Actions

Work Header

I Wish I Was Homeward Bound

Work Text:

Ken shifted in the cracked vinyl upholstery and cursed the lack of imagination of Amtrak interior designers. Or maybe Northern Pacific designers. If 'design' was marginally the word for what had gone on in the assemblage of this—well, it was an interior at least. A very large, echoing interior. A baby was crying behind him somewhere and the roar of a departing train surged as someone came through the platform doors, and then dropped in volume as the doors closed again.

The station wasn't really hot but the air was damp, and Ken felt overheated in comparison to the winter he'd been in not two days ago. Now he was sticking to the chair and hearing Christmas carols play scratchy and remote through the station speakers, a weird combination. Straightening his back, he pulled himself across the tacky surface toward the edge of the seat, and his guitar case slid along his leg. He caught it before it could knock into his suitcase, the move so practiced he hardly had to think of it.

Too much time in railway stations. The advantage of them all being virtually identical was that he knew where everything was, where the grime built up and the drafts blew cold in the north, what kind of junk food he could get from the vending machines, how to tell which clocks were working and how to sweet-talk the weariest ticket-seller.

If he were that good at music, he'd be Jim Croce, James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot all rolled into one by now. He rubbed the end of the guitar case, something he used to do for luck and now just did out of habit.

Luck was harder to come by than that. He knew it now.

He stood, checked the clock and picked up his cases. He had time to hit the john before he went to the platform, and as dirty as the station toilets were, he knew the ones in the train would be worse.

He told himself as he balanced his suitcase and guitar on top of one of the sinks that he really should get over this Midwestern, or maybe middle-class, squeamishness. He'd lived on the land for two years in a commune and hitchhiked over a lot of this continent and Europe too, and he'd faced enough dirt in his time to stop worrying about it. But actually as time passed he found it bothered him more. He stood at the urinal wondering about it and not looking down.

Maybe he felt on vacation before. Yes—he tucked himself in and zipped up, and then washed his hands and, since there were no towels, rubbed them on his pant legs—even at the commune. He supposed some of those people had really, deep-down, world-without-end believed that they were building a long-term life there. He'd thought he believed it, but when Vanessa had said she wanted to go back to the city, he hadn't hesitated.

And now she was gone too. There was no home to go to after this tour, not really.

That was why he felt so squeamish and distressed over stuff like junk food and station johns.

He wondered if there was a song to be written about this feeling and then remembered that Paul Simon had already written it. Except he'd had somebody waiting at home for him at the time.

~

This bar was as dark and dank as any other one Ken had been in. The owner, however, was something new. He'd never met anyone named after a stuffed animal before. He'd never met anyone less like a stuffed animal. The lanky black man moved like a marionette and the goofy puffy hat swayed on his head as he nodded and gestured. Ken almost lost the thread of the conversation even while they were doing a little last-minute negotiating. Perhaps that was the point of the hat.

"Maybe I should get one," he said aloud.

"What, man?" asked the improbably-named Mr. Huggy Bear.

"A hat like that," Ken explained, "to baffle and confound the people I talk to."

Huggy (as he insisted on being called) pulled in his chin, which made the tassel on the hat woggle again, and said, "Think you'd look this good in it?"

"Not even that good," Ken conceded. "But you have to admit it would be funny."

Huggy eyed him, head to foot, and then back up from sneakered feet to fair straight hair. "Yeah, I'll admit that," he said dryly.

Then they went back to talking about money and time and lodgings.

The whole live-music thing was an innovation for Huggy, and Ken gathered that only a few local people had played on the little raised-platform 'stage' in the corner of the bar. He was the first one so far to be deliberately brought from out of town. Thus he was the first to need a place to sleep, and Huggy offered the use of a room upstairs.

Ken thought fast. It was an advantage not to have to argue about how much the hotel tab was. It was a disadvantage to be so near. When he knocked off for the night, he tended to either pick someone up or crash, and neither sex nor sleep would be as easy to get with the noises of the bar coming up through the floor and Huggy not fifty feet away.

Also there was the question of what the room above the bar was normally used for.

"Won't you need it? Or anyone you—know?"

"No, no, you just clean that thought right out of your head," Huggy said sternly. "This ain't that kind of establishment."

He seemed to be serious. Ken couldn't tell if he was truthful as well. He shrugged, not planning to apologize for such an obvious assumption. "Okay, show me where, and I'll ditch my suitcase."

~

He'd had plenty of time to practice, tune, warm up. Actually it was going well. He had gotten used to performing when he never really knew what the clientele wanted, what the sound system was like, and how much smoke he had to inhale and pretend it was air. He didn't smoke much himself any more, except sometimes after sex or when he had to wait a long time for a train. He got plenty of smoke second hand.

He started with the Simon song because it had never really gone out of his head since he'd thought of it in the Amtrak waiting room.


"I'm sitting in a railway station,
Got a ticket for my destination,
Mmmhmmm ...."

People had begun to sing along by the end of the first verse, and though it was distracting, it was also a good sign that he'd found a song they liked.


"Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me."

A flash caught his eye and he saw a dark-haired man his own age lighting a cigarette. A hard face under soft curls, a melancholy stare out of dark eyes while a strong slim hand waved the smoke away. Gold winking around his throat and dark hair beneath the gold in the open neck of his shirt.

Just the kind of person he was drawn to on a night like this. A little depressive-looking, maybe a little dangerous. Somebody who made Ken think he didn't have anyone waiting at home either.


"... every stranger's face I see
Reminds me that I long to be
Homeward bound ...."

Well, Ken wasn't, and neither was the stranger, it looked like. Huggy stopped by the table, bent over and chatted a little, then moved on. One of the waitresses took an empty glass away and left a full one.


"Tonight I'll sing my songs again,
I'll play the game and pretend,
Mmmmhmm,
But all my words come back to me
In shades of mediocrity,
Like emptiness in harmony,
I need someone to comfort me ...."

Ken could hear the longing in his own voice, and worked with it. The smoker tilted his head back and blew out a gray stream, seeming unmoved but never looking away.

Ken moved on to a song of his own, and then a couple more, and got good applause for them; then he sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water," not really knowing why. Association, he supposed, another Simon song. That got a bigger hand, a good end for the set. He stood up and bowed, then unslung the guitar strap from his shoulder and laid the instrument on the chair. "Later I'll do requests," he bent to say into the mike, "so if anyone has one, write it down for me and leave it in the guitar case. Thanks, you've been very kind." Then he shut the microphone off and stepped down to the floor.

He didn't really have to walk so near the table where the smoker was sitting, but he did. And he wasn't really surprised when the other man reached out and laid a hand on his arm as he passed.

"Buy y'a drink," said the dark-haired man.

"Sure," said Ken. "Thanks."

~

"How did you end up in California?" Ken asked once they'd ordered a round of beers.

"I'm a native," the man said, so impossibly that Ken laughed.

"No, don't shit me," he said.

The other man's teeth flashed in the blue glow of the neon sign on the wall. "Well, I been here since I was practically a kid. How'd you tell?"

"You're from the East Coast. No question, my friend." Ken wasn't sure why he pressed the matter, and had no idea why he'd said 'my friend.'

"Ya, guess so," the other said equably. "You?"

"Minnesota, originally. Lived lots of places."

"Like any of 'em?"

Ken shrugged. "Some." He reached out for the empty glass across the table and turned it. Light picked up the little remnants of foam on the sides, a few fingerprints. "Listen, what's your name?"

"Sorry. Dave Starsky."

Ken took the offered hand and shook it, squeezing a little, not enough to do the macho strength-test thing but enough to feel solid warmth.

"Ken Strong your real name?"

"No, a stage name," Ken admitted. "Not many Hutchinsons hit the big-time music scene."

"No Ken Strongs either, far as I know."

"Not yet." Ken saw that the dark eyes were still a little skeptical, and said, "It's easy to spell, okay?"

"None of my business," Dave replied. "So this is all you do? I mean, you don't have a day job?"

"Oh, a fan. If I say yes, you going to tell me not to quit it?"

"No, no. I liked your music." Dave leaned forward, his eyes too intense for such a slight conversation, even for most pickups this early in the game. "I like your voice, and the songs were good. Really. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression. I was just making conversation, y'know, the first thing you ask somebody is what they do." He'd reached for Ken's arm again, got as far as his wrist and stopped, fingers resting on Ken's skin. And now, to reinforce the apology, he rubbed a little back and forth, soothingly.

Aside from handshakes, it was the first human contact Ken had had for days, and it felt so good he almost skipped the rest of the conversation and went straight to 'come upstairs with me.' But this was only a break; he had more sets to get through.

"What," he said, and swallowed, looking at those moving fingers, "w-what do you do?"

Evidently the wrong thing to say. The fingers withdrew and Dave sat back in his chair. "Stuff."

"Stuff," Ken repeated. "And how is it, doing stuff for a living?"

"Gets boring. So I come here, listen to the music." Dave looked up as the waitress bent over his shoulder to set the drinks down. "And flirt with all the pretty ladies who work here," he said to her, and patted her hip. "Thanks, schweetheart."

"All flirt and no pay," said the waitress, stepping back a little and bumping the same hip into his shoulder.

"Don't want to be a dull boy." Dave reached into his back pocket and pulled out a full money clip, teased a bill out of it and dropped it onto her tray.

"Ooooo!" she said, faking it. "I'm so impressed!"

This time he swatted her rear. "Just take it to Hug and clear my tab, Diane," he said.

"Yes sir," she answered.

Ken's first impulse was to say something like 'Stuff pays well,' but he reminded himself that Dave could mean anything by 'stuff.' So he went no nearer the topic than, "I hope Bogie impressions aren't your day job."

"Didn't you like it?" For a moment, Dave looked as completely cast down as if the impression had been a gift Ken had thrown back in his face.

"It was funny," Ken relented, and Dave brightened, almost smiled before recovering the tough, intent expression Ken had first seen.

Ken took a sip of his beer and watched Dave watch him drinking. It didn't matter what they said. Dave could get up and walk out of the bar now and Ken would still be confident that he'd be back, that they'd fuck before the night was through. It was like some sort of cord connecting them, a line of energy so strong that Ken was surprised he hadn't felt it the instant Dave had come in from the street.

Huggy appeared near the mike; Ken hadn't seen him approaching though with his focus on Dave that wasn't really surprising. The black man gestured and Ken knew his break was over. "Sorry," he said to Dave, "got to get back to work."

"I'm not sorry," Dave grinned; "I said I liked your music."

"Got a request?" asked Ken as he stood up.

Dave shook his head. "You already sang my favorite."

Ken knew which song he meant.

~

Dave knew all about the room upstairs, something Ken didn't want to dwell on. The bed was around the corner from the door and they went straight there, as if both of them had to see it, stand next to it, before they could touch each other the way they had known they would. Ken had expected to be stormed, overwhelmed, but actually Dave seemed to move in slow motion, resting just fingertips against Ken's face and drawing it down until their mouths barely touched. "Ken," he said, so close that Ken could see the stray hairs between his eyebrows, and the long lashes seemed close enough to brush his skin as they fell, as Dave looked at his mouth. "God damn. You're gonna burn me up." And then the hands tightened and the warm dry lips met his and Ken thought, who's burning?

Ken couldn't get enough. Beer and smoke and another, subtler taste he pursued into every place in Dave's mouth, buried fingers in his dark curls, slid back and around his moving tongue. Found a ticklish place on the roof of his mouth and played it while the solid torso twisted in his arms. Broke the kiss at last to breathe and felt Dave still everywhere, tasted Dave still while his head was back and the sweet mouth was on his jaw and his throat and back up to his ear. For a moment after it stopped he could still feel it. Then opened his eyes to meet Dave's blazing ones. "I knew they were blue," he murmured, "couldn't be anything else," and kissed him again, nibbling and sucking from one side to the other of the lips that lengthened as Dave smiled and parted as Dave took control again, moving into Ken's mouth as if it belonged to him.

Ken wanted him naked, now, and he put both hands into the open collar, slipping over the gold chain, following the cloth edge down into fuzzy dark chest hair, but then Dave stepped suddenly back. "Hey, I like this shirt. No ripping it off." Ken stood for a second and Dave reached out and tapped his cheek. "Undress," he said. "So will I. Find your lube."

It was sensible advice, and after a moment Ken was able to be sensible. If he didn't turn away now to find his suitcase, he never would. He even remembered where he'd left it, and he knew the K-Y was in the left side pocket. There. He turned back to the bed and froze, watching Dave's ass emerge from the black jeans. He hadn't had the chance to look before—even on the staircase the dark cloth had merged into the shadows and he got just an impression—now the round cheeks and dark hair mesmerized him. He moved before he thought, reached out and ran fingertips down Dave's spine and over his tailbone and into that dark cleft, then over the high curve. "Amazing ass you have," Ken murmured while Dave shivered under his touch.

Then Dave twisted round and held Ken off, hands tight on his arms, shaking him a little. "Get. Un. Dressed. Or should I do it?" and then the long fingers were at his belt buckle, opened it but instead of moving on to unzip, only pressed down over the hard-on Ken felt he'd been carrying since afternoon. Anyway since he'd seen the lighter flare. He pulled up on the sides of his own shirt, couldn't wait to unbutton and anyway had pulled it over his head before, so he did now, and Dave laughed a little even while he moved his hands up to bare skin, stomach and ribs, leaned in to take a nipple in his mouth, and Ken gasped and grabbed at Dave's shoulders with the shirt still hanging from one arm. Dave's arms went around him and warm hands slid into the top of Ken's pants, rubbing above his tailbone and reaching farther in. "Not so bad yourself," Dave said, voice low and still amused.

They got Ken's pants off somehow. Dave threw the pink chenille bedspread and gray blanket on the floor. Ken grabbed him and tipped both of them onto the sheets and they rolled back and forth, too worked up to try anything much but rubbing against each other, hands and mouths and cocks and as much skin as they could bring into contact. At one point Ken was underneath, Dave's hands braced and elbows locked, dark head bent as he humped, Ken's hands on the tensing muscles of his ass and their cocks sliding against each other. The necklace bumped Ken's chin and Dave grunted, "Where'sit ... the lube?"

"Dropped it," Ken said unrepentantly and rolled them over again, catching himself with one foot over the edge of the bed before they both fell, tugging Dave into place under him and rubbing his face down the sweaty, musky body until he could take Dave's cock into his mouth. Yes. All night he'd wanted this. Longer. Hot, wet, bitter, salty, straining, pulsing, nothing else like it. He loved them big like this, cut like this, and he loved to tongue just here below the head and make a man jump, yes, like this.

"Yes, like that," Dave echoed Ken's thoughts, "there, yeah, there, more," and Ken licked and nibbled up and down the shaft to hear the broken music of Dave's voice: "Ken! God! Do it!" and gulping breaths, and the tense hands grabbing Ken's head, fists clenching in his hair, so Ken finally took as much as he could, rode with the pumping hips that he held tight but could not still, sucked and moved his tongue and then Dave gave it up, his whole body rocking with the force of his spasms. Ken rubbed his own cock against the hairy leg under him and rode into orgasm right afterward, arching up and opening his mouth and letting Dave's fluid dribble down his chin.

His arms trembled, and he looked down at Dave, who lay absolutely limp but looking back, his eyes still burning with a feeling neither would dare to name. Ken collapsed to one side but couldn't roll away, couldn't stop touching Dave, and so he rubbed circles with his palm on the damp hairy stomach and just looked into those eyes, bluer than any he remembered.

Dave reached out, hand wavering a little, and wiped the semen from Ken's face with the backs of his fingers. Then, slowly, as if moving at all was a tremendous effort, Dave rolled toward Ken and kissed him, and though he hadn't been one lately for clinging to his bed partner, Ken gathered Dave close and they held each other, kissing lightly over and over.

~

"You're not leaving this morning," Dave said much later.

"You need to stop ordering me around, buddy," Ken answered.

"It's not—" Dave was obviously startled—"it's not like that."

"No?" Ken picked up his shirt from the floor and began to untangle it. He didn't look at Dave. "How many people do you employ doing 'stuff' while I go from gig to gig with most of what I own in one suitcase?"

Dave's hand closed around Ken's wrist, took the shirt away and dropped it on the bed next to where he still sat, naked. His eyes were pleading—amazing how expressive they were—and Ken conceded and put his free hand on Dave's shoulder.

"Here's what it's like," Dave said, wagging Ken's wrist up and down, never looking away from Ken's eyes. "It's like ... spinning out of control. It's like driving along all normal and then getting into a skid, you know how you're pulling on the wheel and the car just goes where it wants and your mind is racing and there's maybe a wall coming at you or another car? And you're so alive then and scared so shitless." His pupils had actually dilated and he was breathing faster. Ken gripped harder on the tense shoulder. "You know? You know what that's like?"

"Yeah," said Ken and pulled him close, bracing one knee on the bed. Dave pushed his forehead into Ken's stomach and went on pulling in those fast, short breaths. "Calm down," said Ken, rubbing his back.

"You got another gig tonight?" asked Dave after a time.

"No."

"Please?" Dave didn't look up or finish the question, and that was even more powerful than his begging eyes had been.

"Yes." How could he say anything else? He hadn't wanted to leave. "Do you know, would it be okay to keep the room?"

"I'll talk to Huggy. He's an old pal of mine." Dave sat back, and his voice was almost normal. "In fact, actually ... I'm a sleeping partner. It'll be fine."

"Ah, so this is part of your stuff!" Ken made a joke of it. "I'm your employee."

But Dave was still too wired, too intense to take the joke. "No," he insisted.

"Okay, babe, okay," Ken said, stroking his hair. They looked at each other for a long moment.

"This is crazy." Ken spoke at last. "We've both got it so bad. What are we going to do?"

"Do? What're we going to do?" Dave grinned, higher on one side than the other, and Ken felt as if something in his chest had burst, overflowed, bloomed. "We're gonna fuck like bunnies!"

"No, afterwards," Ken said, laughing, as Dave pulled him down onto the bed again.

"Afterwards ..." Dave growled into his ear, "we fuck some more. And more. And more."

~

With the best will in the world, which both of them had, nobody can have sex all day long. Dave in Ken, Ken in Dave, blow jobs, hand jobs, they did everything they could and smoked and napped together and woke and tried again. It seemed each of them was trying to make this an encounter the other would never forget. But eventually they could not coax another sexual response out of their sore and sated genitals.

Perhaps, Ken thought, they had both been trying to wear out this insanely intense feeling. Return after this interlude to a realer world, to ordinary life. Perhaps that was what Dave wanted. For all Ken knew, Dave had a wonderful ordinary life, maybe a family; maybe his 'stuff' was a great job. Maybe ....

Ken looked at Dave, who lay on his side with one arm folded under his head, the fingers of his other hand just woven in the ends of Ken's hair. One leg bent so that the knee and shin and foot touched Ken's leg. Eyes open, gazing at what had been Ken's profile before he turned to look.

"What's in that blond head of yours?"

"Wondering," Ken took a breath and then said it, "when you'll want to go home."

"I am home."

For a moment he believed it, the voice was so quiet and certain. Then he got hold of himself, forced a small laugh, said, "Come on."

This galvanized Dave, who rolled up and over Ken before he could move, pressed his body heavily over Ken's, grabbed the sides of his head. "Oh, you think you know? You know where I am and what I want and when I'm telling the truth? Tell me then, blondie, tell me where I should go to be at home."

This position would have felt much more pleasant a few hours ago. Right now Ken was aware that he had more bites, scratches and hickeys than he'd had the night before and that his cock and his mouth were both raw, so when he didn't answer and Dave began to lower his mouth Ken was not sure he wanted the kiss.

And Dave probably felt the same, because after just brushing their lips together he skimmed his cheek past Ken's and rested his forehead on the pillow, breathing near Ken's ear, just breathing. "I want to crawl inside you," he said at last. "I want to never ever stop touching you. I want to find out what makes you laugh and keep you laughing, really laughing. I want to find out what you want and give it to you."

"It's too soon," Ken said, leaning his head against Dave's, closing his eyes. "It's too much. Your eyes are too deep. Your voice is too sweet. Oh, God, I don't know if I can. Can do this. Love anyone like this."

And now the word had been spoken and they lay silent, listening to it.

"Dave, get off, let me breathe," said Ken after what seemed a long time, when he really couldn't lift his ribs any more under Dave's weight.

Dave slipped over, ended up leaning on Ken's arm but not actually pinning it down. "I want something to eat," Dave said. "How about you? Hungry?"

"I must be," Ken answered without conviction. "I can't remember when I last had a meal. Wait, yesterday afternoon, four-thirty or so."

"Yeah, I'd say it's time," said Dave, grinning. "You really do need taking care of." He hitched up on one elbow and patted Ken's stomach, which in this position was a bit hollow. "Didn't your mama tell you to eat three square meals a day?"

"I think she left me a note to that effect sometime," Ken said, the light tone a little flat to his own ear. "Maybe in a birthday card."

Dave tilted his head to one side and looked as though he'd heard the old, bitter memories, but didn't ask. "Okay, so, I'll get you something to eat downstairs."

Ken realized that choosing his battles with Dave wasn't going to be easy. In the end he just nodded and sat up.

"I did it again, didn't I?" asked Dave. "What do you want to do?"

"Shower," said Ken. "Shave. Dress and eat." He pushed back his tangled hair. "The sandwich yesterday was fine. Yeah, let's eat downstairs." He stood. "You can keep an eye on me."

He hadn't looked around, but he knew exactly how Dave reached for him, expected the touch that fell on the back of his arm, brushed down to his elbow.

"Time's so short," said Dave.

"I know," Ken answered, still not looking, but not moving either until Dave's fingertips left him.

~

Huggy grinned broadly at Dave as they reached the bottom of the stairs. "Hey, the honeymoon couple greet the light of day," he said.

"Shut up, Hug," said Dave, good-humored. "Got anything around that's fit to eat?"

"For you, man, anything. 'Cause you eat anything."

They sat at the bar, and Ken found it something of a relief not to face Dave directly. Though he did keep catching his eyes in the mirror behind the bar. Dave lit a cigarette, and Ken used the mirror himself, captivated all over again by the smooth motion. This time Dave caught him. "Want one?" he asked.

"No, thanks," Ken said.

"Want me to put it out?"

"No." Ken couldn't help but smile.

"What?"

Huggy was in the kitchen; the rest of the bar was deserted. Ken picked Dave's nearer hand off the bar, and kissed the fingers that gripped his. "Don't worry," he said.

Dave pulled their hands over so that his knuckles brushed Ken's cheek. His eyes held Ken's. When at last Dave said, "Okay," Ken had almost forgotten what he was replying to.

"I'd say 'get a room,' but you already got one," said Huggy's voice.

Ken looked away with an effort, then down at the plate clattering to the bar in front of him. He picked up the hamburger and bit into it, and was surprised at how good it tasted and felt inside his mouth. He was hungry after all.

"Dave," Huggy lowered his voice and reached across the bar as if to pull his friend away. "Dave, my man—"

"Don't start," said Dave, not moving.

"Can't help it, man, I never seen you like this."

Dave shrugged. Huggy paused. Then he said in a different, though still quiet, tone, "Got someone waiting to talk to you."

"Here?"

"Later. Called, and I told him, when the bar opens."

"Leave a name?" Dave began to eat, mouth not quite closing as he chewed.

"Didn't leave it."

"Who?"

"Mickey."

"That'll be the car. Damn." Dave swallowed and put the sandwich down.

Now when Huggy put a hand on Dave's arm, it lay there soothingly. "That don't sound like you, my friend. Don't be down 'cause one lead goes dry. If it is dry."

"Maybe. Maybe not." Dave shook his head, eyes on his food. "I don't want to take the time today."

Huggy's hand fell and his voice rose. "You droppin' out? Over a blond boy singer, 's in a new town and a new bed every night?" He glanced at Ken angrily, then back at Dave.

Dave grabbed the front of Huggy's paisley shirt. "I said don't start."

Ken stood up, dropped his napkin beside his plate, and walked out of the bar.

The California winter sunlight was blinding. The air moved past him as warm as breath. He ducked his head under the hanging sign and walked a few steps away from the door. The truth was he had no idea where to go, so he stopped and put one hand on the painted concrete below the high-set window, pressing his palm on its uneven slickness while his eyes adjusted to the light. Early afternoon. An ordinary street, narrow, storefronts and signs, a hotel, a few parked cars, crumpled paper and dry mud in the gutter with the glint of a pop-top and a few cigarette stubs. He breathed in the city, heated concrete and exhaust and a remote tang of garbage. Turning, he leaned his shoulders against the ledge and folded his arms. He needed to feel the world around him.

Dave's swift fall into what looked like total commitment was almost too frightening to recognize, yet the more Ken let it go the deeper it seemed to get. He hated being this helpless. His own feeling he thought he could deal with; it must be just a stronger version of the longing he'd often felt before. The payment for freedom. He'd written a song about that though he had not sung it last night.

Dave burst out of the door; saw Ken; stopped in his tracks. It was so physically exaggerated that it was comic, or would have been if Ken hadn't been thinking of just walking completely away.

The dark curls gleamed and the sun found the blue in his eyes. Dave stood still and Ken just looked back.

"Give me a cigarette," Ken said at last.

Dave dug into his shirt pocket, pulled out the pack, held it out. Ken took one, and put out his hand for the lighter. Eyes on the cigarette, he drew on it as it caught, handed back the lighter, blew out, drew in. Dave lit up too.

Ken smoked until he had enough ash to knock off, and did so with a flick of his wrist. Then he asked, voice neutral, "Looking for a car?"

Dave had not moved closer. "For a woman. She was driving it when she left her apartment."

"Missing?"

"Not reported. It's her ex looking for her. I knew him a little, so he came to me instead of somebody out of the phone book."

Ken leaned his head against the edge of the window, grinned at Dave, and said, "You're a private dick."

And Dave relaxed too. "Damn straight my dick is private."

Ken let his eyes drop down Dave's body, looked up again and said, "Not in those jeans, it's not."

Dave laughed as if the joke surprised him, smoke puffing out his nose.

"Can you call this Mickey?" Ken asked.

The dark gaze was wary. "I got his number."

"Do it. I'm taking a walk, getting a meal somewhere. Talk to him."

Dave didn't answer. Ken dropped the cigarette and stepped closer to touch Dave's arm. "I'll be back. I need air."

Dave stared, his mouth a straight line and his eyebrows down. Then he said, "Hug'll be hurt, you didn't like his special."

Ken snorted. "Console him." He shook the arm still in his grasp. "I'll be back."

Still that level, consuming look. Then it shifted a little and Ken felt the stare on his mouth, swallowed and completely without intending to, licked his lips. Dave's eyes widened and he grabbed at Ken's wrist, holding it so hard Ken felt his bones rub together.

"I'm not," Dave grated, "playing this scene on the street next time." He almost threw Ken's wrist away and stalked back into the bar.

Ken looked down at his reddening skin and knew that there was no setting that would make seeing Dave walk away any less painful.

~

When Ken made his way back to Huggy's, Dave was not there. Huggy was behind the bar racking up glasses; he looked Ken up and down with disdain.

"Find a better restaurant?"

"No." Ken stood in the middle of the floor. "Looks like this is the best one in the neighborhood."

"Don't usually sell food while the bar's closed."

"No, I did eat." Ken really didn't want to play this game. "You know that's not why I left and not why I came back."

Huggy didn't reply right away, or rack any more glasses. Then he said, "You got stuff upstairs."

Ken was abruptly angry. He walked over to the bar and slapped both hands on the edge of it, leaning in. "Say it," he rasped, "say it!"

Huggy's dark, sharp-edged face was even with his and not eight inches away. "Dave Starsky is my best friend," he said, each word a separate statement. And then, faster, as if he couldn't contain the words any more, "A good man, a feeling man. He be carryin' this a long time, when you gone."

"So will I!" Ken hadn't meant to say that. He clenched his teeth.

"You gon' hurt him," Huggy insisted.

There was nothing Ken could say to that. This hurt like hell already, and where was a way out? The only alternative he could think of was if they had never met at all.

He looked down between his hands, jaw aching. He had a life. So did Dave. It was nothing but sheer, cruel bad luck that those two lives crossed only now.

He couldn't possibly explain all that while his throat hurt like this.

Then Huggy touched him on the arm, as he had touched Dave over the lunch plate. "I see," Huggy said quietly. "Okay." He patted twice and stepped back. "Humanity sure can be one big tangled mess."

Ken cleared his throat and did manage to speak. "You can say that again."

"Something wrong with your ears, white man?" Now Huggy was putting him on, elaborately acting irritation, head wagging and hands on hips. "You didn't hear the first time?"

A half-smile tugged at Ken's mouth.

"Now what you doing with your big blond self while Dave's talkin' to Mickey?"

Ken shrugged. "Practice, I guess. Got some chords to work out."

"Here? Or upstairs?"

Ken recognized the offer but didn't want to stay in the darkness of the bar. "Upstairs."

~

For a while now he'd had a few lines floating around his mind, a new song forming, and he sat under the stained glass window at one end of the upstairs room, music book on the table, chording and singing, reaching over the guitar to jot down or erase.

"There's an empty place in my heart
Whenever you look away
And I can't breathe in enough air—"

Wrong chord there. He played the line again, tried it with G flat, sang it over:


"And I can't breathe in enough air
For what I have to say ...
Not if it's goodbye."

Good. He wrote that down, sang it through again, went on:


"Just a word I've said so often,
But never felt it so hard,
Cutting my mouth like broken glass,
Bleeding and spitting shards—"
No, that wouldn't work. Too graphic and too hard to sing. He needed a different rhyme.
"Just a word I've said so often,
But never with just this sorrow—"

No, damn, those s and th sounds were murder and it was too many syllables. "Never felt it so bad?" Then the rhyme would be 'sad,' too predictable. He played the chords and hummed, abandoning the lyric for the moment, but even when he'd gone back and worked out the introduction, his mind was still blanking on the words.

And then he heard someone coming up the stairs, fast. He slammed the music notebook shut just as the doorknob turned. Dave swung the door open as if he wanted to catch Ken at something, and then stopped as abruptly as he had outside the bar. He'd changed clothes at some point and was carrying a dark leather jacket slung over his shoulder.

"Come in," said Ken.

Dave finally closed the door and hung his jacket on the knob. "Were you singing? I didn't hear."

"Working out chords." Ken got up and put the guitar on the table. When he turned back, the dark-haired man was already moving, and they met in two steps and pressed against each other. Dave's arms tightened and Ken bent his head and kissed him, slowly and with his lips just barely parted, and again, and again just the same, as if he were taking breath from Dave's mouth.

"Tomorrow," Ken said, the word a rasp in his throat, "tomorrow I have to go to San Diego. Tonight I want to spend pretending I never have to go."

"Then," said Dave, holding even tighter, "let me take you out."

"No, let me take you. Okay? Somewhere you always go, so I can remember you there."

Dave bent his neck, put his forehead against Ken's collarbone and then turned his head slowly into Ken's throat. He felt the soft brush of Dave's lashes and then the quivering eyelids. He felt, separately, each of Dave's fingers; the hard curves of muscles; the solid, unaroused cock; the edges of Dave's belt buckle and the side of his shoe pushing into Ken's. Their pulse seemed the same and they rocked just perceptibly in the rhythm of their rushing blood.

"You smell good," said Dave, sounding almost sleepy.

"So do you." The aftershave was a little heavy but beneath it was the natural scent of Dave's hair, a tang of sweat and the honeyed musk that Ken couldn't breathe enough. Like growing things in sunshine, sweetgrass, tree-pollen, like the fields of Ken's childhood.

"There's a restaurant I like in Venice," Dave said, "but it's hours till dinnertime."

"I think," said Ken, "we can occupy ourselves until then. Somehow."

"I could track down my next lead."

"I could work on my arrangements."

"If you come to my apartment, I could show you my model train."

Ken began to laugh. "What, no etchings?"

"Why, should I get some?" Dave sounded so guileless that Ken drew back to see his face. The grin he saw told him he'd been had. Then the intense stare came back and Ken knew exactly what Dave would say: "Or we could stay right here tonight."

"We tried that," said Ken, "we tried burning it out."

Without a fraction of an inch of movement, Dave withdrew. "Is that what you were doing?" he asked slowly. "While I was making love?"

Ken felt the desperate inadequacy of silence and yet could not find words. "I was trying to cope," he said after several moments had scraped by, almost drawing blood. "Trying not to crash and burn. Remember, you said, spin out of control."

"You turn into a skid," Dave said absently. He stared at Ken, as he had outdoors, grave and hurt and intent. "You're going to fucking kill me. Your fear. Your holding back. What am I going to do."

Ken thought he knew what to say. "Do? What are you going to do?" Something shifted in Dave's eyes though he didn't smile at the echo. Ken put the fingers of one hand against the solemn face, reproducing as closely as he could the way Dave had touched him before their first kiss; then he pulled his other arm free and completed the gesture, moving his fingertips in tiny circles to remind Dave where they were. He felt the roughness of stubble, the tiny knob of a mole, the soft creases at the corners of his eyes. "You're going to show me," and Ken tried to turn into the skid, "why I don't need to be afraid."

But Dave shook his head. "I can fuck you, but I can't show you what you won't see. Look." He swallowed, said again, "Look. The sex was good, wasn't it? For you?"

"'Course," Ken said, surprised at the question.

"Better than doing yourself?"

He rolled his eyes; Dave dug in his fingers and frowned. "Better," Ken said, humoring him.

"Than the last warm body you fucked after a gig?"

As it happened, that was no contest: the last had scraped him twice with her teeth without meaning to. But Ken knew what the question meant and the answer was still easy. He couldn't remember the last time he'd even spent a whole night with a pickup. "Better."

"Than," Dave's lashes fell, then he looked up again, "than the last time you were in love?"

That was Van, and a harder call. He'd certainly had some good nights with her. But he'd never gone past fatigue, never kept kissing when his mouth grew raw, even when they were eager kids. He'd never counted up each moment in his memory, he looks like this when the sweat blooms on his skin, like this when he opens his mouth and no sound gets out, like this when he arches his back and comes, each one too precious to let go. "Better."

Holding Ken's gaze, Dave raised his brows, turned his head a little—a kind of 'so, don't you get it?' expression. But Ken still didn't.

"The sex was great, Dave. No news there. The sex was amazing. Couldn't you tell I was loving it?"

"Loving it?"

"I don't know," said Ken in desperation.

Dave took a deep breath and stepped away. He didn't meet Ken's eyes. "Let's go down to Venice, hang out there for a while. Then we could go to the restaurant. Sound like a plan?"

Ken nodded. Not speaking seemed safer. All his words were wrong lately.

~

"This is your car?" Ken looked, disbelieving, at the object in front of him—so bright a color that it would practically glow in the dark. "Don't you ever have to follow anyone?"

"Nobody can outrun this baby," said Dave, putting his hand on the car as if it were alive.

"That's not what I meant." Now Ken came to think of it, a man who wore his shirts that far open, not to mention gold chains, would probably not immediately grasp what he meant. "You do know everyone in the neighborhood takes one look and says, 'there's that PI in his cherry-tomato red car.'"

"It's candy-apple red."

After a moment, Ken said, "Oh, well, that makes all the difference."

Dave looked at him, then shrugged and pulled the driver's door open, leaned across and flipped up the lock on the passenger's side. "Get in."

He drove fast, not slowing on the turns, pulling up hard at lights. The tires complained. Ken folded his arms and said nothing.

Eventually, Dave did slow down a bit, and they slid along among houses and businesses, passing the traffic they found. "Ever seen the canals?" he asked.

"No," said Ken, "I've hardly been in LA at all. Never down here."

"The beach is great," said Dave, looking at the car ahead, changing lanes. He grinned. "Had nude sunbathing 'til last year when it got too much media play."

"I did hear about that."

"Huh. Well, it was a better show before tourists from all over were stripping off to prove something."

"Depends on the tourists, I would think."

Dave laughed. "Yeah." He paused on Dell Avenue just before a hump-backed bridge. "Take a look."

The water was dark, green or black, edged with algae and flotsam, no wider than the street they were on. A stagnant smell came in the car window. "Good grief. People live here?"

"More all the time, more big houses being redone or built. The whole area's changing." Dave started the car again.

"I suppose it's still better than the real Venice. That really stank."

"You been there?"

"Just briefly, in the summer, and we got out quick. I did, Van, our friend Mandala ... the other people we were travelling with stayed. They said we had no sense of romance."

"No romance, huh? I'll remember that." Dave's eyes were on the street and Ken couldn't tell how serious he was. They crossed two more bridges and left the canal area. "Couple good places around here to put the car. Can't park too near the beach; even this time of year it's busy. Anyway, this way we're nearer Hélène's."

"A girlfriend?"

"I have had 'em," Dave said with a sidelong glance at Ken. "But no, that's the name of the restaurant. Chez Hélène."

"Sounds classy."

"Yeah, well, I eat my share of tacos and pizza, but I didn't think that was what you meant by a place I always go."

Ken looked down, smiled. "No, you're right," he said—then they veered into a small lot and he looked up as they sped into a space, the remnants of the smile still on his mouth and a little clutch of panic in his throat as the wall of a building jumped closer. Then suddenly the car was still. He turned to Dave.

Dave smiled back and gripped his shoulder. It was a semi-public smile, more ordinary than any Ken had yet seen on Dave's face, but the heat of the bedroom version still lurked in Dave's eyes and made Ken take a deeper breath. The hand on Ken's shoulder lifted, brushed lightly across his cheek and jaw, and then Dave said, "C'mon. I'll show you."

For a moment Ken's lips parted in anticipation, but when Dave turned and got out of the car, Ken pulled himself together and followed.

Dave walked with his hands in his jacket pockets, sauntering. Ken found himself matching step for step and tucking his own hands into the front pockets of his cords. Their elbows bumped and their heads inclined slightly toward each other, though they didn't speak.

The street they walked in was like any other, especially in a part of town that had recently been depressed and was only slowly reviving. Vacant lots and papered-over display windows alternated with residences, small grocery stores with hand-painted signs, clothes stores, a tiny art gallery. They crossed the street and walked another block or so, passing a big square house, a white-painted church, a bungalow, a closed dry-cleaners, and an empty quarter-lot filled with a big bush and a mess of litter, and then stood under a red cloth awning looking at lace-curtained windows lettered in gold, 'Chez Hélène' and in black, 'restaurante a la carte.'

"See?" said Dave.

Ken looked up the stone face of the building to its decorated top. 'Venice' and 'Place' were carved in relief on either side of a stone coat of arms. Ken asked, "Wonder what this was originally. Store, you think? A bank? What?" He peered in the upper, uncurtained part of the window nearest him, but could see nothing except a few table-tops as pale as paper.

"I don't know. Right now Hélène's the only tenant. There's a couple apartments, I guess, up there, but that level's a real dump now. Needs remodeling bad."

"You could say that about a lot of these places," Ken said, as they started to walk again.

"Oh, yeah, most of them. There's this big old warehouse right on the beach, terrible eyesore. Sometimes I think I'd like to try buying in down here, before it all gets too expensive, redo the place."

"And then what?"

Dave laughed a little, his head back, the line of his throat into his collar and leather jacket a perfect shallow s-curve. Ken rested his eyes there as Dave said, "I don't know. I'm not a storekeeper. Or a chef. A landlord. Or a fast-food manager. Y'know? I don't know what I'd do if it wasn't what I do do." Ken's gaze slid up to Dave's eyes, warm and such a bright blue in this light that they seemed unreal. "Is that how it is for you? With music?"

"I did other things. None of them lasted."

There was an oddly disappointed look on Dave's face. Ken replayed his response in his mind, decided he'd sounded dismissive, and added, "I was in my father's business for a while. He wanted that ... I didn't. It was office work, financial, administrative. I can do paperwork, but exclusively? It was soul-killing. Tried college and went through a dozen different majors. Went abroad and bummed around Europe but I didn't see anywhere I'd want to stay. Lived on a commune for a while and chopped down trees and built log buildings. I don't know, at the time I loved it but after a while it just ... wore out ... felt like a huge game of Let's Pretend. I came back to the city with Van: she was my girl then. That was Seattle. I got a string of jobs I never intended to do for long, and she found somebody who could keep her in a style she wanted to get accustomed to. I started playing places on the weekends about the time we were breaking up."

"And now," Dave stared up at a hanging sign he must have seen often before, "you're in a new town every night."

Ken remembered what Huggy had said in anger, and couldn't really deny it. "And in a new bed," he said softly, owing Dave the truth.

"Think I haven't slept around?"

Ken wasn't sure what he had expected, but this matter-of-fact acceptance wasn't it. Dave stopped and put a hand on his shoulder, faced him with that openness that had grown between them so quickly. If there were other pedestrians on the street, they didn't bother Dave, and Ken could spare no attention for anything else. Dave said, quietly, "When you sang your first set, I thought, sure hope he is, 'cause that's who I want tonight. And you sang 'Bridge over Troubled Water,' your voice making all those promises, and it ... touched me. I knew it was only a song. But still. When we talked it felt like you knew me already. When we went up the stairs it felt like we'd done it a million times."

"Being with you," Ken said very slowly, "is like leading another life."

"Yeah," Dave said easily, "that's right." And began to walk again.

"But don't you see," Ken said, following, "that's what's ... that's why ...."

"The question is," said Dave, crossing the street, "would you mind another life?"

"The question is can I start another one."

"The question is do you want to."

Ken reached out and took hold of Dave's wrist, pulled him into the alcove of a door, glanced back to see that the sidewalk was still empty, and then down into those sky-bright eyes. "I do want to." And kissed him.

Ken was half-aware that Dave's hands were under his jacket, and that his back was to the street, screening Dave from view. But under his lips, Dave's were opening, the smell of aftershave and sweetgrass was in his nose, and the taste that had made him drunk last night was there, just a little further into Dave's mouth—all he had to do was reach for it. Dave held him tighter, held him up, and he bent Dave's head back. The warm puffs from Dave's nostrils were all Ken wanted to breathe.

An explosion, like a firecracker, banged somewhere nearby and tore Ken away a step.

"Car backfiring," said Dave and tightened his grip at Ken's waist, drawing him closer again. Ken, resisting the pull, laid one hand against Dave's solid jaw and stared at the reddened lips. It was stupid to kiss in a public place, but he didn't know whether he could stop himself. There was a small wet patch to one side of Dave's mouth and Ken wanted so badly to suck there that his own mouth watered, and he swallowed. Mischief flared in Dave's face and he licked across his upper lip. Ken lowered his head, giving in, but Dave said, "Payback," and twisted away, around him, and was back out on the sidewalk while Ken was still turning.

"Besides," Dave said jauntily, waiting for Ken to come out of the alcove, "I said I wanted to show you the beach."

~

Against the gray-blue of the ocean the yellow sand blazed, almost too bright to look at. Ken squinted against the full-faced glare of the afternoon sun, hanging in his peripheral vision as they walked. Dave pressed something into his hand; when he looked, he found it was a pair of sunglasses, the ones Dave had tucked inside his jacket as they walked away from the car. "What about you?" he asked but put them on anyway and felt immediately relieved.

"I'll let you know," Dave said.

They were on Ocean Front Walk, buildings of every age, size, and type patchworked along one side and the open beach on the other. Palm trees dotted the sand and a wide, curving asphalt path bore swooping bicycles and the occasional roller-skater. Ken felt the ocean wind, a little sharper than he'd thought, but still warm enough; Dave, however, settled into his leather jacket. The locals on the beach wore sweaters and windbreakers. Ken even saw a few down vests and hats.

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," Ken said conversationally as a roller-skater went by with a long scarf like a banner behind her.

"Everywhere you go," Dave agreed, and then called out, "Hey, Sugar!"

Ken had seen the frantic waving on the other side of the street but had not imagined it to be directed at himself or Dave. But the figure in white crossed immediately to meet them. The pants were bell-bottomed, the shoes were platformed, the wide, flaring collar was some white fur—and on Sugar's head was a big trailing Santa hat.

"David, sweet, I thought you were snubbing me." The voice was a tenor; Ken looked again, harder, and saw a man's aging face under the hat.

"Would I do that?"

"We-ell," Sugar drawled, "that depends. Who's your handsome friend?"

Ken stepped forward and offered his hand, having no desire to be talked around. "Ken Hutchinson," he said. Sugar's hand wafted into his but gripped firmly as they shook and held a moment longer than Ken would have.

"Ken's a singer," Dave said, and this seemed to tip Sugar over into full camp mode. The tasseled end of the Santa hat was flipped over the fur-covered shoulder as a woman might flip her hair; one slim hand waved in counterpoint to Sugar's words.

"But darling, we're colleagues! I'm an all-around entertainer myself at my own little club—comes cheaper that way." Sugar's eyelashes fluttered and that expressive hand reached for Ken's arm, rested there confidingly. "I sing and dance and do impressions. You must see it. I was going to ask Dave to pay us a visit anyway. But now—!"

"What's up, Sugar?"

"Oh, honey, do you need to ask?"

Dave rolled his eyes. "Just tell me what the problem is."

The Santa hat inclined toward Ken; Sugar blinked, then looked back at Dave and dropped several mannerisms. "It's John, John Blaine. He's been in every night for a week, soaking up the juice and then staggering out. Alone. Not good, my dear. Reminds me of how he was ... you know, just before I met you." Sugar glanced to Ken's face and then back to Dave's, meaningfully. "So I was wondering if you could drop on by tonight, if you'd rather not take it to his home turf."

"No, I ... I think you're right." And then Dave looked at Ken, brows down, thinking hard or coping with some disappointment. "I'll see, Sugar. This isn't the best night."

"You mean," Sugar pouted, "my little club isn't good enough for your friend here?"

"No right answer to that." Dave smiled. "You just love getting me into a corner, don't you?"

"Honey, you know I'd love to get you into any corner at all." Sugar's head tipped back, mouth opened in a soundless laugh. "I'm just so glad I ran into you. I've been calling and calling your place."

"Yeah, well, I haven't been home much the last day or so."

"Hmm." Sugar's little smile and look from Ken to Dave spoke volumes. "I'll leave you two together, then ... ah, young love ...." Sugar stalked off like a silent-movie femme fatale, one hand trailing behind. A pair of tourists with cameras around their necks turned completely around to look.

When Sugar was safely away, Dave covered his face with his hands and shook his head, and Ken began to laugh. Dave wiped down his face and tugged the bottom of his jacket, and they walked on, a reluctant grin on Dave's mouth and Ken still chuckling.

"That didn't ... bother you at all?" Dave asked after a few minutes.

"I'm not big on camp, but no, it didn't bother me." Again Ken felt the obligation to say more, explain himself. "Sugar's obviously your friend. And I don't—" Ken smiled again—"mean 'friend' the way Sugar used it."

"No," Dave said, and then seemed to be a little embarrassed by the force he'd used. "No, I just ... did him a favor. Sort of."

"Was it a case?" Ken found he wasn't making conversation, really wanted to know, though usually he had little interest in other people's jobs.

"Ya." Dave put his hands in his pockets and looked at the ground as he walked, scraping his feet through the sand that drifted onto the sidewalk. This memory evidently affected him strongly. He looked up at Ken, and relaxed visibly, and spoke. "My first big one. I'd found a lost Pekinese and done some divorce work for a guy from out of state, and looked up some paper for some people too lazy to do it themselves. And I was beginning to think this was just a hobby, y'know, better get a day job. Was home visiting my aunt and uncle—where I lived since I was twelve—dropped by next door to see John Blaine. He was all upset about somethin' but wouldn't say. Well, I didn't think nothin', I knew he thought I was just a big kid. None of my business, but—well, Johnny and I were always close. Like I was another son, or at least a cousin. Bothered me that I couldn't do nothin'."

Ken's mouth was curved in a half-smile as he pictured Dave in a little suburban house, swinging over a fence into the next yard, eating at a dining room table like in some family TV show. "And?" he prompted, nudging Dave a little with one elbow.

They'd come to a hot-dog stand with a garish painted sign, and a few scattered chairs and tables with red umbrellas over them. Between the eating area and the beach was a railing made of two-inch pipe that stretched six feet or so beyond the nearest table. Dave stopped, got out his cigarette pack, and leaned his forearms on the rail as he lit up; Ken stood back a step or so and watched him against the panorama of sand and tourists and sky and sea. Low in the sky was a cloud bank, a gray smear that darkened the water at the horizon and blended with the shadowed and scarred leather Dave wore, the smoke that trailed upward from his lips.

"Well, a week later I was doing a pickup for Huggy. He gets his stuff from everywhere. I don't think it's illegal, or not very." Dave sucked again on the cigarette. "Anyway this time the story was that another bar owner had a case and only wanted a half-case. And I saw Johnny coming out of a hotel, and he saw me and stopped dead. Dead. I thought he'd faint. I mean he leaned against the wall." The hand holding the cigarette gestured, and Ken could almost see the wall, the street, the red car with its trunk open. "And I couldn't figure it out but I still thought, he's been such a longtime friend. If he wants to tell me, he will, and if he doesn't, it's none of my business anyway."

"When did you find out?"

"I got a call a couple days later." Dave dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, grinding it out. "It's like, he just remembered what I did for a living. It was weird, having him hire me, because he's a cop and he always tried to get me to be one too."

"Is being a PI so different?"

"Yeah." Leaning on the pipe again, Dave shook his head, smiling to himself. "Yeah." He looked at the empty nearby table as if to reassure himself that they weren't being overheard, and then said more softly and gravely, "John was being blackmailed. He had a room at a hotel, a new one every so often, and he'd go to Sugar's bar, The Green Parrot. Somebody'd seen him, somebody had pictures, and they were gonna send 'em to his captain. He would've been fired."

"And you fixed it." Ken grasped Dave's arm above the elbow, let go quickly. An acceptable public gesture. And then, after a moment, "Hey, let's walk in the sand."

"It'll get in my shoes," Dave complained, but followed when Ken walked around the rail and down the slope of the beach.

The advantage of being with a woman, Ken thought, was that he could have put an arm around her waist or held her hand, while now he just put his hands in his pockets and kicked sand up a little in front of him, near enough almost to feel Dave's body heat but not touching. In the gusts of wind from the water there were too many smells to distinguish, but every once in a while he caught a little of Dave's aftershave, the remains of the smoke, or the faint scent of his hair, and the sun slid an outline of light around his head and down the collar and arm of his jacket. If Ken fell behind a little, he could see Dave's little swagger as he walked; if he fell behind more than a step or two, Dave looked back and waited for him to catch up. The waves hissed and coughed in front of them and the people on the sidewalk seemed far away. There weren't many sunbathers, this late in the day and with the clouds moving in. It felt a lot more private.

"What did Blaine's blackmail have to do with doing a favor for Sugar?" Ken asked.

"It's not a good thing if there's surveillance going on in the bar. If it got around, the place would've been empty in a week. I found the guy. That wasn't really the hard part once Johnny was straight with me."

Ken cleared his throat and Dave looked over uncomprehending for a moment, then shrugged and said, "Okay, once Johnny told me what I needed to know. It was another cop, the bastard. And I thought, how did he know to go to the Parrot anyway? Because he was there on his own? And that was it. So it wasn't hard to scare him off." He bent down and pulled a stick of driftwood out of the sand, looked at it, brushed off the wet sand that clung where it had been buried. Then with a flick of the wrist he threw it into the water. "No. The hard part was finding out about John. I was seriously freaked out. I mean, I grew up next door to his family. I always thought he and Maggie were the ideal couple. And, well ...." He glanced at Ken, shrugged again, and went back to looking in the sand. He picked up one stone, then another one.

Ken found himself disappointed at not hearing the whole story about someone he didn't even know. Strangest thing. He looked at the stones in Dave's hands, found a similar one and handed it to him. "We used to skip stones like these."

"I don't think you can unless the water's quieter."

"No, probably not. I wonder if I still could anyway." Ken pushed back the whipping ends of his hair, looking out at the undulating water and the dimming sky. "Seems like forever ago. I learned how from a camp counselor, and my friends and I spent weeks doing it at the lake there."

"Doing it?" Dave was grinning.

Ken remembered those long summer evenings, silver and shadowy under pine trees where this was the shocking contrast of leaden gray and fiery gold. "Actually ..." and now he matched Dave's grin. "I meant skipping stones, of course, but we jerked each other off too."

Dave laughed. "Did'ya have a crush on the counselor?"

"Doesn't everybody? That's got to be the great summer-camp experience."

"Hey, c'm'on," and Dave punched him in the shoulder, not too hard, "some kids are straight."

"Then they fell for the girls' counselors."

Dave flipped a stone into the shallow water as a wave swept in. Plunk, went the stone. Ken took another one out of his hand and did the same. Plunk.

"I never went to summer camp," Dave said. "Maybe that's why I took it out on Johnny."

"Ah." Ken squeezed Dave's shoulder. "I thought so."

They stood for a while just like that, Ken's hand resting on Dave, both facing the water. The sky was definitely graying, the murky stain leaching the colors of the sunset into itself and not reflecting them back.

"The guy he'd been photographed with was younger than me," Dave said, and Ken squeezed harder again.

~

They did have sand in their shoes, and Ken's hair was a windblown mess. Dave said he wanted a tie to wear to Hélène's and would lend Ken one. So they were going to Dave's apartment to freshen up.

Ken didn't believe it but didn't object. In fact it was all the sweeter anticipating touching Dave, taking his clothes off, seeing him lost in sensation, when they were just walking back to the car, not even flirting with each other. Or barely flirting. They were moving fairly quickly and the air had cooled, gusts of wind from the ocean reaching farther back into the streets and the sky dimming with evening or cloud or both.

While they drove back across town, it began to rain, though it was still only drizzling when Dave pulled up across one door of a three-car garage.

They went up the glistening white-wood staircase on the nearer side of the building, Dave leading the way and Ken admiring the view, as staying a few steps behind put Dave's working thighs and ass right in front of him. Dave half-turned in the roofed nook of the landing, digging in his pocket for the key and smiling slightly, but when they stepped inside he said, "Let me get that tie—sit down anywhere," and walked off, threading his way past the coffee table and through an archway. The apartment was full of stuff, pottery, wall plaques, a blinking traffic light, metal shapes dangling from the ceiling ... Ken felt a bit overwhelmed, crowded. He had a hard time believing Dave was nervous, but the alternative seemed unlikely too. He followed through the archway and past a little dining set to the bedroom, but hesitated in the doorway as he saw Dave opening a dresser drawer. Really getting the tie, then. "I think I misunderstood," Ken said.

Dave put the roll of fabric he'd pulled out of the drawer onto the top of the dresser as he faced Ken. "I thought you said," he began, but Ken was already halfway across the room.

"I know what I said, every stupid thing I've ever said ...." Dave's hands at his waist held him steady, and Dave's mouth fed him. Dave's rain-damp head was between his hands. The spot he'd wanted to taste before was wet again under his tongue, and he mouthed along the upper lip Dave had licked to tease him. Dave stroked Ken's lower lip with his tongue and pulled their hips together with bruising force.

"Don't tease me," one of them said, and Ken realized belatedly that it was Dave. "Not any more."

"No, don't," Ken answered, and kissed him again. "Let me," against his neck, "let me in."

"I can't keep you out." The rain hissed against the window. Dave's breath fell against Ken's skin. It felt like there was all the time in the world to undo the buttons of Dave's shirt, to find the skin and hair and the ripples of moving muscle and kiss each new discovery. Ken knelt, unbuckling the belt in front of him, unbuttoning the fly, unzipping, and Dave watched with lowered chin and eyes like dark stars. Hands on dry skin above the sagging top of the jeans, Ken looked up, saw how light caught in the tiny beads of water still resting on Dave's hair, and couldn't force his eyes away, pressing his chest against his lover's body. Dave cupped Ken's face in both hands and stroked his temples, through his sideburns, into his tangled hair, and the slim fingers caught there. Ken loosened the arms he'd wrapped around Dave's hips, leaned back just far enough to let the erection spring up against the fabric of Dave's briefs, and then licked the cloth. Felt the body above him sway, heard a desperate swallow, saw the dark-shadowed jaw clench hard.

Ken slid both hands into those briefs, rubbing back and forth against skin as familiar now as his own. Carefully he pulled the layers of fabric out of the way, down to Dave's calves, then reached under to grab the back of his shoes. "Step out."

Dave did, hands braced against Ken's shoulders. "Get up," he said.

Ken was unbuttoning his own shirt as he got to his feet, and went on doing it while Dave undid the cords and slid them down his legs, held his shoes as he stepped out of them. Just in case they really were going to the restaurant later, Ken put his clothes on top of the dresser, while strong arms reached around his waist, a smooth forehead pressed between his shoulder blades, and a warm, tense cock settled against his ass.

The hug grew tighter and Dave kissed Ken's spine. "I want you in my bed," he said, mouth against skin.

"That was the idea," Ken said.

Dave's bed was a dark-wood box, a canopy without drapes, with a mirror above the headboard and corner supports heavy enough to hold little triangular shelves inside. Ken half expected a waterbed, but the mattress gave no more than usual when they came down on it. A velour bedspread in a patchwork print wrinkled sensuously under them. Ken lay back and saw that the canopy held three more long mirrors, a large central panel and two narrower ones flanking it, in which his own image and Dave's floated weirdly. "Mirrors?" he asked. "Dave?"

"I like them," said Dave. He pulled Ken closer, guided him down again to lie diagonally on top, looking up. Ken let his head fall back onto Dave's collarbone, and felt his hair brushed tenderly away, then petted. "Look at us," said Dave, voice soft. "Look at you." He stroked Ken's arms and lifted his head to kiss the point of Ken's shoulder. "When I'm with someone as beautiful as you are, I want to see them."

In the mirror, the darker patterns of the coverlet swallowed Dave's hair, and his eyes looked black. His skin was a dark gold like some of the rippling squares of velour. Ken looked up, and reached out, along the muscular legs, then bent his arm to pet back up to Dave's cock, dusky and full and delicious. Ken's own body seemed pale and big in the mirror, ghostly. But then he never had thought he was so very good looking.

Dave's hand cupped the side of Ken's head, worked into his hair while Dave was kissing the other side near the ear. "Beautiful," he said, breath hot and as loud as his voice. One arm slid around Ken's waist and the hand caressed his ribs. Trailed across his stomach. Brushed past Ken's own erection to pet his thigh, and then back up to the ribs. Ken twisted a little and the arm tightened around him.

"No," he said, "let me move," and Dave let go. Ken turned over and kissed along Dave's throat and over to his shoulder, up the slope of the pectoral to a nipple already firming up. Dave's hands kneaded and combed across Ken's skull and he made small sounds of pleasure, so Ken moved back to feel those vibrations with his lips as he went on kissing, licking, sucking at Dave's skin and rubbing himself against Dave's side and leg.

Dave's hands pulled out of his hair to trace the muscles and bones of his upper back. "Beautiful," Dave said again, so quietly that Ken didn't think he was really meant to hear.

He gulped back the swelling emotion and said "you," against Dave's skin, "you," sliding his own hands between the sturdy body and the soft velour, "you," pulling one knee up under him and lifting, suspending Dave's tensing weight in his arms.

"What're y—" Dave began, but obviously realized that Ken was pulling them both up until they were sitting on the spread, Dave's hip snug against Ken's cock and both twisted so their chests and lips met. Now Ken held Dave's head and searched his mouth again, finding every slick, rough, hard, yielding texture only more inflaming, and Dave pressed back as hard, played as wetly with his tongue, pushed as deep between Ken's teeth.

A clap of thunder outside just shook them closer together.

Ken raised his head to find himself facing the back mirror. He caught his own bemused eyes. Dave's face, pressed against Ken's, was obscured in the shadows of the canopy and the storm. The back of Ken's hand stood out against the dark hair but the pale fingers vanished into it. Ken looked harder for the definition of Dave's muscles, their movement under his skin. "I do," Ken murmured, "I do want to see you." Dave kissed his jaw and then his neck. Ken lifted his chin and opened his eyes again to watch the movement of Dave's head reflected above, while he felt Dave's lips, his tongue and his teeth, all the touches sweeping through his body as the rain swept across the roof, as the wind rattled the window-glass.

Ken knew what he wanted. He pulled gently back on Dave's head until he could look into his eyes, and said, "Let me fuck you. Let me watch you while I do it."

In the dim yellow lamplight Ken could not read the rippling expressions that crossed Dave's face, though he thought one would be amusement. "Yes," Dave almost whispered, as though it were a secret, and then louder, "Here," and pulled away. He reached for the lowest left-hand shelf and handed Ken a tube of K-Y, then gathered together all the pillows on the bed, sweeping them into a pile. "Sit there."

Ken sat, his back against the pillows, and Dave turned around. He sat between Ken's legs and leaned back, his spine against Ken's chest and his head on Ken's shoulder. Ken put both arms round him and Dave said, "Look up."

When he did, Ken could see why Dave had chosen this position, which allowed both of them to see the mirror and showed Dave's whole body. It would be strenuous, though. "Okay," Ken said, then kissed the side of Dave's head, quickly. "Okay."

Ken pushed at the warm taut shoulders and Dave went easily to his hands and knees. But the bow of his spine, the curve of his hips, were too distracting: Ken felt and tasted them, up and down, back and forth, until the body under him was quivering and writhing and Ken could not stop smiling even while he kissed the moving skin. Dave shifted his weight and pulled Ken's hand away from his ribs. "Do it," he said, "use it, come on."

Ken pulled away slowly, dragging his forehead down Dave's back. At the last moment he grabbed that sweet ass with both hands and gave the top of the crack a long, wet kiss. Dave's hips bucked. "All right, all right, all right," Ken muttered and picked up the tube again.

He squeezed too hard and a big glob of the oily stuff spurted into his hand, which was unsteady anyway. Scraping some of it off with his other hand, he coated himself quickly and then gave his attention back to Dave. Ken had to keep telling himself this wasn't the first time they'd done this, but even so there was a wild novelty to it—perhaps that mirror—that kept him on edge and unable to keep still or plan ahead. His hand dived as if of its own volition into the crack of Dave's ass, stroking back and forth, round and round the puckered ring he was supposed to be lubricating and loosening, but this felt so good that Ken was mesmerized. Forward until his fingertips nudged Dave's sac, back up to his tailbone, in and down again, pausing to circle where the anus clenched and opened. Dave pumped back and forth, flexing his spine, and Ken groaned and kissed the small of his back as it rose and fell, reached around to take Dave into his other hand and feel the pulsing velvet slide back and forth through his palm.

Ken finally managed to put a finger into Dave, stroking in and out, but could hardly breathe himself and couldn't stand to take his lips from Dave's skin.

The thunder had been going on in the background, but now came a crack so loud it sounded as if the bolt had hit the roof. Both men jumped. Whether Dave reared back or Ken pulled him up was unclear, but they found themselves in the dark, sitting almost upright, skin flat against skin. Ken's hand was still on Dave's cock, and Ken's cock was almost exactly in position. Dave's breath puffed out, not really a chuckle, and he shifted his legs to straddle Ken's thighs, then lifted himself.

"Now," he said, voice strained. Ken fumbled at his own cock, the head sliding against yielding skin to a place even more yielding. Another crack of thunder, farther off, and the lamp blinked back on. Dave settled onto Ken with a deep, wordless sound. So right that Ken couldn't reply.

At first he held the hard biceps in his hands, but that left him pushing up Dave's full weight and a few strokes showed how unworkable it was. Then Dave thrust his hands down against the mattress, Ken pulled his knees closer together, and they re-braced themselves so they could both move. Ken held Dave around the ribs and they rocked smoothly, worked together, breathing in rhythm, united. Dave's head fell back on Ken's shoulder again, and he murmured, "Look."

Ken looked. His own hair was silvery in the mirror, and Dave's black. Their faces were side by side. Dave's chest glistened and moved with his breath. Ken watched his own hands travel across that damp warmth, tangle in the hair, circle the tight knobs of Dave's nipples. He could see Dave's teeth glint, his thighs strain and relax, his eyes as they blinked shut and opened again to meet Ken's reflected gaze. Ken reached again for Dave's cock and watched him arch into the touch, eyes tight shut now, mouth soundlessly open. Ken's hand mimicked the clutch and slide of Dave's ass and they both cried out, suddenly frantic, working faster and arching higher and losing the feeling of the bed below, as if they were up in the mirror, or beyond in the eye of the storm. Then, yes, that moment of stillness, swelling larger in each other's hold, and then shuddering in long moments of release. Together.

Ken opened his eyes and gazed up again. Dave's bronze hand half-vanished into the tangled pale hair and Ken hugged him so tightly he felt the breath labor in his grip and had to will himself to be gentler. Dave turned his face toward Ken, his neck stretched farther than looked possible. Ken stroked the throat and kissed the damp face and heard his own voice without making out the words.

Then he registered them: "lovedavedave, love, Dave," he was murmuring over and over. They moved, turned, until Ken had pulled out and they lay face to face and looking into each other's real eyes. Ken said, soberly, meaning it, hearing himself, "I love you. David. I am in love with you."

Dave's eyes looked huge, as full of light and darkness as the night sky. His lips were not quite steady but his gaze never moved. Ken stroked his face and hair and said, "Yes. I mean it. I love you." He ran fingertips along the full lower lip. "Tell me," he whispered.

"Yes," Dave whispered back, and then closed his eyes. Ken gathered him closer still and they neither moved nor spoke for what seemed a long time.

~

The storm was still going on, a cacophony of rain and wind and thunder rising and falling as if orchestrated. The bed was a mess. The alarm clock said 9:14.

"It's too late for Hélène's," said Dave.

Ken stretched as thoroughly as he could while lying down. "Oh?"

Dave, sitting up against the headboard, smoking, grinned down at Ken. "You don't sound very disappointed," he said.

"Depends on the alternative," said Ken. "Not, please, those tacos you mentioned."

"No," said Dave. "Not pizza, either."

"Good." Ken reached out and ran a hand along the nearest parts of Dave's body, which turned out to be his forearm and his flank. "We could just stay here."

Dave didn't answer for a long enough time that Ken rolled up on his side to get a better look at his face.

Turning away briefly, Dave put his cigarette in the ashtray on one of the little triangular shelves. "I think I've got to go to the Parrot," he said, meeting Ken's eyes again. "It may be nothing."

"Or," said Ken, falling onto his back again, "it may not."

"You don't mind?"

Ken shrugged, not easy to do while lying flat in the rumpled covers. "Will I like the food?"

"Maraschino cherries? Pretzel sticks? Olives? Lime twists? Stop me when I hit something you want to eat."

"You'll wear yourself out, brainstorming." He rolled farther this time, pushed up and pressed his chest to Dave's. "Can't have that."

Their mouths were within an inch of each other. Dave went on, "Potato chips. Oran-" and Ken kissed him. When their lips parted, Dave said, "-nge slices," so Ken kissed him again, savoring the taste of smoke in his mouth.

"Mmm," said Dave, eyes opening more slowly this time, voice almost dreamy. "Popcorn."

Ken said, "This isn't working, is it?"

"Depends," Dave smiled. "Works fine for me."

Ken put his head down on Dave's chest, and felt a loving hand in his hair again. He remembered his gig in San Diego for the first time in hours, and with a sharp pang of sorrow.

"We need to shower," said Dave, fingers circling on the nape of Ken's neck.

"Dress," said Ken, not moving either except to slide a hand along Dave's skin. Then, straying down to the curve in above the hip, his fingers drew light lines there, and Dave suddenly squirmed.

"Don't," he said, and actually wiggled out from under Ken's body, off the bed. He bent over Ken with one knee still on the mattress. "You tickled me."

"Got you up," said Ken, but he hadn't meant to and was sorry he had.

"You get up too," said Dave, pulling on his shoulder. Ken caught that hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing the palm.

"Shower first," he said. "I'll wait." When Dave hesitated, Ken said, "Come on, if we're in there together we'll never get to your gay bar."

Dave made a sound in his throat and bent farther, kissing Ken's temple and then his forehead, holding his hand tightly. Pulled back and gazed for a moment. "Only for Johnny," he said then, standing up, and went into the bathroom.

Ken lay back and looked up into the mirror. The bed looked like a small tornado had touched down in it. There was a pillow crushed into the far corner at the foot of the bed; Ken wondered how it had gotten there. Most of the velour coverlet was bunched up down there too, so perhaps it hadn't, after all, been completely destroyed.

"Just me," Ken murmured. The image hovering up there was not visibly different from the one he'd seen at first. And, to be honest, he hadn't started loving Dave only in this bed. But ... he thought about what he'd said before, on the street in Venice, and wondered still if he were strong enough to enter another life, to live it through. To step though the mirror into Looking-Glass Land and make it real.

To do a better job at love than he had in the past.

~

Just before they walked out the door, Dave grabbed a newspaper, and divided it so they'd each have some to hold over their heads. It didn't help. The rain was unremitting, wings of water feathering the staircase as they went down it, the sidewalk as they crossed it, the car as they got into it and drove along the wet, hissing streets. Wind pushed and shook the frame of the car. Thunder startled them from time to time.

"Flash flood weather," said Dave, swiping at his temple with the back of one hand.

"Sure is." Ken reached over and moved the curl that had plastered itself to the corner of Dave's eye. Dave glanced over and smiled in thanks, and Ken grinned happily back.

"You," said Dave, looking out the windshield, "are too damn gorgeous to take to a gay bar."

It hadn't struck Ken before, but Sugar's would be the kind of place that, a little more than twenty-four hours ago, he might have gone to find someone to spend the night with, if he was in the mood for a man. And now, of course, he was in the mood for a man, but not one he'd pick up. "You need to trust me," he said gently.

"Oh, I do."

Ken thought it was mostly true. Dave wanted to trust him, anyway, and the rest he'd have to earn.

Dave parked across the street from the bar, pointing out the neon sign to Ken before they left the car. He reached over the seat for the wet clumps of newspaper, and Ken said, "No, thanks," so they just got out and ran down the puddled sidewalk and across between prismed streaks of oil and light. The rain made the streetlights seem brighter, the night darker. Dave, there first, grabbed the door and hauled it open and they were both laughing as they nearly fell into the narrow hallway just inside the door. The bass-line from the bar's music pulsed in the air and the floor, and the treble teased at their attention. The light seemed harsh, glinting off the metal of the payphone on the wall.

"Oh, yeah, a perfect night to go out," said Ken as they tried to brush some of the water off their clothes and out of their hair. "If your friend's here, he'll never suspect you came here to find him."

Dave put an arm around Ken's waist, and Ken imagined he felt the rain-soaked body heat through both their leather jackets. "I'm dancing with you first," Dave said.

"I don't dance very well," said Ken, with one wet hand on Dave's wet face to guide their mouths together.

"I don't care," said Dave when their lips parted, and then kissed him again.

"Hey, guys, move it!" came a voice behind them. "For pete's sake, there's a whole bar in there to neck in!"

"Okay," said Dave, eyes alight, "okay." He reached between strands of beads and swept them aside, holding them for Ken as if they were a door, and Ken ducked through, goosing Dave as he passed and getting an indignant "Hey!" in response.

He found himself a step or two above the main floor, with the bar on his left, facing a small stage at the end of the room. There was nothing on it at the moment but a piano and a bentwood chair in front of panels of silver tinsel. People were dancing, mostly men though there were a few female couples; above, a mirror-ball cast its little sparks of light around the room as it turned. The music was loud; Ken turned to Dave and took his hand. "You said you wanted to dance." Ken could barely hear his own voice.

They pulled each other onto the dance floor, found a little space and began to move, arms and hips and feet. Dave was one of those people who could look good twisting in a chair in time to the music, and now he snaked his shoulders and nodded his head, and Ken was so absorbed in looking at him that, for once, he lost his own self-consciousness, just letting the music move him while he watched flakes of light hit Dave, slide around him, and slip away. Ken felt people bump into him, more often than the crowd on the floor really merited, and he moved away from a hand brushing across his hip and down his thigh. Dave took his hand and they wheeled around. Ken's feet seemed to be behaving themselves, he thought, and then did stumble a little. Dave grinned at him. The music stopped and in a brief moment of darkness, Ken pulled him close and ducked his head down to nuzzle inside the leather collar.

"Damn," Dave said into Ken's ear, pushing in with his hips. Then, as the lights came back and a new song started, and they separated enough to dance again.

It felt good. Ken hadn't felt this good in public for a long while, when he wasn't actually singing.

Dave pulled him close in what was almost a waltz step, and said, "Johnny's there, at the bar, gray hair, blue jacket," and turned so Ken could see: a burly man, half turned toward the door, his head sunk between his shoulders. Not good body language to see in a friend.

"Okay," Ken said. "Go over now?"

"Nah," and Dave swung him out again, smiled at him, and they danced until the end of the set. Then they went over to the bar.

Dave leaned over and called, "Murph?" and waved, and then called again, "Murph? Set us up a couple—" and then turned to Ken. "What do you drink?" Throughout this performance, he never looked at the man in the blue jacket.

"Beer's fine," said Ken, amused. He supposed he should have realized from the Bogart impression, back at Huggy's, that Dave was a ham.

"Two beers here, Murph." And then he turned back and 'noticed' Blaine. "Hey, John, how are you?" He moved down the bar toward the older man, and Ken followed.

As he'd never met Blaine, Ken couldn't tell whether he always had that knowing eye or whether he simply wasn't fooled this time, but his affection for Dave was obvious. "Hey, Davey, good to see you." John's hand hovered, then patted Dave's arm. "You look on top of the world."

Dave grinned. "Life's treating me pretty good, yeah," he said, and then reached back and pulled Ken a step nearer. "Johnny, meet Ken."

Ken no longer wondered how John had stayed in the closet so long. Any random straight guy would have cased him out more as they shook hands; of course, John might be sending 'keep away' signals because of Dave, but he just did not look like someone who was here to pick somebody up. To get drunk, maybe, though he seemed too watchful for that.

The three of them talked of nothing for a while, and Dave asked after some people he and John knew, and then said, "Hey, it's loud. Want to get a table, maybe get away from the speakers? Or are you meeting Peter?"

The smile dropped off John's face. "No," he said, "I'm not meeting Peter."

"Oh," said Dave. Paused. "Well, can we sit down, then?"

John didn't answer. He picked up his glass and took a swig. Ken and Dave drank too. Then Dave put his glass down and cocked his head at John, clearly not letting him off the hook.

"I'd rather not," said the older man at last. Looked back at his glass, swirling the liquor in it.

Ken felt a shift in Dave; he'd made a decision. "I didn't just come here," he said, leaning in a little. "I was asked."

John hitched up one shoulder, wouldn't meet their eyes.

"Sugar's worried about you." Dave paused between sentences as if they were nudges; he let each sink in before nudging again. "I came to find out why."

And John, still not looking, pursed his lips as if to whistle; then he clenched his teeth, the jaw setting hard. At last he said, "Peter's been fired. For being gay."

Dave didn't relent, didn't move, and Ken, though he probably should have excused himself or just slipped away, didn't stir either. John looked at his watch, and up at the clock on the wall behind the bar, and then he fixed his eyes over Dave's shoulder, looking toward the door, and a sickly half-smile came onto his face. "There," he said, gesturing with his drink. "Like clockwork."

Ken looked, and Dave turned completely around to look too. Two men were coming through the bead curtain. The first one was tall, square-jawed, his hair light brown. The other was somewhat shorter, older, his pepper-and-salt hair tied back into a pony tail, and a long sixties-style fringe on his suede jacket.

"The new guy. He's not a cop," said John Blaine. "No family. Not anybody who can't come out."

"Damn, John." After a moment of stillness, Dave was ablaze. "You come here to watch them? What a— We're gettin' out of here now. Come on. We'll go somewhere. We'll talk." He dug into his back pocket, opened his wallet and pulled out a bill to lay on the bar. "Get your coat." The older man didn't move. "Johnny, please." Dave put his hand on John's shoulder. "You know what, we haven't had dinner or nothing, and Blondie here already said he was starving. Come on with us. I know a great place. Okay?"

Ken didn't know how anyone could resist Dave in this mood; apparently John couldn't either. "Okay," he said, and pushed away from the bar.

"You okay to drive?" Dave asked.

"Oh yeah, sure," John said.

"Then follow us."

"You know," Ken ventured, "it'll be easy, with us in that glow-in-the-dark red number."

It was a feeble joke, but John smiled. So did Dave, before getting mock-stern. "I told you, candy-apple red."

~

"You are gonna love this place," Dave said as they went in, his hair and even eyelashes spangled with rain all over again, glancing back at John and then touching Ken's lapels and looking into his eyes. "I mean, I want you to look at the atmosphere. You ever seen anything so—"

Ken brushed water off the sleeves of his jacket. "But d'you think we can find a table?" he asked facetiously. There was almost nobody still eating. It was a comfortable looking little place—sea-blue walls, a little frieze of painted vines, rustic wood booths, rough-cut beams with plastic vines twined round them, little tables with red and white checked cloths. A pair of men were in a corner booth, speaking to the waitress, and another man in the middle of the room was just putting down his napkin and getting up; one man sat at the bar.

"Well, here's a table right here," said Dave, playing along. "Now come on, come on," and he shepherded them over to a square one on the other side of the room.

"Yeah," said Ken as they walked over and Dave shook out the piece of newspaper he'd used again as an umbrella. John picked up his overcoat by the lapels and held it off his shoulders, shaking it as much as he could without taking it off. Ken and Dave pulled out chairs and settled into them, but John still stood, uncertainly.

"Siddown," said Dave, smiling up, one hand on Ken's shoulder, "come on, Johnny. Gimme a little of your time."

"I—I can't," said John. "Can't talk about it." His eyes fixed on where Dave was touching Ken. His voice dropped further. "Anyway, this isn't a good restaurant for me. Some Mob connections .... I didn't know this was the place you meant. I just came in to tell you good night, out of the rain. I gotta go home."

"Home?" asked Dave.

John smiled, though a bit sadly, and rested his hand for a moment on Dave's head. "Yeah, going home," he said, and then reached toward Ken for a handshake. Ken half rose and returned it. "Good to meet you," said John. He glanced at Dave, then back at Ken, opened his mouth for a moment and then shut it.

They both looked after him as he left. As he reached the door, John's attention was caught by the men in the corner, who seemed to be arguing; he looked hard for a second, then shook his head and went out. Wind and a spray of rain rushed in the door when he opened it, fluttering the wet ends of Dave's newspaper.

Dave plopped the paper on the nearest vacant chair and struggled out of his wet leather jacket, waving to the waitress. She came over with a sigh. "It's almost closing time," she said, "we really don't have much left."

"Well, whatever you've got, I bet it's good, even if it's not on your menu," said Dave, tone oddly impersonal for such a flirtatious line, and Ken looked incredulously at him before turning himself to the waitress.

"You'll have to excuse my friend here," he said. "What would you recommend?"

"Veal piccata," she listed, "linguini with clams."

"I'll have the veal," Ken said, not much caring.

"I'll have the linguini with the clams," said Dave jauntily.

"All right, veal and linguini. Do you want some wine with it?"

"Uh ... vino da casa," Ken said.

"Vino da casa, okay," she confirmed and swung round to pick up a tray before backing through the kitchen door.

"What's vino da casa?" Dave asked implausibly.

"Quit," said Ken. "Putting me on."

Dave grinned. "Hey," he said, his eyes bright and voice soft. "Hey." He looked around as if to remind himself they were in public; he clasped his hands together. "I told you you'd like this place. You know what it reminds me of?"

"Another Italian restaurant?"

"The one my grandmother used to live over when I was a kid."

Ken said, "I bet every time you walk into an Italian restaurant, it reminds you of the one your grandmother lived over when you were a kid."

"Yeah, I guess it does." Dave shifted in his chair, looked around the room in a more focussed way, at the kitchen door, then the other corner.

Ken's itinerant life came in handy at times like this. "I think it's over there," he suggested.

"What?"

"The john."

Embarrassment flickered across Dave's face, and he leaned forward with mock irritation. "Did anyone ever tell you you're a regular shaft of sunlight?"

"You," said Ken, and Dave smiled back. They got up.

"Where're you going?" A tilted eyebrow accompanied the question.

Ken half-smiled again. No, he hadn't meant to go with Dave to the rest room. "Play some music," he said, gesturing to the jukebox.

"Oh," said Dave and dug into his pocket.

Ken waved him back, said, "That's all right, it's on me," reaching in his own pocket.

Dave gave him another private smile. "Okay," he said, and they separated.

Ken, on his way to the jukebox, glanced over idly and saw the two men in the corner with their heads together; the older, gray-haired one said distinctly, "... cover that one ...." with a gesture, and Ken looked down at the machine's little backlit rectangles, leaning on the curved glass. Here at the outside wall he could hear the rain again, and he whistled softly, looking for suitable music. "Rainy Days and Mondays," maybe?

Then something poked him hard in the back and a voice said, "Don't move." Ken froze. "I have a gun in your back. Now put both hands on top of the machine," but Ken still couldn't get his brain around this—it had to be a joke—this kind of thing only happened on TV, right?—the voice insisted, "both hands on top of the machine," and the hard thing between his ribs pushed in. He lifted the hand that had been on the music buttons, placed it on the glass. "That's right." He felt a hand moving under his jacket, feeling around his side, into his armpit, and for a moment he thought of the wandering hands at the Parrot, but this hand jabbed at him abruptly and withdrew quickly. "Where's your gun?"

"Gun?" he tried to turn, but got another poke. He was beginning to believe that it was a gun muzzle, that he could be shot at any moment.

"Don’t make any moves," said the voice, and Ken stopped immediately. The hand made a quick and impersonal tour around his body, up and down his legs. Then a short pause. The voice muttered, "Too late," and then, to him, "Now, let's take a walk. Let's go to the men's room. Turn around." Again Ken wasn't fast enough, and the gun thrust into him, the voice impatient, "Turn around."

Ken turned away. The man at the bar apparently was so sunk in thought, or maybe so drunk, that he didn't seem to realize anything was happening. Ken thought of calling out, but the pressure of the gun dissuaded him. A man who'd pull a gun right in the middle of a restaurant might fire it, too. And they were going to the rest room. Where Dave was. And the younger, dark-haired man who'd been in the corner was now at a central table, with another gun in his hand.

Fear rose in Ken's throat like bile.

As they began to walk toward the kitchen door and the little archway leading to the rest rooms, Dave and the waitress reappeared almost simultaneously. Dave's eyes flicked over Ken and his captor, and he ducked hard into the kitchen door, sending the waitress flying backward. Ken went flying himself, and had hit the floor before he knew the gunman had pushed him. He heard two bangs, the waitress screaming, a crash of plates—took a breath and realized he hadn't been hit. Looked up and Dave was falling, in a mess of tray and dishes and tablecloth and blood. Dave. Rolling over on the red carpet, then not moving, eyes shut, mouth open. Dave. Shot.

Then the door opened with another rush of cold air and the noise of the rain. An impossibly jolly voice said, "Hey, hey, hey, this must be the pla—" and cut off.

"You're not gonna make it, friend," said the older of the two gunmen, but Ken hardly cared what he was talking about. Dave twitched without opening his eyes.

"Just wanted a drink—we don't want any trouble," said the newcomer.

Ken looked at the older gunman and found that while he was talking to the people at the door, his gun was still pointed at Ken. And even if Ken tried some sort of melodramatic dive, the tables were too far away and too small to cover him. He had to get to Dave, but how could he do that? Slowly, carefully, he sat up, and the man turned toward him immediately. Ken raised both hands and didn't try to stand. The man nodded.

Across the room, the younger gunman was pushing and pulling at Dave, conducting a search rougher than the one the older man had given Ken. The waitress stepped over Dave's legs and ran toward the older man. "They said only Monty'd be shot, only Monty!" Outside the thunder cracked.

The younger man stood, came after her. Dave still hadn't opened his eyes. Ken got to his knees as the older man was speaking to the waitress, words Ken could barely hear over the pounding of his heart and his panting breath. Both guns were turned on him. "Stay where you are," the older man threatened.

"I don't care what your business is here tonight," Ken said, standing, his voice a rasp of anger and fear. "I'm going over to my friend."

The older man's eyes were cold, glinting. "All right," he said, softly. "Go ahead. Go ahead."

Ken stepped sideways.

"A-a-ah!" said the younger man. His eyes were wild; his dark hair swung at his cheek; he bared his crooked teeth and raised his gun. "I say we waste him."

Ken wanted to hurt the punk so badly that only the gun muzzle in the air between them prevented the rush that gathered in his muscles. "If you're gonna blow me away you'd better do it now," Ken snarled.

A feral smile spread on the gunman's face.

"Joey," said the older man urgently, "the man in the kitchen. He must've heard the shots. See if he ran away. Joey! The kitchen!"

Not until the last command did the younger man's glare shift, his mouth slacken and then close. He cast a wary glance at his older partner and backed off a step, another, then turned and went though the swinging doors.

Ken darted straight to Dave, crouching over the still form, murmuring low under his breath, "Dave. Dave," cupping his shoulder, touching his face, sliding a hand under his head to lift it. "Dave."

"Heah," said Dave indistinctly, "Huh? Eh?"

"How are you, huh? I'm here, it's okay, I'm right here," talking over the shocks of emotion that went through him as he felt the slack muscles of face and neck, lifted the dead weight of Dave's head, fingered the thick wet blood in his hair. Dave's hand flailed weakly, trying to grab at Ken's arm, his knee.

"Huh, Keh, K'n," Dave said, gulping breath in between each syllable.

Ken slid a hand over Dave's back and then stopped, his fingertips meeting a tangle of cloth and soft wetness that he desperately feared to see, yet knew he must. He'd only been a lifeguard; all the first-aid he knew had to do with poison ivy and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and what could he do? But there was nobody else to do anything. The older gunman, the waitress, the guy from the bar, the newcomer and his red-haired companion, just stood and stared at the two of them as if they were some sort of freak show.

He turned with Dave's bleeding head in his hand and pulled a tablecloth from the nearest table. It was hardly sterile, but it was better than the carpet. He bunched it up on the floor and eased Dave's head down into it.

"Hey, I really goofed, huh?" said Dave, breathy, eyes still closed, hand still pawing the air.

Ken climbed over him to see the damage in back. There was a ... a hole in Dave's shoulder under the blade. The edges were ragged and inside was a red pulp, bleeding freely, soaking the cloth of Dave's layered shirts. Ken's mind spun with doubt and urgency. Dave was bleeding. He had to stop that somehow. The cloth of each shirt stuck to the edges of the wound, outer ones overlapping into it. That couldn't be right. Okay. Cloth first.

"So, did you get the bad guys?" Dave was muttering.

"More like they got us," Ken said absently, looking around, seeing a storage chest and pulling open a drawer, finding silverware and grabbing a steak knife. Dave coughed, his leg jerking up with the force of the spasm. "Take it easy," Ken said, "take it easy now," going to work at the shirts. He sawed at the cloth, then got his fingers between layers and tore. Looked at the wound again—it was no better on further inspection. In fact, it looked very bloody, very damaged.

"Uh ... how do I look?" Dave asked, and Ken was insanely reminded of them dressing together at Dave's apartment. "How do I look? Huh?"

"W-, w-, well," Ken found another tablecloth below the drawers and bunched it up to absorb some of the blood from the shoulder wound. "One of them bounced off that thick skull of yours." Ken tried to sound confident, unworried. "The other one ... it's on the shoulder."

"The shoulder?" Dave sounded surprised, pleased, younger than Ken had ever heard him. "'S that all?" and almost laughed.

"Yeah," Ken said, choking on the syllable, trying to smile, resting one hand on Dave's upper arm. "That's all." He bent closer to the curly hair, while his handful of tablecloth filled with blood. He had to have water, had to have something for a real bandage, had to ... he said to Dave, still trying for humor, "Don't go away, now."

Dave said something, a jumble of slurred syllables, but the kitchen door swung open behind them, breaking Ken's concentration. He looked over his shoulder and found Joey there. Talking, saying he'd put someone in the cellar; who was in the cellar? The cook? Ken tried to collect himself, to think. Blood seeped between his fingers as he accidentally squeezed the cloth; Dave's jerking movements and harsh breathing pulled his own into hyperventilation. He looked back at the older gunman, the leader, and said, "Hey, I gotta get him to a hospital."

"You said yourself it's only a shoulder wound." The voice was indifferent.

Ken wanted to shout, only? "Look," he said in a rage, "I don't know who you are, and I don't know why you're here—right now I really don't care. What I do know is that my friend here took a bullet through his back, and unless I get some help for him, now, you're gonna have a dead man on your hands. Right on the floor. Right here. Is that what you want?"

It wasn't, he could tell from their faces, though obviously they didn't have a problem with shooting people. He didn't understand in the least what was going on, and had a feeling it was going to cost them both.

~

He'd been allowed to take Dave into the back office, where the storm seemed louder and there was a couch as well as the desk and chair evidently used for the restaurant's paperwork. The feel of Dave's warm lax body as Ken carried it was enough to break his heart, and the blood that spread to his own clothes, his hands, the couch cushions—that was terrifying. "Oh, Ken, oh, I feel sick," Dave muttered when Ken first put him down, and there was not one thing in the office he could bring—he couldn't even see a wastebasket. Dave didn't vomit, and didn't actually pass out, though he evidently drifted in and out of full awareness. He always seemed to know he was with Ken, kept reaching for him and kept saying his name, though sometimes he didn't seem to hear Ken's voice. "Wha' happen'?" Dave asked at one point, and then repeated more clearly, "Would you tell me what happened?"

"You got shot, remember?"

"No kiddin'," but the tone was vague, trailing off. "Go' sho' ... oh my head."

"You've got ... looks like a scrape, just a little ..." but it was so hard to keep up a cheerful front. Trying to arrange Dave on the couch made him jump and grunt with the pain, and Ken couldn't stand it.

He kissed the unwounded side of Dave's head, leaned his forehead into the soft hair, squeezed his eyes tight shut. Listened to the driving rain and his lover's laboring breath. "God, Dave. What am I going to do?"

"Here are the things you wan—" the waitress broke off and stood staring.

Ken lifted his head. The inside of his thigh was warm with Dave's hand and he had reached into Dave's collar to stroke his neck.

"Ken," Dave said again, eyes shut.

This was a fine time to have to come out. But at the moment, Ken couldn't bring himself to worry about the waitress' sensibilities. "There," he nodded at the desk chair and she put the bundle of cloth down slowly, as if in a daze. When she handed him the pitcher, she jerked her hand back too soon and the slick metal nearly slipped from their hands--the jolt to the couch as Ken caught it made Dave groan again. "Damn it!" said Ken, and she stood back, actually wringing her hands, as he pulled a napkin out of the pile and unfolded it, bunched it into the shoulder wound. He reached for her wrist, and glared at her when she stiffened. Then she let him pull her hand behind Dave's back. "Take your hand," he said, "put pressure on that," and then thought he'd better make some effort to mend the fence. "What's your name?"

"Theresa." She seemed to answer automatically. He tried to question her as he washed Dave's wounds and tied makeshift bandages on them. It was obvious she knew something about what was happening, but she wouldn't tell him—not who the mysterious 'Monty' was, or anything else. "You don't know how it is," she said at last.

"Well then, how is it?"

She stared hard at him, and her mouth trembled as the lightning flashed over her face. She was a pretty girl, he thought irrelevantly, or would be if she weren't so frantic. Her dark hair was feathered back; her wide eyes were chocolate-brown; those unsteady lips were full. She looked away, and he felt like he'd missed a step, that if he'd known a little more or asked in a different way, she would have told him. "You wouldn't understand," she said, and her voice was unsteady too.

"I may not understand," he said, "but I'm in it. Dave's in it. Those other innocent people out there—"

"None of those people are gonna get hurt," she protested.

"Don't be stupid," he said incredulously. "Do those guys look to you like the kind of people who'll show restraint?"

"They're only here to—" she said, but then Joey's voice broke in on them, and Ken realized it was not for the first time.

"Hey, blondie, I'm not gonna tell you again—c'mon out here!"

He grabbed for Theresa, caught her wrists. "You stay in here," he said, holding her ruthlessly with his eyes and hands. "You keep him covered and warm. You keep his face cool." She nodded. "If he needs me, you call me." He only hoped he'd be alive and able to come back.

"Yeah," she whispered. The thunder snapped and she jumped in his grasp.

He took his hands away and saw that one had blood on it, grabbed a napkin and rubbed the spot. As he passed through the door, he could hear Dave's voice say, "Ken ..." and his chest hurt so for a moment that he could not take the next step.

He was also stopped by Joey's gun, not two feet away from his face. The younger gunman said, eyes crazed again, "You don't know how close you came to being laid out next to your ... friend."

"All right, Joey," said his partner, standing on the other side of the door, "I'll take it from here. Go to the bar, get yourself a drink and relax. Go, Joey."

The strange thing was that the older man held his gun so that it covered Joey rather than Ken, at least until Joey backed down again.

"You thought I was a cop, didn't you, at first? I'm not," Ken said softly to the cold but rational eyes that turned to him. "Dave isn't either."

"You were with a cop."

Since John Blaine was gone, it didn't seem worth lying about. "He's an old friend of Dave's." The other man's lips pressed together, and Ken said, a little more loudly, "Even cops have friends."

"I want you where I can see you," the gunman said, dismissing Blaine and Dave. "Sit there, near the door."

"So if ... anyone ... comes in, everything will look normal?"

"You're so intelligent, you put it together," said the gunman sardonically.

"Oh, it doesn't take much intelligence," Ken said, "not just anybody brings their guns to dinner." He held the man's eyes as he stepped past the gun, and went as calmly as possible to the table he'd been assigned. Rested his forearms on the checked tablecloth, folded his hands, and raised his eyes to the gold-rimmed clock against the blue paint on the wall.

He wasn't sure when it had come together in his mind, but it seemed self-evident now that this Monty person was the real target Joey'd come to shoot at. He didn't know why, except for some guesses mostly drawn from bad best-selling fiction bought for his train rides. But the reason didn't matter to him. What mattered to him was on the other side of that door, that wall, saying 'Ken.' Blood pumping out of him, his time ticking away with the beating of his heart. And Ken felt as if he were pumping out emotion as visibly as blood, as if his pulse beat with Dave's name as the rain beat against the outer door.

He didn't know how long they had before Monty arrived and was killed. He didn't know how long it would take Dave to bleed to death from a wound like that.

He didn't have any bright ideas about what to do.

~

So this was his other life. It was a good imitation of hell right now, a kind of twisted No Exit in which he had nothing to do but agonize and overhear how other people had fucked up their lives too. That seedy little man with the redhead, Sammy Grovner, doing comedy in bowling alleys—how different was that, really, from Ken's gigs in bars and college cabaret nights?

He was thinking about that when Theresa came to get him. "I," she leaned both hands on the table, "I think he needs you." He hardly glanced behind him to check what the gunmen thought of it as he rose.

She chattered after him as he passed through the office door, and though he wanted to keep her friendly, he could hardly pay attention to what she was saying. Something about how it was all going to work out all right, and he said "Sure," without believing a word of it, seeing only Dave's hair and the hand that hung in mid-air off the edge of the couch.

Still, knowing she hadn't yet left the doorway, he spoke almost under his breath, as if the softness of his voice could make Dave more comfortable. "Hey, uh, buddy." He sat in the bend of Dave's body where there was a little space on the sofa cushion. "How you feeling, huh?"

"Hey," said Dave, eyes shut, arms reaching, finding one of Ken's legs and then the other, flailing a little and clutching a thigh, a knee.

"Yeah, babe, right here." Ken gripped the lax shoulder and arm with both hands.

"What's hap'n'?"

"Let me check this out." Ken bent around Dave, trying to see the shoulder wound he was all but lying on. It did seem to be bleeding less, Ken thought. Or perhaps the stains on the upholstery and on the tablecloth bandages were not spreading because the couch could absorb so much more and the tablecloth was saturated already. Dave was trying hard to open his eyes—Ken could see the muscles of the eyelids working and knew it was pure bravado and desire to know what had been going on in the restaurant. So he answered, against his better judgement. "Well, it looks like we're sitting on a bit of a powder keg."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Those two guys out there mean to surprise another guy named Monty over his linguini."

"Monty? Who?"

"Got me. They're not forthcoming."

"Y'r not ... much'f a detective."

Ken found his hand was in Dave's hair and felt the softness of his own expression. How the man could make jokes when he couldn't even lift his head or open his eyes .... "Nah, I leave that to you," Ken said gently, running his palm lightly over the soft curls.

"Good thing," Dave muttered. "Y'r singer, not a 'tect've .... lover, not a fighter ...."

"Right," said Ken and kissed the shut eye. Dave's lips parted and they looked dry to Ken, so he leaned over for the pitcher and a napkin and wetted the cloth thoroughly. He was afraid to move Dave enough to give him a real drink. Instead he tucked the wet cloth into the slack mouth and said, "Here, take a bite of that."

Dave bit obediently and then tried to spit out the wad of cloth. "Mmph," he said and then Ken took the napkin back. "That's awful."

"Yeah." Ken had to smile. "Okay." He wiped Dave's face, patting, feeling its fever through the cloth.

"What're we gonna do?" asked Dave, and his eye popped open. Ken shook his head, still without an idea. Gradually that dark eye slid shut. Dave opened his mouth, breathed, swallowed, then said, "Ken?"

"I'm here."

"They'll ... after they shoot this Monty ...."

"I think so."

"Yeah. Makes sense." Dave sighed, blinked. "You know, this, this reminds me ... of a film I saw."

"Yeah? What?"

"Scarface."

"I'm afraid to ask which part."

"Not the, the part," Dave's voice was breathy and Ken thought of stopping him, but didn't, "when the good guys win."

"Did the good guys win in Scarface?"

"Police. At the end. Hey. You still got plans after this?"

Ken swallowed, stroked back Dave's hair. "No, babe. Up to you."

"Maybe, when this is wrapped up, we'll go down, apply at the Academy. Huh?" Dave was smiling; it was still a joke. "Be cops. Like John." It wasn't funny. They were both laughing.

"Okay." Too many feelings; the laughter hadn't begun to release them. Ken felt he'd burst. "I love you." Dave's mouth quirked, and Ken tried to get light again. "Think the other cops'll mind?"

"We'll make it all right."

There had to be a way to make it all right. Didn't there? Ken looked around the office. He knew Joey had pulled the phone cord out of the wall, and the other door ... he got up and tried it, just to check, but wasn't surprised when the knob wouldn't turn more than a half-inch or so. He looked for some lever or something for the lock, but all he could find was a keyhole, and there was paint inside it.

"Window," said Dave as if they'd been talking about it.

Ken looked up at it. "Barred."

"Oh."

Ken noticed, as he crossed the room, how Dave licked his lips as if his tongue was hard to move, how he was drifting again. "Hey," Ken said.

"No," Dave answered right away, "it's all right, it's all right."

It wasn't. Ken knelt beside the couch. "Maybe there'll be something. There's got to be something I can do. Joey, the wild man out there, he's wound up tighter than a drum—he's ready to explode any minute. Maybe, maybe ...."

"Maybe nothin'," said Dave. "Get y'rself killed." Ken said nothing. Dave reached out blindly again and found his shirt, took a handful of it and held on. "Promise," he said.

"I can't. Can't promise."

"Damn it," Dave complained, trying to shove his fist into Ken, who hardly felt the pressure. He shifted his weight, moved one leg to stand, and Dave said, "Don't go out there."

"Can't help that," Ken said. "Joey'll call me any minute now." He took the loosening hand from his shirt and held it in both his own. Kissed it. It was warm and alive and moved in his grasp so that the fingers brushed his cheek. "I love you," he said again, and stood up.

"Hey, Ken?" Dave's voice stopped him at the door. "Hey, next time you want to just spend the evening in bed ... don't let me talk you out of it."

Ken gripped the door and pulled it toward him, leaned his forehead on the cool wood and clenched his whole body around the tears that wanted to escape. He couldn't breathe, couldn't speak, couldn't move while this feeling flooded him and he fought it back. After a few seconds he inhaled once through his nose, then let the air out jealously, a little at a time, while he held his muscles still. Again. And again. The pressure against his ears and his throat subsided. Another breath. He could swallow. Then he could open his eyes.

Dave said nothing, though he must have realized Ken was still there. Ken, wanting nothing more than to go back to the couch and pick Dave up and hold him, turned and went back into the restaurant, opening his hands in the air for Joey to see.

~

It wasn't the conversation in Dave's bed that he sat remembering. No, he was thinking of the feel of Dave in his arms in the room over Huggy's, the way his eyelids had moved against Ken's throat, the way Dave had asked so quietly, Is that what you were doing, while I was making love?

The answer was no. Even then, it had really been more than trying to burn out. And if Ken had been honest, if he'd been able to love Dave a few hours earlier, they would never have run into Sugar, never have talked to John, never have come here.

Ken had had his chance and blown it, ditched his opportunity for another life before he'd even realized it was there.

He was only slightly aware of the red-haired woman getting up and passing the table where he sat, going to join the gunmen, then some time afterward, reappearing near him. She knocked on the tabletop as if it were a door, held out her arms to the nearest empty chair as if she were a game-show sidekick showing off a prize. "Do you mind?"

Ken lifted an indifferent hand; she sat. He glanced at her. The glittery top and showgirl's figure might have caught his attention in the past; now it was barely a distraction. She was gazing sadly at the back of Sammy's head. Ken realized, with a kind of scornful fellow-feeling, that she too had ditched an opportunity she now wanted back.

"No matter what the move," he said, only partly to her, "it's always the wrong one, huh?"

She began to justify herself. He watched Theresa at the bar, talking to the man Ken supposed was her boyfriend. She was focussed, intense; Ken guessed she was explaining what she wouldn't tell him in the office. He wanted to hear, but the redhead's persistent whine drowned out her softer, more remote voice. "Why is that? Huh? Come on, you're a guy, you tell me why is that?"

He wondered what made people fuck up and then ask the world why. He knew. "Maybe you have to give a little." He looked at the office door. The storm rumbled.

"Give a little?" said the redhead. "That's funnier than Sammy." She paused, thumping her elbows on the table as she propped up her chin with both hands. "It's not so funny when it's true, is it?"

If Ken didn't look at her, he wouldn't let go this stupid, misplaced anger. It wasn't her fault that he couldn't do anything, pinned here helpless and useless and separated from Dave. He parked his eyes on Theresa's boyfriend, whose back grew more and more rigid and whose grip on the bar was white-knuckled. It was as if the other man were Ken's surrogate, showing the anger Ken felt.

"Stay out of it," Theresa said so urgently that it was plainly audible.

"I've had about as much as a man can take," and he shoved away from the bar, sprang off the stool, ran around Ken's table.

It was insane. Ken surged to his feet and whirled around, but was too surprised to know which way to move.

"Jimmy, don’t!" cried Theresa.

Both men in the corner booth raised their guns. Jimmy launched himself at them as if he were on the football field. Joey fired as he had at Dave, two quick shots, and Jimmy dropped like a stone. Theresa screamed once, then again, louder, a full-throated sound that said everything of despair and horror and rage, and ran faster than Jimmy had to where the still figure lay.

The older gunman shook his head calmly and covered Ken and Sammy with his gun. "Joey," he said, voice exactly the same as before, "get the body out of here."

"Where?" asked Joey. "The alley?"

Theresa keened and sobbed, crouched over Jimmy, and the redhead moved restlessly toward her. "Aa-aah!" said Joey, swinging around to cover her. "What you got in mind, tramp?"

"I, I just," she said timidly.

There was a thump and a clatter from the direction of the office. Ken turned to look, his heart in his mouth. The chrome-bright water pitcher came spinning out the door and Joey's gun spoke again, pinging from the metal and thudding somewhere behind Ken. Sammy ducked almost under the table. The outer door thumped as if in echo.

"Dave!" Ken shouted, as helpless as Theresa to change what his lover was doing.

Silence from the office. There was silence from the restaurant, too, for a moment, save the sounds of Theresa's grief. They were oddly muffled, and Ken looked to see why: the red-haired girl was on her knees beside Theresa, holding her as she cried.

"Okay," said the lead gunman, "let's all calm down here. You—" to the redhead—"take Theresa over there," and he waved toward the kitchen doors with his gun, "out of the way. Joey, the body can't go in the alley; Monty's boys may check around the building. Put it in the office. The blond there can help you. I'm sure he's anxious to go in there anyway."

Ken did want to get into the office, but he wasn't at all anxious to touch Jimmy's body. The gap in his head was horrible to see, and the hole in his chest still seemed to bleed, though there was no pulse. Joey took the feet, which showed more compunction than anything else he had done, Ken thought, though with the dead face jolting near his own chest, he couldn't appreciate any scrap of sensitivity on Joey's part.

They maneuvered through the door. Dave was collapsed near the end of the couch, as if he had been trying to crawl, and Ken pulled hard on his end of the corpse, hurrying. "By the door," said Joey, and Ken agreed that the farther away from Dave, the better. Still, when they'd put Jimmy down, he looked at the dead man for a moment, and bent to push down the slack eyelids.

"Hey," said Joey, and when Ken stood again, looked him up and down, mouth curling. "You're a mess. Stay in here."

Ken held still while Joey left the room, wanting to give the unpredictable gunman no chance to change his mind. Then he stripped off his blood-soaked shirt, shuddering at the touch of it and at the cold air on his skin. Dropping the wet mass of cloth on the floor, he went to Dave, who seemed to be out cold.

He pulled at his lover's body, almost as limp as Jimmy's, and realized just how hard it would be on Dave to manhandle him back onto the couch. Turning him over, Ken felt the bandage's blood, and the helpless jolt as the wound pressed there, against Ken's thighs. The pain seemed to pull Dave back into consciousness, or partly. "Ken?" One hand felt blindly for his hair.

"Yeah, I'm right here," and he kept repeating it until at last the dazed, dilated eyes opened, "I'm right here, I'm right here."

"I thought they'd killed you."

Ken heard his own laughter as if it were someone else's, said as if it were a joke, "Is that why you're down on the floor?"

And Dave laughed weakly too, his head sagging back against Ken's supporting arm. "Uh, I thought I'd sneak out, you know, like the movies. Wh'r's your shirt?" But he didn't seem to care when Ken didn't answer, and the back of his hand slid away from Ken's collarbone, where it had briefly rested.

Ken felt along the arm on the injured side; Dave never reacted, though surely the movement should have jarred the wound. The arm felt cooler, too, than the rest of Dave's body. Ken rubbed up into the sleeve, more and more frightened by the lack of reaction. "How's your arm?"

"'S fine. You're fine, I'm fine ...." His eyes were closed again. "Who got shot?"

"Jimmy. And he's dead, Dave."

"Who?" The dark head half-turned though Dave didn't open his eyes.

"The guy at the bar."

"Huh?"

Ken touched the cool arm, the side along Dave's ribs, and looked at the still form near the door. "Never mind. Sure your arm's all right? Huh?"

"Oh, couldn't be better. I tell you, Gene Autry gets it there all the time. How do I look?"

"Oh," said Ken, lying and telling the truth through a throat that felt full of broken glass, "you look terrific."

Dave's dark lashes lay against cheeks flushed fever-bright, but the skin in his eye-sockets was sallow; dusky curls strayed onto his sweat-starred forehead, and the pale lips were parted, breath hissing a little across his teeth. "You bet I do."

"Terrific," and Ken held on tighter, felt the heaving ribs, the blood soaking through to his thigh. Looked at Jimmy and realized he couldn't let Theresa come in and see the corpse lying there like a bag of garbage. "Want me to set you up?" he asked Dave.

"Think you can?"

He pulled on the heavy body in his arms, said, "I can try, you big lug."

"I'll try to help," Dave offered, kicking with one leg, then the other.

Ken was speaking before he realized his voice suddenly didn't work. "Relax a little for me if you can," he whispered.

"Uh, okay." Dave's eyes were closed again as Ken sat him upright against the couch like a doll and pulled the other seat cushions over to give more support to Dave's head.

"Okay, now, just hold it right there," repeating that too, meaninglessly. "You just stay right there and take it easy. Here you go."

"Ain't goin' nowhere."

Ken stood, his hand lingering in the dark curls, and then picked up the last few tablecloths and crossed from the living to the dead.

He was just tucking in the edges of the second tablecloth when Theresa came in, breathing as if she'd run a long way though he heard her pause and then walk in with hesitating steps. He stood, turned, and grasped her arms as she looked from Jimmy's body to Ken's face. She looked sad and frightened, broken, but her voice was steady and grim: "I found out where there's a gun. A sort of a gun. Can you shoot?"

"You mean hit something?" But she wasn't Dave: she just stared. "A sort of a gun?"

"I'll do it," she said then. "Will you help me a little? I'll ...." He knew she didn't have a plan. "They have to pay," she said hoarsely.

"What do you mean a sort of a gun?"

"I don't know if it's going to do any good ... the old man said ... he hasn't used it in years; he hasn't cleaned it in years. You know the part where you put the bullets—"

"The clip?" Ken thought that was right.

"—is in the back of the cash register, and the gun is in the bottom of the part near the cash register."

Ken's mind raced. They had to get the pieces, get them put together, create some kind of diversion, and ... well, fire, presumably. One gun, the two of them with no marksmanship, the two other hostages to miss and two guns against them. It didn't look hopeful at all. They needed more help.

"Look, I need to get Dave back up on the couch. Can you get Sammy in here?"

"Him?" She wasn't slow on the uptake, just driven and unforgiving.

"Do it, please, Theresa."

She turned to go, then said, "Tom, the older—man, you know ...." There was only one other man whose name he hadn't known, so he nodded. "He wants you out there again, sent me to get you a shirt. That's how I talked to the old man, the cook. This is his," and she picked up the collar of the white shirt, which lay at the end of the little table against the wall. Ken hadn't noticed it until she touched it. It must have been the one the cook had been wearing, too large, rumpled and smelling of the man's sweat, but Ken put it on, and it did feel better to be wearing something. The tails covered the blood on his pants.

Then Sammy was there, the whites of his eyes showing and his hands unsteady as they picked up Dave's limp body and Theresa hurriedly put the cushions back under him. Dave's eyes fluttered. "Wha—?" he said. "Ken?"

"Right here," Ken responded, and gripped Dave's hand, sitting on the edge of the couch as he looked up at the others.

"It's at midnight, Monty's coming at midnight," said Theresa in a rush. "We've only got till then. It isn't even ten minutes."

"Pay for something," Ken told Sammy, "can you?"

"Sure," he said, "but—"

"Oh," Theresa said, "okay, and I—"

"No," Sammy insisted, and they all stared at him. "Look, it's all different now, you don't know. The cops are here. On the doorstep, out there, they've already been talking to them, it's crazy to make waves now."

"Cops?" Ken repeated, relief beginning to uncurl inside him.

"Oh, god," said Theresa, her hands straying to her cheeks, into her hair. She looked so distraught that Ken put his free hand on her shoulder.

"Yeah," said Sammy, "that's why they were over at the door like that. The young turk, Joey, he wanted to shoot the door. You were in the cellar then. That guy's nuts. I think we oughta just sit tight, wait, lie low, y'know? Things are gonna be fine now, right?"

But Theresa obviously didn't think so, and Dave lay with his eyes screwed shut, breathing shallowly, and Ken didn't know what to feel himself.

"Right?" insisted Sammy.

"They're not gonna pay now, they won't ... the cops won't, they can't ...." Theresa rocked a little back and forth and Ken shook her to break the rhythmic motion.

"You wanted them dead!" It was hardly a calming thing to say, but it just popped out of his mouth.

She looked at him, the vendetta clear and dark in her eyes.

"I gotta get back out there," Sammy said nervously. "We both—"

"Listen, you can't do anything alone," Ken told her. "You start something too fast, get caught, you think Joey will be able to tell his friends from his enemies?" He glanced at Sammy, who stopped edging toward the door. "He'll kill all of us. All of us. He might anyway, he's got nothing to lose now," feeling the presence of the corpse across the room. "We've got to have some kind of plan."

Sammy nodded at last, and Theresa seemed to be listening.

Ken just wished he had something better to say. He tried to think of this like a composition, like a lyric that he was working around until all the syllables fit. He could do that. Dave's hand squeezed his a little, and he looked down.

"No," Dave said in a weak voice.

"No choice, babe," Ken said, and because it really didn't seem to make any difference now, he touched the sweaty temple, pushed back a little curly hair that was plastered there, not caring that the others saw.

"Get your asses out here!" came Joey's faint call.

Theresa suddenly lunged up, grabbed Sammy's hand and pushed it behind Dave, into the bloody cushions, then stood, her own hands blotched red past the wrists. Sammy held out his own hand and stared at it in horror.

"Makes you sick, right?" She hissed into his creased, monkey-like face. "You need a drink, right? Strong stuff!" She glared at Ken. "I'll bring you more napkins!" And she stalked out the door. Sammy scuttled out after her. Ken could hear her speaking, sounding fearful now, sad—what an actress! He shook his head.

"... dying, still bleeding like crazy ..." he heard. And then Sammy's voice, too shaky to carry. Then Theresa again: "... pay for it ..." and Tom rumbling. Her voice rose: "You said we're all gonna get out of this, and what am I supposed to do, huh? Pay for it myself?" The cash register bell rang defiantly.

They were in it now, no drawing back. Ken bent over Dave again, kissed his cheek and forehead, petted him, while there were still a few seconds left.

"Damn you," Dave said. "Gonna get killed, leave me here, dammit, I can't even ...."

"Hsh," said Ken. "You can. You can help me put the gun together, how's that? You know how."

"'Course." Dave pushed at Ken's hand, then held on hard. Looked up with eyes cloudy with pain, bewildered. "Why ...."

"They'll hurt you," Ken said. "More."

And Dave shut his mouth and just gazed at him; then spoke at last, almost whispering. "When you fall ... you fall all the way," he said.

"I want my other life," Ken told him. "That punk with the gun isn't taking it away from me."

Theresa was back in the doorway with a stack of light blue napkins held rather awkwardly. She pulled the napkins away and dropped them on the table, exposing the gun and the clip lying in her palm, which was still faintly streaked with Dave's blood. Ken picked up the gun with one hand and the clip with the other. "We're both supposed to get back out there when you've packed his wound again."

"Okay." Ken looked at the clip, turned it over, rotated it end to end, fit it into the butt of the little gun. Grinned at Dave, whose worried eyes watched. "This right, Mr. PI?"

The wavering hand moved slowly to the muzzle. "This is the end you point at the bad guys," Dave said.

Ken really wasn't that badly off. He'd been deer hunting and felt confident with a rifle. But he'd never used a gun like this one, designed to shoot people with.

"You gotta," Dave said, hand moving back and forth along the gun, "cock it, forward and back, till it snaps."

Ken did move the barrel and heard the clicking noise it made. Got up and tucked it into his hip pocket, under the tail of the shirt.

"Looks as likely to explode in your face as anything," Dave muttered. "Been looking for an excuse to get your teeth capped?"

"Think," Ken said, "what it'll do for my showbiz career." And then to Theresa, "I'll need some sort of distraction. Okay? Break a glass, drop a tray, something .... I can't hope to get both of them at once."

"Yeah. When you get to your seat?" Then after a pause, eyes flicking to the couch and back, she said, "I'll go out ahead."

"Good," Ken said. It would look more realistic though that wasn't the only reason. When she left, he bent over Dave this last time—perhaps the very last—traced the line of his lower lip, looked into his lapis eyes.

"I was only kidding about the teeth," Dave whispered.

"Okay," Ken said, and kissed him lightly. Then again, sucking a little harder, tasting Dave and taking his breath. "I'll be back."

"You better."

He left the office with his hands a little raised, absorbing how Joey sat slumped against the side of the booth: arms wrapped around himself, gun dangling. Tom, on the other hand, was rigidly upright, elbows on the table, gun in hand. Pointed right at him now. Ken hoped Theresa's distraction would work. He walked slowly to the table where he'd sat before, began to lower himself into the chair, slid his hand under the shirt-tail and wrapped his hand around the butt of the little gun, finding the trigger. He felt as though he'd gone into slow motion, focussed that fiercely on the movements of his hand and Tom and Joey in his peripheral vision, waiting for Theresa.

Then it happened, a crash like a tray full of glasses, and he flinched and ducked and pulled out the gun. Joey fired, but Ken was mostly behind the table, and he felt a burning line across his shoulder and back but it wasn't too bad to move. He fired himself, but didn't know where the bullet went. There was a pounding at the door and shouting, then a rhythmic thump as if somebody was trying to break the hinges or the wood. It must be very solid. Ken looked as carefully as he could around the table and saw Tom with his eyes wild and his mouth in a open grimace, head whipping toward the door and back to Joey, who was reaching toward him, saying "Gimme, let me," and Tom turned and jerked the gun up and fired. At Joey. They were so close that the force of the blast tipped Joey over backward like a knock-out punch, and while Tom was still staring Ken scrambled up and aimed, this time, at Tom's chest, then shot. Tom clutched his stomach and fell back into the seat. Ken tried to stand up but Tom fired again, and something behind him smashed; a woman's voice was screaming and men were shouting.

"Stop it, stop!" he shouted, not really to convince Tom but because it ought to be over.

"I'll kill you," Tom's voice rasped and the gun spoke again. This time a section of the tabletop seemed to explode, and so did Ken's shoulder—he collapsed on top of his gun arm and couldn't move for the waves of astonishing pain. This was the same wound Dave had been joking about? The one Gene Autry got all the time?

There was a scrambling sound behind him and then a jolt as someone bumped him, and Theresa's voice said, "Uh, Ken?" It was the first time she'd called him by name, he noted with a kind of faraway clarity.

"Um," was all he seemed able to say. Then he forced out, "Gun," and though it felt like he was lifting a hundred pounds, he did manage to drag the gun up far enough for her to reach over him and get it. "Ohh," he said as she leaned on him. He felt like a weakling compared to Dave, or even to Tom, whom he seemed to have hit in the stomach, but there it was—he'd never felt anything remotely like it and was spending all his time not making a noise.

"Sorry," she said and then called to Tom, "I've got it—the gun."

"Theresa, Theresa," Tom said, some of the urbanity back in his voice though it was still hoarse and breathless, "You're really playing in the big leagues now."

"It's after midnight. After midnight, and the cops are outside. Monty's not gonna come anywhere near here. And anyway look at all this! And you've shot your own partner! You're going to pay now. For Jimmy. No matter," and she stopped on what might have been a sob, "no matter what league I play in."

There was a pause. Ken cleared his throat to see if he could, and it worked. He took a deep breath, and that wasn't as successful: he coughed, and that sent another blaze along his nerves.

"Keep still," Theresa told him softly. Then she knelt up, nudging him painfully with her knee, and there was another burst of gunfire. She fell away, and Ken tried to roll onto his back, and felt himself drop into a pit of darkness and thunder.

~

"You're a hero," said John Blaine, sitting beside Ken's hospital bed, a couple of feet away from the IV, on the side away from all the bandages.

Ken, unable to do most of the body language that would have been instinctive had he heard this at any other time, merely eyed the older man skeptically. Blaine grinned, an expression that fit his face surprisingly well. In fact, since he'd arrived Blaine had been almost unrecognizable as the glum loner Ken had met in the gay bar—it seemed forever ago.

Now Blaine even touched him, easily, the broad warm hand like a father's on Ken's forearm. "Come on," Blaine said, giving the arm a little shake, "I know what I'm talking about—I've seen 'em come and go. Got a few commendations myself. Now it doesn't last all that long, isn't a lifestyle choice, but when you do something special you gotta put up with it being special to other people. Probably talk to some reporters. You're not even a cop," the big square teeth showing again, "so I'm dead sure a coupla newspapers want to hear all about it."

Ken pushed his head into the pillow, looked at the ceiling. It just seemed stupid to him, and he couldn't figure out what Blaine thought was funny. "People died," he said. "I, I couldn't think of another way, hardly even tried. I couldn't even," he swallowed, wondered why he was telling a stranger this, but it wouldn't stay inside, "couldn't even take care of Dave. I know I did it all wrong. I—"

Now the hand was on his shoulder, pressing just where the bullet had gone in the other side, under the bone, and it was steadying and strange. John gripped hard. "He's alive. He's just down the hall. Think he would be if you hadn't patched him up the way you did?"

"Tablecloths," Ken said in scorn.

"You used what you had. I'd be damn proud if one of my rookies managed as well. Now snap out of it, kid. Telling you, I'm worn out going back and forth here, and what'll Davey say if you have some kinda relapse because you were eating yourself up about shit you can't help? Morose character, you are."

Ken looked up in disbelief, almost said something about glass houses and stones, but the older man's level gaze stopped him.

"Are you so blasé about this that you don't even want to hear what happened after you passed out?"

"Didn't the cops break in?"

"That waitress let 'em in. Not a scratch on her, how's that for ironic?" Blaine shook his head. "The whole damn night ... some kinda cosmic joke. Those guys, they were in the corner when I left, remember? I saw 'em, recognized 'em." Ken knew Joey and Tom had recognized John, so it was some comfort that it had been mutual, anyway. "Couldn't get it out of my mind while I was driving. Finally I called them in—didn't remember Lockly's name but I did know Martin. He'd jumped probation in another state, so I just turned around and drove back. By that time, you were already in the middle of it. We couldn't phone in to negotiate--Martin wrecked the one in the kitchen, too. A couple of citizens were on their way in just when some of the gunplay happened, and they bounced right out again and almost ran into us. Tell you, kid, when I heard there was shooting going on and knew Dave—and you—were probably in it ...." This time Blaine swallowed. Ken remembered Dave saying that he felt like a son, or anyway a blood relative.

"He almost was. Tried to crawl out of the office." That was heroic, in Ken's book, though 'terrifyingly stupid' had been more his reaction at the time.

"So that's why we found him on the floor."

"Again?" Ken asked. Then thought of it, the damage Dave might have done himself, the pain he had surely felt, and found he was angry. "Dammit—!"

"He's okay, gonna be," Blaine said.

Ken turned his face away, then back. He needed to move and couldn't. He needed Dave. John's expression was too knowing. Ken looked toward the window though nothing was out there but a corner of the building and an empty stretch of sky. "Can't even see him," he said, half whispering.

"You will."

It was more than twenty-four hours later that he finally did, and by that time Ken was jittering inside. They'd been apart longer than they'd been together. Ken's gigs were cancelled—John had called his agent—anyway, he couldn't have played. His old life was ripped apart, and he wasn't sure any more about the new one. He didn't even know Dave.

But as soon as Ken laid eyes on the dark head against the white pillowcase, he realized there was nobody in the world he knew better. Dave's eyes were shut, but Ken was sure he wasn't asleep. "Come on," he said softly as he tugged the chair closer to the side of the bed, pushed his ridiculous IV tree over next to Dave's and sat. "Can't you even stand to look at me?"

"I was just resting!" Dave protested, eyes wide now and as beautiful as ever. Ken had been remembering them, remembering everything, the couch and the bed under the mirror and the first time he'd seen Dave through the smoke of Huggy's bar, and now he was held anew. Just looking at Dave filled spaces Ken hadn't known were empty.

He swallowed, and saw Dave's eyes drop to the movement of his throat, climb slowly back, and the heat of that gaze drew an answering heat up after it, until Ken was sure he was as red as Dave's car.

Dave smiled, mischievously. "Oh, babe," he said, "love that blush. Gotta make you do that ... again and again."

"It's not hard," said Ken.

"I can make it hard," and Dave's voice was low and velvety.

Ken shifted in the chair, had to admit, "Yes, you can. But if you're going to bring me off just talking, can it wait till I'm not wearing a paper dress and robe?"

"Can't believe you came down the hall in that." But the half-smile said that Dave felt flattered.

"If I'd had a choice ...." Ken let the comment trail off, but then saw how Dave turned his head, smile gone, lashes lowered. "Hey, what's that? What's the matter?"

"I've been thinking," Dave said. "Lot of time for that. And, well, I know I came on strong. Pushed you pretty hard."

"I meant the gown," Ken said. "The nurse wouldn't give me a choice about wearing the gown." He leaned forward, but the pull hurt, both his shoulder and where the IV needle was. So he sat back, frustrated, his hand still out but unable to quite reach Dave. "Damn. I hate this. The hospital."

Dave looked back at him, and the gaze was full of feeling but Ken couldn't tell just what.

"I had choices," Ken said. "I made them. I'm making them now. I'm not your puppet, Dave, believe it." He let his eyes fall away, to the rail of the bed, and swallowed again though his mouth was dry. "It, it's, b-b-," he took a breath and tried again, "been a long time to think for me too. Nerve-wracking. There's a lot of stuff to work through, to do, and we really hardly know each other." His voice had gone hoarse and he cleared his throat before he went on. "But I want to, Dave. I want to find out everything about you. To be part of your life. If you." He wasn't finished but couldn't have said another word to save his life.

"I love you," Dave told him. He moved his right hand slowly, turning it and pushing across the top of the rail, and Ken adjusted the IV tube and leaned more carefully, and they did manage to touch. "You saved my life," Dave said, and it amazed Ken how the same husky tone now sounded so different. "It's yours. It's new. Feels new."

They looked and held on to each other's fingers for a while.

"It's not like there aren't entertainment jobs in town here," Dave said then. "Must be some good opportunities in music. In fact, maybe I'll look up my rich uncle and see if he can dig something up for me too."

"He in the business?"

"Somewhere. Somewhere high up. I could probably be his secretary's secretary's errand boy or something."

"Don't," Ken said, "sell yourself short."

"Not a chance." Dave grinned. "I'm just looking for light work while I heal up."

"Good. Because when you're better, 'light work' isn't even slightly what I have in mind."

"I'll see if I can write you into my calendar, bubeleh," Dave said. "We'll have lunch."

Ken snorted, then took a breath and laughed again, not so much for the joke but because it felt wonderful to hold Dave's hand and laugh.

~

Now when he got off a homebound train, or bus, or airplane, Dave was usually there in the candy-apple-red car to pick him up. They'd touch just a little, ruffling hair or gripping a shoulder or arm. Dave usually grabbed the suitcase while Ken carried the guitar, and they strode through whatever crowd there was.

It didn't feel like being home until Ken got his hands on Dave's skin, his lungs full of Dave's sweetgrass scent, until he tasted Dave. Even after a year, he still could barely wait. He slid into the front seat and put his hand on Dave's thigh as the car leapt backward out of the parking spot. That didn't bother him any more, though he sometimes complained about it just to keep Dave on his toes. So to speak.

"How long you got this time, babe?" Dave asked as they spiraled down the parking ramp.

"Nothing for three weeks," said Ken with more satisfaction than a struggling musician should feel.

"Got a buck?" They were practically up to the booth, and Dave was scrabbling for the ticket on the windshield.

Ken, leaning forward to get out his wallet, saw the ticket caught under one corner of the blue Star of David in the middle of the dash, and reached for it. The toy reindeer hanging from the rearview swung too near his face as he got the stiff card between his fingers. "What is all this junk?" he asked.

"Christmas spirit, Mr. Scrooge."

"Christmas spirit my ... mistletoe." He handed Dave the ticket and flipped open his wallet. "Okay, a buck, you said?"

But Dave had been reaching into his pocket too, the front one, arching his hips up to dig down to the end in a way Ken thought was fairly scenic, and he squinted into his hand and said, "... seventy, five, dollar, okay." Picked out a penny and a little bit of lint and dumped the change into the attendant's hand.

The light above the door turned green and the car accelerated so fast that Ken was dumped into his seat while he was still putting his wallet away. He grunted at the twinge in his shoulder. "Asshole."

Dave just grinned. "All yours," he said. "If you want it."

Sometimes they did hearts and flowers stuff. In fact, Ken had a bit of Christmas spirit to share later that he hoped would top the romance list. But sometimes they didn't, and it was a relief to be able to hang out or snipe or compete or grouch around and hardly ever have to explain why.

"I always want it," Ken said now, and that was the plain truth.

"Your place or mine?" Dave waggled his eyebrows; it was some sort of impression but Ken didn't recognize it.

"Mine." It still amazed him to be able to say that. His place—a whole apartment. Years since he'd had one. It had things in it, too, not even counting the odds and ends that Dave brought over for one reason or another and then left behind. Ken was really pleased with the table, which he'd found in a rummage sale and refinished, and the couch that was so overstuffed that Dave seemed to find it impossible to sit upright there. A painting was hanging on the wall that Ken had done himself, and on the other side was a set of shelves Dave had put up as a surprise a month or so ago. He'd claimed it was to get the houseplants into some sort of order, but the plants stayed in a row under the window, and Dave just went on complaining about the jungle and filling the shelves with pottery and books and a big conch shell and .... Ken supposed they might get a place together sometime. Maybe then it would actually be easier to tell the difference between Dave's stuff and his own.

"Is there anything in the fridge or should we stop?" He knew Dave would know; he'd been visiting while Ken was gone to water the plants and take in the mail.

But actually Dave hesitated, biting his lower lip in evident thought as he drove. "Not sure," he said. "I know you're out of beer. Wanna stop?"

Ken thought about it, realized he didn't want to. "Nah. We could order out."

"We could go out."

"Don't think so," Ken said, smiling a little.

Dave glanced over, half-smiling himself. "No, guess not."

They reached Ken's apartment complex and went into the basement parking area, where Ken kept a space though he didn't own a car yet. The remote door-opener lived in Dave's glove compartment.

In the elevator, Ken leaned into the corner, elbows on the flat rail, and looked at Dave, whose hand fidgeted over the control panel. That bomber jacket, the same he'd worn since they'd met, hugged his waist and curved out around the long line of his back; Ken had never seen the collar turned down or the zipper completely closed. The dark brown leather was nearly the same color as Dave's hair, his lashes, the mole on his cheek. He looked a little sallow here, under the glare of a harsh fluorescent bulb, and Ken asked, "How've things been? Lot of cases?"

Dave shrugged. "Enough." His eyes flicked over Ken's body, then back to his face. "Tell you later." His mouth curved and he stared intently. "Not what I'm thinkin' about right now."

"Oh, yeah?" Ken pushed himself away from the wall of the elevator.

Ping—and with a few preliminary jolts, the elevator stopped. Its doors opened. They grabbed the bags and went down the hall with no more words.

There was a poinsettia on the refinished table, a small tree in front of the plants, and a plate of cookies on the pass-through, with a hole in one side of the arrangement. Dave set down the suitcase and took the guitar case from Ken's hand, glanced up toward the ceiling. Ken looked up too, and found the mistletoe hanging from the hall light fixture. By the time he lowered his head, Dave was moving in, and Ken threw his arms around his lover and said, "You goof," and kissed him.

What never changed was the comfort of his strength, his solid warmth, his confidence and will. What was always new was the way his mouth opened, his tongue came out to play, his teeth nipped and the little sounds he made in his throat. The way he tasted. It drove Ken wild. He didn't know what to do with his hands, whether to hold Dave's hair or his shoulders or the curve of his ass, or whether to get that jacket unzipped and off—pretty enough to look at but far too thick, and leather wasn't the smell Ken wanted now.

He compromised with one hand kneading the nearest bit of ass while the other groped for the zipper. Dave shook with silent laughter and sucked Ken's lips while holding his head, cooperated in taking off the bomber jacket and pulled apart the snaps on Ken's without ever breaking the contact of their mouths. For the second time they heard the soft sound of leather hitting the floor, and then they eased out of the kiss.

"Blushing again, blondie," Dave said, hands cupping the hot skin of Ken's face. Their hips pushed impossibly closer.

"Wanting you," Ken said. Rubbed the round ass in his palms, held it as it tensed and squeezed it as it relaxed.

"Isn't—" Dave rasped his face against Ken's "—that—" he breathed into Ken's ear, licked, "—lucky," mouthing the earlobe, then burrowing into Ken's body as if they could wholly merge.

"Goddamn," Ken swore, and shifting, got his hand between Dave's thighs and the other around his back and hoisted him up, the old shoulder wound protesting but the feel of the other man hanging in his arms too good for Ken to care. Dave was laughing again and twisting—Ken wasn't sure whether it was an attempt at escape or just to change positions, but he held tighter and lurched the few yards into the bedroom, dumped Dave onto the bed.

The blinds were down, the lights were off, and the room was dim save for the pale gleam of Dave's teeth, his grin almost showing his molars. He rolled up onto his side and propped up his head with one hand. "Strip off," he said, his other hand moving back and forth on his own thigh, reaching up between the open buttons of his shirt. "Strip for me. Come on."

Ken hadn't planned to keep his clothes on. He reached for his shirt buttons and Dave said, "Lights."

Ken tilted his head to one side, and said, "No. No, I like this."

"All right." And Dave fondled his own chest while Ken took off his shirt; when he undid his fly, Dave opened his too, pulled out his cock, and stroked it while Ken undressed.

Stripping had never been one of Ken's part-time jobs, and he didn't try to put on any big show, but he watched Dave and didn't hurry, either. He knew the skin Dave had been touching, the hair he'd ruffled, the weight and heat in his hand now, how taut it got, how stiff and slick and wet. "While I was gone you did this," Ken said, knowing it was true.

"Thinking about you undressing. I did. At home. Put you—" Dave took a breath as Ken pushed his underwear down his legs—"at the corner of the bed, just the lamp on. That yellow light."

Ken was naked now; Dave's clothes were so wantonly open, his eyes and hair and skin so shadowy, that Ken had a weird feeling: "You look like a dream." His voice was unsteady. "Like I, I'll, w-wake up."

"Oh, now," said Dave, sitting up and stretching out his arms. "Come here."

Ken did, peeled the cloth from his lover's body and found all the textures and scents and tastes he'd dreamed about, fantasized, remembered, all he'd wanted. He moved Dave just where he wanted on the bed, handled him everywhere, kissed and licked and nibbled. Dave responded, arching and writhing, petting, kissing back, murmuring Ken's name and little directions that sometimes Ken followed and sometimes not; Dave didn't seem to care.

Then they rolled, and Dave slid over Ken, cocks and hips and thighs and chests together. Fingers thrust under Ken, who held his hips up to let them in, and now it was his buttocks being kneaded and gripped. Dave's eyes burned and his breath seemed hotter than usual. "Do you really need my ass?" he asked. "Because I've been dreaming about yours for days." His fingertips searched into tenderer skin, rubbed and rimmed, and Ken spread his knees, pushed his hips down, took a kiss while he answered with his whole body.

Dave hummed his triumph into their mouths, humped, probing for a while before he lifted his head toward the bedside table. Then dropped to rest his forehead against Ken's collarbone.

"It's not that far," Ken encouraged him. "Only a second." Pushing up the hard ribs, letting the cool air between their bodies. "You know where it is."

With a groan Dave moved, up on his hands and knees, climbed over Ken's body and fumbled with the drawer. Then he fell back onto Ken as if starved for him, the tube dropping to one side, kissing him and closing his cock in that strong left hand.

Ken felt around and got the tube himself, held onto it as he was thrusting up into Dave's hand and battling his mouth for breath. The metal crackled in his hand and Ken realized he'd been squeezing it and tore his mouth away. "Do it, do it," the tube held up, his head turning in the pillow, his cock nearly bursting, his eyes tight shut.

The tube left his hand. A warm wet touch on his lips made him moan. "Sweet," Dave said. Then another kiss, wet but without tongue, and Dave's mouth lifted and touched him on the neck, the shoulder, the chest, and then on his cock.

A lick, a kiss, the slick and rough space of Dave's mouth, and Ken thrust up. Dave sucked, his tongue moving and teasing, until Ken couldn't hold back any more. Lightning struck up his spine and down his legs, and he shouted and pumped, grabbing at Dave's head and only getting his hair. He almost sat up but Dave pushed him flat again, reached between his lax thighs and massaged the cool gel into him, talking. "Want you, need you so bad. So beautiful. Like moonlight. Babe, lover, you're letting me in, you're so good. Every day without you. Oh, Ken. I kept thinking, but this, when it's real, it's so much more. Oh, beautiful, here I am, I'm here, now, I'm loving you," and he was, the head against the stretching ring of muscle that Ken pushed open as far as he could and felt Dave pressing into, slippery, greased, hard, seeming as wide as a fist.

Ken looked, and there Dave was. The sun's angle had changed, or Ken had simply missed the little gleams of light sifting in through the blinds. They just touched the edges of Dave's muscles, the beads of sweat on his face and shoulder, the edge of his mouth as he pursed his lips a little, concentrating. The dark eyes locked on Ken's, penetrating him, and Ken opened his lids wider and let all Dave's feeling in.

They knew to take it slow, knew when they could speed up. Ken angled his hips while Dave hitched his knees forward a little, and they worked together again, sliding Dave in and out and tightening around him, moving Ken back and forth and jolting his prostate. Dave held the half-erect cock between them and Ken covered the gripping hand with his own.

"Good," Ken gasped, "you are, so good, love, I, love you."

As if he'd needed to hear the words, Dave knelt up and pounded hard and fast for a few strokes, Ken's thighs in his hands, and Ken pressed his arms into the mattress and pushed back. Dave's head dropped back and his hands clamped hard enough to bruise, and then he cried out, "Ken!" and spasmed, "Ah! Ken!"

He might have fallen backward, but Ken caught him, guided him down, rearranged the two of them. He wrapped himself around the sweaty, shuddering form of his lover. Still not warm enough. He pulled on the spread, getting enough of it to tuck around Dave's other side, and reached backward to cover himself too, then lay back down to bury his face in the damp hair and breathe Dave in. Long breaths.

"Y'didn' come the secon' time."

"Nope," Ken said.

"Sorry."

Ken wanted to laugh, felt his muscles trying, but he was just too worn out for more than a gentle hissing chuckle. "Oh yeah. Big problem." He would have liked to say more, but they were both dropping off. Anyway he knew that Dave knew.

~

They hardly ever slept for long after sex; this time it was perhaps fifteen minutes. Ken woke first but lay still, watching until the dark lashes stirred and breathing changed. "Sleepyhead," Ken breathed into Dave's ear, waking him.

They got up, showered, dressed again. Dave borrowed a sweatshirt but left his feet bare. He was on the phone ordering pizza while Ken unpacked, then insisted on running out for beer after all. While Dave put shoes on, Ken poked around the kitchen and made a list, which he put into his lover's hand as he was about to go out the door.

"Aw, Ken, this'll take a good half an hour!"

"You're right," Ken said, pulling the pen from behind his ear and taking back the list, muttering through it ostentatiously. "Oh, I know, you can forget this—" and showed Dave where he'd crossed out 'champagne.'

Dave took the paper but looked at Ken, eyes narrow. "Snoop."

"It's my refrigerator. Were you planning to crack it for the pizza?"

"Dunno. I was planning to surprise you."

"It did. I thought, 'Santa must've forgiven me for being a bad boy.'"

Dave stepped closer. "Santa wants you to go right on being a bad boy."

Ken kissed him, then swatted him on the rear. "Go on. Don't forget crackers this time. Or good bread for toast. I don't want to eat caviar with my fingers."

"Fingers isn't what I had in mind."

"They isn't, is they? Go on, get out of here."

"College boy." But he went. Ken stood looking at the shut door. Caviar as sex toy. That was Dave all over.

All over ... eventually, Ken snapped out of his reverie and went looking for something to wrap his own surprise in.

He had to settle for an envelope. But it was a big one, and he propped it under the tree. Then he had to keep himself busy: sorted some dirty clothes, found champagne flutes and washed them. Lay on the couch with his hands tucked behind his head and thought. There was a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table; he tried to remember whose they were, and couldn't. It didn't really matter: he didn't feel like smoking.

The intercom buzzer startled him as he was drifting back to sleep, and he jumped up to push the reply button. It was the pizza guy. Ken dragged his hands through his hair and looked around for his wallet and keys, stepped into his shoes, and went out the door, leaving it unlocked behind him.

Dave must have been in the other elevator because he'd just arrived at the door when Ken got back. He was holding a bulging paper bag and reaching for his keys. "It's open," Ken called.

"That's a dumb idea. Next you'll be putting the key under the mat or something."

"Very dangerous sixty seconds there, while I got the pizza." He followed Dave inside, put the pizza box on the coffee table and then went back and locked the door with a flourish which Dave unfortunately missed, unpacking the groceries in the kitchen. "Good timing, buddy," Ken said, flopping onto the couch again. "Pizza's still hot. Bring plates and stuff, will you?"

"Plates," grumbled Dave, but brought them, and a roll of paper towel. "Sure you don't want a fork and knife? Maybe two forks?"

Ken thought of saying 'champagne,' but instead he opened the box and snagged the biggest corner piece. "Nope. If I used a fork I wouldn't be able to lick my fingers." Then paused before adding, "Or yours."

"Lick mine any time," Dave said.

Actually they went on eating.

"Aunt Rosie," said Dave later, between bites, "wants us to come to Christmas dinner."

"Mmm?" Ken wasn't really sure whether Dave wanted to or not. His own feelings were mixed.

"The Blaines are coming." The two men looked at each other.

"You seen John since the last time we went dancing?"

"Talked to him on the phone. He gave me some information, I gave him some." Dave turned his head. "It's been ... longer since I've seen Maggie."

"Couldn't we go Christmas Eve or something? I hate a scene like that, Dave. Rosie and Al are good people—and John too—but ...."

Dave put down a half-eaten slice and wiped his hands. Ken reached over and took hold of the nearer wrist, slid down and gripped Dave's hand. "We'll go if you want."

Dave didn't look up. "Christmas Eve is a better idea. I'll call her." He swallowed. "I wish ...."

Ken pulled the hand he held up to his mouth and kissed it. They could wish all they wanted, and it wouldn't give John any more choices, or make it easier to deal with the ones he'd already made. "Any other plans I should know about?"

Dave hugged him close and nuzzled his neck. "No plans to go out," he said.

Ken lay back on the couch and Dave settled on top of him. They held each other while the remains of the pizza got cold. "I thought," Ken said after a while, "that there was some kind of holiday party at the Parrot."

"Mmm," Dave said, so relaxed that he sounded half asleep, "tomorrow."

Ken massaged his lover's scalp and rubbed his back. "Let's do this," he said. "Let's go to Chez Hélène, check out who Hug's got for music these days, and then go to the Parrot for awhile—and then come home and crack that champagne."

"Open that thing under the tree," Dave added.

Ken smiled but didn't say any more about that. "Make love all night long."

"Was gonna do that anyway. If you can keep up."

"Try me."

~

The meal had been good; there'd been a cute little folk-singer at Huggy's; they'd said hello to Sugar, who had tried for maybe the fourth time to get Ken on stage for a duet, and danced a few hours away. Now they were back at Ken's, and he was discovering that Dave's taste in champagne and caviar was surprisingly good.

"All right," said Dave, rubbing his hands, as excited as a child, "gimme that envelope. And here's one for you." He turned around to where he'd draped his suit coat over the end of the couch and felt around in it, bringing back a letter-sized envelope with the flap hanging open.

Ken looked into it and found stiff slips of paper, lots of them, in two bundles. Tickets. Season tickets—he pulled out one bundle and read the top one—to the symphony.

"They're good seats, too. I figured, if anybody can get me to like music, this kind, anyway ...."

"A whole season," said Ken. "That's ... thanks. Thank you."

Dave cupped his cheek. "My whole life, babe."

Ken thought it wouldn't be long before he really believed it. He turned his head to kiss the palm that caressed him.

"Okay, here." He reached for his big envelope and passed it to Dave.

Dave pulled out the sheet music and looked at it. Touched the front where the lettering said 'Dave's Song' in parentheses under the main title, 'Can't Say Goodbye.'

He cleared his throat, then after another moment said, "Sing it for me."

"You know it," Ken said, suddenly embarrassed.

"Sing it for me," Dave said again, raising his head, his eyes starry.

"Okay."

"I'll get the guitar."

"Dave—!" But Ken stopped himself, thinking that a capella would be even more embarrassing.

The sofa wasn't really a comfortable place to play guitar, but Dave was back and Ken wasn't sure what else to suggest. He generally sat on the floor to practice, but these were his good clothes. He hitched himself to the edge of the cushion and did his best to reach the strings.


"There's an empty place in my heart
Whenever you look away
And I can't breathe in enough air
For what I have to say

"Not if it's goodbye.

"No, I just can't say goodbye
As if I didn't know
That it stops my breath, it freezes me
To think I'd have to go.

"Ever have to go,
Never want to go."

Then there was an instrumental passage that Ken mostly murdered; Dave was uncritical, though.


"No, I'll never say goodbye
Never let you go
Till you're the one who's leaving me
I'll only say hello."

When he was finished playing, Dave just looked at him for a while.

"It's not really a very good lyric," Ken said.

"You don't know anything about it," Dave said. "You oughta let me in that notebook of yours more often."

"Maybe I will."

Dave took the guitar from his hands, and Ken knew what would come after that—it wouldn't be the whole night, but close enough. Still, as the guitar left his lap he reached after it, cupped his hand over the headstock and rubbed it the way he used to do.

For luck.

And then took his luck in his arms.

~