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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.

Chapter Text

2004

Trevor walks a circle around nearly the whole goddamn district of Ludendorff to shake the FIB off his tail, but no further than that. He has to know. He has to kn -

The smart thing to do would be skip town immediately. Instead, Trevor goes on an eight day bender and wanders back to Michael’s grave. It’s the twilight hour of a record snow storm and all the stones are covered in a sheet of frost, but Trevor knows where he’s going. He lingered long enough outside the gate that the plot’s layout is burned into his memory. It’s a shitty graveyard in a shitty town; just a forgotten patch of dirt out behind the railroad tracks, not the kind of place a vain, self-made bank robber of moderate repute like Michael Townley would want to be buried. That was always a problem with Michael - he never knew if he wanted to skip town, or have his name up in lights, and that’s why he was dead in some podunk shithole he’d thought himself too good for.

If Trevor had his way, Michael would be buried in an unmarked grave out in the tundra somewhere. Trevor’s corpse would be there too, buried right beside him. The fact that he’s still alive and Michael isn’t hits him again and makes him so fucking pissed that for a moment, he sees red, nearly blacks out. He kicks Michael’s headstone, hard, and spits on it.

“Fuck you, Michael Townley, you fat, selfish prick,” he growls. “We should have cut you out years ago. One last job!” Another kick. “- one last stinkin’ job!” This kick cracks a rotten piece of leather off his boot. “What the fuck was I thinking!?”

With his hands shoved beneath his armpits to keep warm, he savagely kicks the rest of the snow off the headstone and stares at the letters that make up Michael’s name. He breaks them down into shapes, tries to conceive of the fact that those shapes are the only thing left of Michael Townley… that, and a sack of flesh that’s already going putrid just two metres under his feet.

Suddenly, Trevor wants to see it. No, he needs to see it: Michael’s body, he needs to see it one last time. Knowing it’s so close, it’s like he can feel the heat radiating up through the earth. Michael always gave off heat like a furnace - a foot away in a junked-out car with no radiator, back-to-back in a firefight, pressed together on a narrow cot in some no-name motel on the edge of civilization… back before Amanda, Michael would sometimes - with a generous and long-suffering sigh - let Trevor crawl his hands up beneath his coat in the winter. Trevor would have crawled beneath his skin instead if he could.

That thought sends him into a fury, a haze. He’s digging before he even realizes what he’s doing. Frantic, desperate. He can’t claw through the frost even though the earth is newly turned, but he mauls the ground anyway as his blood runs high and his ears start to ring. He comes to with dirt in his mouth, raw palms and one of his nails chipped off and dangling. His fingers are pulped at the tips. He’s breathing heavy - not from exertion. It takes a few seconds, but Trevor realizes he’s crying. Deep, hacking sobs like he hasn’t cried since that bad ketamine trip in ‘98, or the last time he saw his mother. He presses his forehead to the ground and sucks in a mouthful of phlegm. He doesn’t even know what he’d do with the body if he could get his hands on it. Probably something he’d regret.

He presses his bloody hands to the ground and hates it for being the last thing that steals Michael from him. After the bullet, the family, the stray smile of a stripper with unusually straight teeth there is still one final betrayal. The earth itself swallows the remaining pieces of him Trevor could claim for himself. It’s not creepy - he just wants a tooth, a finger, the bullet that killed him, a lock of hair or a piece of skin. Something he can put on a pendant and wear under his shirt. Grasped in the fading strains of a high that’s lasted over a week, Trevor doesn’t feel the cold, or the cuts, or much of anything really except a great, gaping maw of loneliness yawning open somewhere at the center of his chest. It’s not just Michael, they’re all gone: Brad, Lester, Michael’s beautiful, dumb kids. He lowers himself by inches, lays his cheek against the dirt and lets the snow cover his back.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he admits. Michael’s buried corpse doesn’t say anything back, which means that’s he’s definitely sober. A sad, sober piece of shit so alone in the world he might as well be the last man on earth.

He curls up and falls asleep on the grave. He is honestly surprised when he wakes up alive the next morning, buried up to the chin in the last North Yankton snowfall he intends to ever experience. By the grey light of a soggy Ludendorff afternoon, Trevor Philips shaves off his treasured mustache, steals some drugs, jacks a ride, and begins to wander South.

*

What he does is join a cult.

Not one of those slimy zen-buddhism-derived-and-perverted rackets deceptively masquerading as self-improvement to levy the hulking weight of their holy pyramid schemes. No, he joins one of the good ones - with drugs and orgies and dreamy, non-committal devotion to distant alien saviours. They grow their own ‘shrooms and weed and live communally on a giant, repurposed ranch-house out in the Apple County wilderness, just an hour out from a famous orchard that they scavenge from in the autumn. Their ideology rejects hierarchical bigotry, but hopes to someday create android sex slaves, which is just about the most delicious contradiction Trevor’s ever heard in a religion.

It’s nice, for a bit. But between the press of nubile, unwashed bodies and 24-hour hallucinogenic spirit journeys, Trevor begins to see a deeper potential in the operation. There’s a retired chemist, and an ex-Cartel gun-runner hiding from a vengeful shipping partner who wrongfully thinks he squealed to the FIB. Exactly the right tools, Trevor explains to the High Prophet Peter Raëvel, to begin a startup meth cooking operation.

“Why meth?”

“Have you tried meth!?”

Getting the cultists to try meth turned out to actually be a really bad idea. Not everyone had Trevor’s unique combination of entrepreneurial vision and resistance to the more… demotivational facets of addiction. The Raëvelians smoked more meth than they sold and still somehow ended up in a deadly six-day standoff with the Apple County police department. Trevor ended the raid himself: with a shotgun, a machete and 500mg of their purest, bathtub-cooked crank. Of course, all the cultists were dead by then. It was not the first catastrophic altercation that Trevor had found himself the sole survivor of, but it was the first time he’d ever waken up amidst an ocean of blood and bullets only to find that he felt nothing at all.

After that he:

rents himself out as a pilot, as a hired gun, as a pair of fucking hands that’ll do anything. He sends a letter to Brad. He gets a letter back. He goes further South. He accepts that Michael’s never coming back and that he’s long passed by his chance to join him in his grave. He gets a new tattoo, and starts dealing meth: successfully this time.

The ink fades, gets worn and grey like the rest of his tattoos. Becomes a part of his skin. Sometimes he goes through the entire day without thinking once about Michael Townley's hands or eyes or his stupid voice. Once - in a dive bar outside Santa Francisca- he smells a dude smoking the same brand of cheap, unfiltered cigarettes Michael used to love and he, unconsciously, it really is entirely unconscious, picks a fight with him so he has an excuse to beat him halfway to death in the alley out back. He doesn’t kick the guy all the way to death which, he thinks, means that he must be getting over it.

2013

Trevor kicks his truck open and shouts across the length of his yard. “Ron!” he calls. “Ron! Get the fuck OUT HERE!”

Ron stumbles from his front door a moment later, eager, as always, to demonstrate his unflagging loyalty. “Y-yes, Trevor?”

Trevor points at him. “My place, five minutes! Bring me a coffee, a white-board and some markers!”

Ron’s eyes light beneath his glasses. “A new business opportunity?”

“I said FIVE MINUTES, Ron! You don’t get paid to ask inane questions, you get paid to cater to my every whim so that this company runs like a finely tuned machine!”

“I don’t get pa -” Ron starts to say, but thinks better of it when he sees the expression blistering in Trevor’s gaze. He gulps, then skitters back into his trailer to do as he’s told.

Trevor slams into his home and kicks the trash off the couch, clearing a space to sprawl. He grabs his pipe and chews on the end. There’s nothing in it, but the glass holds the memory of a rock’s crisp, bitter-burnt taste. He closes his eyes and leans his head against the wall.

“- flawed, awful, totally uncomfortable and poorly matched friends -”

Right, right. “Friends”, “Brothers”, “Partners” - whatever Michael wanted to call it. If he wasn’t going to pay his debt in blood, he could pay it in cum. And companionship. Cumpanionship. Whatever. Some non-homoerotic euphemism to appeal to Mikey’s treasured heterosexual masculinity. Trevor loved him like a brother and a friend, all right. Like their blood had been mingled together - binding them to each other on some deep, cosmic level. Which was fake in the grand scale of a random, empty, meaningless universe, but also completely true in all the ways that mattered.

Trevor leaps to his feet when he hears Ron clatter in through the door, supplies hitched under one arm while the other shakes beneath the meager weight of Trevor’s coffee. He grabs the coffee and shotguns it while motioning for Ron to set the whiteboard up beside the sink. Ron obeys, then takes a step back to admire his work; the whiteboard is tinted green from the neon sign above the couch, and stained with the faint imprints of crop circles and names of dead US Presidents. Trevor chucks the empty coffee mug over his shoulder and shoves Ron out of the way.

“So wh-what are we planning this time?” Ron asks eagerly. “Another gun run? Maybe folding a new drug into the operation?”

“No, Ron, this mission is entirely personal.” Trevor snatches a red marker off the counter and writes a name on the whiteboard. He draws a heart around it. “See - the late, great Michael Townley has finally come to his senses and graciously invited me back into his life, where I, of course, belong. BUT!” Trevor draws a knife through the heart. “Not in the capacity I deserve! So we need to figure out… how I’m going to get him back.”

It takes Ron a moment to work through that. God, sometimes Ron thinks so fucking slow you can see the thought move through every bone in his goddamn body. “W-wait -” Ron blinks, furrows his brow. “Weren’t you going to let the Chinese Triad kill Michael? I thought -”

“That was three weeks ago RON! A lot of things have happened since then! Keep UP!”

“But what about -” and Ron’s voice goes low, a bit feathery. Almost reverent. “What about Mrs. Madrazo…?”

Trevor presses his eyes shut at the sound of her name. The wound is still deep. It twists like a knife between his ribs. Well, actually, it feels more like when you’ve bruised a bone: easy to ignore until it’s touched, excruciating when prodded. She was such a good and kind woman; it hurt to think of her trying to appease her piece of shit husband, knowing that he was only treating her right out of fear of death. Pain that gets worse with pressure. A knife was the kind of thing that needed more immediate care, and it left a scar. Michael was the fucking knife.

“Patricia and I shared a fleeting love that bloomed like a rose in the desert -” Trevor says, putting a hand to the center of his chest. “- doomed, but beautiful. And, of course, aided heavily in its growth by artificially controlled variables and a restricted environment. But Michael -” his eyes fly open and he slams his finger into the white-board. It cracks a little. “Michael is the love of my life and even though it’s true that he probably still deserves to burn for what he did, I never feel so ALIVE and REAL as I do when I’m with him, so yeah - we’re gonna divert some funds and attention to making sure that I get him back.” Trevor begins to advance on Ron, jabbing him in the sternum with the marker. “- because if I get him back, I’m going to be extremely happy and when I’m happy, Ron, you’re happy. When I’m happy EVERYONE’S HAPPY. And we’re all going to be very -” Ron’s back hits the wall of the trailer. “VERY HAPPY, or else everyone is going to be in PIECES at the BOTTOM of the reservoir! Got it!?”

Ron makes a face like he gets it, hands flat against the peeling wallpaper, eyes wider than usual. “Of course, Trevor. Anything you say. B-but how are you going to, uh, “get him back”. D-doesn’t he have a… wife?” There’s something weird in Ron’s voice there. A quiver of regret, longing. Trevor ignores it and gives Ron one last shove for good measure, just so he knows his place.

He tucks the marker behind his ear and wheels around to grab a warm beer. He cracks it open on the edge of the kitchenette and then hikes himself up to sit on it, swinging one of his dirty boots into the corner, resting the toe just beneath the whiteboard. “Who cares about his fucking wife!” he shouts. “She hates his guts anyway. No, no - the way in is… it’s through his insatiable desire for self-aggrandizing drama. Two hundred million dollars isn’t going to be enough to satisfy him now that he’s gotten a taste of his old life. I just have to… I have to -”

Have to what? Nothing he’s ever done in his entire life has made Michael want him back except on his own fucking erratic, self-serving schedule. Pushing him - that’d been the worst method, however. That’d been the method that had tipped Michael over to the nuclear option, the method that had driven them both into nine years of senseless, howling loneliness. Maybe the answer was to go in the opposite direction.

Trevor grounds a palm into his face. He’s too sober to think about this. “I need some drugs if I’m gonna brainstorm! RON!”

Ron hops to it. He might have been a cringing, half-competent worm, but he knew how to prep a rock. He hands the pipe to Trevor, even leans in to light it for him. Trevor takes a deep breath and feels the world slow down around him. Now he can fucking think.

Three hours later the sun is a hazy memory around the moon and the trailer is cast in multi-coloured light. Sandy Shores comes alive at night - there are bikers partying and shooting off down the street, coyotes howling by the train-tracks, a bunch of drop-out kids setting off firecrackers in the backyard. Ron’s laid out on the couch, massaging his leg through the gap in his leg brace, an unlit joint hanging between his teeth. Trevor is pacing, staring at the mess on the white-board. Fifteen plans in and they all end in death, or fiery death, or double-murder and, romantic as that is, he would like to try something a little more gentle first.

“ArrRRRGH! Why is Michael so difficult! Even when he’s not here he has to complicate everything by being so! So! -”

“N-now I don’t wanna sound like I’m contradicting you, boss,” Ron begins, voice warbling. “But didn’t you say the problem wh-when you were younger was… was that you pushed him too hard?”

Trevor rounds on Ron. Speaks quietly. “Did I say that out loud?”

“Uh, twenty-six times in the last few hours, yes,” Ron replies, scooting up against the arm of the couch as Trevor stalks towards him.

“So you were listening in on my private thoughts?”

“Well, you were saying them out loud, Trevor, I couldn’t really help but -”

“Let me get this straight: you, a man who is so paranoid that the government might listen in on his casual conversations that you have lined your entire trailer in tinfoil, were sitting here - enjoying my hospitality, my drugs - listening in on my private correspondence with myself?”

Ron’s mouth falls open. His joint bounces off his leg and hits the floor, lost forever. “I - I -”

Trevor glares at Ron until he looks like he’s going to melt and disappear beneath the couch’s upholstery. Then he pivots back on his heel and starts clapping. He can hear Ron sigh in relief.

“No Ron, Ron - you’re right: you were right that I was right.” Trevor picks up the whiteboard and sets it on the counter again. He licks his hand and wipes away the text, eliciting a ear-splitting squeaking noise from the plastic. He begins to write on the stain his hand left behind. “See, Michael is just as predictable as he is infuriating. He always -” Trevor draws a circle, starts scribbling down steps. “- aggressively goes after what he wants. Then he gets it. Then he gets dissatisfied and decides he wants something else. Rinse and fucking repeat. A circle, get it?” Trevor highlights the pattern over and over again, pressing so hard that the marker’s felt tip splits and begins to bleed. “See, I used to be a very important part of this cycle. The most critical part of it, in fact. It’ll happen no matter what I do. All I have to do is just… work myself back into it.”

He finishes his demonstration with a flourish, scraping a leaky line through the whole process. Ron is silent a moment. Somewhere, outside, a car backfires.

“S-so… what are you going to do?”

Trevor takes a step back and observes the circle. He sets the marker to his chin, not caring that he’s leaking ink down the length of his jawline. It drips onto the neck his shirt, as dark and wet as newly drawn blood.

“The only thing I have to do: I’m going to fucking wait.”

2014

Jimmy starts stuttering just five minutes away from the restaurant. “So, um, like -” He’s clinging to the bars of the roll-cage even though Trevor is turning corners very carefully. More carefully than usual, at least. “We’ve been meaning to ask you something and, uh -”

He trails off as they hit a red light. Trevor rolls the truck to a stop a couple feet too late, resting the nose of the Bodhi right in the center of the intersection. A couple of uptight city drivers mash down on their horns, but Trevor ignores them. They can go the fuck around if they need to get where they’re going so fast - he’s got precious cargo in his truck. He swings around and hitches his arm over the edge of the flatbed so he can look Jimmy in the eyes.

“What’s the question, Jimmy Jim, my boy?”

Jimmy goes pale. Paler. He tries to catch the gaze of his sister, where she’s sitting in the front seat, but she’s drumming her fingers on the dash and humming along to Channel X.

“Okay, well, don’t take this the wrong way, cause as an inquiry it’s kind of, um, out there, but -” Jimmy breaks eye contact nervously. “We just want to know, so like -”

“Are you in love with our dad?” Tracey asks.

Jimmy winces like he’s expecting a blow. The light changes green.

“Sorry, Uncle T, we jus -”

“Yeah,” Trevor says.

“W-wait, what?”

“Yeah, of course I’m in love with your dad,” Trevor clarifies, banking the truck into a sharp, unsignaled right-hand turn. “How the hell else do you explain our fucking cyclical relationship and the fact that I just keep coming back for more. I love your dad, and he treats me bad, just like he treats your mom and you and everyone else in his shitshow of a life who’s stupid enough to love him. Next question!”

“Oh,” Jimmy says. “That was actually our only question.”

“I have another one,” Tracey snaps her bubblegum, then spits it out over the side of the truck, very undignified. You can take the girl out of the midwest… “Isn’t gay marriage totally legal now? Why don’t you just marry him!”

Trevor tries to snort, all derisive, but it comes out more like a defeated sigh. Tracey keeps going, waving a hand through the air as they zoom past a neon strip mall.

“He makes mom miserable! He makes all of us miserable! Just… take him away from us, Trevor! You’d be doing us a favour!”

“Oh, believe me Trace. I know. I know - and don’t think I haven’t tried in the past.”

“So do it!”

The truck bounces over a curb and the back-end clips some richo’s green-bin, sending rotten food and torn up newspapers skittering out across the road behind them. Jimmy yelps from his precarious perch in the flatbed.

Trevor shoots Tracey a discerning look, but she doesn’t meet his eyes. She’s too busy reapplying her lipstick in the rear-view mirror. “Okay, so - theoretically - if I were planning to whisk your father away, maybe sometime soon, like tonight, I would have your blessing?”

“Define ‘whisk away’,” Jimmy says, warily. “You don’t mean, like, locking him in a basement or a bomb shelter in the middle of the desert, right?

Jiiiimy, Jimmy my boy, don’t worry so much! I would never make your father do anything he doesn’t want to do! It’s just that your dearest daddy never knows what he wants, which makes things complicated!”

“So… that’s yes: you’re going to lock him up in a bomb shelter in the middle of the desert?”

No. No! Of course not! Well. Probably not -”

“Uncle T…”

“I’m going to help him dispose of that corpse you’re hanging out with back there -”

“What!?” says Jimmy, immediately thumping to the opposite side of the flatbed. He clutches the roll cage behind his sister’s seat with white knuckles. Tracey finishes off her makeup application with a lipsmack and a hair-flip.

“If you can keep daddy out of trouble, then you have my full blessing Uncle T. God knows mom can’t control him, not for more than like, a week before he starts being… being… really him again. So as long as you don’t, like, do some kind of romantic murder-suicide thing it’s fine? Cause he’s still my dad and I love him I guess.”

Trevor reaches out to ruffle Tracey’s hair. She smiles brightly at him, even though he’s completely ruined the careful arrangement of her bangs. “No promises if he’s the one who instigates it,” he tells her. She nods thoughtfully.

“Yeah, totally. That’s fair!”

“Holy shit, this is so messed up,” Jimmy mutters.

“Oh my God, Jimmy, don’t be so insensitive!”

“I’m not being insensitive Tracey! It’s really weird! Don’t pretend like you don’t think it’s a little weird, ‘cause it’s definitely weird! I mean… dad… and Trevor? Like… have had sex?”

“Sooooo much sex,” Trevor confirms, helpfully. “Almost every kind of sex you can imagine.”

“Uggh, please Uncle T. I really don’t need the mental images.”

“Jimmy, gay sex is just as natural and filthy and beautiful as heterosexual intercourse. Are we going to have to stop the truck have a little conversation about tolerance?”

“Uh, it’s not the gay part that’s creeping me out. It’s all the other parts. Like the ‘it’s my dad and you had sex with him’ part.”

“Okay, okay - actually one more question!” Tracey spins around and sets her hands on the dash. “Why,” she says.

“Why what, Trace?”

“Why? Why dad? It’s just like… I mean, no offense Trevor because I get that you’re old and gross too -”

“No offense taken, sweetheart. I am both middle aged and thoroughly disgusting.”

“But Dad is like… really old and gross. And so pathetic.”

“That he is, and I love him for it. I love how gross and pathetic he is.”

“But why?”

“Because that’s what love is, kids! It’s like how I still love the both of you even though you’ve completely wasted your potential and turned into pampered, selfish stereotypes of everything wrong with your generation’s entitled, Participation-Trophy sophistry.”

Hey -” interjects Tracey. Jimmy just lets out a tired sigh.

“That’s harsh, Uncle T. True, but harsh.”

“So -” Trevor bites down on his words. “- you don’t stop loving someone just because they mark you for assassination by the FIB, get your buddy killed, fake their own death, don’t look for you for nine years and then try to lie to you about it when you’ve just dug up their grave and you’re both staring at your poor ol’ pal Brad’s corpse -”

“Wait, dad did what?”

Trevor slams down on the gas, knocking the kids forward a half-foot as he starts to back the truck into the De Santa mansion’s driveway. “If there is one lesson I can impart to you children it’s that loyalty is the most important thing there is.” He stops when the back wheels of the truck go over the front step. “There are some relationships in life that are unconditional, you got that? When you love someone, that means you’re in it for the long-haul, the rest of the world be damned. Even if it pisses you off so much you want to kill them sometimes. Even if it hurts more than getting kicked in the gut. Even if it hurts more than anything you’ve ever felt before. Because when you bleed with someone, that makes you brothers-in-arms, and that love is unconditional. You get that? Un-con-fucking-ditional.”

The kids are silent a moment. Jimmy’s put his legs up to his chin, pulling his sneakers close to his ass to put as much distance between his body and T Radd as possible. Tracey’s looking at her lap, chewing her lip as she contemplates her Uncle’s wise words. The sun is all the way down now, stealing the last strains of purple and pink from the skyline. But it’s not dark, oh no - it’s never dark in Los Santos. Trevor can make out every line of Tracey’s expression when she raises her face to meet his gaze again. Her eyes are a bit glassy.

“That sounds… like, really sad Trevor.”

Trevor throws his arms up in the air, feeling his mouth crack into a grin despite himself. The hit of speed he took immediately before heading to the restaurant is finally starting to hit him in full force. He’s shaking, and so at peace with the world he could just crash his truck into the fucking basin. Just fucking kick down on the gas and smash it into the water so hard it explodes.

“Yes! Exactly!” he shouts. He breathes in through his nostrils, presses his eyes shut for a moment before continuing. “Love is sad, Tracey! Love is hard and ugly! If you want to feel nice all the time, stick to jerking off to porn and paying prostitutes to hold you! - that costs extra, by the way, but it’s worth it. Are you listening to me, James?”

“Huh?” Jimmy says. Trevor keeps going:

“It’s easy to fill yourself up with cum, but it’s hard work to fill up your heart! That’s the problem with your fucking father - he wants to feel nice and good all the time! He doesn’t want the sacrifices that go along with loving someone, and that’s how he fucked you kids up so bad!”

“Y-yeah…” Tracey replies, running her fingers over the ridge of her wrist, like she’s remembering something. When she was six she went through a big obsession with jelly bracelets and Michael used to pick them up for her by the bag-full every time he was out of town on a job. Maybe she’s thinking about that, about what her father was like when he pretended to care about her.

“Love should make you sad!” Trevor says, wild-eyed. “It should make you pissed off. It should make you feel better and worse than drugs! It should make you want to dig your flesh out of your arms. It should make you want to rip out your own veins! It should fucking hurt!”

The kids are looking at him with an expression he’s never seen from them before. Like they don’t know who he is. Like they don’t know who they are. Well, that’s fine, that’s good - they’re all rotting away here in the parched, San Andreas sun, so far away from where they were born, living in dried out skins that don’t fit. They’ve gotten to adulthood without knowing what it means to feel real. They’re so love starved that they don’t know, who they are, who they could be.

“It should hurt so much that it makes you feel real," he finishes with a flourish, patting Tracey on the shoulder. "That’s what love is, kids. That's what it's all about.”

*

Lester told him once that he was “sort of obsessed”, in that subtle, nasal Lester-ey way of his that carried all kinds of judgments and implications beneath the surface. Bad for the work. Useless. Unrequited. Irrational. Well, Lester, how could Trevor not be obsessed when the first time he and Michael looked at each other was in the red smoke of a flare trailing up from a man’s hollowed-out skull? Like it was the first colour Trevor had ever seen in his life: Michael’s square face bathed in the glow, the snow around them stained in it. Red, red, red - hyper-saturated and almost tangible beneath the weight of his first murder.

Michael said nothing for a long time, but when he did finally react it was not with revulsion, or fear or even a reasonable measure of horror. He just steadied his hands, took a deep breath and said: “we gotta dump it in a body of water if we don’t wanna get caught.”

‘We’, Michael said. Not you. From that day on it was ‘we’. Trevor hadn't realized until that moment how desperately he had wanted to be a 'we'. Michael Townley - before they even exchanged one word - had looked straight into Trevor’s deep, dark soul and instead of recoiling in disgust, he saw potential. He saw a friend. Trevor was so wary, so kicked-dog suspicious of it that it took him ten whole minutes to figure out what the fuck to say in response. They loaded the corpse onto the plane in complete silence until Trevor mumbled: “We’re ten klicks from Lake Exceptional.” Michael grinned, and clapped him on the shoulder.

Love at first sight.

He thinks about his first night with Michael (carnally, not professionally) all the time. His arms still remember the weight of the heated rack as he tossed the oil over the security guard, the way the liquid shifted from one side to the other. A bit of it got on his cheek and left a very small scar. Behind him, the Nugget Gobbler costume laid in the snow like a shucked skin.

He’d had no idea what would happen, how quickly the skin would began to slough off, how bits of the poor sucker’s flesh would splash off onto them. The man went from upright and red and screaming to cooking in the snow in five seconds flat. The scent was so much like cheap bacon rinds being fried in oil that it made Trevor nostalgic for his childhood. He remembers how his mouth began to water; not because he was hungry, but because he wanted to kiss Michael Townley more than anything. Michael, who was staring wide-eyed at the melting corpse like it was so much better to kill someone with a gun.

Trevor whispered: “The things I do for you, Mikey,” into the cavernous silence. A half-beat later, police sirens began to blare.

Trevor thinks about it all the time -

Pulled over to the side of the road… the car’s not been off two seconds and Trevor is in Michael’s lap, pawing messily at his coat buttons, his scarf, his pants. Michael’s hands fly up to put some space between them. Trevor’s thrown back against the dash, but they’re still connected everywhere beneath the waist.

“You got two seconds to explain yourself, T.”

“You get a chubby from cop chases and I get one watching the face you make when you put a bullet in someone’s eye-socket, so why don’t we take care of each other’s little problem?”

“Why don’t you stop doing drugs before important jobs? You’re talking nonsense.”

“I’m sober as I’ve ever been, brother. I’m just trying to be a good friend and give you a hand here. Literally.”

Michael actually rolls his eyes “This vehicle’s still hot,” he says. “We gotta grab the money and run, T. C’mon and think -”

They’re still close enough for Trevor to start rubbing up on him, grinding as his breath comes out stuttered. “Running two miles in the snow is already hard enough for your stubby legs without a raging hard-on b-bouncing around between them. Let me take care of you, Sugar, pl-please, M, let me -” He sounds desperate because he is desperate. It was a long shot, what with Michael’s typical male insecurity and his sexual hang-ups and his daddy issues, but now that Trevor’s got a taste he feels like a shark with blood in the water. He doesn’t just want to suck Michael’s cock; he wants to suck out his blood, or his eyeballs, God, he loves him so much he wants to kiss his eyeballs, his eyelids, his finger-tips, the ground he just walked on. Anything. His hands dive for Michael’s pants zipper again, unbidden, like he can’t control himself.

Michael grabs both his wrists. Growls. “Look, if we’re gonna to do this, I’m gonna be in charge. We clear?”

Trevor’s eyes pull open as all the breath goes out him. He’s smiling so wide and sharp it’s making his face ache. The turnaround from gay panic to wannabe-dom was predictable, but much faster than he expected. “Y-yeah,” he gasps, clutching the front of Michael’s shirt. “Yeah, now we’re talking, Mikey. Now we are talking!”

“Jesus, you’re fucked in the head.”

“Michael, what I want is to get fucked in the ass.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, T. I’ve agreed to touch your dick, not take you to the senior dance.”

“Oh. Is that what kids get up to in wholesome middle America?”

Michael chuckles as he yanks Trevor’s fly open, a husky noise that travels through both their ribcages. “Yeah, it’s how god-fearing girls maintain their virginity in flyover country.”

“Well, if you buy me a pretty dress we can play out that cute little fantasy of yours some other time, now that we’ve got all this money…”

“Absolutely not.”

The snow’s piled up on the windows so high that it sucks the light from the cab. Trevor can’t stand it - the scent of Michael’s sweat, of gasoline and hamburgers, of gun-smoke and the lingering burnt fat stink from the dead security guard… it’s almost a perfect moment. He could die right here: twenty-one years old, with Michael Townley’s calloused, meaty hand wrapped around his dick.

“I love… God, I love watching you work, M. I love that… stupid face you make when you aim a pistol, with y-your tongue sticking out like you’re… like you’re puttin’ on mascara, or getting ready to lick a stamp. You look like a little cartoon piggy, I love it, I love yo -”

“If you want to finish getting jerked off here you better stop sayin’ stupid shit.”

Trevor buries his face in the crook of Michael’s neck and laughs like a jackal.

The actual perfect moment comes later, when they’ve run two miles in the snow, sans boners, and stop to catch their breath beneath an ancient douglas fir. It’s big enough that it blocks the storm from gathering on their shoulders. The moon has started to come out, turning the snow so bright around them that it makes Michael look like he’s glowing around the edges. Trevor drops his duffel bag and grabs Michael’s face instead. He pulls him close, bumps their foreheads together.

Michael keeps his composure this time. “Hey,” he grouses. “I thought we got this outta your system already…”

“N-no,” Trevor grips his cheeks tighter. So, so tight. He wants to grip him so tight it leaves bruises. That it leaves scars. “You’ve got some meat on your face…”

“What?”

He does - a flap of flesh from the man Trevor killed seared at the base of his chin, unnoticed this whole time. Trevor dips in to pull it off with his teeth, swallows it, then sucks at the place where it was attached. He feels the guttered breath as it travels down Michael’s throat. He presses his tongue down so he can feel Michael’s pulse pick up, so that he can taste the way his temper starts to broil.

Michael sets a hand at the dip of his sternum. Flat, stern. “Trevor,” he says low and dangerous. “Let go -”

Trevor slides his lips up along Michael’s jawline and kisses him. He savours the whole half-second it lasts before he’s checked brutally to the ground. He gets on his elbows in the snow and hikes himself up so that he doesn’t miss a moment of Mikey’s reaction.

Michael looks like a ghost in the pale light, like a holy goddamn ghost: bloodless and confused, his face pulled in two directions and stuck halfway between them. Revulsion, anger, a pinch of pity… that’s when Trevor knows. That’s when he knows for sure that Michael’s probably given more than few handies out to his old football buddies, probably begrudgingly sucked a cock or two in prison, but he’s never, ever, until this moment kissed a man. Trevor’s his first, his only, and even if he never gets to touch Michael again after this, he’ll always have that.

The silence between them quivers, then snaps. Michael starts laughing - high and nervous. Trevor doesn’t miss the way he runs his tongue along his upper lip - to catch the taste, to wipe away the memory. Michael takes an uncertain step forward in the snow, then he offers Trevor his hand. Trevor takes it, takes it as a promise. Michael’s not going anywhere, and neither is he. It’s a perfect moment, it’s so absolutely fucking perfe -

- there’s a perfect week in Sandy Shores after Michael chews Trevor out in front of his FIB masters. It begins over burnt steak and eggs at the Yellow Jack Inn with Patricia, for whom Janet has graciously lifted Trevor’s ban.

“You see,” Patricia says. “Even though… he is so cruel sometimes… I made a vow to him in the eyes of Heaven. It is why I must stand by him.” They way she speaks, like she’s afraid to do more than whisper… she wrings her hands together as she talks. They’re prematurely wrinkled from years and years and years of doing work with them even though her husband is so rich there’s no reason for her to have ever lifted a finger. Patricia Madrazo, the one soul Los Santos has failed to corrupt. Trevor reaches out and cups one of his long, scarred hands over hers.

“Believe it or not, Patricia, but I also know what it’s like to give the best years of your life to a vain, imperious man who treats the people who care about him most like a feather in his hat.”

“Ah,” she says, understanding immediately. “Mister De Santa…?”

“Mister De Santa can go fuck himself.” Trevor leans across the table so that he can speak softly to her above the sound of the jukebox. “My heart belongs to you now, my beautiful desert rose.”

Patricia pats his knuckles, a little condescendingly, like he’s a child. For some reason that makes Trevor’s heart go flip flop. Some emotion gets trapped in his throat; a complicated one. She clicks her tongue. “Surely he will come around.”

Michael comes around all right. Exactly one week after Trevor first kicked him out of the trailer at 9PM on the dot, he parks his fat ass in the doorway of the bedroom, one arm raised over his head and braced on the frame, the other resting enticingly on his hip. Michael stands all smooth and imposing and fake-disinterested like that for a while, obviously thinking himself entitled to Trevor’s complete and undivided attention at all times, but Trevor’s still pissed at him for lying about his death and getting them involved with the FIB and staying married to someone he obviously doesn’t love for twenty-three goddamn years, so he keeps scratching his balls and reading Ron’s (handwritten) monthly financial report.

Michael clears his throat. “So I get that this is all a ploy to get me to ask to sleep in your bed. Like you probably got this fantasy that I’m gonna come begging to you on hands and knees to let me in. I wanna be clear that this ain’t that.”

Trevor raises an eyebrow and regards Michael cooly over the top of his paperwork. “Doesn’t sound like I’m the one entertaining fantasies about you on your hands and knees, Sugar-tits.”

Michael groans in frustration. “Trevor -”

“C’mon, Michael, ask me nicely -”

“Look, I can’t stand another night sleepin’ in that fuckin’ garage. I’ll share your damn bed.”

Trevor takes a few long, protracted seconds to reply. He relishes the way Michael’s brow has begun to bead with sweat. He flips to the last page of Ron’s report, takes in the numbers at the bottom and then chucks the clipboard at Michael’s feet.

“Fuck off and stop flattering yourself, Cupcake. What makes you think I want you to share my bed? You’re lucky that I’m letting you violate the sanctity of my home even though you probably leave scales on everything you touch. When you’re, y’know, slithering out of your skin because -”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I’m a snake. Fuckin’ hell, find a new metaphor this one’s getting played out, T.”

“Okay how about this one: you’re a lying sack of shit, and sacks of shit go in the garage.” Trevor makes a big show of getting comfy and taking up the entire bed. He shuts his eyes, folds his arms behind his head and spreads his legs real wide. He can hear Michael sigh, hesitate, and sigh again.

“Fine, fine, I get the message,” he grumbles.

Trevor watches him go with one eye open.

Three hours later Michael is folding a porn mag in half and shoving it in his mouth. “Christ,” he hisses. “You’re always so fuckin’ loud. Do you want the entire trailer park to know what we’re doing in here?”

Yes, Trevor thinks as Michael’s hands close around his wrists. But he doesn’t protest, oh no, he does exactly what Michael wants because in the shadows of the cracked lamplight he can see the ghost of the man he fell in love with. Vain and imperious.

“So you two are fucking again, I see,” Lester says a few days later. “That will make a few things easier.” Michael actually chokes on his coffee and takes a quick look around the motel diner, like any of the meth-addled hillbillys around them give a flying fuck about his sex life. It’s cute. Mikey is so fucking cute, the way he thinks the whole goddamn world revolves around him. Trevor sets his chin in his hand and gazes at him. His entire world did used to revolve around him and Michael hadn’t even been thankful, the selfish fuck. Trevor kicks off one of his boots and runs the side of his foot up beneath Michael’s pant-leg, right where his toe is sticking out of a hole in his sock.

“Would you fuck off,” Michael hisses, kicking Trevor hard under the table.

Lester sighs. “Oh good. It really is just like old times.”

“Not quite,” Trevor slams his forefinger on the table. One of the legs is uneven and the coffee cups shake so violently that Michael gets splashed with a bit of his. “Not until we bust Brad out.”

Lester and Michael exchange a look that Trevor remembers all too well. The fuckers think they’re soooooo much smarter than him “What!?”

Michael picks up a napkin and starts trying to dab the coffee stain off his shirt. It’s not nearly absorbent enough. “Y’know, T, you didn’t even like Brad.”

None of us liked Brad,” Trevor replies. “That’s not the point. The point is that he’s suffered so that you could sit pretty, malingering away in a mansion on money he helped earn. I don’t give a FUCK who LIKED Brad - you gotta get good with him, Michael. It’s cosmic justice.”

Michael’s expression deteriorates as the napkin fails to do anything except spread the coffee all over his $1000 dress shirt. He makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and attempts to chuck the napkin across the diner in a flash of impotent rage. It flutters, weakly, to the center of the table and lands on top of Lester’s unfinished pancakes. Lester adjusts his glasses before delicately lifting the napkin with his thumb and forefinger and depositing it on the ground.

“Can we -” Lester starts. Michael cuts him off.

“Okay, Trevor. Whatever you say. Once we get square with the FIB, we can do anything you fuckin’ want.”

Trevor looks at him. “You mean that?”

Michael doesn’t break eye-contact. Which, really, means nothing. But, but, but, well - it certainly feels like it means something…

Trevor tags the waitress by slapping her ass as she passes them by. “Hey - Yvonne, grab us a round of beers! On me!”

“My name isn’t Yvonne,” she responds, testily.

“I didn’t drag myself out to this godforsaken blight on the state to have drinks with you,” Lester says lightly. “We have work to do.”

“Lighten up, Lester!” Trevor slaps the table with both hands. “We’ve got hours till Chef’s off his cook shift, and more than that until Frank gets here! It’s been a decade since we’ve been together like this! Let’s ENJOY ourselves!”

Lester shoots Michael another one of those looks - but when the beers come round it only takes a few sips before they’re laughing and talking shit together like the old days. Trevor should have know, he should have fucking known. Michael promises him the sun and the moon, that’s a surefire sign that the snake’s about to drive the knife in and twi -

- after Trevor gets the call from Cheng about Michael’s capture, he stumbles out of his plane, laughs all the way home and sticks his nose right into the ring of gasoline that he keeps on his front porch. He wakes up beneath a dark, starry sky - mostly naked, in a ditch with his fingers all pulped and bloody. The desert is cold at night and at first he thinks he’s back in Ludendorff, laying in Michael’s grave. His head spins; he’s still one-foot in his high and all his memories get mixed together, which happens sometimes. More and more every year. The order of his last decade gets kind of hazy and he thinks, wait: what did I find in the grave? He rolls over onto his hands and knees, presses his eyes shut and sees Michael’s corpse in the grave. Maybe Michael was never in Los Santos at all and it was all a hallucination - he dreamt three months in three hours. It wouldn’t be the first time

But it’s not right. If he’d gotten all the way to the bottom of Michael’s grave and found Michael there, then why is he in Sandy Shores huffing gasoline instead of laying at the bottom of a hole in Ludendorff, waiting for the snow to cover their bones?

He goes home. Gets dressed. Has a beer. He gets all the way to heating the knife and setting it against his skin - right where the ‘M’ begins on his tattoo - before he stops himself. He shouldn’t be the one to do it - Michael should be the one to fucking do it. Trevor stares out the tiny, broken window of his trailer and wonders if Michael is dead yet. The knife blisters a long, sharp burn into his skin and he doesn’t even notice except for the smell.

He’ll wait until he knows. When Michael’s dead, for real this time, then he’ll scour his name from his body. He’ll reach into his own fucking skull and scoop the memories right out of his brain.

2013/2014

Michael arrives at the same time as the sunset. Trevor’s in a dark haze of sobriety, chucking steak knives at the ceiling as he lays on his couch and chases the last of his high to no avail. He’s already halfway through cussing Wade out when he tears open the door of his trailer but the sight of Michael rips the fight from him. He pauses mid-sentence, hand braced on the door as he thrusts his pantless crotch forward in a pose that definitely would have made Wade immediately heel-to. Michael just looks him up and down and raises an unsurprised eyebrow.

They stare at each other for a few minutes: an impasse. Trevor might be in his underwear, but Michael’s stripped of dignity metaphorically, and he knows it. He’s wearing an off-white suit and carrying a bottle of fifty-year old Glenfakas. When he finally cracks a smile, it’s hesitant and sheepish. Good - he should be fucking sheepish. He hasn’t called or texted in literal weeks. Well, probably it’s been weeks, Trevor’s not sure what day it is. Michael begged off a drinks-date a week before Christmas for “family reasons”. Trevor spent most of his holidays high on various substances and partying with people whose names he could not remember and whose physical safety he could not guarantee.

“Weeeeeellllllll -” Trevor drawls, rolling his hips as he settles against the doorframe. “Well, well, well, well, we-hellllllll if it isn’t Michael De Salta… Sonto… Santa Claus whatever the fuck - come crawling back to wish me a Merry Christmas after all.”

“It’s New Year’s Eve, T.”

“I know what day it is,” Trevor snaps. “I’m a self-employed entrepreneur, Michael - I don’t observe federal holidays.”

“Uh huh,” Michael replies.

“What are you doing here?”

Michael doesn’t answer immediately. He’s fiddling, absently, with one of his cufflinks. “My kids are outta the house and Mandy’s havin’ her girlfriends over to drink wine and probably gossip about my sexual inadequacies. And I had this twenty-five hundred dollar bottle of Glenfakas just sittin’ around begging to be drunk -”

Trevor crosses his arms. “Are you trying to impress me with an ostentatious show of wealth, Michael?”

Michael looks at the bottle like the outrageousness of the price hadn’t even occurred to him. “What? Oh, no. I know you’d be just as happy suckin’ exhaust fumes outta an 18-wheeler. But I was gonna drink a bit of this on my own and then realized how pathetic that was so, hey, why not give Trevor a call?”

How pathetic… Trevor tightens his fingers around the edge of the doorframe. Michael’s giving him all the bones in the world. He always does this - well, he used to always do this. Trevor has an automatic defensive reaction to this sort of humility, this unusually humble prostration; when they were younger, it meant that Michael had gotten in a fight with Amanda, or he was trying to butter Trevor up for a job after they hadn’t seen each other in months. It meant that things would be good between them for a while before getting worse. It meant that Trevor should kick his fat ass all the way back to the city and slam the door behind him. He should, he should, he -

- he pulls his hands off the door-frame and takes a wide step back, making space for Michael to push inside, which he does, pushily. “Ah, yes, spending time with your best friend - the second best thing to drinking yourself to death in the alley behind your house! Always good to know that you hold me in such high regard.”

“T, are you gonna bitch all night, or are we gonna get wasted?” Michael gives him a frankly solicitous look as he shakes the scotch.

Trevor grins, despite himself. “Oh, we’re gonna get wasted. Let me grab my pipe and I’ll -” Michael cuts him off by grabbing his wrist. Trevor nearly slips on an unrolled - but mysteriously unused - condom as he’s yanked around so that Michael can glare at him eye-to-eye.

“Uh uh, no way. None of that tonight.”

“What?”

There’s something ugly in Michael’s gaze. In his voice too. The humility disappears entirely, expelled like a cloud of smoke. “No meth, no coke, no gasoline, not even a whiff of goddamn marijuana. I don’t wanna bury any bodies, you got me?”

Trevor curls his tongue, getting ready to protest, but his eyes are drawn to where Michael is gripping his wrist. Mikey is being so bossy and assertive without any prompting, which means that - after a bunch of laborious, puffed up whining and hemming and hawing - Trevor is probably going to get laid. He licks his lips and experimentally twists his arm inside Michael’s grasp. The fingers go tighter, hand steady but arm trembling with months of pent up aggression. Trevor’s heart leaps; if he plays his cards right, he’s not just gonna get laid. He’s gonna get railed so hard he won’t be able to see straight. Happy fucking New Year indeed.

Just be patient. All you have to do is wait.

The thing about seducing Michael Townley is that you have to make him think that it’s his idea. You just gotta make him think that everything is his idea. Michael’s got a lot of soft spots - both metaphorically and literally - but his vanity, that’s always been the most reliable money ticket. Trevor yanks his wrist from Michael’s grip and bares his teeth, sways in close, close enough that he can feel the swell of swallowed anger puff out of both Michael’s nostrils. It hits his cheeks.

“Playing secret agent made you a little big for your britches, M. What makes you think you can waltz into my humble abode and tell me what to do? Su casa is most definitely not mi casa.”

“I’m the moron who thought it might be nice to spend some time with you. I don’t see anyone else linin’ up to take you out for a good time tonight.”

“So good of you to deign to come down off that throne of yours, Townle - sorry, Mister De Santa. I’ll have you know that I actually had some work lined up for tonight, so if you’ll just get out of my way -”

Trevor heads toward the door, but Michael pulls him back by one shoulder and spins him towards his bedroom instead.

Pants, T.”

Trevor makes a big show of putting his clothes on, hissing and spitting the whole way. He pulls into a cute pair of neon-orange jogging shorts and his third most homoerotic tank-top, but Michael is unimpressed. He blocks the bedroom door. “Pants,” he says again, sounding like a fucking broken record. “And throw on a jacket - it might be the desert, but it’s still December.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Trevor replies. He can feel Michael’s full-body shudder reverberate in the air between them.

“Don’t even fucking joke...”

Trevor’s post-high melancholy is fading. That big ol’ hole in his heart is filling up with Michael’s undivided attention. Michael came to him for once, came onto his turf willingly - a New Year’s Eve in Sandy Shores. Oh, Trevor already has some great ideas how to butter up Mikey’s big, fat ego and show him a great time. The first step is that he puts on some pants. And a jacket, thank you Michael - but he still manages to get outside wearing a tank-top proudly emblazoned with the word ‘COCKS’. Sure, it took (unfairly) subtle calculations to get into Michael’s (slutty) pants, but a little subliminal messaging never hurt anyone.

The first place they go is around the corner to the Yellow Jack Inn. Janet’s young, dumb trophy husband is watching the bar and is too engaged in the act of slowly mixing a martini drop-by-drop to notice Michael and Trevor smuggle their scotch in a totally-not-conspicuous paper bag (with the label of Trevor’s company scrawled messily on the side, of course). They trade the bottle back and forth, taking generous shots while the other bar patrons scoot away, eyes on Trevor as he drops enough coins into the jukebox to keep it playing the same song over and over again for hours.

“Darts?” he asks.

“Fuckin’ A we’re gonna play darts!” Michael pumps a fist, the arrogant bastard.

Trevor lets him win. Well, he sort of lets him win - he tries very hard not to get mad about how easily Michael trashes him at least, even though M’s intent on being as obnoxious as possible. He’s got this smooth confidence about his aim and he plays the same damn trick every time: cautious, shaky shots until the last round, in which he stacks three bullseyes on top of each other.

“You gotta learn some self control, T.” Michael laughs, setting the scotch down on the windowsill.

“I’ll show you how much FUCKING SELF CONTROL I have!” Trevor replies, breaking a pool cue over his knee.

One of the other patrons must have called for Janet because she comes stomping down the stairs in her nightgown - with her hair all frizzled and half-crimped - already shouting Trevor’s name. Her husband has cleared out, and so has every other person in the bar.

“Trevor, I told you, if you’re gonna kill a guy or blow a guy, you can’t do it in he - oh, hello Mister De Santa.” Janet fluffs her hair at the sight of Michael’s handsome profile. Trevor rolls his eyes as Michael swaggers to the bar and sets his elbows down on the counter. He puffs right up under her attention, shooting her his charming, movie-star ga-ga eyes that crinkle up all the lines in his face Trevor still doesn’t recognize.

“Don’t mind my sore loser friend over there. I promise, we’ll behave.”

Janet ducks her face into her hand, giggling. “Well, be that as it may... you ain’t been paying. Even for a gentleman like you I can’t waive the one-drink per customer fee. Don’t think I don’t see how you’ve been imbibing on the sly.” She levels a finger at Trevor, who is holding the not-conspicuous paper bag of $2500 whiskey-scotch. He shrugs and takes a swig from it.

Trevor -” Janet admonishes, girlish cheer disappearing as fast as it came on. Michael catches her attention again with a wink. Trevor doesn’t miss it, the way he smoothly turns the motion into a full-body swivel. He rests his hip against the bar and flips out his wallet, flashing the thick wad of bills with a very intentional flick of the wrist. Trevor knows exactly what’s going through Michael’s head right now: Still got it. Janet’s eyes light with an entirely different kind of lust. She leans forward, her mouth practically watering. The kind of people who live in Sandy Shores go most their lives never seeing a Benjamin unless they’re involved in a drug deal.

“How much do I owe you for generously lendin’ us your fine establishment for one whole hour?”

Janet smooths down her fried hair. She licks her lips. “Honestly Mister De Santa, it’s no problem at all…”

“Oh, hey now - don’t be like that. I insist.”

She demures, he presses. It’s an old game and Michael’s just practicing it for sport right now, delighting in how quick he’s got this woman eating out of his hand when he otherwise wouldn’t spare her a second glance. Trevor leans against the pool table and bounces the scotch bottle on his thigh. He watches Michael - the lines of his body, the way the fractured, yellow light takes years off his face, the mole on his left cheek… ah, there it is: Michael makes a very deliberate motion when he slides Janet $300 across the bar counter that passes his wedding band beneath the light. Michael’s never been the kind of guy to take his ring off when he fucks around, but there’s a certain levity about his flirtation when he’s on good terms with Amanda, like he gets high off of knowing he’s (probably) not gonna act on it. Like he’s in on some big joke that the ladies aren’t. And it just pisses Trevor off -

Be. Patient.

- so fucking much -

You just have to wait.

“Michael, Mike, Mikey my friend -” Trevor strides the length of the pub and gets right in between them. “Janet here is a married woman.”

“Trevor -”

Trevor slams the scotch on the bar, aware that he’s letting his temper leak into his voice. “Yup - all shacked up with a twenty-year old boytoy she found on the internet which, frankly, makes her the perfect match for you, but I believe in giving a happy couple at least a year before you go offering temptations, and tonight, on the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Shameful!” He pronounces Jesus as Hay-suess, because sometimes it’s nice to be politically correct. “You didn’t come all the way out here just to cause trouble for this poor woman, did you?”

It puts a wrinkle in Michael’s performance. “Woah, look - I’m married too, I wasn’t tryin’ -”

Trevor leans his arm hard on the counter, gets as close to Janet as he can without tipping his torso all the way over the bar. “Just between you and me, Jan - can I call you Jan? Nevermind, not important. Anyway, you’re not missing out on much. His wife says that he hasn’t gotten it up without marital aides in years. Y’know how it is - whiskey dick. Cigar dick. Cholesterol di -”

“Ooooo-kay, that’s quite enough -” Michael hooks two fingers in the collar of Trevor’s denim jacket and spins him around. Gets big, warm hands on his back to push him out of the bar. “Sorry, Janet, we’ll just be going.” Trevor snaps his arm back to grab the scotch. How dare Michael almost forget the scotch on a night where he’s made Trevor promise to not get high?

Janet waves them off. “It’s fine, Mister De Santa,” she sighs. “I know what he’s like.”

“Oh, lady, you don’t even know the half of it…”

Trevor kicks as he’s shoved out of the bar and across the parking lot. Michael stops them at the edge of the road, where Trevor parked the truck half-over the curb.

“Why do you always have to go outta your way to embarrass me?” Michael runs a hand through the slick of his hair. He doesn’t sound pissed at all. Interesting. He digs a cigarette out of his front pocket and goes to light it. Trevor snatches it out of his mouth before the flame reaches it, tosses it over his shoulder.

“Uh-uh! None of that tonight!”

Michael sighs. “Can’t you act normal for five minutes, T? Five fuckin’ minutes while I pay the bar tab?”

Trevor cracks a grin and flicks the brim of his trucker-hat to show his eyes and his teeth. A sports car speeds by on the highway behind him, the xenon headlights highlighting the blue in Michael’s irises. “If I were normal, Mikey,” he asks pleasantly. “- would you be here right now?”

“No, I’d still be inside the bar.”

Trevor punches him lightly in the chest. “No, not right here right now! I’m talking COSMICALLY, brother!” Trevor spreads his arms wide and does a little twirl beneath the streetlamp. “Would you have been so successful a crook that you’d get to retire on a zillion fucking dollars without me by your side? Would you have had the balls to rob the US government of more money than most countries’ national GDP without me?”

“Do you really want to start tallying this shit up, T, ‘cause if we put it down to numbers I think you’ll find that you’ve been a hinderance as much as you’ve been a help.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch, but you always come back. Crawling back to Trevor. Nine long years pretending not to think about me and you still come crawling back. Admit it, you were so fucking bored without me!”

Michael smiles patronizingly, shakes his head. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”

“Oh, I’m not the one who has a hard time sleeping at night, Sugar. I sleep like a goddamn baby, not like you - always caught in a cycle of being happy, then miserable, then happy and miserable all over again at the same time. Wah, wah, waaah. Would you have ever reached any of the high points on that roller-coaster without me?” Trevor slings an arm around Michael’s shoulders. “Or would you be dead on a tarmac in Sikowinckewan twenty-five years ago?”

“Oh God, don’t remind me -” Michael puts a palm over his face.

“What, of how we met?”

“No, that I coulda died in Canada,” Michael laughs. He makes a grab for the scotch, but Trevor doesn’t let it all the way out of his grip. He helps Michael tip it back - fingers light, heart light. They’re standing beneath a cracked street-lamp, the parking lot so dark around them that it’s like nothing else exists in the entire world except the warmth of Michael’s meaty flank pressed up beneath the fold of Trevor’s coat and the motion of his throat as he swallows a mouthful of barrel-aged scotch like it’s fucking water. Their hands brush when he passes the bottle back. Trevor watches with wide eyes as Michael wipes the liquor off his lips with the back of his hand.

Patient. You just have to wait.

Michael elbows out of their half-embrace. He fakes a cough and readjusts the lapels of his suit jacket. Trevor rolls his eyes. Oh yeah, very heterosexual Michael, he thinks. Fondly. Too fondly. He should have scooped out the part of his brain that stored long term memories when he had the chance. Everything he hates about Michael is everything he loves about Michael is everything he fucking hates about Michael, is everything he loves -

“So you already ruined my night once,” Michael says. “What next?”

Trevor plasters on his best bland smile. He knocks Michael in the chest with the blunt length of the bottle. “Oh Mikey, Mikey, I ain’t one of your call girls. Who do you think I am!? I’ll take care of you - you’re gonna love this next one.”

Michael barks out a short laugh, puts out his palms. “We’re in fuckin’ Sandy Shores, T. What’s here that I could possibly love?”

*

“Yee HAW - now that is a shot!”

Cletus is actually biting down the ends of his ragged fingernails he’s so awed by Michael’s acuity with a rifle. Michael pops another tire on a car going 90 and they both cackle at it spins out then fishtails off the highway. Cletus slaps Michael on the back twice, wheezing.

“Trev, where did you find this guy?”

Trevor’s braced backwards against the abandoned motel’s balcony bannister so that he can watch Michael work, subtly, from beneath the brim of his cap. “This is Michael,” he says evenly.

Cletus’s eyes go even wider. He runs a hand through his stubble as he lets out a low whistle. “Michael Michael? Like -” he pats down his left arm in disbelief. “- that Michael?”

“ShhhhhHHH!”

“Well, hell Trevor, you ain’t ever told me he was alive - or what a good shot he was! He puts you to shame to be honest -”

Trevor’s fingers go tight around the circumference of the scotch, ripping into the paper bag. He decides to let that one go, because it’s Christmas and, well, Mikey is enjoying himself so damn much. It takes a lot to impress Cletus, even though he’s an uneducated redneck who lives in a trailer with a tarp roof.

Michael laughs and staggers back, drunk off his ass and ego thoroughly stroked. “You think that’s good? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet - hey, T -”

Trevor tries to pass him the bottle, but Michael pushes it away. He’s not just sloshed, he is significantly more sloshed than Trevor, who’s been sipping conservatively at the scotch, so preoccupied with watching Michael, with tracking his behaviour, looking for a reason to be suspicious, to get his guard all the way up. The better it goes, the stranger he feels. It’s so hard for Trevor to just let himself feel good unless he’s got amphetamines coursing through his veins.

“No, no - hand me a pistol.”

Trevor raises an eyebrow. “What makes you think I have a pistol?”

“Really. You left the house without a piece?”

“Uh, I’m not the one that treats my gun like it’s a second dick.”

“I do not -”

“What are you doing right now?” Trevor dips forward and clasps his free hand around Michael’s dominant hand, forcing it to make slick jerking motions up and down the length of Cletus’s rifle. “Shit, Mikey, this is the second time tonight you’ve been shamelessly macking on another man’s wife. You’re just insatiable.”

Michael gets an elbow up and twists out of Trevor’s personal space, recoils. “Jesus Christ, this’s what I get for asking a simple fuckin’ question. What do you have besides a gun?”

“I got a knife and if worse comes to worst, I can get creative with a bottle. Didn’t you say you didn’t want to bury any bodies?”

“Oh, since when did you need a gun to murder someone -”

Cletus shoulders into the space between them, hands up, reflexively playing peacekeeper. “Simmer down - I swear, y’all argue like my cousins Abigail an’ Bucephelus what are married to each other. I’ve got a pistol.”

Trevor takes a step back and balances the scotch on the bannister. “No need, Cletus. Aaaaaactually, I do have a pistol.”

Michael gapes at him for a moment. “Then what the fuck was all that?” he demands.

Trevor ignores him and addresses Cletus instead. “Now Cletus, the thing about my friend Michael here is that sometimes you need to make him work for it. He’s not an honest businessman like you or me. He’s been sitting on his ass getting fat and lazy for ten years -” He produces a pistol from one side of his coat, a full magazine from the other, and offers them to Michael with an unkind smile “- giving him a little runaround once in awhile is the only exercise he ever gets these days.”

Michael passes Cletus the rifle and snatches the pistol hard enough to slap Trevor’s hand out of the air. “Go shove it up your ass, T.”

“You’re welcome to try any time, M.”

“Uhhh, okay,” says Cletus.

Michael slams the magazine into the pistol and wheels it towards the road in an obvious move to refocus attention on himself. It works. Trevor takes a drink. He lets Michael do his thing. Every minute M spends in Sandy Shores it’s like he crawls an inch out his metaphorical grave; it’s worth being patient for.

“How long d’you think it is to the intersection,” Michael asks, leveling the pistol. Cletus leans over the bannister and shades his eyes from the billboard lights with one hand.

“Uhh, 250, 260 yards?”

“Right. And what’s the common wisdom for how far you gotta be to stop makin’ accurate shots?”

“About 200, right, if yer real good?”

Michael cocks a grin, uncocks the safety. “Just wait.”

They wait. Beneath the flinty light of a faded YETI billboard and the big, big Alamo Sea moon, Michael is as pale and chiseled as a statue. He’s kind of beautiful like this, in a way other people wouldn’t appreciate, Trevor thinks. He’s always loved the way Michael looks when he’s lining up a complex shot: completely unconcerned with his appearance and demeanor for once, but so confident that it bleeds off him in waves. Coiled violence in his arms and eyes. A car blinks into the intersection and Michael’s left eye goes narrow. In the half-second before he shoots his tongue slips out from between his lips.

Cletus is watching the tire go spinning out, whooping as the station wagon swerves over the yellow line. Trevor is watching a familiar glint light up Michael’s eyes, the way he looks when he’s exactly where he belongs. The city is killing him. The further he gets from, it’s like he starts to bleed colour again.

“Damn! Now I ain’t seen a shot like that since my grand-mummy passed in ‘01.”

Michael swings around, laughing. He grabs the bottle from Trevor and takes a long, uneven drink that sends him swaying on his feet and dribbling expensive liquor down his chin.

“Y’know, I got a free-range meat racket goin’ down in Paleto Bay," Cletus begins, hopeful. "Maybe y’all can help me out from time to time…”

“Not a chance in hell,” Michael responds smoothly, downing another mouthful of scotch.

“Eh,” Cletus shrugs in defeat. “It was worth a try. Hey - y’all wanna split some a’ that booze with a starving business man? I’ve gotta go pick up my girl in half an hour an’ I could use a lil’ liquid courage.”

Michael passes him the scotch. Cletus wipes the mouth of the bottle off on his deer-skin vest and takes a generous, but polite, swig off the top. While he’s doing that, Trevor slides his hand into Michael’s back pocket -

“Woah, hey, what are you -”

- and fishes out his wallet. He shuffles out a couple of hundreds and tosses them Cletus’s way. “Here, show your girl a nice night, on me.”

“On you?” Michael repeats incredulously. He tries to grab his wallet, but Trevor switches hands and holds it above his head. Cletus leaps to catch the bills before they hit the glass-strewn balcony floor.

“Trevor, yer technically my employee. I can’t rightly take yer friend’s money -”

“Don’t worry about it, Cletus. We’re rolling in it. We robbed the Union Depository.”

Cletus’s eyes go wide. Real wide. “What!?”

Michael’s eyes go wide too. “Trevor!” he snaps.

“What? We did!”

Michael shoves him. “Don’t go fuckin’ spreading it around. What’s wrong with you?”

“Sam hell, that was you?”

Trevor shoves back. “Well what’s the point of DOING IT if we can’t BRAG ABOUT IT, Michael!”

“The point is… the fuckin’ point is not going to jail for the rest of our lives!”

Trevor fakes a laugh and pats the rotting bannister behind him. “This is the Alamo Sea. The folks ‘round here are good, salt-of-the-earth people who hate the government even more than you and I.”

“That is true.” Cletus puts his right hand over his heart like he’s swearing an oath in court. “I can affirm that I have shot each an’ every officer and tax agent what’s come to my door in the last ten years right between the eyes.”

“See, the people out here haven’t forgotten the great principles that this country was founded on. There’s not one of them that would ever dream of selling us out.”

Michael chews his lip. “Okay, okay…” He runs a hand through his hair. “Okay… we -” and he says it very quietly. “- we robbed the Union Depository.”

“No fuckin’ way,” breathes Cletus.

Michael points to himself, speaks a bit louder. “I robbed the Union Depository.”

Trevor nods, approvingly. “Uh huh.”

“My friend Trev here?” Michael sways on his feet and jabs Trevor between the ribs. “He robbed the Union Depository.”

“Yes siree, just like we always talked about when we were kids, Mikey.”

Michael claps his hands, shouts: “We! Robbed the fuckin’ Union Depository!”

“Made off with two hundred million in powdered and pressed government booty!” Trevor crows, knocking his shoulder against Michael’s “- and now we’re redistributing it to the hungry populace by throwing it away on the three B’s!” Trevor points to Michael, who laughs and finishes for him, just like when they were kids:

“Booze, blow an’ bordellos!”

“Yeah, well, if that’s the case I’m gonna need you to hand another coupla hundred over. Guarantee my, uh, silence.” Cletus winks.

In another world, another mood, this might have set Trevor off. Might have broken the patience he’s always had for Cletus, patience born of the mutual respect two American Entrepreneurs are required to show each other. But his night’s going brilliantly so he decides to be nice and take Cletus’s jest in good faith. “Take it all, my fine hillbilly friend!” He pops open Michael’s wallet and makes it rain. Michael paws at him in a weak show of protest, but it’s perfunctory.

Cletus collects the bills. As he rises, his expression turns a bit nervous, a bit awkward as he looks between them. He’s noticed what Michael hasn’t - that they’re starting to get kind of handsy with each other. Michael is so flushed drunk and high on Cletus’s praise that he’s finally getting outside his head. He lets the palm of his hand linger on Trevor’s stomach for a whole half minute. Cletus clears his throat.

“So uh… this has been great, really great. But I’ve gotta get goin’. Like I said - I got a New Year’s date an’ thanks to y’all we don’t gotta spend it drinkin’ moonshine by the reservoir. I’m gonna take my girl out to a real restaurant. We’re goin’ to Cluckin’ Bell!”

“Have a good night,” Trevor calls after him, sweetly. He takes a step closer to Michael the moment Cletus turns around, forcing Michael’s careless hand to slide up his chest. Suddenly, panic sparks in Michael’s eyes.

“W-wait -” he reaches an arm towards the stairwell, but Cletus is already gone. His whole body has gone tense. Trevor frowns; Michael’s rubbing the hand he’d let linger on his stomach like it’s been wounded, staring off into the distance like he’s trying to make a decision. Back into his head.

He comes back, picks up the scotch and takes a drink. He and Trevor lean against the bannister, side by side, passing the bottle back and forth as they look at the stars shining down on them. They’re bright as pinpricks poked in the roof of a tent, like bullet holes in the side of a barn.

Michael sighs. It sounds pretty content. “Damn, I still can’t believe it -”

Trevor mimes a toast even though only one of them is holding a bottle. “The Big One, Mikey. Ain’t no one in the entire world who’s done what we did.”

“What’s next?”

Trevor’s heart skips a beat. “I… seriously, M, you wanna do another score?”

Michael snorts and elbows him in the side. “No, I mean next on the schedule for tonight.”

Trevor crowds Michael against the bannister, one hand on either side of his torso to trap him there. “Well, well, Cowboy, I don’t know. We’ve still got half a bottle of scotch and this entire abandoned motel all to ourselves. We could get up to all kinds of things.”

Michael checks his fucking watch, getting his arm and the bottle up between them. He’s leaning so far back Trevor’s surprised his fat ass isn’t cracking the damn bannister in half and sending them hurtling face-first into the pavement.

“C’mon, T. It’s not even 10PM. Don’t you have any more crazy redneck friends we can hang out with?”

The thing about seducing Michael Townley is that you have to make him think that it’s his idea. Trevor swallows his impatience, swallows the hurt that even minor rejection always drums up in him. He eases back, giving Michael some breathing room.

“Well,” he says. “Like I said earlier - before you so rudely interrupted my come-down - I was planning on doing some work tonight...”

*

The bail jumper loses his shit the moment his cute little livestream is interrupted. Trevor’s used to this by now, can practically predict the exact angle at which their eyes pull wide at the sight of him. He sighs and lazily goes for his stun gun. Michael, though. He -

Michael does a full on running quarterback check straight off the edge of the cliff. Trevor panics for a moment, quietly. His eyes unfocus and the birds-eye view of Blaine County goes blurry and bright. The bail jumper’s cameraman panics loudly, yanking his hair in six directions as he shouts “Dude! Dude! DUDE!!!!” Trevor takes a few unsteady steps towards the edge, only to see Michael alive and comfortable on an outcropping four-feet down, pressing the brunt of his forearm to the bail-jumper’s neck against the backdrop of a two thousand foot plummet.

“Give up yet?” Michael asks, cracking his neck.

“Y-yes, please, get off me you maniac!”

Trevor pops his head over the rise. “That was a liiiiitle unnecessary.”

“T, you saw ‘em - he was gonna pop his parachute!”

“Yeah. I carry a stun gun in case of this exact circumstance.”

“Well, hell, how was I supposed’ta know that?”

Trevor chucks the stun gun at Michael’s head: “you have to learn some self control, M!”

Michael yanks the bail jumper to his feet and shoots Trevor the middle finger. The guy - who’s name is Glenn, because of course it fucking is - follows them obediently, all the way into the skycar, all the way down the mountain. The guy claims to have been some bigshot exec for Schlongberg & Sacs, laid low by a financial crisis of his own making. Michael jostles the guy in his seat when he hears the story.

“See, I hate guys like this - dot.com banker millionaire fucks who make all their own goddamn problems then have the audacity to whine about it!”

“H-hey man, watch it - these windows don’t got glass and we’re still a thousand feet up!”

“What’s wrooong?” Michael pokes him. “I thought you were a thrill-seeker.”

“Don’t provoke my friend here,” Trevor says calmly, watching the whole drama from the opposite booth with a big ol’ smile on his face. “He’s a real psycho.”

“Go fuck yourself T. You’re enjoyin’ this as much as I am.”

“I’m enjoying the cut of the bounty I’m going to get if you can manage to avoid killing him before we get to Maude’s place.”

“You know what pisses me off the most about you?” Michael starts again, shoving Glenn hard. “Is that you act like what you do is so legal. If you’re gonna be a bank robber, then just be a fuckin’ bank robber! You don’t need no fancy college education to do it either.”

“Uh,” says Glenn.

“Ignore my drunk friend,” Trevor says. “He’s totally unhinged, y’know. Just… completely crazy. You never know what he’ll say or do.”

“Oh fuck off T!”

Trevor folds his hands behind his head and hums. Plays innocent. He’s enjoying Michael playing ‘bad cop’ for once. He’s enjoying Michael acting like his fucking self for once.

When they drop the jumper off with Maude she looks Michael up and down like he’s a piece of meat. He’s got his suit jacket off and his shirt sleeves rolled up, sweating visibly in the unusual December heat as he slams the door of her trailer shut with Glenn inside it. Trevor watches the way her placid facial expression does not shift even a centimetre except for a crack between her lips, where she runs her tongue over her teeth.

“So this is Michael Townley. Well, hello.”

Michael does a stage bow. That makes Trevor’s head start to boil for some reason. Yeah, yeah, he gets it: Michael is sooooo fucking hot despite himself and his stupid personality. Trevor knows - he’s been a slave to this man’s dick for twenty-five goddamn years. Twenty-six years as soon as it hits midnight. He hops up to sit on Maude’s desk.

“Wooohoooaoaa - calm down, Maude. He’s taken.”

Maude fixes her big, glassy cow eyes on Trevor. “Oh, I know Trevor,” she says calmly. “I wouldn’t ever presume to intrude on your territory.”

“I meeeaaaaaant,” and Trevor reaches over to gingerly snap her laptop shut. “That he’s married. But, you know, I’m free tonight and oh so lonely. I don’t have a date for New Year’s and, from the looks of it, neither do you.” He puts his elbow down and leans in close. He would describe his and Maude’s relationship as friendly and potentially maternal and pleasantly distant, but she’s got nice big thighs and tits, and the idea of fucking someone Michael probably finds physically repulsive just to make him jealous is suddenly starting to look incredibly attractive. His and Maude’s friendship would survive, and she probably needs a good dicking anyway. An elegant solution.

Maude stares at him like she doesn’t get the implication he’s communicating. He opens his mouth to make it more explicit, but he’s cut off when Michael’s fingers curl into the scruff of his collar and pull him back. A little too hard; Trevor is yanked off the table like baby’s hand pulling away from a hot stove. Michael pulls him back hard, and then gets between him and Maude: shoulders squared, chin cocked at a high angle, back so straight he’s almost meeting the height of Trevor’s natural slouch. It’s a little possessive, like Michael used to get when he caught Trevor chatting up men.

“Sorry,” Michael says, for the second time that night. “You know what’s he’s like -”

Maude smiles. Barely. “Don’t you worry your head about it. Trevor and I are bosom friends. I know he flirts and doesn’t mean anything by it. ‘Sides… he ain’t my type.”

Trevor grabs both Michael’s shoulders and shoots Maude a big, sincere smile over the top of them.

“Byeeeeee Maude,” he sing-songs. “Merry Christmas.”

She winks at him.

He drives the Bodhi - with Michael in it - out to a secluded outcropping over Paleto Bay to watch the fireworks. They settle in the flatbed, laying side by side on Trevor’s least blood-stained picnic blanket. The wheels of the truck buck in the sand when Michael shifts his weight to sit up. Trevor can’t help but stare appraisingly at the width of his shoulders, and his profile in the moonlight. They’ve shared so many of their best moments like this: in a back of a truck, out in the middle of nowhere. In a way, this is their overdue celebration for The Big One. Michael plants his palms on the flatbed floor and leans back, sighing happily.

“This… y’know what, T? This has been… this’s the best damn New Year’s I’ve had in -” he stops himself abruptly, like he was about to confess something. Which he was.

“Nine years,” Trevor deadpans. “Is that what you were going to say, Michael?”

Michael glances at Trevor over his shoulder. “I -”

Trevor shakes the nearly-empty bottle of scotch beneath Michael’s nose. “Not to belabour the fucking point, Mikey, but every New Year’s could have been like this if you hadn’t fucked me over.”

“Trevor…”

“Every day, even!” Trevor downs the rest of the scotch. It’s a bit more than he anticipated and he nearly chokes on it, coughing a third of it up over his chin, down his neck. It’s really fucking strong. He recovers, and slams the bottle down. “Every. Day. Michael. You’ve only got yourself to blame for how much you fucking hate your life.”

“Fuck off, T,” Michael says.

Make me.”

Michael does. Not with a shove, or a push, or a vise-tight grip on his wrist. He kisses him - sweetly, too. No teeth, just a deep breath and both hands closed around Trevor’s arms. Trevor sucks in, twines his fingers in the fabric of Michael’s dress shirt as Michael licks into his mouth like he’s making out with the $2500 bottle of Scotch. Like he’s kissing something he values. Not laid, Trevor thinks eagerly. I’m gonna get loved tonight. The kiss goes from cute to heated in about three seconds flat. Michael pushes him down and they claw at each other’s clothes, drunk and clueless. Trevor drinks it in like a high. It sends him spinning, spiralling. It makes him feel real.

He rolls them over and traps Michael between his thighs, snapping his belt off in a single motion. “Yee haw!” he slurs. “I’m gonna ride me this cowboy!” He slaps Michael’s stomach enthusiastically, then sets a palm to it so he can feel the fat ripple against his skin, feel the thick sinew of muscle tighten beneath it. He breathes in. Goddamn. Michael is so goddamn beautiful -

“W-wait,” Michael tries to get his hands up between them, but Trevor is relentless like blood in the water. “Fuckin’ wait,” Michael says into his mouth. “I… I don’t got a condom -”

“Oh my GOD! Shut the FUCK UP! Since when do you need a condom to fuck me? You instigated, so stop your bitching -”

“Trevor, calm the fuck down. We’re havin’ a nice night. Don’t ruin -”

Trevor shoves him down hard by his shoulders. He can feel it singing in the silence around them, the thin thread of patience he’s cultivated all night, all for Mikey’s sake. All it takes is the twist in Michael’s lip - the twist of genuine disgust - to make it snap. “You know, the reason you had such a good FUCKING New Years is because I worked my ass off making sure every minute of this goddamn night was tailored specifically to make you feel good about yourself! So now we’re done taking care of you, Sugar - it’s time to give Trevor a little sugar -”

“God - fuckin’ - Christ T, no means fucking NO!” Michael shoots an arm up and accidentally nails Trevor in the nose. Trevor reels back, all the way back. He goes stumbling off the edge of the truck, spinning around with a hand over his eyes to hide the gathering tears. His nose starts to bleed. The drops stain the white sand like it’s snow.

“Oh, shit,” Michael slithers forward like the fucking snake he is. “T, are you -”

“ArrrrrGGGHHHHHH!” Trevor spits out a mouthful of phlegm, blood and tears. “Fuck you, fuck you, FUCK YOU! ‘Oh, Trevor, don’t forget: we’re not TOGETHER together!’. But then you want to make out in the back of my truck like horny teenagers, but only if we talk about fucking in some obscure code fffFFFUCK! What the FUCK do you WANT!?”

“I just… I just wanted to spend some time with you,” Michael says weakly.

Trevor growls. “Oh yeah, hang out and do normal guy stuff like giving your buddy the ol’ no eye-contact-or-correspondence-for-months-afterward reach around! I was never clear whether you learned that one in prison or in the locker-room. Just like you to spend twenty-five years jerking me around because someone made you their bitch for a week. You and your precious fucking masculinity!”

“Trevor…”

“Don’t you say my name like that, you closeted fuckface!”

Michael jumps down to join him on the beach. He starts pacing, dashing the stain of Trevor’s blood out completely, burying it in the sand like it never happened. “God, sue me for being concerned! It’s just like with my fuckin’ wife. You always want to have the same argument over an’ over again -”

“Oh yeah, yeeeaaah, now he’s starting to get it! Your old psych would have had a field day with that little Freudian slip! How else am I just like your wife, Mikey? Tell me. Go on and TELL ME!”

Michael stops, runs both hands down his face. “Shit, T. Why can’t this just be easy. Why can’t it just be -”

“Nothing?” Trevor finishes for him. “Why can’t it just be nothing when we fuck? Does this look like fucking NOTHING!?” He tears his jacket off and thrusts his shoulder at Michael, shoves the tattoo right in his face. Fuck, he’s so fucking sober. He’s so sober that he can hear his own thoughts rattling around his head, like his brain’s not taking up enough space. He can’t stop himself from wincing at the way Michael recoils at the sight of his own name. “Right, you don’t like looking at it.”

“T…”

“FUCKING LOOK AT IT, MICHAEL!”

Michael meets his eyes instead. He’s bleary, almost too drunk to be sharp, but he holds Trevor’s gaze steady, saying nothing. Trevor can’t stand it, the way Michael’s expression has dipped into something resembling empathy. Yeah, sure, he can feel bad when he’s so drunk he can barely stand, but it won’t last; in the morning, Michael’s veil of denial will clap down and he’ll make himself forget this ever happening. Trevor kicks up his right leg and tears the knife from his boot cuff.

“If you hate it SO FUCKING MUCH!” Trevor snarls, thrusting the knife at Michael. “Why don’t you do something ABOUT IT!”

Michael’s breathing even. He’s so calm. Too fucking calm. He shakes his head. He looks so fucking sad for Trevor that… that’s just the last fucking straw. Trevor grabs Michael’s wrist and forces him to close his right hand around the hilt of the blade.

“You fucking yellow-belly, putrid, soft-dick coward -”

“Trevor -”

“I told you not to FUCKING SAY MY NAME LIKE THAT.”

Michael bites down on his lower lip. His eyes go wide, just a bit, and he lets Trevor guide his arm so that the sharp edge of the blade is pressed right up against his skin, right at the place where the juncture of the tattoo’s cross begins. Holds it tight enough that Trevor can actually feel it pinch. “Do it,” he hisses, pressing down on the knob of cartilage in Michael’s wrist to mime the motion of shearing the skin off. “Fucking do it you fat fucking lying sack of absolute invertebrate shit.”

Trevor lets his hand fall to his side. Michael holds the knife still, not breaking eye-contact. They stay like that for a long time. Trevor can’t keep track of how long, he’s not counting the seconds, he’s counting the shallow breathes that Michael’s taking. He’s watching the way that Michael doesn’t move an inch, the way he doesn’t lower the knife. He can hear his pulse pounding in his ears, the same sound the waves make as they crash on the shore.

Midnight hits. Above them, fireworks crack to life and split the sky in half. Michael starts and his arm slips; he makes a cut - a deep one, deep enough that the blood it draws from Trevor’s flesh is black in the fractured light. Trevor doesn’t flinch, even as Michael instinctively presses his palm to the wound to stop the bleeding, dropping the knife in his haste.

“Shit, shit,” he hisses under his breath, eyes wild and panicked. He’s gone again, lost to Trevor beneath his shell of useless, impotent civility. His hand is warm and caring and exactly the last thing Trevor wants to feel. He watches his blood leak between Michael’s thick, square fingers, watches Michael's skin change colour beneath the incandescent sky - long enough that it starts to piss him off. He grabs Michael’s wrist and twists. Michael doesn’t fight back, not even as Trevor turns his arm so that his hand is grazing his own face. Trevor presses Michael’s fingers into his mouth, makes him suck down the blood. When his mouth is bright and dark with it, Trevor kisses him - hard and deep enough that they can both taste metal in the back of their throats.

“Happy. Fuckin. New Year,” Trevor whispers as they part. Michael’s hand leaves an imprint of blood on his cheek.

200?/1989

You always remember your first kiss. Trevor’s had a few first kisses, but his favourite was in Doguakop. That’s not why he ends up back there in the long years immediately after Ludendorff, however.

He ends up back there because Doguakop is the hinge that connects the midwest with the old west - located right at the furthest corner of the four corners: a grimy, decaying little city that’s as grey as it is brown. The downtown is stacked with casinos, but its suburbs have all turned to slums: dirty one floor bungalows with bars in the windows and trashed, yellowing yards. When Trevor rolls into town he takes in one whiff of the muddy, gas-choked air and feels at home. Doguakop is a good place to go when you want to earn and lose money. It’s an even better place to go when you want to get high, get fucked and avoid running into any police with inconvenient questions about the death of two-hundred and thirty-eight cultists.

Trevor finds the most stereotypical looking gay hooker in town and pins him to the damp alley wall with one hand. Against the backdrop of a flickering Lucky 7 sign, Trevor casts a shadow so dark the hooker sinks into the concrete like spilt ink. “I’m looking for my three friends:" he says. "Tina, Molly, and both-ways anal sex with anonymous strangers who don’t love themselves enough to wear a condom.”

The boy gets a little flustered, a little scared. Trevor would describe himself as having a distinct and natural animal magnetism that, for some reason, has always worked better on men than women. Not that it didn’t work on women, but women required some charm and consideration and didn’t dissolve into half-erect, half-terrified putty in his hands after about six seconds of eye contact.

“F-first two, you’ll have to find a dealer. I don’t sling. The last - I can hook you up, but -” the kid picks at his mesh shirt and gives Trevor’s outfit - flannel, cargo pants and a pair of two dollar sunglasses to hide the bags under his eyes - a disapproving once-over. “- you’re not gonna get in looking like that.”

Trevor pinches his cheek “Don’t you worry your pretty head about that. I’ll find something to wear to the ball. In the meantime,” he digs a crumpled fifty out of his pocket and shoves it in the belt of the hooker’s pants. “- since we’re already here, you might as well suck my dick.”

The last time he was in Doguakop it was with -

- $50,000 making his backpack and pockets fat. Feet crunching on the early-March ice, the street glimmering slick like a river of stars as he and Mikey observed their new Kingdom.

“No gambling,” Trevor says, puffing warm breath into his bare hands.

“No gamblin’,” Michael affirms. “We’re gonna waste this money like honest men: hookers, hooch an’ hooter!”

“Blow, booze and bordellos!”

Michael laughs and reels around. “Whiskey, whores and woolas!” he shouts, earning a cautious look from a middle-aged woman as she passes them by. She speeds up, tucking her purse close to her hip. Her heels click against the sidewalk, erratic, as the fear wells up inside her. Trevor watches her go and admires her long, pink fingernails.

Michael trips over the curb, but manages to keep his footing. He staggers forward, slinging his bag of money over one shoulder, still laughing. It’s intoxicating, standing right out in the open like this with the evidence of their crime hanging off their backs. Trevor’s heart has been pounding like a drum since they dumped their getaway in a lake three miles out from the city limits. He’s never felt this good while sober, like there’s nothing standing in his way, like there’s nothing gnawing at the hollow of his chest. He feels so good that when Michael comes close, he reaches out and sets his hand on his cheek. Michael blinks, but doesn’t pull away. Doesn’t say a goddamn thing. So Trevor takes a deep breath runs the pad of his thumb over the rise of Mikey's mole.

The moment is broken when a car speeds by, a foot too close to the sidewalk, and drenches them in a wave of swampy slush. They stand like that for a moment, silent and still together as the bar across the street swings its doors open, pouring drunk college kids out onto the pavement. Then, they start laughing.

“Blow?” Michael asks.

“Blow,” Trevor agrees. “Let’s fucking go.”

Turns out the local crank dealer has a cute girlfriend who lingers in his shadow, shivering in her floral-print sundress with her white fingers all clutched up in the fabric of his leather jacket. Her legs are long, knobby and marred with bruises and meth mites; she’s so dehydrated her skin looks like the texture of raw drumsticks. Trevor starts nodding, eyeing the way the skirt swishes around her thighs covetously.

When the transaction’s done and he’s got the drugs stuffed all safe and cozy in his back pocket, Trevor slides a hand up the dealer’s chest and squeezes his shoulder. “If your girlfriend there gives me her sundress,” he whispers. “I’ll go down on both of you.”

The dealer doesn’t respond immediately, but the way he’s meeting Trevor’s gaze means that he fucking heard the request. The dealer is young, trying to look at least five years older with his pathetic chin-strap facial hair and close-cropped buzzcut. His cheeks are ruddy - red even on a summer night - and his top lip pinches at the center, showing off his stained buck teeth. He reminds Trevor a bit of Brad: blonde and clueless. It reminds Trevor of how the stupid kid looked laying flat and fat in the snow, surrounded by his own blood. Trevor’s grip on the dealer’s shoulder tightens.

“Wh-what?” the dealer stutters.

“I just spent the rest of my money on your product, but I want the dress. I’ll suck your dick for it, then go down on her if she wants.”

The dealer’s face goes through a very swift metamorphosis, like a slot machine spinning through all the emotional responses someone can have when they’re offered a perfectly nice free blowjob. He hits jackpot on the wrong one: anger. The kind of anger that thickens the morning air all around them and makes his silent girlfriend wince. She falls back against the wall while her boyfriend puffs out his chest and shoves Trevor into a dumpster.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!?”

Trevor drags back to his feet and grabs the dealer’s arm. “It’s called tit for tat, my friend -”

“Don’t touch me, faggot!”

And that was -

- just the absolute wrong thing to say. Trevor’s still thinking about Brad’s limp body laying in the snow, his breath coming in pants. Michael clutching his chest, blood running rivers between his square fingers. Trevor’s ears are still ringing from the van spinning out, the snowstorm rises like blood in his ears -

- he slams the dealer’s head into the brick so hard that both their ears are ringing. Blood bubbles up from the kid’s mouth, drips onto the ground beneath them. The concrete is stained with the impressions of ticket stubs, cigarette packs and condom wrappers so thick it’s like a decoupage.

“Wanna repeat that word, you ignorant SHIT!? Wanna say it real loud and clear!?”

The dealer is whimpering. “I-I’m s-sorry. Cindy… Cindy… give him th-the f-fucking dress!”

Cindy’s eyes are misty, yellow at the edges. Tears stream down her cheeks as she unzips the bust of her dress with shaking hands. Trevor spins the dealer around and traps him against the edge of the dumpster. “Get your dick out,” he hisses.

“I… w-we’re giving you the dress, you freak! I - I don’t want -”

Trevor slams his head against the wall again. When he speaks, his voice is very calm and clear and extremely exegetic. “I offered a fair transaction and I do NOT! Renege on my DEALS! This country was BUILT on the principle of laissez faire free trade. Do you want to PERVERT that beautiful process?”

The dealer mumbles something under his breath. Trevor wraps a hand around his neck.

“I can’t hear you! You’re gonna have to speak a little louder, sweetheart. I asked you: Do. You. Want to PERVERT the spirit of capitalism right here and now just because you’re scared of getting a man’s mouth on your cock!?”

There’s a smell rising off the guy like he’s actually gone and pissed himself. “I - I can give you th-the money back, man. J-just let us go -”

“I don’t want my fucking money back - I want you to TAKE OUT YOUR DICK!”

“I -”

“It’s not!” Trevor jerks the kid forward by the front of his shirt. “About the FUCKING MONEY!”

The kid’s eyes are jittering. He doesn’t understand it; he’s a selfish shit, chasing highs and cash like a headless chicken, probably dreaming about living in a big fancy mansion with a pool and six-hundred channels and a maid he fucks when his wife’s out doing her spin class. It makes Trevor so pissed he can’t breathe. It’s not about the money. It’s never about the money. It’s about - it’s about -

“- what we can do together!” Michael says, all breathy and star-eyed. “Damn, T, I mean I’ve run with a crew before, but we’re just two guys and we… shit, the whole damn safe! And the way you charged that cop - fuck, T, I thought you were done for but you just - BAM!”

Michael’s rambling, babbling, pupils blown-out so wide his eyes look black. He always gets more fucked up on cocaine than Trevor does, even though he does it more, which tells it’s own story: about the people they are, about the people they were before they met.

“I mean… Christ, I thought I was wild. You know, when I was seventeen I knocked down another team’s coach so hard he was in a coma for twenty-eight hours, but I - I mean, I hesitated in that bank, man. And you -”

“Yeah, yeah. I took care of you, M. Don’t worry about it.”

“It ain’t… it ain’t a bad thing. Shit, it’s a good thing. I mean, you’re completely, totally fuckin’ insane. And that’s why… that’s why you just get me, T.”

“Just two fucking insane rednecks, cleaning out the state coffers for all they’re worth!”

“Yeah, me n’ you - peas in a fuckin’ pod, that’s what we are.”

Trevor snorts, laughs under his breath. He can’t help himself, Mikey says such lame, hokey shit when he’s high - he’s so fucking cute.

They’re completely blasted, laying wide eyed and side-by-side on their expensive hotel room’s bed, which they’ve yet to do anything in but eat take-out and do way too many lines of coke. There’s a mirror above and Trevor’s watching Michael watch himself pontificate. He’s glad Michael’s so distracted because he hasn’t said a goddamn thing yet about the fact that Trevor is holding his hand. In fact, he is - probably unconsciously - engaging in some rather vigorous coked-out hand holding right back.

Trevor takes advantage of it and grinds their palms together so that he can map the layout of Michael’s life-line. He runs his thumb over the faint smattering of scars on his knuckles and tries to match them to stories Michael’s has told him about his youth. He’s lost in his own useless fantasy, wondering what it would have been like if they’d met earlier, early enough to save each other from their respective sad childhoods. It suddenly seems so impossible that they grew up only two hundred miles apart and somehow didn’t meet until life had already thoroughly fucked them both in the ass.

“I mean… if we can find a coupla more guys who do what we do… if we hunker down an’ get organized… T, we could… we could really make a fuckin’ go at making a life of this. Like… like -”

Trevor twists his free hand in the bed’s deluxe duvet and rolls. He pins Michael between his thighs and traps them beneath the comforter’s warmth. Michael’s eyes go wide and Trevor just listens to his erratic breathing for a few moments before bumping their noses together. He whispers: “Like peas in a pod?”

Michael says nothing.

“Shit, Mikey,” Trevor wheezes. “Have you ever had an original idea in your life?”

He starts laughing, but Michael’s got a look ringing his eyes something like fear. It gets worse when his gaze slides left and he sees where his Trevor’s hands are still connected in the half-dark, fingers entwined like lovers. Which they are, Trevor thinks. Sort of. A day ago he got stupid drunk and kissed Michael in a bar bathroom and got kissed back. Cocaine makes him feel like he’s ten goddamn years old so he goes slow, like when he was ten years old, slipping his hand from Michael’s, planting both his palms on the mattress. He slots their noses together and waits for Michael to close the gap. He waits for a long time.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Michael asks. His voice has evened out, but his pupils are still so dilated it's like there’s no blue left in his eyes at all.

Trevor is not dissuaded. “Mikey, there’s a fucking mirror on the ceiling. We were gonna fuck beneath it eventually, right? Why else rent a room like this?”

“Is that what you think, Trevor? That I wanted to fuck you in a big, expensive bed?”

“Well, I didn’t -” he doesn’t finish the thought because Michael shoves him. Playful, but hard enough that they go tumbling off the bed and rolling around on the floor, shedding blankets and jackets as they push and jostle at each other. Trevor manages to come out on top, slamming them down at the foot of the bed-stand, one knee between Michael’s legs. “Actually,” he pants. “I was thinking maybe I could fuck you first.”

“Is that what you were thinkin’?”

“Don’t get all macho about it Mikey. It’s just that my dick is smaller than yours, so I -”

“Wh-what - what the fuck? You’re payin’ that much attention to my dick?”

“Well, I mean my hand’s been around it a few times. Hard not to notice.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Trevor…”

Trevor rolls his eyes. “Oh, Michael, your cock is soooo big,” he croons. “I’m just desperate for you to destroy me with you gigantic, monster, football cock. Heh - I bet no ten-dollar stripper’s ever told you that.”

Michael grunts, surges up, rolls them over. Trevor lets him, he’d let him do anything, the way the faint strains of a smile are cracking his face open. “Really, T?”

“I was mocking your masculine insecurity. But also, yeah, really. It works on two levels, like your adorable, little ‘peas in a pod’ metaphor.”

“Uh huh.”

“Yeah. Uh huh. What are you going to do about it?”

Michael slides his hands over the sharp angles of Trevor’s bony elbows and up the length of his arms. He entwines their hands, presses in tight, and then kisses him. This is the first time he’s instigated, and he’s gentle. He’s so cautious and gentle that Trevor can’t help but kiss back just as soft, even though what he wants to do is eat Michael’s lips, his tongue, his lungs, every inch of flesh on his entire body until they’re both skeletons turning brittle and bleached beneath the snow, tangled together so tight that no one can tell where one ends and the other begins. A bit of that passion gets into the kiss. He scrabbles his fingers in Michael’s coarse crew cut, gets his own hair pulled in response. Michael tears away gasping, hands flat on the tacky carpet.

“Shit…” he whispers, voice full of wonder. “- y’know, you’re not like… you’re not what I thought you’d be like -”

Trevor can feel his eyes light up. “Ah HA! knew you thought about fucking me, you fucking fuck. Pretending that you were just doing me a favour… I bet you were railing strippers every night thinking about my bony ass you shit-tier, lying f -”

Michael’s hands push down on his shoulders, voice firm. “Trevor. Shut up.”

Trevor shuts up. Michael stares at him, stares right into him. Trevor can feel his eyes taking him apart, skinning him slowly, reeling him out like a cut in the gut, like his intestines are being slowly spooled out of him, like his heart is turning inside out. He’s completely destroyed by the idea that someone, anyone, would ever look at him like this, would take the time to try to understand him, like Michael wants to know what’s written on his bones… his mother told him once that no one would ever love him. Trevor would never contradict his dear, sweet mother, no, no she was probably right, she’s right about everything. But maybe there was someone who could understand him. Peas in a pod.

Michael pushes Trevor’s stringy hair behind his ear, like the way he does with women sometimes, when he actually thinks they’re pretty.

“Michael,” Trevor says quietly and with complete and utter sincerity. “I’m desperate for you to fuck me with your gigantic cock.”

Michael doesn’t laugh. He makes a conflicted expression, the tips of his fingers still grazing Trevor’s temple. He pulls away and Trevor lets loose a dizzying, miserable breath. He can hear Michael doing another line of coke off the dresser.

He lies there, arms limp at his side, mouth open - like a parched man in the desert. He lies like that until Michael comes back, their jackets slung over his shoulder. He offers Trevor his hand, smiling: “T: let’s go get fucking’ wasted. Then we’ll see what happens.”

It’s better than sex, than drugs, than having two warm arms wrap around you and pull you close: having a back to your back, a hand in your hand - that feeling like you’re not alone in the world. It's... it's -

The orgy is fine, but it doesn’t make Trevor feel any less numb, any less lonely. It does such a bad job of washing the taste of that young meth dealer’s blood and cum out of his mouth that he actually accepts a hit of powdered heroin, which just makes him even more fucking miserable. He goes back to heroin-man’s hotel room. The guy’s an aging Executive Officer of some big, pointless company in Liberty City: kind of handsome, with a crooked jaw and greying temples. He rambles about his wife and kids and boss while he injects at the edge of the bed.

“-- I just think that being closeted is really fucking with me the longer I go,” he says, unspooling the tourniquet. “I mean, back when I first started doing sex tourism on my business trips I’d cheat with like, tennis coaches and bodybuilders, you know. High quality gays. Now I drive two states over just to get fucked by unwashed hobos. It’s the twenty-first century, but for guys like me it might as well still be 1986.”

“Uh huh,” Trevor says, disinterested. “Roll over and pass me the lube already.”

Later, the guy vomits in his sleep. Trevor stares at him for a very long time before sighing, and nudging his shoulder to roll him onto his side. He’ll live. Probably. Trevor kicks back into his dress, his combat boots, his bomber jacket, then he steals the guy's wallet.

The bouncer at the strip club makes a move like he’s not going to let him in, but Trevor waves a $100 bill under his nose and shows every single one of his teeth. He gives the bar-hostess another $100 and orders a glass of water, then he slumps into the chair nearest the dance-floor. He sinks into the sticky, plastic upholstery like it was made for him.

The club is near-vacant at 10AM on a Monday morning. The pop music booms loud and tinny, hitting the club walls like a car going full throttle with no flesh bodies to absorb the shock between. There are still men here, however: day drunks, truck drivers, men panicking about their overnight losses at the casino... the girls move more wary in the day than they do at night. They know that the kind of man who has nothing better to do than take his breakfast at a skin joint is a dangerous breed.

Trevor knocks back his water in one gulp, wipes his mouth. His beard is starting to grow back in, greasy and granular. He waits for a dancer to take pity on him. Most of the girls take a wide breadth around his seat, their eyes tracking the shape of his thighs and crotch beneath the sheer fabric of his sundress, gazes lingering on the stain on his boot- toe that might be mud, or blood. The woman who approaches him calls herself Sharlotte. She’s meaty, sun-damaged. Freckled shoulders and a hairspray halo. She looks about fourty-five, prematurely aged; her breasts sag over the sides of her push-up bra. She’s beautiful.

“Want a private dance?” she asks, husky, curious.

Trevor nods numbly. “Yeah,” he says, fingers tight around his stolen wallet.

She leads him by the hand, pulls the curtain shut behind them. Trevor folds out the rest of his one-night stand’s pocket-change and hands it to her.

“No dance,” he says. “I want you to hold me.”

She puts a hand on her hip, purple fingernails glittering in the pink light. “Uh-uh, no touching. This is a strictly hands-off establishment”

“I… I won’t touch you. I’m all fucked out anyway. Just let me… put my head on your shoulder. Please.”

If Sharlotte were a younger or happier woman, she would have refused him. Trevor can see it in her eyes: the same thing he sees when he looks in the mirror - a howling, senseless void. She tsks, shakes her head with a sigh, looks back over her shoulder at the slit of light showing where the curtain meets the wall. But she comes to him. Sits down right beside him and pats the couch to bid him closer. He slides across the vinyl cushion and crawls into her embrace. He keeps his promise and keeps his hands to himself. He doesn’t need to touch her, he just needs to smell her. The familiar scent of drugstore perfume and dry shampoo, of cheap face-powder.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Trevor,” he mumbles, burying his face in her breast. She runs her nails down his back, uncertain, but gentle.

“And what’s your story, Trevor? I gotta say, I’ve seen a lot of men come in and out of this place in my time, but none that looked like you.” She pinches a strap of his dress to illustrate. He breathes in.

“I just like how it looks. Doesn’t matter.” He used to crawl into his mother’s clothes when she disappeared for weeks at a time. It makes him feel safe, it makes him feel close. He likes how much it pisses people off, likes turning himself into a living middle finger.

“Mmm hmm. So what are you doing in Doguakop? You seem lost.”

“Yeah.”

“Literally, or the other kind?”

Trevor curls his fingers into the surface of the couch, finds a place where the vinyl’s been ripped open so that he can dig at the moldering foam beneath. “The other kind.”

Sharlotte smacks her lips. She tips her head to rest her chin on Trevor’s brow; her dangly earrings jingle as she moves. “Well, no need to worry darlin’. There’s all kinds of folks like that round here.”

He curls up into a fetal position in her arms, bites back tears that don’t mean anything. It’s just that the come down from heroin is tough. The come down from mourning someone is even worse.

It’s not like he wants to be like this. He wants to be over it, he wants to be over it more than anything in the world. He was so fucking pissed at Michael in the years leading up to his death, sometimes he swore that he’d put him in the ground with his own two hands. He should’ve spit on the bastard’s grave. It was just that --

Being around Michael was like pouring his energy into a black hole. It was like putting his foot on the gas and taking his hands off the wheel. Even when their orbit swung wide, even when Michael ignored his phone calls for months on end…

Michael focused him. Directed him. Scolded him. Pulled him back when he needed it, and let him go like an attack dog when he wanted to see what Trevor could do. Michael cleaned the blood off his hands, held his shoulder a little too tight. Sometimes, his palm would drift down the length of Trevor’s arm as he took a step back and said: “Go for it, T.”

His mother said: “No one will ever love you the way I do, and look how you repay me for that!” So Trevor always tried to repay Michael, who loved him the same way his mother did: in fits and bursts, with a stern hand and a calculated emotional distance. With a hunger and need for the things Trevor could do that he couldn’t. He repaid him with the most important thing in the entire world - loyalty. That’s the same way he loved his mother back as well - unconditional, unconditional, no matter how terrible and small and desperate it makes you feel inside, absolutely and hopelessly unconditional.

2014

They put the 24/7 cashier in the flatbed along with T Radd, but they’ve only got one tarp so they have to lay the corpses atop each other, all intimate and entwined. Trevor arranges them so that T Radd’s hand is cupping the kid’s crotch, both body parts preserved in perfect rigor mortis. Michael yanks him back and mutters some meaningless shit about him being “sick” and “deranged”, but his face is still red and splotchy from getting his rocks off over some pretty sick and deranged shit. So red and splotchy - Mikey’s probably gonna die of a heart-attack before he hits sixty, Trevor thinks, so really it’s doing him a kindness to pull him back into this kind of life. Michael would want to die with gun in his pocket, adrenaline rushing through his veins and the threat of police bullets snapping at his heels like a shadow.

When they hop off the edge of the truck, Trevor grabs Michael’s shirt and kisses him again. Michael tolerates it long enough for Trevor to lean all his weight into it, plaster up against him with his fingers making needy little motions against his tits. When Michael pulls back, Trevor falls over, hands and knees on the pavement and head still swimming.

“Can we get going already?”

“Oh, Mikey,” Trevor sighs. Michael, Michael, Michael: he looks up at him, framed by a halo of fluorescent light that makes the edges of his hair glow and casts a shadow down his front that sucks all the light from his blue, blue eyes. Trevor pulls himself to his feet and puts his hands above his head, gets all up in Michael’s space. “You’re so FUCKING IMPATIENT. Calm you fat tits!”

“Yeah, I’m impatient for a reason. We’re lingerin’ around after a robbery and a murder - this shit snowball’s about to cascade down this mountain into a shit-avalanche.”

“Didn’t I tell you to calm down.”

“I’ll calm down when I can be sure you ain’t gonna skullfuck every dude that looks at you funny, Jesus Christ. I’m not the one who needs to calm down, you fuckin’ psychopath.”

It stings a little, every time Michael calls him that word in that tone. Trevor loves him and hates him and wants him all to himself so much that he can taste it. He can still taste Michael in his mouth. He eases back on his heels and makes a show of lewdly licking down his fingers before heading back to the truck, gets some of the dead cashier’s blood and sclera in his mouth. He swallows it all down. Michael shudders, and turns away.

Things ease up a bit once they’re on the highway again and the dusty, night air has cleared the scent of blood and shit out of the flatbed. Michael spends fifteen minutes with his elbow on the doorframe and his face in his hand.

When he raises his head, he asks: “Why?”

Trevor responds, chipper: “Why what, Mikey? Why is your best friend T going out of his way to be so good to you, to help you out so graciously, even though you haven’t once thanked him?”

Michael chuckles. “Yeah, that.”

“Well, there’s no easy answer for that, Mike - it’s just that I love you, and love ain’t rational!”

“Mmm hmm.”

Trevor lifts the bag of money and scratch tickets off the floor of the truck and tosses it in Michael’s lap. “Here, get a start on those lotto tickets. Who knows: maybe we’ll win big and then you can retire.”

That finally draws a smile outta Mikey. He fishes out a crossword puzzle, turns it so that the scratch-powder shimmers in the light from the high-beams. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Hell, just think what I could do with one thousand whole dollars.”

“Sounds like exactly enough money to fix all your problems.”

They laugh together as the Bodhi careens down the blacktop.

Earlier

CONFERENCE CALL - FRANK/LEST

F: Hey, yo T.

T: Heeeey, Franky, Frank my man. How’s it hanging, homie?

F: Pretty good. How high are you?

T: On a scale of 1-to-usual, I’d say... moderate.

F: Kay, in that case: don’t call me homie.

T: Got it pal. So, what’s going on? Exciting times in the fast paced life of a semi-retired gangbanger?

F: Man we talked like three days ago, chill out. My life ain’t as exciting as yours.

T: Oh yeah. How’s Lettuce?

F: You mean Latice? Y’know T one a’ these days I’m gonna knock your white ass down if you don’t watch it.

T: Yeah, yeah, whatever. You can’t expect me to remember the names of all your lil’ hookups.

F: Dog… Latice ain’t a hookup. Hey - if I settle down are you ain’t gonna get all weird an’ delicate on me now, like with Michael...

T: Why? Did you and I have sex and I don’t remember?

F: What? Man, no -

T: Okay. Then you have nothing to worry about! I just want you to be happy - I’ll give you away at the wedding if you want! But you’ll have to be careful breaking the news to your friend Long Dick. He’ll be heartbroken, and so soon after I rejected him too.

F: Lamar’ll be what now?

T: Heartbroken. Scorned in love, abandoned at the altar.

F: How do you figure -

T: On account of how the two of you met…

F: In first grade?

T: You attended a gay orgy in first grade? Hoooooo BOY, Frank, I underestimated you!

F: What???

T: What?

F: I… actually, y’know what dog - nevermind. To answer your question: Latice’s doin’ fine. She comin’ over after her shift at the hospital is done, which is why it’s damn inconvenient for y’all to call me with this shit tonight.

T: If she’s coming over you oughta be thanking us. A quick, easy job like this should be enough juice to help you keep it up all night long.

F: T, man, don’t -

L: [clears throat] Yes, don’t.

F: Damn, L, how long you been listening in?

L: I have been here since the beginning of the call. I was trying to figure out why T saw it fit to rope me into a conference call on the subject of your love life.

T: Did you get my e-mail?

L: Yes, although it took me some time to decrypt its arcane cipher. It’s been nearly a decade and I think that your spelling has actually gotten worse.

T: It’s not bad spelling when it’s entirely intentional, L, it’s a creative interpretation of the language.

L: Be that as it may, you do understand that this is all very short notice.

T: Well, you know how Michael is - always so impatient and demanding.

L: Ahem.

T: In all aspects of his life.

L: Yes, I understood the lewd innuendo. Please do not attempt to drive it home.

F: So, uh - can this get done? I mean - if I’m gonna do this I wanna know it’ll be tight.

L: The question is not “can it be done”. This is me we’re talking about. It will always, heh, get “done”. The question is whether or not I will be financially compensated for the risk I am taking.

T: Yeah, yeah, sure, of course. I’ll make sure M sends some G’s your way, Lesty, calm your tits.

L: No offense, but your track record in “making” M do anything is somewhat suspect. I’m going to need to hear it from him.

T: I’ll make sure he does it. Don’t worry - he’s in no position to cut and run on us like before. Frank, whaddaya say? You in?

F: I…

T: C’mooooon, it’ll be fun, even though you probably won’t even have to shoot anyone!

F: You got a real strange definition of “fun”.

T: Oh, you think I don’t know. You’ve been PRETTY desperate to hang out with me lately, “kiddo”.

F: I wouldn’t call “checkin’ up to make sure you ain’t dead” desperate -

T: - and no one calls their ol’ Uncle T to party if they’re ready to join the 9-5 rat-race and start gettin’ their handies at the country club instead of the strip club.

F: T --

T: It’ll. Be. FUN!

F: ……

F: A’right. A’right. I’ll do it. Where do you want me to meet y’all?

T: Uhh… well, M’s been at dinner with his family for almost about an hour and ten, which is long enough for him to make his wife contemplate calling a divorce lawyer. I’ll text you the address and you pick him up in half an hour. I’ll deal with the rest.

F: Yeah, right.

L: Hmm, this seems to be well and on it’s way... can I go?

T: No, no - stay on the line a minute. I got business to discuss with you. Anyway - nighty-night, F - Have a good time!

F: [a laugh, exasperated] Whatever. Later T. L.

[click, a moment of silence]

T: Okay, so L - you don’t have to put too much effort into this one.

L: … would you like to elaborate?

T: The main thing M’s concerned about is his precious boss Solomon Richards finding out that he lost control of his temper. That’s the only reason he tagged you in on this in the first place. But, you see, Daddy Solomon is about to get an anonymous tip detailing exactly what happened in that apartment.

L: I see… deception, T? That seems terribly… out of character.

T: It’s not deception, L! It’s JUSTICE! M’s the one who wants to lie his way out of this! I’m uncovering the truth! I’m going to finally force him to deal head on with the kind of man he is. He should be thanking me!

L: You do realize that he has, multiple times in the past, expressed very few regrets about arranging to have a bullet put between your eyes.

T: You’re on my side then.

L: I have been very and specifically careful not to take sides in this… torrid little drama of yours for over half my life. I tend to prefer to involve myself in affairs that can be described as “orderly” and “smooth” and “properly organized as to avoid certain death”, which is why I plan all of our jobs. I have no interest in navigating the sick emotional games you two play with each other.

T: I don’t know, L - that sounds an awful lot like you’re on my side.

L: What I meant to say is that I think it is unlikely that M will behave, hmm, charitably when he learns what you are planning to do.

T: Look - I’ll fucking pay you if you’re going to bitch and moan about it. I need you to do this job - well enough that the police can’t pin anything on us, but just poorly enough that Michael can’t weasel his way out of it. Like I told F - I’ll take care of the rest.

L: Fine. But if this is how you two die - killing each other, I mean - know that I won’t spend a second mourning you.

T: Awwww, Lester - you do care.

L: Names!

T: You caaaaare about us. You probably beat off sadly every night thinking about how we never invited you to have a threesome with us all those times we got snowed into a safe-house with too few beds. L - all you had to do was say something!

L: I can assure you that my spank bank isn’t in such dire straits that I’d resort to fantasizing about M’s sagging ass.

T: And what about my sagging ass?

L: I have consumed a copious amount of alcohol to forget that I was ever that desperate.

T: Well you better drink some more because this is your last chance to get a little creme-de-la-T - if all goes well tonight I’m gonna be a monogamous man this time!

L: If you say so, but remember that I tried to warn you.

T: You’re always such a wet blanket! Why don’t you try to loosen up once in awhile!

L: I am very loose on account of my muscular dystrophy, thank you very much. [pause] As usual, do not attempt to contact me for at least 72 hours.

[click]

Trevor stops his truck beneath the freeway, right at the place where the train-yard splits open and shows the edge of the ocean between the concrete legs of the overpass. He digs into his pocket and scrounges up the last of his powdered speed, gets it under his fingernails to huff it. Shoves his fingers up his nostrils a little because the high’s not hitting fast enough. Stupid Michael thinks he can’t long term plan. Well, he’s about to find out...

He dials a number that he’s not supposed to have, that he found scrolling through Michael’s phone casually while they were in bed together out in Sandy Shores, during that one perfect week. He’s got a good head for numbers, never forgets one when he sees it once. The ringtone goes on for a bit. Then Solomon Richards picks up. Not the real Solomon Richards, of course, but his answering machine - a long, rambling messages that illustrates how poorly Mr. Richards has adapted to the 21st century.

Trevor smacks his lips together at the sound of the tone and says: “Hello, this is an anonymous source calling to inform you -”

Later

Later.

Later, later, later -

You just have to be patient. You just have to -

Hanging off the ridge of Mount Chiliad, Trevor waits until he can’t hear Michael’s footsteps anymore before he starts really crying. He’s not ashamed - it’s natural to cry, he doesn’t give a shit what he looks like, what other people think of him. It’s just that he can’t banish that voice at the back of his head, the one that sounds like his mother and tells him that - that he should -

Selfish. You’re so selfish! Wipe your tears and stand up straight!

He stumbles out of the truck, goes for the hydraulic jack he keeps in the back. When he staggers close to the edge, he considers jumping off the mountain. The desire to do it washes over him like a wave, like the first phase of a methamphetamine high when you inject it directly into your veins, like the feeling he gets when he blanks out and turns someon's face into pulp -

He shakes it off. It's fine. It's fine. Not all plans are foolproof. It's not worth it. He… he thinks about the last time he and Michael were like this, at the edge of precipice together. It’s not worth it. He’s n -

- laid flat in the snow, staring into the deep, dark valley below, his fingers curling into the dirt at the edge of the cliff. His mother berates him. She’s always with him, always there to tell him how worthless he is, how cowardly he is. Of course Michael doesn’t fucking love him. Who the fuck would ever love him! He should be grateful that Michael didn’t shove him off the fucking cliff after the stunt he pulled, just like he was always grateful when his mother let him inside after he… after all the shit he did... “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks himself. There’s no answer. Everything is wrong with him.

He almost can’t believe it when Michael calls his name.

“Trevor! Hey, T! You still out there?”

The sound of Michael’s voice cutting through the trees pulls him back. He goes to meet him at the truck, savours the sound of his panting and the shape of his body as he leans over to brace against his knees and catch his breath. His eyes rove over all Michael’s imperfections; it's instinctual. He gets angry again thinking about how that stripper Michael’s probably going to fucking marry is only looking at the good parts. Michael’s charming grin, his big hands, his practiced charisma, carefully cultivated and recited and stolen from lame movies only flaccid-dick grandpas watch. It’s fake: her affection, the fantasies of white picket fences dancing in Michael’s eyes… all of it.

“I found a payphone an' called Triple-D,” Michael explains, one hand flat on the side of the truck as he pulls up to full height. “They’ll be here in about an hour. But they’re gonna know that the plates ain’t ours, so we gotta jack the tow-truck. No need to kill ‘em, we’ll just tie ‘em up and leave them in the flatbed. I’m sure someone’ll find them before they freeze to death.”

Michael laughs at his own joke. Trevor just stares back, deadpan and frowning.

“Right. Sure,” he says.

Michael doesn’t seem to know how to reply to that. To anything less than Trevor’s enthusiasm. He gestures with his chin, a poor peace offering. “T, I’m freezin’ my ass off out here. C’mon over.”

Trevor goes to him with heavy footsteps, like he’s a fish being reeled in on the line. He’ll take Michael’s pity. He’ll take anything Mikey gives him.

Michael leans back on his heels, cocks his head at an inviting angle. Almost morosely, Trevor slides his bare hands up under the hem of his winter coat. Michael grabs two fistfuls of Trevor’s wind-breaker and tugs him closer, so that they’re sharing body heat.

“Hey,” Michael murmurs. “Calm down, alright? I’m not leaving. We’re partners - we still got a long way to go until The Big One and you can bet I’m not gonna bail before that.”

“Fuck off, Townley, I’m over it,” Trevor lies. He buries his nose in Michael’s shoulder and grips his sides, kneads at the layer of fat that's been slowly growing over his dense muscles. The motion is a little petulant, a lot possessive.

Michael kisses him. Slowly, slowly and nicely: presses him up against the side of the ruined truck so tight that Trevor can’t move. It’s the cruellest thing he could have possibly done. Open-mouthed, but closed off where it matters. Michael’s heart is closed to him. It always was. Trevor digs in hard enough to leave marks.

He’s still thinking about the kiss an hour later when the Triple-D guys come to pick up the truck. He’s thinking about it so hard that his mind is a big, black void and he doesn’t realize he’s kicked the mechanic’s skull in until Michael’s hands close around his arms and drag him back. The pattern of the blood streaks the snow like a wreath. A perfect fucking circle. Michael takes a deep breath, then he draws his pistol, turns 180 degrees and pops the driver in the head to take care of the witness. They roll the bodies off the cliff and crowd into the tow-truck together in silence.

But Michael doesn’t go back to Amanda. Trevor never forgets that - he never forgets that the night Michael swore himself to marriage and fatherhood, he did not go back to Amanda. He took Trevor to their dingy, trashed motel room. He kicked him into the shower and he - very slowly - washed the blood off his hands.

Michael comes back to him again. After Trevor jacks his truck back onto the road, after he backs slowly down the twisting length of the mountain, after he parks in the shadow of a large rock and puts his forehead on the steering wheel to ride out the most absolute miserable last quarter of his high, Michael comes back to him.

Trevor hears the mush mush mush sound of his expensive shoes crunching in the sand, but more than that he knows the weight of Michael’s shadow. He knows his scent. Michael curls his fingers over the edge of Trevor’s door and waits. Neither of them look at each other.

Michael asks: “What did you do?”

“I called Solomon,” Trevor mutters. “Gave him a tip. After. That’s it. Like I said, the rest of it was aaaaaaall you, Cupcake.”

A sharp inhale; Trevor can’t see Michael’s face, but he can imagine it. “Fuuuuck -” he watches Michael’s blunt nails dig into the rust along the Bodhi ’s trim.

“What are you going to do about it, M?”

Michael doesn’t answer.

“I told you not to come back unless you fucking meant it, so just fucking DO whatever it is you’re gonna FUCKING DO --” Trevor tears his head off the wheel to find that Michael is staring straight at him. Not with anger, not even with disappointment. There’s something new in Michael’s gaze, and something old as well. Something Trevor hasn’t seen in a long goddamn time. He’d almost forgotten it existed. Understanding.

Michael takes a deep breath. “Let’s… go.”

Trevor blinks. Slow. “Where?” he asks.

“I… I don’t know. South, west, east. It doesn’t matter. Let’s uh… we can lie low in Mexico for a bit. Drink margaritas and hang with gunrunners. We have so much money, T, we could go anywhere in the whole world.”

“Is that what you really want, Mikey?”

Michael’s hands fall away from the truck. He pulls back and takes a few steps around himself, around the question. He massages his neck, shakes his head. “Shit. Shit. How the fuck did I get here…”

Trevor snorts. “Begging me to take you back? The answer seems pretty obvious.”

Michael rubs his hands down his face. He can’t even meet Trevor’s eyes. “Well? Whaddaya say?”

Trevor looks past Michael’s shoulder. He has to put his forehead back on the wheel to hide the edges of his smile. He sees that the arc of Michael’s footsteps almost form a perfect circle in the sand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________

Now if you're feelin' kinda low 'bout the dues you've been paying
Future's coming much too slow
And you wanna run but somehow you just keep on stayin'
Can't decide on which way to go

I understand about indecision
All I want is to have my peace of mind