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It’s every Friday night, in the basement.

An ex-boxer (scarred knuckles, slickback hair, one eye that literally never closes) guards the battered steel door.  Pay the man.  The door scrapes open, and you descend into the black maw of the stairwell.  At its foot, punch the buzzer and say the word (usually something absurd like halcyon or syllabub; it changes weekly).  Another, even more battered door scrapes open.  Beyond that:  hell or heaven, depending on your pleasure— or on whatever mood-altering substance is your date for the evening.

For Mal, it’s hash-laced clove cigarettes, cheap wine, and loneliness that get the ache rolling.

Well, hell.  One cardinal rule, and we’ve already broken it:  no names.  It’s easier and safer that way.  Trust a total stranger to fuck you silly up against a cinderblock wall… but give him your name, or ask him his?  Oh, you sweet summer child.

Mal doesn’t care if you know his name.  At this point, he’s beyond being put off of his thirst by something as pedestrian as blackmail.  And he’s already crossed the doorman’s palm with silver, so let’s keep walking, shall we?

Back to the ache.  It sits low in your gut, churning out vertigo, tipping you off your axis.  The only way to right yourself is… this.  Fuck the ache out.  Or have it sucked out— whatever.  Just get it out of you.  And if you’re concerned about the cost, rest assured: you’re not paying for sex.  The basement has whores and sluts in abundance, but professionals?  Shut your mouth. 

No, the money’s for shelter.  Protection from the elements.  A hundred bucks keeps your business off the street, out of the alley, away from the cops.  It gives you a safe place when you need it, far from the cold hard world.

Here, no sordid fluorescent bulbs.  Some kindly soul has hung outdoor party lights, the type suburbanites string from backyard trees in July.  Patches of brightness expose those whose requirements are most raw this evening; if they could control themselves better, they’d know to take it into the mattress-strewn shadows.  As for the soundtrack, it’s lazy and dreamlike; no urgent clubland beats here.  Amorphous soundscapes blend seamlessly with moans and whispers echoing off bare concrete.  Everything seems underwater or encased in amber, slowed down to a quarter its natural speed.

This is the basement’s slippery charm:  the nightly bargain struck between voyeurs and exhibitionists, onlookers and participants, comers and goers.  In twos and threes they pursue their own pleasures while spectators stroke their own demons silent.  No consequences except those levied by your own conscience, if you’ve got one. 

Mal doesn’t.  Or he thinks he doesn’t.  And if he did, he’d leash it to a street sign and tell it, Stay.

Especially tonight, after such a fucking godawful day.

The entrance to the Honeycomb – that’s what the regulars call the gloryholes – splits into separate corridors to be used according to whether you wish to stand or kneel.  Mal’s done both in his time – sometimes in the same night – but tonight he wishes to stand, so he turns left.  The paired booths work a bit like dressing rooms in a high-end department store or the bathrooms at one of your better airports.  A red light over the door means someone’s being serviced; a green light mean someone waits to service you.

Clearly, the owners have an efficiency kink.

As he waits for a green light, Mal’s so ready, he can’t help himself.  Right there in the open, he unbuckles, unzips, and eases himself out.  The cellar air is thrillingly cool on the tip of his cock, already glistening with precum.  He pulls in long, steady, confident strokes, certain he’ll get all he needs and more.

Some slumming middle-management type stops to run his fingertips the length of Mal’s torso from throat to belt buckle, and then lower, sliding his hand inside the zipper to size up Mal’s balls in his palm.  Fuck, you’re gorgeous, he hisses. 

It’s no mere pickup line; Mal is something to see.  Tall and taut and serpentine; masses of dark curls snaking against pale olive skin.  A boy Medusa with the power to freeze people in their tracks with one sloe-eyed glance.  The vision compels Mr. Businessman to bite his lip. 

Look at you go, he says admiringly.  Can I watch? I’d love to see you pop.

But Mal’s not here to be chosen.  He’s here to choose, and he does not choose this.  Had a series of missteps and fuckups today not emptied his reservoir of natural arrogance, he’d gladly let this stranger watch and maybe even invite him to lend a hand.  But tonight he only wants to come unseen, a stranger in the dark.

At that fortuitous moment, a booth light turns green.  Mal gently removes the man’s hand.  Maybe another night, mate, he says.  Sorry. 

And he ducks into the Honeycomb.

Sordid as this place’s purpose might be, it’s clean, smelling faintly of the expected bleach wipes and something else, something new tonight, less easy to pin down— citrus, floral, as airy and ozonic as a lightning strike.  (A new freshener spray?  The last occupant?)  The booth door lock turns neatly, smoothly, triggering the light to change from green to red.  At pelvis height in the back wall of the shadowy booth, the hole serenely reassures the first-timer, Don’t worry.  It goes here.

Mal is no first-timer, however.  He knows the ritual.  Face the hole; show yourself off; wait.  If the party on the other side of the wall likes what they see, two fingers – a condom outheld between them – will beckon through the hole.  All this Mal does, running middle finger and thumb up and down the length of his prick to show off how rigid and ready it is—but the fingers holding the condom are late in appearing.

No go? he says aloud.  His size has scared a few off in the past.  But you’d think anyone who took the kneeling half of the booth side would have their swallowing techniques worked out…

A soft cough, and now the fingers appear, the expected foil packet between them.

You put it on me, Mal demands in what he mistakenly thinks is a lordly tone.

Barely a whisper, acquiescent: All right.

Everything from this point should be routine.  Cock through the hole, the grip of latex, the enveloping warmth and slippery pressure of lips and tongue where it counts.  Eyes closed, head tipped back, hips pushing and thrusting against the partition wall.  All around you, gasps and grunts, wet sucking noises and greedy hums, strangled words: Oh, yeah, there, do it, close, ohfuckyeah, coming, I’m coming.  When the speaker falls silent and a new voice rises, when someone tires of sucking cock and backs their ass up against the wall to take it another way, you can hear it all, and it stokes the ache to new heights…

And somewhere along the way you’re supposed to lose yourself.  To forget, let go, give over control.  But if you’ve spent all day fucking up one bloody thing after another, proving yourself not a lad of great promise but the crew’s weakest link, making stupid mistake after stupid mistake and almost blowing the entire operation…

GodDAMMIT, Mal sputters.  He unceremoniously pulls out, backs up, mutters bitterly under his breath.  Half a minute of furious, fruitless stroking makes the verdict plain.  He’s lost the… whatever. The momentum, the wherewithal. 

And the hard-on, let’s not forget that.

You didn’t like it? comes the voice, unexpectedly wistful.  I did it wrong?

No, I… No!  Shit, no!  Mal leans back heavily against the door of the booth and wearily strips off the sagging condom.  You did fucking brilliant.  It’s me, all me; I had an utterly shite day.  A pause, then half-anxious, half-solicitous:  Did you like it at all? 

The soft-voiced stranger falls silent for a long moment, just enough time for Mal to grow even more despondent at his own failures.  But then:  Yes.  Or rather, yiss.  Mal lacks an ear for accents, but something about this one makes him want to hear it again. 

Particularly that word.

I liked it a lot, the stranger continues.  You… felt right to me. 

Mercifully, he doesn’t add, Until. 

At this point, according to the accepted etiquette, there are several avenues of choice.  They can agree to switch roles, the giver now taking and vice versa.  They can agree to switch partners, seek joy elsewhere.  They can both walk away, call it a night, go home to their separate bedsits and drown their woes in whatever cut-rate nepenthe presents itself.

They choose none of these.

Do you want to… Mal falters, struggling to put himself back in his clothes.  He has no idea who’s on the other side of the gloryhole, and his own inner cat-who-walks-alone would normally not give a shit, but all of a sudden he finds he desperately wants a face to go with this voice and a name to go with that face.  He clears his throat and makes a second attempt:  Do you want to try again?

No. Yes.  I mean… somewhere else.  That accent again, lilting and mild, the vowels oddly, shyly held back.

Somewhere that’s not this booth?

Yes, comes the answer, trying not to sound eager and utterly, wonderfully failing.  I’ll find you out there.  What are you wearing?  

  A leather jacket—

Everyone wears leather jackets.  Give me something else to go by. 

R— right, you’re right, Mal stammers, disarmed in full now.  Em—I’ve got on a black tshirt with a grey mandala on the front.

I’m wearing a …  A pause, then with a thin edge of defiance:  A woman’s shirt, kind of gauzy.  And a necklace with a hei matau. A sort of…  He coughs.  A sort of hook.

A hook? thinks Mal.  But he’s got a knife in his boot, so they’re even.  And hooks are made to catch.

Back out in the common area, the air is rich with sin, almost sticky with it, and again Mal feels himself part of an orgy trapped in amber.  To his left, a weekly regular is getting it good from two newbies.  All three of them – more if you count the audience – are sending up a divine chorus of groans, but Mal cannot summon any interest at this moment.  He’s looking for something, something other than this, something so far from this that the words for it couldn’t possibly be exposed to this dank subterranean air...

Yet when what he seeks finds him first, those very words come roaring out before he can even think to stop them.

Oh, god, look at you. You’re so fucking beautiful. 

This gets an answering chuckle of embarrassment and delight.  And it occurs to Mal that up until this moment, smiles – true smiles – have been as scarce as names around this place.

Like Mal, the stranger is young; unlike Mal, he’s small and fair and smooth-faced, kissed gold by honest-to-god sun and not just these overhead lights on a string.  He’s fucking blushing, too; that’s the amazing part.  Mal’s exclamation has unleashed a flood of heat within him that radiates clear across the distance between them.  Mal can smell him from here.  Orange blossom and musk; sex and sadness, yearning and hope.

They stand facing each other like celestial bridegrooms in the eye of a carnal hurricane.

The mission of the basement is very clear: once-weekly, free anonymous sex with as many partners as you like, as many ways as you like. No judgments, no resentments; everything within reason permitted.  Watch or be watched, touch or be touched, give orders, fulfill requests, take it all in— sights, sounds, scents, cocks, fingers, tongues – or trade what you’ve got away.  There are no rules that cannot be broken in the basement except one.

My name is Mark, says the blond.

I’m Mal, says Mal.

And with that, the basement walls expand ever so slightly to allow one more broken rule.