moment like he’s looking into his bathroom mirror at fifteen years old. Boris is staring but he can’t help it.
And then Chester hits him hard, “get it together, Boris,” the same sharp sting across his cheek as Thursday nights when he father came home, ears ringing with the force of it. Chester is yelling at the man but Boris doesn’t hear any of it. Everyone in the room knows it doesn’t matter, anyway. The man is going to die here no matter what he tries to yell through the tape over his mouth. Boris can feel the skin at his cheekbone split from Chester’s ring, warm drip of blood down his cheek (or, really, maybe it’s a tear). Boris is forced out of it when Chester turns, snaps his fingers at Boris and points to the kneeling man. “Do it or you’re next.”
And it’s terror like a shock to his system, being doused in ice water, immediate tunnel vision. Fight or flight but only one of them is actually an option. Swallow down the panic. His knuckles are covered in blood before he knows what’s going on, metal between his fingers slick with it so he has to hold his fist tighter. He doesn’t know when he crosses the line between doing what Chester says and somewhere darker, hurting just to hurt. Somewhere between the gurgling sound of the man choking on his own blood and Chester laughing heartily, pulling Boris backwards, “okay, okay! Rocky Balboa over here.”
Boris is still seeing red, turns quickly to start whaling on Chester except he gets stopped, Chester takes Boris’s fists in his giant hands. He not-so-gently pries Boris’s fingers open to take off the brass knuckles, small crescent cuts on both of Boris’s palms from his fingernails digging into the skin. Chest heaving like he just ran a marathon. “Promising life as a hitman, you!” Chester beams, slapping Boris too hard on the shoulder as he pockets the knuckles before grabbing the limp man on the ground by the collar. Boris bolts from the room as soon as Chester’s back is turned. He barely makes it outside before he’s dry-heaving against the side of the building, scrambling in his pockets for his cigarettes but he only gets blood all over his jacket while patting himself down. He retches again, on his hands and knees with concrete digging into his palms. He can’t remember the last time he cried but he curls up against the building then and sobs like he hasn’t since he was a child.
The next ten hours are a blur; Chester coming outside, snapping at Boris to come help him with the body. Carrying it out to the trunk of a car and the only thing Boris can focus on while he holds the ankles is that the man wears the same size shoes as him. A call from Mr. Silver he only half listens to. Proud of you son, make sure Chester gives you your payment. Back in the safehouse, some too-fancy apartment outside of San Francisco where they’ve been staying. Chester places a stack of bound hundred dollar bills and a baggie of oxys on the coffee table, you earned it, kid followed by some other information that Boris doesn’t hear. Rendezvous tomorrow , something about 9am, something about SFO to LAS, whatever, fuck Vegas, fuck Mr. Silver, fuck that guy’s size twelve boots that Boris took off his body when they buried him out in the forest, fuck everything that isn’t these oxys he’s crushing for a line and the dried blood under his fingernails that Boris can’t fucking get off.
A Hispanic woman wakes him up with relentless chattering, Spanish still one of the handful of languages Boris is completely ignorant about despite years of living in the American southwest but it’s clear she’s not happy, insistent out! Out! and gesturing with a broom. He’s on the floor of the fancy San Francisco apartment and two other cleaning ladies are peering through the bathroom door apprehensively. Boris grabs his shit, peels off a few hundreds from his roll and hands them over to the women for their troubles. A safehouse is a safehouse for a reason, he understands, the rest of the apartment dark and mostly-clean for the next time it’ll be needed. Chester and the others nowhere in fucking sight. It’s three in the afternoon and Boris has nowhere to go, only five grand in cash and a bag of pills. He has done a lot more with a lot less, he supposes.
Something in his gut tells him not to go back to Vegas, his cheek still cut from Chester’s punch. Not really sure where he wants to go, wandering like a lost puppy waiting for Mr. Silver or Chester to call him but they never do. They didn’t have a lot of patience for fuck-ups, anyway, and Boris missing their rendezvous was a major one. A week later Boris’s new home is a shitty motel room he’s opened up to Los Angeles’s homeless kids, word getting around that some Fucking Russian Weirdo has a room with two mattresses down the hall from a vending machine. By the time the money and pills run out they all are something close to friends, letting him tag along to wherever they’re headed next. Maybe the beach, it’s getting warmer outside and Alex knows where they can get heroin in Santa Monica.
It’s here where Boris first hands off The Goldfinch , desperate for a hit of something, anything, but payments are not always cash now. He does the opposite of Theo from the beginning, brought it to California with him and keeps it in his backpack at all times, figures nobody will find it if it’s constantly with him. Boris swaps Theo’s entire heart for a gram of meth, I can get you cash, I promise, painting is more valuable than anything you will ever have in your life, okay, relax, will get you your fucking cash. When they insisted on unwrapping it, grubby fingers grazing the bird Boris yells like he hasn’t in years, Don’t fucking touch it like that! You must be careful! And the anxiety he has about it is hardly worth the drugs. He robs a pharmacy just to pay the kid in full, get the painting back. Theo’s soul wrapped in newspaper. Take what you can get. The painting keeps Boris to his word, at least, offers it as collateral as a way to force himself to follow through with his promises. Because it always has to come back to him. It has to. Even if it is not his to keep.
It’s only once he’s standing at the top of the shoreline on the boardwalk that Boris realizes he’s never even seen the ocean before, not from ground-level anyway, never stuck his feet in the Atlantic or the Pacific. His heart catches in his throat and stays there, pulse pounding so hard he wonders if this is what it feels like to bleed out. He’s only vaguely aware of the other people he’s with, not-quite-friends but what else is new. Only kids all with something in common, addiction and nowhere to go. Mingling with the skaters and surfers and street merchants. Boris digs a fist into his hair, mangled and ratty, momentarily overwhelmed and coked out of his mind. Wants to scream at every person hustling and moving around him Everybody stop! Do you not see what you are standing feet away from? A whole ocean? He caves to his jitters and stumbles out of his shoes and down through the sand, straight into the water up to his calves. Someone shouts after him “Boris! Isn’t that freezing?” but it sounds like they’re trying to shout at him through a glass bottle, his ears filled with the surf.
He doesn’t know how long he stands there, long enough for the waves to suck the sand away from under his feet and redeposit it on top, sunk up to his ankles and his holey jeans soaked through. The sun dips below the horizon and it’s in bright, vibrant color, Boris has no doubt it would be just as beautiful if he was sober. Someone’s grabbing his jacketsleeve, laughing, “Boris!” trying to tug him out of the water. Boris stumbles back a few steps, catching himself on who it is, a boy with glasses who smells like beer. “Have you ever seen!” Boris yelps, flapping one hand towards the glowing horizon while the boy slings Boris’s other arm over his own shoulders, pulling him out of the surf, “Potter! Have you ever seen something so magnificent!”
“Peter,” the boy says. “My name’s Peter, Boris, Jesus. How many times do I have to tell you.”
Right. Right. Peter. And Boris shakes him off, because he’s right, Peter is not Potter, not by a mile, only wears stupid fucking glasses and smokes the same cigarettes as the boy from Vegas a lifetime ago.
The first thing Boris feels when he comes to is some kind of deep, hot shame that he has never felt before. To have people genuinely concerned. He wants to apologize to all the nice nurses with worry etched deeply into their faces but the oxygen mask over his nose and mouth prevents him from doing so. He tries to reach up to take the mask off, I’m sorry, miss, I did not mean to waste your time but a hand from somewhere above him reaches down to keep the mask secure on his face.
“Is this the first time you’ve overdosed?” Her voice and body language is even and patient but firm. Boris’s face is so hot it hurts , like the only sunburn he’s ever gotten, him and Theo passing out on his back patio daydrunk on whiskey, sun frying them both alive. “No,” he replies. Voice smaller than he thought it’d be.
“How many times before have you overdosed? Do you remember what they were?”
Boris swallows, throat still raw from the tube they used to pump his stomach. Mouth feels like it’s full of taffy or tar. Spoonfuls of peanut butter he would share from the jar with Popchyk. “Three times, maybe. Once on heroin. Once on vodka and xanax, accidents both.” he scratches his eyebrow. “I do not remember the other.”
The lady clacks away at her computer, loudest sound on fucking planet. “How old are you, Boris?”
A question he can answer with confidence, “Nineteen.”
“Do you have someone you can contact?” and the confidence is gone. The only numbers in his phone are Mr. Silver’s burner phone, Xandra, Theo’s. Kotku. People who he hasn’t spoken to in years or otherwise can never know about this moment. Boris’s eyes sting. “No.”
When he looks up the lady is watching him, mouth pressed into a thin line and brow furrowed with a look that can only be pity. His father’s cane in his ribcage would hurt less, he thinks with a shock.
And a month later a kid dies on Boris’s watch. He swears off heroin for a while after his overdose but that doesn’t stop the rest of the kids in his group from using so he turns into the supervisor, essentially. It’s then that he learns the ins and outs of using Narcan, of CPR and turning them on their sides so they don’t vomit when they black out, how he learns to administer small bumps to kids going through withdrawal. Here that he gets a convincing enough fake ID that he sneaks countless kids into countless clubs, makes lots of underage friends outside liquor stores asking him to buy them beer and let him keep the change. It’s ironic that at this same time Boris is building up a business to rival Mr. Silver’s, has a group of regular kids who sell for him and keeps a wad of cash and a mishmash of pills, acid, shrooms in a gallon ziplock bag at the bottom of his backpack alongside The Goldfinch.
His name was Jack and he was 16, detoxing from meth and heroin and he attached himself to Boris’s side like a sick kitten, sharing his sleeping bag every night and giving Jack any bottle of water or dollar store snack he could find. Did all he could do short of just taking him to a rehab center, an emergency room. And the kid still fucking died. Boris woke up next to him one morning and Jack was cold as stone, still soft, choked on his own vomit. Boris relapsed that afternoon, shot so much heroin into the veins between his toes that he thought (he hoped) he would die, too. But he didn’t. Of course he didn’t.
There are huge gaps between seventeen and twenty-five he can’t remember, entire weeks wasted away in Lithuania, in Michigan, in posh apartments in Greece and Vienna and shitty cafes in Mumbai and Vietnam. Business arrangements he doesn’t fully understand and doesn’t remember agreeing to, men who obey his every word without hesitation. Suitcases of cash and guns and a new kind of panic that lives permanently at the back of his mouth. People who ask what is it you do, Mr. Pavlikovsky with a smile or malice or hesitation. Strippers making small talk or rivals trying to be polite in public spaces. And he couldn’t even tell them. What don’t I do. Little of this, little of that . Started dealing drugs and being Mr. Silver’s bulldog but somewhere along the way it turned into a game, staying on top while also not getting caught. His whole life a never-ending game of cat and mouse. He is still not sure which one he is.
Theo OD’s with Platt, god, fucking idiot, hasn’t accidentally overdosed since Vegas, wakes up in a violent jolt wondering where Boris is, where the painting is. Why anyone bothered to bring him back. Platt crouched over him with a little bottle of Narcan spray still locked in his fist. “Christ, Theo! You scared the shit out of me!” And Jerome somewhere behind him, half-laughing, “no more oxys for you, Decker.”
Theo blinks hard before turning and retching over the side of the couch.
This was a significant adjustment. The shitty, DIY highs they chased in the desert were usually thanks to whatever shit Boris could wheedle out of people for cheap or for free: expired edibles traded for handles of watered down vodka, crushed MDMA that was cut with aspirin, empty cans of rubber cement stolen from the woodshop at school. Theo continued these methods through college, schmoozing his way into frat parties, using the always-reliable “no, I’ve never smoked!” line to scam eager and over-friendly potheads out of a free joint. It wasn’t until Jerome and Platt that Theo’s highs really kicked him in the fucking teeth, showed him the real difference between a $5 gram of skunk weed rolled in whatever paper they could find and a $350 gram of J1 packed into a vaporizer that Bluetooth connects to Platt’s phone. The difference between cuts of his dad’s Vicodins snorted with a bendy straw and Jerome’s oxys. The first time Theo chases an oxy pill with a shot of vodka at Platt’s, muscle memory, mouth already watering in preparation for the burn, he can practically hear Boris warning, Pace yourself, Potter before his eyes fuzz over.
“Boris Pavlikovsky,” Kitsey reads slowly, phonetically, before looking up at Theo with big innocent eyes. “Is this someone? From college?” She’s so good at faking it, that eager curiosity at the possibility that maybe Theo has made a new friend or something. Sat at the kitchen table surrounded by her invitations and envelopes and meticulously-crafted mailing lists. Theo wanted dark green invitations. Kitsey went with maroon and pink instead.
“He was the one who crashed our engagement party. When I left,” Theo answers flatly. He knows she knows this. He’s usually knows which battles Kitsey is going to pick to fight, so he also knows this is one she won’t take. Their guest list is rounding out at 250, and only 5 of them are Theo’s (Hobie, Pippa, Everett because “Theo, to not invite him would be rude,” whatever, Mrs. DeFrees, though she was more Hobie’s guest than Theo’s, and now Boris ). He doesn’t actually expect Boris to come, anyway, the only address Theo has for him is his wife’s place (wife, Jesus) in Antwerp. But anyway. Theo wanted green invitations and Kitsey didn’t want to invite Theo’s “crime kingpin” friend. Marriage is about compromise, right. Kitsey stuffs an invitation into an envelope and slides it across the table for Theo to address himself.
The wedding is beautiful and lovely and Theo doesn’t remember a single moment of it. He’s drunk by 9:30 that morning and it just gets worse. Prides himself on not vomiting at the altar and that’s about all he remembers.
Boris does a double-take, eyes so wild and dark that he’s almost unrecognizable, Theo thinking for a moment he made a mistake, calling out to a stranger. And then Boris blinks a few times, jostles the man he’s standing next to on the shoulder and mutters something before he puts on a full grin and jogs over to Theo. “Potter!” he grabs Theo’s face and smacks a sloppy kiss on his cheek before slapping it lightly. Same ratty black peacoat, same charisma in the face of confusion and tension. “Tiny world, eh? What are you doing here?”
“I’m--I’m here on our honeymoon. Boris--?” because Boris keeps glancing over his shoulder at the group he just left but he’s nodding enthusiastically.
“Honeymoon? Lovely wedding I’m sure, Potter, sorry to have missed it! Italy is wonderful this time of year. I highly suggest Napa Valley.”
“Napa is in California,” Theo half-smiles but something about Boris’s jitteriness is making him uneasy, same intense focus on Theo to distract him from asking too many questions about what Boris is up to. Forty-thousand, my money. “Is this a bad time?”
“Yes, yes!” Boris insists as he’s steering Theo around, gripping his shoulder. “Would love to get lunch with you and the missus! Know a lovely place not far from here but I will have to check my schedule! But now is a bad time, very bad time. So bad, in fact, I suggest you leave, Potter--”
“Boris, is everything oka--”
“Yes! Yes, of course,” he’s frogmarching Theo straight out of the plaza at this point, the arm not clamped on Theo’s shoulder is buried in the inner fabric of his coat. Pavlikovsky! Shouted from behind them.
“Boris!” Theo yelps as Boris practically shoves him onto the staircase.
“Call me, Potter! Same number I promise! We will get a coffee!”
It’s that night when Theo’s alone in their hotel suite, Kitsey off seeing some stupid sorority sister, when the news chatters about whatever it was that Boris was doing in the plaza. It ended with one man shot and one missing, from what Theo can gather, security footage showing Boris’s slouchy figure exiting the frame in a hurry and returning a minute later. (Was that when Theo saw him? Boris ushering him away from the scene?) Theo fishes his phone out of his pocket, not taking his eyes off the screen.
You’re on the news.
The response is almost immediate, which is a surprise: do i look very handsome?
So how can you be so sure it is me Potter? ;)
Theo clicks his thumbnail against the side of his phone. Would know you at the end of the fucking world, you idiot, would know you through the dust of the Met gallery, would know you if I had my eyes gouged out and ears ripped off. He taps back, how many other Ukrainian vampires loitered in the plaza today?
His phone freezes for a second and then it’s ringing. “Fair point!” Boris laughs on the other end as soon as Theo picks up. “How are you enjoying Italy!”
He sounds like he’s in a car because he’s shouting. By a body of water, maybe. “It’s good, yeah,” Theo says after fish-mouthing a few times at the sudden call. There’s a long pause, whatever dull roar on the other side of the line making Theo’s head feel staticy. “Why didn’t you come to the wedding?” he blurts before he can stop himself.
Boris sighs and then the noise is cut off by an abrupt slam, closing a car door or something. “Are you alright, Potter?” because they both know it’s not the wedding that Theo is upset about.
Theo bites a hangnail on his thumb. “Remember how I promised I’d never come back to Europe in a million fucking years?”
Boris’s laugh is so loud Theo has to hold the phone away from his ear. “How can I forget! You swearing off European airlines so loudly in airport I thought we were going to be arrested!” A pause. “I was serious about coffee, Potter. Are you busy? Can I treat you?”
Theo’s phone beeps and it’s Kitsey, her ears must be burning, somehow always knows when Theo’s about to get into trouble, “hang on, Boris,” before he clicks over. “Yeah.”
“Darling,” Kitsey exhales, “would you mind if I changed our itinerary? Kristen is just dying to show me her new flat in Florence, and well.” Theo closes his eyes. He knows his blushing bride well enough to know all the unsaid things being said here. That she’s not really asking. That the well means you and I are not really enjoying each other’s company, anyway .
“So you’re asking to leave me to go to Florence,” Theo replies. Kitsey squeaks an “uh-huh,” and it occurs to Theo that she’s likely drunk, ranting to Kristen about her druggie husband, mommy issues, whatever. “Yeah, sure. I’m going to go see Boris.”
There’s silence for so long on the other line that he thinks for a moment the call dropped and then Kitsey again, chirpy and clipped, “Okay, great!” (she does not think it is great), “You can check us out of Rome, then? I can meet you, where were we going next? Back to London?”
“Great,” Theo chirps half-sarcastically back before clicking over to Boris’s call, who has been humming Hollaback Girl to himself in the meantime. “Boris?”
“I’m not busy.”
“Potter! Wonderful. Because actually, ah, something has come up. I will still treat you to dinner, of course. But. Probably too far from Rome for you and the missus.”
“No, that’s okay.” Theo pauses, debating whether to include the next bit. “Kitsey won’t be joining us. So I can meet you anywhere.”
Boris hums and then says brightly, “Okay, yes! Anywhere. Anywhere. So if, say, I email you a ticket to Vienna…”
Theo exhales a low whistle when he steps into Boris’s flat, three times the size of Theo’s place in New York and definitely three times as expensive. Huge open windows that overlook one of Vienna’s busiest array of streets and fully furnished with beautiful mahogany pieces, offset by mirror trays of cocaine and empty beer bottles scattered around the whole living room. A picture of Popchyk wearing Xandra’s sunglasses in an ornate table-top frame set on one of the TV stand’s shelves. ”Being criminal has its perks, no?” Boris grins when Theo finally turns to look at him.
Same as he always looks, dark eyes and hair that needs to be washed. His curls almost reach his shoulders, now, and Theo watches in amused silence as Boris pulls half of it out of his face and twists it into a tiny bun at the back of his head. A tiny gold hoop through one of his ears that Theo imagines happened in a setting that was neither hygienic nor professional. He heads to the kitchen area and starts rummaging through cabinets. Theo stands in the living room feeling caught somewhere between the museum-like pristineness of the Barbours home and the organized chaos of Hobie’s workshop and the barren wasteland of his Vegas house. “Crime bosses can’t afford haircuts?” Theo pipes up, digging a fingernail into one of the chest on chest’s drawers. Georgian mahogany, but in desperate need of a polish. Theo decides that Boris’s interior decoration happened one of two ways: either bought all of the furniture from legitimate and expensive antique dealers and then abused the shit out of these pieces, absolutely no upkeep whatsoever, or bought them all from thrift shops or picked up from curbs, people who don’t know they’re throwing out an antique desk or dresser. He’s considering pulling out the drawers of the nearest desk to examine it closer when Boris turns back around, holding two wine glasses in one hand and a bottle of rosé in the other.
“Ha! Haircuts,” Boris rolls his eyes and drops onto the sofa. It’s a Sheraton, or at least looks like it. The fact that Boris props his boots up on the end cushion of it makes Theo wince. Again, it’s either a fake or Boris doesn’t give a shit. Theo doesn’t know which is worse. “Bigger fish to fry here, Potter.” Theo sits--yeah, it’s definitely a fake Sheraton-- and Boris scooches over, clasping a palm on Theo’s knee. “So tell me. How is the wife.”
Theo squints at him. “I’m sitting in your apartment in Vienna on my honeymoon, Boris. Take a guess.”
Boris hums around his wine glass. “And where is she now?”
“Florence,” Theo sneers, hooking his chin onto the rim of his own glass, “with Kristen.”
Boris snorts. “Was in Florence last month. Very big meth problem in that city. Business is booming.” He tips his head back against the couch and looks over. Grins wide. “It is good to see you, Potter.” Theo finds himself smiling, ducking his face down to dig his cigarettes and lighter out of his coat pocket. He fishes one out of the carton and offers Boris the box. When he takes one and places it between his lips, Boris adds, “never thought I’d see you again.” Theo hands Boris his lighter and Boris’s eyes flick up to his, eyes darker and more shadowed than Theo remembers. Tired and burned out. His gut clenches with the realization that he never thought he’d see Boris again, either. One last forehead touch when he dropped Theo at Antwerp airport, Boris’s hands clasped tight on Theo’s shoulders, take care, Theo.
Theo rolls his head over on the couch to look back at Boris and they stay like that for a long time, Boris’s cigarette hanging off his bottom lip and Theo exhaling slowly through his nostrils.
“You ever come to New York anymore?” Theo finally asks. Doesn’t know why he’s asking.
Boris shrugs. “Not lately.” A pause. “Why? You miss me?”
He says it as a joke but it feels like Theo’s been caught red-handed. Not that Boris could possibly know that the bar they first saw each other at is now a regular spot for Theo, that he spent an evening wandering around the Russian pockets of the Bronx after delivering a Chippendale to one of the giant homes in Riverdale. That Theo stops in every eastern European deli he passes by for cigarettes, eavesdrops on passing conversations in Russian or Polish because he misses the inflections, the throaty laughter. “If you’re ever in the city, I mean,” Theo says around an awkward cough. “It’d be great to see you.”
Boris smirks. “You are seeing me now, Potter.”
Theo exhales and rolls his eyes. “Yeah. Guess I am.”
A month later Theo’s phone dings while he’s sitting upstairs at Hobart & Blackwell, waiting for a delivery. It’s from Boris, a blurry selfie. Cigarette hanging out of his mouth and brow furrowed, phone raised over his head to also get the Rockefeller Center ice rink in the background. And then, a few seconds later, a text: city so nice they name it twice! Followed by a series of emojis that make less sense as they continue, first the city skyline then two beers, a taxi, a duck, a bed, two UFO saucers, blue spiral, chess piece, floppy disk. Theo waits for about a minute before Boris dings through again: get a drink with me
Completely fucking blitzed in Central Park, laying on a merry-go-round that’s covered in frost. Same playground equipment but a different city, a different universe, a different life. There was never frost in Vegas. Boris’s hand on Theo’s forearm snaps him out of it, lolling his head to the side to look at him. Boris exhales and Theo watches a puff of steam leave his mouth, or maybe it’s smoke. Too cold, too fucked up to tell. “Potter,” Boris rasps. “Do you ever wonder about New York? If I had followed you?”
“Yes,” Theo breathes without hesitation, hoping that it’s dark enough that Boris can’t see his face bloom pink.
Boris hums and lifts his joint to his mouth, takes a long drag. “Would not have liked it here too much, I think.”
Theo can’t help but bristle. As if anyone has a say in what effect the city will have on them. As if Boris has any one single city that is sitting in his chest, rotting away inside his ribcage. He would be so lucky to have it be New York. Theo wonders if they’ll find plaster from the Met still in his lungs when he dies. “Why not?”
Boris waves a vague hand. “Too much trouble that is too easy to get into. At least in desert, in Alaska, in Texas, you have to find ways to be criminal, yes? New York, you take one wrong step down wrong block and suddenly you are part of pyramid scheme.” Boris raises his eyebrows and grins. “Or selling phony antiques.”
“Fuck you,” Theo replies with as much sincerity as he can manage, but a distant siren takes the bite out of his words. He gestures for Boris to pass over the joint, which he does. Long, spidery pale fingers glinting with silver rings that fit better in January in New York than they ever did in Vegas. Not that fitting in ever mattered to Boris, anyway. Same fingers around the champagne flute at Kitsey’s engagement party, same shaggy black coat and black ‘fuck me’ pumps. Jesus, for all the detail Kitsey put into that party, you’d think she would have hired better doormen.
Kitsey hates Boris but is too proper to ever say so. Theo gets a kind of sick enjoyment out of it everytime Boris shows up unannounced, Kitsey’s mouth pressing into a thin line for a moment before it gets tugged into a smile like a marionette pulling strings. “Boris,” she says with a smile and no warmth. A glance at Theo that only he knows is a look of annoyance. “We weren’t expecting you.”
Boris is either oblivious to Kitsey’s iciness or doesn’t care, always gives her his most charming smile and flops onto the nearest couch, loveseat, countertop, bed. “Best things in life are surprises, ukochana , no?”
“I’d beg to differ,” Kitsey mutters under her breath as she brushes past Theo with her glass of wine. Will shut herself into their bedroom until Boris is gone. Which is fine by Theo. “We’re going to dinner,” Theo shouts after her, to which he gets a door shutting as a reply. Boris’s eyebrows are raised when Theo turns back. “She does not want to come?” he asks. Theo snorts in reply. “Shots and pub food really isn’t her scene, no.”
Theo still thinks about killing himself, sometimes. Not in the same sharp, intense, all-consuming ways he did as a teenager, in Amsterdam; Boris dragging him out of the road, Boris dragging him out of the pool, Boris dragging him out of the hotel room. It’s a secret he keeps to himself, now, like a comforting reminder at the back of his mind at the smallest inconvenience, if this doesn’t work out, you can always kill yourself. Except now he’s trying to get better at killing himself in a way that won’t involve other people; trying to construct his suicide as a bomb that collapses in on itself rather than spraying shrapnel outwards.
There are easier ways to do it, too, ways that Kitsey won’t notice but Boris will and still not say anything. Eating once a day. Eating once every two days, every three days. Vodka and Adderall on an empty stomach. No seatbelts in taxis, not looking when crossing the street. Cutting through alleys known only to pickpockets and muggers. Sucking down so many cigarettes the smell is permanently buried in his skin. Vegas was just him learning these methods, toeing the line, how far he could go before he passed out and then how far he could go and still wake up the next morning. You are a black out drunk, Potter .
He’s not sure where Boris fits into this mentality. Because the times he’s come closest to dying are also the times when Boris is, in some way, involved. He finds himself in one of these moments now, waking up on an unfamiliar couch with a headache that feels like there’s shards of metal behind his eyeballs. “Fuck.”
“Potter!” Boris chirps from somewhere overhead and when Theo turns over Boris is standing at a counter of a small kitchenette. They’re in someone’s apartment. “Glad you are alive. Thought you were going to start foaming at the mouth last night! Have never seen you drink so much! And taking ketamine, Jesus!”
Theo presses the heels of his hands into his eyesockets. “You let me take ketamine?”
“You insisted!” Boris snaps back, rounding the corner with two styrofoam cups of coffee. “Blabbering about how your Amsterdam pills weren’t enough, I asked you Potter, have you ever been in a k-hole and you told me no, but I did not believe you! All your moping and sadness, you must be on ketamine, and you told me you had never tried it! I tried to drop the subject and you would not let it go. Asked if I had any and you know I am awful liar.” He raises his palms when Theo continues to glower at him. “Not my fault! I did not let you take too much, I promise.”
“Boris,” Theo groans, sitting up and burying his head in his hands until the room stops spinning. “You’re gonna be the death of me.”
Boris’s laugh rings out too loud. “Do not think you will need any assistance there, Potter.”
And instead of being offended Theo laughs, despite the pounding headache, despite the wooly mouth, he laughs so hard that Boris starts laughing too, cackling, doubled over as Theo tips backwards against the couch. They laugh until they’re both out of breath, chests aching from it. It feels like Boris never left.
Kitsey sucking his dick, one of her dainty hands splayed across his thigh, pale pink fingernails. Careful and disconnected like every goddamn thing she does. Theo reaches down, covers her hand with his own and moves it so he can see the small, dotty tattoo on his leg she had been covering. Thinks about Boris’s spindly fingers clamped around Theo’s thigh and him laughing, Hold still, Potter, Jesus! and he squeezes Kitsey’s hand before he comes, shuttering with a sigh. Not a lot of enthusiasm on either of their parts. Kitsey stands and pecks Theo on the mouth before retreating to the bathroom and Theo tips his head back against the headboard, scratching his fingernails lightly over the ink on his leg.
He and Boris coming down from a glue high and a shitty round of poker (betting piles of M&Ms, Boris green and Theo yellow) and Boris fixated on his new would-be profession (of the week, at least), tattoo artist, “let me practice on you, Potter.” And who was Theo to say no. Boris pulls up his pantleg to show off a smattering of stick and poke tattoos on his lower leg, a rocketship, a smiley face, an unfinished circle of barbed wire around the sharp knob of bone at his ankle. Boris gathers supplies that Theo didn’t even know they had in the house, rubbing alcohol and sewing needles and thread and a pencil alongside a bottle of ink that Boris pulls from his backpack. “So? What would you like?” he asks, crouched next to couch, attaching the needle to the eraser-end of the pencil with the same care and caution he shows when he’s cutting lines with a razor. “Uh,” Theo stutters. Boris waves the needle-pencil at him. “Take off your pants! Leg is easiest spot for both of us.”
Theo smokes Xandra’s cigarettes while Boris does it, head tipped so close to Theo’s thigh that every involuntary twitch bounces his leg upwards to bump Boris’s nose. “Potter!” he scolds, one accidental black dot an inch away from the rest of the tattoo. Theo giggles through the last few minutes of it, “Boris it looks like--looks like a potato--”
“Fuck you, Potter! It is art!”
“Art, yeah, okay.”
He gave Theo a spade symbol in the center of his right thigh, no bigger than Theo’s thumbnail, completely freehanded. Boris had promised that it would fade eventually, this is shit ink, Potter, just for practice! Nothing permanent! But of course it’s still here ten years later, still as dark and prominent as the week Boris did it.
Theo has a habit of digging things up that deserve to be left buried. Keeps trying to breathe life into things already long-dead. Staying in Welty’s room, giving Kitsey his mother’s earrings. Asking Pippa to come home.
And Theo never asks for anything, of course he doesn’t. The only thing he’s ever really asked of Boris. Come with me .
Theo’s hand bumping into his. Boris knowing he will never take it.
But Theo, at least, has Hobie. Has Pippa and Mrs. Barbour and that goddamn fucking bird. Has had enough experiences filled with love and good intention to know how to express it, even if it is not entirely genuine. How he kisses Kitsey, wishes her a good day at work.
Theo is the only person Boris has ever loved or been loved by. Which is unlucky for both of them, because Theo is a brick wall and Boris is a prick. So the only way Boris knows how to love is by force, by insistence and annoyance until Theo finally caves, one more pill with me, Potter, one more shot, scooch over in bed, let me in, your feet are fucking freezing. Every night in Vegas: Theo still sitting up in bed reading, Boris all sharp elbows and knees jockeying for some space, curling up under Theo’s ratty comforter like a cat and digging the tip of his nose into Theo’s hip. Theo hums but doesn’t push him away so Boris presses even closer, draping an arm across Theo’s thighs. Takes all that he can get.
The divorce was inevitable, and Theo knows that they both knew it. Because if Theo’s being honest, with himself and with Kitsey, the only thing really keeping him bonded to the Barbours was Mrs. Barbour. Seeing Kitsey crying was really the last straw, all dainty and angelic in her fucking black silk Dulce & Gabbana blouse and skirt. Can’t help but think about how his mother didn’t even have a funeral and here he is, putting on a face for the dozens of people who showed up at the graveyard for Mrs. Barbour. Theo’s fairly certain most of these people are vultures, never having met Mrs. Barbour but hoping to swoop into the estate sale or cozy up to Kitsey and Toddy and Platt’s newly acquired inheritances. Theo feels sick to his stomach. He turns to Kitsey halfway through Platt’s eulogy and whispers, “I want a divorce.”
Theo knows that Boris is humoring him, to some extent, the same way Theo nursed Boris’s broken heart after Kotku and him broke up. Took him out to forget his girl troubles. “Let me buy you dinner,” Theo offers once day. They’re both hungover and it’s the only time Theo allowed Boris to stay over. Hobie down in D.C. for the weekend for some historic preservation conference, far enough that Theo felt okay letting Boris crash on the living room sofa as long as he agreed to take his boots off. Boris is hunched over a mug of black coffee when Theo offers and he hums, considering. “You buying?”
Theo rolls his eyes and nods. “But I get to pick the place.”
Boris makes a sucking sound with his teeth but Theo knows he’s just being dramatic, Boris never one to turn down a free meal.
Theo suggests Bâtard in lower Manhattan, a compromise for the european dishes that Boris likes and the wine list that Theo likes. “Is it, you know,” Boris makes a vague shrugging gesture, “dressy?” to which Theo nods.
There’s a part of Theo that’s expecting Boris to show up blitzed and sloppy, anyway. So he’s secretly and pleasantly surprised when Boris ducks into the waiting area of Bâtard, shaking off his umbrella and he smiles brightly when he sees Theo. Freshly shaved, curls somewhat managed and in his best peacoat and collared shirt. Still all black, still deep circles and reeking of cigarette smoke but otherwise. Sober and showered. “I’m impressed,” Theo says and Boris reaches out, grabs Theo’s hand in a warm shake.
“Like I have told you many times, Potter,” he raises both his hands, palms outward, “can quit whenever I want. Just like that.”
Theo can count on one hand the number of times he and Boris have spent time together when both of them were completely sober. It’s a little disorienting, at first, Boris ordering a glass of one of the wines in almost perfect French and Theo bumbling his way through his own order, not even putting in the effort to sound at all French. He catches Boris’s eye halfway through ordering and Boris has that same shit-eating grin on, high or not, that always makes Theo laugh in response, mid-order.
“You shithead,” Theo hisses as soon as their waiter leaves but they’re both smiling. Boris leans back in his chair, hooking his hands behind his head.
“You should travel more, Potter, come with me. Spend three days in Paris and you will be expert at French! Plus, Versailles. Louvre, thought of you when I was at both places. Furniture halls were very fucking boring, but you would enjoy them, I think.” Boris chugs half his glass of water and leaves forward, then, elbows on the table and ringed fingers poised under his chin. Theo forgot how fucking ADHD Boris is sober and he laughs, “Hey, you remember when we took Adderall for fun and you realized it actually helped you?”
Boris does his barking laugh, ignoring the alarmed looks he gets from the surrounding tables. “Fuck! Probably is the only drug I should be taking regularly that I am not, eh?”
Somewhere along the way, Boris learned table manners. It’s completely disarming to watch, when their food arrives, Boris holding his fork and knife precisely and gently, napkin spread across his knees. Theo can hardly believe it’s the same kid who would eat food off the floor with his hands. Boris glances up at him at once point, steak halfway to his mouth. “What?”
“Nothing,” Theo laughs, face red. “Just. You’re so…” he snorts. “Proper.”
“You don’t get to be where I am in life without learning proper etiquette, Potter,” Boris quips, waving his fork at Theo. “You would be surprised! Lots of Russian mob bosses who would shoot you on the spot if you used wrong knife at their dinner parties!”
“What!” and Theo’s laughing now, Boris still hasn’t lost his story telling touch, “No kidding! Saw man get his thumb broken because he was using incorrect plate for his pasta dish. Had to ask Gyuri to teach me all he knew about dinnerware just to cover my own ass for next time.”
It morphs into a tirade about dishware, Theo going off on a rant about bone china versus porcelain so impassioned that he can’t believe they’ve only had two glasses of wine each. He stops himself, at one point, can feel his professionalism slipping into pure rambling, the way he does when he and Hobie split a bottle of scotch and rag on a particularly bad restoration acquired by Hobie. “Sorry,” he stutters at one point, looking up from where he’s been dragging his fork through the sauce on his plate but Boris is leaned back in his chair, hugging his wine glass to his chest and watching Theo with a sleepy-eyed smile. Washed in the warm yellow light of the dim restaurant and their candle centerpiece, looking like a renaissance painting. “No, Potter, keep going,” Boris waves his glass gently. “Gyuri did not teach me this.”
“No, no. I’ve bored many dinner guests with this stuff,” Theo admits, shaking his head and pressing his napkin to his mouth. “Hobie has to elbow me under the table when I get too worked up about Rococo.”
Boris raises his eyebrows like he’s waiting for something and Theo mimics his expression. “What?”
“Well? What is Rococo?”
“Boris, Jesus,” Theo shakes his head and laughs, warmth spreading through his chest. “Sorry. Kitsey never really. Listened when I talked about antiques.”
They split a plate of chocolate lava cake, Boris humming with pleasure after every bite. “Do you remember when you ate yourself sick on Halloween candy?” Theo asks. His mind casting about all night for stories he doesn’t know if he remembered or made up, reaching for Boris’s validation that they really happened.
“What can I say, Potter, you Americans have the best candy. And I have a sweet tooth. Chocolate here is not as good as Europe but the convenience! Colorful wrappers! Sugar rush, unmatched. What was that one I pulled cavity out on? Galaxy Way?”
“Milky,” Theo corrects and Boris shakes his head.
“No, no. Was not milk. Caramel, very chewy.”
“Milky Way, Boris. That’s what you pulled your filling out on. Remember? You chased it with two shots and then puked, like, ten minutes later?”
Boris crumples into himself laughing, teeth clicking on his own spoon.
Theo ducking close to light his cigarette off of Boris’s match, hands cupped around each other against the cold wind. Boris’s collar puffed up around his neck looking like a proper Dracula. Curls falling over his eyes as he lights his own cigarette. “Potter, thank you for dinner. Was lovely. But you know we were never wine drinkers.” he grins. “Let us get a beer.”
Theo tries not to bristle at the suggestion, using a hit from his cigarette to buy a few seconds of consideration. Because last time this happened, and the time before that and the time before that, to the beginning of time, when something is Boris’s suggestion, it almost always ends in tragedy. I can sneak us into rave, Potter at fifteen and getting chased out by a bouncer, we should try shrooms that ended with Theo chipping a tooth, somehow, and then on the later end, you should come work for me and Amsterdam. But we must go. Now.
“One beer,” Theo allows finally, staring hard at Boris who wags his eyebrows, breaks into a grin and looks like Popchyk being promised a w-a-l-k.
They end up at one of Boris’s Polish dives and it’s stupid how they’re both immediately more at ease. Boris waves two fingers towards the bar as he reaches for a pair of billiard cues, tossing one to Theo. Two bottles of beer appear on the pool table a minute later with the bartender slinking away after a vague gesture from Boris. “Will have to remember that place, though,” Boris says, bending over the edge of the table. He breaks the rack in a swift movement, the dull crack of acrylic reverberating through the bar. “Bâtard. For future business arrangements. I have some associates who would like that place. And also be required to be on their best behavior! No guns on table, scary henchmen at entrance, shit like that. Your turn.”
Boris only sees the tail-end of Theo’s shot, white cue ball sending four striped balls rolling into the corner pockets but he throws his hands up joyously. “Potter! You pool shark! You fucking holding out on me!” and he pounces, just like they’re fifteen again, jostling Theo in a half-hug half-hair ruffling. It’s the first time Theo has genuinely laughed in a month.
“How I got anything good through college,” he explains once Boris has untangled himself from Theo. “Lots of trick shots at frat houses, you know. ‘Bet you a bag of weed I can get red in the corner pocket’ and shit.”
“Potter!” Boris bursts again and his eyes are bright with surprise and pride and mischief, like the first time Theo tucked a steak into his jacket pocket and walked out of the grocery store. “Who needs international drug trafficking when your best friend is pool champion! I quit my job right now and we go back to Vegas!”
“Fuck off, Boris,” Theo says lightheartedly and Boris just keeps grinning, pushing his sleeves up so he can light a cigarette. He’s got more tattoos, now, crawling down just past his elbow, cover-ups of all the shitty basement ones he got as a teenager. The rose and cyrillic text that Theo remembers from Amsterdam but more now, a rocketship, a hand-poked LA , a shitty wolf, a skull and crossbones like a pirate flag. The name Jack . Track marks scabbed over in the crook of his arm. Theo’s not expecting to see it but it’s still there: the tiny feather tattoo that Theo poked into Boris’s paper-thin wrist a decade ago, really just a series of uneven lines at this point, more faded than Theo’s spade tattoo but still undeniably There. Boris catches Theo looking. “What?” he asks, turning his wrist and looking down at the feather. He puts it together rather quickly, cheshire cat smile of catching Theo red-handed. “Of course I kept this one, Potter! One of my fondest memories, watching you white as a sheet when I started bleeding! What did you think happens when you poke yourself with needle over and over!” he rubs his opposite thumb over the ink absent-mindedly. “Do you still have yours?”
Theo looks away, face red and he crouches back over the pool table and takes a shot that breaks up a gathering of balls at the other end of the table. His lack of an answer is enough for Boris, who laughs and runs a palm along Theo’s scalp, mussing up his hair before saying, “yeah, I thought so.”
Boris is having tea with Hobie when Theo comes down one morning. It’s one of the rare times they seem to be genuinely enjoying each other’s company, Boris telling some story that’s making Hobie do his deep-belly laugh and Theo slides into his seat at the kitchen table. “I swear!” Boris is laughing, waving his hands and Hobie dabs at his eyes with his handkerchief. “Carried it for months before realizing it was not my lucky rabbit’s foot, but one of Popchyk’s toys!” They’re so absorbed in each other that neither seem to notice Theo is there until Boris slides his plate across the table, half an orange and one of Hobie’s scones untouched next to Boris’s own scraps. “Good morning, Potter!”
Warm, golden summer light filtering through Hobie’s curtains, Boris barefoot in a pair of Theo’s pajama pants and a worn Spice Girls shirt with a cigarette hole in the shoulder that might have been Kitsey’s, stuffed in the very back of Theo’s underwear drawer. Hobie’s turn for a story, his slow rumbly voice welcome this early in the morning, the time Welty wanted to try his hand at taxidermy. Boris grinning around his mug, kicking his feet up into Theo’s lap under the table. Theo misses his mother, in that moment, the quick sharp bite of it like a bee sting, unexpected after a decade and a half. How much she’d enjoy this morning, this conversation. Theo reaches down, touches the jutting bone of Boris’s ankle and the sting of his mother subsides just as quickly as it came on. Wonders for a moment if his mother would be happy for him. He thinks yes.
In Boris’s hotel room, squished onto one bed together like when they were younger, even though there’s a whole second double bed on the other side of the room. TCM is on, some unknown black and white sci-fi movie that they muted so Boris could provide the dialogue he thinks is happening instead. Theo sitting up with his back against the headboard and Boris’s head on his chest. Boris’s bare, ghost-white ankle hooked over Theo’s Oxfords. Summer in New York means the only changes to Boris’s wardrobe are the loss of his giant peacoat and he cuffs his black jeans up a few inches. “You ever think about moving here?” Theo asks and Boris tips his head up to look at him.
“Actually have had Gyuri looking for apartments,” Boris replies with a shrug, the movement digging his shoulder into the side of Theo’s ribs. “Not for full-time living but. Somewhere better to sleep than another fucking New Jersey Holiday Inn, yes?”
Theo hums and goes quiet again, chewing this new information over in his head. Boris lights a cigarette and offers it up to Theo as he snuggles in closer, fitting himself with ease into Theo’s side. Six foot something and can still fold himself up like a cat into whatever space he wants, wedged warm and close against Theo’s ribcage. “I am sorry about Kitsey,” Boris says after a few minutes of silence.
Theo frowns, tipping his chin down to touch the top of Boris’s head. “Why are you apologizing?”
Boris makes a non committal noise, gesturing for Theo to pass back the cigarette. “Seems you cannot catch a break. Pippa and that horrible Englishman. Kitsey and Tom fucking Cable.” Boris’s eyes tip upwards to him. “I have always been rooting for your happiness, Potter.” A pause, that age-old shit-eating grin. “Not that I thought you’d find it with Kitsey Barbour, ha! But maybe. I always did have a hard time guessing at what you wanted out of people.”
Theo rolls his eyes and when he looks back down, Boris is staring at his mouth. “It’s alright,” Theo replies with a shrug, casting his eyes towards the ceiling and taking a deep breath. Feels in over his head, like he’s sitting at the bottom of the pool, like he’s on the bathroom floor in Amsterdam. Theo is acutely aware of the fact that nothing about this is new for them: every evening of sophomore year spent crammed onto one of their twin mattresses, Boris tucked into his side, still-damp swim trunks and greasy hair and bruises on their shins. But still. Theo’s heart feels like it’s going to crawl right out of his goddamn mouth. Boris shifts upwards, the tip of his nose pressed into the hollow of Theo’s throat. His pulse that’s pounding there. Boris’s laugh is breathy and hot against Theo’s neck when he asks, “Christ, Potter. What are you so nervous for?” His mouth against Theo’s collar. “Is only me.”
“I think I’m just drunk,” Theo whispers, if he speaks any louder it feels like the moment will break. Boris hums doubtfully against his neck. “You drunk, Potter?”
Theo pauses. “Not enough,” he finally replies and they let the unasked follow-up questions hang in the air: not enough to brush this off with a drunk excuse tomorrow? Not enough to regret it?
Boris pulls back, squinting at Theo with half a smirk on his face like he’s testing him. Giving him the chance to back out but they both know Theo’s going to have to ask him to stop. Theo just inhales instead and Boris tips his face closer, eyes not leaving Theo’s. When he doesn’t pull back, Boris kisses him. It’s just a peck, friendly as any kiss he’s ever given Kitsey or Pippa, but Theo’s whole body immediately warms and his shoulders loosen, a little bit. Boris grins against his mouth and then fully commits to it, shifting a knee between Theo’s thighs and kissing him fully. “Boris,” Theo sighs with a stutter and he’s met with a soft laugh, Boris’s hand trailing down to cup Theo through his jeans and he’s hard almost immediately. Goddamn sixteen years old again but without the vodka as an excuse. “Boris,” Theo says again and Boris pauses, pulls back so their foreheads are touching. Theo doesn’t know what he wants. “What are you doing.”
“Whatever you want, Potter,” Boris exhales, smells like cigarettes and beer, “I will do whatever you want.”
Theo fishmouths a few times before he closes the space between them, kissing Boris for real. Like he means it. It’s worth it for feeling Boris smile against Theo’s mouth. “Take this off,” Theo gasps, tucking a hand into the collar of Boris’s shirt, fingers skipping over his collarbone, the knot of scar tissue high on his chest from his father’s cigar. The night it happened Boris smelling like ash and seared flesh and tears, gritted teeth when Theo insisted he rinse and clean it over the bathroom sink. Boris shrugs off his shirt easily, snake shedding his skin. A tremor of surprise drips down Theo’s spine. Wasn’t sure what he was expecting but seeing Boris’s old wounds rattles him; the cigar scar, purple-pink track marks at his elbow, mottled scar on his bicep from Amsterdam. A scattering of unfamiliar scars and burns and one fresh bruise that looks like a hickey on his hipbone, things acquired when Theo wasn’t there. But the canvas of it all the same pale, thin skin as the boy he was ten years ago, dents between his ribcage looking like carved marble. Theo used to spread his palm across the expanse, fingers slotting between each rib and moving with Boris’s breaths. He does this now, with a hand he tells himself isn’t trembling, and Boris inhales sharply in surprise, half-laughter vibrating his torso, “Jesus, Potter, your hands are cold.” And then, in the next breath, “let me get you off.”
Theo pauses, head still tipped against Boris’s forehead. He closes his eyes when he nods in response and it’s the most vivid and straightforward agreement he can remember. Lifting his hips as Boris undoes the button and zipper on Theo’s pants, pushing them down in one movement. It’s all sharper and hotter than Theo remembers as a teenager, not sure if it’s because they’re both mostly-sober or because it’s happening now now now , slow and deliberate as Boris pulls Theo’s dick out of his boxers with one hand before spitting on his palm. Getting each other off at sixteen was all harsh and too-fast, unspoken rules like it’s not gay if it takes only a minute, it’s not gay if we don’t kiss, don’t look at each other. If we kiss it has to be all hard mashing mouths and teeth. It takes Theo a second that feels like a year to orient himself now, remind him that this is the same Boris. How could it not be. Same marble skin, calloused hands, black leather bracelets. Boris palms at Theo’s dick, swipes his thumb over the head before he starts to properly jerk him off, surging forward to kiss Theo again, mouths moving in rhythm with Boris’s stroking. “Yeah?” Boris gasps, picking up the pace and Theo’s hand flicks up to graze Boris’s jaw, all he can do is nod. Sensory overload, the conscious movement of it all, Boris slipping to kiss Theo’s chin, his throat. Slithering down Theo’s body with ease, pausing to look up at him for any sign to stop.
Boris kisses parts of him that Kitsey never did-- his hipbone, the space below his bellybutton. The spade on his thigh. Taking his time. It dawns on Theo that Boris is enjoying this, enthusiastic and sincere like Kitsey never was, like Theo never thought he’d experience without having to pay for it. He stiffens at the realization, the sudden clarity of the situation. And then Boris pauses to replace his hand with his mouth, glancing up at Theo one more time before lapping at the head of Theo’s dick and Theo’s gone again, his only thoughts being Boris Boris Boris and the absolutely obscene image of Boris’s mouth around him. His hand flies instinctively to the top of Boris’s head and he buries his fist in the dark curls there. “Fuck,” Theo exhales. It takes less time than Theo would care to admit for him to orgasm, tugging hard at Boris’s hair and the man just hums, digging his fingertips into Theo’s hipbone when Theo comes down his throat. Boris looking up at him with dark eyes and slick lips is almost too much for Theo to handle, has to squeeze his eyes shut and then cast his gaze up to the ceiling. Boris moves upwards like he’s going to kiss Theo and then thinks better of it, moving to lay down, head next to Theo’s torso instead. Nothing but the sound of Theo’s labored breathing slowing down, Boris palming himself absent-mindedly over his pants. “I’m,” Theo says and has to clear his throat, “gonna shower.”
Boris takes a deep breath but just nods, not looking up at Theo until Theo sits up to leave and then he hears Boris’s belt buckle clicking. Theo yanks the shower dial to the hottest it can go but he still catches himself in the mirror before it fogs up. Glasses askew and red-mouthed, the waistband of his boxers wet from his dick and Boris’s mouth. He gets in the shower and presses his forehead against the cool tile, stands there for a long moment before he opens his mouth under the water stream, spitting out mouthfuls until he can’t taste Boris’s bittersweet cigarette-smoke tang on his teeth anymore. When he gets out of the shower Boris is still on the bed. His back to Theo, asleep.
They don’t talk about it. Never have never will. But Boris buys them breakfast the next time Theo sees him, stopping by the workshop with two stacked coffee cups balanced in one hand, lids tucked under his chin and a box of pastries in the other. “Those cannolis that Hobie likes! I got them!” Boris says with a grin when Theo holds open the shop door for him. “Had to fight off at least seven Italian housewives for the last chocolate one.”
Boris doesn’t have any interest in the workshop or the furniture but he loves messing with Hobie’s tools and has claimed an unfinished Cabriole sofa as his own. There’s a black backpack filled with dirty t-shirts, empty prescription pill bottles, and a handful of loose bullets (yes, Theo looked) that has sat at the edge of the couch for months now, unsaid agreement between Theo Boris and Hobie that it’s Boris’s: meaning, Do Not Touch It And I Will Not Touch Any Other Pieces Of Furniture Here. Theo sits on the couch while Boris ambles over to the workbench, setting into one of the stools and picking up a gouger. “Was thinking,” he says, picking up a block of scrap wood and Theo nods and waves his coffee cup in allowance. Boris starts hacking away at the block with the gouger. “Where would be best for New York apartment.”
Theo drums two fingers on the lid of his cup and watches Boris chip away at the scrap wood. “For you, you mean?”
Boris nods and glances up. “Not for crime activities, though. Just for somewhere to sleep. Maybe I will get a cat.”
“You could not keep a cat alive,” Theo laughs, tipping his head back against the backrest of the couch. Boris lifts a shoulder in a half-shrug.
“Nine lives! That means I get eight tries before it really counts.”
“Brooklyn,” Theo offers. “Or Queens. City life without the Manhattan tourists, you know? Like your place in Antwerp.” He pauses. “I might know a place where you could get some legitimate antique furniture, too.”
Boris laughs loud at this, blowing the wood shavings off the workbench towards Theo. “Yes? Where might that be?”
Theo just raises his eyebrows and Boris rolls his eyes. “Typical Potter! Put money right into your pocket selling me fake antiques!”
“Only if you promise not to come back a year later threatening to sue me over them,” Theo grins back. “What you see is what you get.”
Boris hums and runs a thumb along the spare table leg next to him on the table. “Hobie’s pieces are beautiful,” Boris says softly, almost to himself, “does not matter to me if they are real or not.”
Something about everything in that workshop at that moment. Half-finished pieces and orphaned legs and tabletops, the faint but ever-present smell of wood polish and tung oil. Boris sticks out like a sore thumb in his black jeans and boots, his only white shirt a t-shirt filled with holes. Both of them some kind of changelings, at one point genuine but now mottled and mismatched, only parts of the original still there. Held together by the good intentions of others. Two different lives, the before and the after.
A month later and Boris is sober, Theo knows that immediately. He can’t pinpoint his exact emotions about it, trying to sift through the haze of his own dwindling high and trying to tell himself it doesn’t feel like betrayal. He pulls his mouth into a smile. “You’re sober?”
Boris blinks a few times before glancing away bashfully, looking down Fifth Ave. “Ah, yes. Not by choice, really.” They stare at each other for a few moments before Boris frowns, slaps Theo’s shoulder to turn him in the direction of the closest bar. “Let me explain.”
Boris still drinks, at least, and Theo doesn’t know how to feel about that-- Xandra’s statement of fact feeling like a lie, he doesn’t touch the hard stuff anymore versus Boris ordering two shots of vodka for them and it feels like a small truce. “So, Gyuri is in hospital right now,” Boris jumps right in like he always does, Theo feels like he has whiplash trying to keep up, “job gone wrong in Berlin. My fault.” Boris’s thumbnail clicks against his glass, mouth pulled into a grimace. “I was high out of my fucking mind, so high you’re almost blind, you know the feeling yes? And, well. Stupid of me. Irresponsible to be so high on the job like that. Did not notice rival gang coming to rob our whole supply! Coked out on Gyuri’s couch, totally fucking useless when they broke in! Left Gyuri to fend for himself! Only reason they did not completely kill us both is because I gave them what they wanted in exchange. So. Closest friend in hospital and lost six months of supply for what? Getting so high I cannot move? No way to run business.” Boris pauses for the bartender to refill their shot glasses and Theo stares hard at his profile. Boris has always had dark eyes but they’re brighter, now, circles underneath not as prominent as they always have been. Cheekbones filled out, flushed. Healthy. A shock of something like envy straight through Theo’s chest to his fingertips. Boris shrugs. “Anyways. Had rough couple days coming off but now am clean as a fiddle, as they say.”
“Good for you, Boris,” and Theo means it despite the sharp, hot feeling of shame he feels himself.
Boris stares hard at him. “I do not mean to…” he frowns. “Potter.”
“No, really, Boris,” Theo finally bristles, can’t help it, “really. Good for you.”
“Potter,” Boris sighs again, reaching out and covering Theo’s wrist with a cold hand. “We both know addict life is no good. And you know that I know how hard it is to quit with no reason.” he spreads his hands out on the table, palms up. “Just happens that. Now I had reason. You know I never have tried to tell you how to live your life.”
“Yeah,” Theo rasps around a suddenly dry mouth. “Yeah.”
“But also,” Boris tacks on after a long beat, treading carefully now, softly, “you deserve to be happy, Potter. And if the first step of that is to also be healthy? Well,” Boris shrugs. “Or at least save you some money, ha! Much cheaper to be sober, who would think!”
Theo’s waiting for that familiar wave of anger, the same wave that rolls over him when Kitsey and Hobie and Pippa comment on his habits, but it never comes. Something about Boris’s sincerity. Not that Hobie or Pippa were ever insincere about their concern but, well. Hobie and Pippa never laid face-up in the desert sun with Theo fucked out of their minds on LSD.
Like fucking fate, God laughing in his face, Theo only sees Jerome’s mugshot on the eleven o’clock news because he’s stuck finishing Hobie’s crossword. Eight letter word: searching, compassion, seeking warmth while his eyes wandering up to the muted television. Arrested for felony drug charges and armed robbery, minimum sentence fifteen years.
“Fuck,” Theo says out loud to the quiet kitchen. His first thought is how many pills he still has, given up on the storage unit so now locked in a safe at the back of his closet. Maybe forty or fifty. His second thought is Jerome’s phone, knows for a fact that Jerome’s contact list is at least their first name and last initial. Maybe another identifier. Theo D. Antiques? South Manhattan? Did Theo ever call from the shop phone? No, he’s not that stupid. He’s never been that desperate. His third thought is Boris.
Boris’s new townhouse in Queens is still scarcely furnished, his current kitchen table is a card table with two plastic lawnchairs but the rest of the place is coming along, some of the living room furniture from his Antwerp place. Boxes everywhere, labeled with a mix of English and Polish words. Theo looks...bad, thin as a rail and pale, shaken like he was in Amsterdam. Before Boris can ask, Theo steps inside. “Can we talk?” and when Boris nods Theo asks, “Do you know Jerome?”
“Mmmm. Refresh my mind.”
Boris holds up a finger and nods, “yes. Only in some circles. He was very good, genuine guy! Not like those dickheads who cut their supply and price very high! You were lucky to find him.”
“He got arrested.”
Boris sighs “ah” and shrugs, waves a dismissive hand that Theo stiffens at. It’s not that Boris has forgotten the panic of being an addict, the fear and paranoia of it. It’s just that it’s an odd sensation, seeing Theo standing in his living room alluding to drugs when Boris is a month sober. Boris’s track marks have healed over and Theo has one new one in the crook of his elbow. Both of them circling the subject that Theo is inevitably going to bring up. Boris pauses on his way into the kitchen. “Do you want coffee, Potter?”
Theo never answers but Boris carries over two mugs to the card table, anyway, silent while Boris preps them. Two sugars and a shot of milk in Boris’s mug. One sugar no milk for Theo. “I know what you want to ask,” Boris says, collapsing into one of the lawnchairs. Theo keeps standing, running a thumb over a chip in the top of his mug. “But I cannot help you, Potter. I told you this was going to be a clean apartment.”
“So you’re still sober?” Theo asks. He probably doesn’t mean it to sound accusatory but it does. Boris frowns, looks down at his mug.
“Yes.” An uncomfortable pause and then Boris bites, “And you are still addict.”
Theo looks to the ceiling and huffs an irritated laugh. “Okay. Okay, Boris. Forget I asked.”
“You did not ask,” Boris observes. Treading carefully. “What is it you want, Potter?”
Some fucking oxys is what Theo doesn’t say. Theo just stands, shuffling his feet. Both of them picking their battles. And then Boris cedes: “I can help you, if you need.” He finally meets Theo’s eye, weary like an animal greeting an unfamiliar person, “if you start withdrawal. Whatever you need. But I will not sell to you. I will not let you get tangled with any of my men again. Cannot live with that on my conscience, you understand.”
Theo doesn’t understand but he nods tightly anyway. Looks like he’s drowning and Boris just threw him a rope instead of rowing the whole rescue boat over but they both know Theo is in no position to deny any form of help.
Boris spends the night thinking about Jack, about his own detox attempts, about the baggie of cocaine he carried around for three weeks in Los Angeles. That detox is so much easier if there’s a last hit of anything, whatever, just enough to keep them from shitting their brains out or passing out. That quitting cold turkey can actually fucking kill you. Boris lays awake until three in the morning before he makes a decision. He gets up, pulls out the ziploc bag full of percocets that are supposed to go on the market tomorrow and crushes up four of them. Tucks the baggie of powder into his shoe, under the insert, tells himself he won’t give it to Theo. But just in case.
When Boris arrives, Theo’s apartment looks like it was robbed and he thinks for a moment that maybe that’s why Theo called, the panic in his voice making sense now. “Potter? What happened?”
Theo moving like a caged animal, crossing the room in three long paces and grabbing both of Boris’s hands, the sudden contact like an electric shock. “Boris,” and his voice is pleading, small, “I know you’re clean. But are you? Do you have something? Anything?”
Boris stiffens. Because he recognizes this look, that voice, has seen it on so many strung out men and women and children that it’s unmistakable. That phase of withdrawal when they’d kill for a single hit, anything. “Potter,” Boris says carefully, “You should not quit cold turkey like this.”
Theo drops Boris’s hands and turns away, agitated, eyes ringed dark like he hasn’t slept in weeks. “I know that, Boris. You don’t think I fucking know that? Did you forget the part where my drug dealer got arrested and you wouldn’t sell to me? Huh?”
Boris feels like he is standing on thin ice, feels like crossing the threshold into Theo’s living room will send them both crashing through the surface and kill them both. Tries not to think about the baggie of crushed percocets he has tucked in the heel of his boot. Theo paces for another few minutes and grabs a handful of his hair in one fist. “Boris, I know you have some. Come on.”
“Have you been tapering off?” Boris asks. He moves into Theo’s kitchen and stands behind the counter, a physical barrier while he tries to establish a mental one. Feels like he’s been ambushed.
“Yes,” Theo says, exasperated, “I’m not an idiot. I just. I’m running really low. I thought I had another stash in here. I swore I did.”
Boris goes about closing all the open cabinets just so he doesn’t have to look at Theo. “You should sleep, Potter. Water and sleep will help.”
“Some fucking drugs would help,” Theo spits right back. Boris finally turns to watch him and he must keep his poker face convincing enough that Theo pauses, tries a different tactic. “Boris,” voice softer, desperate and Boris flinches. Wants to tell Theo please don’t but something keeps him rooted to the spot, mouth clenched shut as Theo approaches, “please. Please .”
“I cannot. You know I cannot.”
“No, Theo!” Boris bursts, throwing his hands up and forward, trying to quell the impending claustrophobia tightening in his chest. “I will help you detox! But I cannot give you anything!” and Theo’s face crumbles, falls forward into Boris’s arms. Mumbling pleasepleaseplease into Boris’s jacket and he does his best to tune it out, carrying Theo towards the bathroom. He gets the bathtub started and sits Theo on the floor, crouching down and cradling Theo’s face in his hands. Thumbs over the bags under his left eye, the tiny scar high on his cheekbone from when Boris smashed a beer bottle against the empty pool wall in Vegas and Theo was standing too close. “Please. Take a bath. I will go clean up outside.”
“Boris,” Theo pleads once more, gripping Boris’s collar tight. Boris manages to extricate himself and stand up just before Theo’s eyes well up. Knows that if he sees Theo cry he’s going to give in. “Bathtub, Potter!” he calls over his shoulder, closing the bathroom door behind him.
He cleans as best he can, closing the rest of the open cabinets and drawers and haphazardly putting Theo’s books and vinyl records back into the bookshelf. He’s about to tackle the bedroom, equally destroyed, when he hears retching from the bathroom. He opens the door and Theo is without his shirt or pants, crouched over the toilet in his boxers with his head halfway down the bowl. He’s sweating buckets even though the bath is only lukewarm and Boris drops to his side, placing a hand in the center of Theo’s back. He’s shaking like a leaf, spitting into the toilet bowl. Pale, half sobbing when he resurfaces. Croaks, “Boris.”
And that’s all it takes. “Okay,” Boris finally relents, sitting back against the wall and pulling off his boot. “Okay, Potter. Okay.” That fucking easy. The only thing he’s ever loved curled up and shaking on the bathroom floor and Boris has the one thing on earth that will make it stop, how can he not? It would be cruel to not. “Only enough to stop being sick,” he says as he lifts the insert of his shoe out and extracts the tiny bag. “Only enough so you are not hurting, okay? Potter?”
Theo stops crying immediately at the sight of the drugs, nodding furiously and scooting across the floor to grab the bag. Takes a scoop on his pinky finger and as soon as he snorts it he falls against the wall, eyes closed, breath slowing down. Boris feels sick, stomach twisted because he can’t decide if he’s just made a mistake. He takes the bag back before Theo can keep it and reaches over, pulling Theo into his chest. Buries his face in Theo’s hair. “Okay?”
Theo nodding, breath hot and slow against Boris’s neck. “Thank you,” he whispers and repeats it like a prayer, thankyouthankyouthankyou until Boris has to shush him. Boris’s spine floods with it. The most Theo has thanked him in years.
The next time Theo calls feels like deja vu, Theo opening his apartment door with the same wild-eyed look of panic from two weeks ago, pale and worn out and Boris knows why he called immediately. Thinks, for a moment, about turning on his heel and leaving right then.
But it’s Theo. So he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.
“Potter,” he says with a sigh, a small smile, maybe it’s not what he thinks.
“Boris,” Theo exhales with a warm smile, warm like the honey-colored scotch in the leather booth of the Russian bar in the Bronx, warm like Vegas sand, warm like your bird is back in the world . It’s almost convincing enough that Boris thinks, for a moment, Theo is genuinely happy to just see Boris. And then: “can you help me out?”
And like that the warmth is gone, sucked hard and fast right out the doorway like a gust of wind. Boris’s face falls and hardens, he knows how this will go even if Theo doesn’t. “No, Potter. We talked about this.”
“I know, I know, I know,” Theo chimes and he’s already agitated but trying to keep it amicable, waving Boris in. Ducking his head to rub the back of his neck and looks, for a moment, like his father. “And I’ve been tapering. I’ve been tapering like you said. I just…” he looks at the wall past Boris’s shoulder, searching for the end of his sentence. An excuse. “You’d make it a lot easier.”
Boris stares hard at Theo, stone-faced, and Theo looks away the way he does when he’s blushing but doesn’t want Boris to see. “You are still using, then,” Boris concludes and Theo shakes his head, irritated.
“No, no. I’ve really cut back. I just have to take enough to not get sick--”
“So you are still using,” Boris repeats, slower this time. “And you are asking me to sell to you. Or give you a free bump, even. Like I told you I would not.”
They wait each other for a long moment and Theo breaks first. “Fuck you, Boris,” he spits and Boris blinks.
Something boils over, then, clawing up out of Boris’s throat before he can stop himself, “fuck me ? Fuck you , Theo! Fuck you! Ask me here, why? To give you more drugs? Babysit you? And for what? What am I getting out of this? What have I ever fucking gotten out of this?”
Theo gawks for a few seconds before regaining his composure. He laughs, sharp and cruel, shaking his head and stepping backwards, “Yeah. Poor Boris. Right. Poor mob boss Boris decides to have a morality crisis over giving me drugs. Alert the media. Everything you’ve put me through --”
“Oh, boo hoo hoo,” Boris snaps back, hands balled into fists, “I’ve put you through? You? You and your dead mother, your stolen painting that you got off free from, the murder that I got you off free from, your fake antiques that you have not gone to jail for! Your fucking drug dealer who did not rat you out! A girl who does not love you back. Your whole fucking life, you talk about wanting to die, and here I am. Because you called me begging. When you could just let the withdrawal kill you.” Boris pauses, squeezes his eyes shut and when he opens them again Theo’s jaw clenched and twitching, his hands shaking but that might be the detox. “Everything I’ve ever done, Potter. Everything I’ve ever fucking done has been for you.”
“When it benefits you,” Theo says flatly after a terse beat. Boris raises his eyebrows and Theo repeats, stronger now, “Everything you’ve done for me has only been when it benefits you .”
“So sucking your cock? That was for my benefit only?”
There it is, the unspoken thing that has rested dark and uneasy in the space between them for a month now. Theo is red in the face almost immediately and his mouth opens and closes a few times, no words coming out. Something about his expression lights a new anger in Boris’s gut, another surge of insults coming before he can stop himself, “If you are not ready to look at that side of yourself, fine. Fuck if I care at all. It’s been ten years since we fucked in Vegas, yes I remember it. So I can wait another ten. Who fucking cares anyway. But do not confuse my feelings for you with permission to treat me like shit. My father, Mr. Silver, my wife, treated like shit my entire fucking life, you know? You don’t, of course you don’t.” He thinks, for a second, that Theo is going to punch him, but the man is still now, like a deer in the headlights. He doesn’t know what he expects, doesn’t know what Theo could say now that makes any of this better. He takes a deep breath and blinks hard, trying to stave off the hot stinging behind his eyes. “So no, Theo. I’m not giving you any drugs. You can hit me, scream at me. Nothing I have not been through before,” Boris says with a shrug, stuffing his hands deep in his pockets.
“Boris,” Theo says after what feels like an eternity. Soft, hurt. Boris stiffens, stares hard down at his shoes. Tries not to acknowledge the fact that the pain in Theo’s voice was his doing. When Boris looks up Theo’s eyes are red. “I’m sorry.”
Boris doesn’t react. Has had enough addicts beg and sob and apologize until their throats are raw to know it doesn’t mean shit. And then, again, more forceful, “I’m sorry.” When Boris looks up Theo is staring at him with surprising clarity. Boris shakes his head, steps back. “Don’t, Potter.” And then Theo is saying it like a chant, stepping forward and enveloping Boris in a hug before Boris can move away, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, a decade worth of apologies that rattles right through to Boris’s bones. He buries his face in Boris’s hair, his voice buzzing against Boris’s skull. When Boris doesn’t reply Theo pulls back, looks down at him. “Boris?”
Boris takes that moment to pull away, steps back and goes out onto Theo’s balcony. Theo is still coherent enough to understand not to follow and Boris’s head spins with the cool air, exhales hard. He fishes his phone out of his pocket and smokes a cigarette so fast he coughs on it. Confirms the phone number and address before going back inside. “Come on,” he says, heading straight to the door but Theo doesn’t move, fucking stubborn bastard, of course this wasn’t going to be easy, “where are we going?” he demands. Still upset from Boris’s outburst.
“Does it matter?” Boris asks, mirroring Theo’s temper tantrum tone, because they both know it doesn’t. Not really. Theo crosses his arms and Boris sighs exasperatedly, marches over and grabs him by the collar of his hoodie. “I’m taking you to fucking rehab,” Boris says, “no I am not kidding.”
“I’m not going to rehab,” Theo blurts but Boris tugs hard and Theo takes a few reluctant steps. Stops again and Boris reaches up, takes Theo’s face in his hands firmly. “You have two options right now, Potter,” he tells him. Hates that he has his business voice on right now but it’s the only voice he knows Theo will listen to. He’s only used it here once, tone hard and unrelenting, demanding attention and obedience, the same that had Theo focused in Amsterdam, forty thousand, my money . “You can shit and puke your brains out here in your apartment. You will think that you are going to die but you will not be able to get out of bed or call an ambulance for yourself. Or you go to fucking rehab and do it in a cushy bed. With doctors and nurses and safe. That is it. Those are your choices.” He squeezes Theo’s jawbone before letting go. “Because I do not have any drugs this time. I cannot help you any more than this.”
“I can’t afford rehab,” Theo spits back. Boris doesn’t know if that’s true or not. Doesn’t matter, anyway.
“I’m paying, you fucking idiot,” Boris clips.
Theo’s struck silent again but when Boris tugs on his sweatshirt now Theo stumbles forward a few feet and then follows Boris, still reluctantly, out of the apartment. Boris slings an arm over Theo’s shoulder once they’re out on the sidewalk but it’s not so much comradery as it is guidance, mandatory, you have to walk . It’s only six blocks to the center Boris knows and they’re silent the whole time, only stopping once for Theo to vomit on the curb and for Boris to light a cigarette that they share.
Theo has to voluntarily check himself in, which he does, sparing Boris lots of looks like a kicked puppy as he signs the paperwork at the front desk but Boris stays rooted to the spot. Even a month sober, Boris still feels like he’s going to get caught red-handed for something but the staff is mostly concerned with getting Theo settled, asking when his last dose was, what he’s taken in the last month. When they ask who his emergency contact is, Theo pauses only for a moment before he nods towards Boris.
Theo gives him a long hug before they take him back into the ward, tucking his face into Boris’s shoulder and exhaling a choked sob, one last I’m sorry breathed into the collar of Boris’s coat. Boris squeezes the back of Theo’s neck. “Me, too,” he says. Doesn’t know why he’s apologizing, too, but maybe it’s because neither of them really mean it.
The next time they see each other isn’t entirely by accident, Boris sending Theo a selfie from the eyes up, standing in front of the Tenement Museum sign in Lower Manhattan followed by a text, do you think they would let me into America in 1900? But really, he got the bill from the rehab center this morning, signaling Theo’s release. So he’s also checking in.
Theo’s reply comes ten minutes later, absolutely not. Feels they’re both waving a white flag.
He wanders from the museum and walks until he finds the cafe he can’t remember the name of. He knew it had a red and white awning, an Austrian place with an apple strudel that Boris “would kill a man for, no joke Potter,” made Theo ride the train from 80th street at 2AM for some only to get there and it be closed. It’s almost a miracle that he finds it, Cafe Katja. He steps inside orders a plate of strudel and a mug of coffee. It’s only an hour before the bell above the door tingles and then Theo slides into the chair across from him. Can’t believe that in a city of eight million people he and Theo manage to make it feel like it’s only them, could find him blind from a hundred blocks away. Boris looks up and pauses, not quite a smile on his face. Theo opens his mouth to say something but Boris shakes his head. Slides the spoon from his silverware across and pushes his plate to the center of the table.
“I talked to the owner,” Boris finally says as soon as Theo slices through the strudel to take a bite. “Convinced him to stay open another hour on Saturdays! Told him I would pay million fucking dollars for a piece of this after a night of drinks, if only they were open late enough!” he leans back in his chair and clicks his fork against his teeth. “So, next time we are out. Will have to follow through on my promise. I will pay for your subway fare.”
Theo rolls his eyes and takes Boris’s coffee mug for a sip. Boris watches with a small smile and soft eyes and then Theo replies, “Gee, thanks. You’ll cover me for a whole $2.75. I’ll be sure to tell all your criminal friends how generous you are.”
“Am I not also sharing this doughy treasure with you?” Boris shoots back, gesturing to the plate between them. Theo takes another bite and Boris watches for a few moments before he says, “ah!” and sits forward, rummaging through his coat pockets. “Something for you, Potter.”
Boris pulls out a keyring that has an assortment of items attached, a handful of keys and a statue of liberty keychain, a USB stick, a swiss army knife, a small Hello Kitty plush. He fishes out one silver key from the rest and spins the ring until it comes off, passing it across the table to Theo. “Key to my Queens place.” Theo picks it up and Boris shrugs, “only ones for you and Gyuri, so please no wild parties.” Grins. “You and all your charming old ladies who buy your furniture.”
“Yeah, we’d trash the place,” Theo laughs. They sit in comfortable silence, Boris finishing his coffee and fishing a handful of crumpled bills out of his wallet while Theo drags his spoon through the remains of apple on the plate. When he looks up Boris is leaned back in his chair, hugging his mostly-empty mug to his chest. “You look healthy, Potter,” he says gently.
Theo nods, looks at Boris’s hands. Same silver rings. Same feather tattoo at the crook of his wrist. “So do you.”
And Boris never thought either of them would live to see the day Theo wasn’t pale as a sheet with hollowed out cheekbones, eyes so dark and ringed it looked like he had two black eyes. But now he’s almost filled out enough to pass as a respectable citizen, with a shock of red sunburn across his nose and cheekbones, eyes bright as anything as he squints into the sun glaring through the cafe windows.
“Yes, well.” Boris sniffs, setting his mug down and standing up. “Sobriety will do that to us, I suppose.” He gestures for Theo to follow and pats at his sides while they leave the cafe, Boris calling danke over his shoulder to the cafe staff before the door shuts behind them. “Still need a fucking cigarette every hour, though.”
“Thank god,” Theo exhales. They step to the side of the sidewalk, fishing their cigarettes out and Boris produces a matchbook first, offers the flame to Theo first. Hands cupped around each other and Theo leans in and inhales, flicks his eyes up to Boris in a silent thanks before Boris uses the remaining fire to light his own cigarette. “Boris,” Theo finally says and says it, easy as anything, goddamn finally, “I’m sorry.”
Boris waves a hand, frowning and shaking his head and Theo grabs his wrist, makes him look up, “I mean it. I’m sorry for everything.”
“Potter,” Boris says with half a laugh, grinning, the whole world is a joke, “No apologies. Would go to the end of the world for you, you know this.” He looks at Theo’s mouth and then back up to his eyes. “You would do same for me.”
Theo’s Adams apple bobs and he looks away, down the street. “Yeah,” he finally allows. “Yeah I would.”
Boris blinks and then tips himself upwards, catches Theo’s mouth in a fast and smokey kiss and Theo doesn’t move away. It’s the first time he kisses Boris back.
Boris chuckles when he pulls back and taps Theo’s jawline with a finger. “We should get a drink,” he says, turning to look down Orchard Street, straight into the setting sun. Washed in orange and gold, a sight so familiar it makes Theo’s chest ache, half a smirk on Boris’s face like they’re sixteen trying to figure out what to do once Xandra leaves for work. Like they’ve got all the time in the world. Boris looks at Theo for approval and Theo waves a hand forward and nods, says, “wherever you want.”
Boris steps off the sidewalk and starts off down the street and Theo follows.