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Peace of Mind

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2014

“How the fuck did I get here?” Michael asks himself, staring at the blood pooling around the toes of his $500 Ponsonbys wingtips. He’s holding a busted synthesizer in both hands and staring at a crater that used to be the face of famous DJ/Porn Producer/Trustfund Wunderkind T Radd - top financier of Solomon Richards's newest film, and a moron who had just admitted to filming Michael’s daughter’s breasts in great and lurid detail.

“The answer to that question seems pretty obvious,” drawls Trevor, hovering at his shoulder like some deformed, meth-riddled devil. “You put on your most expensive human suit, drove six blocks to the flat and then murdered this fucker for impugning on baby Tracey’s - admittedly somewhat tenuous at this point - honour. I’m impressed, Mikey. I thought I was gonna have to hold your hand through this one like usual, but you just fucking went for it.”

Michael drops the synthesizer. It cracks and rattles when it hits the floor, but nothing external pops off. For some reason hearing it laid out like that is what makes it real. Murder; Michael’s been good, hasn’t killed someone in nearly ten months. Not since burning Devin Weston alive in the corpse of his own vehicle. T Radd might have been a piece of human garbage, but he was the critical lynchpin holding together a troubled production cycle.

“It was a rhetorical question, T,” Michael mutters, running a hand through his coiffed hair to seal in his rising panic. The night-lights are turning on outside, cutting through the venetian blinds to cast long, neon shadows across the length of T Radd’s tacky, modernist living room. The way the city’s nightlife turns the blood into a dark reflecting pool is surreal and strangely picturesque, like Michael’s in a real movie right now: some slick, Los Santos vice flick with a soundtrack straight out of the local strip club’s nightly rotation.

The only thing ruining the ambience is Trevor’s hill-billy chic and filth-caked hands. Like a burn on the film negative that seared through every scene, Trevor’s always been able to complicate Michael’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

“Well I gave you a literal answer instead, cupcake. As your BFF it’s my duty to backhand you with a reality-check every so often.” Trevor breezes past Michael so that he can examine the corpse. “Thought I might remind you of how it went down before the hamster wheel of rationalization starts spinning away in your pretty little head making you decide to deflect the blame and leave me holding the bag, as per-fucking-usual.” Trevor stares down at T Radd for a couple seconds, looking genuinely contemplative before he pulls back his leg and kicks the body. A piece of skull the size of a child’s palm goes flying hard enough to make a crack in the balcony door. “Hoooo yeah, yeah -” Trevor claps his hands over his mouth, like he’s trying to keep a nice, responsible leash on his excitement. “That is the deadest goddamn corpse I seen all week. You really did a number on him. I didn’t know you still had it in ya, baby! This is almost like -”

“- like something you’d do, you psycho, yeah yeah I get it.”

“Exactly! Not the method I would have used. Blunt, but effective, which is just like you.”

“Y’know, Trevor, I told you to stay in the car for a fucking reason.”

“Oh, don’t start whining, you’re gonna kill my semi.” Trevor adjusts the crotch of his dirty jeans and grounds the heel of his palm over his dick lewdly. “Mmmm! Hey - if you’re not gonna take responsibility for this, do you mind if I…?”

“If you what?”

Trevor makes a vague gesture over the body, hand firm on his pelvis. “I mean… wouldn’t it be poetic if a two-bit porn producer was found dead sporting a pearl necklace or a money shot all over his facial cavity? Some sort of karmic retribution for all the damaged, young girls he’s taken advantage of?”

Michael grabs Trevor by the scruff of his pink bowling shirt and drags him bodily away from the crime scene. Somehow the fact that Trevor is expressing enthusiasm over sexually defiling a corpse sails right past the part of his brain that sets off alarms. If you accept one thing about Trevor Philips, you have to accept the rest or you’re gonna be in for a lifetime of metaphorically popping your monocle, while he pops another boner. “Nobody is gonna find this body, not until all his cheques clear, you got me? We gotta, uh -” Michael shoves Trevor into the foyer and spins around to make a quick assessment of the condo’s dark corners.

Civilian B & E’s were never their M.O., but it was the same basic principle as robbing a bank. Check the cameras, the alarms, the dark corners and escape exploits. He’d cased the joint when he first walked in, in case T Radd bolted, made a go for his sports car. It was a narrow apartment - door at the front, windows at the back and nothing but grey brick and pretentious art in-between. It’d probably been repurposed from the Old Town tenements that got bought up in the 70s, after the Gold-Line transit system went bust and all the poor people got pushed out of the city center to keep it looking pretty. That meant there would be the skeleton of a fire-escape beneath the balcony, and that the alley between would be nice and private.

“We gotta… make it look like there was a break in, a real organized one. A kidnapping, even.”

“Uh huh.”

“Nn… shit… this guy had to be in debt with the local mafia. His real name’s Rizzo - we call Lester, get him to run a background check -”

“Isn’t Lester retired these days?”

Michael sighs, starts to pace as the better half of a plan begins to percolate in his brain. “Yeah, retired on money you and I did the footwork collectin’. He won’t turn down a favour for his oldest and dearest friends.”

Trevor shrugs. “Of course not: he’s not like you. Lester has a sense of honour and loyalty.”

“Y’know, for all you complain about me bein’ a wet blanket these days, you’re bein’ awful obstructionist right now, T.”

“My sincerest apologies, Mr. Associate Producer,” Trevor demures in the same tone he uses on civil servants. “Don’t know how I ever could have found it in me to obstruct something as fucking sacred as a Vinewood picture production.”

Michael snaps around to snarl at him, but the neon’s cutting through Trevor’s aviators, revealing a strange and hungry light in his eyes. Their gazes meet in the half-darkness and something flashes between them; the promise of a spark, like a flint desperately trying to light off an empty chamber. Like in the old days, when they could lock eyes across the chaos of a firefight and both know in that moment exactly who needed to die. It’s been a lot longer than ten years since Michael’s felt that synched up to Trevor Philips, and the threat of it makes his mouth go dry.

Michael holds the eye contact steady and watches as Trevor’s nasty scowl softens.

“Point me where you need me, Mikey,” Trevor says. Very sincerely this time. Something tightens in Michael’s chest: revulsion, triumph, both tangled up around his lungs. It’s been such a long fucking time since Trevor has just listened to him, he’d almost forgotten how good it felt.

He breaks away, makes a few assertive hand gestures. Marks the points of interest in the room wordlessly: alarm, balcony, synthesizer. “Guns, T. Gotta make ‘em look like the ones that go through the gang washer. Lester’ll know where and how to get ‘em laundered, and the best way to smuggle ‘em in here and make it look like a firefight. Should be a quick in and out that’ll have the cops confused for long enough for the last cheque to go through. I’ll call Frank and see if his crew can do the footwork.”

“Why, Michael, this is starting to sound like a real caper. Almost like… a job.”

Michael hadn’t done a “job” since “The Big One”. Hadn’t needed to. Almost convinced himself he hadn’t wanted to. That there was satisfaction in being a good boy, enjoying his retirement and the fruits of the hard work and self-examination it had taken to get his family back. He was a lot slyer about getting caught drunk off his ass in a state that someone might described as “deeply and profoundly unfulfilled”.

Trevor was different, and wore his restless on both sleeves. Even with the success of his gun-running operation out in Sandy Shores he still spent weeks at a time prowling Rockford Heights like a starving wolf, prodding at Michael’s resolve with the same tenacity that a kid prods a dead raccoon with a stick. Twisting at all his bulging parts in hope that the insides would spill out.

Dragging Trevor along to help “persuade” T Radd to keep the bills rolling in was a last ditch attempt to stop him from literally throwing rocks at his bedroom window. “If I have to play one more round of passive aggressive tennis with him,” Amanda spit. “I’m the one who’s gonna lose their temper and do something stupid for once.”

“This ain’t a job, Trev, this is self-preservation. Solomon can’t know what happened here, no matter how this shakes out.”

“Jesus Christ, Michael, would you just call him daddy already?”

“I’ll call him daddy when you shit your teeth outta -” Michael’s phone starts going nuts in his pocket. He whips it out and curses. Trevor quirks an eyebrow, looking a little disappointed he’s not going to hear the end of Michael’s hollow posturing. That’s how he’d phrase it too. Your shallow, hollow, posturing, Mikey.

“Who’s that?” Trevor asks.

“Shit, it’s... it’s Mandy. Trace is in town, visitin’ from college. I was supposed to be at Tableau half an hour ago.” He rubs his eyes, grounds his teeth together. “T, I gotta take this. Can you -”

Trevor is already going for the corpse, letting out a long-suffering sigh that’s at least ten times more theatrical than the circumstances call for. “Don’t worry, Mikey, I’ll take care of you, just like I always do.” He grabs T Radd by both ankles and begins dragging him towards the balcony, leaving a long, black streak of blood down the length of the apartment.

More than anything, disposing of an impromptu corpse together is the nostalgia nail that strips the golden glow off the coffin. Just two hours ago Michael was beginning to suffer from the delusion that he kind of liked having Trevor around again, remembered what the attraction between them was in the first place. Now, looking at him feels like he’s swallowed paint thinner.

“Oh, yeah,” Michael chuckles, a dark, ugly sound. “You take care of me all right. Stalking me until I have no choice but to drag you along to my work meetings. Bursting in the door when I told you to wait outside... escalating the situation. If that’s how you’re gonna take care of me, I think I’d rather have you gunning for my head again.”

“Things were sounding preeeetty escalated already from where I was standing, Sugar-tits.”

“I had it under control.”

Trevor deposits the corpse on the balcony and sweeps back into the apartment to grab a very expensive looking ceramic butcher knife from the kitchen. He stops and sways close to Michael, waving the blade demonstratively. His sour breath washes over Michael’s face in nauseating waves.

“Didn’t I tell you,” he breathes. “- if anyone's gonna kill you, it's gonna be me. No one else gets to try. They they don’t even get to threaten it. That’s the least you owe me after all your shit.”

*

Michael waits till he’s down the block before he pounds a fist on the steering wheel and screams.

“Fuck! Shit!” He speeds through a red light, horn blaring, not caring about the mailbox he clips as he fishtails around the corner. He’s gotta get it all out before he goes to see his family. Has to swagger into restaurant as the very model of composure, of a man who’s done therapy and knows how to handle his temper, who refrained from turning his ex-psychologist into a stain on the highway for attempting to profit on his life story, thank you very much. He’ll stride in like a King, adjusting his cufflinks and dipping down to give his aging - and still lovely - wife a kiss on the forehead as he shoots the young waitress a safe, but solicitous, wink.

The Talking Heads blare on the radio: ‘And you may ask you yourself: What is this beautiful house!? And you may ask yourself: Where does this highway go!?’

Michael slams the radio off with the broad side of his hand, pummeling the dial savagely for the crime of being ironically appropriate and making him feel really fucking bad about himself. It’s a sick comedy. Michael’s spent too many years feeling like the whole world was having a go at him; Amanda’s accused him of sophistry, but it’s a hard sensation to shake - that laughter and derision is trailing after you like a shadow. Like you’re the buttmokey in the sitcom of your own life.

He rolls his car into the parking lot behind the restaurant and takes a moment to himself to smoke with the windows up. Jimmy’ll complain on the drive home, but right now Michael doesn’t give a shit.

One year ago he was hitting the nadir of his mid-life crisis: sandwiched between contemplatively - and maybe a little melodramatically - sticking a gun in his mouth and pulling down a Mob Boss’s house in a fit of misdirected rage, he’d hit a sweet spot of complacency. Nirvana; not the shit like rich Los Santos Yogis peddled, but the real deal. True transcendence, that feeling like you could just float away at any moment and stop existing, and that would be fine.

Ten months ago he remembered how good it felt to wave a gun in someone’s face, how good it felt to hold the balance of someone’s life and death in your hands while the dollar signs racked up behind the scenes. That’s the thing: it feels good. The moment the synthesizer connected with T Radd’s soft, sneering, parasitic, wannabe-euro-trash skull, it was like a host of angels descended from God’s asshole to sing him congratulations. That’s always been the problem: that anger is like a tap that gets jammed every time you turn it on. It feels good, then it feels bad. So unimaginably bad.

He thinks about his last appointment with Doctor Friedlander. How do you stop wanting two things at once?

The pride he feels watching his family fumble through a whole day without screaming at each other... the rush he gets when he leads a successful bank raid. Equal, and incompatible.

Leading a successful heist is like a synchronized swimming act, or the same sort of high he used to get from football, when his team executed a flawless play and the crowd shouted his fucking name. You can’t blame a guy for being hungry for that kind of adulation, not when he was raised on crumbs.

So that’s the two points: the man you wanna be, and the man you are. The older he gets, the clearer it becomes to Michael that he’s never gonna turn the Venn diagram of his personality into a perfect circle. So, how do you stop wanting the stuff that’s bad for you? Michael watches the last of bit of his cigarette burn down to the filter and raises his eyes to the magenta sunset, sees skyscrapers and palm trees in the distance. He’s so, so far away from where he started and still, it’s not enough.

Well, how do you?

How do you -

- just stop?

1991

Michael walks a wide circle at the edge of the woods. He smokes two cigarettes in a row as he tries to figure out how to phrase the sentence that’s probably gonna end his life. Metaphorically, if not literally. He can see the lights from Trevor’s stolen truck cutting through the black trees, can hear the motor stalling at the edge of the highway. He waits a half-beat for the engine to sputter out completely before steeling his resolve. Like pulling off a scab, he tells himself. Gotta do it in one go and not care how much it bleeds.

He dashes his smoke out on a tree and jogs back to the forest-line. Trevor is waiting for him, looking impatient in a too-thin windbreaker. He didn’t sound tweaked-out over the phone, but he’s scratching at his neck so hard that Michael can see a welt beginning to form even in the pale moonlight. It’s hard to be critical about T’s drug habits; Michael does more coke than Trevor does meth, but the crystal has a strange hold over him that Michael would call a burgeoning addiction if Trev didn’t treat it so goddamn reverently.

“Hey T,” Michael waves with all the forced nonchalance he can manage. “How’s it going?”

“How’s it going?” Trevor scoffs. “I’m not the one who disappeared for three days after saying I was going for a quick lay. Didn’t call, didn’t leave me a number… not even a fucking note. You’re lucky I don’t get back in this truck and run you over with it...”

“Yeah, I know. And look - I’m sorry for leaving you alone like that, T, but something came up.”

“Well something else is up: me, three days straight worried sick about your selfish ass. Now get in the truck so I can get you back to the motel and get some goddamn rest.” Together is the unspoken sentiment at the end of that sentence: in their shared room. In their single bed. Trevor’s pissed all right, but there’s a warmth in his voice that Michael knows is reserved specifically for him; he was genuinely worried. More than that, he was lonely. Trevor is always so goddamn lonely, it’s like road-tripping with a black hole sometimes.

Trevor grabs him by the wrist and begins leading him to the truck’s cab, but Michael yanks away, pulls back. His throat feels like it’s coated in lead. Like a scab, don’t mind the blood.

“Amanda’s pregnant,” he says, all in a rush. And it sounds simple. Where Michael’s from, two words like that carry a whole storybook full of implications and assumptions. It’s all you really gotta say to explain the whole situation.

Trevor, however… it takes Trevor a moment to respond. He’s facing away from Michael, shoulders hunched, fingers still clamped together where they were clutching Michael’s coat. An 18-wheeler speeds by on the highway beside them; blocks the moonlight out for a couple of seconds, turns Trevor into a dark smudge of shadow. When he speaks, his voice is pretty calm all things considered. “Who the fuck is Amanda and why should I care?”

“Ah, you know - Krystal, from the Cockeye club.”

“Your ‘quick lay’?”

“Well,” Michael chuckles. “I wouldn’t call it ‘quick’ - I still got that QB stamina.”

Trevor turns around, one bushy eyebrow raised to his pointed hair-line. “Pregnant…” he says slowly, totally rejecting the levity Michael’s trying to wedge back into the conversation.

“Y-yeah,” Michael responds dumbly.

“You mean to tell me,” and Trevor’s voice begins to pick up pace, pitch - it goes gravelly, the way it does just before he really loses his shit. But Michael doesn’t flinch beneath it, never does. “- that after all the shit you give me about responsibility every time I so much as blink at someone, you’ve been raw-dogging prostitutes this whole time?”

“Nothing like that. The -” it sounds so stupid, so trashy said out loud. “- the condom broke.”

Trevor makes a frustrated noise in his throat, a strangled howl. He stomps around in the slush, slamming his palm against his forehead hard enough that it makes a hollow thud. “I told ya, I told ya, I fucking told ya! You need to be more careful who you fuck! God!”

And that flares Michael’s temper. Trevor Phillips, who two weeks ago broke a bottle over a man’s head and then shoved the broken end down his throat for mocking his accent, condescending to him about… about goddamn anything, really, but especially self control. It was absurd.

I need to be more careful who I fuck? Oh, hoo, that’s rich coming from the guy who goes home with literal crack whores and… and those guys where you’ve always got all the -” Michael mimics the motion of hands closing around a throat, too uncomfortable to articulate it out loud. “ - in the morning.”

Trevor jabs a finger into Michael’s sternum. “But have I ever fucked someone who wanted to come back the next day? Who got pregnant or… at least was the kind of person who would tell me if they were pregnant instead of doing the responsible thing and getting that fetus vacuumed outta them as quickly as possible? NO! Shit, even Lester’s never dragged his wet dick through the middle of our business and he meets all his hook-ups on the internet chat rooms for people with cripple fetishes -”

“Trevor -”

“- I’m not finished! Think before you stick your dick in something! You don’t fuck some whore more than once if you don’t want something like this to happen!”

“Mandy’s not ‘some whore’,” Michael snaps back. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been going steady.”

Trevor throws his arms up in the air. “Oh, I see - now that she’s pregnant, she’s your girlfriend. That ain’t the tune you were singing last time we talked, brother. Three days ago you were trying to stack girls into the motel room like you were punching a ten-for-one coffee card full of ‘em, but one piss-test later and all of a sudden it’s Mandy, Mandy, Mandy. What, are you gonna marry her!?”

Michael hadn’t quite gotten that far yet on his own, but hearing Trevor spit it out like it was a cockroach in a bowl of soup goads him on. He puffs out his chest, tries to lord his width over Trevor where he’s lacking in height. “Yeah, I might just!” It’s the responsible thing to do. The proper thing to do. It’s a thought that sends a sharp jolt of terror down his spine, but makes him feel charitable and manly all at once. Older than the sum of his twenty-three years.

Trevor starts laughing. “You could not be any more of a fucking cliche right now if you tried, Michael. Really, you’re gonna marry her. Gonna settle down right here in Middle-of-Nowheres-ville North Yankton and raise a happy little family with a stripper who calls herself Krystal with a ‘K’!? What next? Gonna get a job at the steel factory that pays so bad “Mandy’s” gonna have to start sucking dick on the side again to make ends meet, like it’s a fucking John Steinbeck novel?”

“I might, and I might not. We haven’t really talked about it yet.”

“Then what’s the big fucking deal?”

“Y’know, T, you’re being pretty fucking weird about this for no fucking reason.”

“The fucking reason I’m being weird about it is because we’re finally getting the kind of scores we always dreamed about and you’re ready to fuck it all up with your skirt-chasing, even though you like to pretend to be Mister Responsibility! You’re a fucking hypocrite! That’s why I’m upset!”

“Hold up, I never said we have to stop takin’ scores. I mean, I gotta pay for the kid somehow and you can bet I’m not gonna take a Nine-to-Five flippin’ burgers. C’mon, T, you know me better than that.”

“Do I? I thought you were better than losing your nerve and your shit over something like knocking up a pro!”

“Look, this shit happens. I was hopin’ to have a reasonable conversation about this. If you could just calm down an’ stop bein’ all weird -”

“You shouldn’t HAVE FUCKED her!” Trevor howls.

“But I did!” Michael takes a step forwards, trying to regain some literal ground in the argument. “And I can’t exactly go back in time and un-fuck her, so you’re gonna have to deal with it!”

Trevor’s backed against the truck, eyes wild. “Well then then you shouldn’t have fucked ME -” he hisses. “- if you didn’t want me to get ‘all weird’ when you decide to take off and leave to roleplay Daddy and Mommy with the first stripper who told you ‘the condom broke’!”

Michael shoves Trevor by the shoulders, so hard that he bounces off the side of the flatbed. “Alright!” he shouts. “Alright. You know what? You’re right! We never should have fucked! Rare moment of brilliance from your drug-addled head, thank you for that. Glad we got it sorted out and can get on with our lives!”

Something hollows out in Trevor’s eyes and he nearly loses his footing on the frosty ground. He has to grope along the door of the flatbed to keep himself upright. He looks like he’s shivering, but it might just be the wind. Or the drugs. It’s hard to tell when to be worried about Trevor, who has the constitution and the luck of Wile-E-Coyote. Michael’s seen him get up from blows that would have caved another man’s skull in. Blows he never dodges.

Michael reaches out to steady him, but Trevor tears away like his hands are on fire. “Yeah, whatever,” he mutters. He hunches up his shoulders and turns his eyes away from Michael. Gets quiet. A quiet Trevor’s usually the prelude to a storm. It makes Michael think of when they first met; Trevor was a lot quieter back then, and his outbursts were harder to predict. Michael can never figure out if it was a good thing or bad to have brought him out of his shell

“Trev, look. I don’t wanna leave the crew. This doesn’t mean we have to stop working. But I gotta lie low for a bit.”

“Oh, you ‘gotta’.” Trevor grounds the word out, mimics Michael’s voice.

“Yeah, I gotta. What else can I do?”

“The way I see it, you’ve got a few options. The only question is whether you’re too much of a pussy to take them or not.”

“I swear to God, Trevor, if you’re about to offer to murder my girlfriend -”

“- hookup -”

Amanda, I’m gonna -” gonna what? There’s no threat that will work on Trevor. Michael’s only ever been able to control him through positive reinforcement. He finishes lamely: “- knock your teeth in one at a time.”

“No. No, no no - God, Mikey, killing a pregnant woman? That’s sick. That’s… that’s going too far.” Trevor starts pacing, rubbing his hands over his face, wringing his fingers through his ratty mullet. Yeah, he’s definitely had some meth. “At least at this stage. There’s other… I mean… shit, shit -” He goes on like that for a few seconds, muttering to himself under his breath, eyes darting wildly like when he’s doing complex math in his head.

Then he whips around, grabs Michael’s shoulders and shakes him hard. His eyes are wide, desperate. Afraid. What the hell is he afraid of? Michael wonders. The bags beneath Trevor’s eyes are so deep they look like pits that go on forever. Like the dark ocean hugging a cliff-face. He digs his fingers into Michael’s flesh hard enough that it’s going to leave bruises.

“Let’s run away,” he says, all quivering and breathy. “M, let’s get in the truck and just start driving.”

“Driving where, T?”

“I don’t know. I don’t… I don’t care - north, south, west, anywhere. We can cross the Canadian border and lay low for nine months. Rob a couple banks up there. Canadian money’s practically worth nothing and the police are a joke. We’d be rolling in it. We could live like Kings, literal Kings because Canada still has the monarchy. Mikey, it’ll be beautiful - just you and me, like in the beginning.”

“What about Lester? The crew?”

Fuck Lester and the crew! They all got other shit going on, we’re not attached to them by umbilical cord. Stop asking so many fucking questions! Jesus, M, you’re the one who always wants to skip town the moment we bag a job. We don’t need them! We don’t need anyone but each other - M n’ T, like in the beginning. It’s never been the same since -”

The word ‘since’ hangs in the cold air between them as it begins to snow. It conjures up a swell of complicated emotions at the center of Michael’s chest, a tapestry of scattered sense-memories: the kickback of an NLPD officer’s stolen shotgun in his arms, the brush of stacked bills against his calloused thumb-pads, the warmth of Trevor’s lanky body as they laugh and roll around in the snow like kids, blood in Trevor’s teeth and the scent of exhaust fumes in their hair. They were threadbare and desperate and poor, but Michael can’t deny that those were some of the best months of his life.

A sudden, temporary insanity overcomes him as he stares into Trevor’s dark, jittering eyes. Stare too long into the abyss, and you start to find it kind of attractive. Michael slides his hands up Trevor’s arms, his neck, his jawline. He cradles Trevor’s face in his hands and can feel the heat from his skin even through two layers of cured leather.

“Okay,” he whispers. “Yeah… okay. Let’s go. Let’s fucking do this.”

Trevor grins so wide it threatens to crack his face open. Michael can’t help but grin back. He’s shaking now too, like Trevor’s high is infectious. They slam into the truck and Trevor’s so eager to get on the highway that he forgets to back out of the ditch he’d parked in. Michael holds onto the dash for dear life as the wheels squeal and the truck rocks unevenly onto the asphalt.

The oncoming storm makes the highway so dark that the night seems endless. Only one windshield wiper works and the snow starts piling up on Michael’s side of the cab. The snow piles up so high that it eats his future, his past, eats away at everything that isn’t the feeling of ripping down a country road with nothing in his pocket but $200, a pistol and Trevor Philips’s unwavering devotion.

With shaking hands, he turns on the radio.

2014

The look Amanda shoots him when he breezes into the restaurant is cold enough to put snow down in Sandy Shores. It only last a half-beat before a she forces a smile, obviously running through every coping mechanism learnt in couple’s therapy and then promptly discarding them as Michael saunters over and acts like they’re not already halfway through their appetizers.

“A triple shot of Glenfakas on the rocks,” Michael tags the waiter. “And a bottle of your most expensive champagne! My baby girl here just finished her first semester of college!”

Jimmy’s looking nervously between his parents, a fork pressed tightly in his whitening lips, but Tracey - oh, she is beaming and beautiful in her silver evening gown that covers every part of her breasts, and the night is about her, so everyone else can stuff it and save the screaming match for back at the house. She claps excitedly when the waiter pops the cork off the crystalline bottle, and Michael immediately feels 100% better about himself. At least he does, until his phone starts buzzing off the hook.

He holds eye-contact steady enough with Tracey as she babbles on about her 100-level Screenwriting class that he’s pretty certain she doesn’t see him surreptitiously checking his texts. Amanda, however, does.

6:04 PM
‘I hope you plan to cover the costs for this impromptu favor you just assumed I’d do for you’ - L

6:04 PM
‘got guns deel setup. body sucksessfally hid. cashulteys: 3. well take it out 2 the factury later’ - T

6:06 PM
‘I’m not a miracle worker, M’ - L

6:08 PM
‘Actually I am a miracle worker. I’m not a charity service’ - L

6:10 PM
‘when ur dinners done meet me at VU’ - T

Amanda clears her throat loudly and Michael heels to it like a dog. He slides his phone back into his pocket and smiles blandly at Tracey. “That sounds great, honey,” he says. That’s the thing that tips Tracey off. It is a very particular tone of voice a father uses when he doesn’t actually give a shit what you’re saying.

“You weren’t even listening, Daddy!”

“Of course I was.” Michael tips his glass and raises it in the universal gesture of a toast. “Y’know Trace - neither me or your mom went to college. Our parents didn’t either - you’ll be the first in the family to get a post-secondary degree. And, in such a… you know, whatever it is that you’re studying!”

“Film Theory and Cultural Studies,” Tracey grounds out. She raps her neatly manicured nails along the ridge of her champagne glass.

“See - that’s amazing! You should be grateful about how you’re fortunate enough to go to school for something completely useless entirely on your father’s dollar! Now that, that’s the American Dream!”

“Oh, dad…” Jimmy mutters.

Tracey very carefully composes her expression even though Michael can tell that she’s itching to cause a scene in public. They all are, except Jimmy, who is drawing further into himself the tenser the air gets. Amanda’s clutching the fabric of her dress pants under the table, wearing an expression like she’s looking for an excuse, any excuse, to go off like a pistol. Michael feels an ugly emotion rising in his stomach like he’s looking for any excuse to let her. Instead, he licks his lips and rises to his feet, swinging his scotch glass so emphatically it rains droplets across the table in a wide, even arc. His family does not follow his lead.

“Hey. At least make it look like we’re pretendin’ to be a normal family here.”

No one moves. All three of them are staring: not directly at his face, but eyes trained to the same spot on his chest. Tracey’s gone a bit white. Jimmy drops his fork.

“Michael,” Amanda says very slowly, moving her hands to the table. “What is on your shirt?”

Michael glances down to see a bright spot of blood browning between two buttonholes. There is no lie in the world that will convince a twenty-year veteran of marriage to a bank robber that it is anything else. Michael quickly pulls his suit jacket over the stain and buttons it one-handed. “Just a little souvenir from work,” he quips. “Nothin’ to worry about.”

“ ‘Work’,” Amanda repeats. “Your work. As an Associate Producer.”

“Honey, you know how Vinewood productions are. All kinds of crazy stuff happens on set -”

“Oh, you’re not even trying,” she hisses. “At least have the respect to lie to me.”

“Mom,” Jimmy’s pleading. “I’m actually with Dad on this one, can we not make a scene?”

Amanda ignores him. “Go on, Michael: tell me it’s prop blood.”

Michael’s mouth hangs open for a moment. He eases back on his heels. Smirks. “Fine, Mandy. It’s prop blood. What else would be on my fuckin’ shirt? I’m not an animal.”

“I. Don’t. Believe you!” Amanda smashes to her feet, sweeping a hand across the table to send her champagne glass flying. It shatters against the wall and splashes champagne all over a very expensive looking abstract painting. Everyone in the private dining room is staring at them now. They’ve been staring for a while, actually: sly glances over the tops of their menu, gossiping behind powdered hands. The elite of Los Santos are very finely attuned to the frosty sound of an over-dressed wife getting passive aggressive with her husband. But now? Now they’re not even pretending to be polite.

Their waiter scrambles to pick up the glass. He cuts his hands on it.

“You know, Mand, with the price of this dinner you ought to believe just about anything I say right now.”

Mandy steps out into the aisle to shout at him. “Oh, yeah! You always act like I should be so grateful! Grateful that you bothered to show up for dinner! Grateful that you didn’t force me to get an abortion! You act like I should think you’re Jesus just because you never hit our kids! Well, there’s more to it than that, Michael!”

Michael rounds the table to meet her. This particular permutation of their usual argument has been brewing for a while. His phone is going off again. He ignores it. “More? More? You think I shoulda done more for this family, after everything I sacrificed!? After all the shit I did?”

“Yes! There’s more to being a good father - a good husband than, than this!” She sweeps a hand around the restaurant and nearly beams the waiter in the face as he ducks around their table.

“More, more, more. You always want more!”

“I’m not the one who always wants more, Michael!”

Jimmy stumbles to his feet and tries to get between his parents. “S-Seriously, can you guys wait until we get in the car at least -?”

“Yes,” agrees the waiter, voice trembling and flecked with a faint spanish accent. “I would… very much appreciate if you took this argument outside be -”

Michael whirls around to glare daggers at the poor man.

“Be-before I… call the manager, sir…”

“You gonna kick us out after we spent $2000 on the champagne?”

“N-not me. My… my manager. And…uh...” The waiter wrenches his hands together. “The police, probably…”

Tracey abruptly starts crying. “Why are you two always like this! You’re ruining my night! I just wanted to have one normal meal with my family!” She slams her firsts on the table, rattling all the glasses. “I knew I shouldn’t have come home! I knew I should have stayed run-away when I was thirteen!”

“Ah, fuck.” Michael runs a hand through his hair, made helpless by the sound of his daughter's tears, even if they are a bit crocodile-ey. “Sorry, Trace. But you know how your mom is -”

Amanda gives him the middle finger. “Fuck you. I’m going home. Don’t follow me.”

“Wait -” Michael feels his phone rock through another series of buzzes. He stops to check it as his children storm out after their mother.

6:22 PM
‘?????’ - T

6:25 PM
‘? ? ?’ - T

6:27 PM
‘hellloooooo?’ - T

6:31 PM
‘anser me michael’ - T

6:35 PM
- T

6:35 PM
‘Talked to T about what happened and I think that you need to see a new therapist’ - L

6:37 PM
‘im gonna bring the corpse 2 ur preciouz restront’ - T

6:38 PM
‘I got one thing to say: Seriously, dog?’ - F

6:40 PM
‘Im rly gonna do it’ - T

6:40 PM
‘u think i wont’ - T

6:46 PM
‘im outsyde rn’ - T

6:47 PM
‘??? ? ???? ? ? ?? ?’ - T

6:48 PM
‘? ?’ - T

6:49 PM


‘this is how u make me feel when u ignore me :( itz how ull feel if u do it again’ - T

Michael ignores Trevor, comforted by twenty-six years of having never actually suffered any of his promised wrath. He puts his phone on silent and angrily signs off on the credit slip to pay for dinner. He crowds right into the waiter’s space, not unconsciously using his girth to intimidate the guy. Then he stalks out into the bright, balmy evening.

“Amanda!”

She spins around, a half-step from her car and still livid. She’s really pretty that way, Michael thinks. They’ve tried and tried, but this is still the most passion he’s felt from her in months. Years. This is the sort of moment that in kinder times, with more grace and understanding between them, Michael is confident he could have turned around, changed the heat into something positive, something fun. Which is an inappropriate thought to be entertaining in front of their kids, in a public place, but God, it’s been such a dry spell. He’s been such a good boy, except, except, well -

“I told you not to follow me,” Amanda snarls.

Jimmy and Tracey both freeze, deer in headlights and looking like they’d rather be anywhere else. Jimmy takes out his phone and begins desperately scrolling through his emails, or his apps, or whatever shit it is kids keep on their phones these days. Tracey’s still dabbing at her eyes, a little performatively. That’s right, their little performer, learned from the best.

“Well, we’re going to the same place in the end so why don’t we just get it all out here and save Eva the headache!”

“I’d rather you save me the headache and crash at a hotel for the night. Or even better, crawl into whatever gutter it is you spent your afternoon slithering through! Yourgood and dear friend Trevor is, what, living in a strip club right now? Suits you perfectly - it’ll give you a nice excuse to cop a look for once!”

“I’ve told you, Amanda, I ain’t ever stepped foot in that place except for business -”

“Right, right, your precious business!”

“Jesus, Mand, what the fuck crawled up your ass about this all of a sudden tonight! Ten months playing good wifey, laying in wait to hit me with this shit!”

“It’s not all of a sudden Michael. It’s every day! Every day of the last twenty-three years of my life!” She takes four sharp strides across the private parking lot towards him. Her heels echo against the pavement, rising above the din of traffic one block over. “ You know why I was able to ignore it when we lived in North Yankton, Michael?” She slaps him lightly in the chest with the butt of her palm. “Because we had nothing! Because you kept promising us there was an endgame to it. And… and you know what, I was grateful! I was patient! But now that you’ve had it for ten years, you still aren’t happy! What’s the point of saying you ‘did it all for us’ if you won’t be here with us!? Every time, every fucking time I think we’ve come to some sort of understanding, you just do it all over again and again and again! Like we’re going in circles that get smaller and smaller each time we do them. God, Michael, it hasn’t even been a year and you’re at it again!”

“Well, fuck me! You know I’d rather keep you guys far away from the work. I’ve always tried my best to do that. But it’s pretty hypocritical of you all to want to live comfy off the fruits of my labour while remainin’ so fuckin’ ignorant about what exactly it is I do to keep us afloat!”

Jimmy clears his throat. Speaks quietly. “No offense Pop but I think it’s kinda normal to not wanna know if your dad’s out capping dudes while you’re going about your daily business. It makes it hard to focus and stuff.”

Michael’s gaze snaps to him. “Hard to focus?” he crows. “Oh, is that why you ain’t got a job yet?”

“Psychological damages incurred from an emotionally absent father who fucking murders people on the regular! Yeah, partially!”

“I know, right,” Tracey sniffs, tugging at a strand of her hair. “It makes me feel, like, so uncomfortable? Andsuper guilty about how expensive the dress I’m wearing right now is. I mean, I learned in class that there’s no ethical consumption under late stage capitalism, but this is a little nuts.”

Michael laughs, mirthlessly, and spreads his arms. “That’s real nice. You can spend my money guilt free long as you maintain a little cognitive dissonance, huh?”

“No!” Amanda shouts. “We don’t want to have to maintain a “little” “cognitive” “dissonance” anymore, Michael, don’t you get it? We’re tired! We just want you to stop!”

Michael stops. Just for a moment. To count to ten, and try to remember the crap their second marriage counselor told them about listening and good faith.

Into the silence bursts a languished slow clap. Loud, agonizing, familiar. Michael’s breath catches in his throat as he turns to see Trevor strolling in through the mouth of the alley, still wearing blood-stained pants and shirt even though Michael knows he’s been somewhere near his wardrobe in the last hour and a half.

“Well, well, if this isn’t the idyllic domestic bliss I’ve come to expect from the De Sonto family...”

“Oh, hey Uncle T!” says Jimmy awkwardly. Tracey finally stops rubbing her eyes.

“I should have known he was involved somehow,” Amanda growls.

“He’s not involved -”

“How does he know where we were eating dinner?”

“Honey, I’m more involved that you could possible imagine. Don’t you know what your husband’s been up to in the wee hours of the day? Because I do.”

“Trevor, don’t provoke her…”

“No, Trevor,” Amanda crosses her arms. “Provoke me. What were you two up to? How many casualties?”

“How many casualties combined, or individually?” Trevor asks lightly. He’s close enough to lean on the back of her car. Amanda clicks her tongue the moment his skin makes contact with the windshield.

“Don’t touch my car. You’ll leave a grease-stain that’ll stay for weeks.”

Trevor’s hands go up, apologetic, and Amanda pastes on a painfully fake smile. Michael recognizes the shape of this theater, this performance with unspoken tension bubbling just beneath the surface, that Thing all three of them Know, but never talk about.

Well, Amanda and Michael haven’t talked about it, at least. Trevor never shuts up about it. Hasn’t shut up about since 1991.

“Thank you,” Amanda says sweetly. “Now, Trevor. Tell me about the individual casualties.”

“T,” Michael sighs, knowing that his words will supercede Amanda’s. Will supercede anyone’s. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Did you not read my texts? Oh, that is so like you!”

“I didn’t think you were serious.”

“Unlike you, I don’t say something unless I absolutely mean it, Sugar-tits.”

“Oh yeah, you never uttered an empty threat in your entire life. That’s why I’m still standin’ here”

“Vague threats don’t count and unfulfilled threats are still in the queue. Don’t think you’re in the clear yet, Mikey. You still got ninety-eight months and seventy-four days of lies and heartbreak to make up to me.”

“Oh nooo,” Tracey groans, covering her ears. “Are you two gonna argue too? I can’t take this anymore!”

“Me neither,” says Amanda. “I changed my mind. I don’t care what you did, you’re not doing it in the house anymore. If you come home this time, I’m calling the fucking cops!”

“You can’t call the cops on me for steppin’ into my own house!”

Amanda doesn’t reply. She turns on her heel and gets in her car. She locks the kids out with the ignition and spins the wheels as she backs out out of the parking space. It’s such an erratic peel that she nearly runs Trevor over, which might have not been entirely unintentional. Michael’s left in the literal dust, staring at the marks her tires have made on the pavement as Trevor lets out a long, low, lewd whistle.

“That was… our drive home,” says Jimmy morosely.

Michael runs a hand through his hair and… counts to ten again. He fishes out his keys and presses the remote unlock to his Tailgater. “Okay, don’t act like gettin’ a drive home from your father is the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

“Well… I mean, you just killed a guy…”

“I never actually admitted to that.”

Trevor clears his throat. “He just killed a guy. I can confirm that the aggression was both unearned and incredibly grisly.”

Michael actually winces at the expression his kids shoot him. He redirects the energy into a masterful glower, which he levels at Trevor. “Did you just come here to fuck up my night some more or…?”

Trevor wheels around and slings an arm around his shoulders. “I’m just here as a messenger. That thing you wanted to do - Frank’s gonna pick you up in ten minutes so you can tell him everything you told me, but personally. I’ll drive your kids home.”

“Wait, that’s not -”

Trevor gives him a little squeeze, fakes a laugh right into his face. His breath smells a lot more like gasoline than it did an hour ago. “Don’t make it complicated Michael.”

“I ain’t the one who’s makes shit complicated,” Michael snaps, jerking away from Trevor’s grasp. Trevor backs off. He’s weirdly calm, and being weirdly cooperative despite all the rote shit-stirring.

Tracey sighs. She’s checking her makeup in her compact mirror and takes a moment to roll her eyes. “Don’t try to reason with him, Trevor. You know how Daddy loves drama.”

“I don’t -”

“Oh, he does, he sure does - that father of yours just lives for drama.” Trevor sweeps through the parking lot and collects Michael’s children, one on each arm. Michael can see the nose of his Bodhi peeking out around the corner of the alley. It’s filthy, as usual, and still has that fucking teddybear mouldering beneath the bumper.

Michael opens his mouth to protest, to ask Trevor about the fucking corpse he claimed to have in his truck, but nothing comes out. He’s struck still by the way his children feel safer linking arms with a literal psychopath cannibal than stepping into their own father’s car. He stands in the quiet of the emptied parking lot and tries to grasp that, tries to retrace the steps that have lead him to this moment, but they go back twenty-three years. You’d have to be a fucking archaeologist to extract it.

Michael strikes up another smoke. He tips his head back, rolls his neck to crack the joints in his spine. He looks at the sky; the smog hovering above the city eats all the stars. It eats:

- his future, his past, everything that isn’t the taste of nicotine and the smell of burnt creme brulee wafting from the restaurant.

1991

They’re two hours on the highway when Michael realizes that Trevor intends to drive to Canada all in one go. Like he’s desperate to outrun their conversation on the highway. Like he’s scared Michael’s gonna change his mind if he gives him ten minutes to take in a breath of fresh air and rethink it. They haven’t talked, but Trevor keeps shooting him these buoyant, manic smiles, all child-like and lovelorn. That’s how it begins: a tightening in Michael’s throat, a thickening of the air. He fumbles his hands against the door, groping for the window-roller.

“It’s hot as hell in here, T. Would you turn the heat down!?”

“The heat ain’t on, brother. You’re sweatin’ like a pig all on your own.”

The window bursts open, letting in a sharp sheet of cold air and snow. Trevor swerves on the road and curses. “Shut the fucking window!”

“Pull over!”

“And stall the engine again? You know, you’re a real delicate flower sometimes, Mikey -” Trevor reaches across Michael’s chest and tries to get a grip on the window roller. “Sorry this ain’t the four star motel accommodations you’ve grown accustomed to.”

“Hey - keep your eyes on the road, you maniac!”

They struggle and wrestle over the glove-box for a few seconds. It ends with the window closed and Trevor laughing wildly as he speeds down the wrong side of the highway for a good five hundred feet in the middle of a snow-storm. The sound cuts right through Michael, like a heated knife, reminds him of the careless way Trevor behaves around people he hasn’t sworn his loyalty to. The air gets thicker. Michael turns the radio up, to drown out the sound of his own heartbeat. The cab fills with the sound of progressive pop chords and a familiar bassline.

‘I seen her in a smokey room. I smell her wine a cheap perfume… for a smile they can share the night, it goes on and on and o -’

Michael grounds the heel of his palm into his eyes and groans. Anything but Journey; it’s like the radio is judging him, like the podunk DJ behind the scenes knows that this was the song playing when he first kissed Amanda. When she first told him her real name. Trout Creek, North Yankton is a small enough piece-of-shit town that anything is possible. Half the population probably knows by now that Amanda’s getting run out on. Michael tries to think about anything else, but he can’t stop himself from replaying his last conversation with her over and over again.

“An abortion? Did that word really just come out of your fucking mouth? What kind of girl do you think I am, that you can shower me in jewelry and fancy wine - that you can buy me a fucking boob-job, but the moment I ask you to take a little responsibility all of a sudden your purse-strings get awful tight!”

He thinks about his own father with an unpleasant twist in his gut, shuddering at the memory of old bruises, belt-marks on his shoulders, the echo of an ache in his arm that only stopped flaring up a year ago. His childhood home was a two-room trailer that was always so filled up with anger and tension that it was hard to breathe, but whenever he tried to reach out to his parents it was like no one was there at all. Like they were so filled up with all that ugly shit it’d scooped out the parts of them that remembered how to love, made them hollow in the places that mattered. And look at their fucking son: living on the fringes of society under a fake name with no skills to his name except ones that he’d be ashamed to pass down.

“Are you gonna do right by me, Michael?”

Suddenly, the weight of that generational trauma is crushing him. Amanda could find anyone to raise his kid. Anyone. Or no one at all. She could do it alone - work three jobs to make ends meet, raise a little kid who’d have to go to school and tell their friends: “I don’t have a Daddy”. Little kids without daddies grow up like -

“Trevor.”

“Yeah, M?”

“We gotta turn back.”

Trevor keeps his hands on the wheel, drives steady. So Michael says it again: “T. I said: we gotta turn ba -”

“I heard you,” Trevor replies, voice low and dangerous. “You wanna give me a reason why?”

Michael sighs and slumps in his seat. He turns the radio down, almost all the way. “Mandy’s not gonna get an abortion. If she ain’t gonna run from it, neither am I. What kind of man would that make me?”

“Cause you’re such an honourable man, Michael Townley. Bank robber, murderer, philanderer…”

“Ain’t you the one always cursing out your father for skippin’ out and making your mom’s life a living hell?”

Trevor rolls his fucking eyes. “Don’t act like this is for her. This is about you. You only wanna go back there to make yourself feel good about being a Big Man. I ain’t gonna turn this car around, and it’s for your own good.”

“My own good!?”

“Yeah, and your kid’s. I’m a regular humanitarian.”

“My kid’s? What the fuck does that mean?”

I---- doooon’t think you’ll make a very good father.” Trevor draws out every word in the sentence. Michael stares at him, almost not believing the words that just came out of his mouth. Almost. Instead of losing his temper, he laughs it off.

“Oh, hoo, I’m gonna let that one go, T, because I know you don’t mean that.”

Trevor’s mouth turns up in a pinched expression. “But I do, I really do. I know you better than anyone. I know what you’re really like, and that’s why I know you aren’t doing Krystal any favours by getting it in your head to play house.”

Michael squares his jaw and takes a deep breath. “Right, you’d rather me play house with you, up in Canada. Is that it?”

He’s not sure why he said it, but it has an effect on Trevor like a gunshot. The truck swerves. Trevor slows down, starts to drive like a sane person. “We’re not turning back,” he says after a moment, voice deflated.

“Yeah, we are. T - I changed my mind. I was panickin’ before, but I’m calm now, so you gotta calm down too -”

“I’m perfectly fucking calm, Michael.”

“No, you ain’t. And we both know why.”

Trevor raises his chin. His teeth glint in the reflection of the truck's high-beams. “And what do we both know?”

“C’mon, T, don’t play dumb…”

“Say it!” Trevor’s voice snaps suddenly, like when the flame on a trail of gasoline hits the oil tank and blows. “I dare you to say it! I want to hear you FUCKING SAY IT!”

Michael stumbles over it, even though it’s where he should have ended their argument in the first place. It’s the thing he should have said instead of getting in the truck. “Y- you’re jealous,” he spits.

Trevor jerks the wheel and takes a hard left off the highway and into the wilderness. Michael gets knocked around in the cab as they vault over a rotting log and crash through the shallows of an iced-over river. He grabs the dash and clings to it.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?”

“Plan B, Mikey!” Trevor hollers. “If you can’t be honest with yourself, I’m gonna force it outta you!”

“T, you gotta calm down. Just -” bump, rattle, “- stop the truck an’ we’ll talk about this, alright?”

“Oh nooo, no, no, we already passed the point of polite conversation on this topic! Now tell me, M, do you love her!? Are you in fucking love with her!?”

Michael sees it crest over the dashboard: the steep cliff-face cutting the horizon in two. Trevor’s barreling them straight towards a fiery death at the bottom of the Mikinàk Valley.

“Stop the fucking truck, T! We’re gonna go over the edge!”

“I’ll stop the truck when you answer the fucking question! DO! YOU! LOVE! HER!”

“I’m not gonna play this game with you, you fucking psycho! Pull the truck over, or I’ll -”

“Answer -!” Trevor pushes down on the gas. “- the FUCKING QUESTION, Michael!”

Michael can feel the engine screaming all around him. They’re going so fast the snow blanks out the window entirely; Trevor’s driving blind directly towards the cliff.

He dives for the steering wheel, grips and twists. The truck squeals and fishtails in the slippery, new snow. It spins 180 degrees as Trevor howls like a wounded animal. The wheels bump and bounce over something big enough to clip off the muffler before the truck nose-dives straight into a tree. The hood flies off and cracks the windshield, but does not shatter it. By some miracle, they’re alive and completely unharmed.

They stay like that for a few minutes, arms entwined around the wheel, breathing heavy as the scent of oil and burnt rubber fills the cab and the engine cools. Michael - shaking so violently it’s making his teeth chatter - pulls away first. He dabs the heel of his hand down his head to make sure there’s no wounds, no cuts or abrasions that adrenaline have made invisible.

He’s not sure what to do, what to say. How to feel; this is the first time in three years on the road that he’s ever had reason to fear Trevor the way other people do. He feels like something’s slipped through his fingers and he’s not sure how to get it back.

What he does is shove Trevor hard, slamming him against the door. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You nearly killed us!”

Trevor doesn’t react except to slowly turn his eyes towards Michael. There are tears forming at the corners. “I -” his voice is cracked. “I-I’m s-sorr -”

“I don’t want to any goddamn apologies. I want you to tell me what you were thinking!”

Trevor’s eyes are wide and wounded, like’s he’s drowning. Like he’s lost. “I- I wouldn’t… I didn’t….”

Michael’s not dumb; he knows that there’s something not right in Trevor’s brain, like his wires get crossed and buttons that are only supposed to get pressed once get held down indefinitely. Michael’s not actually mad at him… he’s mad at himself for jamming his thumb into a soft spot that he knows bleeds like a stuck pig when prodded. Trevor can’t always be held responsible for his actions, which is why Michael has to - he has to -

Trevor throws himself across the cab and slithers into his lap. He grips Michael’s shoulders so tight and desperate that Michael can’t put an inch between them. “Don’t leave, don’t leave me, Mikey, please. I don’t know what to do, I don’t -”

It’s almost instinct at this point, the way Michael’s arms wrap around Trevor and pull him close. Close enough to reel him in, but not so tight that he’s making promises with his body he doesn’t intend to keep. Trevor goes boneless in his arms, wracked with a violent shuddering so intense that it puts more fear into Michael than the hurtle towards the cliff did. He’d learnt to weather Trevor’s emotions the same way one did a hurricane, but they just get worse and worse. It gets worse and worse and wo -

“Don’t… don’t leave me, Michael, I'll be good, I promise, just d-dont...”

Michael rubs his back in comforting circles. He sighs and watches his breath turn to ice in still air. “Jesus Christ, T. You really gotta get a hold of yourself. You’re a goddamn mess.” He can feel Trevor’s arms lock around him like shackles.

*

Years later, Michael would pinpoint this as the moment. The first step that paved the way to Ludendorff. He’s thinking about it when he tells Agent Norton that Trevor can take a bullet through the eyes and he wouldn’t give a fuck.

Dave stares Michael with a discerning, crooked gaze, folding over another paper in his case-folder. “I was under the impression that you two were… close.”

“What you’re under the impression of is that there’s some sort of robber’s code, but this ain’t the movies. Not one of us is that noble. Either I kill him, or he kills me. It’s a wonder I survived this long with that psycho watching my back. If I don’t get out now, I’m gonna be buried in an unmarked grave by the end of the year.”

It sounds true when he says it. It rolls off his tongue and becomes solid. Any criminal knows: if you say something in the right tone of voice, it becomes real.

The first thing Michael does when he’s free - after walking around the width of his new pool, after running his fingers along the surface of his marble countertops, after telling his kids to go to bed and kissing his wife on the forehead - is take a long drive up Mount Chiliad. Alone. Free. Beholden to no one. Responsible for no one. A self-made man, ready to revel in the spoils of his work.

Because that’s freedom, right? That’s the American fucking Dream.

2014

Oh, he got those stupid neon kits removed from his car, is the first thing Michael notices when Franklin pulls up to the restaurant. They haven’t talked in a couple weeks, haven’t really hung out in a month or so, both so busy with the drama and performance of pretending to “go straight”. When Michael sweeps into the car, the look Franklin shoots him is the reverse of what should be going down considering their respective ages and life experience. It’s a little endearing, and a little annoying, the way Franklin acts like a disapproving grandpa at the ripe old age of twenty-six.

“Hey, kid, I know, alright, and I been lectured by just about everyone else in my life tonight so why don’t we just put a cork in it and get this thing done, huh?”

Franklin sighs that prematurely world-weary sigh of his and starts the car. He drives without saying a word until Michael can’t stand it anymore. The city skips by, the lights blurring together through the window as condensation builds up from the evening fog. Michael runs a finger through the misty glass and draws a little frowny-face before wiping the window clean.

He reaches out to turn the synth-pop crap Franklin likes to play on the radio when his friends aren’t in the car all the way down.

“Okay. Fine. Say it.”

Franklin sighs again. He tilts his head to the side as they wait at the light and the street-lamps highlight the lines of his horizontal steps. “Look, man, it’s fine if you wanna hang or play golf or whatever, but you can’t be callin’ me for shit like this no more, you get me?”

Michael raises an eyebrow. “No, I don’t ‘get you’. Are you saying you’re ‘out’?”

The lights change to green. Franklin inches the car into the turning lane, but they don’t get to the corner before the lights flash red. Downtown Vinewood’s rush-hour runs two hours later than the rest of the city; they’re gonna be stuck together like this for a while. “I thought you were the one who was ‘out’,” Franklin replies, something careful and hesitant in his voice.

“And I thought you were the one who was practically beggin’ me to be ‘in’.”

“Yeah, when I was scrounging in the gutter for nickels wit’ Lamar’s get-rich-quick schemes. I’m too set right now to be doin’ small-time footwork, M, you know that. My neighbours watch what I do, man.”

“You sayin’ you came all the way to pick me up just to tell me off? That ain’t very charitable of you, kid.”

Franklin winces at the word ‘kid’. At least he feels guilty, Michael thinks. “I’m sayin’ I don’t wanna do the footwork. I know some dudes we can outsource to, I’m gonna take you there right n-”

Michael’s shaking his head before the words are even out of Franklin’s mouth. “Oh, nooo. No, Frank - I only trust you with somethin’ like this. I'm not tryin’ to set you up with work here, kid, I’m askin’ you a favour.”

“You’re askin’ me to clean up for you, which I don’t wanna mess with while I’m tryin’ to clean up myself.”

The lights change again and Franklin manages to get them off the main-street. As they sail past the country club, Michael tries to gather his thoughts. It would probably be a bad idea to say the first stupid thing that pops into his mouth right now, so instead he says the second thing.

“Oh I see - now that you fleeced the golden sheep of my tutelage, you wanna just drop out, no strings attached?”

“Yeah, dog, like you did, except that I ain’t shootin’ no one in the back to do it, so I don’t know what the big deal is.”

“The big deal is -” the big deal is that Michael’s been caught in a logic trap. He’s the one who told Frank to get rich, and get out in the first place. He just never imagined it would ever happen. That it would happen so quickly. It took him over ten years to get where Franklin’s gotten in ten months. “Shit, kid, you picked a real inconvenient time to get a crisis of conscience about crime, y’know.”

“Where I come from, people only get into crime because they don’t think they can do better. An’ I did better.”

“You think I’m so different? Kid, I grew up so far in the sticks that I’m still spittin’ straw out after ten years in Los Santos. I didn’t have the advantages you think I did.”

“You had one,” Franklin says quietly. The words sizzle and crack between them. They fill up the car until they’re so big they threaten to push the doors open. Michael sucks in a breath like he’s been suckerpunched. He chuckles, tries to get his bearings, to figure out the retort that’s not gonna get him kicked out of a moving vehicle. He’s kinda mad that Franklin would have the audacity to hit him with that outta nowhere, but smart enough to know his reaction is probably unwarranted.

But not that smart.

“Okay,” he says slowly, setting his hands on his knees. “So I just wanna be clear here, Frank, that you’re the one who said it. I want you to remember that I never said a thing about it.”

Franklin just makes a noise like he’s so, so tired. “Yeah, dog, but pretendin’ it’s invisible is fucked up too. White crime pays an’ I’m thankful for that. But all I ever wanted was to get paid, so now I’m out.”

Michael looks at his hands in his lap. He feels small and stupid, pushed off that pedestal he’d gotten so comfy on. “That’s it? All the way out?”

Franklin shrugs. He’s smiling, very subtly. “Yeah, I guess?”

Michael peers at him, tries to decode that very strange expression. The tension in the air is dissipating; Franklin should be mad, but something’s put a figurative spring in his step. He’s a few degrees less dour than usual.

“... uh huh. You’ve been weird lately, kid, what’s up?”

They pass under a lit billboard and Franklin ducks his head to hide a goofy, vulnerable expression. “It’s just… man, I’m seeing a girl, y’know? A normal girl.” He emphasizes the last part, with a long side-eye in Michael’s direction.

“Right. And what did you tell Miss Normal about how a kid from Davis is livin’ pretty with a pool and fireplace out in Vinewood Heights?”

“That I won the lottery - man, don’t look at me like that! Don’t be a dick.”

“I'm not lookin’ at you like anything, kid.”

“I’ll tell her when it won’t be, like, a whole thing, y’know. I ain’t like -” Franklin stops himself. Rolls his shoulders.

“What?” Michael demands. “Like what? Like me?”

Franklin flexes his hands around the steering wheel. It would be easier if he were angry. Michael wishes so badly right now that the kid would just be properly angry.

“What am I like, Frank?”

“Man, you don’t know when to stop. Half the time you complain about wantin’ to retire and the other half you out beatin’ dudes into a pulp for lookin’ at you funny. Say what you want about Trevor, man, but at least he knows what makes him happy.”

Michael rolls his eyes so hard that he has to roll his whole head to communicate it. “Yeah, Trevor’s real happy. That’s why he huffs gas and sticks his dick in anything that’s warm, and some things that arent.”

Franklin makes a frustrated noise. “C'mon, Mike. That ain’t what I meant.”

“Okay. You look like you got something else to say, Frank, so say it. Let’s just get it all out in the open.”

“It’s just… your relationship is fucked up.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s a wonder I haven’t end up chopped into pieces and cooked into a chili, and yet I keep tempting fate.”

“ No, that ain't what I meant either.”

“So what do you mean?”

“What I mean is…” Franklin presses his lips together, pauses before continuing. “I mean... he really loves you, man. It’s fucked up.”

Michael shakes his head. “What ‘love’ means for a psycho like Trevor is different than you and me.”

“Okay, maybe, but he’s still a human being, and you just take advantage.”

“Are you really holding me responsible for the fact that a psychopath, what, imprinted on me like a baby bird?”

Franklin shoots Michael a thin smile. It’s almost patronizing. “Naw, dog - don’t you worry about that. I don’t hold you responsible for nothin’ at all.”

They roll into the alley behind T Radd’s flat. There’s a light on inside, meaning Lester’s contact has already arrived. Franklin turns off the engine and they sit in the dark for a few minutes, saying nothing. The radio is still on, but just barely. All Michael can hear is the faintest hum of a drum machine. It scratches at the back of the skull hard enough to leave marks. This whole damn conversation is leaving marks.

“... I’m not the one who’s fucked up,” Michael says weakly. “He is.”

Man, whatever helps you sleep at night.”

2013

Michael is day-drunk and halfway to sleep at 4PM when he hears a shotgun blast rattle through the top floor of his house, followed by the catastrophic sound of an entire $15,000 stained-glass window shattering. He stumbles from his embed in the couch and beelines to the closest hidden pistol in the house (behind two art books that have never been read). What he sees when he rounds into the foyer is Trevor Philips descending the stairs like a conquering warrior, shotgun slung over one shoulder and boots tracking mud all down the varnished wood finish.

“What the FUCK!?” Michael shouts.

Trevor uses his free hand to tip up the brim of his novelty hat (‘03 Vespucci Beach Gay Pride Parade) and says: “Uh… your door was locked?”

“No! Why are you in my house!?”

Trevor skips down the last few stairs and fishes out his cellphone. He shoves the cracked screen in Michael’s face, displaying a series of texts that Michael is too drunk to make sense of.

“Your precious wife, like most people in your life inevitably do, has realized that you’re a faithless snake and that she and the children would be better off far away from your noxious influence, so you called me over for a pity fuck. At least that hasn’t changed in nine years. Come on - get naked, I’m taking time off the clock here.”

Michael squints as the phone is pulled back. He recognizes the texts, which say nothing of the sort. “You sure got a lot out of ‘Amanda’s not here right now’.”

Trevor exhales loudly and tosses the shotgun over his shoulder. Something breaks, just out of Michael’s line of sight. He tries to get a look, but Trevor grabs him by the lapels of his suit and reels him in with a single, sharp tug. Up close, his skin looks yellowed and paper thin.

“Even if my interpretation of your texts was… generous, you gotta admit, Michael, this was going to happen one way or another.” Trevor sticks a finger into Michael’s gut and starts twisting. “You, in the midst of a mid-life crisis and obviously too insecure about your sagging paunch to go play sugar daddy to equally insecure eighteen year olds. Me, so furious whenever I see your face that I just can’t help but pop the most delicious rage boner. We gotta get this sexual tension out of the way fast so we can focus on the work.”

Trevor’s ranting in that dry, half-delusional way of his, having obviously just taken a massive hit of speed before scaling Michael’s garage and blasting in through the window, but. But, but he’s not wrong. He’s not right either, though. Michael rakes a single look up and down Trevor’s filthy, pockmarked body: takes in the way he’s twitching his fingers, the way he’s licking at a scar on his upper lip… Michael had once described Trevor as a rabid dog to Agent Norton. His assessment at the time had obviously been premature.

“No,” Michael says simply. Tiredly. He tucks his gun into the belt of his pants and starts ambling towards the living room, where the TV is blaring and the liquor is still cold. Trevor nips at his heels with a ferocious energy only addicts can muster.

“Seriously? After I cleaned up and came all the way here?”

“You cleaned up? That’s not what my nostrils are tellin’ me right now, T.”

“I put on a clean pair of underwear and scrubbed out my asshole, what more do you want from me?”

“I want -” Michael collapses boneless on the couch and begins making hand gestures like an orchestra director. “- you to get out of my house. Then I want you to call a glass repair company to fix the damage you did to my Philippe Sorano Original stained glass window. Then I want you to leave me the fuck alone so I can languish in my drunk Vinewood fantasy in peace and goddamn silence.”

Trevor paces, blocking Michael’s view of the television. “Come on, come on, I bet you haven’t been loved properly in nine years, Mikey.”

Michael starts turning up the volume on the surround-sound. Trevor grabs the remote control and breaks it over his knee. He shimmies in, leaning down so that he can brace his hands on Michael’s thighs. Up close, he smells like death. Quite literally, there’s the stench of corpse-rot clinging to him like a cheap cologne. For some reason, the scent of it sends a jolt straight to Michael’s cock. It’s nothing, he tells himself. You’re drunk. It’s a Pavlovian response, based on familiar stimuli he’s not experienced in a decade. His body is just desperate to remember what it’s like to be young.

Trevor notices the tightening in his pants and laughs. “I haven’t been loved properly in nine years either. More than that, ‘cause you were cruel to me, Sugar. So cruel.”

“Get off me, T.”

Miiiichaaael… think hard about this. Amanda, the girls you pick up at the club… they let you pull their hair, but I’ll let you do anything you want. When’s the last time you got off without Mollis, you old, fat piece of shi -”

Michael grabs a fistfull of Trevor’s shirt. “Are you lookin’ to get punched?”

Yeah,” Trevor breathes, hopping into his lap. “Hit me as hard as you can.” He flips his hat off, throws it to the floor. “Pull my hair.”

What hair?”

Trevor answers by shoving him down and kissing him teeth first.

Michael occasionally plays golf with a group of aging stock brokers who brag incessantly about their extra-marital conquests. “Sometimes you just want to fuck a bitch who’s totally crazy, you know?” Michael does know, keeps it tucked away as a secret point of pride and shame. He knows he’s the only one there who’s ever fucked a bona fide psycho - a psycho who was absolutely fuckin’ psychotic about him.

It ebbed and flowed like a tide; when Michael pulled away, Trevor receded like the sea, lost to his rages, to the drugs, but always ready to rush back to the shore when Michael needed him. No one had ever wanted Michael with the wild abandon that Trevor did: not Amanda, not the hometown girl he lost his virginity to, not his first fling in Los Santos, who’d he’d literally showered in $1,000 champagne. Even now, with this sardonic layer of forced indifference and genuine resentment, there’s something cracked and vulnerable shuddering rings around his pupils when he ducks in to press a second - and shockingly chaste - kiss to the corner of Michael’s mouth.

It doesn’t give Michael the same exhilarating rush of power it used to. It’s actually kind of horrifying that nine years hasn’t worked it out of his system yet. When he was a young man he was capable of great and terrible things bolstered by nothing but Trevor’s desire. Now, the force of it just makes him exhausted.

But still, he grabs the collar of Trevor’s stained t-shirt and pulls him in for another scabby, sour-breathed kiss. Trevor comes alive under his lips, answering every movement Michael makes with a hundred-times force. It’s… a little weird. Michael doesn’t like to think about it, tries not to think about it, but when they were twenty-one they fit together like the last two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Trevor used to crawl into his bed like a dog when it was cold, curling into all the spaces Michael left empty. Same people, different shapes.

Trevor bites his lip and Michael slams the heel of his palm into his chin to separate them.

“No fuckin’ blood! I don’t know where you’ve been!” He rubs the wound to make sure it didn’t break the skin. Trevor’s spent nine years rolling around in god-knows-what garbage pits, putting god-knows-what in his veins, in his mouth, in his ass… back when they were running together, living hand-to-mouth out of each other’s back pockets, it was easy to keep track of what Trevor got up to when he went spiralling. Easy to reel him back in too.

“What the fuck, Michael!? It’s the 2010’s, no one fucking has AIDS anymore!”

“You could have rabies for all I know you crazy fuck, I don’t give a shit.”

That just seems to wind Trevor up again. “Oh, yeah, Mikey, degrade me, you fucking hypocrite. Tell me what you really think. I bet y -”

Michael kisses him just to stop him talking. He grips Trevor’s ass and tries to lift him off the couch, but they go crashing to the floor, entangled and sprawled out beneath the blue glow of the television. With anyone else, Michael would be embarrassed, but Trevor looks charmed, in that cloying, sick way of his. The last time Michael tried to pick him up like that they’d been twenty-seven years old and Trevor had been a hell of a lot thinner, from a long summer spent away, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. He runs his hands up the length of Trevor’s torso and is a little surprised that he can’t feel his ribs. He looks like he’s aged twenty years in ten, but he’s more solid than Michael ever remembers him being in his twenties or thirties.

“Not here.” Trevor staggers to his feet, tugs at Michael’s clothes. “I’ve always wanted you to fuck me in you marriage bed. I wanna make Amanda’s organic-egyptian-cotton-sheets so filthy you’ll have to burn them with white phosphorous.”

“Sounds real romantic.”

“Would you stop with the sarcasm!”

They fumble to the bedroom and roll around a bit on Amanda’s 1000-thread-count Egyptian Cotton sheets, but Michael’s too drunk to keep it up and too emotionally blasted to rise to any of Trevor’s cheap bait about his decor. There’s a weirdly tender moment where Trevor grabs the fat on either side of his gut hard enough to bruise and croons: “God, Mikey, I missed your love handles. I missed holdin’ on to them while you fuck me like you’ve got no regard for other people’s pleasure, which you don’t because you’re a selfish sack of reptilian filth.”

“You sure know how to get a guy’s motor runnin’ with talk like that, T.”

Trevor presses their foreheads together. Their breath mingles. “No, I mean it. I mean, I mostly fuck other meth-heads these days, so you know how it is. Nothing to hold on to. But I meant it when I say that I missed you. I missed you every fucking day.”

“Yeah,” Michael runs his hands over Trevor’s coiled biceps, blearily feigning sincerity. He was very practiced a feigning sincerity while drunk. “I… I missed you too, T. I missed you so much -”

“No!” Trevor closes his hand around Michael’s neck. It’s hard enough to shut him up, but not so hard it triggers vigilance in Michael’s reptile-brain. Trevor speaks through his teeth: “Listen to me you fat fuck, I missed you every day, like someone came along and kicked a hole in my chest! Like someone cut open my heart and fucking shit inside of it! I missed you so much sometimes I woke up and had no idea what the fuck my name was and the whole time, the whole fucking time, you were whittling away your soul in a fancy mansion, fighting with your fake-tit wife and spoiling your kids rotten. I missed you every day, and you were two hours away.”

“How was I supposed’to find you?” Michael asks quietly, calculating each breath he takes beneath the calloused ridges of Trevor’s fingers. The grip on his throat tightens. “I thought you were dead. But even if I thought for a second you were alive, T, how was I supposed to find you? You ain’t exactly the easiest guy in the world to track down. The fact that we even met again is a complete coincidence and you know it so why don’t you -”

Trevor’s hand constricts around his neck like a vice. “Not a coincidence, Michael -” he whispers. “Serendipity.”

They stare at each other, not moving, not quite breathing. The late-afternoon sun rains in through the broken window, casting one half of Trevor’s body in red shadow. Michael takes a chance and moves his hands - carefully, so carefully - over Trevor’s hips. He rolls up the edges of his shirt, makes to pull it off with the limited leverage he has pinned beneath Trevor’s thighs and palm. Trevor’s eyes light; the anger is replaced with anticipation. He looses his grip on Michael’s throat and rears back, ripping his shirt the rest of the way off. He tosses it to the corner of the room where Amanda’s velvet portrait is still hanging on the wall.

That’s what finally kills it: not the fact that Trevor nearly knocks a 10k painting off the wall in his enthusiasm to participate in adultery, but the sight of him shirtless. Michael’s eyes rove over the new details quickly: scars that weren’t there before, places where it looks like dirt has been baked into Trevor’s skin from weeks without showering, the bold proclamation tattooed clumsily across his stomach - FUCK COPS - like a dare to slice him open. He turns in just the right way for the light to hit his left arm. Michael’s head swims when he sees it: his own name burned into Trevor’s flesh in black ink. He twists, tries to roll Trevor off him, but Trevor’s hands are heavy on his collarbones.

No one has ever wanted you this much.

“Get the - get the fuck off -” Michael gasps, hoarse. This time, Trevor lets him go. Michael kicks him away and careers over the edge of the bed, vomiting the moment his hands hit the floor. All that’s in his stomach is half a quart of whiskey and it burns worse coming out than it did going down. Trevor’s talking, somewhere over his shoulder, always fucking talking. Michael gets to his feet in three stages, the room spinning around him. “Fuck off,” he pants. “I… I need… I’m goin’ for a smoke.”

Michael lumbers down the stairs and picks out a cigarello with numb, pale fingers. He nearly falls face-down onto his veranda. It only takes three deep breaths of dry, smoggy Los Santos air to clear his head. Getting too close to Trevor is a mistake, he decides. He’d forgotten about the veil that descends around them when there’s no one else around, like a deep fog: nothing ahead and nothing behind. Trevor’s animal ability to live thoroughly in the moment is addictive, but not if you keep a safe distance.

Michael wanders into the shallows of his pool and sits down, not caring about how it soaks his pants up to the knees. He lights his smoke and watches the sun set over Downtown Vinewood, beautiful as a fluorescent glare on cellophane. Trevor comes to join him, mysteriously naked except for his socks.

“Don’t you dare fucking piss in my pool,” Michael exhales, along with a lazy ribbon of smoke.

Trevor sighs like he’s goddamn sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill. The sound quivers, then turns into a frustrated growl. “What makes you think I was gonna piss in your precious pool!?”

“Because I know what you’re like. So don’t. I don’t got the funds to pay the pool-boy these days, so you drop a turd in here I’m gonna make you fish it out with your tongue.”

“Fine. I’ll just piss all over your nice Venetian deck instead. Because that’s what I’m like!”

“It’s actually a Spanish Renaissance house.”

“I know what it is, Michael. What, you think I didn’t do my research before I showed up at your front door? It’s actually imitation Spanish Renaissance, which is just, mmm, fitting what with your imitation retirement and your imitation family life and your wife’s imitation tits -”

“Woah, hey -”

“- the house was built in 1972 by Dan Atlanta, repossessed when his movie production company went broke and he blew his whole fortune on blow in the 80’s. It spent five years as a porno set. Real nice pornos too. Sounds like a premonition, don’t you think Mr. De Santa?”

Michael takes another long, miserable drag of his cigarette. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“No. You’re supposed to watch your back. Like I said - I got eyes on you, Michael, and if you take one step outta line, I’ll -”

“You’ll what?”

Trevor doesn’t answer. He just shakes.

“Gonna put me in the ground for real, T?”

“I just don’t know, M, is that where you belong?”

Michael looks at Trevor tiredly, looks over his whole, horrible body - every scar and sore illuminated by the sunset. He’s half a stranger, half a lover Michael knows better than the back of his own hand. It’s hard to sort his memories out sometimes. Trevor became so theoretical in the interim years. A case study to obsess over with Dr. Friedlander as he flipped idly through the DSMXII, thumbing down a list of disorders and psychoses so long and obscure Michael was pretty certain most of them were some sort of sick improv on the good Doctor’s part.

“Jesus, T, at least put some pants on. No one wants to see that.”

“Sorry, Michael, not gonna happen. There’s nothing more natural than nakedness in the face of a sexually repressed society. I’m just trying to balance out the toxic artificiality seeping into the air from every corner of this city. Bring a little authenticity and real world verisimilitude to the neighbourbood!”

“Trevor -”

“BESIDES - ‘you know what I’m like’! Right!?” Trevor spits Michael’s words back at him.

Michael nods, a little numbly. Because yeah, he does, but was Trevor really always like this? He thinks back to the skinny, rat-faced kid he met out on the Sikowinckewan border, wearing too many layers beneath his worn bomber jacket, his hand shaking around the hilt of the flare gun. Michael’s pretty sure it was shaking, at least that one time. That first time, at least. Maybe it shook the first few times after that too. Michael has a memory of grabbing Trevor’s arm to straighten his aim that’s as clear as any memory he has of snatching a bloody knife from his fingers two minutes too late.

This is a line of contemplation he’s not been down in a decade. He likes to think that he was relatively normal before he met Trevor. That without him, Trevor would have probably ended up dead in a ditch somewhere with glass in his knuckles and a dagger sticking out of his jugular. Yeah, yeah: he’s the one that enticed Trevor into a life of crime, but T would have ended up there eventually anyway what with his temper, his propensity for murder, his unusual thirsts, his wild-coyote wanderlust… Trevor’s the one who fucked his life, Michael reminds himself, has reminded himself a thousand times. Trevor’s friendship was a prison worse than any state penitentiary, and that was the truth.

You didn’t do this to him. You didn’t do this to each other. He did it to you.

Michael presses his eyes shut against the neon sunset. He sucks the cigarello smoke down his throat, takes three deep breaths and says: “Get the fuck off my property before I call animal control on you.”

“Hn. Good to see you again too, Pork-chop.”

Now, T.”

Trevor snorts. Then he huffs. Then he grabs a towel and delicately wraps it around his naked waist before taking a running leap off the side of the veranda. Michael watches him cut across the tennis court and disappear through the hedges into some other poor soul’s backyard.

When he’s done his cigarette, Michael collects Trevor’s clothes and disposes of them in the garbage incinerator.

2014

Michael entrusts the apartment to Franklin and catches a cab to the Vanilla Unicorn, where he and Trevor finally confront T Radd’s swiftly decomposing corpse. They secure the body in the back of the Bodhi and peel out onto the freeway. Trevor’s weirdly quiet, which makes Michael twitchy. Twitchier. It’s been A Day.

“You’re awful subdued,” he says to Trevor.

“I got nothing to say,” Trevor responds.

“Really? You got nothing to say? About this situation? About my wife? About the general malaise of modern American culture?”

“I feel, Michael, as if you and I have thoroughly exhausted those avenues of conversation at this point.”

“A topic bein’ a dead horse has never stopped you from beating it in the past. What’s up?”

“It’s a beautiful night. I’m just enjoying the stars and the air. It’s real pleasant, present company notwithstanding.”

“Hn. Right back atcha, bud.”

Trevor doesn’t respond to the jab. He drives one-handed, with his elbow sticking out over the edge of the door as they speed smoothly towards Mount Chiliad. The air gets quiet and the lights get low while the shadow of the mountain grows bigger and bigger. There’s not much traffic out of the city on a lazy Tuesday night, just a couple of cyclists heading to a triathlon and an old camper with a busted wheel that Trevor takes an unusually long time to get impatient with. Michael finds himself holding his breath, caught in a state of exhausting hyper-vigilance as he waits for Trevor’s uncharacteristic calm to shatter.

The truth is that his veins are still popping from his shouting match with Amanda in the restaurant, from his unexpected tiff with Franklin in the car, and he’s raring to pick a fight. A good one, this time. His whole day has been one long argument that he’s yet to win and he cannot believe that Trevor wants to be civil for once. The wind whipping between the bars of the roll cage drowns out the radio.

After half an hour of torturous silence, Trevor finds something to say. In his very best caricature of an armchair psychologist, he proclaims: “You know, Mike, this city’s killing ya.”

Michael lets out a shaky breath, like a balloon being deflated. His jaw is aching from how tightly he’d been clenching it. “Oh, not this again…”

“What, I thought you wanted me to talk? You were getting all... neurotic and wound up again. And not in the good way.”

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna get neurotic on your ass if I have to sit through one more self-important speech about the plasticity of Los Santos as a metaphor for my soul.”

“I would absolutely love for you to get neurotic on my ass, Mikey. For you to just go wild on it - and I might let you later - but we’ve got work to do so I need you to focus.”

“Y’know, just earlier today I had this totally stupid thought that I kinda liked havin’ you around again, but I guess it was just a delusion caused by the fumes you give off.”

“Oooh, you’re real fiesty tonight. You’re more repressed than I thought! Killing a guy didn’t get your energy out, so now you want to bicker.”

“Hey, I’m not the only one who picks fights. Christ. Have we had one conversation that wasn’t an argument since you tracked me down?” Michael thinks back as he says it. Even their drunken routine about being Franklin’s new “daddies” had initially broke down over Trevor wanting to be called “Mom” and some crack about Michael not paying his child support bills. It was a mess. That joke, this day, their whole fucking relationship.

Trevor shoots him a look that’s more fond that irritated for once. “Brother, your memory must be failing you in your putrefied state, but I don’t think we’ve ever had one conversation in our entire lives that wasn’t an argument. We just used to argue about things that were fun to argue about.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Strip club or cocaine. Bullpup shotgun or pump. Whether we were gonna pay $3.99 for Skinflix or the Classic Vinewood station… then you got married and we had to start arguing about boring shit like when your wife expected you home for dinner, and whether or not a job was too dangerous for daddy dearest.”

“I see. I was wonderin’ when you’d get around rolling this old stone up the hill. Twenty years is an awful long time to carry around a chip this big, T.”

“No, no, no, no, Michael, I’m over all that. It’s in the past! I had nine years and a whole new betrayal to flush that down the toilet like a particularly potent case of explosive diarrhea. But like all explosive diarrhea, it’s left its mark on my soul and scars on my ass.”

“Can you not compare my wife to explosive diarrhea?”

“No, I’m actually incapable of not doing it, because your marriage is literally shit and it makes me want to vomit my fucking guts out every time I think about it!” Trevor prods him with an elbow. “Do you wanna fight about it?”

Michael rolls his neck and cracks the knuckles of his right hand one by one. “It ain’t gonna be much of a fight, T, if you don’t take it back.”

Trevor laughs. “There! There it is! I was right, Michael: you like arguing. No, you love it. And you love punching people, and robbing banks and acting like a totally deranged animal! You’re so repressed I can’t believe it’s not seeping out all your orifices.”

“Is it really so hard for you to believe that someone might genuinely want a bit of peace an’ quiet?”

“You’re repressing your natural instincts, Mikey, and it’s killing you. And it’s killing me to watch it killing you.” Trevor pulls off the highway abruptly. The truck clips the divider as they turn onto the exit. Michael braces himself against the dash and door as the back wheels of the Bodhi detach from the earth for a moment.

“Where are we going?”

“To pick up a two-by-four. You gonna be all precious about this too?”

For the first time in hours - hell, maybe days - Michael feels a genuine grin start to crack the edges of his mouth. He eases back in his chair and feels an inch of tension slide off his bones. “You wanna go pick up a real specific cross-section of rectangular lumber, huh?”

Trevor’s fingers twitch around the steering wheel. Michael can actually hear his jaw lock into place over the howling of the wind. “No, Michael, I obviously mean a twenty-four pack of beer, as indicated by the way I implied we were going to use it to get pissed out of our minds.”

“A two-by-four implies that there’s gonna be two rows of four beer, so an eight pack.”

The truck’s speed picks up. Subtly. Michael only really notices because he’s watching the way Trevor’s leg muscles are tensing beneath his jeans. “No. It doesn’t, because most people with functioning brains use contextual knowledge gleaned from life experience so they know there is no such thing as a fucking EIGHT PACK of beer! It comes in six! Twelve! And twenty-four!”

“Right, but you see, usually we just call that a ‘case’. Here. In America, I mean.”

“Fuck you, Michael! Fuck you, the idiom is CRYSTAL-FUCKING-CLEAR! You -!” Trevor takes a deep breath, slows the truck. “You - because you fucking looooove drama - are… trying to provoke me. I know that. And I’m staying calm. Look how fucking calm I am.”

“You’re a paragon of patience, T.”

“I will be if you shut your fucking mouth.”

“Hey, you’re the one who said you missed arguing about the “fun stuff”.” Michael crosses his arms behind his head and shuts his eyes, satisfied. He’s immediately jerked out of his recline by the car taking a sharp U-turn. His eyes fly open as he knocks shoulders against Trevor over the glove box. Trevor had been so distracted he’d zoomed straight past the 24/7. That keeps the smile on Michael’s face. He’s feeling it again, a little: “fun arguing”, zipping down the highway with something in the trunk that’ll put them in jail for twenty years if they catch the eye of a State Trooper, poking and prodding at each other’s edges and sharps corners, trying to figure out where they fit together. Michael remembers how it was that he could have lived this way, even if you could not offer him anything to go back to it. He can almost forget they’re riding with a corpse.

They pull into the lot in front of the 24/7. There’s no one else, no one else around for miles. Michael examines Trevor in the harsh wash of the neon lights and feels about a hundred years younger. When he’s not kicking in someone’s skull and frothing at the mouth, Trevor’s kind of… well, he’s still a psycho, but Michael can admit that he likes him a lot more when he’s got a reign on it. That’s what went wrong, back in the Midwest: he loosed his grip too liberally. The kind of attention, of care, Trevor required from him was akin to the sorta work he’d had to put into his marriage. Or raising his kids. A combination of the two, really, and wouldn’t Trevor just love - genuinely fucking love - that sick comparison.

‘He’s still a human being, and you just take advantage.’

The green light from the 24/7 sign smooths out Trevor’s features, washes out his scars and sores. It doesn’t make him look younger - nothing on earth could achieve such a miracle - but it does make him look like the shadow of a man who could have spent nine years rolling around in slightly cleaner gutters. The man Michael used to call ‘Brother’ without a hint of irony. Trevor’s shuffled the locks around, but Michael still has all the keys; maybe it wouldn’t hurt to be kind.

“Hey… T….”

Trevor shoots his leg past Michael’s chest and kicks the glove department open. “Grab a piece,” he orders, twisting his body to fetch his shotgun from the flatbed.

“What?”

“What, what, whawhawha - we’re robbing the store, what the fuck do you think!?”

And just like that…

Michael rubs his temples. “And there I was, havin’ that stupid thought again…”

“Stop your bitching. You’ll love this, you always do.”

“What’s this all about?”

“I’ve got no cash and I need a fucking drink if I’m gonna turn someone into mulch tonight, don’t overcomplicate it Sugar. If you can’t afford something, you take it. That’s the law of the jungle, my friend!”

“Yeah, well, this ain’t the jungle. Not even close. You’re lucky I got my credit card on me, so go nuts.” Michael flips open his wallet, but finds that it’s empty. His brain does the math quickly, almost instantly. His head snaps up in time to see Trevor rolling out of the truck, cackling like a madman. He lands ass-first on the asphalt, holding Michael’s Black Card up to the light.

Michael dives for him, but he doesn’t get out of the truck fast enough to catch Trevor before he gets back on his feet. Trevor swipes the card away and holds it above his head with both hands; Michael swears that he’s seeing in slow motion when he snaps the fucking thing in half.

“Now we’re both broke, baby!” Trevor shouts. With a jaunty flick of his wrist, the wrecked plastic is lost to the desert sand.

Michael watches it disappear with a lucid sort of disbelief. The process for replacing one cost $10,000 and required a two month clearance period. He regrets not upgrading his to the new titanium model when he had the chance. Of course, then Trevor probably would have just swallowed it.

“Do you have any idea -”

“You better not be about to tell me how much that card cost because I don’t give a fuck! Get the gun, M, and let’s get this robbery on the road!”

“We’re not robbin’ the store. We’re gonna get back in the truck and get to where we’re goin’ before the stiff in the back starts to smell.”

“Michael, do you seriously want to spend a couple hours dissolving a corpse in an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere with nothing to drink but our own piss?”

Michael thinks about that seriously for a second. He looks the store over: bright, empty, front door security cameras broken and taped over. A two-bit robber’s dream hit. He looks back at the truck, and the mouldering lump stuffed beneath the tarp in the flatbed. “Shit, you’re right.”

“I’m always right. There’s not a single person in my life who wouldn’t have an easier time if they just listened to me and did everything I said all of time time.”

“Uh huh. I noticed that you certainly seemed to surround yourself with people like that in Sandy Shores an’ it still got you in plenty of trouble.”

“Blah, blah, blah. Less talky, more stealy.”

Michael groans. He goes to get a gun. “Fine. Jesus Christ, every time I hang out with you it’s one thing after another…”

“Yeah, ‘cause I remember how to live life, Mike! I’m positively high off it right now!”

“You sure that ain’t the speed?”

“You’re damn right it’s the fucking speed!” Trevor takes a deep breath and slaps his chest. “I feel fucking FANTASTIC!”

Michael roots through the glovebox and chooses a 9mm pistol with an unadjusted grip. He checks it, and grabs a spare magazine, just in case. Then he leans against the side of the truck and tips back his vision. Trevor comes to lean beside him - just a little too close - and sighs loudly.

“What’s taking so long? Need a little help getting it up? “

“I’m… thinking. I just need a moment to think, alright?”

“It’s a simple hit. You used to pull jobs like this all the time without Lester holding your hand and wiping your ass. There’s only two ways to do it: loud, or quiet. So pick one.”

“Yeah. right. So… loud, but playin’ it safe. No need to kill anyone. I’ll handle the cashier, you sweep the stockroom. A place like this keeps most of the money in a safe in the office, so we gotta make the guy wanna cooperate with us which means you don’t talk.”

Trevor opens his mouth but Michael cuts him off, a finger in his face. “Not a fuckin’ word, T, I mean it.”

Michael thinks he’s gonna argue, but instead Trevor gets a weird look on his face. It lasts about half a second before he sweeps back with arms spread wide in a mockery of surrender. “Whatever you want, Mikey.”

That’s weird too. The whole thing is weird, but Michael doesn’t think too hard about it because Trevor’s never given off a normal vibe in his entire life. He pockets the gun and takes the balaclava Trevor hands him. It smells so strongly of gasoline, blood and rotten breath that a wave of nausea abruptly rocks through him when he pulls it over his face. He catches a glance of himself in the rearview mirror: notch lapels, silk lining, impeccably pressed pants… from the neck down her doesn’t look like the kind of man who needs to be robbing a 24/7 on the side of the highway. He looks ridiculous. He feels… great, actually. He takes a deep breath, pulling in a mouthful of crisp, desert air along with the foul aura baked into the balaclava wool.

“Pull the truck around back,” he orders Trevor. “We go in five.”

Trevor leaps into the truck, gleeful and bleeding that jittery meth-head energy of his. Michael lets himself feel it too, funnels his tattered anger from earlier in the day into the stance and frame needed for the Work.

When the Bodhi disappears around the corner of the building, Michael shoulders in through the glass door, left-side first so that his right hand is already going for the pistol at the sound of the courtesy-bell going off. It’s a straight shot from the door to the bored looking millennial chewing gum at the counter. “Ring-a-ling!” Michael shouts. “Wake the fuck up kid, this is a robbery!”

The cashier jumps. Michael raises his gun in time with the kid turning his head; this is a learned skill - to level the barrel just as they look at you, but Michael’s so practiced at it that could do it with his eyes closed. The cashier locks eyes with the deep, dark cavity of the chamber, then he locks eyes with Michael. His shoulders twitch, like he’s going for the silent alarm. Michael un-cocks the saftey, makes sure it’s as loud and sharp as canon-fire over the dull hum of the refrigerators and the muffled sound of Radio Mirror Park vibrating through the dirty ceiling.

“Hands on the counter if you wanna keep them!”

The cashier obeys. Michael makes an assessment of him: greasy hair, shaved on the sides. Cut-off gloves, band t-shirt, plugs in his ears. He’s got a glassy look in his eyes and a scent hanging around him that means he’s definitely been smoking up on his work break. When his lips pull back, Michael notices that he’s missing a couple teeth. Typical Sandy Shores kid.

The thing about crowd control during a robbery is that for most people, getting robbed is the most exciting thing that’ll happen to them all year. For most people there’s a dark little well of nihilistic glee at the center of their heart that means they’re secretly thrilled when you wave a gun in their face. It gives them something to talk about, to cry about, to make excuses about for months on end. It’s easy to make someone want to get robbed; all you gotta do is make them grateful to be alive. Sometimes, Michael’s been looked at like he’s a goddamn angel come to bring them up from hell. Mostly from frazzled house-wives or tired salary-men with dark bags under their eyes. Thank God, is what they’re thinking. I was so fucking bored.

With poor kids, though, you gotta make them feel tough, give them a reason to posture to their friends later. Michael knows, because he used to be one. The best way to do this is to make them feel included.

“Right, that’s good. Keep ‘em where I can see ‘em. You know the script.”

“Ain’t you a little overdressed for robbin’ a corner store?”

Michael laughs along with the kid. “Yeah, I got all dressed up just for you sweetheart. No more smart comments unless you wanna lose the rest of your teeth, huh?”

The kid swallows his false bravado and snaps his mouth shut. He goes for the register, but Michael rounds on him, gestures with the gun.

“None of that. You think I’m goin’ through all this trouble for fifty bucks in $1 bills? I want you to open the safe in the back.” Saying it out loud reminds Michael that he’s actually going through all this for $5000 and a 24-case of Pisswasser. The thought makes him so angry for a brilliant, blinding second that he takes it out on the kid and smacks him a little with the butt of the gun, crowding him towards the office. “Come on, let’s do this!”

“Ow! Shit! I… I don’t know the combo to the safe! Mr. Sanchez doesn’t trust me with it!”

There’s a quiver in his voice. A half-truth. “Don’t lie to me,” he says. “I ain’t exactly a spring chicken at rollin’ over 24/7s, kid. If you don’t know the combo to the safe, how do you do your lotto payouts?”

The kid’s eyes flicker to the office, then to the dead security cameras affixed to the front door. The parking lot out front is still empty. “F-fine,” he stutters. “I know the combo… but I ain’t got the key.”

“ ‘You ain’t got the key’?” Michael repeats, skeptical. “Mr. Sanchez don’t trust you with that either?”

“N-no! Not like that - I uh... I lost it… down the storm gutter out b-back, when I was on my smoke break!”

Now that - that sounds just embarrassing enough to be the truth.

“Kids these days can’t even smoke weed at work responsibility,” Michael sighs. He checks the clock. It’s been four and three-quarters minutes since he banged through the entrance. Right on time, a commotion rises on the other side of the store-room door. He grins, and shoots the kid a meaningful look. “Fortunately for you, here’s my locksmith.”

Trevor enters the store with a deafening shotgun blast. Splinters of woods and metal spit out across the linoleum and crunch under the heels of his snakeskin boots as he strides down the toiletries aisle.

“All clear back there, T?” Michael asks.

Trevor nods, and keeps his promise to not say a peep. He doesn’t look happy about it, though. The cashier looks him over with renewed fear. Trevor looks like a menace: his disguise is a bandana pulled over his mouth and nose. His crazed eyes are visible through his (slightly cracked) aviators and he’s still covered nearly neck-to-ankle in a streak of T Radd’s blood. He takes ten purposeful steps towards the register and raises his shotgun.

Michael yanks the kid out of the way by the scruff of his unwashed t-shirt just as Trevor takes a shot and blows the office door open right at the seams. The whole thing is like clockwork: the cashier was never in any danger, but the timing of Michael’s “save” is gonna have him thinking that he’s narrowly avoided a gut full of buckshot. This is the wordless Good Robber/Bad Robber dynamic they developed when they were just kids themselves. Despite the ocean of bad blood between them, this still works. Michael feels a bit smug about it, actually. See, T, he thinks, look how much better we get on if you just shut your fuckin’ trap once in awhile.

Michael keeps his palm steady and warm on the kid’s neck. He’s smiling so hard it’s gotta be apparent even through the thick wool of the balaclava. He begins to guide the cashier into the office. “No more locked door, so why don’t we go collect that jackpot payout?”

The poor kid is trembling. He licks his lips and nods.

“Watch the door, would ya’ T?”

Trevor salutes. Sarcastically.

It takes the kid a couple tries to get the combo right with his shaking hands. It takes less time to load 5k into a plastic bag. The robbery’s going so smooth that Michael drags the kid back to the counter and orders him to empty all the scratch tickets into the bag as well. It takes a long time to dissolve a body, might as well have something to do.

Trevor’s pacing up and down the fridge aisle, shotgun slung over his shoulder. He calls out: “Hey, you want Piswasser or Patriot?”

“Didn’t I tell you to keep your yap shut?”

“I’m just asking a fucking question, don’t get your panties in a twist, M. I know how delicate your sensibilities are.”

“I don’t fuckin’ care. Just grab a case an’ let’s split.”

Trevor elbows open a fridge and lifts out a case of Pisswasser. He turns to Michael and kicks the door shut with his heel. “Hey, M, pay the kid for the beer.”

“Seriously?”

“We’re not fucking savages. You wouldn’t want his till to read wrong at the end of the night, would you? Then he’d really be in trouble!” Trevor starts laughing.

Not really understanding why, Michael does it. He digs a twenty out of the bag and shoves it into the cashier’s sweaty palm. “Jackpot. It’s your lucky day, kid,” he says, quoting Long Day Afternoon. “Make the most of it.” He hears Trevor groaning at the sound of the quote, so he flashes him the middle finger as he rounds the counter.

They start to head for the back exit, but the kid - who is dumber than Michael thought - stops them.

“H-hey, wait,” he says. “You’re Trevor Philips, aren’t you?”

A shudder ripples through Michael’s muscles and then he goes still, caught in a memory over two decades old: their second job together, a hit just outside Watchatoon. Someone had called Trevor out then too, and so Trevor blew it. He blew the whole thing. But that was an entire lifetime ago - a different country, a different name, a different Trevor Philips. There’s no way that Trevor will fuck something so simple up over something so small. He won’t, he absolutely will n -

Trevor yanks off his bandana and wheels around. “Yeah! So fucking what!?”

Michael pinches the bridge of his nose.

The kid skitters out from behind the counter, braces himself against it as he yells. “You asshole! You’re the one who fucked up The Lost, aren’t you!”

“That’s right,” Trevor snarls. “I put every last one of ‘em I could find in a shallow grave and the rest went yellow-bellied and ran away with their tails between their legs. What the fuck is it to you!?”

The cashier’s lip trembles. “M-my cousin!” He spits out. “You killed my goddamn cousin, you fuck!”

“Your cousin,” Trevor spreads his arms and dips into a patronizing tone. “Was a meth-dealing, minority-bashing, redneck piece of shit. I don’t really think society is suffering for his loss. Can we go now?”

“Yeah,” Michael interjects, grabbing Trevor’s shoulder. “We can. C’mon.”

The kid’s got more to say, however.

“You got mental problems!” he shouts “They ougta lock you up in an institution, with a muzzle!”

Trevor’s voice is so deadly calm that it lowers the temperature in the room by ten degrees. “What did you just say to me?”

“I said that you should be in a straight jacket, you ugly, crazy freak!”

Michael can see Trevor’s rage transform in physical steps, like alchemy churning just beneath his skin. His jaw locks, his finger curl. His mouth twitches where his lip is scarred. Michael hooks a hand into his elbow, gently, and pulls him back.

“C’mon, T, we gotta go.”

Trevor jerks his arm away. “Fuck off!”

Michael puts his hand back on T’s arm. “It ain’t worth it, Trevor, c’mon.”

It obviously takes everything Trevor has to compose himself. He clenches his jaw so hard it looks like his face is bubbling, all the muscles twitching and contracting. He shuts his eyes and inhales: thin and trembling, and lets Michael turn him towards the door. But the kid, the dumb fucking kid, has to say one more thing.

“Shit, even your boyfriend’s terrified of you!”

Trevor takes two more even-kiltered steps under Michael’s guidance before wheeling free and rushing the cashier. He swings the case of Pisswasser in a full arc and beams the kid in the cheek. The cashier goes down like he was hit with a sledgehammer. The bottles in the case clatter and crack; when Trevor spins to a stop, the cardboard is leaking beer.

“Don’t you ever fucking assume you know what’s going in someone else’s LIFE! It’s FUCKING RUDE, you disrespectful little shit!”

“Trevor!”

Trevor kicks the kid in the gut a few times, eliciting a tortured wail, then he unhooks a knife from his belt and rips open the bottom of the two-four. The cashier gets his arms up in time to shield his face, but he’s assaulted with a rain of broken glass and cold Pisswasser. A cracked bottle breaks on the arc of his elbow, drenching his eyes. Trevor’s boot is on him a second later, grinding the broken glass into his chest.

“Mental ILLNESS isn’t a FUCKING JOKE!”

Michael watches it in a blur. He moves too slow. It’s only ten steps between the door and where Trevor is beating the shit out of some kid who hasn’t even been alive as long as they’ve known each other. A kid who’s probably barely older than Jimmy, and has similar personality problems to boot. Michael’s never taken ten steps more purposefully or ineffectively. The cashier is screaming as Trevor kicks him onto his stomach and yanks him up by the neck.

“You think someone’s brain being like scrambled eggs is FUNNY!? It’s a fucking JOKE to you!? How’d you like it if I scrambled YOUR brains!?”

“I… I w-wouldn’t l-l-li-like it!”

Trevor slams his face into the linoleum. Once -“Then you shouldn't have!” - twice - “- opened!” Three times. “- your FAT MOUTH!” The cashier’s forehead is bleeding when he’s pulled up a fourth time. A few of his teeth have been punched in. One has gone through the lip. He’s gurgling now, begging. Trevor snatches a shard of glass off the floor, unconcerned by the way it cuts his own hand. It’s long, nearly the length of a bottle, and about an inch thick.

“Why don’t we do a little surgery, huh? Shove this up your eye and spin it around a bit? Slice up all the neural tissue that controls your voluntary bowel movements? See how funny it is to mock people for their mental disorders when you’re drooling in a wheelchair and stewing in a puddle of your OWN SHIT!”

“I wasn’t- I wasn’t tryin’ to mock you, Sir!”

“That’s enough, Trevor!” Michael sets both hands on Trevor’s shoulders, but Trevor pulls away.

“Hold still for the operation! Doctor T’s got shaky hands!” The glass goes towards the cashier’s eye. It goes in.

Michael grabs harder this time. “I said that’s e-fucking-nough! Stop it!”

Make me!” Trevor shouts, pushing down on the shard with both hands. So Michael does. He puts his full weight into it, wraps both arms around Trevor’s torso and pulls. It’s too late; the kid’s limbs are twitching, and then they go limp. The glass is buried up to the hilt, displacing the sclera. His eye and nose are leaking dark, dark blood.

Trevor jerks and kicks in Michael’s grasp, so Michael throws him up against the fridge doors, slamming him face first into the glass. He’s never - not in all the time they’ve known each other - hit Trevor. There’s this feeling under his skin that doing so would be like opening some kind of sick Pandora’s Box. They fight and fuck like stray cats; the only reason they haven’t killed each other yet is that neither of them have had the balls to cross that final threshold. The beginning of the end is the first time one of them throws a punch and means it.

So no, he won’t hit Trevor. But letting the wall hit Trevor? That’s fine - it feels good too, so he does it again, yanking Trevor back a foot just so that he can body-check him against the fridge so hard that it shakes up all the beer bottles inside. He twists Trevor’s arm around to keep him pinned in place.

“Oh, yeah,” Trevor pants, voice already wrecked. “- that feels good, doesn’t it M? Just let it out, let it allllll out.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you!?” he hisses into the crook of Trevor’s neck.

“With me!?” Trevor cants his hips back, grinds his ass into Michael’s crotch. “You’re hard too, you fat, fake hypocrite!”

Michael bites his tongue, swallows a deeply embarrassing moan. He wrenches Trevor’s arm higher to put some space between them. “He was right, y’know: you’re fuckin’ crazy! You’re a fuckin’ lunatic! You should be put in a cage for the public good!”

“Uh, reality check - I’m not the only one here who’s beat a man to death in a pique of rage today, so why don’t you remove the plank from your goddamn eye before you start accusing me of sticking it up my ass!”

Michael flattens Trevor’s face against the cold glass and starts unbuttoning his pants. It’s ugly, it’s the ugliest fucking thing they could possibly be doing right now, but this has always been a surefire way to spend Trevor’s problematic energy. Arm freed, Trevor bucks Michael off him. Twists around in the cage of his arms and tears off his balaclava. Michael grabs his wrist.

“What the hell is your problem?”

Trevor’s eyes are as wide as they can go. “Kiss me, Mikey,” he pleads.

“No!” Michael turns his cheek against Trevor’s lips.

“I not just some SLUT you can use!” Trevor snarls. “Fucking kiss me!”

That actually makes Michael laugh. “Didn’t you once fuck a teddy-bear’s eye out because you couldn’t find a homeless dude to give you a handy?”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t a slut. I said that I’m not some slut!”

“Oh? What are you? My boyfriend?” Michael mocks the dead cashier’s words, but his voice comes out a few shades darker than he intended. Yeah, that is what Trevor thinks. It’s exactly what he’s always fucking thought no matter how desperately Michael tries to disabuse him of the notion.

“FUCK you! You don’t get to fuck me if you won’t kiss me!”

“Okay, easy enough!” Michael pulls away, but Trevor grabs him, gets his fingers in under the lapels of his suit jacket. The force of it snaps the button off, but Trevor doesn’t let go. Michael takes a step back and his heel goes straight into a puddle of beer and blood. He slips, and they both go down in a flurry of limbs, teeth and $3000 silk blazer. Despite Michael’s superior weight, Trevor manages to pin him down with his bruising, meth-fueled strength.

“That wasn’t an option, Michael,” Trevor says, hands crawling towards Michael’s neck. “You’ve got two choices: either you KISS ME! Or you’re the one that gets fucked!”

Michael’s panic instinct kicks in. He shoots an arm up, gets his palm in Trevor’s face and pushes him away. He locks his thighs around Trevor’s hips and rolls them over. He curls two fingers and forces them into Trevor’s mouth, drives them in hard enough that Trevor is gagging around them.

“You’re… fuckin’ disgusting…” he bites out. Trevor just nods, lapping at his hand like an eager puppy. The scent of the cashier’s bowls evacuating fills the store. The hum of the refrigerator is so loud Michael can almost pretend he’s having some crazy, out of body experience. Trevor wraps a hand around Michael’s arms and guides its angle, drills his fingers even deeper. Michael is so revolted and turned on all at once that he wants to turn Trevor into ash. The fluorescent lights don’t do him any favours: he’s ugly and balding and his skin is hard and poorly aged, but here he is rutting beneath Michael like he’s still twenty, like they’re both still young and virile and high on cocaine and their own infinite bullshit.

Michael pulls his fingers out so fast they get cut on Trevor’s teeth. Before Trevor has a chance to come up for air, Michael finally kisses him. He grabs his head in both hands and kisses him deep and hard out of something more primal and intense than just desire. It’s pure, animal self-preservation.

2013

“Okay, okay - so what’s the craziest job you two ever pulled?”

Michael takes a swig of the whiskey Trevor keeps under the dashboard. The Bodhi is parked out at the edge of the desert just beyond Trevor’s trailer park, far enough away from the street that they can’t hear the backfiring mufflers and dulcet tones of domestic disputes that have haunted Michael’s unwilling stay in Sandy Shores.

“What, you mean with a crew, or just the two of us?”

Michael and Trevor exchange a look. There’s a calm between them in the wake of the Paleto Job; a temporary burying of the hatchet for the sake of playing proud papas to Franklin’s eager student. For all his cheek and shit-talk, Franklin’s eyes still light up whenever there’s a story to be told and heard. He’s hungry for Michael’s “war stories”. He wants to hear the kind of shit Amanda would flay him alive for even whispering about near Jimmy and Tracey.

“Y’know, whatever man.” Franklin accepts the whiskey bottle when it’s handed to him, but he makes a face when the smell hits his nose out of the neck. The bottle has probably been baking in Trevor’s truck for years. He takes a sip anyway.

With silence all around them and the stars blinking to life one-by-one on a purple horizon, Michael can start to see a pint of truth in the Alamo Sea county-board’s aggressive tourism campaign. It’s a little beautiful. But only a little. Nothing compared to the Los Santos lights at night.

Franklin shakes off the taste of the whiskey and hands the bottle back to Michael. “But I gotta admit,” he says. “I’m kinda curious how two hotheads like you managed to tie your shoes without Lester beaming you instructions on some dinky-ass 90’s walkman.”

Trevor barks out a loud, unkind laugh. “That’s because you never met Michael Townley.” He whaps Michael on the shoulder with the back of his hand, a bit too hard. “You only know this washed up shell wearing his skin like a gimp-suit. He might be a useless sack of adipose and existential turmoil right now, but you should have seen him when he was young and his dreams were big, and his tits were perky-”

“I’m right here, T.”

“Are you?” Without warning, Trevor dives for his chest, grabs two handfuls of pectoral fat and begins to twist. “Where are those cute little C-cups that used to fit so perfectly in my palms? Y’know, I worried about you going soft back in the day, but I didn’t mean literally.”

“Hey, back the fuck off, Mister Grabbyhands!” Michael wrestles out of Trevor’s grasp, then notices that there are now brown stains on his chest in the shape of Trevor’s palms. For some reason, the sight of it makes him calm again. He presses his eyes shut for a moment and asks - like he’s talking to a kid - “T, what the fuck is on your hands?”

Trevor pulls back to sniff at his fingers. “Uh… blood, engine grease, some decomposed intestine I think. Had to peel a dead coyote off one of the wheels before I picked you two up.”

“How about you wash up before the next time you decide to molest me outta nowhere.”

‘Next time’?” Trevor repeats, expression nearly manic. He curls two of his fingers into the placket of Michael’s dress shirt and tugs so hard that one of the buttons pops off. “Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep, Mikey, not after everything you’ve done to me.”

“Uh, dog, I’m right here.” Franklin swings his arms over the edge of the flatbed and into the roll-cage to separate them. “C’mon, I’m givin’ you two free license to brag and reminisce about your golden age n’ shit. Can we focus for two seconds?”

They both turn to look at him, but Trevor does not remove the offending fingers from Michael’s shirt.

“Who thought it’d be so hard to get two mid-life crisis motherfuckers to condescend to a homie about how great life was in the 90s?”

“The 90s were actually statistically shit,” Trevor says. “Peak crime rates, tail end of the AIDs crisis, record unemployment. Just ‘cause it had a fancy sheen of self-congratulatory humanitarianism pissed onto it doesn’t mean the government wasn’t gearing up for the hedonistic orgy of rape and pillaging the twenty-first century has been.”

“But it was great if you were a burgeoning criminal,” Michael points out. Trevor makes a flat noise that starts under his tongue and comes out his nose.

“Or a meth-head.”

“Or, more specifically, a bank-robbing meth head.”

“Yeah, yeah, you two had a great time reapin’ the benefits of our country's sore as shit social security net. Are you gonna tell me about it or should I leave y’all alone to stroke off?”

Trevor unhooks his fingers from Michael’s shirt and swipes the whiskey from him. He settles into the driver’s seat and takes a contemplative swig from the bottle, his expression suddenly somber and serious as he stares down the sunset like he can see the shadow of North Yankton rising over the horizon. Something wrenches in Michael’s stomach and he wonders if this is a safe avenue of conversation. They’ve not talked about… about much, really. Places, events, techniques, Top Ten Favourite Ways to Piss Lester Off; but trying to encompass the entire experience of a Job… there was a whole lotta baggage that surrounded that word when it came to their time in the Midwest. Especially before Lester, because that meant before Amanda.

“Uh… Doguakop,” Michael suggests weakly. Trevor turns his mouth down, drags the edge of the bottle over his bottom lip as he thinks.

“No. That’s not right. Doguakop was -”

“A fuckin’ nice haul.”

“The kid didn’t ask for a nice haul - he wants crazy. By the time we reached Doguakop, why - we were almost civilized!”

“I don’t think you ever gotta worry about someone describin’ you as civilized, T.”

“Oh, yes, take every chance you get to just drill it in how much better you think you’ve been living your life, Michael! I’m sure Frank ain’t sick of your sanctimonious, fat ass singing the praises of day drinking and cheating on your whore wife -"

“You think I’m the one bein’ sanctimonious!?”

“Guys!” Franklin puts his hands between them again. “Let’s not, a’right?”

Trevor throws his arms up in the air in surrender.

“Alight,” Michael sighs, as he gets splashed with stale whiskey.

“So, uh, Doguakop?” Franklin asks.

Not Doguakop,” Trevor bites out. “McDongles.”

“McDongles?” Michael echoes.

McDongles??” wonders Franklin, sounding a little disappointed. “That’s it? Turnin’ over a McDongles is child’s play.”

“Well, this wasn’t your ordinary McDongles,” Michael replies, warming at the memory. “It was the state branch for the entire franchise. You know how much a McDongles franchise makes in a month, kid?”

“Good bank?”

“Better than good bank. Jewel-store bank. The national franchise average income is 2.6 million a month.”

“Yeah, and how much did you jokers make off with? Wit’out Lester tellin’ you how to tie your shoes?”

Michael rolls his neck to see Trevor already staring at him, his sunglasses tipped up to rest on his bald spot, pushing back the scruff of his receding widow’s peak. Their gazes lock and Michael can feel that thing, like a spark trying to light in a damp room. His heart-beat picks up and he can remember the way a heavy, North Yankton snowstorm feels when it hits your skin, when it slithers down your throat. He starts laughing.

Trevor laughs too: sorta weird, definitely sincere. Trevor always sounds kind of like he’s just pretending to laugh - ‘ha ha ha’ - and usually he is, but Michael can tell when it’s real. And yeah, the McDongles job was a hoot. “Tell him, Mikey! Tell him how much we got from that hit!”

“Fifteen thousand!” Michael shouts. “We cased this joint for a goddamn, month, right? How hard can it be? I - get this, kid - I apply for a job there, right? An’ I get hired. We’re so fuckin’ serious about turnin’ over this place that we bunker down and live there for all of December and I’m workin’ night shifts making $3.50 an hour, while T -”

“What Michael wanted me to do -” Trevor interrupts, “- magnanimous as he is, was get hired on as a janitor. But -”

“Well, T didn’t have his citizenship -”

“That had nothing to do with it and you fucking know it!”

“Right, Right, Trevor here thought himself too good to clean up other people’s shit.”

“I happen to have nothing but the highest respect for the janitorial profession.”

“Yeah right, dog,” Franklin laughs. “I seen how you live. In fact, I wish I could un-see it. Some shit haunts you till the grave.”

Anyway,” Trevor snaps. “I had a better idea.”

“It was an idea, alright, but I don’t know if it was better…”

“It was fucking brilliant!

“I hope you ain’t about to tell me a fool thing like he stole a mascot costume an’ dressed up like the Nugget Gobbler or some bullshit like that.”

“That!” Michael whirls a hand in the air and levels one finger directly at Trevor. “Is exactly what he did!”

“I was joking,” Franklin clarifies.

“Well, we’re not!” Trevor drums his hands on the truck’s steering wheel as a rare well of positive energy bubbles up inside him. “Surprise! It’s your best friend, T, the Nugget Gobbler!”

“Apt nickname,” Franklin mutters. Trevor whips around to glare at him.

“What?”

“N-nothin'!” Franklin puts his hands up and looks to Michael for help. “So, how’d you fuck it up?”

“We didn’t fuck it up,” Trevor bangs his hand on the dash.

“We sorta fucked it up,” Michael says, gently. “See, we robbed the place during a snowstorm, the day after New Year’s.”

Franklin nods along. “Federal Holiday, right? Smart.”

“Exactly. So the only people there were some kid with no reason to refuse workin’ a holiday - me - one security guard and the poor sucker bringin’ in the Nugget Gobbler costume, who could be anyone. So it went like clockwork at first. T got the guard an’ we got our hands on the payout before it went into the armoured truck. Shoulda been easy.” Michael trails off. He can feel Franklin’s curious gaze burning through the back of his head, but he’s lost his words. He’d forgotten, he’d actually forgotten what else had happened that night. In his memory of the Midwest there are so many nights like the McDongles heist, too many to keep straight. Snowstorms, amatuer fuck-ups, him and Trevor alone in the cab of their getaway vehicle with the night so deep and dark around them it was like being adrift at sea.

“Shoulda been easy but...?” Franklin probes.

Michael snaps out of his reverie. “There was a second security guard,” he says simply.

Trevor picks up the thread, a little too enthusiastically Michael thinks. Oh, he definitely remembers. “There was a second security guard!” Trevor crows. “- and Mike here wasn’t watching where the fuck he was going and almost got shot in the face!”

“Not almost -”

“You would have been dead if not for me!”

Michael runs a hand over his face. “Trevor had a gun in his pocket, but instead’a just shooting the guy, he - shit, I get shivers just thinkin’ about it.”

“Don’t get all queasy and performative about it, M. All I did was throw boiling oil on the guy. He died quick.”

“Dude,” Franklin whistles.

“What?” Trevor boggles at the kid, like he actually doesn’t get it. Maybe he doesn’t.

“I'd never seen a guy die so horrifically,” Michael grinds his teeth together at the memory. “Haven’t since. It was like his skin just slid offa him, like poppin’ a candy out of a wrapper.”

“Yeah, thanks, I don’t need the details.”

Trevor sniffs, insulted at the rejection of his perceived chivalry. “You weren’t complaining at the time.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I was in shock! I seem to remember you being shook up about it too - that’s how we lost the two mil. We panicked an’ grabbed the wrong bags. The ones with the day’s payout instead of the monthly profits.”

“Still,” Trevor folds his arms behind his head and leans back. “It was a very important night for us.”

Michael eludes the implication. “Yeah, I mean… despite everything, that was our first payout above 10k.”

“Mmm hmmm.” Trevor agrees, and then repeats himself. Louder, more pointed. “A. Very. Important. Night.

Michael laughs nervously, a cold sweat prickling up his arms. Franklin’s looking between them - Michael sees his expression from the corner of his vision. It’s no longer curious, it’s more like… sympathy. Michael hates that - hates this feeling like his skin is transparent and what’s playing in his brain is visible for everyone to see and mock. The night of the McDongles heist… that was the first time Trevor ever crawled into his lap and tried to touch his dick. The attempt was successful too, the first act in a comedy of errors that dragged on for years no matter how many times Michael promised himself he’d put a stop to it.

Trevor was very good at getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. By whatever means necessary. The same qualities that made him a great bank robber also made him borderline impossible to deal with on an interpersonal level. Michael only managed to just barely keep his head above water for so long because he’d put effort in to learn Trevor’s rhythms. His patterns weren’t half so erratic as they appeared on the surface. If Trevor got it in his mind that he was going to touch your dick, the best course of action was to play along. It was going to happen no matter what you did, might as well take advantage.

“Hey,” Franklin says, leaning back to rest against the wall of the flat-bed. “It’s gettin’ late. I gotta get back to my motel.”

“You’re absolutely certain you don’t wanna come back to the trailer and stay up all night doing speed instead?” Trevor asks, in a bizarrely maternal tone. Franklin laughs at that, fondly. Michael still can’t believe that Franklin actually likes Trevor.

“Nah, dog, but you do you.”

They drive Franklin to his motel, going slow as the sun dips below the horizon and the street-lamps begin to flicker on. When Frank’s tucked away safe and sound, Trevor drives Michael to the base of Mount Chiliad. They crawl into the flatbed and polish off the whiskey, stretched out side by side beneath the stars.

“To the McDongles job!” Trevor proclaims, voice sloshed. He holds up the empty bottle and Michael mimes an imaginary toast with him.

“Rest the soul of that poor, sad fuck you boiled to death.”

“Oh, cry me a fucking river. His sacrifice fueled at least three months of cocaine, booze and strippers. That’s the circle of life, M!”

Trevor sits up and chucks the bottle off the side of the truck as hard as he can. Then he rolls over onto Michael and pins him down with his forearms framing his face. “What about it, Mikey?” he slurs lewdly. “Want you nuggets gobbled?”

Michael laughs and covers his face with one hand. “Not if you’re gonna put it like that, you fuckin’ sicko.”

Still, he doesn’t say no.

2014

“I got five bucks, here.”

“Yee-haw, Cowboy. Throw it on the pile!”

Michael folds his scratch ticket in half and tosses it onto the workbench, with the other winnings. Then he grabs another beer.

“What’s that make our total?” he asks, as he pops the bottle-cap off on the edge of the table.

Trevor finishes scratching his last ticket. Nothing. He flicks it into the pot of bubbling lye, along with the mostly dissolved bodies of T Radd and the 24/7 cashier. It’s sucked under the surface with a plop and sizzle. “Sixty dollars and ten free tickets from 4k worth of ‘em. Total percentage of winners: zero point one three, three, three repeating. In other words -” Trevor opens his own bottle with his teeth. He spits the cap at Michael “- like the Chinese say, you’d have better luck tryin’ to get a bird to shit in your mouth on a rainy day than winning the lottery!”

Michael smiles and holds his beer up for a toast. “Even better luck robbin’ a bank!”

Trevor leans forward and knocks their bottles together, grin wolf-sharp and satiated beneath the grimy, yellow light of the abandoned barn. It’s an old haunt of Chef’s apparently; the place he used to cook before Trevor scooped him up and moved him into the town. It’s a patchwork mess of tarp and metal siding, filled wall to wall with discarded cook equipment and rusted car parts. There’s a hole in the ceiling where the plastic cover’s ripped free. It’s humid and dusty and stinks so strongly of ammonia that the smell’s settled into the wood. Four drinks in, however, Michael doesn’t give a fuck; the desert air is cleansing and the moon is bright and the evidence of all the mistakes he’s made today is about to be reduced to a brown stain sinking through the topsoil.

“T, my friend, we just statistically proved the gamblin’ industry is rigged for failure. What next?”

Trevor kicks off the table. His hits the floor a little unstable, swaying on his feet under the force of six beers. He flips the boiler heat off and leans against the mechanism. “Now we gotta wait for this asshole to cool off before we dump him in the quarry. Then you’re off scot-free, Mikey! All thanks to your kindly Uncle T.”

“Don’t call yourself that around me.”

“I didn’t hear you complain about it earlier.”

Michael grimaces and runs the edge of his thumb over one of the ugly hickeys forming beneath his collar. “I was otherwise occupied else I woulda lodged an official complaint with TPI’s sexual harassment department.”

Trevor pushes off the boiler and sprawls out on the ground. He points, drunkenly, towards the ceiling. “Uh uh! We had to dissolve that department ages ago! Wade was starting to get uppity.”

“Christ… the thing is I can’t tell if you’re jokin’ or not.” Michael rolls his eyes, but the alcohol is filling him up, making him charitable and sociable. He feels a compulsion to go join Trevor on the ground that’s as strong as a physical push. So he does. Stumbles a couple steps and tolerates a curled-lip look as he rolls onto his back, head close to Trevor’s so they’re forming a comfy little 45 degree angle in the dirt and rotted hay. He can see the stars through the hole in the roof. They’re so clear and bright that he can trace the line of Orion’s Belt with his eyes. At least he thinks it's Orion's Belt. That's the only constellation he knows. “Y’know, you were right, T, about Sandy Shores bein’ pretty in its own way.”

“Yeah, I bet these stars are the realest thing you’ve seen besides your own tits in ten years.”

Michael reaches out to knock Trevor in the side of the head with his knuckles. “Hey, I’m tryin’ to be sincere here.”

Trevor scoffs. “Oh? By all means, Mikey, be sincere.”

Michael takes a deep breath. He says: “Remember Doguakop?”

“Yeah I remember Doguakop. I do meth, Michael, I don’t have Alzheimer's.”

“God, I haven’t thought about Doguakop in… in years.”

“Of course you fucking haven’t. I think about Doguakop all the time.”

Michael turns his head, surprised. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. It was a - as you'd put it - ‘nice’ ‘haul’.”

Michael looks at the stars again, remembers. It’d been their first real bank robbery. Not a backwater district branch. Not a post office. A real, honest to god city bank, with an alarm system and a big, ol’ safe in the back that they’d had to blow with plastic explosives. It’d been messy: a lot of cops died - and a few hostages too - but they got it done. Just the two of them. And afterward -

Afterward, beneath the grimy lights of America’s fourth largest casino district, Michael had taken both of Trevor’s hands in his and asked: “How quickly do you think we can blow a hundred thousand dollars?

The answer was three weeks. Three weeks Michael barely remembers except for the colour of the lights in the bar where he kissed Trevor back for the first time. Such a weird detail, but it sticks with him like gum on your shoe.

“I can’t believe how fast we blew it. The whole take. We were so fuckin’ stupid back then.”

Trevor sighs. “Like I said, Mikey, it was never about the money.”

“Then what’s it about, T?”

“It’s about being alive. Feeling what it’s like to be alive. I felt fucking alive.”

Michael’s stomach turns over at the genuine tug of longing in Trevor’s voice. How is it possible for Trevor to be stained up to the wrists in some innocent kid’s blood, but be made so small by the things Michael says and does to him? There are many things that Michael, unfortunately, understands about Trevor Philips, but the way Trevor is always so desperate to curl up in his palm, kicking and biting the whole time, is not one of them. He used to worry that this was the fundamental misunderstanding that was going to get him killed one day.

He hikes himself up on his elbow so that he can loom over Trevor, look him in the eyes. Trevor just keeps staring up at the sky, chewing on the rim of his beer bottle while making an expression that turns his jowls into deep, dark caverns. Trevor’s always had the kinda face where he looks like he’s scowling even while smiling. Michael remembers wondering when they met what on earth could have made a twenty-year-old kid so miserable that he already had frown lines etched into his face like scars. Then he found out.

“Hey, T -” Michael doesn’t get further than that before his phone starts ringing. He flips it out to check the number calling and his eyebrows go up. Solomon. Shit. “Oh, ffff - I gotta take this.”

Trevor waves him off miserably, tipping the rest of his beer into his mouth.

Michael scrambles to his feet, fumbling to answer the phone before it goes to voicemail. He cups a hand around his mouth to keep his voice sheltered as he tries to escape the maze of glass and broken car doors.

“Hey, boss. What’s up?”

“What’s up!?” Solomon’s voice is shrill. Michael has to ease the phone away from his ear. “What the hell is wrong with you!?”

“Uh... Sammy Wise in... Rum Runner?"

"It's not a movie quote! I'm asking you what the hell is wrong with you!?"

"Nothing. What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me is that I asked you to do a simple thing for me. And now I get this call that T Radd is dead!?”

Michael’s heart leaps into his throat. Stick to the cover story, he reminds himself. It’s not a bad one at all. “Is he? I’m, uh, sorry to hear that. He was kinda jumpy when I went to see him. Guess someone was after him, huh?”

“Don’t you try to play smart with me! I know it was you.”

“E-excuse me?”

“I told you to just talk to him! I specifically told you to “scare” ‘em. Gently, Michael! Where is he!?”

Michael breezes out of the barn and pulls the door shut behind him. “Solomon, slow down. I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about. I went to see T Radd this evenin’. He seemed off, but he agreed to keep funding the picture.”

“Is that really what happened? You got eyewitnesses, sonny boy?”

Michael slams the heel of his hand into his forehead and screws his eyes shut, struggling to keep his wits about him. This is a misunderstanding, just a misunderstanding. Lester and Frank weren’t just professionals, they were the best; it wasn’t possible they’d fucked this up. “No,” he answers carefully. “But I wasn’t there for very long. I went to meet my family for dinner afterward. Trace is home from college, y’know.”

“I didn’t ask where you went after!”

“Like I said - I only talked to him for ten minutes! Call Amanda if you need to know where I was! She’ll tell you!” I hope. If she knows what’s good for her. For the family.

The line goes silent for a moment. Michael opens his eyes. Takes a deep breath. Then Solomon starts laughing.

“You really think that little smoke and mirrors show was going to fool me? Please, Michael, I make crime movies for a living! I’ve been making them almost as long as you’ve been alive! I know what a staged scene looks like. Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“Sir, I think you got the wrong idea he -”

“I asked you a question! Do! You! Think I’m an idiot!?”

Michael bites his lip. “No, sir,” he grounds out, in the same tone of voice he used to use with his football coach. With his father. Trevor’s mocking voice laughs at the back of his mind: ‘would you just call him daddy already!’ It kills his buzz.

“If you don’t think I’m an idiot than do me the courtesy of explaining what happened in that apartment.”

“Okay, I’m gonna be charitable Solomon and guess that you’re askin’ me in good faith, the same way you’ve asked me flat out to ice people for you in the past.”

“I’m not the one who needs charity right now, Michael.”

“I just wanna make sure we’re straight here.”

“If I have asked you to do something like that in the past, it was strictly on a wink, wink, nudge, nudge basis. You know how these things work, especially in a town like Los Santos.”

“Yeah, I do, which is why I don’t get why you’re givin’ me a hard time about it now.”

Solomon sighs. Michael can picture him rubbing the bridge of his nose and pacing his office, profile illuminated by neon coming in through the gap in his curtains. Michael’s pacing too, kicking up dust and sand, staining the cuffs of his pants white. His shoes still have blood on them.

“I said gentle, Michael,” Solomon says finally.

“Yeah, well, gentle didn’t persuade him. So I got creative. You won’t see him again an’ the movie’s getting funded so what’s the problem?”

“You don’t get it!” Solomon shouts. “This isn’t a conversation we’re having right now! You fucked up! Theodore Rizzo wasn’t some nobody you get to push around!”

“Who was he then?”

“He was my nephew!”

Michael feels the earth drop out from under him. It takes him a moment to reply. All he can say when he does is: “Oh.”

“My piece of shit, no-good, embarrassment failure of a nephew, but my sister loved him nonetheless. Now I have no idea what the hell I’m gonna tell her!”

Somewhere in his ribcage Michael feels that right now is the correct time to genuflect. He’s staring out over the flats of the Alamo Sea, watching his future split into two paths. Right now, he could apologize. Grovel. Beg for forgiveness. Lick Solomon Richards’s boots. Go home and rent a hotel room for the day. Call Amanda, offer to take her out for brunch and morning Mimosas. Carry on the same way he’s been carrying on: his drunken Vinewood fantasy. It’s not unsalvageable. He hasn’t lost anything yet, so it would be very easy to get it all back. Like a circle, Amanda said. Back to the start.

Or he could -

“You didn’t think that was maybe pertinent information?”

Solomon is silent a beat. “A-are you back-talking me?”

Michael snorts. “Yeah, yeah I am. You know exactly the kind of work it is you hired me for, so sendin’ me blind to meet a no-brain lit match like Theodore was a mistake. You got no one to blame for this but yourself.”

“You’d better think very carefully about the next words out of your mouth, Mr. De Santa.”

“I already thought about them. Wanna know what happened to your nephew? I cracked his skull open with his own synthesizer, which he couldn’t even play. Then I drove him out to the desert an’ dropped him in a tub of lye. Right about now, all that’s left of him is a pot of piss-smelling syrup.”

“How dare yo -”

“An’ you know what? I don’t regret it! He was a waste of air, contributin’ nothing of worth to society! The last thing Los Santos needs is one more spoiled trust-fund kid spilling their shitty, self-absorbed music and airbrushed porn into an already overflooded market!”

“How dare you -”

“Oh, I dare, Solomon. You knew exactly what kinda man I was when you hired me! Fake fucks like you always like to play innocent when it inconveniences them. Well, fuck you!”

Michael takes in a deep, dust-soaked breath. Then his eyes go wide. He touches his lips, as if he’s gotta make the whole process physical to grasp the totality of what he’s just said. It’s like Trevor voice is coming out of his mouth. But it doesn’t sound like Trevor at all. It sounds like him. He’s mortified at how easily the two blur together.

Solomon’s gathering resolve on the other end. Michael can hear his heavy breathing. When he speaks, his voice is very quiet.

“... you aren’t the only dangerous man I know, Michael.”

“Oh really? If you’ve got things so in hand why were you beggin’ money from your embarrassment of a nephew? Why dick around with me at all if you’re so powerful.”

“I don’t level threats lightly. If everything you said is true, you’d better not show your face around Los Santos for a while.”

“I’ll show my face wherever the fuck I feel like it!”

“It’s your funeral, Mr. De Santa.”

“It wouldn’t be my first!”

“Also, I think this goes without saying, but you’re fired.”

“That’s fine!” Michael shouts into the receiver. “I fuckin’ QUIT!” He throws his phone and stews in his anger until it reaches such a high-pitched, self-righteous boil that it feels like nothing at all. He feels nothing at all -

Michael staggers back into the barn, white-faced and numb. Trevor’s up and about, sealing up the tub of lye so that they can transport it. He turns at the sound of Michael’s footsteps and raises a quizzical eyebrow at his mortified expression.

“He knows, T,” Michael gapes, mouth dry. “Solomon knows that I did it. An’ it’s uh, worse than I thought.”

Can’t go home. Can’t go back to my job. Can’t go anywhere. Michael doesn’t really feel it. He knows the moment he starts to, he’s gonna do something stupid.

Trevor stares back at him steadily, strangely calm; an unexpected anchor in the storm. He pounds his fist on the tub and cocks a grin at the sound the human sludge inside makes in response. “In that case, what do you wanna do with him? Still on track for a respectful burial?”

Michael shakes his head Feels his jaw set into place. “No, no, he was an asshole. He gets what he deserves.”

“Told ya Michael, you should have let me give him a nice, little post-mortem pearl necklace.”

“Heh, poetic, right? Yeah, well. It’s not too late to give him a poetic burial. I got something in mind.”

The smile Trevor shoots him is so bright and sincere and hopeful that it nearly folds the scowl lines right out of him.

*

The sun never sets on Vinewood Hills, which is good because Michael would hate to waste a tub full of alkalized human shit on anything but a public spectacle. He and Trevor keep drinking on the highway, so they’re almost a little too sloshed to get the tub all the way up the ladder, but every stumble, every close call, every moment of the terrifying drive up the mountain is worth it when the brown sludge goes cascading straight into the place where the two halves of the ‘V’ meet in the Vinewood sign. It bounces off the white enamel and splatters in tall, grotesque bursts. Someone starts screaming. Michael can see the flash of camera-phones going off two-hundred feet below.

Suck it, T Radd!” he shouts over the wind. “Suck my fat, white-trash cock you privileged lil’ shit-stain!”

The sound of police sirens wailing rises up from the city lights.

They stumble down the ladder and back into the truck, giggling like kids. They run from the cops - with Trevor driving like the devil’s at his heels and Michael calmly popping the front tires of the police cruisers with perfect aim even while drunk - just like when they were kids. Halfway back to Sandy Shores, Trevor takes an abrupt turn off the highway and they disappear up the mountain. The police sirens fade into the distance and the desert stretches out in front of them. Beneath a black sky, the sand seems to go on forever.

They stop the truck and drink the rest of the two-four, alone in the world and alone with what they’ve done.

Michael starts to sober up at 6AM, just in time to watch the sun rise pink and orange over the Alamo Sea. “Shiiiit,” he groans when the hangover starts kicking in. “My life is fuckin’ over.”

“Then keep drinking!”

They’re side-by-side in the flat-bed, laid out sideways with their backs to one end and their feet against the other. Trevor passes the last of the beer to him, but Michael pushes his hand away.

“No,” he mutters, patting down his pockets. “I gotta… gotta call ‘Manda. Fuck! My phone!” He’d left it face-down in the sands outside Chef’s abandoned meth factory. He struggles to stand, but Trevor pulls him back down by the shoulders and starts massaging the tense muscles around his neck.

“Shhh, shhhh, coming down is always rough, Sugar. Let T take care of you. I always take such good care of you.”

Michael ignores how creepy Trevor is being and leans into his familiar - and surprisingly skillful - touch. Coming down from a twelve hour adrenaline rush is a little like coming down from drugs, especially since he hasn’t done anything harder than two drags off a joint since Tracey hit middle school. His mind is filling with regret and terrifying flashes of lucidity, like a film reel highlighting every stupid thing he’s done in his whole goddamn life.

“I’m an idiot,” Michael moans. “What the fuck am I gonna do. Shit.”

Trevor actually hesitates before speaking. Michael hears it. That’s… that’s not right, he thinks. That’s suspicious. “Well, you can’t go home,” Trevor says. “So why don’t you -”

Michael finishes the sentence for him: “- ‘lay low with you in Sandy Shores again’. That’s what you want isn’t it?” Suddenly it’s all so clear.

Trevor’s hands freeze. His thumbs dig into the place where Michael’s spine starts, so hard it hurts. Michael can feel the effort Trevor is putting into keeping his temper even in the way his arms are shuddering. It’s unnatural, how well behaved Trevor is being. Comparatively, at least. It’s all so clear, should have seen it sooner -

Michael rips away and turns around, a finger in Trevor’s face. “You -”

Trevor tips back. “Okay, yeah. Come on, blame me, Mikey. I know you wanna blame me. If that makes it easier on you and your precious guilt, you can blame me.”

“What is with you!?” Michael demands. “You - you caused this, somehow, didn’t you!?”

Trevor licks his lips. “I pushed you a little, yeah. But oh… oooooh, no no no. I promise, you got here all on your own.”

Michael elbows Trevor out of the way. He drags himself out of the flatbed, throws himself out onto the sand. He can’t believe this, he can’t fucking believe - “What the fuck did you do!?”

“I didn’t do a goddamn thing!”

Michael starts pacing. “I can’t believe I thought you were actually tryin’ to help me. Outta the ‘goodness of your heart’, yeah right -”

“Go on, M, drink that denial right down. Slip the snakeskin back on.”

“It’s rich that you’re callin’ me a snake when this whole night was some sick sorta game to, what - get me to come play house with you again? How long did you think that was gonna last, T, before I figured it out!?”

Trevor makes a noise in his throat like when glass accidentally gets in the garburator. “UghHHHHH! You piss me off so much! You really do! Sometimes I just want to twist your piggy little head -” Trevor wrenches his hands in the air. “- off your fat-titted body, you piss me off so much!”

“Then why don’t you!?” Michael shouts, pounding his chest with both fists. “Why don’t you just fuckin’ do it instead of complainin’ about it all the time! Or at least why don’t you piss off and leave me alone already!?”

Trevor stares at him, hands still making a strangling motion. He clenches his fists and says nothing.

“You can’t answer that, can you?” Michael starts laughing. He spreads his arms and takes three steps back. He directs his next words to the open sky. “That’s the big fuckin’ question, ain’t it? The million dollar question! Why the fuck don’t you just do it, T, if I piss you off so much! What the fuck did I ever do to deserve you nipping at my heels no matter what I do to shake you off!?”

“Okay, okay!” Trevor springs to his feet. “Do you wanna know what you’re like, Michael?”

“Yeah, Trevor, I wanna know what I’m like!”

“What you’re like… you’re fucking like -” Trevor points at the ground, makes a savage slicing motion with his arm. “Have you ever been driving down the highway, high as a kite, and you see that someone’s dug a hole and you just have this fucking insatiable, UNCONTROLLABLE instinct to crawl into it and go to sleep?”

Michael shakes his head, chuckes patronizingly. “I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced that, no.”

“That’s because you’re the goddamned hole in this goddamned metaphor! God! Keep up!”

“Oh really? I’m the hole?” Michael shouts. “Me!? I’m the fucking hole!?”

Trevor mocks the motion of Michael’s speaking with his hand, flapping it like a muppet mouth. “‘I’m the hole? I’m the hole?’ Stop repeating me and contribute something to the conversation!”

“Fine: here’s my contribution! You’re a black hole, T, and you destroy everything you touch! I swear to God Sandy Shores was a fuckin’ paradise by comparison before you dragged your ass here and started leavin’ your mark on it. You’re like a swarm of locusts descendin’ everywhere you go and I’m sick of it!”

Trevor points to himself, putting on a faux-innocent expression. “You sure you wanna throw stones in your glass mansion, M? You’re calling me a black hole when you’re so rotten than you rot everyone around you! Your wife! Your kids! Me!”

Michael laughs. “You!?”

“Yeah! Me! You fucking rot me from the inside out, like I got a black fucking mark on my soul! Since the day I fucking met you, you heartless, selfish snake PIECE OF SHIT! That’s why I can’t leave you the fuck alone! You won’t let me!”

Michael paces back to the truck, plants his hands on the edge of the flat bed. “Okay! Fine!I guess we’re both the fuckin’ hole! You happy now!?”

“No! Because that means you should be with me, and you aren’t! You never were!”

Michael repeats those words back, incredulous: “ ‘With you’.”

“Yeah,” Trevor takes a step closer, casts his shadow over Michael. “With. Me. We…” and Trevor’s voice gets kind of cracked, the way it does when he’s just been pulled back from smashing someone’s face in. The way he talked to Patricia Madrazo. “- belong together, Mikey.”

That knocks the wind out of Michael. It knocks the wind out of him so thoroughly he can’t even find the thread of anger again. He turns his head away. “Oh, geeze. T. Just… shit.”

It’s not the first, or even the tenth time Trevor has said this to him. But Michael begins to feel the old, familiar panic rise in his throat. This is what he faked his death to escape. Not just the cops, the warrants, the threat of death, the fear of leaving his children half-orphans, the fear that they’d be relieved to be half-orphaned... no, it was this: laying in the back of Trevor’s flat-bed, staring up at an empty sky and feeling like this life, and this relationship, was a grave dug just for him.

He’s quiet so long that Trevor buckles down to his knees. He puts his hands on Michael’s, leans their foreheads together. Michael sighs.

“I can’t help but think sometimes everyone’s life’d be easier if I just fuckin’ bit it,” he admits.

“I know mine would,” Trevor says, voice a little choked. “I’d finally be fucking free.”

“Free to do what?” Michael asks, tonelessly. “Murder an’ fuck your way across the state? You sure don’t have much to show for nine years of “freedom”.”

Trevor tightens his grip on Michael’s hands. “Fuck you, Michael. Casting judgement on me like you’re some kind of… some kind of…”

Michael raises both his eyebrows. “Some kind of judge?”

Michael means it as a joke, but it just sets Trevor off again. Trevor whips his hands away and leans back. He sticks a finger right into the center of Michael’s forehead.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I ain’t a judge, T, but you followed me around like a dog. That’s your problem, not mine.”

“Fucking maybe I did, but why don’t you take a good long look at yourself, Sugar, and tell me - look me in the fucking eyes Michael, and tell me honestly that you weren’t lost without me too!”

Michael looks Trevor in the eyes. He doesn’t say anything at all. He lets Trevor talk.

“I know what you think of me,” Trevor says. “You think that without you, I’m nothing. But you’re nothing too, Michael! You’re a big, fat, howling void of NOTHING with a surface so thin it cracks when you breathe on it. And you -!” Trevor jabs Michael in the forehead, sharp enough that Michael’s hands come off the edge of the truck. “You need me!” Trevor laughs, unhinged. “For once in our lives, you need me more than I need you! You - miserable in your plastic movie set dream of America! You were so fucking thankful that I came along and disrupted it! But you act like I just stopped existing when you weren’t looking at me!”

“T, I -”

“No! Shut the FUCK UP! I have my own life, Michael! My own business - this little Empire I built with my own hands, without your fucking HELP! I know who I am, “Mikey”, and while I don’t like it most of the time, at least I made peace with it! Not like you, who lies so much you don’t even know how to tell the truth when you’re looking in the goddamn MIRROR! So now you’re the one who needs me, because I give you an excuse to act like yourself, and not this… pathetic -” Trevor slams his whole palm into Michael’s forehead this time. “- hollowed out HUSK OF SHIT in front of me right now!” Trevor doesn’t move his palm. He presses down. Michael closes his eyes leans into it, focuses on the warmth of Trevor’s hand, and the way the web of callouses and scars feels against his skin.

“You know what,” he breathes, not thinking, just feeling. “Maybe you’re right - we do belong together. At the bottom of a goddamn cliff.”

Trevor’s arm goes stiff. “... do you.. really mean that?”

“Fuck, I don’t know.” Michael opens his eyes. “But I said it. I sure fucking said it, didn’t I?”

Trevor takes in a ragged breath. “Get in the truck,” he says.

Michael staggers back, puts his hand on the edge of the flatbed. He watches Trevor stumble towards the driver’s seat, so excited at the prospect of committing suicide together that he’s visibly shaking like a little boy on Christmas. Michael’s bowled over, empty inside. So worn out emotionally that he does it - he gets in the truck. Settles in as Trevor turns the key in the ignition so hard it almost snaps the head right off.

Trevor stomps down on the reverse gear, kicking up a cloud of dust and sand as they careen backwards across the desert. Michael braces both hands on the dash, taking deep, even breaths as they bump and rattle through the rocks and shallows. They’re so close to the ocean, to the edge of the fucking world that he’ll only have half a minute to change his mind once they get going.

But he won’t -

He won’t change his mind -

Trevor shoots him a grin, all child-like and love-lorn. He reaches out and takes one of Michael’s hands in his, grips it tight. There’s a moment of stillness and silence, like the moment before your brain starts processing a long fall. Then Trevor steps on the gas and they’re going, speeding through the sand, up the side of the mountain, so fast that the mild, morning air is cutting lines into Michael’s face. He tries to take a breath, but the wind fills his lungs and sucks it out of him. The sunrise turns into a flat circle and he can actually see his life flashing before his eyes, like some cliche goddamn movie, it’s literally flashing before his eyes. He -

- the expression his father makes when he pulls back his fist, the way Trevor looks just before they burst in through the back door of a bank, Lester swiveling around on his spinning chair with triumph ringing his pale eyes, Amanda Amanda Amanda in the morning with her hair all pressed to one side because she forgot to wash out the hairspray. Trevor’s eyes bright with drugs and love, reaching out to take Michael’s face in both his hands. Jimmy and Tracey, sitting across from him at McDongles, smashing their Dappy Meal toys against each other in a fruitless contest to see if girl toys or boy toys are “more strong”. Franklin at the shooting range, sheepish about how many targets he missed the mark on. Tracey, holding her college acceptance to her chest, Amanda hugging her, holding their little girl tight as the light pours through their stained glass windows. Michael standing in the kitchen watching them, feeling so proud that it pools at the center of his hands but knowing that he’s not a part of this scene. He’s an outside observer in his own life. He doesn’t know how to tell them, how to show them, what to say to communicate what he feels. He feels so… so -

- he’s screaming. There’s no air in his lungs, but he’s screaming.

“Stop!” he shouts. “Stop the fucking truck!”

Trevor keeps going. The ridge of the cliff rises over the horizon. Michael wrenches his hand from Trevor’s and grabs the steering wheel. The truck’s going so fast that they spin 360 degrees. The back half of the truck coasts over the edge of the narrow, mountain road. Michael checks Trevor against the door and kicks his leg over the central console, desperately pressing his heel to the brake. The engine groans beneath the effort. The truck bucks over the last rise on the road and screeches to a stop right at the edge, two wheels hanging over the side of the cliff-face as the engine creaks and cools around them. Michael is breathing heavy, eyes wide, pulse racing. When he catches sight of the water two-thousand feet beneath them, his vision swims. They almost… he almost… he almost let Trevor....

“Holy fuck,” he whispers.

“Get out,” Trevor says quietly.

Michael doesn’t. He’s in shock, shaking right down to his bones. He starts laughing. It’s probably the most unfettered laugh he’s managed in years.

“Holy fuck!” he says, louder this time.

Trevor comes alive at that. He throws himself on Michael, slapping at his arms, shoving him towards the door.

“I said GET OUT!”

The truck rocks beneath the movement. Michael’s breath catches in his throat. “Woah, woah -”

“I’m so fucking SICK OF YOU!” Trevor wails. “You’re a liar, but I believe you every fucking TIME! Get the FUCK OUT!”

Michael’s backed against the door of the passenger’s seat, which means he’s backed against the 2,000ft drop into the ocean. He goes still, stays still until Trevor stops moving. Until the hitch in Trevor’s shoulders indicates that he’s crying.

“Trevor...” Michael pushes him away, gently. Trevor pulls back, turns his body to Michael and presses his forehead against the steering wheel.

“Get the fuck out and don’t come back unless you fucking mean it,” he says.

Michael waits until Trevor is completely still to extract himself from the truck’s cab. He climbs into the flatbed carefully, crawling down the length of it to prevent the balance from shifting and plummeting the Bodhi over the edge of mountain. The metal bed smells like booze and blood. Michael feels like he’s waking up from a long sleep. He feels like that all the time, like he’s just sleepwalking through his whole goddamn life.

Feet flat on the ground, he straightens the lapels of his suit jacket. He adjusts his cufflinks and runs a hand through his hair. Then, without taking a single look back, he starts making his way down the mountain. The sun rises behind the clouds and turns into perfect circle on the horizon.