The buckling in of a door, the animal sound of it: wood, metal, glass. Your brother comes skidding in, blood-drenched and wild, with the neon light of the city in his eyes and the flash of a handgun as he ejects the empty magazine. Teeth sharp and bared. Reloads.
“Stop,” you’re saying. You’ve got your own gun pointed at his throat – old habit. “Loki, stop this.”
“What, you’re going to plug me?”
There’s shouting on the upper levels, the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire. Someone’s knocked over a barrel of gas – the fuck is that even doing here – this isn’t a matter of if, now, it’s a matter of when.
“Not if I can help it,” you say.
Loki laughs at you. “Then get the fuck out of the way.”
You’ll remember this, later. You’ll remember the first lick of fire across the warehouse floor. The way he looks at you, like a razor against your throat; like a cornered animal. When the bullet screws into your shoulder you think for a split second that it isn’t his.
He’s smiling too broadly for it not to be his.
Well, perhaps you did this. Perhaps, from the start, this was all your fault.
Halfway through the night you’re trying to apologise. You’re wrist-deep in at least twelve empty shot-glasses and you’re trying to say, this doesn’t mean anything, Loki, next year, next year –
“Shut up,” Loki says. Fingertips shaking, fluttering on the counter. “Just enjoy it.”
You don’t. Loki’s eyes are brittle and chipped, ice-cold in the light. It’s the wrong blood, what Loki’s got in him – not like you – but he’s got the right mind though, hard and unrelenting and sly, brutal and steel-trap, and if you’re not resorting to fists then Loki’s got the right sword-arm too. Nobody’s a better shot. Nobody can engineer an accident, or a not-so-accident, more fluently. Nobody can hold their nerve when an operation’s going to hell, bodies everywhere, this is how it is nowadays, shootings on the sidewalks, people getting pinched on their way to the grocery store, nobody, nobody but your brother.
“I’ll speak up for you,” you tell him. Slur it to him. Slop it out of you like so much spilled liquor. “I’ll talk to Danny, he knows you. He’ll vouch for you.”
“No fucking point,” he says.
You memorise the marble line of his throat. You imagine, in the haze of too much drink too quickly, putting your mouth on that line and biting down.
Tonight’s a night for hopeless enterprises. Loki’s voice, in your head: No fucking point.
Marlene’s at the stove, half lighting up, half trying to fry eggs. She drops the unlit cigarette. You watch it roll underneath the counter. “What the fuck – ”
“He fought back,” Loki says. Frozen in the doorway – trying to decide between the bathroom sink and the kitchen one. Cheekbones narrow, like a child’s. “First time that’s ever – first time I’ve gotten that close, I mean, it isn’t – ”
“Sit down,” Marlene says.
You don’t know what to do with your brother. You hover about, useless. “I’ll get you a towel.”
The first one you killed up close was a girl. Lean and lanky, eyes panicked, she kicked out at you as you held her under. Bubbles forming where her words should’ve been. The wet, helpless drift of her limbs when you finally let go – sometimes you still imagine her, the little gold points of her earrings, the birthmark on the inside of her wrist and how it snapped so easily when you put pressure on it.
This is what they make you do. They work out what it is that you cannot bear, and that is what they ask.
You go back out to the kitchen. Loki is wearing a blank face and he’s holding his hands up carefully, as if to say, no blood on the tablecloth, see, no blood on Marlene’s fresh apron.
You put a hand on his shoulder. For a moment, he freezes up beneath you; and then he shrugs away.
You drop into the seat next to him. “What’s that you’re doing?”
Loki has long, slender hands, hands that you don’t expect to see on the grip of a gun. Magician’s hands. Every movement smooth and fluid, like mercury running down his arms and into his joints. You can see the honed way he’s staring at the pack – the same way he stares someone down just before he kills them.
“Don’t watch me,” Loki says, out of the corner of his mouth. “Can’t think.”
“I’m just sitting here.”
“Go get a cup of coffee.”
You make a face. “Marlene’s coffee is shit. Can’t drink the stuff.”
“Go out then, find yourself a woman. I’m busy here.”
It was you who got them into this business to start with. Thirteen, or fourteen maybe, picking Danny’s pocket too heavy-handedly in the middle of the street; they caught you out and they beat you up, but they liked the look of you. They called you back a week later. Sometimes when you’re bored you wonder what would’ve happened if it had been Loki doing the pick-pocketing that day – Loki with his quicksilver fingers, with that tongue that could talk him out of any kind of trouble, smooth it over, make it seem like an accident.
“If we weren’t here doing this,” you say, just thinking out loud, “where do you think we’d be at?”
“Dead,” Loki says.
He shows you his hand – a neat twenty-one. He shows you how he’s palmed an ace into his sleeve.
“Not here,” she whispers. Her eyes are darting over all the usual spots – door to the washroom, the booth in the corner with the conked out light-bulb, the store-room. “Come on. Outside.”
You find yourself in an alley. She’s pressed up against the brick with her skirt hiked up and her panties dangling off one ankle, bony thighs wrapped around your hips, clutching at your shoulders. Her breathing is small and stuttered, like she’s been wounded somewhere in the ribs.
You’re halfway in her and halfway out when Loki comes skidding around the corner, guns up.
The girl shrieks. “What the fuck!”
“Hey,” you say, and the girl tries to scamper out of your grip. “I’m kind-of in the middle of something.”
Loki takes two steps in, grabs you by the collar. The girl writhes away and runs off back down the alley.
“Loki, what the hell are you doing – ”
“You fucker,” Loki spits again. “You don’t do that again, alright? You check in with me before you go swanning out into the night, we’re in Lucchese territory here, this isn’t a fucking joke. I don’t want to find your shot-up body in some dumpster the next morning. You fucking idiot.”
“I had it under control, it was just a girl – ”
“Sure, they send in a girl to lead you out of the club and then they fucking plug you. Get back inside.”
You trail after him. You’ve never seen him this furious. Sparks seem to come off him; his snarl is savage and full of fangs, and when he slugs you one maybe half an hour later your teeth go through your lip and he nearly breaks your jaw.
You slug him back.
This is how you two carry on – this is how you show feeling.
Back in the alleyway, a split second before Loki had seen what was actually going on, you’d caught the expression on his face. An undiluted panic. An open, unguarded, naked, vulnerable fear.
There’s a pack of the newest product you’re running split open by the bed. White like talcum powder everywhere. He’s heavy when you try to shift him, limbs drooping, eyes barely focused.
“Thor,” he says. His palms are cold and sweat-clammy. “Thought you – wouldn’t come.”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Loki makes a strange, unhappy noise when you try to shift him again. Beneath the threadbare sheet you can feel the cut of his hip. The sheer and perfect curve of his bones.
“Don’t be angry,” he mumbles against your shoulder, pawing for your wrist.
“I’m not angry,” you say.
It’s not your first lie.
Loki places a clumsy kiss on your mouth. It’s not sexy, not in the slightest. You spend the night sitting beside him as he sleeps, your fingers on the sluggish beat of his pulse; he’s not going to die but still you stay awake and listen to the sound of his breathing. It’s like listening to the tick of a bomb.
“The fuck,” Loki yells. You’ve crushed him back against the doorknob, grinding him into it. “What the fuck is – get off me, you cunt – ”
You backhand him. His head snaps back against the wood. You’re so angry you’re seeing red but still some part of you is pulling your punches, a thing that Loki picks up on at once, Loki’s quick like that, knowing what you’re thinking before you’ve even thought it, blinking back at you through the dark with the slow knowing curve of his smile.
“What the hell are you trying to pull,” you hiss into his face. “Half the district’s gunning for you – ”
“Yeah, but you’re not, right?”
He’s not taking you seriously. You get an arm across his throat. “Don’t be so sure.”
“I am sure.” Loki tries to weasel out from under you but if there’s one thing you’re good at, it’s pinning a man down. First lesson in the book. “Let me go, I’m just here to pick up some stuff.”
“What, then you’re off again?”
“What, you want me to stay?” He grins, all teeth. “Don’t feed me that. You’ve been feeding me that for years and I don’t buy it anymore. I’m off. I’ve got my own little operation now, nice and sweet, runs all by itself. I just gotta stick my head in and collect the dues. Easy.”
“You head up to Chicago and Danny will put a hit on you.”
“So what? You don’t think I can slip past Danny?”
You shake him. You’re not gentle – you want him to feel it, how breakable he is, how snappable are his bones. “Fuck Danny. You haven’t even slipped past me.”
“Only because I didn’t want to.”
Loki tastes like sawdust when he bites into your mouth. You can smell leather on him, gun oil, the hint of a whore’s perfume; his fingers claw into your hair and he pulls hard, dragging blunt nails across your scalp. You slam him back against the door so he brings his legs up to cinch around your hips. You can feel how hard he is – the heat mashed close against your stomach, his teeth catching on your bottom lip.
“Do it.” Somehow, he makes it sound harsh. “Come on, fucking do it, just do it – ”
You fuck it into him. Everything that you want to say, but can’t.
Loki’s always been the better talker of the two of you.
You shake your head.
“Some things you can’t fix, Thor.”
“No. But I could’ve fixed this.”
The end of her lit cigarette scrawling patterns as it bobs between her lips. She’s wearing dark lipstick – for some reason it makes her look old. “Don’t be thick. You’re kidding yourself. I don’t know what goes on in your brother’s head, and you don’t either. Nobody does.”
“So what? That doesn’t mean – ”
“Some things,” Marlene says. She makes a fist, then thuds it home against your sternum. “Rotten in here, you know? Right in there. Can’t even dig it out. Don’t bother trying.”
You didn’t try very hard. You know that, now.
“Fucking freezing,” Loki hisses, whole body shivering like his skin’s trying to crawl off. “What the hell’s even taking him so long? Fucking prick.”
“Probably just getting to the lobster,” you say.
“Fuck,” Loki says. “Still gotta sit through dessert.”
“Wonder what it’s like,” you say. Loki looks at you, half-murderous in the blue evening. “No, I mean – one day, you and me, we could be like that. In there. Instead of out here. Warm, instead of all our bits falling off, you know? Drinking fancy scotch or whatever. Smoking fat cigars.”
“Can’t stand cigars,” Loki says.
“Doesn’t matter,” you say. “Smoking cigarettes, then. But you get what I mean.”
Loki shivers again, presses close against your side. Elbows touching. You’re weightless all of a sudden, not touching the ground, warmer than you should be. Your breath puffs out of your mouth. You watch it mingle with your brother’s and float off into the night. This is always how it is – outside and looking in; swaying in the dark and dreaming about the things that you want, but can’t have.
They know better at this point than to separate you two. Apart, the two of you are only ever half there; the other half gone wandering, where’s Loki, what’s he doing, is he warm, is he safe.
“If you weren’t here with me, I think I’d go nuts,” Loki tells you.
“Yeah, well, I’m here,” you say.
What, you’re going to plug me?
Your brother gets there first. You go down.